Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Contractor

For retired Special Forces operators (involuntarily so, in James Harper’s case), the private firms that hire their particular skill sets tend involve the dirtiest work. Rusty Jennings’ outfit was supposed to be different, but it wasn’t. When his first assignment goes bad, Harper becomes a dangerous loose end in Tarik Saleh’s The Contractor, which releases Friday in theaters.

Frankly, the circumstances surrounding Harper’s dishonorable, pension-revoking discharge are somewhat dubious, but he has to become the titular contractor somehow. Deep in debt, he accepts his old buddy Mike’s offer to join Jennings’ boutique mercenary firm. His first gig is in Berlin, where he and Mike are supposed to take out Salim Mohamed Mohsin, a terrorist-allied scientist and scoop up his super-virus formula. The thing is, Mohsin keeps calling it an antidote. Weird, huh?

Unfortunately, the job turns into a massive firefight that injures both contractors. Forced to separate, Harper finds Jennings’ people are actually hunting him. To his credit, this turn of events hardly seems to surprise him anymore than it does us, the viewers.

The Contractor
is a serviceable if predictable film, but you have to wonder if it was severely recut at some point. After all, it seems like a waste to cast the great Nina Hoss (from Phoenix and Barbara) as their local contact Katia, just for a few “hellos” and a shootout scene. Despite addressing issues of PTSD and the veterans’ economic hardships, Contractor really does not really feel like the kind film we would expect from Saleh (who previously helmed The Nile Hilton Incident and Metropia). Still, if someone did a ”Scissors-hand” job on this film, they made pretty smooth work of it.

Great Performances: Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Duke Ellington's opera Queenie Pie was sort of like Orson Welles eternally unfinished Don Quixote. He continued writing and polishing it throughout his life, but he never found the right venue to force him to finish it. Concert recitals have tried piece it together, but it never had the proper premiere it deserved. Today, jazz artists get more respect. In fact, Terence Blanchard became the first black composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera, launching their 2021-2022 season. The music is fresh, but Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles W. Blow’s memoir is as tragic as any great opera, with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons. Grown “Charles” returns to his hometown Gibsland, Louisiana to revisit his traumatic childhood abuse in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which airs tomorrow night on PBS’s Great Performances at the Met.

Gibsland is best known as the nearest town to where Bonnie and Clyde met their untimely demise. Charles has something similar in mind. He has come back with a gun and he is looking for Chester the aptly-named cousin who molested him when he was a young boy. Instead, he finds “Char’es Baby,” the embodiment of his childhood self, who guides him through the memory play. Act 1 culminates with the abuse, whereas act 2 ostensibly shows teenaged Charles “getting on with his life,” by losing his virginity. However, in act 3, we see the abuse still haunts him as a freshman enrolled in Grambling.

Instead of a jazz opera, the Met describes
Fire as “an opera in jazz.” Don’t feel bad if that distinction is lost on you. Much of Blanchard’s score is stylistically akin to grand opera of the kind you expect to hear at the Met. Yet, Blanchard’s jazz background is still in there, especially in transitional passages that often a rhythmic bounce that you might even say swings. There are also a number of songs that transparently incorporate elements of the blues and gospel. Yet, ironically, one of the most memorable arias, “Golden Button,” would probably work even better as a Broadway book musical tune, given its lilting melody and endearing lyrics.

Jazz fans should also note musicians Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Matt Brewer on bass, and Adam Rogers on guitar supplement the Met orchestra. As a legit jazz rhythm section, they help Met pianist and assistant conductor Bryan Wagorn to really swing the score. Arguably, Blanchard might have found the sweet spot that keeps his jazz supporters tapping their toes, while remaining accessible to the Met’s core audience, without sounding like he is compromising or trying to placate either. (That’s a neat trick.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Moon Knight, in The Epoch Times

We're still waiting for it to fully explore Marc Spector's Jewish heritage, but the Egyptian themes and motifs already make Moon Knight cooler than most superhero series. Exclusive Epoch Times review up here.

Let the Wrong One In: Vampire-Slaying in Ireland

This pack of vampires really ought to be more careful when they turn more vampires. Matt’s lowlife brother Deco is not the sort of bloke you want to spend eternity with. For Matt, he is still family regardless, so staking him will be difficult in Conor McMahon’s unruly vampire comedy, Let the Wrong One In, which releases Friday on digital and in select theaters.

Matt is the responsible, painfully nice brother, while Deco is not. The sunlight is really bothering him this morning, so he begs Matt to let him into their mum’s house. She threw him out because of his stealing ways, but Deco can still exploit his brother’s guilt. Awkwardly, he repays Matt’s mercy by projectile vomiting blood in his face. That won’t be the last time that happens in this movie.

Soon, Henry the vampire slayer is on their doorstep, pretending he is there to help. Slaying is personal to him, because the leader of the pack is his beloved fiancée, who was turned during her bachelorette party (in Romania, because it was cheap). He keeps tabs on vampire movements through reports from his fellow cabbies (which is kind of clever).

Wrong One
is often funny, but almost always in an outrageous meatheaded kind of way. The story itself is no great shakes, whereas the best horror-comedies (like Extra Ordinary) have a narrative that would be interesting even without the laughs. Despite the intentional echoes of the title, Wrong One never specifically spoofs Let the Right One In. They both just happen to be about vampires.

Slow Horses, on Apple TV+

In Mich Herron’s novels, Slough House is a lot like the “Circus” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, except anyone stationed there knows their career is on the skids. Typically, their crusty boss, Jackson Lamb, hands out demeaning intelligence busywork to his team of “losers,” but they suddenly find themselves embroiled in an act of domestic terror in the six-episode Slow Horses, adapted by Will Smith (relax, it’s a common name), which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

River Cartwright was cocky, because he thought he was a good agent and his grandfather David presumably still has influence after retiring from a very high position in MI5. Then he messed up during a highly visible training exercise, so now he is attached to Slough House. Lamb thinks he has only one decent agent, but it isn’t him. Instead, he means Sid Baker, who has apparently been tailing him since she arrived.

