Friday, June 24, 2022

Chloe, on Prime Video

What you see on social media isn’t necessarily real. Everyone should know that by now, but this new series acts like it is a major discovery. In this case, Becky Green always thought her former pre-teen best friend Chloe Fairbourne had a perfect life while following her from a far, via Insta-whatever. She is therefore shocked by her suicide, as were her closest friends. However, when Green insinuates herself into Fairbourne’s circle, she starts to suspect her perfect life was not everything it was cracked up to be in creator Alice Seabright’s six-episode Chloe, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Evidently, Green and Fairbourne had a falling out as teens and never talked since then. The full details will not be revealed until late in the series. In the intervening years, Chloe married a wealthy local politician, whereas Green has worked depressing temp jobs, while caring for her increasingly dementia-plagued mother. Green wanted Fairbourne’s life and weirdly she might just get it.

Under the assumed name of “Sasha Miles,” Green befriends Chloe’s bestie, Livia Fulton. She manages to pass herself off as a gallery marketer, freshly returned from Tokyo, largely relying on the skills she developed as a party-crasher and what she gleans from social media. Soon, she is working with Fulton’s event-marketing firm and sleeping with Elliot Fairbourne, the grieving husband. Rather inconveniently, Josh Stanfield, a one-night-stand from a previously crashed reception, recognizes Green, but he will not blow her cover, as long as he is amused by her masquerade and their periodic hook-ups.

The start-and-stop
Chloe just cannot seem to decide whether it is a thriller or not. At times, it promises to turn into a Brat Farrar-style imposter suspenser and other times it threatens to veer into Sleeping with the Enemy territory, but always returns to mushy melodrama. It is frustrating, because there are times it really appears to be building steam (especially around the second half of episode four), only to deflate sometime thereafter.

Erin Doherty is all kinds of nervous and squirrely as Green/Miles, which certainly fits the character, but makes you wonder why everyone isn’t more suspicious of her. Poppy Gilbert has more screentime than you would expect as the dead title character, but it mostly comes in Instagram posts that morph into fantasies or dream sequences.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Olga, a Ukrainian Story from Switzerland

After the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, we almost forget the thuggishness of Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president, who aspired to be Putin’s puppet. However, this young gymnast will not forget it anytime soon. Following the attempted assassination of her journalist-mother, she will be forced into exile, for her own protection, in Elie Grappe’s Olga, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Olga’s late father was Swiss, so Olga’s rattled mother arranges for her temporary residence in the neutral nation. Olga also happens to be a very talented gymnast, so the coach of the Swiss junior team is happy to have her. Initially, she is a bit rusty, but she quickly rises to the top of the team. However, she will be distracted by news from Ukraine.

Before she left, her mother complained about the Ukrainian public’s apathy. Then, the Maidan demonstrations start. At first, they give Olga hope, but when Yanukovych unleashes his violent Berkut shock troops, Olga fears for her mother and her friends, who are often present at the protests. She believes she should be there, especially as some of her friends start to resent her absence.

Much like the Latvian film
January, Olga incorporates real footage from Maidan Square, alongside the dramatic scenes featuring the titular Ukrainian. For additional authenticity, Olga and her main teammates, both in Ukraine and Switzerland, are portrayed by real-life gymnasts. They have the athletic chops, but they are also pretty good thesps, especially Anastasia Budiashkina, who does excellent work conveying the guilt and confusion of simultaneously dealing with the pressure of competition, teen angst, and national trauma.

Tribeca ’22: The Black Phone

You can still find out-of-service pay phones left installed in the walls of old school diners, decrepit bus stations, and past-their-prime school buildings that seem to offer the promise of ghostly communication they cannot possibly fulfill. This serial killer assumes the disconnected phone in his basement dungeon is just like that, but his latest abductee will receive supernatural calls on it from previous victims in Scott Derrickson’s Blumhouse-produced The Black Phone, which opens tomorrow nationwide, after screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

He is called the Grabber for obvious reasons. He uses balloons and magic tricks to lure kids off the street, but even after grabbing them, he never lets them see his face unmasked. Unfortunately, Finney Shaw will be his next victim, following his friend Robin Arellano and his friendly softball rival, Bruce Yamada. Arellano was more formidable taking on bullies at school, but Shaw is the first to draw the Grabber’s blood during the abduction.

Thanks to the ghostly calls he receives on the supposedly kaput phone in the Grabber’s sound-proofed basement, Shaw also avoids all the mistakes his past victims made. They also offer advice regarding potential avenues for escape, but he will have to work quickly. So far, Shaw’s kidnapping has been so unsatisfying for the Grabber, he is starting to lose patience with his latest victim. Of course, the clueless cops are looking for him, but so is his younger sister Gwen. She has a bit of the shine, but she can’t necessarily summon it whenever she wants. Instead, it comes irregularly in dreams.

