Monday, August 15, 2022

Syndrome K, Narrated by Ray Liotta

This particular virus really was fake news. That is why it was so heroic and ingenious. After the German occupation of Rome in 1943, until its Allied liberation, a handful of doctors and supporting staff maintained the secret “K” ward, where they sheltered Jews, who were supposedly suffering from a completely fictitious virus. Documentarian and film score composer Stephen Edwards chronicles their courageous efforts in Syndrome K, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Fatebenefratelli Hospital was Catholic by affiliation and ownership title. Yet, the Jewish Dr. Vittorio Sacradoti made a professional home there before the Germans invaded and a literal home during the occupation. He also found sympathetic colleagues in the senior physician, Dr. Giovani Borromeo and Dr. Adriano Ossicini, who was already active in the anti-Fascist underground. Together, they devised the Syndrome K deception, as a means to shelter Jewish Italians, shrewdly exploiting the National Socialists’ phobic obsessions with disease and impurity.

They also harbored resistance figures on a short-term basis and provided communications support to the underground. Since they were literally owned by the Church, it is highly likely Pope Pious XII was aware to some extent of their activities, which he apparently approved, at least passively.

In fact, Edwards devotes a good deal of time to analyzing the controversial Pope’s actions in response to Hitler and the Holocaust. Rather than attacking or defending, Edwards and his on-camera experts are surprisingly evenhanded. While the Pope still gets mixed-to-negative marks, the rank-and-file priests and nuns who sheltered Roman Jewry throughout the city get their due credit. As a result, this is a film that should really bring people together and inspire good fellowship.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resnais at Film Forum: Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime

Claude Ridder is not your typical time-traveling hero, but he was a fitting protagonist for Alain Resnais, the late surrealist filmmaker, who was often associated with the French New Wave, despite never fully identifying with the movement. In fact, Resnais’s take on time-travel film could represent the ultimate Nouvelle Vague film, because of its radically fractured approach to time. After consenting to serve as a human guinea pig in a time-traveling experiment, Ridder finds himself uncontrollably reliving brief snippets of his life in Resnais’s Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (I Love You, I Love You), which is definitely worth re-watching in honor of the filmmaker’s recent centennial.

Ridder is a pitiable fellow in many ways. He still works as a shipping clerk at a Parisian publishing house, due to his chronic lack of ambition. Ridder also just survived a suicide attempt. Rather symbolically, he tried to shoot himself through the heart. Yet, his rather cavalier attitude towards life is what attracts the Crispel Research Center.

As the various blandly bureaucratic scientists explain to Ridder, they successfully sent mice back in time for one minute and then returned them safely. Of course, mice cannot discuss the experience, so they wish to recruit him to be their first human test subject. Ridder does not have any good reason to decline, so he agrees.

Much to everyone’s alarm, something goes wrong with the process this time. Ridder keeps randomly “quantum leaping” into past episodes of his life, many of which involve his troubled relationship with Catrine, who struggled with depression until her early demise. At various times, Resnais leads the audience to suspect something definitely transpired between them that contributed to her death and his suicide attempt.

Resnais’s 1968 film is often considered a source of inspiration for
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it is worth noting Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime also predates Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five and the subsequent George Roy Hill film adaptation. It certainly constitutes a fractured narrative, by any standard or measure. As Ridder endures the shuffle-play of his sad history for viewers to watch, each jump gets shorter, with surreal imagery starting to intrude into what had appeared to be an otherwise mundane existence.

Arguably, Resnais’s narrative approach was considerably ahead of the other genre films of its era. However, the scenes in the Crispel Center have a cold, sterile vibe reminiscent of classic 1960s science fiction films like Jean-Luc Godard’s
Alphaville and Dr. Heywood Broun’s early sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That coldness is similarly reflected in the characters, especially Ridder, who is standoffish and often rather self-sabotaging. Likewise, Catrine is usually moody and distant—or at least that is how he remembers her.

Resnais demands the audience’s full attention, by revisiting key incidents from different perspectives, at slightly earlier or later time-frames. It might look repetitive, but there are nuances to pick up on. Ultimately, when it all comes together, it lands with devastating emotional force.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Learn to Swim, on Netflix

It is always frustrating to watch a film about a talented but self-destructive jazz musician. Unfortunately, anyone who has read several jazz biographies knows the premise is not entirely unrealistic. It is still hard to see Dezi drive away his ex-lover and his former bandmates in Thyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim, which opens today in Brooklyn and releases on Netflix this Monday.

Dezi really has the chops. So do his friends. That is why Selma often sits in with them, even though she is signed to a record label, whereas they are unsigned. Unfortunately, one of his choppers is causing him a lot of pain (but apparently not one that would impact his embouchure, which is sort of a break). Nevertheless, Dezi prefers to shun human company, so he can revel in his pain and misery by himself.

During the course of the film, Tommy and co-screenwriter Marni Van Dyk constantly flashback, to show why Dezi withdrew into himself. Frankly, the more we learn, the less we sympathize with him. In some ways, you could read
Learn to Swim (a title that must have woefully frustrated the film’s publicist and marketers) as a jazz riff on A Star is Born, but Selma isn’t even “jazz-famous” yet. Tommy and Van Dyk do not end it the same way either.

One thing they did right is the music, featuring original compositions by Chester Hansen & Leland Whitty of BadBadNotGood. It sounds legit, especially for a struggling group that was raised on contemporary music genres (there is an electric bass in their combo), but still embraces the hardbop tradition. It also helps a lot that lead actor Thomas Antony Olajide already knew how to play the saxophone (Tommy even switched his character’s instrument, to capitalize on that muscle memory), while real deal musicians like Aubrey McGhee recorded the performances heard during the film.