Cartwright discovers this while following up on leads he generated during some particularly nasty dumpster diving. Somehow, he might have a line on a disgraced far-right journalist, who seems to know something about the kidnapping of a young Muslim comedian by a mysterious cell of British nationalist extremists. However, Lamb’s rival, Diana Taverner, director of operations at the proper MI5 probably knows even more. Lamb deduces the abduction is part of a false flag operation she launched to entrap the “Sons of Albion” and discredit the far-right. If anything goes wrong, which it will, she intends to scapegoat Slough House.

Slow Horses follows in the tradition of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, even sharing the star of the film version, Gary Oldman. There is a lot of dry, cutting British humor, which is perfect for Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Frankly, the actual terrorist-thriller elements are just okay, but the politics involved could very well alienate both sides (nationalists are bad, but the “deep state” is also pretty slimy). However, the backbiting, bureaucratic in-fighting, and double-crossing are all jolly good fun.

As you would expect, Oldman is perfectly cast as the caustic, boozy Lamb. The same is true of Thomas, who gets nearly as many laughs as the regal but acid-tongued Taverner. In terms of tone, the humor is somewhat akin to
Yes, Minister, but darker, because characters really die, pretty regularly.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Kicking Blood: Vampires & Addiction

In fictional worlds where vampires are real, we still don’t really know much about their physiology, because the academics like Prof. Van Helsing who acknowledge their existence, mostly concentrate on killing them. Really, who can say whether a vampire like Anna can quit sucking blood cold turkey? Vampires are real, but addiction is a monster she and her mortal lover must both face in Blaine Thurier’s Kicking Blood, which releases this Thursday in theaters.

Nocturnal Anna actually works a library job, because she believes living off money plundered from her victims has no dignity. Her shallow hunting-mates, Boris and Nina, have no such scruples. They fancy themselves gods, but they are more like parasites—as Anna is starting to realize. Regardless, she still has to feed. When Anna brought home down-and-out Robbie, she assumed he would be an easy victim. Once he figures out her uncanny nature, Robbie even resigns himself to his fate. Yet, something stops her. Instead of sucking his blood, she gives him a place to stay while kicking booze the hard way.

However, she can’t let her so-called vampire friends know about him. They frown on human relationships. Boris and Nina would also be alarmed to see how emaciated she looks, after she swears off human blood-sucking.

Kicking Blood
is a grungy, low-fidelity vampire movie, aesthetically and thematically akin to Joe Begos’s Bliss, but its narrative and central relationship provide a far more compelling viewing experience. Unlike most films, Kicking grows on the audience as it goes along, because Anna and Robbie become more sympathetic (and more interesting) as they strive be a better man and vamp. Yet, they must overcome the opposition of the toxic people and vampires around them.

That might sound like vampirism is an annoyingly obvious metaphor for addiction, which it basically is, but somehow Thurier never conspicuously over-sells it. Anna’s concern for an aging human co-worker (nicely played by Rosemary Dunsmore) also adds a further “humanizing” element.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Never Forget Tibet, The Dalai Lama’s Untold Story

The world's most celebrated advocate of non-violence is also technically the most wanted fugitive. The Chinese Communist Party still calls him a criminal, but the world knows Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. However, hardly anyone would have known him at all were it not for Har Mander Singh, an officer with the Indian Frontier Administrative Service. His Holiness reunites with the man who safely escorted him to his new home-in-exile in Jean-Paul Mertinez’s documentary, Never Forget Tibet, The Dalai Lama’s Untold Story, which has a special nationwide Fathom Events screening this Thursday.

Technically, the Dalai Lama’s 1959 escape was his second try. Frankly, he tried to reach some kind of accommodation with the CCP, but they were determined to dominate the Tibetan nation. When the PLA started shelling Lhasa, His Holiness was already gone, but his party was not sure where their journey would end.

Fortunately, Singh was posted to Bomdila. Even though Nehru agreed to extend asylum to His Holiness, communication was still pretty spotty. Singh stuck his neck out a little protecting the Dalai Lama’s party once he crossed the border, but his initiative was vindicated—and appreciated by His Holiness, whom the Singhs personally hosted like family.

Mertinez’s documentary largely follows
An Officer and His Holiness, a nonfiction account written by Singh’s niece Rani, a British journalist. Her uncle passed away in 2020, but Mertinez filmed his visit to Dharamshala, for an emotional final meeting with His Holiness.

There is also some new historical material in
Never Forget Tibet, including detail on the flight from Lhasa and the secret correspondence between the Dalai Lama, Nehru, and Harold Macmillan. It is an amazing historical episode, but Mertinez tells it in a restrained manner. Frankly, sometimes the energy level could have been raised a tad, without compromising the historical integrity.

Never Forget Tibet helps humanize an icon, His Holiness, while providing context on his relationship with his Indian hosts. It is more complicated than we might have assumed, because of India’s up-and-down diplomatic relations with Mainland China.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Yellow Wallpaper: Adapting Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s famous short story had fiction’s original unreliable narrator and some of the worst feng shui in the history of American literature. It was also post-horror before snobby critics fell in love with A24 Films. However, it is devilishly resistant to film adaptation, as director Kevin Pontuti and his co-adapting screenwriter and star Alexandra Loreth prove again with The Yellow Wallpaper, which releases this Tuesday on VOD.

The woman (here she is simply called Jane) is a bit moody since delivering her child, but her husband is suspiciously controlling. He also condescendingly dismisses her ailments as nerves or whatever. They have taken a summer rental, so she can supposedly recover her strength, but she finds the yellow wallpaper of her bedroom has the opposite effect.

As anyone who read Gillman’s story in their English lit class knows, the woman becomes increasingly obsessed with and unhinged by the wallpaper. She even starts to believe there is a woman creeping inside the paper. The question for readers is whether something uncanny is somehow tormenting her or is she just completely insane, but it is hard to achieve ambiguous uncertainty on film.

