Monday, February 28, 2022

Doomsday, Cult TV on VOD

This Ulster County cult prides itself on its sustainability, but it doesn’t always sustain its members. Sure, they murder one in the prologue, but that helps keep their carbon footprint to a minimum. John Kerry would surely approve. After all, he will overlook any of the human rights abuses committed by Putin and the CCP, in exchange for lip service on global warming. However, he isn’t about to don the cult’s burlap sackcloth. Just like dictators do what dictators do, cults do what cults do, even if their rhetoric is as green as Kermit the Frog. The Ulster County “yoga” collective is no exception in Sonja O’Hara’s eight-episode Doomsday, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Dagny is weird and off-putting even by the standards of cult leaders. In addition to sustainability, she also preaches abstinence, except for Camden, who often lures in new recruits with her sexual wiles. Apparently, Dagny hasn’t been so strictly abstinent either, as some surprised cult members can see when they spy her baby-bump.

Camden’s latest recruit seems to be quite a catch. He is friendly, helpful, and hard-working. He also has his own agenda, but he doesn’t fully understand what he is walking into. Presumably, things are going to get really bad, in a Branch Davidian kind of way, at least judging from the flashforwards we see of the various cultists giving their video depositions to police.

Although it doesn’t exactly scream daytime television,
Doomsday was nominated for a Daytime Emmy (affiliated with Vimeo). There is plenty of sex, but it is more neurotic than erotic. The real problem though is how much time the characters spend gamboling in the fields rather than doing something to advance the narrative. Of the three episodes provided for review, the first two feel rather slow and padded (they run over fifty minutes in length), while the third is weirdly brief, clocking in under a quarter of an hour.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, on Showtime

New York City’s corrupt taxi medallion system deserved to be disrupted and a guy like Travis Kalanick certainly can be disruptive. He founded Uber, so he sure gave medallion owners a kick in the wallet. The concept of Uber seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, but it had to overcome many governmental regulatory efforts to strangle it in infancy. It is a wild and wooly venture capitalism story told in Brian Koppelman & David Levien’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, based on Mark Isaac’s nonfiction book, which starts tonight on Showtime.

Kalanick’s first start-up failed spectacularly badly, as we see in flashbacks. Obviously, Uber will be different, since you most likely have the app on your phone. The turning point for Ubercab (as it was first known) came with a life-changing investment from Bill Gurley’s Benchmark Capital. It still wasn’t off to the races yet. First, they had to weather campaigns orchestrated by city transportation regulators to shut them down in San Francisco and Portland. The turning point came when they overcame the opposition of our former idiot mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is depicted as the cartoonish fool he truly is.

Of course, the drama is only beginning. Gurley constantly pressures Kalanick to do better by their drivers and he is justly skeptical of the extravagantly expensive attempt to crack the Mainland China market. Bringing in a huge investment from Google only increases the boardroom intrigue. That is even more true when Ariana Huffington accepts a seat on the board and a position as Kalanick’s spiritual guru. All the while, questions regarding app privacy and office-place harassment, fester and metastasize in the background.

Reportedly, Kalanick is an avowed Libertarian, but we never get a sense of that from the first five episodes provided for review (out of eight) of the prospective seasonal anthology. Presumably, that was to make him less sympathetic, right? After all, they make him look decidedly jerkish when it comes to his romantic relationships.

Still, it is highly entertaining to watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt huff, puff, pontificate, and self-aggrandize as Kalanick. It is a gloriously over-the-top, but frequently hilarious performance. Richard Schiff and Fred Armisen are appropriately slimy and sleazy as Uber’s regulatory nemeses in San Francisco and Portland. It will blow the minds of 1980s kids to see Elizabeth Shue playing Kalanick’s mom, but brings a grounded, earthy center to the series, while Uma Thurman does the weirdest Greek accent ever as Huffington (but her Bond villainess shtick is pretty funny). However, Kyle Chandler earnestly conveys Gurley’s ethical concerns and enterprising spirit, which really makes him
Super Pumped’s primary rooting interest.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Alice Cooper: Frontman, on Reelz

If the Evangelical Christian media were cooler, they would totally embrace the story of Alice Cooper. Truly, it is one of triumph and rebirth, because the notorious rocker overcame his addictions and inner demons, by returning to the faith of his pastor father. Yet, he never gave up his hard rock or his horror movies, so he doesn’t fit in their little aesthetic boxes. Regardless, he was up, he was down, and he is still bigger than ever, so he is a natural subject for the Reelz treatment in Alice Cooper: Frontman (produced and directed by Sean Grundy), which premieres tomorrow night.

Cooper’s installment of the
Frontman franchise follows the same general outline as the feature documentary, Super Duper Alice Cooper, including the extended Jekyll-and-Hyde metaphor to describe the tension between Cooper’s regular identity and his sinister stage persona, “Alice.” Logically, both films cover much the same biographical events.

Frontman lacks the animated interludes and extensive celebrity voices incorporated into Super Duper, it has plenty of commentary from Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, who must have a holding arrangement with Reelz (where he was just seen in The Guest List). Dr. Drew Pinsky’s colleague, Dr. Judy Ho also offers some insight into the addiction issues he faced (but it is unclear whether she has any connection to the rocker).

also has the advantage of covering more recent events in Cooper’s life, including playing King Herod in the live network production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Even though he portrays an evil figure, the production’s sacred nature brings full circle the redemptive role Christianity played in Cooper’s later life. Indeed, Frontman probably emphasizes Cooper’s re-awakening more than Super Duper did.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Cyrano, the Musical

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the real-life figure on whom Rostand’s hero was based, is considered one of the first science fiction writers. Depictions of him usually show a prominent but not extraordinarily large nose. Since Rostand presumably exaggerated a little, it seems fair for this new take on Cyrano de Bergerac to posit a different physical source for his romantic insecurities. His friend Le Bret gets away with the term “distinctive physique,” so we’ll use that too. Regardless, the swashbuckler is still quite handy with both words and sabers in Joe Wright’s Cyrano—by the way, it is also a musical—which opens today nationwide.