However, Emma Ferreira (already an exhibited visual artist with celebrity collectors) is the standout for her performance as Selma. She nicely conveys the singer’s complications and artistic temperament, as well as showing off a nice singing voice. The question is why she puts ups with Dezi’s passive aggressive belittling.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Emergency Declaration: The Korean Airplane Outbreak

Technically, aviation writer John J. Nance already combined the viral-thriller with the airline disaster genre back in the mid-1990s, but maybe the novel Pandora's Clock and its subsequent TV-movie never made it to South Korea. Regardless, the Macguffin certainly has a whole lot more resonance now. Yet, pre-production started on the high-concept Korean thriller back in idyllic 2019. Weren’t those the days. As it turns out, this virus might have also escaped from a lab, with a little help from a psychotic in Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration, which opens today in New York.

Sgt. Koo In-ho was supposed to join his beloved wife on vacation, but work forced him to cancel. As it happens, she is on the same Honolulu-bound flight with Ryu Jin-seok, a former virologist with a vicious mean-streak and a tenuous grasp on reality. He has decided to let loose a strain of secret virus he has been illegally refining and intensifying. Conveniently, there is also a spare pilot on-board, but like Robert Hays in
Airplane! he carries much more baggage than the bags he checked. The disgraced Jae-hyuk is also traveling with his pre-teen daughter, to further ratchet up the stakes for him.

Due to some old-fashioned police work, Koo manages to sleuth out Ryu’s intentions before chaos totally erupts on the plane, but after the release of the viral agent. Naturally, the captain is one of the first to fall sick. It seems pretty clear co-pilot Hyun-soo will be needing Jae-hyuk eventually, but he still blames the former pilot for his wife’s death.

So, there is a lot to deal with here. Sook-hee, the transportation minister will generally be helpful, but Tae-su of the president’s crisis management team is obviously shifty. Altogether,
Emergency Dec has everything an Airport movie could want, except George Kennedy. Han dexterously juggles all the subplots and keeps the tension tightly wound. Since this is a Korean film, the suspense is particularly high, because you never know, this really could all end in tears.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Fall: It’s Still the Landing that Kills You

Whether it is in Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger or the Brazilian TV serial Ilha de Ferro, whenever you see a mountain-climber couple early on, there is a good chance one of them is about to take the express elevator back to level ground. In this case, it will be Becky Connor’s husband, Dan. We hardly knew old Danny Boy, but Connor sure takes his death hard. To revive her spirits, Connor’s friend Shiloh Hunter convinces her to scale the lofty but abandoned B67 TV Tower, supposedly the 4th tallest structure in the world (as was once true for the still-functioning KXTV/KVOR Tower, on which it is based). The climb will be harder than they anticipate in Scott Mann’s Fall, opening tomorrow in Theaters.

Nearly a year after her husband’s tragic death, Connor is still moping around, pushing away everyone who cares about her. However, Hunter convinces her to climb the B67, so they can scatter his ashes, while generating clicks for Hunter’s YouTube channel. Seriously, couldn’t they find someplace safer to explore, like a haunted mental asylum in Romania?

The climb up is relatively easy and uneventful as long as you ignore the sound of loose bolts plummeting to the ground below. Unfortunately, on the way down, nearly the entire external ladder dislodges, leaving Connor and Hunter stranded over 2,000 feet in the air, with no footholds to help them scale down the smooth needle-like structure.

If any cranky pedant complains the CGI isn’t real enough in
Fall, I have to ask, how real do they really want it to be? It is certainly real enough for us to suspend our disbelief. This film makes the Dubai Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol look like cartoonish small potatoes in comparison. If you are sensitive regarding heights, this film will freak you out.

Admittedly, there is some dumb melodrama that transpires between Connor and Hunter. It also lifts a face-palm-worthy page out of
47 Meters Down’s script (it and Fall share a producer in common: James Harris), but at least it gets past that groan-worthy moment. However, you have to give Mann and co-writer Jonathan Frank credit for keeping one gosh-darned-thing coming after another. This is a total cliffhanger (with respects to the Stallone-Harlin movie, which is also an under-valued roller-coaster ride).

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Rogue Agent, True Crime Rather Than Espionage

Robert Freegard is a lot like the slimy “stolen valor” imposters, who pass themselves off as veterans, even though they never served in uniform—but this British con man was especially predatory. Freegard never had any connection to MI5, but he certainly sounded convincing. The master manipulator finally picks the wrong woman to swindle in Declan Lawn & Adam Patterson’s Rogue Agent, which opens Friday in New York.

A luxury car sales man was not exactly the sort of man a solicitor like Alice Archer was looking for, but Freegard (using the name Hansen) was charming and not easily deterred. Archer fell for him despite her early reluctance and the occasional red flags that kept popping up. When she finally confronts him with his mysterious lack of a paper trail, Freegard pretends to come clean, claiming to be an undercover MI5 agent.

Ironically, this fiction provides cover for a lot of events that would otherwise raise suspicions. Regardless, Archer lets him into her life and finances, getting burned badly. Yet, she understands she got off easy compared to some of his other victims, some of whom he continues to brainwash and control.

James Norton’s portrayal of Freegard defines the meaning of the word sociopathic more vivid cinematic terms, more than any film of recent memory. As Phil, Archer’s investigator explains, Freegard is the sort nasty cuss, who is just rotten to the core and won’t ever change (it is a great scene, in which Julian Barratt makes the most of a small role). Indeed, the case of Freegard is quite disturbing, especially since he is now apparently at liberty (due to events transpiring after the film).

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Canvas, Rotoscoped Horror

This so-called “Painter” is like the Galactus of serial killers. The cosmic demon has already killed tens of thousands of people across the world, in order to paint murals with their blood and guts. How has the government responded? By trying to cover it up. That is supposed to be FBI Special Agent George Rohan’s job, but he is not handling it well in screenwriter-director Ryan Guiterman’s animated feature Canvas, which releases today on VOD.