Indeed, even though Gillman’s story inspired a
Twilight Zone episode and a handful of prior films, the definite take probably remains Agnes Moorehead’s radio performance, precisely because so much of the conflict and drama unfolds in the narrator’s head.

Nevertheless, Pontuti and company take a credible stab at it. Cinematographer Sonja Tsypin makes the yellows appropriately sickly looking, while the outside garden is idyllically lush and verdant. It is a well-crafted period production, with richly detailed, Victorian era-appropriate costumes and trappings. The film looks terrific and often sounds quite eerie thanks to some unsettling sound design, but the narrative itself feels conspicuously padded.

As a result, there are seemingly endless scenes of Jane’s eyes wildly panning her room during manic phases or her solemnly starring out into space during depressive intervals. The film just hits the same notes and narrative beats, over and over. Arguably, the Moorehead radio production followed the story just as faithfully, but in a third of the time—and without leading visuals.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Fessenden at MoMA: ABCs of Death 2

A little curation can sometimes be helpful. According to press materials, the participating filmmakers were given a completely free hand to do whatever they wanted in their contributions to the ABC’s of Death anthology films, as long as they tied everything into their assigned letter. It turns out a lot of them could have used some constructive feedback. The second anthology film is even rockier than the first, but it had a contribution from Larry Fessenden, which now screens without the other 25 letters as part of MoMA’s retrospective dedicated to Fessenden and his Glass Eye Pix production company. However, Fessenden’s “N is for Nexus” might look comparatively better when considered in the company of the entire ABC’s of Death 2, which is available for streaming.

Again, the titles are revealed at the end, to serve as a punchline for the horrors that came before. While the first
ABC’s of Death was highly uneven, #2 is a little too even, meaning the majority of its letters are a disappointment. Here’s the quick rundown:

“A is for Amateur” directed E.L. Katz, makes us initial think the A is for “action,” starting like a
Miami Vice homage but turning into a cautionary tale about air duct dangers. At least #2 starts strong, because this is one of the best letters.

“B is for Badger” from Julian Barratt is a very droll skewering of prima donna environmental TV personality, with Barratt himself getting big laughs as the insufferable Peter Toland, who gets what he has coming.

“C is for Capital Punishment,” by Julian Gilbey starts with a good set-up for an ironic community vigilantism thriller but the payoff is missing.

“D is for Deloused,” from Robert Morgan impressive stop-motion animation, but punishingly grotesque.

“E is for Equilibrium,” from Alejandro Brugues presents some dumb castaway comedy that turns into murder and back again.

“F is for Falling” from Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado is another highlight, offering darkly ironic tale of an Israeli paratrooper facing a real-life horror.

“G is for Grandad” perpetrated by Jim Hosking is a
Greasy Strangler-esque family shocker. If you don’t know that film, chances are you will be appalled by his letter G (but you’re probably lucky not to).

“H is for Head Games” animated by Bill Plympton is a surreal trifle that trippily turns romance into warfare.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Dingo, with Music by Miles Davis & Michel Legrand

There have been plenty of hard-swinging Australian jazz musicians, like Don Burrows, Bernie McGann, and James Morrison. Some of them even came from outback country, so the odyssey of John “Dingo” Anderson should not sound so outlandish. Regardless, it features Miles Davis on-screen and throughout the soundtrack. Frankly, it should have won best score at the Oscars, but someone messed up the paperwork. Some of us have been listening to the album for years, but now we can finally [re]-watch Rolf de Heer’s Dingo when it re-releases in select theaters today.

When he was a kid, Anderson happened to see American expat jazz musician Billy Cross perform an impromptu concert on the tarmac, while his plane was refueling on the remote Poola Flat airstrip. The sight was pretty surreal by any standard, but it was the music that really made an impression on Anderson. Cross could see it, so he told the young boy to look him up if he ever came to Paris.

Twentysome years later, Anderson is a knock-around handyman and dingo trapper with a wife and family, but he still idolizes Cross. Like Sonny Rollins woodshedding on the Williamsburg Bridge, Anderson has developed a healthy tone serenading the outback wilderness. However, everyone in his one-horse town thinks his jazz dreams are crazy, maybe even including his wife. Yet, it turns out Cross still remembers the boy from way back when.

Marc Rosenberg’s screenplay is nice enough but predictable. However, it really doesn’t matter, because the music is the thing here—and its incredible. The legendary Michel Legrand did most of the true composing, but Davis contributed some eloquent solos. Dingo Anderson’s playing was handled off-screen by Chuck Findlay, who also sounds great, while contrasting effectively with Davis’s patented muted style. Notable musicians also heard on the soundtrack include Alphonse Mouzon, Buddy Collette, Jimmy Cleveland, and Kenny Garrett, who was a regular sideman in Davis’s final bands.

Davis is also quite engaging portraying Cross, a character transparently based on himself. Like late-period Miles, Cross is reluctant to revisit his classic recordings and now primarily composes synthesizer music. Davis invests him with a sly off-kilter sense of humor, tempered by some hard-won (but never cynical) wisdom regarding the music business.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Wood and Water, Adrift in HK

The last few years have been rough on Hong Kong families. First, the puppet government’s crackdown on the democracy protests kept them apart. Now, they are separated by yet another zero-tolerance Covid lockdown. Back in 2019, a German mother visited hoping to reconnect with her expat son, but she has to settle for discovering the soon-to-be beleaguered city in Jonas Bak’s Wood and Water, which opens today at MoMA.

Our main character has just retired from her church receptionist job to spend more time with her grown children. Her daughter and sister are there for her celebration, but her son Max’s flight from Hong Kong is cancelled due to the protests. Or so he claims. Frankly, his sister expected him to have an excuse to bail, which he did. The “Mother” decides the Mountain must go to Muhammad, but when she arrives in HK, he’s not there.

Instead, Mother Deutsch explores the city on her own, getting help from strangers and Max’s friendly doorman. Like all Hongkongers, she learns to navigate the protests, but she is fortunate to avoid exposure to the cops’ tear gas.

