Saturday, April 30, 2022

Black Box

Don't rely on comedians for aerodynamic engineering. They don’t make the entire plane out of the black box, because they want it to fly. Mathieu Vasseur understands the science of planes and how they crash. He also has a lot of character hang-ups, but a lack of dedication is not one of them. When a French flight crashes in the Alps, he is the best and worst person to investigate in Yann Gozlan’s Black Box, which is now screening in New York.

Vasseur has a history of neurotic-obsessive thoroughness at the French equivalent of the FAA that has gotten him into trouble with his superiors in the past. He also has an acutely sensitive sense of hearing that allows him to pick up on things others miss. Initially, his frustrated boss, Victor Pollock, freezes him out of the crash investigation, but when Pollock inexplicably goes AWOL, the agency head, Philippe Renier brings him back in.

At first, Vasseur uncovers a cry of “Allahu Akbar” on the black box tapes, but the more he digs, the more questions he has. Quite inconveniently, some of those questions involve a safety study partly conducted by his wife Noemie, who is adroitly navigating the revolving door between French regulatory agencies and aerospace companies. The more people in their circle try to gaslight Vasseur, the more he suspects design flaws were the cause.

The first hour and a half of
Black Box have a lot of compelling audio tech procedural stuff that has earned the film comparisons to Blow Out. However, the last fortysome minutes revert to standard form (and no, it really need not run in-excess of two hours). Regardless, Fate is the Hunter remains the undisputed champion of plane crash investigation films and the first season of Departure covers some of the same causes, but with more interesting characters.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Shining Girls, on Apple TV+

The immortal body-possessing serial killer in Fallen often teased Denzel Washington by humming “Time is on My Side.” That is even more true for this killer. He always knows what his victims will do, because he already watched them do it. Kirby Mazrachi was the one victim who lived to report it. Her name was different then, but she legal changed it. That was the only alteration to her reality that she initiated. Somehow, she is linked to her time-traveling stalker in Silka Luisa’s eight-episode Shining Girls, adapted from Lauren Beukes’ novel, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Mazrachi constantly writes the details of her life in a notebook, because they frequently change. One day, she lives with her rocker mother Rachel, and then suddenly they are estranged. Her desk in the basement research department of
The Chicago Sun-Times constantly moves on her. Sometimes she has a dog named Grendel, other times it is a cat. The disorienting phenomenon started after she survived the vicious slasher attack.

Obviously, Mazrachi has never been able to put the nightmare behind her, so when another woman is killed under similar circumstances, she starts investigating. Reluctantly, she becomes a source for Dan Velazquez, an alcoholic reporter at the paper. Together, they discover an inexplicable pattern. Objects found at the crime scenes link several unsolved homicides over a span of decades, even though some of those items refer to places and events that did not happen yet. Mazrachi had hers too—a matchbook for a non-existent bar.

Shining Girls
is an example of the sort of book that could only really be properly adapted during the current streaming boom. Luisa takes the time to let us experience multiple shifts in Mazrachi’s reality, which pays-off later when viewers see the implications of those shifts. Although the time travel itself is basically a fantastical device rather than something with a science fictional explanation, Shining Girls still represents some of the smartest and most character-driven time travel programming, since Needle in a Timestack.

Elisabeth Moss is terrific as Mazrachi. She is credible and compelling freaking-out, without visibly freaking-out, while also struggling to take charge of her shifting reality. Wagner Moura is also entertainingly grungy and boozy as Velazquez (who now happens to be Brazilian in the series, you can even see him wearing an Os Mutantes t-shirt).

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Beineix’s Diva

Opera singer Cynthia Hawkins is the opposite of Glenn Gould. She refuses to record, because she believes music requires an immediate relationship with a live audience. Jules is her biggest fan, but he is also a compulsive taper, even more so than the average Deadhead. He thinks he is being chased around Paris for a tape of her latest concert, but it is really a case of wrong-place-at-the-wrong time. The resulting noir misadventures became one of the biggest breakout hits for French cinema in America during the 1980s. It still looks great and holds up mightily when Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva re-releases in 35mm tomorrow at Film Forum.

Jules is a slightly obsessive fan who taped Hawkins’ latest concert and also impulsively stole her shawl. Unbeknownst to him, two dodgy Taiwanese record label sharks saw him do it—the taping that is. Of course, they would very much like to release that tape.

The next day, a prostitute-informer hopes to turn over an incriminating cassette to the police, but an ice pick in her back forces her to ditch the tape in Jules’ mailbag. Suddenly, he finds himself hunted by two colorful thugs, “The Caribbean” and “The Priest” out to protect their boss, Saporta, the chief of the homicide squad, who also happens to be the kingpin of a human trafficking ring. Jules is way out of his league, but he finds help from two recent acquaintances, Alba, a young kleptomaniac French-Vietnamese model, and her ambiguous lover, Serge Gorodish, a reclusive pianist.

Diva
is super-slick and uber-stylish. You can really see where 1980s slicksters like Adrian Lyne and Tony Scott could have stolen a lot from Beineix’s film. The timing is right for revisiting/rediscovering Diva, given the prominent role Beinneix’s Betty Blue plays in the recent cheesy Netflix weeper, The In Between. Together, the two films firmly established Beineix as an auteur of flashy excess, but Diva is considerably more fun.