The Painter’s reign of terror was a lot like the pandemic, but it is impossible to quarantine yourself away from the extraterrestrial killer. It just appears wherever and whenever it wants. To respond to growing outrage, the Painter Defense Agency (PDA, ironically) was formed. Eventually, they declared the problem solved, but Rohan knows the truth. On loan from the FBI, he does the PDA’s dirty business, framing scapegoats for Painter murders and scrubbing the evidence. The government believes this prevents catastrophic panic, but Rohan is keenly aware they are not doing anything to solve the problem.

To tell this dark tale, Guiterman employed rotoscoping animation techniques, where the cell animation was applied over video footage, as seen in projects like
A Scanner Darkly and Undone. In this case, it adds a disturbing element of realism to a terrifying fantastical premise. Perhaps less successful is the spot use of live action video for effect, often as a screen within a larger animated scene. Regardless, given the way government agencies and the WHO lied to us during the pandemic, Guiterman’s themes of crisis and cover-up have massive resonance.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Claydream: The Will Vinton Documentary

It is a great irony animation-filmmaker Will Vinton scored tremendous success with his commercial work, but was undone by bad business decisions. Despite the popularity of his “California Raisons” campaign and three seasons of The PJs, a primetime TV collaboration with Eddie Murphy, he lost control of the studio he built. His frustrating story offers applicable lessons for aspiring animators throughout Marq Evans’ documentary, Claydream, which opens Friday in Los Angeles (and is now playing in New York).

With
Closed Mondays, his first film to receive heavy festival play, Vinton and co-director Bob Gardiner won the Academy Award for animated short. They had a bad breakup shortly thereafter. Subsequently, Gardiner’s questionable working methods undermined his promise, while Vinton steadily gained prominence in the industry.

Sadly, Vinton’s first and only full-length feature,
The Adventures of Mark Twain was mishandled by its distributor. Yet, the success of the “California Raisins” and Domino’s “Avoid the ‘Noid” commercial campaigns generated a lot of revenue for his studio. However, the Raisins could have earned so much more, if Vinton had negotiated a part of the merchandising rights. Sadly, face-palm-worthy business decisions will be a recurring theme in Claydream, especially when he brought in Phil Knight as an investor.

Yes, that is Phil Knight of Nike, which actively lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. What kind of corporate citizen opposes such a measure? Apparently, the sort that wrested control of Will Vinton Studios from its founder. It is now known as Laika.

What makes
Claydream so compelling is that it is equal parts film and business documentaries. If Vinton, who died in 2018, might have made more masterworks like Mark Twain, if he had better understood and more proactively managed the business side of the studio. Knight’s son Travis, who now runs Laika, is only seen in deposition footage and his old (excruciatingly painful) rap video, but it might have better served Laika’s interests had he sat for an interview. His father, who obviously never intended his deposition video would see the light of day, comes off terribly.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Stowaway, Co-Starring Frank Grillo

The Bella is not as big as those Russian oligarchs’ yachts with helicopter ports and bowling alleys, but it is still more boat than most people could handle or afford. It therefore comes as quite a surprise to Bella Denton when she inherits it from her estranged father and even more of a shock when it is hijacked with her aboard in Declan Whitebloom’s Stowaway (a.k.a. The Yacht), which is now playing in New York.

Denton has lived a hard punky life, but apparently her late father wanted to make up for it. According to his dodgy business partner, Ed Meeser, Bella is now the owner of the Bella—or at least she will be in the morning, once certain maritime probate issues are cleared. Therefore, she is not allowed to crash there overnight, but she does so anyway when she picks up free-spirited Michael at the marina bar.

Of course, it all comes down to a cat-and-mouse game between Denton and the mercenary brothers who hijacked the luxury yacht. However, she might have an ally in Lawson, her father’s loyal captain, whom the hijackers forced to assist their scheme.

Ruby Rose is becoming a specialist in direct-to-VOD action movies, with mixed results.
The Doorman is a lot of fun and SAS: Red Notice also has its merits, but Vanquish is almost unwatchable. Unfortunately, Stowaway is closer in quality to the latter than the former two. Perhaps most problematically, Denton is not established as any kind of credibly trained action protag, just a former delinquent, who picked up a few moves in juvy.

Ian Hayden’s screenplay also takes way too long to get going and it lacks a big, satisfying action centerpiece. The key-art clearly implies Meeser is a bad guy, but even if viewers haven’t seen it, the small cast of characters makes it blindingly obvious. Plus, it is rather tiresome to see the Coast Guard portrayed as totally unintuitive incompetents.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

My Life as a Rolling Stone, in the Epoch Times


Epix's MY LIFE AS A ROLLING STONE starts a little weak, but it ends strong, with the great Charlie Watts (largely focusing on his love of jazz). EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Fantasia ’22: Cult Hero

Despite Canada's reputation for politeness, it turns out many of their satanic cults are quite inconsiderate. Their nemesis, one-time reality TV star and self-appointed cult-buster Dale Domazar can even be downright rude. He is also a total idiot, but Domazar means well, mostly. Regardless, he has a chance to redeem himself after the People’s Temple-like incident that ended his TV career in Jesse T. Cook’s Cult Hero, which received the Silver Award for Best Canadian Feature at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Technically, Domazar was right about Theoren the Shepherd, but as we see in the prologue, he handled the situation badly. “Karen”-ish realtor Kallie Jones will give him a chance anyway, because he is the first cult deprogrammer she finds on a Craigslist-like site, but she is a demanding customer. In fact, her husband Brad was eager to stay at Master Jagori’s not-so-innocent New Age spa, to get away from her nagging.

Unfortunately, Jagori has some sort of body-part harvesting operation going on, as Brad comes to suspect. Yet, he still appreciates the peace and quiet. That is something his wife and Domazar will have little of, as they hide out in the creepy old Gothic Victorian house she has been unable to sell.