Based on the Joe Hill short story,
Black Phone features an abusive father, similar to the many examples found in the works of his own dad, Stephen King. Critics of the psychoanalytic school can make of that what they will, if they dare. At least Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s adapted screenplay explains the Shaw siblings’ father acts they way he does, because their late mother was driven crazy by her clairvoyant gift/curse.

Regardless,
Black Phone is insidiously effective (if you will) because the young cast is so compelling. Yes, the always reliable Ethan Hawke is all kinds of creepy as the Grabber, but the sinister masks are also a big part of his screen presence. However, Mason Thames really holds the audience’s attention and sympathy as the somewhat nebbish Shaw. When he is not on-screen, Madeleine McGraw steals numerous scenes and scores the film’s only laughs as his sister Gwen. You do not often see such an endearing and cooperative young brother-sister relationship in films—but it is done really well in Black Phone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, on HBO Max

Technically, these tapes weren’t lost, they were suppressed. The Soviet Union wanted to document their nuclear industry’s “finest hour” in the face of crisis, like NASA’s response to Apollo 13. However, when it became glaringly clear how ineffective, dishonest and counter-productive their crisis management was, to the powers-that-were (ultimately, that was Gorbachev), the Party reverted to censorship and propaganda to bury the truth. James Jones assembled the newly recovered footage into a vivid step-by-step chronicle of the nuclear disaster, as it really happened, in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, which premieres tonight on HBO.

Right from the start, the authorities’ disregard for human life is shocking apparent. We watch unprotected families allowed to visit playgrounds the day after the core melt-down and massive release of radiation. Several times, Jones contrasts footage of the oblivious citizenry with the desperate crisis management underway at the reactor.

This pattern would continue after the incident, when the Communist Party basically declared an end to Chernobyl-related illness by fiat, mandating all physicians diagnose resulting radiation sickness as “Radiophobia.” Jones also discovered damning footage of the under-equipped reclamation teams, who were dispatched to clean and close-down the V.I. Lenin Power Station with insufficient warning of the risks they were running. Viewers can make that judgement, because we literally see their superiors sending them out with a few sheets of lead strapped to their torsos (like “cannon-fodder,” as one survivor puts it).

If anyone truly emerges as a villain in
Lost Tapes, it would be Gorbachev, who lied to the world and to his people about the severity of the disaster, at great cost to Russian and Ukrainian lives. Far from the Soviet Nuclear bureaucracy’s “finest hour,” the incident almost blew up into a global catastrophe. Instead of slowing the reaction, an ill-conceived plan to drop sand on top of the reactor nearly caused it to collapse into earth beneath. There is a reason why the former General Secretary consistently polls so low in Russia.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

You don't have to get every reference to Euro cult cinema to pick up on this film’s vibes, but why wouldn’t you? Regardless, this horror movie wears its influences on its sleeve. That’s just part of its style, which is heavy and often effective. Atmosphere is everything in Kevin Kopacka’s Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, which releases Friday on VOD.

A bickering couple are visiting the decrepit family manor house she inherited, despite the lateness of the hour. It is all because of Dieter’s obnoxious attitude. He refused to stop at a hotel to make some kind of point. Critics will probably try to hang the “toxic masculinity” label on him, but there is nothing manly about him. That will not stop him from trying to compensate, as when he becomes fascinated by a whip he finds in a trunk.

And then everything changes, in a big, landscape-altering
 kind of way, but without the gentle humor of an obvious but spoilery comparison. Also, maybe not everything changes. There is still something very wrong about the German chateau.

That would be the Gothic Herrenhaus Vogelsang, which is definitely a creepy setting. Indeed, everything about the look and design of
Dawn is quite masterful. Many are making the obvious comparison to Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s Giallo pastiches, like Amer and The Strange Color of Your Bodys' Tears, but Kopacka’s screenplay is much more narrative driven. Initially, that makes it more accessible, but it also causes greater frustration when it takes an arty detour into oblivion.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Ip Man: The Awakening

Back when Hong Kong was a British colony … wait, Hong Kong was a British colony? Of course, it was, but the United Nations refuses to recognize it as a former European colony, because of the CCP’s influence. In fact, the Chinese Communist regime is in gross violation of the 1997 handover agreement (“One China Two Systems” is now as dead as a doornail). If ever Hong Kong needed a hero like Ip Man, it would be now. Instead, the villains in his latest highly fictionalized movie are all British, but at least viewers should be reminded of some awkward HK history when watching Li Xi Jie & Zhang Zhu Lin’s Ip Man: The Awakening, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

It will be Wing Chun versus Baritsu, the British martial art cobbled together from other styles that apparently impressed Arthur Conan Doyle, because it is mostly know remembered from
Sherlock Holmes references. The baristas are in for some hurting.

This time around, Ip Man is freshly arrived in Hong Kong from Foshan. Almost immediately, he befriends Buefeng, a fellow Wing Chun practitioner, but not like Ip Man, obviously. Buefeng advises him to keep his head down and not get involved, but when Ip Man witnesses an English-backed gang of white-slavers abducting women, he naturally rescues them. Inevitably, that leads to conflict with the British boss, Mr. Starke (played by the ever so British Sergio De Ieso).