Frankly, it is bizarre that neither Thuy An Luu or American opera diva Wilhelmenia Fernandez became big-screen stars after
Diva, because there are most deeply seductive and intriguing as Alba and Hawkins, respectively. Ironically, the thesp who probably got the most mileage out of the film was Dominique Pinon, who is definitely cool and creepy as the sinister Priest. As poor Jules, Frederic Andrei is probably the only cast-member who isn’t colorful, but we feel for the sad sack. Richard Bohringer’s Gorodish is also somewhat restrained, but his sly ethical ambiguity definitely keeps viewers guessing, especially if they do not Beineix and Jean Van Hamme adapted their screenplay from one of Delacorte’s “Alba/Gorodish” novels.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Aviary

Say what you will, but cults have a solid business model. There are low barriers to entry and high barriers to exit. Two women learn that the hard way when they flee from their former cult leader “Seth” through the New Mexico desert in Chris Cullari & Jennifer Raite’s The Aviary, which opens Friday in New York.

Awkwardly, Gillian recruited Blair into the “Skylight” cult and now she wants to get her out. As a senior member, Gillian had a glimpse of Seth’s latest treatment and it scared her back into sanity (or did it?). They made a clean break for it, but as they make their way towards Gallop, Seth is still in their heads—certainly psychologically and perhaps also in fantastical uncanny ways. As a result, they find themselves walking in circles and increasingly distrusting each other.

Aviary
probably isn’t truly horror, but it has horror-ish elements. Cullari & Raite previously created the entertaining 12 Deadly Days, which a lot of fans unfortunately missed out on. It tries hard, but The Aviary is not as clever nor as much fun. This story might have worked better as a chapter in an anthology. There is a lot of is-it-or-isn’t-it manipulation going on that is intriguing, but it also comes weighted down with endless scenes of the two women trudging and bickering through the sand.

Corrective Measures, on Tubi

In comic books, when super-villains break out of prison, superheroes just catch them and stick them back in again. They finally built a better mousetrap, San Tiburon, a facility in an undisclosed location, fully loaded with super-power nullifiers. However, the big dangerous supervillains still have their natural strength and in the case of “The Lobe,” his advanced intelligence. A new inmate finds himself caught in the crossfire of an ongoing power-struggle in Sean Patrick O’Reilly’s Corrective Measures, based on Grant Chastain’s graphic novel, which starts streaming this Friday on Tubi.

According to the derivative backstory, San Tiburon is operated by a company very much like Vogt in
The Boys. They may or may not have been responsible for the string of natural disasters that also somehow caused the development of diverse superpowers in select individuals. By law, anyone convicted of a crime who is known to have powers must be incarcerated in San Tiburon. Unfortunately, that includes Diego Diaz, a mere empath. Basically, he is a super-Bill Clinton, who feels your pain, acutely.

San Tiburon should be a potentially fatal experience for him, but he catches a break when he stops the super-vigilante Payback from murdering the Lobe in the infirmary. Basically, the Lobe is a Professor X-like supervillain, who amassed a fortune through telepathic mind-control. The inmates revere him, so they cut Diaz some slack. However, Warden Devlin, make that Overseer Devlin, intends to extort the Lobe’s fortune from him, before his impending retirement, using threats of lobotomies and the like. Somehow, Diaz might figure in the Lobe’s counter-plans.

It is kind of awkward to review Bruce Willis film after the recent announcement of his diagnosis. Although many of his VOD films have been tarred with a broad brush, Willis has actually been pretty good in some of them, like
American Siege and Acts of Violence. In this case, let’s just say he is miscast as the Lobe, a role that really requires the sort of sneering scenery-chewing John Malkovich could have brought to the table.

ND/NF ’22: Fire of Love


Katia and Maurice Krafft were sort of like the Jacques Cousteaus of volcanism. For decades, they were beloved, especially throughout Europe, for their books and television documentaries on volcanoes. They even had their own red stocking caps. As a couple, they kept their privates lives private, but their passion for volcanoes was very public. It also led to their demise. The Kraffts’ lives and careers are documented in Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, which screens as part of the 2022 New Directors/New Films.

The Kraffts talked a lot about volcanoes, but not so much about themselves. Dosa had extensive access to the Kraffts’ archives, which was a blessing, but a number of their personal details remain blank. Maybe that is okay, because everyone is coming for the volcanoes anyway, but Dosa too often tries to speculate (and then ruminate) anyway.

Maurice was always the adventurer who wanted to get closer, regardless of risks. Katia was the more analytical and conservative one, who was reluctant to raft across acid lakes. At first, they investigated both of their two loose classifications for volcanoes. “Red” volcanoes have the classic slow glowing lavas flows, but you really must be negligent to let one kill you. “White” or “grey” volcanoes are the really dangerous ones that suddenly just explode, like Mount St. Helens. It was that danger to human life that led the Kraffts to eventually specialize in the latter.

It is not much of a spoiler to reveal the Kraffts were killed by a white volcano, because Dosa starts with the reality of their deaths, rewinding in search of “Rosebud” moments. Much of the archival film she assembled is quite amazing. However, Miranda July’s narration is grossly over-written, dubiously offering loaded pop psychology and forced symbolism. This is a case where less would have been much more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

If not  exactly burying the lede, this documentary holds off on a highly telling detail until about the halfway point. It turns out Israeli thesps Hanna Maron and Asaf Dayan could have been in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, were it not for injuries they both suffered during a plane hijacking. To put things into perspective, the mass murder at the 1972 Munich Olympics were committed less than a year after the film released. The musical based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories and the film that adapted it still have a great deal of relevance. Director Daniel Raim and his co-writer-co-producer Michael Sragow document its tricky adaptation process and lasting legacy in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, which opens Friday in New York.