His nose is no longer conspicuous, but this is still
Cyrano de Bergerac. Despite the changes of screenwriter Erica Schmidt’s adaption (based on the stage musical she also penned), this is still Cyrano, so you should know what that means. The roguish soldier excels at poetry and duels, but he quietly carries a torch for his cousin Roxanne, fearing she would reject him, because of his physique. Instead, he aids his doltish but handsome new colleague Christian de Neuvillette to woo her. This time around, his obvious rival, the Count de Guiche is much slimier and his interest in Roxanne is decidedly more exploitative. If you need a fuller refresher on Rostand’s original source material, check out the 1950 film starring Jose Ferrer (it streams on Tubi, Kanopy, and several other sites).

Frankly, Peter Dinklage might be the best de Bergerac since Ferrer. He has the right swaggering physicality. Whatever their preconceptions might be, viewers will buy into him as a formidable swordsman and dissolute carouser. It turns out Dinklage also has a pleasingly character-tinged baritone voice, vaguely reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. He is a great romantic hero, who pines hard and banters amusingly with Bashir Salahuddin, whose Le Bret is more memorable than most of his predecessors.

However, Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are both rather bland as Roxanne and Christian, even though their singing voices are quite nice. However, the always reliable Ben Mendelsohn is spectacularly sleazy and moustache-twistingly villainous as the nasty de Guiche. He is a piece of work, but that really raises the stakes and heightens the tension.

As for the tunes, they largely hit the same notes, over and over. Ironically, the most powerful and distinctive song (and the one that really sticks with you) does not feature any of the primary cast-members. Instead, “Wherever I Fall” is a number for the “chorus” that expresses the eve-of-battle thoughts of average rank-and-file soldiers as they face their impending mortality. The lyrics are genuinely moving and the performances (including Glen Hansard of
Once as a guard) are pitch-perfect. In contrast, the rest of the tunes fit the mood well enough, but they all blend together.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Servants, in The Epoch Times

SERVANTS is a challenging but visually arresting film that exposes the Czechoslovakian Communist regime's efforts to coop, monitor, and undermine the local Church. It is increasingly timely--and comparable to the CCP's campaign to dominate Tibetan Buddhism. Exclusive EPOCH TIMES review up here.

The Burning Sea, Another Norwegian Disaster

If working on oil platforms were safe and easy, it wouldn’t pay so well. However, you can’t blame the oil workers for not anticipating a disaster of this scale. That was the job of the screenwriters. Fortunately, Eelume Offshore Robotics really exists to serve the industry’s safety needs. In this case, a robotic engineer scrambles to save her lover from a deep watery grave in John Andreas Andersen’s The Burning Sea, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

In the pseudo-documentary prologue, petroleum exec William Lie explains how dangerous Norway’s North Sea drilling platforms were when he started with the company in the 1970s. (The actor, Bjorn Floberg, looks a lot like Roger Corman, so you can pretend its really him, to make the movie even more fun.) We then fast-forward to contemporary times. The technology has been upgraded several times over, but it is still dangerous out there, especially when seismic shifts are detected in the oil fields.

Sofia is really starting to get serious about Stian, an admirably engaged single-father, who works two weeks on and two weeks off in the North Sea oil fields. Of course, he is on-duty when disaster strikes. Lie and the energy ministry agree to completely shut down all North Sea wells, but there is one platform experiencing serious technical difficulties. Naturally, Stian is the one who mans-up to fix it, but he ultimately gets trapped in the lower submersed service deck. To save him, Sophie goes rogues, taking her non-threatening sidekick Arthur and their serpentine robot with her.

Disaster movies are becoming a thing in Norway, thanks to the team behind
Burning Sea. Andersen previously helmed The Quake and screenwriter Harald Rosenlow-Eeg co-wrote The Wave and its aforementioned sequel. This is a fresh slate of characters, but the peril to Norway is just as severe, thanks a perfect storm of natural catastrophes and man-made complications.

The platform setting and the Eelume robotics are all very cool and cinematic. Unfortunately, the characterization is just as formulaic as that of the
Wavequake duology, but they are fleshed out less robustly. There is also an attempt to tack on a stronger environmental message, but it usually detracts from the stuff that works.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Stand with Ukraine: Haytarma

In late 2020, Ukraine issued a commemorative coin in honor of WWII flying ace, Amet-khan Sultan, who specialized in shooting down and/or ramming German planes. That hardly sounds like the work of a Nazi-dominated government, as Putin’s propagandists would have us believe. Sultan was also a Crimean Tatar, who happened to visit home during Stalin’s mass Deportation of Crimean Tatars. Given the invasion now apparently underway, the U.S. should join other governments in recognizing the Crimean Deportation as a genocide. After all, it laid the foundation for Putin’s dubious justifications for his campaign of conquest. (There were a lot of Russian speakers in Crimea for a reason, because the Tatars were just starting to return.) Sultan’s shocking homecoming is dramatized in Akhtem Seitablaev’s Haytarma, which is available online.

Seitablaev starts slow, but he takes some time to showcase Tatar culture, especially the titular Haytarma dance. Eventually, Sultan departs on the leave he demanded from his commanding officer, much to alarm of political officer Maj. Krotov. He knows his NKVD masters have something ugly planned for the Tatar Crimea. Ostensibly, they accuse the Tatars of collaboration, but it is really just an excuse for more ethnic cleansing.

Much to his superiors’ surprise, Krotov chases after Sultan, intending to head him off at the pass. Of course, Sultan had too much of a head start, so he and his two companions, a French officer and fellow Hero of the Soviet Union Pavel Golovachev will be at the Sultan family home when the nightmare starts.

Haytarma just covers the events of round-up and deportation, but that is more than enough for any film to handle. Seitablaev nicely conveys the brutality and confusion of the dead-of-night operation (but it is important to remember most of the deaths occurred during transit or the Tatars exile in Siberia or other Central Asian Republics).

