Sunday, January 23, 2022

Shortlisted Short: Censor of Dreams

Science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui is responsible for several adventures into the subconscious. He created Paprika, who was immortalized in anime by Satoshi Kon. Now, you can here his dream-working characters speaking French. An overworked drone in a woman’s subconscious does his best to scrub potentially upsetting images from her dreams in Leo Berne & Raphael Rodriguez’s Censor of Dreams, which has been shortlisted for the best short film Oscar (with Gus Van Sant on-board as an executive producer, granting it some name recognition value).

Our unnamed focal character and his colleagues work as dream censors in much the same way Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall worked to bring about sexual functions in the final segment of Woody Allen’s
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), but the tone here is far more serious. Each night, they manically strive to keep the people and images of a great tragedy she suffered out of her dreams. They only get a few minutes lead time, so they are often forced to get creative.

Censor cannot possibly compete with Paprika visually, but it still has a good deal of inventive images that cleverly evoke the mystery of the subconscious mind. Honestly, it can hold its own with a lot of Black Mirror episodes and it has more heart and soul than Coma. In fact, Berne & Rodriguez, in collaboration with their cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb, show a real knack for framing the things and places of our world in a way that makes them look otherworldly.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sundance ’22: After Yang

Yang is a way more advanced AI than Alexa. When you ask him to turn off a light, he does it. In fact, he is truly a part of Jake and Kyra’s family, so when he goes on the fritz, it is very distressing for them—and especially so for their young adopted daughter Mika. They will have to prepare her to experience grief for the first time, while learning there was more to their “techno-sapien” “son” than they realized in Kogonada’s After Yang, which premiered (online) as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

When Kyra and Jake adopted Mika from China, so they also purchased Yang, a life-like AI-cyborg to serve as her big brother and help keep her connected to her Chinese culture. However, they bought him certified-refurbished from a licensed re-seller that apparently is no longer in business. Unfortunately, that means when he breaks down, he most likely can’t be repaired.

Suddenly, the two parents realize how much they had delegated their parenting responsibilities to Yang. They also must come to terms with their own sense of loss. However, the discovery of a cache of Yang’s saved memories leads Jake to the discovery of Yang’s secret relationship with a clone and his previous lives with other families, before they acquired him.

After Yang
is a sensitive, character-driven science fiction story, in the tradition of films like Marjorie Prime that happily does not involve terminally ill people cloning themselves (as in Swan Song and half a dozen films before it). Kogonada’s adaptation of an Alexander Weinstein short story still has clones and it very definitely challenges viewers to reconsider what it means to be human. This near future world features humanity living and working together with its sentient creations in reasonable harmony, but the way people relate to AIs and clones is clearly still developing.

Kogonada de-emphasizes the flashy futuristic trappings, focusing instead on big ideas and big emotions (although self-driving cars are already a staple of the world). Indeed, the way he and actor Justin H. Min tease out intriguing new dimensions to Yang’s character is one of the most successful aspects of the film.

Friday, January 21, 2022

The King’s Daughter, Co-Starring Fan Bingbing

It is hard to get a good clean look at Fan Bingbing playing a heavily CGI’ed mermaid in this film, but it is easier to see her here than in China, where she is still being “rehabilitated” after the powers-that-be yanked her from the public eye and “detained” her for several months in 2018. (Subsequently, she has been considered to be one of the first celebrities to receive the “Peng Shuai treatment”). Nobody will call this a “comeback” vehicle, but it is certainly a curiosity piece. (You can also see the logo for the financially-precarious Evergrande’s liquidated film unit in the opening credits, for extra added notoriety.) Our protag—don’t call her the princess—forms a friendship with Fan’s weird mermaid in Sean McNamara’s The King’s Daughter, based on Vonda McIntyre’s novel, which opens today in theaters.

Louis XIV has just returned victorious from war, but a would-be assassin’s too-close-for-comfort bullet makes him suddenly mindful of his mortality. He is played by Pierce Brosnan, so apparently the Sun King was Irish. Who knew? The court doctor, who also dabbles in alchemy tells the king he can make him immortal, if his men can capture one of the mermaids living in the lost city of Atlantis. He needs to transplant its uncanny life force into the king—but it will only work with a full-grown female. Of course, she will die in the process, but he can live (forever) with that.

Meanwhile, Louis summons the secret love child he tucked away in a convent to serve as the court composer. Marie-Josephe D’Alembar is a rebellious klutz who could make even Katherine Hepburn say: “you could carry yourself with a bit more grace, kiddo.” She knows nothing of her true origins or her father’s intention to marry her off to a wealthy young nobleman. Instead, D’Alembar falls in love with Yves De La Croix, the slightly tarnished sea captain who captures the mermaid.

It is hard to believe this production was allowed to film on-location at Versailles, but they were, way back in 2014. Obviously, this has been on the shelf for years, for good reason. The effects are cheesy and so are the performances. Brosnan looks embarrassed and Kaya Scodelario’s Miss Maisel-ish portrayal of D’Alembar is ridiculously anachronistic. Honestly, Fan really doesn’t do anything except let the FX team superimpose her head on the big fish. Ironically, only William Hurt brings any sense of dignity to the film as the good Father La Chaise, an original character not in McIntyre’s novel.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

La Fortuna, on AMC+

Some of these protags could be dubbed “Lara Croft, Civil Service Bureaucrat,” or something like that. An American treasure hunting salvage company, not unlike Odyssey Marine Exploration has discovered a fabulously rich Spanish shipwreck, transparently based on the Our Lady of Mercy. Of course, they want their sweat equity to be repaid with booty, but the dysfunctional Spanish government stakes their legal claim to ownership. Fortunately, their American attorney is the treasure-hunter’s old nemesis in Alejandro Amenabar’s six-part La Fortuna, which premieres today on AMC+.