When it first opened on Broadway, conventional wisdom expected
Fiddler to flop. Instead, audiences readily identified with its themes of family, faith, and tradition. It was such a hit, it became a natural candidate for film version—remember, this was the era of Camelot and Paint Your Wagon. Norman Jewison was the logical choice to direct, because he had experience with music and themes related to tolerance. However, he frequently had to explain he really was not Jewish, despite his name.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Jewison’s production had to entirely construct the village’s wooden synagogue, because those of its like had been entirely destroyed during the Holocaust. Ironically, the location they selected was a village in Yugoslavia, a country which no longer exists. A lot of talent contributed to
Fiddler the film, but the doc somewhat unfairly suggests it did not create any stars. It rather depends on how you define a star. Paul Michael Glaser went on to have a successful career (he even directed Running Man) and for many years Israeli thesp Topol was a household name in America (he was also in Flash Gordon and For Your Eyes Only).

Regardless, Raim and Sragow do a solid job chronicling the history of the production and putting it all into proper cultural and historical context. The recognizable voice of Jeff Goldblum also keeps the considerable narration quite lively. Raim extensively interviews Jewison and most of the primary cast-members (weirdly Glaser is the notable exception). However, probably the most interesting commentary comes from the legendary John Williams, who arranged and conducted the music.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Cursed Films: The Serpent and the Rainbow


This film probably couldn’t be produced anymore. There are just too many minefields to traverse when it comes to voodoo. Yet, for decades, the only zombies in movies were of the voodoo variety. In his book, Wade Davis tried to de-mystify the zombification phenomenon, but critics of Wes Craven’s adaptation consider it more of the same sensationalism. Yet, Craven and producer David Ladd strived for authenticity, filming on-location in Haiti. The resulting drama explains why The Serpent and the Rainbow is the subject of this week’s Cursed Films, on Shudder.

Unlike many
Cursed Films subjects, most of the cast and crew on Serpent are still available to talk about it. The most notable exception is Craven, one of the most important directors of the genre. Understandably, Davis had mixed emotions when he signed on to direct that were largely justified.

Regardless, Craven and Ladd started filming in Haiti, which was an ambitious decision. On their first night, the crew was blessed in a real-deal ceremony. According to some interview subjects that blessing may have saved their lives. Despite the lack of a body count, the production had at least one “possession,” maybe even two—call it one and a half. That is a good deal of cursing. Plus, there was a full-scale riot.

Only Cloud Knows, on OVID.tv

Feng Xiaogang's return to weepy melodrama is sort of like his spin on Love Story. While Erich Segal’s bestseller was vaguely based on his famous Harvard classmates, Feng’s film was more specifically inspired by the tragic romance of his frequent collaborator Zhang Shu. In this case, love means having to sit through a lot of whale motifs in Feng’s Only Cloud Knows, which premieres Wednesday on OVID.tv.

It is never explained why Simon Sui Dongfeng and Jennifer Luo Yun felt compelled to leave Beijing, but because they did, they somehow managed to find each other in Auckland. Eventually, Feng flashback to their courtship, but first we follow Sui as he travels back to remote Clyde, NZ, which is the first stop on his ash-scattering tour.

For fifteen years, he and Luo lived relatively happily, as the proprietors of the unlikeliest located Chinese restaurant. They are good-friends with their on-again-off-again waitress (and world adventurer) Melinda and dote on their adopted mutt Blue. Yet, there is a sadness to Luo that Sui never fully understands, until he embarks on this soul-searching errand.

Feng has made some great films like
Youth and I am Not Madame Bovary, but Only Cloud Knows is a perfect example of the tone deafness of Chinese soft power (as we traditionally consider it). In this case, there is little or no propaganda, but the unsubtle heartstring tugging is more likely to elicit cringes from Western audiences than tears. From the gauzy cinematography (at one point the characters even gather to gawk at the Southern Lights) to the treacly soundtrack, Only Clouds Knows is always way over the top, but never sufficiently self-aware to recognize that. It translates just fine, but it does not travel well.

Nor does it help that the leads, Huang Xuan and Yang Caiyu, though undeniable attractive, are quietly dull on-screen. Although Melinda is cloyingly “free-spirited,” Lydia Peckham’s portrayal is charismatic. Yet, probably the most compellingly performance (after Blue) comes from Feng-regular Xu Fan, who is relentlessly touching as Ms. Lin, the couple’s landlady in Auckland.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

ND/NF ’22: The Innocents

They are sort of like young X-Men, who can amplify their latent psychic powers when banded together. Unfortunately, they probably never should have done so, because one of them is . . . troubled. Coming of age slowly but steadily slides into horror in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents, which screens as part of the 2022 New Directors/New Films.

Kids can be rotten. Ida proves that through her cruelty to her older sister Anna. She feels like her sibling gets all her parents’ attention due to her severe autism. At this point, Anna has almost no expressive language skills, so the family has to new exurban neighborhood, in hopes that nearby facilities will help treat Anna.

Unbeknownst to Ida, little Aisha seems to undergo experiences that mirror those of Anna, but she is fully aware of her surroundings. In fact, Aisha is keenly aware, because she has a bit of the “shine.” Largely left to her own devices, Ida befriends Ben, another local kid with a single-mother, who also has ambiguous “gifts.” However, Ben has a considerable mean streak. When the four children get together, Anna suddenly has sufficient conduits to communicate telepathically. She also starts to reverse her apparent developmental regression. Unfortunately, they also inadvertently empower Ben, which leads to horrific consequences.