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, on TCM

Celebrated war photojournalist Robert Capa shared similar concerns with cartoonist Milt Caniff—stay with me on this one. Just as Caniff believed cartoonists should retain the rights and creative control for their comic strips (as he did with Steve Canyon), Capa argued photographers ought to retain their rights and negatives. To empower his colleagues, Capa founded the Magnum Photos cooperative agency to license and archive members’ work. Somewhat counterintuitively, Hollywood turned out to a significant source of employment for member-photographers. Sophie Bassaler documents their connection to movie-making glamor in Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, which airs early tomorrow morning (or late tonight) at a super-convenient time on TCM.

Much to Isabella Rosselini’s surprise, Robert Capa was her mother Ingrid Bergman’s great love—a fact she only learned from reading an advanced bound manuscript of her mother’s memoir. While he was romancing Bergman, Capa accepted a gig as a still photographer on the set of Hitchcock’s
Notorious. Soon Capa returned to battlefield assignments, but he forged an important connection for Magnum.

In fact, several Magnum artists developed close working relationships with legendary movie stars through such jobs, including with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. (Indeed,
Eye of Magnum serves as a nice compliment to the recent Reframed: Marilyn Monroe.) That trust led to access for more interesting candid shot than the sort of canned hyper-cheerful photos released by the studio publicity departments.

Bassaler and the current stewards of Magnum identify John Huston’s
The Misfits as the high-water mark for the cooperative’s Hollywood work. Magnum had exclusive access to the set, so they dispatched nine photographers, even including the soon-to-be-bored Henri Cartier Bresson. However, their Hollywood work dried out as the studio system weakened, but jobs documenting the Nouvelle Vague and other contemporary European auteurs took its place.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Hard Hit, the Korean Version, on DVD

This is the latest Miss Granny or Invisible Guest/Badla/Invisible Witness-style international remake franchise. First there was the Spanish film, then a German remake, followed by this take from Korean. Supposedly, there will even be a Hollywood version starring Liam Neeson, but the Korean one is probably the best, because the South Korean film industry seems to have such a comparative advantage for thrillers. Regardless, it will be like watching four films at once if you check out Kim Chang-ju’s Hard Hit when it releases today on DVD and VOD.

Sung-gyu picked a heck of a day to pretend to be an engaged dad and drive his young son and teen daughter Hye-in to school. It turns out a mysterious
Speed-like villain has placed a bomb under his seat, which will explode if anyone leaves the car. Initially, Sung-gyu isn’t sure what to believe, until he sees what happens to a colleague. To save his kids, the investment banker must defraud his clients to pay the bomber’s costly ransom. Of course, he is forbidden from talking to the police and the bomber appears to have the means of enforcing his dictates.

Inevitably, Sung-gyu’s reckless driving attracts the attention of the Seoul cops, who deduce the father is a likely “family annihilator,” because they are dumber than a box of rocks. In fact, the stupidity of the police quickly takes on astronomical proportions, except for Bahn, the Chief of the bomb squad, who is definitely the film’s saving grace.

There is white-knuckle potential to
Hard Hit’s premise, but it squanders credibility in the way it portrays the police force as abjectly clueless. It also openly invites audience sympathy for the bad guy during the third act, but it is impossible to follow it there, after we see him commit such awful crimes. Even though Sung-gyu and his late colleague might be morally compromised, the psycho bombers risks and kills a lot of innocent victims.

Despite a fair degree of suspense and some neatly executed chases and stand-offs,
Hard Hit just leaves viewers with conflicted emotions. It doesn’t seem fair Kim’s adaptation of Alberto Marini’s screenplay puts us through all this, just to arrive at a point of lukewarm moral ambiguity. Frankly, the film reflects an antiquated worldview held by demagogues like Elizabeth Warren that anyone who invests in the stock market is basically like the Monopoly Man, lighting their cigars with hundred-dollar bills. The reality is anyone who has a 401K through their company is invested in the market. Admittedly, Sung-gyu’s firm has murky history with respects to small retail investors, but any sense of nuance is lost during the third act.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Hellbender, on Shudder

This film is a lot like Terms of Endearment, The Joy Luck Club, and Mermaids, except the mother and daughter are witches. Technically, the mother uses the term “Hellbenders,” because it is heavier and more loaded with symbolic meaning, to better suit their dangerous powers. In any case, if you think witches, you get the general idea when the daughter, Izzy, learns their true nature in the Adams Filmmaking Family (mother Toby Poser, father John Adams, and daughter Zelda Adams)’s Hellbender, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

The mother has always homeschooled Izzy in their remote mountain cabin, claiming she has a rare autoimmune disease. She also carefully maintains a vegan diet that looks truly inedible (pinecones and whatnot). If anyone strays too close to their property, she makes them disappear, literally. However, when Izzy accidentally stumbles across some kids her age, their teen ways start triggering her powers.

It is impressive to see the Adamses release another ultra-DIY horror film, following the success of the super-cool
The Deeper You Dig. While Hellbender takes a deep dive into folk horror, it is not quite as exhilaratingly original as their debut. There are some very creepy sequences in Hellbender and they shrewdly embrace the nostalgia of their lo-fi old school effects, but the story feels much more familiar. Also, the mother-daughter performances as a hardcore rock duo somewhat break up the film’s flow—and let’s face it, free jazz would have been much scarier.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Toshiro Mifune at Film Forum: Red Sun

It is often referred to as a Spaghetti western, but since it was filmed in Spain by a British director, there must be some Manchego and Stilton in that pasta. Ramen too, thanks to Toshiro Mifune. He inadvertently helped establish spaghetti westerns, since he starred in Yojimbo, which was remade as A Fistful of Dollars (and sort of Django). Therefore, it was only fair that Mifune got to star in one. It is okay as western go, but the cast is stacked with legends. Mifune will have his vengeance while preserving his honor in Terence Young’s Red Sun, which screens Wednesday as part of Film Forum’s Mifune retrospective.