In the late Eighteenth Century, Spain and England were technically at peace, but sabers were rattling. To prepare for war, Spain recalled the La Fortuna as part of a four-ship convoy, ferrying all the gold and silver they had plundered from the New World, to fill their war-chests. Unfortunately, the British had the drop on them and sunk La Fortuna down to Davy Jones’ locker, where it remained undisturbed, until Frank Wild secretly discovered it off the coast of Gibraltar.

It is a jackpot find, but he tries to be cagey in reporting it, so as not to tip-off the Spanish government. However, Alex Ventura, a rookie foreign service officer and Lucia Vallarta, a stridently left-wing archaeologist with the Cultural Ministry suspect Wild discovered and cover-up the La Fortuna. Of course, they will need some solid evidence if crusty old Jonas Pierce will have any hope of challenging Wild’s claim in Federal court. Awkwardly, there seem to be elements in the Spanish government that want them to fail.

Although based on a real-life incident,
La Fortuna plays out like the worst Clive Cussler novel that he had the common decency to never write. There are tons of scenes in conference rooms and courtrooms, but hardly any undersea adventure. That would be okay of the legal thriller aspects were somewhat thrilling, but they are not. Not at all. Plus, the relentless anti-Americanism goes beyond tiresome to become outright self-parody.

Frankly, it isn’t even warranted. In the real-life case, Odyssey constantly accused the U.S. Federal government of siding against them and with Spain. The most notable U.S. official interceding on their behalf was Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), but naturally, Amenabar never lets facts get in the way of the “narrative” he “constructs.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Farhadi’s A Hero

Sometimes, Iran's Islamist regime is described as Medieval, but there is also a bizarrely Victorian aspect to the social structures they gave rise to. For instance, creditors can essentially consign their defaulters to debtors’ prison. Such a fate is a terrible disgrace in a society that demands the perception of virtue, if not the actuality. Rahim Soltani hatches an unlikely scheme to free himself and rehabilitate his name, but complications quickly ensue in Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, Iran’s international Oscar submission, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Soltani owes 75K to Bahram and he has no prospects of repaying him, since his former business partner absconded with their funds. Therefore, he must serve a multi-year sentence that gains Bahram nothing but retribution. Briefly, Soltani believes his problems are solved when his girlfriend Farkhondeh finds a purse with several precious coins on the street, but their hopes are dashed by a precipitous decline in the price of gold.

Pivoting during his two-day furlough, they craft a social media scheme, wherein Soltani rebuilds his social virtue by claiming to find the coins himself and making a show of returning them to their supposedly rightful owner, who would in fact be the role-playing Farkondeh. Initially, the plan is a smashing success, winning over the prison officials and a rehabilitation charity. However, Bahram is unconvinced. As the creditor resists the chorus asking for his pardon, others start chipping away at the holes and inconsistencies in Soltani’s story. The whole affair turns into a big mess, in which many of the players share some culpability, but Soltani is the one who really stands to lose.

Like all truly grand tragedies, we can see how one agonizing thing will inevitably lead to another, until poor Soltani will be completely buried under his own schemes and deceptions. Yet, we can also almost see him wriggling out, which is a source of genuine suspense. At one point, a character tells Soltani he is either a complete simpleton or a calculating genius—and that is a perfectly apt description of him.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock

It was probably HBO’s best original series ever. It could have whacked Tony Soprano and massacred the Starks and Lannisters, but that is not how Fraggles and Doozers roll. The endearing Jim Henson puppetry series was all about singing and working together—and it still is. Somehow, HBO lost the franchise, but it was quite a shrewd pick-up for Apple. After releasing a collection of shorts, the franchise makes a full return with the first season of Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

The basic premise is the same. Gobo’s Uncle Traveling Matt explores the human world, reporting back to Fraggle Rock through postcards, offering satirical “Nacirema”-like commentary on our human adult world foibles. He mails them to Doc’s apartment, through which the world of Fraggle Rock can be reached via a hole in the wall. The Great Hall of Fraggle Rock is supplied by water from a well maintained by the ogre-like Gorgs, who try to stomp on Fraggles whenever they see them. Fortunately, Gorgs are dumb as well as big.

It is the same world, but in this slightly rebooted series, Doc is now a young woman PhD student. The change of casting from an old white guy might check a lot of woke boxes, but it doesn’t work so well on a practical level. It used to make sense that the old absent-minded professor Doc was oblivious to the little Fraggle creatures constantly running through his garage-workshop, but it makes the young new Doc look pretty dim-witted (seriously, she is supposed to be a scientist). However, Doc’s Muppet dog Sprocket is still cute and endearing.

The same is mostly true for the new series, but the writing sometimes tries a little too hard. For the next season, the battery of writers might want to ease off on the teachable moments and pick the ones to really emphasize. Those that truly worked this time around include an incident in the third episode, “The Mergle Moon Migration,” wherein Red gets lost in an echo chamber. Frankly, it should be required viewing for everyone on Twitter.

However, the series takes a bit of a Roland Emmerichian turn with the last five episodes, featuring multiple catastrophic threats to the extended Fraggle Rock eco-sphere. First, the Fraggles inadvertently dry up the neighboring Craggles water supply. Then the Doozers start building Doozer stick-structures with a terrible tasting goo, so the Fraggles stop eating them, causing a sustainability crisis. Then Junior Gorg dams up the Fraggles’ own water source. It gets so bad, the oracle-like trash-heap also starts ailing. Yet, the tone is never too intense or dire for young viewers.