The initial sequences of
Cult Hero appear as the VHS recordings of his reality show, but fear not. The rest of the film is presented as a proper movie. This is not a deliberately distressed-looking retro-grindhouse flick that tries to make a virtue of its minimal production values. Granted, Cult Hero is often meatheaded, but it is no Ninja Badass. In fact, under all the manic acting out, there is a sly sense of humor at work.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Faith: Cloistered with the Techno Warriors of Light

The Warriors of Light are an Italian Catholic splinter-group that leads a rigorous cloistered life, adapted from Shaolin monasticism. Yet, this immersive documentary looks like it could have been shot by a fashion photographer from the school of Herb Ritts or Bruce Weber. There is little bodily shame or body fat. The latter logically follows when you train for an ultimate battle against the forces of evil. They might be a cult, but physically they are chiseled and runway-ready, as captured by the lens of the late documentarian Valentina Pedicini in Faith, which starts streaming today on Film Movement Plus.

The doc starts with a ritual that looks more like a rave. The Master of this “monastery” tucked away in the picturesque Italian hills is often shirtless, contributing to the general vibe of sexuality that openly fuels their community. However, not all is well. One disciple is writing a detailed “confession” that promises to be considerably longer and juicier than St. Augustine’s. Regardless, the Master pushes his recruits to the absolute breaking point, with techno blaring from his smart phone that would not sound out of place during a
Mortal Kombat training montage.

Amid this super-charged setting, the Master’s partner raises their young children. Happily, it is not nearly as intense an experience for them. Just the regular head-shaving, before foraging for roots and herbs with their mother.

When Pedicini was on-site with the Warriors of Light, the anticipation of apocalyptic tidings might have seen incomprehensibly alien. Since then, there has been a worldwide pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China ringing Taiwan with warships. Maybe let’s not scoff too heartily. Nevertheless, the harrowing scenes in which the Master breaks down his acolytes, pushing them beyond their limits, is textbook cult indoctrination—and it is painful to watch.

Prey, on Hulu

You'd think by now, the Predator planet would have issued a travel advisory for planet Earth. As our moralizing commentators keep telling us, we are a violent people. We have a tendency to give the galactic hunters quite a fight. Maybe that is part of the appeal for them. It’s a challenge, like climbing Everest. Even 300 years ago, a Predator will have his hands full dealing with a teenaged warrior of the Comanche Nation in Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey, which premieres today on Hulu.

Naru picks up on signs something is wrong in the woods, but her brother Taabe and the other young warriors are not paying attention, because she is a girl. At least Taabe respects her tracking skills, but he doubts her killer instinct. Nevertheless, she senses a threat and sets out to hunt it. Unfortunately, it is not the only danger out there. A party of cruel and wasteful French fur trappers is also on the prowl. Obviously, Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison are suggesting the Predator is more sporting about it, which is probably a fair point.

Of course, the rest of the warriors are ineffective and the French are even worse than the Predator, but Naru can rely on her brother and her trusty dog, Sarii. In fact, Sarii, played by an American Dingo named Coco, is the true star of the film. Yes, even in R-rated science fiction action movies, W.C. Fields’ warning holds true.

Frankly, the
Predator franchise has had a whole lot of ups and downs. Some of the Alien vs. Predators films even suggested the Predators weren’t all that bad, because they acted as a check on the Xenomorphs. Prey doesn’t seem to see it that way. Regardless, Trachtenberg and Aison earn credit for taking a fresh approach to a mature property. The setting is interesting and the Eighteenth-Century level of weaponry (at best) adds a considerable degree of difficulty for the titular prey.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Red Election, in the Epoch Times


Ovation's RED ELECTION will change way you think about the Scottish independence movement. It is also has plenty of intrigue, courtesy of the Russian bad guys, to keep viewers hooked. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

The Most Dangerous Game—Again, but More Traditional

Richard Connell was a highly successful writer during his lifetime, but he looks like a one-hit wonder today, because his only work still widely read is his famous man-hunting-man short story. It has been modernized, riffed-on, and ripped-off dozens of times by genre and exploitation filmmakers. For that reason, screenwriter-director Justin Lee earns some points for staying relatively faithful to Connell’s story for a new, period adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Big-game hunter Marcus Rainsford has dragged his son Sanger along on his latest hunt, as an ill-conceived attempt to treat his PTSD stemming from the younger man’s service as a WWII sniper. Unfortunately, their steamer crashes on the reef off Baron von Wolf’s private island reserve, with the help of one of his mines.

Initially, the Baron is thrilled to host an esteemed hunter like Rainsford’s father, but when he refuses to participate in von Wolf’s literal man-hunt, the mad man kills him in front of his son’s eyes. Then Rainsford fils is forced to become the prey, along with a pair of brother-sister captives. For Rainsford, von Wolf is especially repellent, because he is a senior German military, who disappeared after the war.

Although Connell’s original story was set in the 1920s, the post-WWII era is still somewhat traditional, matching that of the second film adaptation, Robert Wise’s
A Game of Death. Despite the frequent revamps and reboots, the story still works better in a period setting, when transcontinental travel necessarily resulting in long periods without outside communication.

Unlike possibly every other film adaptation, Lee’s screenplay reverts to Connell’s original name for his protagonist: “Sanger.” Some changes have been made to the hunting action, but Sanger Rainsford’s method of escape in the story is instead used to explain the presence of a survivor, living guerilla-style in the jungle, so the film still feels consistent to its roots.

Luck, on Apple TV+

They say luck favors the prepared mind, but not in Sam Greenfield’s case. She learns bad luck is supposed to be random. Yet, bad luck attracts more bad luck, so once she had it, she couldn’t shake it. She gets this first-hand lesson in luck when she plays Dorothy or Alice (your preference) after falling into the land it comes from in Peggy Holmes’ Luck, produced by Skydance Animation, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Greenfield is finally getting her own place, because she aged-out of the orphanage. The young woman just always had bad luck with her family visits. She accepts her lot, but does not want the same unlucky fate to befall Hazel, the young fellow orphan she took under her klutzy wing. After splitting a panini with a black cat, Greenfield discovers a lucky penny that seems to turn her fortunes around. She is sure it will do the same for Hazel, but true to form, she accidentally flushes it down the toilet. That rather distresses Bob the cat, who comes back looking for it.