Link Stuart thought he was robbing an army payroll train with his shifty partner Gauche, but the former Frenchie gambler from New Orleans intends to keep the loot all for himself. Unwisely, he does not verify Stuart is completely 100% dead. On the other hand, he totally kills one of the samurai escorting the new Japanese ambassador to Washington on the train and steals the ceremonial sword meant as a gift for the president.

Honor demands his fellow samurai, Kuroda must recover the sword and return it to the ambassador in seven days. Kuroda also wants Gauche to taste his steel, for the sake of his late friend. Inconveniently, he will need the help of the uncooperative Stuart to track Gauche’s gang, but the samurai is persuasive.

Frankly, there is way too much bickering between Kuroda and Stuart during the first two acts. Just team up together already and get on with it. Nevertheless, Mifune and Charles Bronson (who co-starred in
The Magnificent Seven, adapted from The Seven Samurai, starring Mifune) are perfect as the two East-West vengeance seekers. Bronson is an anti-hero with the emphasis on anti. In contrast, Kuroda is a model of rectitude, but Mifune molds him into a figure of tragic nobility. He really is the only one we root for.

Alain Delon is smooth and slimy as the villainous Gauche, while Ursula Andress actually brings a bit of fieriness to Cristina, the femme fatale prostitute. However, Capucine might even be more seductive as her madam Pepita, who is also Stuart’s sometime squeeze. Plus, Tetsu Nakamura brings dignity as well as his super-employable English fluency to the film as the ambassador. So yes, that is a heck of a cast.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

History Channel's Abraham Lincoln--in The Epoch Times

History Channel continues to go in a hybrid direction rather than take the Ken Burns approach with the three-night ABRAHAM LINCOLN. The history is solid and Graham Sibley is surprisingly good as the 16th president. My exclusive EPOCH TIMES review is now up here.

The Guest List: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert, on Reelz

If you don’t know you’re 1980s metal hair bands, you might confuse Great White with Whitesnake. Neither band would like that, especially the latter. Whitesnake’s biggest hit was “Here I Go Again,” which featured Tawny Kitaen dancing on a car. Great White’s biggest hit was probably “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” but they will be forever infamous for the 2003 fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, sparked by their pyrotechnics. One hundred people lost their lives that night. David Bellino exposes the negligence that caused the tragedy and captures the community’s lingering trauma in The Guest List, The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert, which premieres tomorrow on Reelz.

To document the Station fire, Bellino had a lot of eerily relevant primary video sources available to integrate into the doc. As fate would dictate, there was actually a cameraman in the club, who recorded the stage erupting in flames behind Great White frontman Jack Russell. Mercifully, we see only brief snippets of that footage. However, we watch extensive excerpts from a preceding interview conducted backstage, by two aspiring college rock journalists/DJs. The interviewer survived the fire, but the cameraman did not.

A great deal of the blame fell on the club owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, one of whom was ironically also a broadcast reporter, who had previously covered a trampling tragedy in another nightclub. Yet, perhaps the most eye-opening aspects of
Guest List reveal the extent to which state government corruption made the fatal fire possible and helped sweep it under the rug afterward.

Guest List
’s talking heads generally judge former Attorney General Patrick Lynch (D) to be a problematically passive prosecutor rather than a crusader for justice. The judge who presided over the case, Francis Darigan (appointed to state courts by Govs. Garrahy and Sundlin) probably comes across even worse, due to his rulings stifling victims’ statements during trial. Of course, the film’s harshest judgement is reserved for the West Warwick fire marshal, who like the Derderians, refused to participate in Bellino’s film.

To his credit, Russell talks very frankly and at-length on-camera. He is clearly a very flawed person, but he doesn’t duck any of the questions. However, the real “star” of the film is Joe Kinan, who was the last survivor to make it out of the Station alive, suffering severe full body burns in the process.

Friday, February 18, 2022

From, on Epix

There is good diner food in this small town, so it is Twin Peaks-ish in that respect. It is also Lost-like in that nobody understands how they got stuck there. Unfortunately, there is not much else there—during the day. At night, it gets considerably worse when the monsters come out. The Matthews family will the latest to find themselves trapped in John Griffin’s From, which premieres this Sunday on Epix.

There was a mysterious tree blocking the road for the Matthews’ RV, so they tried to back up and take a detour. Yet, no matter what turn they take, the road always leads them back to the most depressed small hamlet you have ever seen. That is how it always happens for new arrivals, except the Matthewses also manage to collide with a stoned driver also caught up in the same paranormal phenomenon.

As Sherriff Boyd Stevens and Kristi the doctor (technically, a third year med student) try to explain to the skeptical Jim Matthews, monsters prey on the town at night. Mysterious talismans seem to keep them at bay, unless they trick people into letting them into their homes. Unfortunately, there is not much light left when they reach the crash scene, so everyone might soon see for themselves.

While the set-up definitely fits the
Lost sub-sub-genre (both series also share a couple of producers, including Jack Bender, who helmed the first four episodes provided for review), there are a lot of horror elements added. The show’s first supernatural encounter even echoes a classic scene in the original Salem’s Lot, but at least Griffin and company borrowed a lot of good stuff that worked then—and still works when repurposed now.

In fact, the earlier episodes, wherein everyone only has time to worry about the monsters—essentially, they look and act like an unholy cross between zombies and demons—actually are creepier and more effective than the middle episodes that explore the strange lore and powers that govern the town.

At the center of it all is Harold Perrineau, who is terrific as the reluctant but commanding Sherriff Stevens. He brings all kinds of steely badness to
From, but always helps humanize the show with guilt-ridden backstory and compassionate response to the town screw-up, whose negligence contributes to the initial horrors. Rocky He also provides a strong, human rooting interest as his deputy, Kenny.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Severance, on Apple TV+

When watching this workplace series, you have to wonder how the company in question could pivot to work-from-home during the pandemic. Lumon Industries is not merely dysfunctional in a Dunder Mifflin-The Office kind of way. There is something rather ominous going on there, but it is hard for employees to act on their suspicions because they have been “severed.” During office hours, severed employees only remember their work lives, whereas at home, they have no recollection of the office. Things get interesting for one drone when both his inside and outside selves start asking questions in creator Dan Erickson’s Severance, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

It is hard to tell what “Mark S” (severed workers do not even know their last names) does with his three colleagues in the Macro Data Refinement (MDR) department. Frankly, they do not even know themselves. It involves old clunky mid-1980s looking computers, but their daily toil makes little sense. Nevertheless, he and veterans Dylan and Irving, have largely resigned themselves to it. On the other hand, Helly, the new arrival, is having none of it. She is determined to resign, but her “outie” refuses all her requests. Of course, direct communication between selves is strictly forbidden and enforced by high tech surveillance and detection techniques.