Frankly,
Awakening’s screenplay is a predictable, bare-bones string of cliches, even more so than the last Ip Man movie (Ip Man: Kung Fu Master). At times, it does not even make sense, as when Buefeng feels compelled to drug Ip Man before his big public bout with one of the chief Baritsu henchmen, even though he has already seen his friend thoroughly kick the butt of his partner. Seriously, why would he lose confidence when Ip Man was facing the smaller dude?

Monday, June 20, 2022

Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity

Technically, charging interest is forbidden under Islam, but Islamic nations have developed workarounds, because no country can function without a working banking system. Those workarounds are definitely working against the upright Reza. However, the struggling fish farmer really resents the many bribes and kickbacks he refuses to pay. As a result, his family is on the brink of financial ruin in Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, which opens Friday in LA (and is now showing in NY).

Reza never graduated from college, because he took a futile stand on principles. Instead, he moved to the provinces, but he found society just as corrupt there. A large company is trying to force him off his land. They act with impunity, even poisoning the water feeding into his fish pond, because they have bribed the local police and regulators. Reza might have bought more time to pay off his foreclosing mortgage, but, of course, he refused to grease the necessary palms.

His wife finds him almost perversely rigid, but he is not a moralizing Islamist. In fact, he secretly ferments his own home brew, which he successfully hides from the morals police (instead they confiscate his riffle, which is telling, isn’t it?). The truth is, Reza is right on every point, so when he finally gets pushed to far, things will really get ugly.

It is easy to see why this film launched Rasoulof’s prolonged legal difficulties with the Iranian authorities (it first screened internationally in 2017, but it is only now getting an American theatrical release), which are still not resolved. He has yet to serve the prison sentence that was imposed just before Covid hit. Yet, from the regime’s perspective, Reza’s battles with corruption might be embarrassing, but the real arsenic in
Integrity are probably the storylines involving his wife Hadis’s work as the headmistress of a girl’s school.

There we see her comply with the mandated expulsion of a student, because her family was exposed as non-Muslims. We also learn just how disposable girls are in Iranian society, when she tries to use the daughter of Reza’s main nemesis (without her husband’s prior knowledge or approval) to put pressure on her father.

Integrity
is a powerful film, but it can be difficult to watch, because Reza’s endures almost as much woe as Job himself. Yet, it steadily builds to a bitterly ironic payoff. It might seem like the way Rasoulof piles on the humiliations approaches overkill, but each one is intertwined with the others and they all play a role in his caustic climax.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Argento at Lincoln Center: Dracula 3D

The Dracula story involved fangs, crosses, wooden stakes, and swarms of bats, so it provides plenty of stuff to jut out or fly into the camera. That all could make it appealing for 3D, but it was horror master Dario Argento who finally went there. The results are certainly mixed, but he still takes care of the essential vampire business in Dracula 3D, which screens as part of the ongoing Beware of Dario Argento retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center.

Tania agrees to meet her lover after dark, despite the town’s constant curfew. This is a mistake, but removing the cross her caddish lover gave her will be even costlier. Before you can say “prologue,” she has been bitten, killed, turned, exhumed, and living at Dracula Castle. Of course, that is where Jonathan Harker is headed. Instead of a real estate agent, he is now a librarian hired to catalog the Count’s holdings. Dracula actually wants that work done, so he halfway tries to protect him from the newly fierce Tania.

Harker’s fiancée Mina has followed after him. She will stay with her old friend Lucy Kisslinger, who is looking a little peaked herself. When she also “dies,” Mina turns to visiting scholar Abraham Van Helsing for help.

The screenplay credited to Argento and three other screenwriters could have been generated from of randomizer of old Hammer Dracula scripts, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Carpathian village feels artificial rather than lived-in, but somehow, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli makes it look like it radiates sinister energy. It also features some of the most impressively brutal killing scenes of any
Dracula adaptation.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Tribeca ’22: A Rising Fury

Biden tells us Zelenskyy refused to believe him when he warned the Ukrainian President of Putin’s full-scale invasion, but that seems unlikely. After all, the Ukrainian military volunteers interviewed for this documentary back in 2014 and 2015 all predicted it, sooner rather than later. Some of them have very personal experiences with Russia’s attempts to undermine their nation, as they explain in Lesya Kalynska & Ruslan Batytskyi’s documentary, A Rising Fury, which screens as an “At Home” selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Pavlo Pavliv and Svitlana Karabut are trying to maintain a relationship, but the war in the Donbass region makes it difficult. His activism started while maintaining the protective barricades at Maidan, but his military training began earlier, when an older man named Igor, call-sign: “Berkut (Hawk),” took him under his wing and recruited him for his Airsoft team.