Wood and Water
is a quiet, meditative, and immersive, in ways that cut both ways. You could definitely call it slow cinema. Bak has a keen eye for visuals and he vividly captures the flavor of Hong Kong, in the twilight of its “One Country Two Systems” relative freedoms. Bak’s own mother, Anke also brings a very warm and sympathetic screen presence. Rather logically, she is convincingly maternal.

However, it is somewhat troublesome to see Bak use the 2019 protests as signpost for the film’s time and place, while having so little to say about them. The suppression of the democracy movement has ultimately led to 7.4 million Hongkongers losing their freedoms. That is about as serious as it gets. Would a film use events such as the Burning of the Reichstag as a neutral backdrop for an exploration of personal and familial alienation? Hopefully not, but what has transpired in Hong Kong approaches that sort of dire national turning point.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Pachinko--in The Epoch Times

It is a decades spanning family saga with Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung and a super-cool opening credit sequence. A couple of the later episodes are obviously rushed, but there is still some fine drama in Apple TV's PACHINKO. Epoch exclusive review up here.

Szumowska’s Infinite Storm

From time to time, newspaper articles have been adapted into feature films, like the Oscar winning On the Waterfront, based on Malcolm Johnson’s series on corruption within the New Jersey longshoremen unions, published in The New York Sun. Often such source material is culled from major metro papers that have national distribution. However, The Manchester Union Leader now shares that distinction, having published Tye Gagne’s article, a real-life outdoors rescue story chronicled in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Infinite Storm, which opens Friday in theaters.

For her minimal fictionalized backstory, Pam Bales wants to hike the trail around Mount Washington on the anniversary of a personal tragedy, so she sets out despite the stormy weather expected later that day. Bales is a volunteer member of the rescue patrol, who is quite familiar with the mountain. She knows how to properly equip herself and she is not suicidal. However, none of that seems to be the case for the solitary hiker she spies from a distance. Judging from his tracks, he is wearing tennis shoes. When she finally catches up with him, she finds the lightly dressed stranger on the verge of hypothermia.

Since the non-communicative man is in a state of shock, Bales decides to call him “John.” Relying on her training, she tries to guide him down the mountain, but he is not always cooperative. All the while, the weather grows increasingly harsh.

Infinite Storm
is a pretty straight forward and competent survival-against-the-elements adventure. Naomi Watts is totally realistic and grounded as Bales, but she never has little time or opportunity to develop her character. That is even more the case for Billy Howle playing “John.” Instead, Szumowska’s film is almost entirely focused on the business of survival. That gives it an immediacy and an honesty, but most viewers will not form a long-term emotional connection to it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Assailant, on Redbox

Alexander Hamilton was born on the Caribbean Island of Nevis and Horatio Nelson was once stationed there. Now it also has this film as a claim to fame, but it is a rather dubious one. A quarreling couple has come for a last-chance vacation getaway, but a psycho-stalker interrupts their attempts to rekindle romance in Tom Paton’s Assailant, which releases today, through Redbox (kiosks and VOD).

Jason and Zoe Sellers used to have a touring business, until he made a disastrous investment that wrecked the company. To make up for it, he works compulsively, but that only drove the couple further apart. In a final attempt to save their marriage, they have returned to Nevis, where they had a spectacular honeymoon. Unfortunately, the luxury hotel has shuttered, so instead they chartered laidback Captain Henry’s yacht.

The super-chill salty dog will not be their problem. Instead, they make the mistake of talking to the deranged Michael at dinner. He has a weird Punisher-like impulse to right perceived bad behavior. Basically, he gives offenders three chances to apologize before he starts the process of menacing, hunting down, and killing them. The Sellers do not realize what kind of bear they poked, so the next day they proceed with their planned hike. That should be fun, right?

Assailant is pretty mediocre, in predictable and manipulative ways, but the Nevis locales are lovely on-screen. It really looks nothing like Paton’s previous films, like Black Site, Black Ops, and 400 Bullets, which had a dark and grungy aesthetic, but were also a good deal of fun.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Havana Libre: “Underground” Surfing in Cuba

When your island nation is a prison-like police state, the authorities are not big on water sports. Unfortunately, for Cuba’s surfers, that means their sport is not officially recognized and therefore prohibited. Surfing to Miami would be quite a feat, but apparently the Cuban regime believes they could motivate their people to do it. Regardless, Cuban surfers just want to surf. From handcrafting their own boards to Kafkaesque attempts to petition the government sports agency for recognition, Cubans do their best to develop the sport in Corey McLean’s documentary, Havana Libre, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Perversely, the currents that make passage to Miami so treacherous, produce some pretty lame waves around Havana. The intrepid band of surfers McLean follows scout around the island’s coastline, looking for better action. Again, quite perversely, the waves around the forbidden no man’s land of Guantanamo look tantalizingly promising.

Still, they manage to sleuth out some passable beaches, where they record videos that go viral. As a result, Frank and his wife get invited to a conference in Hawaii. He even gets a shot at competing in an official Olympics-qualifying tournament. Naturally, INDER, the Cuban sports agency prohibits him from participating, even though the pursuit of Olympic glory is the agency’s top priority.

There is some picturesque footage of Havana and some nice surfing scenes, but
Libre was not intended to be another Endless Summer. We also get a keen sense of the crippling poverty brought on by Castro’s socialism and the ruthlessly controlling nature of its government, but this comes through inevitably but almost incidentally. McClean clearly framed the film with INDER and its masters in mind. Throughout the film, he tries to convince them to help the surfers help Cuba. That is all very reasonable and admirable, but viewers need to keep that in mind.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

First Look ‘22: Babi Yar. Context

As a result of its indiscriminate bombing of Ukraine, Russia just demolished several buildings that were earmarked for a memorial to the Babi Yar massacre, one of the largest mass shootings of the Holocaust. (Contrary to initial reports, the only surviving building from the incident was not hit.) So much for Putin’s so-called “de-nazification” war, launched against a country with a Jewish president, whose grandfather and great-uncles fought the real National Socialists. The events surrounding the very real and truly horrific events of the massacre are meticulously recreated in Sergei Loznitsa’s archival documentary, Babi Yar. Context, which screens today as part of MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Naturally, the Nazis did not film the actual shootings, because that would be evidence of almost 34,000 murders. It would also be unendurable to watch. Instead, most of the film consists of the events leading up to and following the killings, but there is chilling archival film of the round-ups.