Poor Mark had tragic reasons for agreeing to the severance procedure, but the backstories for the rest of his team will remain unknown for most of the show. However, we soon learn someone from Lumon is keeping eyes on the “outie” Mark. It is easy to see how Erickson and directors Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle could mine this premise for paranoia, but they have some wildly sinister twists up their sleeves.

Season one consists of nine episodes, which might sound a bit on the long side, but the time is well spent in early installments carefully establishing the rules of severed work and the creepy idiosyncrasies of the Lumon headquarters.
Severance was shot on location at the old Aero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs Holmdel building, which is a perfect retro-dystopian setting. Frankly, the art and design work that went into the Lumon world are amazing. Theodore Shapiro’s eerie minimalist score nicely suits the sterile environment and enhances the mysterious vibe (plus there some deliciously funky music in the episode titled “Defiant Jazz,” but it would be too complicated to explain why it is there).

Yet, Adam Scott is probably the key to
Severance, because he does the best work we’ve seen from him as Mark (obviously both of them). It is a sensitive performance that distinguishes between innie and outie, but also shows us how he really is the same person, in and out. If that does not convince you, then keep in mind both Christopher Walken and John Turturro have substantial supporting roles, often appearing together, as severed workers—and they are compulsively watchable, like you would expect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Cursed, A New Twist on Lycanthropy

Thanks to Maria Ouspenskaya, werewolves have been closely associated with the Roma people in the popular imagination, especially fortune-tellers like Maleva, whom she played in the classic Universal monster movies. A group of French landowners will murder a woman very much like Maleva when they massacre her caravan. However, by doing so, they unleash something very sinister in director-screenwriter Sean Ellis’s The Cursed (a.k.a. Eight for Silver, a much more intriguing title), which opens this Friday in theaters.

They local populace call them “gypsies,” but they might have a legal claim to the land their caravan is currently parked on. Of course, the real law is the lord, Seamus Laurent, who hires a band of mercenaries to “remove” them, with the approval of his fellow landowners and parish priest. What unfolds is brutal, but it does not bother him. However, the children of the culpable parties start dreaming about the silver fanged dentures that were buried with the old defiant Roma woman.

Acting on a mysterious compulsion, one of the disturbed teens digs them up and uses them to take a bite out of Laurent’s young son Edward. Initially, the boy falls deathly ill, but then he mysteriously runs off into the woods during the night. As strange stories start to circulate, the Van Helsing-like pathologist John McBride arrives to investigate. He is not shocked by the brutality of the beast attack and immediately suspects there is a connection to the Roma, but nobody wants to acknowledge the atrocity.

Eight for Silver
really was a better title, because it references the heavy Biblical significance of silver. Ellis (whose last film was the gritty Filipino caper movie Metro Manila) digs deep into lycanthropy lore and mythic archetypes. It is those weighty themes that make it so creepy. Frankly, Ellis has a radically different conception of werewolves, but if you get bit by one, you’re just as doomed. Plus, a particularly disturbing scarecrow adds a touch of folk horror.

This is also a terrific period production. Serving as his own cinematographer, Ellis makes everything look torch-lit, which instills the perfect vibe.
Cursed might run a touch long and the wrap-arounds do not tie everything up the way they should, but in general, it slows burns in the right way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Ledge, Directed by Half of the Ford Brothers

What will REI think of this movie? It definitely instills an appreciation for reliable gear, but it might discourage people from outdoor adventuring. Kelly is an experienced mountaineer, whereas her pursuers are not. Unfortunately, they had more time to grab their gear, so it is anybody’s ballgame in Howard J. Ford’s The Ledge, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Kelly has very personal reasons for climbing that Dolomite summit. Her friend Sophie is much less serious, so she is willing to party with the four rich jerks in the cabin next door. Unfortunately, when she starts ripping on psycho alpha Joshua, he responds the way he always does by killing her. He usually gets away with it, thanks to his obedient friends, but this time Kelly manages to video-record the crime. Naturally, all four want her camera and Joshua also wants her dead, so she starts scrambling up the mountain.

She is not exactly free-climbing, but she is closer than she would prefer. The dudes chasing her are using every advantage, but they are far less experienced. Logically, they take the easier trail, to get above her, but snagging her out from under that ledge will be tricky business.

Together with his brother Jonathan, Ford helmed the African zombie film
The Dead and its sequel, but this is much less horror and more thriller-ish, in the tradition of Cliffhanger and Shoot to Kill. Despite the ensemble’s modest celebrity, The Ledge has some pretty impressive mountaineering action sequences. Presumably, H.J. Ford did a lot with a little, because it looks great. Honestly, the scenes on the mountain face are at least as impressive as those in films like North Face and considerably more so than that found in The Climbers.

Monday, February 14, 2022

A Banquet

When money gets tight for a widow, she should be happy to have one less mouth to feed, especially since her daughter Betsey isn’t losing any weight. Of course, moms just worry. Betsey’s creepy apocalyptic talk certainly does not help. She seems to think her total lack of appetite is connected to some sort of spiritual end times in Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet, which opens Friday in New York.

After her husband’s long illness and tragic suicide, Holly is now a widow, who solely concentrates on her two daughters. They live in a striking modernist home, but Holly’s finances are rather precarious. Presumably, her eldest Betsey, has contracted some sort of virus at an inopportune time, but it is unclear what sort of specialist she needs.