Eventually, Pavliv and Karabut deduce Igor is actually an undercover Russian operative deliberately targeting marginalized young Ukrainian men, to turn them against their country. It is chilling example of organized subversion that ought to make all viewers take note, especially considering how successful Igor was.

In fact, it is probably the most newsworthy element of the film, because even though Kalynska & Batytskyi’s coverage of Maidan and Donbass includes some dramatic footage, it is not radically unlike other Ukrainian documentaries. However, when taken together with its insights into Russia’s long-game psy-ops, as represented by Igor, it is quite valuable indeed.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Guidance: The Destructive Impact of AI, from China

A Chinese inventor’s new AI implant is a lot like socialism and every other utopian scheme. The pitch might sound appealing, but as soon as you experience it first-hand, you realize it is a nightmare. Two lovers are manipulated into taking the nano-operating system that detects lies, but the reality of its usage is predictably more likely to split them apart rather than bond them together in Neysan Sobhani’s Guidance, which releases today on VOD.

Ten years before the start of the film, there was a catastrophic war that left Han Maio deeply scarred emotionally. Before the war, she was ambiguously involved with her childhood sweetheart, Su Jie, the heir to a big tech empire. Now, she is in a relationship with Mai Zi Xuan, whom she suspects has been unfaithful. He also has reason to suspect her.

Rather fatefully, she happened to visit Su Jie the very day Luddite terrorists launched an attack on his company. Consequently, she spent six hours alone with him in a safe room. Of course, Mai understands that gave them more than enough time to revisit old times. As a parting gift, Su Jie gave her two pre-release doses of NIS, for her and Mai, so they can get a jump on the Brave New World before everyone else. They literally get red-pilled together, during a romantic getaway that gets much less romantic once the new computer voices in their heads call them out each time they bend the truth and point out signs of deception in their partner.

As a Chinese language film,
Guidance is particularly interesting (and timely), given it presents a cautionary tale of artificial intelligence over-reach, at a time when AI surveillance software is identifying Uyghurs to be rounded-up and incarcerated. Arguably, what the CCP is doing now in Xinjiang and Tibet is even more dystopian than anything portrayed in the film.

Nevertheless, Sobhani and co-screenwriters Anders R. Fransson and Daniel Wang vividly illustrate the perils of the utopian temptation and its unintended consequences. This is largely character and idea-driven sf, but Sobhani still offers up an intriguing looking future world.

Penance, on OVID.tv

Asako Adachi is a mother worthy of Greek tragedy. When her daughter is murdered, she offers a grim choice to the girl’s four friends who saw, but could not identify her killer. Either spend their lives hunting for the murderer, or eventually accept a karmic retribution that she approves of. That is pretty heavy for elementary school students, so it is hardly shocking they all turn out to be emotionally damaged fifteen years later in Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s five-episode Penance, which premieres today on OVID.tv.

For some reason, the killer deliberately chose Emili from her group of friends, when he approached them on a pretext. They all had a perfect view of him, yet they all insist they cannot remember his face. Fifteen years later, their bill of penance starts to come due, but it is not necessarily Adachi who will collect. Somehow fate, karma, circumstances, and their own bad choices and character flaws will precipitate crises for all four survivors. Although they each have very different personalities and perspectives on that fateful day, they all contact Adachi as they find themselves facing personal disaster.

In some ways, shy Sae Kikuchi never fully matured, so she married a profoundly flawed control-freak husband. Maki Shinohara became a strict martinet high school teacher, who feels compelled to enforce rules without exception. Akiko Takano is a borderline hikikomori with family issues that are about to get much worse. Likewise, Yuka Ogawa has an extreme case of sibling rivalry, as well as a weird cop fetish, born out of that horrific experience.

What really makes
Penance so intriguing is Kyoko Koizumi’s haunting performance as Adachi. Instead of a ruthless Medea-like vengeful mother, she is not without sympathy for the four young women. In fact, she even offers them help, at times. Yet, her eyes are always obsessively on the prize of just payback. As a result, Koizumi’s work as Adachi is cool and detached, but weirdly easy to identify with and root for.

Yu Aoi, Eiko Koike, Sakura Ando and Chizuru Ikewaki all create radically different personas as the four grown women, but they are all fully developed, with no shortage of flaws and weaknesses. Together, they demonstrate the perverse and lingering effects of trauma. Shinohara’s story is possibly the richest, because it clearly offers extensive commentaries on the compulsive face-saving and CYA-ing of the Japanese educational system, which in turn is a proxy for society at large. Takano’s is probably the weakest, because it is pretty easy to predict where it goes.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Giallo and Chinese Phantoms of the Opera, at Nightfire


Everybody digs the Phantom of the Opera, right? Especially Italian and Chinese genre filmmakers. I dive into the Giallo and Chinese adaptations of and riffs on the Phantom at Nightfire here.