Vogt’s
Blind was a remarkably accomplished debut, but The Innocents is an even more assured work. It is not exactly a “slow build,” but the stakes and suspense steadily grow and compound (like off-shore interest payments) with each scene. There is a tragic logic to the story and a cleverness to how Vogt reveals it.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Singing in the Wilderness, in Epoch Times


The Christian choir in a Miao farm village learns its never good news when the Party takes an interest. Exclusive Epoch Times review of Singing in the Wilderness (screening at New Directors/New Films) now up here.
 

ND/NF ’22: Onoda 10,000 Nights in the Jungle

Hiroo Onoda helps prove why the atomic bombing of Japan were necessary to end WWII. He was the second to last Japanese soldier to lay down his arms, decades after the Emperor surrendered. Onoda and the final holdout, Teruo Nakamura became the stuff of tall tales and legends, but his story is in fact a tragedy. The sad futility of Onoda’s service is chronicled in French filmmaker Arthur Harari’s multi-multi-national co-production Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which screens as part of the 2022 New Directors/New Films.

Initially, Onoda was considered a washout, because his acrophobia prevented him from fulfilling his duties as a kamikaze pilot. However, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi gave him a chance for redemption when he recruited Onoda for training in guerilla resistance. Onoda is dispatched to Lubang in the Philippines, with the anticipation that it would soon fall. No matter what he might hear, Onoda and whatever troops he can hold on to are supposed to wage hit-and-run attacks against the Americans and our local Filipino allies.

Unfortunately, Taniguchi trained him too well. Few of the troops have Onoda’s will to fight, but his second in command, Kozuka is as dedicated/stubborn/incredulous/fanatical as he is. Inevitably, the numbers of their rag-tag group dwindle, until it is just gaunt and grizzled Onoda and Kozuka, but they still manage terrorize the local farmers on a regular basis.

In some ways,
Onoda is an absurdist war film, not so radically dissimilar in terms of aesthetics from Apocalypse Now. Yet, it achieves a note of grace and redemption when a young, conscientious “tourist” journeys to Lubang, in hopes of bringing home the now nearly mythical Onoda.

Although more senior than a drill sergeant, Taniguchi, as played by Issey Ogata, ranks alongside Louis Gossett Jr. in
An Officer and a Gentleman and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Yet, one of the most fascinating developments in the film is the way Taniguchi is forced to face up to his former militarism.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road

Families are pretty much the same everywhere and they face very similar challenges, mostly. This Iranian family has trouble relatively specific to (but widespread within) the Islamic Republic. Their adult son faces vaguely defined political charges, so they intend to smuggle him over the Turkish border. It could be their final family road trip in Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, opening today in New York.

Apparently, this is not an uncommon family experience in Iran. It is almost like the Western ritual of driving kids off to their first day of college, except it might be forever. Of course, the Mother and Father cannot let on to their seven or eight-year-old Helion that his big brother might be leaving for good. They have to keep up appearances and he just wouldn’t understand. In fact, there is a very real possibility the morals police could be following them, which would hold disastrous consequences.

Compounding the family’s stressful deceptions, their ailing family dog Jessy is failing fast, but they have concealed his fatal condition from the younger brother. Mother and Father constantly bicker over Jessy, in coded language, but it is really a proxy to express their fear and frustration over the Older Brother’s impending exile.

Panahi is indeed the son of Jafar Panahi and a former protégé of Abbas Kiarostami. Not surprisingly, you can see echoes of his father’s later work, especially in the claustrophobic setting of the car, which contrasts with the grand mountainous exteriors and the theme of movement and escape. Despite Older Brother’s circumstances, Panahi tries to avoid making political and ideological statements. However, his inclusion of forbidden, pre-Revolutionary popular songs issues a quiet rebuke of the state’s pervasive censorship. Nevertheless,
Hit the Road was shot and produced legally, above-board and in the open, unlike his father’s most recent films (such as This is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, and Taxi).

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Special Guest Star Vincent Price, on Nightfire


Of course, Vincent Price could be scary, but he was always great fun. For some good examples, I survey some of his notable TV guest-star appearances for Nightfire here.

Virus: 32, on Shudder

Now that we do not have to wear masks on flights, it ought to be okay to enjoy zombie-like viral-rage outbreak movies again too. If the subject still “triggers” you, you probably shouldn’t be watching horror films in the first place, because mature grown-ups don’t get triggered. Ready or not, mindless berserkers will rampage through the streets of a Latin American city in Gustavo Hernandez’s Uruguayan- and Argentinian-produced Virus:32, which premieres today on Shudder.

Iris is not a great mother, but her ex-husband still needs her to look after their pre-teen daughter Tata for a while. Bad luck that he would drop her off right as a rage-inducing outbreak sweeps the city. Technically, these do not seem to be zombies. Their bite does not appear to be infectious. They have another quirk too. After killing (any creature, so long as it has blood), the infected freeze in a state of Nirvana-like stasis for 32 seconds. That means if they get your buddy next to you, you should have time to make a getaway, or at least get a head start.

Nothing about the premise or twists of
Virus: 32 is shockingly original, but Hernandez’s execution is lethally effective, especially during the first forty minutes or so. Hernandez sets the scene in a decrepit-looking old sports club, where Iris works as a slacker security guard. Since her cell phone is connected to the network of closed-circuit cameras, we get to see the shadowy location, from perspectives that maximize the ominous foreboding.