The teenager cannot bear to ingest a morsel of food. Yet, she precisely maintains her weight day after day. Her weird talk about a spiritual awakening suggests a need for psychological treatment, but her tough-love grandmother June initially assumes she just needs a kick in the butt. However, the persistence of her condition and her distant manner unnerves her entire family.

Essentially, Paxton and screenwriter Justin Bull combine elements of body horror with a dark vision of some undefined manifestation of spirituality. In some ways,
A Banquet shares a kinship with Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, in which a young woman’s earnest blind faith causes dire consequences for her and those around her. Except, A Banquet keeps its options open with respects to the validity of Betsey’s visions. Weirdly, that makes it a hard film to embrace, from any perspective.

Despite its cold, off-putting vibe, Lindsay Duncan largely carries and nearly redeems the entire film as Grandma June. Her penetrating intelligence grabs the viewer’s attention and the way she tells a supernatural folk tale can raise goosebumps on the back of your neck. Frankly, she really should have been the film’s primary POV.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Tiananmen Square on TV: Children of Light

Everyone knew Angus MacGyver had guts, because he was willing to take on any villain with a roll of duct tape and an acetylene torch. His show had guts too, because it was one of the few that was willing to directly address the Tiananmen Square Massacre. You might assume Hollywood in the 1990s was as cowardly as it is now, but if you know of any examples besides this, Touched by an Angel, and Psi Factor, please shoot us a message. MacGyver couldn’t do anything to prevent the massacre, but he will try to protect a survivor hoping to expose the truth in the “Children of Light” episode of the original MacGyver, airing Tuesday evening on Heroes and Icons.

MacGyver is surprised, but delighted when Sue Ling, the now fully-grown Chinese orphan he sponsored, turns up unannounced at his houseboat. However, she really isn’t Sue Ling. She is Mei Jan, a former student activist, who used Su Ling’s visa to travel to America. Tragically, her friend was murdered by the PLA during the Tiananmen protests—and she has the videotape to prove it.

Of course, the local CCP embassy spies will do anything to keep that tape out of circulation. They also want the numbers of the fax machine network Mei Jan is trying to rebuild. Naturally, they will exploit any weakness, including threatening the mother of her local contact with the underground student organization. Fortunately, MacGyver is resourceful as ever. He still has his usual aversion to guns, but trying to break into the Chinese embassy is impressively Jack Bauer-ish, especially by his standards.

Director Bill Corcoran nicely integrates genuine historical footage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, while leaving the killing of Sue Ling to our imagination. This episode definitely confronted the crimes the CCP committed and called out their efforts to erase all historical records. Honestly, “Children of Light” is just as topical today as when it was first broadcast, but its optimism for the prospects of democracy activists like Mei Jan to reboot their movement now seems heartbreakingly naïve.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York

It only made sense that radio in the 1980s would be as fun as the rest of the pop culture that decade. Scott Shannon was the first programmer/presenter to really figure that out and the New York radio station that hired him is still reaping the benefits of his top-40 “Morning Zoo” tenure. Director-writer-producer Mitchell Stuart chronicles the rise, with no subsequent fall, of the radio ratings juggernaut in Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York, which is now available on VOD.

You can’t beat 1980s nostalgia, even if you weren’t there for it at the time. Of course, Z100 is still a big name in the New York media landscape, but you have to wonder if anyone Millennial-age or younger really gets the influence radio used to have breaking new songs and artists. In this case, Shannon came to Z100 right when mega-stars like Madonna were poised to hit it big.

Worst to First is almost more of a documentary about Shannon than Z100. Maybe it should have been, so Stuart could have covered Shannon’s rivalry with Don Imus when they were both VH1 VJs and his work as the announcer for Sean Hannity’s radio show. He outlasted a lot of his contemporaries, maintaining high-profile on-air gigs in the New York market and in national syndication.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Line Sisters, on Lifetime

In a twist, it is the hazer who is killed during four friends’ sorority initiation accident rather than the pledges. Regardless, the same laws of class reunion retribution still apply. When they get together for their alma mater’s Greek week homecoming festivities, a masked psycho looks to deliver some payback in Tailiah Breon’s Line Sisters, which premieres tomorrow on Lifetime.

Being accepted by the historically-black sorority ABO really meant something to Valerie, Dominique, Cassandra, and Simona. That is why they decide to do things right and complete the risky traditional initiation swim their pledge trainer wanted to waive. Presumably, this decision will not make much sense to anyone who went through Greek pledging, but whatever. The long and the short of it is the pledges made it across, but not Big Sister Jody. Oh, but of course, there must be more to the story.

Fifteen years later, the four reunite for a week of nostalgic partying on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Technically, they thought it would just be three of them, but the estranged Simona seems to think Valerie invited her too. As soon as they arrive at their “plantation house” rental, someone starts playing some cruel pranks on them. However, this homicidal stalker has a case of stage fright, because it takes over an hour for our unknown subject to final chalk up a kill.

Line Sisters cannot go full-on slasher when it is intended for commercial broadcast, but you need a few bodies to approximate some level of And Then There Were None-style suspense. Unfortunately, the tension just isn’t high enough and the stakes feel too low, until first blood is finally drawn. The killer’s secret identity is also glaringly obvious to anyone who doesn’t sleep through the first ten minutes.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Shapeless, Filmed in New Orleans

New Orleans would be a terrible place to suffer from an eating disorder, because good food is everywhere: muffulettas, po boys, beignets, Zapp’s, etc. Of course, nobody really has a choice in the matter. New Orleans is also known for great music. That is what Ivy is focusing on. The aspiring vocalist wants to focus on her career to the exclusion of just about everything else, but her bulimic impulses take on truly monstrous dimensions in Samantha Aldana’s body horror-ish Shapeless, written and produced by lead thesp Kellly Murtagh, which opens today in select theaters.