Despite the constant schedule of lessons learned,
Back to the Rock has nice energy. It is also more brightly lit and features more vibrant colors than we remember from the original series (although that could a trick of the memory). Perhaps most impressive is the consistently high quality of the original songs, a number of which have generally catchy melodies (in a good, non-earworm kind of way).

Monday, January 17, 2022

Nocturna “Sides” A & B

What is scarier than death? Living badly, without your full capacities. What is worse than that? Regret for the mistakes that separated you from your loved ones. 
At least that is what the experiences of an aging Argentinian man would suggest. He will confront all these grim realities and possibly also the supernatural (or perhaps not) during what could be his last night on Earth in Gonzalo Calzada’s Nocturna: Side A—The Great Old Man’s Night and its more experimental companion film, Nocturna: Side B—Where the Elephants Go to Die, both of which release tomorrow as a “double bill” on VOD.

is sort of like the horror version of Haneke’s Amour. In fact, scenes of the confused Ulises lost in the halls of his once grand apartment building summon memories of Jean-Louis Trintignant in a similar position. However, Ulises’ marriage to Dalia is not as loving as the one portrayed by Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. For one thing, viewers are clearly invited to question whether she is even still alive. Regardless, we learn from flashbacks Dalia bullied Ulises when they were children and there is reason to believe the dynamic continued throughout their union.

Sadly, Ulises’ strained relationships with his grown children is a profound disappointment for him. Most of his human interaction is with the reasonably patient but not especially warm building super. However, he also once knew the upstairs neighbor Elena, who is apparently now dead and haunting the old couple by pounding on their door each night. Eventually, we will figure out what happened to everyone when Ulises finally starts piecing together his fragments of shattered memory.

Side A
(107 minutes) is a surprisingly ambitious, yet fundamentally humanist take on horror, aging, and the horror of aging that is radically different from Calzada’s last US-distributed film, Luciferina. Arguably, the companion Side B (a mere 67 minutes) is even more ambitious, representing a sort of Guy Maddin-esque reverie, presenting the events of Side A through ghostly streams-of-consciousness. Side A stands alone and it is exponentially more accessible, so most of this review will focus on it. There is an audience for Side B’s distorted analog aesthetic, but casual viewers would need Side A to understand the context of each scene.

Pepe Soriano plays Ulises in both films and it is a relentlessly honest and cathartic performance (especially in
Side A). The 92-year-old veteran thesp is obviously credible as the physically and mentally declining Ulises, but the guilt and remorse he projects from the screen is almost overwhelming. He is also convincingly frightened to his bones.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Spring Tide, on

China experienced a literal “generation gap” when the best and brightest students of the late 1980’s disappeared or sought asylum abroad following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Guo Jianbo was a little too young to have participated, but she shares many of the protesters’ reformist sympathies. Her social conscience contributed to the bitter acrimony dividing her from controlling mother, Ji Minglan. Guo’s nine-year-old daughter Guo Wanting is caught in the crossfire between her mother and grandmother in Yang Tian-yi’s Spring Tide, which premieres Monday on

There is a lot of bad blood between Guo and Ji, but Guo is forced to make the best of things, because her mother still has custody of her daughter, whom she was forced to relinquish years ago. While Guo crusades against corruption as a journalist (often to the chagrin of her ethically-flexible editor), Ji organizes local women to sing patriotic songs for government-sponsored chorale competitions. Even though she lived through chaotic times, but Ji now literally sings the Party’s praises, for the sake of her slightly elevated position in the neighborhood. It goes unstated, but this is surely one of the reasons she is able to maintain custody of Wanting.

Soon, their long-simmering resentments boil over once again. As usual, Ji focuses on Guo’s greatest vulnerabilities, by trying to turn Wanting against her own mother. Fortunately, the little girl seems to have a pretty clear handle on the cold war raging around her, but it is still a terrible position to put her in.

Spring Tide
is the second film of Yang’s envisioned thematic trilogy addressing the challenges for modern women in contemporary China, but it is getting harder and harder to tell this kind of story under Xi’s CCP. Frankly, it is a minor miracle it was released online in China, considering one of the stories Guo investigates recalls some infamous incidents of Party corruption involving school administration. In fact, many viewers have interpreted Guo and Ji as analogs for reformists and regime loyalists. Regardless, the bitterness of their mother-daughter relationship is often brutal to watch.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Runner, Music and Film by Boy Harsher

The horror genre used to get a lot of mileage from music videos back when they were a thing. Of course, there was “Thriller,” with Vincent Price and the other guy, but there were also official soundtrack videos, like Alice Cooper’s “The Man Behind the Mask” from Friday the 13th Part VI and J. Geils Band’s “Fright Night” video. The general idea of thirty-eight minutes of linked music videos telling a macabre story is a bit of a throwback, but the vibe here is more experimental. According to wiki David Lynch was an influence on electronica band Boy Harsher (vocalist Jae Matthews and producer Augustus Muller), but uncomfortably trippy movies like Calvin Reeder’s The Oregonian and Jason Banker’s Toad Road are more apt comps for the viewing experience of The Runner, which premieres Sunday on Shudder.

The blood smeared all over the face and clothes of this hitchhiker should be your first clue not to pick her up. She is a serial killer, who might even have supernatural powers. Yet, after each kill, she calls an older man, whose relationship to her is unknown, but he clearly understands her nature. Meanwhile, Boy Harsher and several of their special guests record in the studio and have their videos played on an 80’s-vintage
Night Flight-style variety showcase.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Reframed: Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe is a lot like John Wayne—stay with me here—in that they are still just about as popular now as they were at the height of their fame and they still mean exactly the same things to their fans. In Monroe’s case, that would be sex appeal first and foremost, but also music and comedy. Unfortunately, that led to a career of typecasting and underestimation for the iconic movie star. A nearly entirely female battery of commentators offers more sympathetic (and “feminist”) spins on Monroe’s life and career in the four-part Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, narrated by Jessica Chastain, which premieres Sunday on CNN.