Frankly, the prelude scenes are critically important to understand why so many Ukrainians welcomed the Germans. We see the bodies of prisoners hastily executed by the retreating Russians callously strewn outside their jails. We also watch Ukrainian wives claiming their husbands from POW camps that fell to the advancing Germans.

Likewise, the aftermath sequences are highly significant. Loznitsa incorporates archival film of the postwar trials (which echo the look and vibe of the show trials he documented in
The Trial). Although some of the witnesses identify the victims as Jewish, the pronouncement at the executions only refer to crimes against Soviet citizens and Prisoners of War. This is not an accidental oversight. It is important to understand Russian propaganda (and Soviet propaganda before it) mostly characterized Nazi crimes as those committed against Russia and the Slavic people. Keep this in mind when you hear Putin’s disinformation today.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Before We Die, the English Remake

You could say DI Hannah Laing believes in tough love, but not “going by the book.” For instance, the two most important men in her life are Sean Hardacre, her married partner, whom she had been sleeping with, and her son, Christian Radic, whom she busted for drugs. His remarried father is Croatian, which will be significant when he lands a dishwashing job in a restaurant serving as a cover for a Croatian criminal clan. Family complicates everything in Matt Baker’s British adaptation of the Swedish series Before We Die, which premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Radic hasn’t been too keen to see his mom since his release, but he has kept in touch with Hardacre, who was something of father-figure to him. In fact, he volunteered to serve as Hardacre’s confidential source, when he began to suspect there was something funny about the Mimica family at the restaurant. He pretends not to understand Croatian, so he picks up plenty.

Unfortunately, Hardacre soon meets with an untimely demise. Unable to fully express her grief, Laing starts running her lover’s source, via his off-the-books phone, unaware that it is actually her son. She only confides the truth in her boss, DCI Tina Carter, and Billy Murdoch, who was loaned out to their organized crime task force, presumably from MI5. He is an ornery cuss, but that is why Laing trusts him. However, there is someone in the department who has been feeding intel to the Mimicas.

Perhaps the Swedish original is amazing, but as crime series goes, the British
Before We Die is competent, but nothing very special. Frankly, there is way too much mother-son melodramatic angst. Also, Radic’s “Romeo-and-Juliet” interest in Bianca Mimica, the innocent little sister of gang boss Davor Mimica usually feels more like a plot contrivance than a relationship. However, there are a couple of twists that represent real game-changers (they were probably utterly shocking in the Swedish series).

Friday, March 18, 2022

First Look ‘22: Reflection

Russian war crimes in Ukraine really aren’t new. They have been going on since the invasion of 2014. When Putin launched his full-scale war, they just reached a magnitude that the world could no longer pretend to ignore. In 2021, Putin’s war was still primarily confined to the Donbass, but the brutality of the Russian military is just the same. A released POW experiences profound PTSD, but somehow manages to survive in director-screenwriter-cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Serhiy is a fortysomething surgeon, who struggles to connect with his preteen daughter Polina, despite staying on reasonably good terms with his ex-wife and her new husband, Andriy. Polina’s step-father is less educated than Serhiy, but he feels shamed by the working-class man’s service with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. Soon, he too volunteers, but he is captured while in transit to the battle theater.

The surgeon will be mercilessly tortured, as Vasyanovych’s horrifically yet matter-of-factly establishes. However, his medical training probably saves his life, but leads to great nightmares, when he is repeated brought to interrogation cells and execution chambers, to determine whether prisoners are dead yet. Then, he also witnesses body after body disposed of in mobile crematoriums, to conceal the evidence. He is one of the lucky ones, who returns home as part of a prisoner exchange. Tragically, it appears Andriy has not been so lucky.

vividly depicts Russian war crimes, but it really is not an expose designed to change hearts and minds. Vasyanovych’s rigorous aesthetics and long-shot compositions are not particularly accessible for middle-of-the-road audiences. More fundamentally, it is not motivated by negative impulses to indict. Vasyanovych is ultimately more concerned with a positive program, exploring how Ukrainians can endure grisly horrors and re-embrace life on the other side.

First Look ‘22: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Viagra was patented in 1996. Unfortunately for Ajo Kawir, his chaotic story takes place in 1980s Indonesia, when the only available recourses for what ails him are dubious folk remedies. Of course, those never work, so he resorts to meatheaded feats of machismo to prove his nonexistent virility in (one-named) Edwin’s Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Everyone knows Kawir is a wet noodle, so to speak, but he fights at the drop of a hat to prove some level of manliness. He has become a thug for hire, since he might as well get paid for it. Kawir’s latest job is putting the hurt on a predatory, mobbed-up construction company owner. Unfortunately, his target just hired the rather impressive Iteung as his bodyguard. She quickly realized her boss was pondscum, but she remains duty-bound to protect him.

During their brawl, the two fighters fall head-over-heels. However, Kawir is reluctant to court her, due to his condition. As it happens, she knows his business, just like everyone else in their rough-and-tumble West Java district, but she is willing to try to make things work anyway. Of course, her thuggish ex, Budi Baik constantly tries to interfere. There is also Kawir’s final unfinished assignment hanging over his head. He was supposed to kill a reclusive retired military officer, but now he just wants to settle down with Iteung. This will become a long-term issue, because the Kurtz-like officer knew Kawir was coming from him.