Tribeca ’22: McEnroe


If you were around in the early 1980s, you might remember how John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal were like J-Lo and A-Rod, but with exponentially more paparazzi interest. Their marriage didn’t last, but he always maintained a relationship with tennis. The notoriously outspoken athlete is profiled in Barney Douglas’s documentary McEnroe, which screens during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Yep, McEnroe used to argue calls on the court from time to time. He addresses his famous outbursts quite frankly in the doc. He is not proud of them, but he explains the issues he was experiencing at the time. He also rarely let them influence the next point.

Watching
McEnroe reminds us just how long he has been in the public eye. Children of the 1980s who only vaguely remember the media circus surrounding his marriage to O’Neal will find Douglas’s coverage eye-opening. Fortunately, he also handles the tennis stuff well too. Even if you followed his career at the time, or if you’ve seen Janus Metz’s thoroughly entertaining Borg vs.McEnroe, you will probably get caught up in the drama of McEnroe’s Wimbledon battles with Bjorn Borg.

In a bit of a score, McEnroe’s great rival-turned-friend appears on camera to discuss their comradeship, despite largely retiring from the tennis world and public life. O’Neal is absent, but the rest of his family discusses McEnroe, with pretty much the same candor he brings to the film. (We even see his current wife, Patty Smythe performing on
American Bandstand, which is another blast from the 1980’s past.)

Tribeca ’22: Nicholas Brothers Stormy Weather (short)

Nobody could match the moves of Fayard and Harold Nicholas. This short documentary [inadvertently] proves it. Although their prime Hollywood musical numbers were often cut out to appease the segregationist South, they eventually received Kennedy Center Honors and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They appeared in the clip montage movies That’s Entertainment and That’s Dancing, but strangely, neither selected their most iconic performance. Contemporary dancers look back in awe at their leaping steps in Michael Shevloff & Paul Crowder’s Nicholas Brothers: Stormy Weather, which screens during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Stormy Weather
was a star vehicle for Lena Horne, so there would be no call for cutting out the Nicholas Brothers’ big number. Fittingly, they uncorked one of their greatest filmed performances, culminating with the brother leaping over each other, landing into splits, as they worked their way down a grand, Busby Berkeley-ish staircase. Backed by the Cab Calloway Orchestra, they nailed it in one take, with no rehearsals.

Dancers like Savion Glover give unnecessary explanations as to why their performance is so impressive. Frankly, you can totally get it just from watching them. However, the short film builds up to the contemporary dancers, Les Twins, choreographing and performing their own tribute to the Nicholas Brothers’
Stormy Weather performance—which will absolutely not be a recreation, an important distinction.

Tribeca ’22: Hargrove

Roy Hargrove was considered one of the “Young Lions” because he was anointed by Wynton Marsalis, but he was one of the first big jazz headliners to collaborate with hip hopers, at a time when Marsalis was especially critical of their aesthetic. Hargrove always stayed true to his own musical conceptions, like all true jazz artists, but he died too soon, again like far too many jazz greats. Eliane Henri followed the musician during his final international tour, documenting what would be his last days in Hargrove, which screens as part of Tribeca at Home.

Clearly, we see Hargrove is a bit tired from the road during the opening scene. Eventually, we also learn his health was also ailing. The musician had been on dialysis for years. His doctors wanted him to get a kidney transplant, but he was reluctant, for financial and professional reasons, to take the time off. These scenes in which Hargrove talks about his health problems are eerily powerful, like the posthumous anti-smoking PSA Yul Brynner recorded when he was dying of cancer.

Of course, Hargrove’s music is also virtuosic, especially the beautiful way he could caress a ballad. However, none of Hargrove’s originals can be heard throughout the documentary, because his manager, Larry Clothier (who remains in charge of his music company), would not approve their release. That leads to one of the great issues with Henri’s doc.

Henri makes it very clear she and Clothier often clashed during the making of the film. The way she put together the film, it certainly looks like Hargrove sided with her in most matters. Arguably, this reflects the concerns that preoccupied the musician in his final days, but it ends up injecting her into the film. It is a more than a minor subplot—it is a major part of the doc.

Is this really the best way to introduce Hargrove to viewers who might be checking out Hargrove because of the involvement of his friends Questlove and Erykah Badu? Admittedly, this is a tricky terrain to navigate, but perhaps removing all traces of his manager might have been a better option.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Brian and Charles: Welsh Robotics

After years of futility, Brian has finally invented something that works: an eco-friendly robot. It runs on cabbages (everyone knows electricity mostly comes from coal, right?). Somehow, he really cracked the artificial intelligence, because it largely taught itself to talk by reading the dictionary. The rest of the maturation process will take more time in Jim Archer’s Brian and Charles, which opens Friday in New York.

When we first meet Brian, he is an affable fellow, but he tries too hard to be chipper, to cover for his loneliness. We see several of his precious DIY inventions, none of which has any prayer of working. His eccentric-looking robot, Charles Petrescu, appears to be more of the same, but somehow, after a little rattling about, he comes alive, like Frosty after the first snow.