Monroe is still a huge star, but she had to fight for everything she had, before tragically dying far too young. She grew up as an orphan, so she learned to make the best of things. While working in an airplane factory during WWII, Monroe caught the eye and lens of a photographer, who convinced her to start modeling professionally. Subsequently, she signed as a contract player at 20
th Century Fox, but she was initially only cast in inconsequential parts, because studio mogul Darryl Zanuck just didn’t get her.

Obviously, she eventually caught on, with the aid of some unprecedented publicity. However, the conflict between her and Zanuck was a constant refrain throughout her career. Frankly, the best parts of
Reframed explore that studio intrigue. Yet, there are probably bigger villains in Reframed than Zanuck, such as Hugh Hefner, who built his empire on her nude pictorial, but never paid her a dime for the photo shoot she had signed away all rights to.

Given her enduring stature, it is pretty amazing how short Monroe’s career was, only truly “starring” in about a dozen films.
Reframed nicely covers Some Like It Hot, The Misfits, Bus Stop, and The Prince and the Showgirl (which was the subject of My Week with Marilyn), but it gives rather short shrift to Niagara and almost entirely ignores Otto Preminger’s River of No Return. There are not a lot her star-vehicles, so it is a shame to gloss over an interesting one.

On the other hand, jazz fans will be happy
Reframed discusses her friendship with Ella Fitzgerald. She also gets credit for her USO tour, which cemented her appeal to her military fans. Of course, her unfortunate marriages are discussed in detail, but the treatment of Joe DiMaggio is totally unfair (recycling abuse rumors, but not crediting the Yankee Clipper for his help getting her out of the Payne Whitney psych ward). Yet, the biggest oversight in Reframed is it ignores her conversion and continuing identification with Judaism. Seriously, how did Adam Sandler overlook her for “The Hanukkah Song?” Wisely, interview subjects do their best to defuse Kennedy conspiracy rumors, especially her close friend Amy Greene.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Ray Donovan: The Movie

Ray Donovan's business handling other people’s trouble (as a “fixer’). For him, it is a really bad idea to mix business with family, but his thuggish father Mickey Donovan constantly puts him in that awkward position. The son intends to have it out with his loose cannon father, perhaps permanently David Hollander’s Ray Donovan: The Movie, the feature conclusion to the reasonably long-running series, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

If you never watched the series, Hollander’s opening montage is more likely to confuse than to illuminate. The crux of the deal is things have gotten really bad between Donovan and his father, but they are still family. Mickey Donovan made off to his old South Boston stomping grounds with a briefcase full of stolen bearer bonds, so Ray chased off after him. To do what, even he is not exactly sure.

The truth is the actual plot of
The Movie is pretty light and straightforward. However, the flashbacks to the formative moments of their father-son relationship should give Ray Donovan fans some Rosebud-style closure. Hollander, the former showrunner, had anticipated a final season to wrap up all the subplots, but a new corporate regime surprisingly axed the series. Remembering the importance of franchise content, they subsequently put the movie into the works. It definitely feels like a cut-and-paste job from the final series outline, but the cast remains fully committed and all kinds of colorful.

Indeed, it is easy to see why Liev (scourge of spellcheckers) Schreiber and Jon Voight had fans so thoroughly hooked. As the title character, Schreiber broods so hard you could use his forehead for Korean barbeque, while Voight is absolutely electric and also strangely sad as the older but none-the-wiser father. Bill Heck perfectly struts through the film as the younger but still erratic flashback Mickey. Eddie Marsan is also quite poignant as Donovan’s Parkinson’s-afflicted brother Terry, but the script by Hollander and Schreiber never gives him much to do.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Tragedy of Macbeth, on Apple TV+

It has witches, a ghost, and “something wicked this way comes.” “The Scottish Play” is not exactly horror, but it was probably as close as you could get in Elizabethan times. This still is not exactly a “Horror Macbeth,” but the Thane exists in a landscape not unlike that roamed by the Knight in The Seventh Seal, residing in a castle worthy of vintage German expressionism. Joel (without Ethan) Coen mines considerable fresh inspiration from Shakespeare in his visually striking adaption of The Tragedy of Macbeth, which starts streaming Friday on Apple TV+.

Macbeth, so you should know the story by now. This time around the Thane and Lady Macbeth are maybe a little older and a little more jaded, but the story remains the same (and wisely so). However, the variations are particularly interesting this time around, especially the three witches. In fact, it might just be one witch, with three fractured personas or maybe she is a demonic spirit. The way Coen presents her and Kathryn Hunter plays her/them leaves her true nature open to interpretation, but whatever she might be, she is profoundly sinister.

In contrast, Coen largely de-emphasizes the ghost, rendering it a fleeting illusion of Macbeth’s fevered mind. Of course, there are plenty of killings that Coen stages with visceral intimacy. There is nothing more personal than betrayal and murder, which Coen rubs Macbeth’s nose in—and immerses the viewer. However, what really distinguishes the film is the starkly stylized set design that suggests vintage 1930s Universal gothic monster films, by way of M.C. Escher. This film looks amazing, in a cold, severe, drafty, imposing kind of way. Living in Macbeth’s castle is almost unimaginable, but it makes for great cinema.