Edwin’s take on Eka Kurniawan’s novel, co-adapted with the novelist, is deliberately unruly, which mostly works for it. There are probably one or two flashbacks too many, but the combination of 1970s exploitation-action aesthetic with social commentary and off-the-wall genre elements are entertainingly mashed-together. Stylistically and thematically, it bears comparison to
Leonor Will Naver Die, but it doesn’t have as much soul. Edwin also works the emasculation motif like a rented mule.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Torch: Buddy Guy Pays it Forward

Regardless of genre, Buddy Guy is probably the most preeminent American musician who still performs regularly. (Happily, Charles Lloyd is also very active, but he is not as synonymous with jazz as Guy is with the blues.) Guy’s status as the dean of the bluesmen comes with a keen awareness of his responsibilities to the music, particularly his need to encourage younger generations to follow his example. Guy’s relationship with his presumptive heir, Quinn Sullivan is explored in Jim Farrell’s documentary, The Torch, which opens tomorrow in New York.

An artist of Buddy Guy’s stature is certainly worthy of competing documentary treatments, but as it happens,
The Torch and the recent Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away compliment each other nicely. Whereas the previous doc chronicled his life, period by period, Farrell largely focuses on Guy, the elder statesman and mentor of the blues. There is a little bit of biographical background, but not too much.

Guy always enjoys encouraging young blues musicians, so he was happy to let Sullivan join him on-stage one fateful night. However, the eleven-year-old guitarist surprised him, in quite a good wasy. Ten years later, Sullivan still regularly performs and records with Guy. The trick is establishing himself, in his own right. Fortunately, in addition to Guy’s mentorship, he has the support of producer-songwriter-drummer Tom Hambridge, whom he met through Guy.

Even though Guy is clearly preoccupied with the issue of the music’s future, he is clearly in good health and robust energy, despite being in his mid-eighties (at least during the pre-pandemic years Farrell was following him). As a result, the film has none of the tragic poignancy of
Keep on Keepin’ On, the Clark Terry-Justin Kauflin doc (and happily so). Guy could very well outlive all of us, but he is still mindful of the future. However, Farrell was able to concentrate on the music and the more practical lessons Guy imparts to Sullivan.

As you would expect, tunes like “Long Hard Road” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes,” sound great. Obviously, Sullivan is no Buddy Guy yet. He is still a kid in his early 20’s, from a vastly different background. He has terrific chops, but gee whiz, being tipped as Guy’s successor in
The Torch must really ratchet up the pressure, so good luck to him.

First Look ’22: Mr. Landsbergis

He ought to be considered on par with towering freedom fighters of the 20th Century, like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Yet, Vytautas Landsbergis is somewhat overlooked by contemporary historians, even though his leadership helped guide Lithuania through its tumultuous drive for independence. Archival filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa puts Landsbergis front-and-center, revisiting the history of Lithuania from 1988 to 1991 through primary archival sources in Mr. Landsbergis, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

As in previous films, Loznitsa scoured state and media archives, cobbling together footage that captured history unfolding in real-time. However, he also incorporates extensive interview footage with Landsbergis, who provides context and commentary throughout. This greatly helps the film’s watchable, fully establishing the stakes at play and deepening the emotional connection to the viewers. In some cases, Loznitsa’s culled together films are important, but exhausting to sit through (
The Trial for instance), but that is not an issue for Mr. Landsbergis.

In fact, it is quite a gripping film—all four-plus hours of it. Western media reports were a bit confused at the time, so many viewers might be surprised by the extent and violent severity of Gorbachev’s response to Lithuania’s declaration of independence. Columns of tanks rolled through Lithuanian streets. Shots were fired and people died. Indeed, in many ways, Loznitsa’s film serves as a sharp rebuke to Gorbachev and those who try to cast him as transformative figure. Instead, Landsbergis bluntly suggests he was the same as his predecessors, only more media savvy.

Landsbergis often identifies points when history could have gone in the other direction. However, the Lithuanian people held firm in the face of Soviet intimidation, consciously risking death to hold the line. Indeed, viewers can see parallels between the “Bloody Sunday” events of January 13 in Lithuania and the war crimes Russia is now committing in Ukraine, especially the defense that they are all the victims’ fault, because they didn’t surrender.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

First Look ’22: A New Old Play

Qiu Fu specializes in playing the clown in Sichuan Opera. He is definitely a sad clown, having endured hardship and tragedy during the Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, but he trudges on stoically—until now. Having just recently died, Qiu looks back on his life while he makes the trek to the afterlife in Qiu Jiongjiong’s A New Old Play, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Much to his surprise, Qiu has just suffered a fatal accident, as the demons sent to escort him to the netherworld explain. Like taxes, there is no getting out of it, so he naturally takes stock of his recently completed life during his journey. He grows even more nostalgic when he starts to meet people from his past on the way. Periodically, Crooky, the troupe’s hunchbacked laborer makes an unsettling sudden appearance, like Torgo in
Manos: The Hands of Fate (except this is a good film).

Qiu first found himself in a theater company after he was abandoned by his mother. For years, he yearned for her to at least return for a visit, but to no avail. Eventually, he became one of the players in the New-New Troupe, which was sponsored by Pocky, a well-connected Nationalist officer. Obviously, they all must pivot quickly when the Communists take control of the Mainland. Most of the troupe manages to survive by parroting the right lines. Qiu and his formerly-widowed wife (whom he more or less inherited as a member of the company) even become reasonably popular and prestigious again. Then the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward hits.

New Old Play
is epic tale of 20th Century China that is told in a boldly idiosyncratic style, maximizing Qiu’s DIY budget constraints. It is also a very personal story for Qiu, drawing on his family’s own theatrical history and featuring his father Qiu Zhimin as Pocky, the patron officer. His depiction of the Nationalists is hardly flattering, but the real horrors come under Communism. In fact, there is a scene of Qiu Fu and his wife trying to harvest maggots from “stolen” human excrement that is so shocking, yet so bleakly absurd, it will haunt your days forever.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Ann Hui’s Love After Love

The CCP refuses to admit Hong Kong was once a colony, because that would entitle it to special consideration under the rules of the United Nations. Of course, the UN is compliant, asking “how high” when the CCP says “jump.” Yet, the era recreated in Ann Hui’s latest film is as decadent and colonial as the bad behavior of British settlers dramatized in White Mischief. The main characters are not even British, but the scandalous Hongkongers definitely believe in doing things “the British way” in Hui’s Love After Love, which premieres Friday on MUBi.