Ivy has talent, but she always keeps her trio and her few friends at arm length, except occasionally Oscar, her bassist (a hat-tip to Pettiford?) and once-in-a-blue-moon hook-up. She simply cannot allow anyone to see her secrets demons. Essentially, her eating compulsion manifests itself as Cronenbergian outbreaks all over her body that can only be staved off through binging. Subsequently, purges to maintain her frighteningly slim figure.

is the sort of horror film where the horror probably isn’t really happening. Most likely, it is really more of a projection of Ivy’s inner demons. Frankly, a lot of fans are getting tired of the serious issue, after-school-special trend in horror, so there might be some fatigue for Shapeless’s experimental style and sober themes. The truth is Shapeless would have been better served if it muted its genre claims and billed itself as a dark drama about compulsion set in New Orleans. It delivers a frequently harrowing viewing experience, but it is not “scary,” per se.

However, it understands the pressures of life as a musician pretty darned well. Murtagh uses “St. James Infirmary” as a touchstone tune throughout the film, which is a shrewd choice, because it must be one of the most achingly mournful jazz standards ever. Both she and Zardis Nichols (playing Marion, a NOLA singer Ivy idolizes) perform excellent renditions. In fact, there is a lot of terrific sounding music heard as part of Ivy’s world. While cast-members portray her trio on-screen, much of the musical combo duties are handled by Shea Pierre on piano, Gerald Watkins Jr. on drums, and Amina Scott on bass. They always sound great. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of dissonant freakout music that is not nearly as distinctive.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Indemnity, from South Africa

The uninterrupted one-party control of South African has definitely led to scandals that could provide plenty of raw material for some edgy political thrillers. Unfortunately, instead of delivering on that promise, this film mostly plays out like another competent remake Fred Cavaye’s Point Blank. (It isn’t really, but it might as well be.) Tragically, a PTSD-suffering firefighter is framed for his wife’s murder in director-screenwriter Travis Taute’s Indemnity, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Theo Abrams still blames himself for the deaths of his colleagues after a call went down badly. Of course, he wants to get back to firefighting, but his experimental shrink won’t clear him, because he isn’t ready to face his pain (or some such New Agey-
Star Trek V kind of sentiment). What happens next isn’t going to help.

After waking up next to his murdered wife, Abrams is nearly killed himself by a plant in the back of his police van. Suddenly he is on the run, being chased by a team of killers, who leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Naturally, the stupid cops, Det. Rene Williamson and Gen. Alan Shard, assume he did it all. However, if he can locate the Deep Throat-esque source, who contacted his now-late wife the day-before, maybe Abrams can start putting together the pieces.

Slight “spoiler:” it turns out the shadowy government conspiracy mastermind is out to counter China’s influence on the African continent. Seriously, it is the person opposed the super-power committing genocide against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, stifling democratic dissent in Hong Kong, and crushing the ancient Tibetan language and culture who is the bad guy in Taute’s screenplay. That’s pretty lame, bordering on offensive (especially if you happen to be Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, or a Falun Dafa practitioner).

The whole
Fugitive-Wrong Man innocent-man-chased-by-misguided-cops business is competent enough, but hardly original. Much has been made of the stunts. Again, it is all very nice, but nothing that would blow you away.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish, the Anime Feature on BluRay

It is highly unlikely we will wake up to find this film is an Oscar nominee, even though it is fully qualified as an animated feature. However, of the two remakes of the 2003 Japanese film (itself based on Seiko Tanabe’s children’s book) produced in 2020, this film has had a much higher North American profile than its live-action Korean competition. Instead of mecha, the anime drama revolves around teenage insecurities and understanding physical differences in Kotaro Tamura’s Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish, which releases today on BluRay/DVD.

Tsuneo Suzukawa is a dirt-poor, hardworking marine biology student who harbors ambitions of attending an expensive summer program in Mexico, to study a rare breed of tropical fish that always fascinated him. It sort of seems like good fortune when Chizu Yamamura hires him to be a companion-helper to her wheelchair-bound granddaughter Kumiko, except for her demanding personality. She prefers to be called “Josee” and has real artistic talent, but she treats him like a rented mule.

Of course, that means she is really in love with him and he feels the same about her, but neither can admit it to themselves or each other. They might lose their chance when serious hard times come around. (By the way, she will eventually draw a tiger rife with symbolic significance, if you were wondering about the rest of the title.)

Josee etc.
follows in the tradition of A Silent Voice’s heartfelt teen drama and sensitive handling of physical ability issues, but it is not nearly as adroit at handling either. Sayaka Kuwamura’s adaptation of Tanabe means achingly well, but it lays on the angst with a trowel. While Voice pulls the audience in and makes them care, JTF often leaves us feeling manipulated.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Blues on Beale: Documenting the Blues Challenge

The Beijing Winter Games are now underway, because the IOC and their corporate sponsors do not care about genocide in Xinjiang or the continuing oppression of Tibet, Hong Kong, and the Falun Dafa practitioners. Good for you for not watching, at least according to the record low ratings so far. How would you like to watch an international competition that brought people together instead? If so, you can check out this documentary sampling many of the highlights of the 36th Blues Challenge, held in the historic blues clubs on Memphis’s Beale Street. (Sure, it is from early 2020, just before the Covid lockdowns, but chances are you haven’t heard who won yet.) The music is rocking and the vibes are good in Larry Lancit’s Blues on Beale, which releases this Friday on VOD.

The Blues Foundation’s annual competition showcases up-and-coming artists, but there are a number of legends enjoying the shows, including Bobby Rush and Shemekia Copeland. Each competitor represents a regional or international blues society, usually selected through a competitive process. In 2020, there were international blues musicians representing countries like Germany, Australia, South Korea, and Croatia. Yet, unlike the Olympics games, which surveys find only stoke nationalist sentiments, the musicians totally respect and enjoy their rivals’ performances. In fact, we eventually meet two alumni of the Challenge who are now married.

It looks like the musicians Lancit initially decided to focus on did not advance as far as he might have liked, but he adroitly pivots to incorporate performances from finalists in the later rounds. In a way, that adjustment gives the film more variety. Regardless, even though Jamell Richardson did not make the semi-finals, he is definitely one of the artists we bookmarked for future reference.