Of course, Brian is delighted to finally have company. However, he tries his best to keep Petrescu out of sight, because he justifiably fears the Welsh village’s bullying family of thugs will target his creation. Eventually, the equally shy Hazel meets Petrescu, who duly impresses her. That in turn builds Brian’s confidence, to the point he can actually pursue a relationship with her. However, Petrescu’s restlessness soon leads to rebelliousness.

Initially,
Brian and Charles feels almost toxically cute and quirky, but it develops some substance and soul during its second half. Petrescu does a lot of goofy robot-shtick, but Brian’s growth is the arc that really lands. This is a story of empowerment, as well as the obvious surrogate parenting analog.

Mad God, on Shudder

Never stand in the way of a man in a gas mask, who is on a mission. In this case, the nature of his mission is somewhat open to interpretation, but his sense of purpose is admirable, as is true of his creator. After thirty years of intermittent production, special effects wizard (celebrated for his work on Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers) Phil Tippett’s truly long-awaited stop-motion animated feature Mad God premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

The “Assassin” travels via a diving bell down to a weird shadowy world that is beyond dystopian. His assignment is to leave a briefcase bomb within this enemy netherworld—and then just wait to die. Plenty have failed before him and he will probably fail too, judging from the pile of briefcases. Unfortunately, an ugly fate awaits the Assassin, if and when he is captured by the “Surgeon” (a.k.a. the “Torturer”).

Visually,
Mad God is an amazing film. The design of the Assassin sort of recalls some of the militaristic animated sequences in The Wall, yet Tippett’s attention to hair and fiber is also somewhat akin to the style of This Magnificent Cake. Nevertheless, storytelling remains an aspect of filmmaking—and in this respect Mad God is a little weak. Things like causal effects, motivations, characterization, and inter-character relationships are only vaguely implied at best. Clearly, Mad God is intended first-and-foremost to be a spectacle, which indeed it is.

The whole point of
Mad God is to tour Tippett’s macabre world, much like Piotr Kamler’s largely narrative-free Chronopolis. Indeed, it truly looks amazing. Tippett also instills a sense of forward moment thet brings to mind Frank Vestiel’s underappreciated Eden Log, which also shared a similarly Boschian aesthetic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Hotel Portofino, in the Epoch Times


Hotel Portofino
looks lovely, but it is hindered by shallow characterization. Exclusive Epoch Times review up here.
 

Tribeca ’22: Music Pictures: New Orleans


Even though it scattered New Orleans musicians, Katrina never the silenced the music. Jazz Fest continued on-schedule and the Frenchmen and Bourbon Street clubs were undamaged and reopened for business. However, Covid closed everything and canceled all the gigs, including Jazz Fest. At least documentary filmmakers appreciated what we were missing, because there has been a recent boomlet of NOLA music docs released in theaters or screening at festivals. This one is a welcomed addition. Ben Chace profiles four stylistically different—but not too disparate—veteran New Orleans musicians in Music Pictures: New Orleans, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Part one focuses on Irma Thomas, “The Soul Queen,” a highly fitting and logical place to start. Unlike Martin Shore’s
Take Me to the River New Orleans, which felt compelled to team Thomas up with a younger artist, Ledisi, Chace finds her sufficiently interesting on her own, because she is. However, he also gives a bit of time to her sidemen, particularly drummer Johnny Vidacovich, whom Thomas is happy to share the spotlight with. Hearing them put together a smoldering and swinging “My Love Is” is a treat.

Likewise, hearing Thomas casually land an a cappella “Our Day Will Come” and then carefully caress it while recording a lush studio arrangement will give you good chills. Honestly, watching
Music Pictures will make NOLA music fans realize she is even cooler than they understood.

Benny Jones Sr. is now the leader of the Treme Brass Band (who were regularly seen in HBO’s
Treme), but he was also a founder of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who really deserve a documentary of their own, for re-popularizing a funkifying the NOLA brass band tradition. NOLA brass bands have an infectious rhythmic drive and as a bass and snare drummer, Jones is one of the best putting the beat on the street. Of course, the entire band makes their groove swing, but vocalist/alto-player John “Prince” Gilbert gets the time to tell some of the band’s reminiscences, like when they opened for the Grateful Dead, in Oakland, on New Year’s Eve.

Little Freddie King probably lived the blues as much as anyone, if not more so. Yet, he survived to find fame in Europe and play regular gigs in New Orleans. He probably has the film’s most colorful anecdotes, but the important thing is he can still play—and he is a heck of a snappy dresser. It is definitely King’s segment, but his drummer-manager “Wacko” Wade Wright gets credit for handling all the business, as well as a lot of King’s personal, medical logistics.

Appropriately,
Music Pictures concludes with New Orleans’ first family of modern jazz, the Marsalises, whom Shore dubiously ignored. It was a wise choice, considering Ellis Marsalis, the NOLA jazz patriarch, passed away due to Covid complications in 2020. Chace focuses on Marsalis’s first and only album length collaboration with his son Jason (brother of Wynton and Branford) on vibes (whereas on their previous recordings together, Jason had played drums).