It turns out, he was issued that penny in the Land of Luck, where Greenfield ends up too, after following him through the portal. Reluctantly, Bob agrees to help her locate another penny for Hazel to use on her next family visit, before he uses it to replace the one he lost. Of course, the grown-up sized Greenfield stands out in the land of leprechauns, rabbits, and unicorns. It should be noted Bob claims black cats are lucky in Scotland, which a quick googling seems to bear out. Unfortunately, Bob’s bossy boss, The Captain soon discovers somebody passed off a button as a lucky penny—and she would be delighted to blame him.

Luck
has a good deal of charm and the colorful Land of Good Luck is quite snazzy looking. It is sort of like a fantastical Rube Goldberg-esque Metropolis. Like in Fritz Lang’s dystopia, the privileged lucky live in the skies above, while the proletarian Goblins and Roots live below in the Land of Bad Luck. There is definitely an Oz-like aspect to the story, but the hard luck blue collar monsters turn out to be more fun.

Eva Noblezada brings a lot of energy and warmth to Greenfield’s voice, but the character is so virtuous, she gets a little dull. However, Bob is entertainingly roguish character, with a smartly conceived backstory and appropriately cat-like foibles. Simon Pegg is the perfect vocal match for him, crisply landing all his snarky lines.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Bodies Bodies Bodies: Gen Z Piles Up the Corpses

The idea of a hurricane party on its own sounds rife with bad karma, but generating ill will is what these twenty-nothings do best. The bad news is viewers will instantly dislike all of these Gen Z/Millennial characters. (The film leans into that, even casting Pete “veteran’s eye patch joke” Davidson.) However, the good news is most of them will be murdered thanks to the And Then There Were None-style premise. You can watch them die without dignity in Halina Reijn’s Bodies Bodies Bodies, which opens this Friday in New York.

Everyone is uncomfortable around Sophie, because she went to rehab. She also showed up unannounced at the hurricane party with her new girlfriend, the socially awkward Bee. She is not the only outsider at rich but ineffectual David’s bacchanalia. Alice also brought along forty-year-old himbo, Greg. The rest of the group does not like him, because they think he is a military veteran—this ugly prejudice gets a bit of skewering in the film.

All the old resentments immediately erupt, but they still decide to play “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a cross between hide-and-seek and
Clue, which inherently stokes distrust and paranoia within the group. Inevitably, a body actually turns up dead, which sets off the first round of finger-pointing and recriminations. It won’t be the last.

Bodies x 3
is often darkly humorous and not infrequently violent, but it is never truly scary, so it is a mistake to bill it as a horror movie. It is more of a hipster riff on Agatha Christie’s incredibly durable formula. It definitely entertains, if you accept it for what it really is, but it never frightens.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Bring Him Back Dead: Louis Mandylor Hunts Gary Daniels

Miss Manners should have had a column explaining how rude it is to keep your gang waiting a long time for their split of the loot. It might have helped mean old Trent. Instead, he keeps his band of armed robbers impatiently holed-up in his cabin while one of them slowly bleeds all over the couch. That allows too much time for complications in Mark Savage’s Bring Him Back Dead, which releases today on VOD.

It was supposed to be an easy score, but the erratic Killian started shooting the guards. Alex nearly killed him himself when they reached the cabin—and Trent sort of regrets stopping him when he arrived. Poor Geoff took a slug in the gut, but he might just be immortal considering how long he keeps moaning on death’s door. Of course, his condition puts everyone on edge when Trent tells them they all have to chill for a few hours, until his buyer arrives.

Alex has other ideas. He knocks everyone out with drugged whiskey, so he can take off with all the loot (he has a more pressing need for it). However, he did not count on Trent’s ex-junkie daughter Lisa coming with him, as a somewhat reluctant accomplice. Of course, he did not knock them out for long, so the hunt is soon on.

BHBD
is a grungy but efficient caper-gone-bad movie, but if it had been released in the early 1990s, some critics probably would have hailed it as an indie landmark (not that anyone is saying it is). The best thing going for it is Gary Daniels, who is still in terrific shape. Frankly, it is hard to believe Louis Mandylor’s Trent could go toe-to-toe with him, when you compare their respective physiques, even given Alex’s serious bow-and-arrow wound.

Pennyworth, Battling the Soviets

At this point, Alfred Pennyworth is probably the world’s most famous fictional gentleman’s gentleman, eclipsing even Jeeves. Unlike the superheroes he served, the villains Pennyworth fought during his MI6 service were definitely based in reality. Conceived as a sequel to the TV show, all seven volumes of Scott Bryan Wilson’s limited series (with art by Juan Gedeon and colors by John Rauch) are now collected in Pennyworth (Vol. 1), which goes on-sale today.

In the HBO Max/Epix series Pennyworth battled an Oswald Mosley style fascist, who tried to stage a coup to overthrow the British government. In Wilson’s comic, he is fighting Soviet agents who are pretty believable, if you don’t count their comic book-worthy experimental technology. Pennyworth thought he and his partner, childhood friend Shirley Penrose, would be snooping around a Siberian nuclear facility. It turns out they are actually working on a super-soldier-like project, but the results are far more monstrous.

Unfortunately, we know the assignment went down badly, because modern day Pennyworth suspects it might be the cause of his recent kidnapping. He has crossed paths with super-villains before, but this feels different—more personal. To survive, he will flashback in his mind’s eye to his arctic misadventure and the lessons his butler father taught him, which turned out to apply equally well to work in the secret service as they did to a career in service. In fact, that was his father’s whole point.

Wilson manages his three primary timelines quite skillfully, clearly establishing their relevance to each other. He also tells a largely stand-alone Bond-style Cold War narrative, while including sufficient ties to the Batman mythos to satisfy fans. Master Bruce never appears, but he is certainly referenced. Eventually, Pennyworth must also face one of Batman’s old nemeses, whose presence makes logical sense in this context.