Running an hour and forty-five minutes, Coen’s
Macbeth is about equal in length to Orson Welle’s adaption, and a bit shorter than the Michael Fassbender Macbeth, and considerably briefer than Polanski’s take. It is briskly paced, but the Thane’s transition from loyal vassal to murderous sociopath is more noticeably abrupt. Of course, viewers know he is Macbeth, so they should be able to fill in the gaps themselves.

Denzel Washington fulfills our expectations in the notorious role and even manages to surprise with the degree to which his Macbeth is tormented by his own crimes. It is a massively moody and angsty performance, but also a very legitimate spin on the character that we do not often see. In contrast, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth lives up to her reputation and then some.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Breeder, from Denmark

This time it is a woman who is the Dr. Frankenstein-style mad scientist. Unfortunately, her victims are young, fertile women, so it is not exactly a blow against the patriarchy. In fact, the clients for her rejuvenizing fountain of youth services are all rich old guys. Frankly, the old Baron was a much nicer doctor of destruction (especially the Peter Cushing versions). In contrast, Dr. Isabel Ruben is utterly reprehensible in Jens Dahl’s Breeder, which releases today on VOD.

Mia Lindberg has an awkward relationship with her mildly wealthy investment manager husband Thomas, so she really has no idea how much he has been manipulated by Ruben. She knows he has invested in her rejuvenation process, but she has no idea he has also become an accomplice. Likewise, he does not fully appreciate the horror show she is running until it is too late. Mr. Lindberg vaguely understands she is keeping female subjects in her converted-factory research facility under questionable circumstances, but he gets a real shock when the abducted Russian au pair from across the street manages to escape and find her way back to the neighborhood.

Thomas delivers her back to Ruben, instead of the hospital like he promises Mia. However, when Mia follows them via the find-my-phone app, she ends up in a cell herself. Thomas is also a prisoner, but Ruben treats the money man somewhat better. However, her henchmen, “The Dog” and “The Pig” give Mia their regular treatment.

Dahl (who co-wrote Winding Refn’s
Pusher) brings a lot of gritty noir style to Breeder, but it is still a brutally violent and utterly joyless film. Trust me, there are a number of scenes you will want to fast-forward through. We do get some karmic retribution, but Dahl still can’t let viewers enjoy it.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Hosoda’s Belle

It is an event, like the Wachowski’s returning to the Matrix, but Mamoru Hosoda creating another virtual world of avatars is exponentially more interesting. In Hosoda’s Summer Wars, the events within the fictional online OZ held potentially disastrous implications for the real, physical world. Technically, Susu Naito never confronts an imminent apocalypse when she enters the virtual “U,” but she still faces life-and-death stakes IRL, based on her actions as an avatar idol in Hosoda’s Oscar-qualified Belle, which opens Friday in New York.

Naito has been depressed and socially withdrawn for years, since her mother heroically died saving an endangered child (who happened to be someone else’s kid). The high school student has one friend, the brutally caustic computer nerd “Hiro” Betsuyaku. She also has a protector, big-man-on-campus Shinobu Hisatake, who would probably like to be something more, but she just can’t see it in her present state of mind. Tellingly, she has been unable to sing since her mother’s death, but when Betsuyaku helps her reinvent in U as “Belle” (derived from Susu, which means “bell”), she becomes the most popular singer on the virtual platform. Yet, nobody but Hiro knows her true identity, because of U’s strict anonymity.

That also means nobody knows who “The Dragon” is either. He started be beating the heck out of everyone in U’s MMA tournaments, but his anti-social behavior inevitably attracts the attention of U’s self-appointed guardians of order. Frankly, their efforts to unmask Dragon’s identity might be even more disruptive than his rage-benders. Nevertheless, Naito/Belle intuitively feels the pain below his bruised exterior.

Acting on instinct, Belle manages to follow Dragon to his castle-lair hidden in the outer regions of U. There he broods with the company of loyal AI creature-servants. It looks very much like
Beauty & the Beast, but Hosoda is only playing with the fable’s imagery. The secret of Dragon (sometimes actually referred to as the “Beast”) is entirely different from any of his movie, TV, or fairy tale predecessors.

In fact,
Belle resonates so deeply as a film because it makes it clear what happens in physical reality is much more gravely important than the rivalries of avatars in U. However, Naito must navigate U as Belle in order to reach the real Dragon, who does indeed need her, whether he admits it or not. As a result, Belle is probably the most emotionally fulfilling GKIDS release since Ride Your Wave (on par with Poupelle of Chimney Town, which they missed out on).

Visually, it is also stunning. For
Belle, Hosoda assembled an Expendables-level team of animators, including Jin Kim (formerly of Disney) to design Belle and Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart (acclaimed for Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers) for the fantastical world-building. Frankly, the resulting animation is even more impressive than the baroque and trippy Summer Wars.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Naomi (Pilot), on CW

For comic book writers, the multiverse is a gift that just keeps giving. If you want a character to be a fan of Superman comics, who eventually encounters the DC superheroes in the flesh, you just do a little mixing of the parallel universes—and then there they are. In this case, a Superman fangirl doesn’t exactly meet her idol, but when he briefly crashes into her universe, it starts her own super-origins story in the pilot episode of showrunner Jill Blankenship’s Naomi, which premieres Tuesday on the CW.

Naomi McDuffie loves Superman because he was an orphan just like her. She grew up happy and well-adjusted as the daughter of bi-racial couple Greg and Jennifer McDuffie, despite being a military brat. She also seems to be pretty well-liked both at her high school and with her fellow Pacific Northwest local townsfolk, maybe because she seems to have an ambiguous flirty relationship with several of them. Suddenly, Superman and a super-villain blast into their universe, duking it out in the town square (only seen obliquely in cleverly assembled cell phone footage), but McDuffie is unable to record any of it, because she passes out from a tinnitus-like ringing sensation.