Hernandez also skillfully employs long tracking shots the build the tension. He carefully blocks and choreographs the action. Admittedly, it is dashed manipulative every time Iris happens to look the wrong way while trying to stealthily evade the mindless infected, but it sure works.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Billy the Kid, in the Epoch Times


The old West was a tough place for a kid, even for The Kid. Exclusive Epoch Times review of Billy the Kid now up here:
 

Kaijumax, Season 6, #6


Kaijus are going mainstream in the US. Godzilla vs. Kong was a big hit (even amid pandemic closures) and Scalzi’s Kaiju novel hit the bestseller list. Zander Cannon has been representing on behalf of Kaijus with his Kaijumax comic graphic novel series since 2016. Now, it all comes to an Earth-stomping conclusion in Kaijumax, Season 6, #6, which releases today.

As someone who basically jumped on at the last minute, it seems pretty clear Cannon uses kaijus in somewhat the same way Chris Claremont employed mutants in
The X-Men to address issues of prejudice and tolerance. In the Kaijumax world, formerly imprisoned Kaijus agreed to defend the Earth from intergalactic invaders, sort of like a behemoth version of The Dirty Dozen. Of course, the terms of their service are basically one-sided. Their victories are pyrrhic and the human authorities are ruthlessly exploitative.

Yet, Cannon still manages to end the series with grace and a tribute to the kaiju’s continuing endurance. According to Cannon’s afterward, the series turned out to have “way more satire” than he originally envisioned. (Hopefully, that doesn’t mean previous issues were too heavy-handed, but that is indeed why this is just a one-off review and not a deeper dive into the series.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Take Me to the River New Orleans

Even without jazz, New Orleans would be one of most important musical cities. That might be a heavy statement, but it is backed up by the likes of the Neville Brothers, The Meters, Dumpstaphunk, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, and Dr. John. When you add jazz back in, forget about it. Martin Shore doesn’t forget about NOLA’s jazz roots, but he definitely emphasizes the funk and R&B when he takes his documentary franchise to our favorite city in Take Me to the River New Orleans, which opens this Friday in the Crescent City, itself.

Shore visits studios all over New Orleans, where he pairs up legendary musicians, with up-and-coming local artists. It is an approach we’ve seen many times before. Frankly, a lot of fans would rather just see Irma Thomas (on her own), who kicks off the film with Ledisi, performing her classic “Wish Someone Would Care.” We do not mean to insult Ledisi, but this kind of Tony Bennett
Duets project is getting to be a cliché.

It is way more interesting to hear a diverse group of New Orleans drummers: Shannon Powell, Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr., Terence Higgins, and Stanton Moore, kvetch and jam on “Li’l Liza Jane,” because it is a real dialogue. Donald Harrison, Jr. represents the jazz tradition and helps explain the significance of the Mardi Gras Indians. He also jams hard on the “Saints” with his nephew Christian Scott and the Tipitina’s Interns. You can’t get much more New Orleans than that.

Shore visits Preservation Hall, but we do not really hear much from the current bands there. However, a number of brass bands perform and discuss the current funkier scene, including the New Breed, Rebirth, and the grandaddies of them all, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (who back Aaron Neville on a rousing “Stompin’ Ground”).

It is totally cool to see Walter “Wolfman” Washington included, jamming with Ani DiFranco on a real deal Cajun tune. The sessions involving rappers are a mixed bag, with the most successful being the Soul Rebels jamming with the late 5
th Ward Weebie on “504/Enjoy Yourself.” The tribute to Toussaint is a bit gimmicky, but somehow Snoop Dog and G-Eazy almost sound like they belong on “Yes We Can,” with the Meters, William Bell, and Big Sam Williams doing all the hard work of keeping things funky.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Charlotte, Animated

Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre? is an ambitious autobiographical collection of a thousand paintings documenting events in the Jewish-German artist’s life. She should have had the opportunity to add thousands more to the series, but she died terribly young. Salomon’s short life and rich legacy are chronicled in Eric Warin & Tahir Rana’s animated feature Charlotte, which opens Friday in New York.

Salomon had a loving home in Weimar Germany with her father and step-mother, but she was keenly aware of the absence of her birth-mother. She wanted to study art, but her Jewish heritage made it difficult. Eventually, her parents sent her to live with grandparents in the south of France, but her grandfather was difficult to deal with, because her mother’s suicide had emotionally damaged him.

Nevertheless, she managed during this time to form a lifelong friendship with the American heiress Ottilie Moore and fall in love with refugee Alexander Nagler. Unfortunately, her grandfather tries to separate her from both, due to his stern (and cruel) notions of propriety.

Frankly,
Charlotte gets a bit sidetracked with the bitter melodrama surrounding her nasty grandfather. In contrast, Salomon’s romance with Nagler is achingly beautiful, precisely because it is so tragic. Arguably, screenwriters Erik Rutherford and David Bezmozgis have the biographical emphasis slightly off, but Salomon’s story is still well worth telling.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Delta Space Mission, from Romania

America won the Space Race with Apollo 11 and the West overwhelmingly dominated science fiction, what with Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. However, the Warsaw Pact had their contenders, such as the East German DEFA productions and various Stanislav Lem adaptations (Solaris being the most famous). In 1984, Romania joined the sf soft-power fray with its first animated feature ever. Space is a trippy place in Mircea Toia & Calin Cazan’s freshly restored Delta Space Mission, which releases this Tuesday on VOD.