Ge Weilong is bright, pretty, but not the least bit worldly. Nevertheless, the Shanghai native will approach her disgraced and disgraceful Aunt Liang, requesting shelter in her stately home, so she can finish her studies in Hong Kong. Essentially, Liang is a self-styled courtesan, who inherited the wealth of her late lover. She is still a player in colonial society, mostly for her own amusement (the carnal kind, first and foremost).

Recognizing Ge could be useful, Liang takes her in and slowly starts grooming her in the indulgent customs of colonial society. Ge is a better translator than her, but she is slow to pick up on all the gameplaying around her. In fact, she even falls in love with George Chiao, a playboy, who stands to inherit little from his wealthy father, due to the many other heirs in-line ahead of him, both legitimate and illegitimate.

The film looks lovely and the cast is all very pretty, including Eddie Peng as the caddish Chiao, but it is mostly surface beauty. Although adapted from an Eileen Chang novella,
Love After Love was probably envisioned as a film in the tradition of Dangerous Liaisons, but as a Chinese-approved production, it is never able to generate sufficient sexual heat. It is also problematically low on the scheming and manipulation. If you want to see a Republican Era take on Valmont and company, check out Hur Jin-ho’s Dangerous Liaisons instead.

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Bunker Game, on Shudder

It is weird what some people consider fun, like the LARPers (live action role-players) who are pretending to live in a National Socialist/Axis bunker, in the aftermath of a fictional nuclear war with the Allies. In their defense, most of them are playing as revolutionaries against the remnant regime. Therefore, it is probably just as well they will be spared the horrors. However, the staff running the game are in for some supernatural frights while they stay behind to clean up in Roberto Zazzara’s The Bunker Game, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

Gregorio is a bit of a ham and a cad, but he is the only one who really knows how the game is supposed to end. Rather inconveniently, he disappears after a power failure, so his employees end the game early and usher out the paying players. Of course, they go back looking for Gregorio, whom they assume is being a game-playing jerk, because that is exactly what he is. Alarmingly, when they lose patience with him, they suddenly find themselves locked in the bunker.

Using old schematics, they will try to find another way out. However, Laura, the pregnant lover Gregorio was cheating on, starts to have ominous visions of the bunker’s WWII past. She is convinced there are ghosts down there with them, but nobody else wants to hear that—especially Andrej, who has been a little too method playing the Nazi commander.

Bunker Game
starts out like Fatherland and then segues into something like Grave Encounters, but not enough so. It takes a full hour before the nefarious forces toying with the LARP staff finally pick one of them off (not including Gregorio, who is assumed dead, but confirmation will be withheld until late in the game). Like Lifetime’s Line Sisters, Bunker Game’s cat-and-mouse business has too much mice bickering and not enough cats hunting.

First Look ’22: The Night (short)

As a Taiwan based filmmaker, it makes sense Tsai Ming-liang would have an affinity for Hong Kong. What the CCP has unleashed on the no-longer-Special Administrative District, it would dearly love to inflict on the independent Taiwanese nation as well. The sadness of solidarity is definitely reflected in Tsai’s short documentary, The Night, which screens Wednesday (opening night) of MOMI’s First Look 2022.

The truth is you could maybe, possibly still screen
The Night in Hong Kong. Although shot on the streets during the 2019 Extradition Bill protests, it is not explicitly political. Instead, Tsai films the tired, nocturnal comings-and-goings of those who work and commute during the late-night hours. Only if you look and squint can you see the remnants of protests posters ripped from tunnels and underpasses.

In short,
The Night very definitely has a Tsai Ming-liang kind of vibe. It is quiet and sometimes almost meditative, in its long-held longshots. Yet, the mournful, bittersweet tone takes on greater meaning, in light of the repression to come.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Suburban Birds, on

They build fast in China. Sometimes that means public works projects come crashing down even faster, like the shoddily constructed schools in Sichuan. A structural surveyor is worried something like that could happen in one of China’s artificially constructed suburban developments. Xia Hao’s boss does not want to hear it, but he remains concerned. Perhaps because he grew up in the suburban neighborhood. Or perhaps he did not. The connection between the two narrative strands is always ambiguous in Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds, which premieres Wednesday on

The ground beneath the local school and a small working-class apartment building has shifted enough to force their closure. It is Xia Hao’s job to determine if the issue is wide-spread or localized to the two buildings. He suspects there is a major subsidence problem due to subway construction, but his boss has already decided everything is fine.

While surveying the school, Xia Hao finds the journal of a young boy, coincidentally of the same name. He and his schoolmates enjoy (or maybe rather enjoyed) playing gun fights, even though they are just starting to realize the romantic possibilities of their platonic girl friends. Yet, one day, when they realize their pal Fatty has been absent many days from school, they set out to visit him, in one of the further housing project behemoths.

Of course, this is the same group of friends that sometimes spies on the surveyors at work and eventually pranks them rather obnoxiously. The thing is, it is hard to tell whether for time-looping self-referentialism or if these are two distinct groups of characters that do indeed inhabit the same time frame and geographic space. As a result, Qiu probably does not pull off what he sets out to do.