As she investigates the presumed publicity stunt for her fansite, McDuffie is struck by the suspicious behavior of Dee, the New Agey tattoo artist and Zumbado, the used car salesman. The latter is already considered a villain, due to his reputation for ripping off servicemen from the base.

Scenes of the high school characters’ hip and casual acceptance of their ambiguous sexuality often sound and feel like they were written by corporate diversity trainers. However, the depiction of Army is refreshingly positive, as far as the pilot shows. Her officer father is a totally cool dad, instead of a Great Santini-style martinet and he is obviously the tolerant, inclusive type, since he adopted her and married her mother. We don’t hear any cliched grievances against the local base either, at least in the pilot, so maybe the series truly has something for everyone.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Beta Test

It's like Fatal Attraction, except it was anonymous. Jordan Hines is soon to be married, but he accepted an invitation for a masked sexual rendezvous, no names attached. By the way, he is a Hollywood talent agent. If, as the flim-flam man says, you can’t cheat an honest man, he is probably doomed. He certainly has a lot coming, so his implosion is well-deserved in Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe’s Beta Test, which is now available on VOD from IFC Films.

Hines is a big talker, but it is his friend and co-worker PJ who is the closer. That means his position at his agency is a little shaky, but it doesn’t stop him from inappropriately treating his assistant Jaclyn. (He is still a far cry from Kevin Spacey in
Swimming with Sharks, but HR should still have a talk with him.) When he gets a purple envelope inviting him to a night of debauchery, complete with a check-off list of kinks, he makes an attempt to resist, but he can’t.

In the days following, he cannot stop thinking about the encounter with the mystery woman, who also happened to be masked. He snuck a peak, but he can’t be sure who she was. Growing increasingly preoccupied, he starts a bull-in-a-china-shop investigation of the purple envelopes, potentially linking them to the murder from the prologue. Hines was already difficult to work with, but he becomes increasingly erratic and even delusional as his obsession mounts.

It is hard to say what
Beta Test is, but if Eyes Wide Shut represents a genre than it would be part of it. Cummings (part of the screenwriter-director tandem) gives an amazingly committed and unhinged performance, but Hines is such a loathsome person, most viewers will start rooting for the mysterious unseen cabal pulling the string behind the scenes.

Friday, January 07, 2022

The Legend of La Llorona, Starring Danny Trejo

The mournful La Llorona lady ghost was the subject of the first Mexican horror movie, Ramon Peon’s La Llorona, so it is clearly deeply rooted in their national folklore. Unlike previous incarnations, this weeping woman did not kill her own child, but she is still supernaturally angry and looking to take out her wrath on the children of others. Unfortunately, when the Candlewoods check into their riverside B&B, they basically deliver their sad little boy Danny into her ghostly hands in Patricia Harris Seeley’s The Legend of La Llorona, which opens today in New York.

You know this Mexican town is rough when Jorge, the cabbie from the airport, keeps warning the Candlewoods to never, ever leave Veronica’s comfortable casa. Then their hostess has a mild panic attack when she sees they have a child. However, that does not deter the parents from sampling the local hotspot, where they have a run-in with unsavory cartel types, but fortunately the grizzled Jorge is there to intercede (he is played by Danny Trejo, so hopefully they tipped him well).

Tragically, Carly Candlewood is still reeling from the stillborn death of their infant daughter. Unfortunately, she has subsequently been withdrawn and impatient with Danny, only realizing her error after La Llorona spirits him away. With the help of Veronica and Jorge, the Candlewoods will temporarily recover him, but La Llorona just keeps coming back.

It is debatable which is more unintentionally humorous in
Legend, the clunky dialogue or the sight of characters blasting away at the wraith-like La Llorona specter with large shotguns. At least it seems to slow her down a bit, even if it doesn’t make much sense.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

See for Me

In thrillers and horror movies, blind characters are constantly under-estimated, like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, Stephen Lang in the Don’t Breathe films (particularly #2), and Natalie Dormer in In Darkness (we’d almost forgotten that one, like everyone else). It is not really the cliché about other heightened senses. They have a determination not to be victims. That is especially true of Sophie Scott, but she is a much harder character to embrace. Nevertheless, things definitely get tense when her cat-sitting gig turns into a game of cat-and-mouse in Randall Okita’s See for Me, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Scott was once a promising Olympic skier, until an accident rendered her sightless. Understandably bitter, she often accepts house-sitting gigs, where she steals items, confident her blindness will make her employers reluctant to pursue her small-time larceny, if they even notice. She assumed this job would be the same. It is just a bigger house, way out there in the mountains. However, she is rudely surprised when a handful of burglars break-in and start working on a hidden wall safe they seem to know all about.

In addition to calling 9-1-1 (with its conveniently long response time), she also calls her smart phone app, “See for Me,” having previously bonded with Kelly, one of the operators providing visual assistance over video chats. Somewhat fortuitously, Kelly is ex-military, so she can offer very practical advice, given the situation. Yet, Scott’s terrible instincts could still turn out to be her undoing.

See for Me
has plenty precedents, but it is still a neatly efficient and niftily effective thriller. Okita skillfully builds the suspense while economically establishing the Deathtrap-like setting and the rapport between Scott and the visual guide. His previous feature, The Lockpicker, was quite distinctive, but this is a vastly more commercial film.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

American Siege, Starring Bruce Willis, So You Know It Must Be Good

Ben Watts is to law enforcement, a lot like what the man who plays him in this movie, Bruce Willis is to acting. They have been taking the easy way out for years, but we keep hoping to see them redeem themselves. Watts might just have that opportunity in Edward Drake’s American Siege, which opens in select theaters this Friday.