Delta looks like the Death Star, but it is more like the Enterprise. Dan helped design it to discover alien races and facilitate peaceful cooperation with them. Space-faring journalist Alma has come to cover the launch, bringing her metal-eating space dog Tin with her. Frankly, Tin looks more like a space frog, but these were the Ceausescu years, so if someone in authority called it a dog, then it was a dog. The trouble begins when the Delta AI falls in love with Alma.

Suddenly, all Delta’s programming goes out the window. Dan and his comrades search for the giant rogue spacecraft, but it deliberately lets Alma find it. After forcing her to crash on a swamp-like planet, Delta creates a fleet of drones to find and retrieve her.

You can see a fair number of visual echoes from
Star Wars in DSM. The rogue AI is also transparently reminiscent of HAL 9000 in 2001. However, the vibrant colors and groovy synthesizer vibes make it look and feel like a spaced-out hybrid of DEFA’s swinging 1970s sf (like Eolomea and In the Dust of the Stars) star-crossed with Battle of the Planets/Gatchaman.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Radio Silence’s Scream 2022

You can tell the Scream franchise must be mainstream, because it is the only horror movie streaming on American Airlines’ Latin American flights. The latest still isn’t a reboot, but it openly toys with the recent practice of sequels that give the series a fresh start, while still maintaining the established world and continuity, like Candyman 2021. (It even returns to the simple, numeral-free title of the original film.) Yet, in a way the meta-franchise Wes Craven launched always did that. Once again, it is a new killer (or more likely killers, since the film reminds us “it is never just one”) that dons the Ghostface mask. Yet, like always, it (or they) are obsessed with Sidney Prescott and her friends in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett’s Scream 2022 (or Panico in Brazil), which you can watch on American.

In
Scream movies, no matter who it is underneath the Ghostface, they aren’t infallible. An intended victim can actually escape, which leads to genuine suspense. In this case, it happens in the latest cold kill opening. Tara Carpenter survives, but that turns out to be by design. The latest Ghostface hoped to lure her semi-estranged sister Sam back to Woodsboro, because she happened to be the secret love child of the original serial killer, Billy Loomis.

Of course, our mystery Ghostface also wants to pull Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Dewey Riley back into the game, because it wouldn’t be the same without them. In the meantime, the new copycat bumps off the obnoxious teens in Tara’s social circle.

Bettinelli-Olpin & Gillett, of the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, do a nice recapturing the knowing vibe of the original films. If anything, the characters are a little too cognizant of “following the rules.” Presumably, at some point panic would probably set in, if you suddenly found yourself in a slasher movie, unless it was your fifth go-round, like it is for Prescott and her fellow survivors.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Chariot, with John Malkovich

Everyone who lives at The Lafayette has their thing. Harrison Hardy’s oddity is a recurring dream that his childhood home had an attic, when it really didn’t. It sounds pretty minor, but after dreaming it over 4,000 times, it is starting to bother him. Dr. Karn, his new sleep specialist, shouldn’t inspire confidence, but Hardy goes to him for treatment anyway in screenwriter-director Adam Sigal’s Chariot, which opens today in New York.

Nobody Hardy previously consulted with could figure out his subconscious hang-up, but Karn immediately believes he has a handle on it. He just needs Hardy to come back for a little more counseling, before moving forward with the treatment. He really ought to know, since we are clearly led to suspect the strange doctor is somehow involved in whatever is going on. A lot of the film’s publicity and marketing materials totally give the big secret away, so google
Chariot carefully.

While waiting for his cure, Hardy starts to meet the other residents of the Lafayette, including Maria Deschaines, an actress with whom he feels an immediate connection. In fact, after he starts seeing her, his dream starts to progress a little further, up into the nonexistent attic.

Chariot
either needed to be simpler or considerably more complex. Instead, we just get a handful of people trying desperately to act mysterious and weird. For instance, Scout-Taylor Compton plays a pretty young resident, who supposedly also has the spirit of a crass fiftysomething Englishman coexisting inside her. She has a lot of screentime, but her character[s] have little bearing on the narrative.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

There is a lot of sinister history and literature surrounding world’s fairs, like Too Long at the Fair, or serial killer Henry H. Holmes. However, that potentially rich lore only gets a passing mention in this multi-player internet horror game. Nevertheless, it may (or may not) turn into a real horror story in Jane Schoenbrun’s not-quite-found-footage We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which opens tomorrow in Brooklyn.

Casey is a lonely teen (probably in upstate New York) who is about to take the “World’s Fair” challenge. It is sort of like invoking Bloody Mary, but it serves as your initiation into the World’s Fair massive multi-player online game. However, participants often ominously report feelings of disorientation, and even body transformation after taking the challenge. Apparently, that sounds like fun to Casey.

She too experiences disturbing symptoms, as she documents on her tiny YouTube channel. However, her videos manage to attract the attention of “JLB,” a much older player, who appears to be some kind of socially introverted shut-in.

World’s Fair
could have played a lot of creepy mind-games, inviting us to question whether JLB is playing Casey or vice versa. Yet, despite billing itself as a horror film, it is really more of an examination of isolation and alienation in the online age. There is an unsettling vibe, but Schoenbrun lets the scenes play out to such a length, it undermines the tension.

Thematically,
World’s Fair shares similarities with The Gallows duology, but the Blumhouse produce movies just milk the online challenge gimmick for cheap jump scares. Schoenbrun’s film is of higher quality, thanks in large measure to the two primary cast-members, but it is debatable whether it delivers what it promises.