Frankly, Wilson’s
Pennyworth does not seem entirely consistent with the early episodes of the first TV season, but the liberties he might have taken are all great improvements. Pennyworth’s relationships with his father and Penrose particularly deepen and enrich the story. It also has the virtue of making Communists the bad guys, in a way that is consistent with the Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt scandals.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Game of Spy, from Japan, on Prime


If agents of the Public Security Intelligence Agency’s secret Global Operations Service (GOS) fail, they will be disavowed. If that sounds familiar, wait till you hear the theme music. However, their impossible mission unfolds in a much more sophisticated and realistic geopolitical context. Yes, the main terrorist group hoping to destroy Tokyo is entirely fictional, but guess who is trying to exploit the situation for their own gain? Why that would be our friends in the CCP. Therefore, the scruffy band of GOS agents must always watch their backs in the first season of the Japanese series Game of Spy, which premieres today on Prime.

Takeru Hashiba is a bit absent-minded, but he fights like a bulldog. Masaharu Katsuki is the conservative family man, who is getting too old for this kind of service. They have both transferred from the general PSIA, but glamorous Rei Hiyama is a freelancer attached to their team. They meet in the secret basement of Shigenobu Kugayama’s fancy-dress costume store, where ex-hacker Atsuhiko Natsume provides the online support for their mission. They thought they had just finished their most recent assignment by foiling an attack on the Tokyo Skytree. Unfortunately, it was just a feint in a larger terrorist operation dubbed “Deus Gate.”

Technically, the attack will be carried out by Mundo, a radical terror cult headed by the messianic “Vince.” In two days, the plan to release a kaiju-sized strain of smallpox that would devastate Tokyo. However, the Chinese might have some relevant intel. They would be happy to trade it to the dirtbag Prime Minister, in exchange for all he knows about American embassy personnel in Japan and the scheduled movements of our Naval vessels. Yet, everything they dangle in front of the politicians, the GOS team can sleuth out on its own. Acting on it will be a different question, because of suspected betrayals from within.

Initially, the conflicting personalities of Hashiba and Katsuki make
GOS look like it will be much more comedic than it turns out to be. They might grouse at each other, but their fights with the terrorists get decidedly brutal and bloody. Also, the portrayals of the politicians and senior government bureaucrats are cuttingly cynical. In addition to the sleazy PM, viewers will have reason at various times to question the loyalties of some top security personnel.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fantasia ’22: My Grandfather’s Demons

Whittling in wood is definitely a grandpa kind of thing to do, but Rosa’s grandfather was a little different. He carved demons. It turns out, they represented the sins and regrets of his life. After his death, Rosa returns to his village, where she must exorcize his old demons, most metaphorically, in Nuno Beato’s My Grandfather’s Demons, Portugal’s first stop-motion animated feature, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International FilmFestival.

It is quite a shock to Rosa when she learns her grandfather was the mean old man nobody liked. She had lost touch with him after she moved apartments, because she was consumed by her work. As a result, she was already carrying a load of guilt when she arrived. Then she learned his village blamed him for its misfortunes. At first, she dismisses their peasant superstitions, but her dreams are plagued by visions of the demonic figurines he carved.

Beato starts the film in the mode of traditional cell animation, but transitions to stop-motion when Rosa arrives at her grandfather’s farmhouse. The former is kind of quirky, but the clay-based animation creates a richly realized world, informed by local lore. Screenwriters Possidonio Cachapa and Cristina Pinheiro flirt with the fantastical, while maintaining an evocative sense of the mysterious. Of course, Rosa is definitely haunted, but in how many senses of the word?

Regardless, Rosa has a richer character development arc than most live action characters. Her struggles to come to terms with her grandfather’s legacy and atone for his mistakes is some pretty heavy, archetypal stuff. Plus, the music is lovely and the clay landscape looks ruggedly beautiful. It is hard to believe this is Beato’s first feature or Portugal’s first full-length stop-motion film, because it is so impressively realized.

Fantasia ’22: VRDLK Family of Vurdulak

Aleksey Tolstoy died in 1875, but he is on a roll right now. Recently, his novella The Vampire has inspired a feature film, an excellent graphic novel, and now an animated short. As vampire experts know, the Vurdulak (or Vourdalak, spellings vary) is particularly sinister, because it specifically preys on its former family members and loved ones. Fortunately, the traveling Marquis is hard to love, but it is still dangerous for him to encounter one in Sam Chou’s animated short, VRDLK: Family of Vurdulak, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

While in route to a diplomatic confab in Budapest, the Marquis D’Urfe gets lost in the woods somewhere in Serbia. This is Vurdulak country, so everyone warns him to get off the road after sundown, but, of course, he will not listen. Eventually, the horny braggart winds up at the cottage of old man Gorcha, where he is quite taken with the absent man’s daughter Zdenka. He arrived just before dark, so is shocked when the family refuses to let the freezing Gorcha in.

VRDLK
’s throwback style of animation has its quirky charms, but it gets even more humor from the sarcastic frat boy attitude of D’Urfe. Hammer-style horror derived from classical European sources is usually pretty serious, so it is entertaining to watch Chou and screenwriter Ellery Vandooyeweert mine some humor from Tolstoy’s vampire tale, especially considering how angsty and tragic it is. Yet, they still stay pretty faithful to the original story.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Fantasia ’22: A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot (short)


How many interlocking stories can there be in a nearly post-human dystopian future? Apparently, there are at least four, but the one most anime fans will really what to see is the tale contributed by the animator of the Cowboy Bebop and Macross Plus franchises. Conveniently, Shinichiro Watanabe’s A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot screened on its lonesome during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Somehow, the girl managed to stay alive in a desert wasteland, without any companionship. One day, a robot with amnesia falls out of an automated supply train. He sort of resembles the Taika Waititi droid from
The Mandalorian, but is less annoying, and has more personality. With his help, they hitch a train hobo-style to the nearest big city. It is empty too, except for a young man, who gives her a crash course in evading the robotic tank that outlived its programmers. He also introduces her to some lore that does not sound very science fiction-ish, but will motivate the grandly tragic third act.