Still, it is somewhat interesting to watch his balancing act. The kids’ sequences largely have the bittersweet nostalgic tone of a film like Kore-eda’s
I Wish, while the adult surveyors’ scenes share the atmosphere of mystery found in Vivian Qu’s Trap Street (which coincidentally was also about a surveyor). There is also some not-so thinly veiled commentary regarding development and governmental oversight in Mainland China. Perhaps tellingly, Xia Hao’s team is often accompanied by a local Party rep, who never seems overly obsessed with public safety.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Smog, featuring Chet Baker Trumpet Solos

The film is Italian, from the early 1960s, so the existential angst is suavely stylish. Yet, the setting is Los Angeles, so the weather is nice—but the air quality is lacking. Best of all, it sounds terrific, thanks to Piero Umiliani’s soundtrack, featuring Chet Baker’s trumpet solos. An elite Italian lawyer will be immersed in California car culture and expat ambitions throughout Franco Rossi’s Smog, which screens tomorrow at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Vittorio Ciocchetti is connecting through the recently completed, space-age-looking LAX, on his way to Mexico City, where he will handle a quickie divorce for a well-heeled client. Since he is a VIP customer, Ciocchetti need not spend his layover with the rest of the rabble. No, the airline lets him circumvent customs, so he can spend the day in LA.

Of course, even back then, enjoying LA without a car is easier said than done. Somehow, he makes his way to a gallery showing an Italian artist. There he meets Mario Scarpelli, an ambitious immigrant fixing the AV system. Deducing Ciocchetti could be a valuable contact, Scarpelli volunteers to show him the city and introduce the lawyer to his social circle. Through the younger man, Ciocchetti meets Gabriella, an alluring expat, who has apparently made good. She seems to have the means to buy the modernist Stahl House, but she hasn’t moved in yet. She just visits to swim in the pool.

is not exactly a plotty narrative, but it was quite a shoot, visiting dozens of LA locations. It really is an early forerunner to Lost in Translation, but there is also a clash of ideologies and cultures, between the tacky, striving Scarpelli and the standoffish, old world Ciocchetti. Even though Scarpelli resorts to some less than edifying behavior, the cold, detached Ciocchetti might even come out of the film looking worse, not that such judgments mattered a fig to Rossi. This was definitely an exercise in style, steeped in the aesthetics of mid-century European art cinema.

It also sounds amazing thanks to Umiliani’s themes and Baker’s solos. This is a soundtrack I’ve listened to dozens of times, without having first seen the film to know what visuals the tunes accompanied. The music definitely stands on its own, particularly “Twilight in Los Angeles,” “Thinkin’ Blues,” “Smog,” and “Alone in a Crowd.” As a notable bonus, Helen Merrill also sings two dreamy noir selections, including a vocal arrangement of “Smog,” which perfectly match the film’s dusky vibe.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Alejandro Hidalgo’s The Exorcism of God

We have all seen enough exorcism movies to know a morally-compromised priest is as dangerous in an exorcism as a poorly maintained gun in a fire fight. Nevertheless, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. An American priest based in Mexico is forced to conduct an emergency exorcism on his own, but he doesn’t get away clean in Alejandro Hidalgo’s The Exorcism of God, which opens tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Sister Magali’s possession reached a dire point, so Father Peter Williams faced the demon on his own, before his mentor Father Michael Lewis could arrive. Things were already pretty rocky before the demon jumped into him and then literally jumped on Sister Magali. After the deed was done, the demon disappeared, leaving Father Williams an apparent hero to outsiders. Neither he nor Magali, who soon left the order, ever spoke of the incident. Obviously, that leaves him in a state of unconfessed sin.

Unfortunately, it turns out the demon has been constantly tormenting his possession-child, Esperanza. It has gotten so bad, she was remanded to a juvenile prison, but transferred to an old grown-up human rights-abusing jungle prison by mistake. Of course, that means everyone else there is in mortal danger. Father Lewis will have to face his old demonic nemesis again, but this time he will combine forces with Father Lewis.

Initially, a lot
Exorcism could be seen as a commentary on the Church’s sexual abuse scandals (even though a Priest and a nun wouldn’t technically be illegal, by the laws of man). Yet, it ultimately takes aim at an even deeper moral rot—the kind some lay leaders blame for its increasingly collaborationist overtures to CCP.

Hidalgo sophomore film is also pretty scary, like most possession horror films, because it presents good and evil as very real and tangible concepts that hold dramatic and concrete implications. Like Hidalgo’s previous film,
The House at the End of Time (and the Korean remake, House of the Disappeared), Exorcism is enormously atmospheric. Plus, it should certainly convince anyone they don’t want to be secreted away from sight in an off-the-grid Mexican prison.

The Cherry Bushido, from Happy Science

It seems like the world will never stop ending for the folks at Happy Science. They are quite the controversial “alternative religious movement” in Japan. They also have a busy film production unit that specializes in apocalyptic stories. This time around, a country that sounds a whole lot like China intends to nuke Japan, unless the intrepid spirit warriors can defeat the demon secretly pulling the strings in Hiroshi Akabane’s The Cherry Bushido, which opens today in New York.

Shizuka Yamato is a patriotic teenager, who is tired of watching Japan apologize for its past and appease the militant Sodorrah regime. It is not China mind you, but its position and size on the map are eerily similar. When Yamato starts speaking out, she catches the eye of Satoshi Takayama, the leader of the double-secret Japan Salvation Council, which masquerades as a talent agency.

Takayama suspects Yamato might be the chosen one, because he has been testing her martial arts chops. Confirmation comes when Yamato confides she has dreamed of a devastating nuclear attack on Japan. With his training, she will venture into the spirit dimension, to face the Demon of Hades, who is controlling the mindless heathens of Sodorrah. So, there it is.

Like most Happy Science films, the story of
Bushido is credited to their head honcho, Ryuho Okawa. It is not as engaging as the driving conspiracy of the animated The Mystical Laws, perhaps their best film to date. Unfortunately, the narrative is about on par with the silly Laws of the Universe: The Age of Elohim, but at least that film also had some pretty cool animation. In contrast, the special effects of the live-action Cherry Bushido are often very cheesy.

Needless to say,
Bushido reflects the philosophy of Happy Science. Their political wing advocates stripping China of its Security Council seat, which is a worthy idea. Unfortunately, they also deny the crimes of the Rape-of-Nanjing occupation, which is troubling. Indeed, the contention that Japan has nothing to apologize for during WWII is repeated several times.