Monday, June 13, 2022

Premonitions, on MHz


You Know how Tolstoy wrote unhappy families are always unhappy in their own unique ways? Well, the Jacobs’ dysfunction is in a league of its own—of fantastical dimensions. The Jacobs all develop a “gift” that always manifests itself in a different way. Those powers can be dangerous, but the family would also be in great peril if they were ever discovered, as they very well might be in Patrick Lowell, Estelle Bouchard, and Charles-Olivier Michaud’s ten-part French-Canadian series Premonitions, which premieres tomorrow on MHz.

Clara Jacob is the matriarch of the Jacob family, but she is definitely a cool grandmother. She even wears a snappy fedora to prove it. Her power is the ability to see into the future of anyone she is not related to by blood. That comes in handy for her chosen line of work: professional gambler. She tends to know when hold them and when to fold them.

She has few qualms about wielding her powers, but her son Arnaud considers his “gift” an intrusive violation. He can read people’s minds and even get in there to erase memories. Having sworn off using them, he has been plagued by severe migraines. His sister Lilli on the other hand, constantly employs her powers to bewitch potential lovers. That seems like a bad idea, but viewers will halfway sympathize when they see the burn scars on her back.

As a teen, Lilli was thrown into a bonfire by a shadowy member of a witch-hunting cult dedicated to killing so-called “aberrations” like the Jacobs. Unfortunately, one of the last survviors of the brethren will try to use her latest “lover” to get to the Jacobs. Arnaud tried to wipe Pascal Derapse’s memories of Lilli, but being out of practice, he might have erased too much and maybe even left a mental connection to himself behind.

Premonitions
is an unusual and addictive take on the themes of superhero franchises like The X-Men and Heroes. Although we root for the Jacobs, the plain truth is Derapse is a victim of the family several times over. First Lilli’s enchantment drives him into a state of psychotic jealousy and then Arnaud really does a number on his head. Yet, when the vicious brotherhood enters the picture, Premonitions even takes on some elements of the horror genre (much more so than Firestarter).

Regardless, Pascale Bussieres is a terrific lead as the steely Clara. She also has some keenly compelling and deeply conflicted chemistry with her ex, Jules Samson, who remains a close friend of Arnaud’s. Nicely played by Benoit Gouin, Samson provides sympathetic human perspective on the chaos that unfolds.

Marc Messier is creepy as heck as William Putnam, the aberration-hunter, while Eric Bruneau is spectacularly unhinged as the brain-scrambled Derapse. Likewise, Mikhail Ahooja is impressively squirrely playing Arnaud, especially when under the influence of Derapse.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Tribeca ’22: Family Dinner

We need to get horror film directors some sort of group subscription to Discovery+, because they need to start developing healthier relationships with food. You would think there would be plenty of healthy eating in this film, because Simi’s Aunt Claudia is a nutritionist, but the ominous countdown to Easter dinner clearly implies something awful will be happening in screenwriter-director Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tired of getting bullied over her weight, Simi invited herself to Aunt Claudia’s rural Austrian farm over Easter break, in hopes she could get some personal weight-loss mentoring. The thing is, Claudia (an aunt by a marriage-now-divorced) is not as welcoming as Simi hoped—but her new husband Stefan is weirdly hospitable. Her cousin Filipp is probably downright hostile, but he isn’t getting along so well with his mother and Stefan either.

Despite some initial misgivings, Aunt Claudia agrees to help Simi, but her rigorous program borders on the draconian. It seems physically unhealthy and the mind games grow increasingly sinister. On the other hand, Stefan finds Simi more useful than Filipp during a hunting trip, so she has that positive reinforcement going for her.

There is a lot of slow-boiling in
Family Dinner, but it is pretty clear what is it all heading towards. Not to be spoilery, but if you really think about the title, it is a dead giveaway. Unfortunately, Hengl expects the climax will be so shocking, it will make up for the slowness of the build and the lack of significant plot points.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Tribeca ’22: January


Early 1991 was an opportune time to be a film student in the Baltics, because history was exploding daily. It was also a dangerous time for the same reason. Jazis generally supports Latvian independence from their Soviet occupiers, but he has yet to mature to the point he can fully appreciate the gravity of the moment in Viesturs Kairiss’s January, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Jazis wants to be the next Tarkovsky, which would ordinarily alarm most parents, but his anti-Communist mother is fine with it, along as he gets a draft deferral from his film school. The last thing she wants is to have her son in the Soviet army, potentially in harm’s way, while putting down democratic opposition movements. His father also basically agrees, even though he is a Party member. Unfortunately, Jazis’s drive and talent level will complicate matters.

For a while, his affair with Anna, a pretty fellow film student awakens some passion in him. However, when she falls under the influence of a famous filmmaker, Jazis spirals into depression and apathy. Yet, maybe the Soviet military’s attempts to stifle Baltic activism for independence might awaken him from his lethargy.