Outer Range, on Amazon Prime

Disputes over land are a classic motivation for feuding in the West. As things stood, there was already tension between the Abbotts and the Tillersons before Wayne Tillerson filed a claim for Royal Abbott’s western pasture land. Abbott isn’t about to let any of his ranch go without a fight, especially given the secret presence of a mysterious portal thingy. Unfortunately, there are always more questions than answers in creator Brian Watkins’ Outer Range, which premieres tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

Abbott’s family was already reeling from the mysterious disappearance of his daughter-in-law Rebecca, but his young granddaughter Amy is handling it remarkably well. In contrast, his eldest son Perry remains an emotional wreck. Massively inconveniently, he lets one of the loutish Tillerson boys goad him into a lethal parking lot fight. Panicking, he and his brother Rhett bring the body home to Pa, who happens to know the perfect place to dispose of it.

The problem is, when you throw something into the portal, you never know where or when it will come out. Watkins never establishes any rules for the yawning void. Instead of fascinating viewers as a metaphor for the randomness of existence, its unpredictability conspicuously serves Watkins’ interests in moving the plot along. For Royal, there are the additional problems that Autumn, the creepy hippy camping on his land, also knows about the portal, and Wayne Tillerson most likely suspects the existence of something like it.

Throughout
Outer Range, the portal is like the well Watkins keeps going back to when he needs to shake things up. Yet, the pacing is still laboriously deliberate (it leans more towards Power of the Dog than The Magnificent Seven). Perversely, it also regularly antagonizes its target audience with Royal Abbott’s raving announcements of the death of God. Faith is something that life beats out of you in Outer Range.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse

Suddenly, this zombie-mayhem sequel feels awkwardly dated. It isn’t the sinister role played by the military, because that is an ever-present genre cliché. Rather, the fact that the scientist working on a zombie-outbreak cure is so deranged and pointlessly sadistic seems like a relic of 2019. Heck, he has already developed a “vaccine,” but at a tremendous ongoing human cost. Brooke, the surviving human-zombie-hybrid from the first film intends to ruin his mad doctor plans in the Roache-Turners’ Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, which releases digitally this Thursday.

Whatever happened, it turned most of the world into zombies and stopped all fossil fuels from igniting. Somehow, the hardy survivors managed to find a way to harness the power of highly combustible zombie breath. Rhys has managed to power a relatively secure compound solely with captured zombies. He will look familiar to Brooke and her brother, Barry, because they killed his identical twin in the original
Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.

Rhys barters zombies and human specimens for supplies from the insane “Surgeon General” and the ruthless Colonel. However, he does not understand the nature of their “experiments” or the source of the medication that keeps him from getting “twitchy.” Brooke (who has a telepathic link to all zombiedom) initially distrusts Rhys, but they will eventually team up together to rescue another hybrid.

Bianca Brady kicked butt all across the screen in
Road of the Dead, but this time around, the Roache-Turner Brothers (director-co-writer Kiah and producer-co-writer Tristan) don’t give her the material to take the character to the next level. Instead of fierce and powerful, she mostly comes across as creepy and unstable. It’s a big disappointment.

There is still a grungy inventiveness to the latest
Wyrmwood that is appealing. The Roache-Turners also unleash all kinds of deliriously gory practical effects. It has all the elements of a successful midnight movie, but it just can’t duplicate the “magic” of the first film.

Titanic 666, on Tubi

If a cruise line built a perfect facsimile Titanic, it would have to be a Chinese company. Replicas are a big thing there and the necessary hubris requires a company like Evergrande. Regardless of ownership, a brand-new Titanic sets sail for a special maiden voyage to the waters where its namesake sunk. If that sounds like bad karma to you, the angry spirits that are raised from the dead totally agree in Nick Lyon’s Titanic 666, which premieres this Friday on Tubi.

Titanic 666
was produced by the Asylum, so you should know the sort of exploitative cashing-in to expect. Still, just seeing them completely trash the ending of the 1997 Oscar winner in its nutty prologue is worth something. The action then flashes forward to modern times, as the Titanic III is about to set sail. The layout and décor completely match its historical namesake, but the structure and engineering are all completely modern. Supposedly, this one won’t sink, but haven’t we heard that before?

To be fair, the engineers never anticipated a nameless stowaway sneaking on-board, to invoke the ghost of her great-grandfather, Captain Edward Smith, through a satanic ritual (honestly, nobody would blame the Smith family if they were to file suit against the film). Suddenly, he and other ghosts of the original Titanic’s victims are wreaking havoc on the ship’s systems and preying on its most obnoxious passengers. Married social media influencers Mia and Jackson Stone easily take that cake, but Prof. Hal Cochran, a purveyor of dodgy Titanic artifacts is not far behind them.