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Angela Black, on Spectrum

In movies and TV, conventional legal divorce would often be so much easier, especially if you have as much money as Angela Meyer’s abusive husband Olivier. She will be using her maiden-name soon, for reasons we can certainly understand. He wants to get rid of her and keep custody of their boring children, but she proves to be more resilient than he expects in Harry & Jack Williams’ Angela Black, which premieres tomorrow on Spectrum.

On paper, the Meyers’ marriage looks happy, but he often beats her in private, for the smallest grievances. At least he is frequently away on business. After the latest thrashing, she finds herself alone at a bar on Halloween, where she is approached by a strange man, Ed Harrison, who seems strangely interested in her. At their next not-so-coincidental meeting, he claims to be a fixer, who has done questionable work for her husband. He warns her Olivier has some ominous plans for her, but he is here to help her (you know, just like the government).

The next three episodes are a smorgasbord of violent outbursts, gaslighting, snooping, and protective services acting stupid. There are also some clever thriller elements, but for seventy-five percent of the series, the tone is closer to
Sleeping with the Enemy than Hitchcock. However, the concluding sixth episode either redeems the preceding melodrama or elevates it, depending on your tastes and perspective. There is even a bit of a hat-tip to Patricia Highsmith that pays off handsomely.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Slamdance ’22: Goodafternoon Sweetdream

Maybe Budweiser will appreciate the extended product placement, but should a high school student like Ye Won be drinking all day? Actually, she may have already graduated, but there are events and people from her school days that she still needs to process through dreams. We watch four of them in Bang Seunghyeon’s Goodafternoon Sweetdream, which screens during the soon-to-conclude 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

For a while, Ye Won is just hanging at the park, drinking a few Buds with her friend Hyeon (played the director). They mostly talk about boys, logically enough, until Ye Won mentions her late father. At that point, we understand he has never been far from her thoughts. He is even more top of mind in her second dream, which consists of another conversation with another bestie, Ji Won, who might also be dead. It is hard to tell, especially since this is a dream.

For her third dream, Ye Won revisits her father’s funeral and the time she spent there with Noah, a boy she not so subtly held a torch for. During her fourth dream, Ye Won converses with her younger sister Hye Won, either just before their father’s death or during the immediate aftermath—again ambiguity.

You could think of
Goodafternoon as the most lowkey, deadpan, slackerish Christopher Nolan film he has yet to make. Both Ye Won and viewers are forced to interpret her dreams for meaning and there will be no easy answer revealed. Yet, the deepening understanding of Ye Won’s psyche pays off quite surprisingly on an emotional level.

Frankly, the black-and-white
Goodafternoon looks deceptively simple, essentially consisting of four long-held static shots (and a handful of brief cutaways). Yet, cinematographer Lee Dongwon uses some interesting techniques to emphasize the film’s dreamlike nature.

Son Yewon is terrific as Ye Won. Whether playful (dreams #1 and #3) or painful (dreams #2 and #4), her behavior conveys so much of her character’s conflicted feelings, without any cheap theatrics or histrionics. Director Bang is a nice foil for her in the first dream, while Sung Sanhee is genuinely poignant consoling Ye Won during the second dream.

takes a bit of time to acclimate to, but with a running time just over an hour, it never belabors its unconventional approach. Thanks to the work of Bong and Lee, it never feels stagy. Instead, it extraordinarily intimate, like you are in her head and soul. Recommended for fans of Korean filmmakers like Lee Kwang-kuk (influenced by Hong Sang-soo, but more postmodern or metaphysically inclined), Goodafternoon Sweetdream screens online through tomorrow (2/6) as part of this year’s Slamdance.

Friday, February 04, 2022

Suspicion, on Apple TV+

Point Break had its “Ex-Presidents” gang that held up banks wearing presidential masks. This series has its “Royal” kidnappers, who abduct the son of a PR tycoon wearing British royal family masks. Point Break was superior in every way possible. Sadly, the kidnappers become cult-heroes for an angry, economically-illiterate generation who would protest anything social media told them to. Of course, that is believable, but awfully depressing. To make matters worse, the ostensible thriller elements are tediously boring in showrunner Rob Williams’ eight-episode Suspicion (based on the Israeli series False Flag), which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Poor Leo Newman got stuffed into a suitcase on CCTV just when his wheeler-dealer mom Katherine was poised to be nominated the American ambassador to the UK. Then the criminals released the footage, which promptly went viral, along with their ransom demand: “tell the truth.” Initially, the distraught Newman assumes they mean the dirty not-so-secret fact her appointment stemmed from her political donations. (For those of us here in reality, ambassadors to the Court of St. James are almost required to be well-heeled, in order to offset some of the embassy’s high entertainment costs.) Regardless, the criminals apparently have something else in mind.

The good news for FBI Special Agent Scott Anderson and his British counterpart, NCA Agent Vanessa Okoye is that they have five suspects. One is Sean Tilson a known specialist in dirty work. The other four look like average, normal British subjects, but they happened to be in the fateful hotel on the day of Newman’s abduction and have tenuous links to Newman’s company. Naturally, they decide the best thing they could do would be to all get together and act suspicious together. You know they have a title to live up to.

In the middle episodes, suspicion temporarily falls on all of them, one by one, only to be “cleared” shortly after. Of course, they are all guilty of something that got them into this mess in the first place. Most of them are also guilty of being annoying.

In fact, the whole thing is terribly anticlimactic, because Newman’s big secret is dull as dishwater. Frankly, it feels like the entire show was reverse-engineered to deliver us to its big environmental talking point—and poorly so. However, it is inadvertently effective at showing how frighteningly demented both the true believer mentality and the violent tendencies of rioting masses can be.

Truly, Okoye and Anderson, played with some grit by Angel Coulby and Noah Emmerich, are the only characters who are not a chore to spend time with. Uma Thurman raises expectations as Katherine Newman, but the poor dialog she is stuck with promptly dashes them. Honestly, a woman of her strength of will would never say such stupid things in public, or anywhere—but obviously she needs to say them to fulfill the show’s cathartic leftwing fantasies.