Watts is the Sherriff, but Charles Rutledge runs the show in this small, depressed Georgia town, both in terms of the legit and criminal business. His idiot son Kyle is the deputy, but it is really Watts who keeps an eye on the younger Rutledge rather than vice versa. Unfortunately, they have a real situation on their hands.

Fresh out of prison, Roy meets up with his old foster care pals, Grace and Toby Baker, to take elderly pharmacist John Keats hostage in his suspicious spacious home. The thing is they want him to call the cops, to precipitate a standoff. Their plan is to force a belated investigation into the disappearance of their missing-and-presumed dead friend, so they want things to get loud and messy.

Since Keats got through to 9-1-1, his call was automatically flagged by the FBI as a potential hostage situation and a team is enroute. Obviously, Rutledge needs everything cleaned up before they get there. Watts wants to talk everyone down, but the town boss prefers to call in a team of militia lowlifes.

A title like
American Siege might possibly rick-roll Trump-haters looking for 1/6 political porn, but what they get is another Bruce Willis VOD vehicle, helmed by the Edward Drake, who directed Cosmic Sin and wrote Breach. However, this one might be one or two modest cuts above most of Willis’s recent notorious output.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue

He never really dressed punk, but Dennis Hopper certainly pursued his stormy career with a punk rock attitude. So, it rather makes sense that he felt an affinity for the young punk rock fan who was the lead character of his 1980 directorial “comeback.” He was only hired as a thesp, but Hopper stepped in when the original director exited the Canadian-set film early on. For years, it has been largely known through its reputation rather from viewers actually laying eyes on it, but Hopper’s Out of the Blue now re-releases in its fully restored glory this week in Los Angeles.

Cindy “CeBe” Barnes is a hard kid to love, but frankly, she is her parents’ daughter. She pines for the parole of her former trucker father Don, who is doing time for an accident with a school bus—or at least she pretends she does. Meanwhile, her waitress mother Kathy is openly seeing her boss at the diner, while trying to cover up her drug addiction. Embracing her alienation, CeBe styles herself as a punker, but she still loves Elvis. On the other hand, she hates disco with a passion, as she explains to other truckers on the CB radio of her father’s wrecked truck.

Her father is due to be released soon, but rather than settling CeBe down, she seems to be acting out more than ever. In fact, she runs away to Vancouver, diving into the punk scene, where she inevitable runs into trouble with the law. Dr. Brean, her court appointed counselor would like to help, but she refuses to cooperate.

Out of the Blue premiered six or seven years later at Sundance, it could have scored a boffo Miramax distro-deal. Watching it now, it is easy to see it as an early forerunner to the films of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. This is a very personal and uncompromising film. In fact, Hopper spares us absolutely nothing in the extraordinarily disturbing third act.

Of course,
Blue (as rewritten by Hopper) is a perfect vehicle for his persona. As Don Barnes, he seethes with rage, but also projects all kinds of pain and contrition. In a way, the deeply flawed trucker could be a missing link connecting the characters he would later play in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. At the time, Linda Manz generated most of the film’s buzz at Cannes with her uncomfortably frank performance as CeBe. She is terrific, but like the film itself, she largely disappeared from the public eye, after her career got off to a quick start in Days of Heaven and The Wanderers.

Monday, January 03, 2022

King Car, from Brazil

The Fiat Uno is one of the most reliable and affordable cars you can buy in Brazil. Uno was born in one—hence his name. Unfortunately, a lot of older models will be taken off the road due to a new green anti-junker policy. As usual, environmentalism does no favors for the working class. Uno grew up around such vehicles. He can even talk to them, sort of like Dr. Doolittle, so he empathizes and helps with a scheme to save them from their bureaucratic fate, but things get way out of hand in Renata Pinheiro’s King Car, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Uno always used to play in one of his father’s taxis, because it always looked out for him. Sadly, his mother had a fatal accident driving it, when it swerved on its own to avoid him. His grieving father then mothballed the damaged cab and banished it along with Uno’s wacky mechanic Uncle “Ze Monkey” to the family junk yard.

After high school, Uno defies his father by enrolling in an agricultural program, but their produce pick-up is over fifteen years-old and therefore prohibited. On the outs with his dad, Uno starts hanging with Uncle Ze, whom he helps retrofit his old car pal. After their refab, it looks like an unusually fast and furious Uno, which they dub “Carro Rei” (King Car). It still has a life of its own. In fact, it can seduce a pole-dancer
Titane-style and brainwash Uncle Ze and other mechanics into an ominous zombie army.

That probably makes
King Car sound like more fun than it really is. The tone is moody as heck and the leftist politics are in your face. Frankly, Luciano Pedro Jr is so sulky as Uno it is hard to engage with him. His chemistry with fellow student Amora (played by Joelma Martins) is also pretty flat.

However, Matheus Nachtergaele (the best-known cast-member, sort a Brazilian cross between Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi) is pretty amazing as Uncle Ze. He is weird and squirrely, while mastering simian body movements nearly as well as Terry Notary in
The Square.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Tiananmen Square on TV: The Spirit of Liberty Moon

Lately, Hollywood has been roundly and justifiably criticized for self-censoring to pander to China, but the major studios and networks have never been especially bold addressing the CCP’s human rights abuses. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a huge international story, but you will be hard-pressed to find it turn up as an element in dramatic storylines. As far as we can tell, there have only been Tiananmen-themed episodes of MacGyver (the 1980s one), Psi Factor (technically Canadian), and Touched by an Angel. The latter is not exactly our cup of tea, but fair is fair and credit is due where its deserved. A survivor of the Massacre returns with the show’s three angels in search of her missing daughter in the two-part episode “The Spirit of Liberty Moon,” which airs this Monday and Tuesday mornings on Start TV (whatever that is).