The only reason to see
Titanic 666 is to verify whether it really is what it purports to be. It is indeed, so there you go. Frankly, it is a relief when the Titanic ghosts kill the Stones. Cochran’s involvement with the company’s hotshot security specialist doesn’t really make any sense (why does he need cover from him, when he already has permission to hawk his wares), but whatever.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown—on Apple TV+

Earth Day is one of the few “holidays” the Peanuts gang didn’t have a special for, until now. (To be fair, they had Arbor Day, which is pretty much the same thing, but a different day). Their latest special of the Apple era is indeed intended to commemorate Earth Day, but it works just as well for the opening of baseball season. Flowers will be planted, but it is unclear how much baseball will be played on Charlie Brown’s regular weed-infested field in Snoopy Presents: It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown, directed by Raymond S. Persi, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Purists amongst us will be happy to see the black-headed kid’s name back on the title (they’re still using that “Snoopy Presents,” but whatever). Snoopy is a star, but Charlie Brown is the heart and soul of
Peanuts, partly because he is such an eternal optimist. This time he is convinced his baseball team can beat Peppermint Patty’s for the neighborhood pennant. It maybe wouldn’t be as crazy as it sounds, because he has them playing some pretty good ball. The thing is, he promised Sally she could play this year—and she is terrible on the field.

The real trouble comes when she gives up on playing and becomes fixated on a dandelion growing on the pitcher’s mound. Much to Charlie Brown’s frustration, her sudden enthusiasm for wild nature starts to catch on in the neighborhood and within his team.

None of Apple’s
Peanuts originals have quite matched the gentle wisdom of Charles Shulz’s writing, because how could they, but the previous For Auld Lang Syne came pretty close. Small Things also has some worthy sentiments, but it happens to be the first that really creates its own musical identity. In the past, Jeff Morrow’s music was nice, but clearly tried to evoke Vince Guaraldi’s classic themes, while staying appreciably different (presumably for legal and economic reasons).

Monday, April 11, 2022

Spiritwalker, on DVD

It is like Quantum Leap, but with non-stop fighting. Our protag’s consciousness jumps bodies every twelve hours, but thanks to his amnesia, he has no idea who he is or the identity of the people he inhabits. However, it turns out he is closely linked to all of them in screenwriter-director Yoon Jae-keun’s Spiritwalker, which releases tomorrow on DVD and BluRay.

Kang I-an (or “Ian” in the English subtitles) is having a very bad day. He doesn’t even remember he is Kang. That is something he will have to puzzle out on the fly. His only ally will be the nameless homeless who keeps crossing paths with Kang after each jump. Nevertheless, Kang keeps turning up just in time to save his former lover and colleague Moon Jin-A, even when it is very much out of character for the bodies he possesses.

There is a secret to all this that probably shouldn’t be revealed. Regardless, the important thing is the explanations work well enough, so viewers can just settle down and enjoy the wall-to-wall action. This is a total run-and-gun film, featuring fight choreography from Park Young-sik and Chung Seong-ho, who shared a SAG Award for the stunt work on a little project called
Squid Game. Yet, Yoon also pulls off some wildly cinematic transitional scenes for Kang’s jumps.

This is a terrific rollercoaster ride, very much in the spirit of Cho Sun-ho’s
A Day. A lot of casual streamers are just now discovering Korean film and TV, but they have been making some of the best high-concept thrillers for the last two or three decades. In addition to the fantastical twist, Moon’s honest and heartfelt Christian faith also helps distinguish Spiritwalker from the field. As a result, concepts like the soul and confession have real meaning in this film.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Buddy Guy: True to the Blues

Why would you ever interrupt Buddy Guy, even if it was to help tell his story? After all, the best way to understand Guy is through his music. Conceived as a companion piece to Devin Amar, Matt Michener & Charles Todd’s Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away (which aired last year as part of American Masters), viewers can finally watch a good number of the excerpted performances in their full and complete glory during Buddy Guy: True to the Blues, which airs Thursday night on New York’s PBS Thirteen (and is available on the PBS app).

True to the Blues
more or less follows the chronology of Chase, but it only incorporates brief snippets of the film’s biographical context. This time, the music is front and center. Many of the selections are drawn from Live, the Real Deal, recorded in 1996, and rather logically, his appearances on PBS’s Austin City Limits.

We also see Guy performing a few songs solo for Amar and company, including the first he ever learned, John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen.’” His laidback rendition sounds totally cool, but it still has that driving beat. Appropriately, “The First Time I Met the Blues” appears after Guy discusses his initial meeting with Muddy Waters, while “Let Me Love You Baby” follows his reminiscences of the British rockers who championed him. The latter features a particularly blistering guitar solo and a jazzy horn line.

Saturday, April 09, 2022

61st Street, on AMC+

This show should have been called “Defund the Wire.” It takes place in Chicago, presumably somewhere around the titular street. Regardless, the city is highly prone to street crime, but the cops are the real source of danger in Peter Moffat’s 61st Street, which premieres tomorrow on AMC+.


Michael Rossi was just told he was passed over for promotion by Lt. Brannigan. Coincidentally, he is also wearing a wire, fishing for information from the Lieutenant on a possible corruption case. Shortly thereafter, Rossi is accidentally killed during bang-bang street incident. Moses Johnson is a potential college track scholarship athlete, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lt. Brannigan immediately fits Johnson for the murder, but public defender Franklin Roberts is determined to circumvent the railroading and represent the accused teen in a court of law. Unfortunately, the timing is bad. Roberts has just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and his wife is running for office on a an explicit “defund the police” platform. He really ought to talk to Rossi’s partner, Johnny Logan, who found the wire before the rest of the cops arrived on the scene. He knows there is something fishy about what Brannigan says, but since he comes from a family of cops, Logan is conflicted.

Basically,
61st Street recycles elements of shows like The Wire and adds a “Defund the Police” ideological bias. This would be the perfect time for an updated Bonfire of the Vanities, which would skewer every side of the racial politics that roiled the nation over the last two years. Unfortunately, Moffat and company blatantly play favorites, which makes it dull.