At first,
Girl Meets appears like a deceptively familiar post-apocalyptic world, but it takes on big, cosmic dimensions. Watanabe handles the slow blossoming quite dexterously and many of his visuals are quite compelling, While the character designs are not wildly original, they definitely resonate with viewers.

Clearlly, anyone who appreciates the major anime series (especially those of Watanabe) should enjoy
Girl Meets. Maybe it is even richer when viewed together with the other stories of Taisu, but as a Chinese production, there is a good chance the Chinese contributions are compromised from a propaganda standpoint. After all, the Mainland film industry is closely aligned with the oppressive CCP. Therefore, seeing Watanabe’s contribution separately at festivals is probably the most ethical strategy for his fans to watch it. Recommended under these circumstances, A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’22: Mighty Robo V (short)

Waste, corruption, and mismanagement all hallmarks of every government program known to man. Why would we expect anything different from a mecha-kaiju defense initiative? It turns out the Philippine Giant Monster Defense Institute (PGMDI) is just as dysfunctional as any other state-run enterprise. A documentary camera crew exposes the truth in Miko Livelo & Mihk Vergara’s short film, Mighty Robo V, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.

The cameramen will actually be following the crew of Mighty Robo V 2, because their predecessors just got killed by a kaiju. Unfortunately, Dr. Rody Rodriguez has been using the PGMDI’s budget to cover his online cock-fighting gambling losses, so he has solicited sponsors for each of the giant mecha-robot’s weapon systems. To rebuild public support, he has recruited a team of online influencers to be the new crew. Frankly, his corruption has driven his competent deputy, Laser Panganiban to drink—heavily.

Mighty Robo
is a razor-sharp satire that persuasively applies James Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory to Ultraman-style bureaucrats. This film has bite, especially the unhinged diatribes of the country’s president, whose growling tone very much resembles that of Duterte (who was still in office at the time of the film’s production). Regardless, it makes one thing clear. Government employees will always put their own interests first, even when giant monsters are rising out of the Pacific Rim. By the way, the PGMDI can’t call them “kaiju” anymore, because that term is deemed an offensive slur.

Fantasia ’22: Call and Response (short)


It is a good name for a jazz club, because it implies musical dialogue. According to posters, Chet Baker and the fictional jazz musician “Singleton” will perform there. An aspiring guitar and a competing piano player also want to play there, but first they will have to pass an audition in the animation collective Morgane Duprat’s short film Call and Response, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.

Call and Response
really is a short short, but it is loaded with style. Basically, the busking guitar player and a piano stylist stuck in a depressing bartending gig audition for a chance to play on a bill with Singleton. They start out interrupting each other, but they find a groove when they start playing together.

The musicians, including
Raphael Faigenbaum on piano and Paul de Robillard on guitar, give us some swinging up-tempo bop that sound very 1960s-era appropriate. When they come together, the film explodes in color, but somewhat ironically, the early noirish black-and-white sequences look cooler and jazzier.

Regardless, any film that proclaims a love of jazz deserves a call-out, no matter how short, especially when the animation has so much flair. Recommended for jazz and animation fans,
Call and Response screened at this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Demigod, the Legend Begins

Instead of wire-fu, this martial arts epic uses glove-fu and CGI animation. The art of Budaixi, Chinese glove puppetry, is alive and well in Taiwan, where Pili Puppetry has been a television hit since the mid-1980s. It turns out some of the world’s best wuxia comes from the independent nation of Taiwan. Su Huan-jen is one of its great heroes. Fans get his stand-alone origin story in Huang Wen-Chang’s Demigod: The Legends, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As the film opens, Su Huan-jen is still young and slightly irresponsible. Yet, he still manages to help a big Wookie-like animist god win his battle against his more reptilian rival. Su is already deeply in debt to library, so he jumps at the chance to heal its patron, the Lord of Globe Castle. Unfortunately, this provides a perfect opportunity to frame the young apprentice for the Lord’s murder.

The Lord’s adopted son knows Su didn’t do it. The Princess isn’t so sure, but the Lord’s sinister brother is thrilled to finally have access to the book of cosmic knowledge Su had been searching for. All the chaos is an open invitation for rival Lord of the Evil Kingdom to invade, so Su will have a real war on his hands.

Huang really is one of the best martial arts filmmakers working today. He just works with puppets rather people. Screenwriters Huang Liang-hsun and He Yuan-yu give us a story worthy of vintage Shaw Brothers, if they could have afforded the giant kaiju special effects.
Demigod even manages to surprise us with a couple twists. The sets, costumes, and design work are spectacular, especially the library. Of course, the puppetry martial arts are totally cool. That’s what the Huang family does best.

Paper Girls, on Prime

Remember how great the future looked in 1988? The music and movies were consistently fun and George H.W. Bush was poised to be elected president in a veritable landslide. So, how did the 2010s and 2020s turn out so badly? Maybe four newspaper deliverers will find out. They are about to be swept into a time-war in Stephany Folsom’s 8-episode Paper Girls, based on Brian K. Vaughan’s comics, which premieres today on Prime Video.

It is the morning after Halloween (but not for long), when many of the drunken teenaged troublemakers are still roaming the streets. Erin Tieng picked a heck of a first day to start her paper route. Tiffany Quilkin, a savvier paper girl helps show her the ropes. Soon, they meet up with tough-talking Mac Coyle and preppy-ish KJ Brandman, forming a temporary alliance to finish their deliveries together. However, the drunken bullies are not the only ones prowling around their suburban Cleveland neighborhood.