If you’ve never seen this show before, apparently Monica is an angel who takes an active role helping people in need. Tess is her boss, who turns up periodically to give them a nudge and Andrew is the utility angel. In this episode, Jean Chang is a former Chinese dissident living modestly in America, who yearns to reunite with her daughter Liberty Moon, but it is her boss at the toy company, Edward Tanner, whose soul needs saving. Frankly, his obnoxious partner Alex Stella is probably a lost cause.

Tanner and Stella are determined to move their manufacturing to China, for obvious cost reasons. Magically, Monic appears as their Chinese management consultant. Chang happens to be the only Chinese speaker on staff, but she is reluctant to join their trip. With the angel’s coaxing, she explains her story to her bosses. It turns out, both of her parents died as a result of the Cultural Revolution. As an orphan, she took inspiration from what she eventually learned was a picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Eventually, Chang moved to Beijing and married “Gus” Gang, a poet and democracy activist. Unfortunately, he was presumed murdered while conducting a hunger strike on Tiananmen Square. Their friend “George” was caring for their infant daughter during the protests, but they both disappeared by the time Chang returned to their home. Somehow, Monica thinks she can slip Chang through Chinese immigration, which seems like a tall order even for the Archangel Michael, but it is a dramatic necessity to get Chang back to Beijing.

The first episode of this two-parter does a fantastic job integrating flashback and archival footage into the narrative. Referencing the Cultural Revolution as well as the Tiananmen Square massacre earns it bonus points. However, the most pointed material is the brutal depiction of China’s so-called justice system. Viewers should be warned writer Martha Williamson never cops out regarding the CCP’s ruthlessness, which gives the episodes a tragic edge.

She also really leans into the religious aspects of the show’s premise. There is some heavy God talk down the stretch, but you have to respect it for having the courage of its convictions.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Around the World in 80 Days, on PBS

Ever since it was published in 1872, Jules Verne’s great adventure novel has delighted readers with its cavalcade of cameos for faded movie stars. At least that is the impression you would get from the Oscar winning 1956 movie. Regrettably, the cast of hundreds has not aged nearly as well as that of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In fact, the David Niven vehicle’s critical stock has declined steadily over time, greatly lowering the stakes for subsequent adaptations. Series creators Ashley Pharoah & Caleb Ranson take another crack at Verne’s globetrotting yarn Around the World in 80 Days, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS.

Do not panic. This series only runs eight episodes, rather eighty, averaging about ten days per installment. As is often the case, the first is the slowest. In this case, it is laboriously slow, but Steve Barron (director of the first four episodes and the finale) soon picks up the pace. Phileas Fogg is not a bad chap, but he leads an incredibly safe and dull existence. In time, we learn that things might have turned out differently for Fogg, but in any event, here he is: reading his newspaper in his usual armchair at the Reform Club. However, a chance discussion of an article discussing the possibility of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days leads to a hastily thought-out wager with his bullying “friend” Nyle Bellamy.

To accompany him, Fogg hires Passepartout, a former Reform Club waiter with a dodgy past, to sub for his aging valet. Whether he likes it or not, aspiring journalist Abigail Fix Fortescue will also follow his progress. She happens to be the daughter of her editor, Bernard Fortescue, Fogg’s friendlier friend at the club. Initially, Fogg wants nothing to do with her, but the three travelers inevitably must rely on each other to overcome the obstacles in their way—some of which will be the work of a thug hired by Bellamy, who faces bankruptcy if he does not win the 20-thousand-pound wager.

David Tennant is painfully nebbish and neurotic as Fogg, but that eventually makes his growth in later episodes somewhat rewarding. However, his Fogg really gets the short end of the stick. Instead of bringing Aouda home from India to be his wife, the only romance kindling in this series is the Tracy-and-Hepburn attraction shared by Fix (as she prefers to be called) and Passepartout. Presumably, the idea of saving Aouda from her late husband’s funeral pyre would be a non-starter in these woke times, so Fogg’s stopover in India merely involves his reluctant attempt to reunite an Indian Army deserter with his fiancée.

Ibrahim Kona and Leonie Benesch are okay as Passepartout and Fix, but their characters’ melodramas are totally forced and quickly grow tiresome. Ironically, one of the best performances comes from Peter Sullivan, playing the dishonorable Bellamy as a manipulative cad, but one not without guilt. A number of guest stars also shine, like Lindsay Duncan, who is terrific as Lady Jane Digby, a scandalous English lady, who married a Sheik. Perhaps the best work comes from Gary Beadle, who steals episode 7 as Bass Reaves, a former slave now serving as a U.S. Marshall, who must bring in a wanted leader of the Ku Klux Klan (there is some respectable western shoot-out action too).

Pharoah & Ranson include all the classic elements (the hot air balloon, trains aplenty) and slyly references Verne and
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at various points. There are exotic locales and villains as well as decent forward momentum, but it needed more of an ever-so British stiff-upper-lip. Everybody here is way too interested in expressing their feelings when there is 20K pounds to be won. Still, it would be interesting to see the second season the conclusion clearly teases. Inconsistent but still recommended as some late 19th Century adventuring, Around the World in 80 Days starts tomorrow night (1/2) on PBS.