Fatefully, the four girls are caught up in a skirmish between future time-traveling revolutionaries, the STF (Standard Time Fighters), who want to prevent all the bad things from happening, and the “Old Watch,” the reactionaries fighting to protect their privileged positions (and maybe the integrity of the whole space-time continuum dealio). Disoriented after traveling through a worm-hole, the girls decide to hide out at Tieng’s home. They find she is still living there, but she did not turn out how the twelve-year-old would have hoped. As they navigate the future, other girls learn revelations about themselves from family members and in some cases, their future selves.

Folsom’s adaptation of Vaughan’s comics features some pretty intriguing time-travel twists. It is somewhat unusual to hear the old arguments against altering history so casually dismissed, but let’s be honest. The truth is the real, old-school Doctor Who would probably agree with the Old Watch. Nevertheless, the 1980s nostalgia always works and despite some themes of sexuality (brought on by observations of the girls future’s selves),
Paper Girls is not annoyingly woke. In fact, the way Ronald Reagan acts as a sort of spirit guide for Tieng is kind of clever.

The battery of four directors (all veterans of episodic drama) keep action rolling along at a brisk pace. The generally shorter episode length (mostly around forty minutes) makes
Paper Girls highly bingeable. However, it might be a mistake to end the first season without a greater sense of resolution. After all, it could suffer the same fate as Prime’s cancelled Night Sky (which is also a pretty good show, but we’ll never know its ultimate secrets).

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Inu-Oh

How does some heavy biwa sound to you? To the Shogun, it sounds disruptive and dangerous. He is also not very appreciative of the “new” stories from the Tales of the Heike that have made two itinerant performers a sensation in divided Muromachi-era Japan. Art and authority do not mix well in Masaaki Yuasa’s future cult-classic, Inu-Oh, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

As is often the case in Japanese history, the Heike clan lost their war with the Genji, but they got all the glory (albeit tragic glory). Supposedly, you can still hear the voices of their samurai murmuring from the river where their fleet drowned. Tomona is the kind of sensitive artist who can pick-up their whispers.

As a boy, his father died and he was blinded when the Shogun retained their diving services to retrieve a politically sensitive relic from the river. Having little conventional prospects, the now-sightless teen apprenticed to become a biwa troubadour-priest, but he rejected the traditional shaved head and monks’ robes, in favor of a rock & roll style. That appeals to Inu-Oh’s sensibilities. The frustrated actor and dancer was disowned by his father, a celebrated Noh performer, because of his physical and facial deformities. Even while bizarrely masked, Inu-Oh is a crowd-pleasing performer, especially when he teams up with Tomona. Inevitably, their popularity stirs the jealous ire of the Shogun and Inu-Oh’s arrogant father.

Tomona follows in a long line of sight-challenged Biwa players in
  films, starting with Hoichi in the classic Kwaidan and continuing with the one-eyed Kubo in Kubo and the Two Strings. Neither of them played like Tomona. Jethro Tull fans in particular should really dig the fusion of hard rock with traditional (almost pastoral) instrumentation. The musical sequences are extensive, to the point of defining the film’s character and vibe, rather than incidental or episodic. You just can’t miss Tomona wailing on his biwa, like Pete Townsend in his prime.

Resurrection

When films treat us like psychoanalysts, openly asking us to differentiate their characters’ delusions from reality, we should start charging them an hourly rate. Margaret is definitely that kind of unreliable protagonist. Her daughter understandably begs her to seek help, but viewers are the ones who have to judge whether her stalker crisis is legit in Andrews Semans’ Resurrection, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Initially, Margaret is so together, she can give the intern empowerment lessons without sounding condescending (not really, but the intern acts like she can). However, the wheels come off shockingly quickly when she spies David Moore, a man from her secret past. As we learn, Moore trapped her in an appallingly abusive and manipulating relationship.

Apparently, Moore is smart-stalking her, appearing in public places, acting like the picture of mild-mannered innocence. Of course, Margaret knows better and Moore will not wait too long to justify her fear. Unfortunately, Margaret is not merely apprehensive. She downshifts into such unhinged mania, Rebecca Hall’s performance has earned comparisons to Isabelle Adjani’s freakout in
Possession.

We are told (and come to believe) Moore’s behavior was not just violent and controlling. He took viciousness to macabre extremes. That would still be believable, until Semans ratchets it up to borderline fantastical levels. Yet, that wrinkle is the only interesting angle of an otherwise wildly overwrought stalker thriller, better suited to the Lifetime network than arthouse cinemas.

Fantasia ’22: Punta Sinistra

The high-flying Miami Vice-style partying of the 1980s crashed back down to earth during the far-less-fun 1990s. That was especially true for French Canadian bush pilot and drug-runner Luc Langelier, who fatally wrecked while flying his regular Colombia-to-Montreal run. Neither his body or his cargo were ever recovered, but not for a lack of looking (at least for the drugs). A burned-out journalist (is there any other kind) starts investigating his cold case in Renaud Gauthier’s Punta Sinistra, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As a fellow French Canadian, Marcotte feels an affinity with the picaresque Langelier, or so he claims. Regardless, the boozy wash-out certainly fits the hazy, debauched atmosphere of Punta Sinistra. Supposedly, he is writing a book on Langelier, but nobody wants to talk to him, least of all the mysterious Claudine, who regularly swims the surf around Langelier’s crash site. Marcotte must also contend with bad tarot readings and frequent beatings from a gang of surfer-thugs. Fortunately, the shaggy journalist is used to waking up in pain.

Although it uses genre elements, Gauthier’s film has a trippy, experimental heart, very much akin to Ossange’s
9 Fingers. It is a druggy, sun-drenched mood piece and exploration of Marcotte’s psyche—but there isn’t much to the latter to delve into. There are some clever moments (especially when the soundtrack “pays homage” to Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice themes), but long, deliberately baffling scenes of tarot readings and incomprehensible telephone calls really start to drag, which is a real problem for a film barely longer than an hour.