Kairiss skillfully uses a textured lo-fi style (including Super8), integrated with genuine historical archival footage, to recreate the tenor of the early 1990s in the Baltics quite vividly and evocatively. You really get a sense of the tension and potential violence that was literally hinging in the air. In one telling moments, Jazis asks an elderly woman if she was scared to deliver the food she baked for demonstrators. “No, I’ve been waiting 50 years for this,” she tells him.

January
is highly effective time capsule and mood piece, but Jazis is so moody and sulky, we hardly get a sense of any character there within him. Arguably, many of the minor figures, like Jazis’s parents, resonate more than he and his film school-mates.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Wyrm

In our world, there is already plenty of pressure on geeky middle school kids trying to ask someone out. In this alternate 1990s, Wyrm Whitner could be held back if he doesn’t get to first base fast. His electronic monitoring collar will know whether he lands that first kiss or not. Of course, his weird family drama is hardly helpful in screenwriter-director Christopher Winterbauer’s eccentric coming-of-age fantasy, Wyrm, which releases today on VOD and in theaters.

Whitner’s brother Dylan was the jock-hero of his high school, but he wasn’t such a great brother, or even much of a person. Nevertheless, Wyrm doggedly records audio tributes for Dylan’s one-year memorial, perhaps as an excuse for the embarrassing collar obviously still affixed around his neck. Unfortunately, his older sister Myrcella is not helping, even though she hangs out with Izzy, the new girl across the street. Instead, she is more interested in earning “credit” with the Norwegian exchange student and writing poison pen letters to their classmates.

Poor Wyrm is pretty much on his own, because neither of his parents are much of a presence in their lives anymore. Instead, their slacker Uncle Chet and his immigrant girlfriend Flor handle most of the parental duties. Maybe they aren’t perfect, but at least they are trying.

Wyrm
works surprisingly well because Winterbauer maintains the logic of the “No Child Left Alone” system, while not boring us with the deep dive details. Admittedly, the obsession with preteens’ sexual development feels a little creepy, but the Last-American-Virgin-style drama is weirdly compelling. Perhaps inadvertently, it also maybe argues how mandates can be counter-productive. (It is also worth noting the actual “No Child Left Behind” program was not designed to put pressure on kids. It was intended to measure the effectiveness of their teachers, who started stressing their kids out to perform well, just to cover their butts, so riffing on its name in this context really isn’t fair.)

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Lost Illusions, from the Prescient Balzac

At this point, we really shouldn’t accept newspaper reports as reliable primary sources. The Washington Post’s embarrassing controversies regarding stealth edits and misleading corrections are nothing new. Their imploding newsroom could totally relate to the poisoned-pen scribes at Le Corsaire-Satan. They traffic in gossip and sell their reviewers’ critical judgement to the highest bidder. The editor, Etienne Lousteau definitely shapes its stories to fit his preconceived “narratives,” until someone pays him to slant them differently. That is just fine with Lucien de Rubempre, until he finally believes he can attain the noble stature he believes is his birthright in Xavier Giannoli’s Balzac’s adaptation, Lost Illusions, which opens tomorrow in New York.

When people want to annoy de Rumpre, they call him Chardon, because that is technically his name and the name of his absent father, who ruined his blue-blooded mother. Like it or not, he is a commoner, so he should not be seen in compromising situations with Louise de Bargeton, the artistic patron for his poetry. Nevertheless, she brings him to Paris, risking a scandal that her older admirer, the Baron du Chatelet manages to suppress, at de Rumpre’s expense.

He was supposed to slink home to the provinces in disgrace. Instead, de Rumpre starts writing for Lousteau’s rabble-rousing anti-monarchist newspaper, quickly adapting to its advertorial ways. Yet, the corrupted poet cannot resist the temptation of vague promises to restore his family’s lost title.

While much of what transpires is tragic, the caustic characters and their unrestrained cynicism makes the film play more like a razor-sharp satire. Obviously, the portrayal of the media as deliberate misinformation peddlers could not be timelier. Given it was culled from Balzac’s
The Human Comedy novel-cycle, Lost Illusions also clearly establishes the long-standing tradition mercenary journalistic ethics.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Dark Winds, in The Epoch Times


Tony Hillerman was a decorated WWII vet who largely popularized Southwest westerns. Nice to see a well-produced new take on his hardnosed Lt. Joe Leaphorn. EPOCH TIMES review of DARK WINDS now up here.

Offseason, on Shudder

Apparently, this small island community has brought New England-style weirdness to a Florida key. It would seem even cults built around Lovecraftian horror find the Florida economy more inviting. Marie Aldrich’s movie star mother made it clear she never wanted to return, not even to be buried. That is why the daughter was so shocked when her mother’s will stipulated she be laid to rest in the island’s cemetery. It also makes her especially annoyed when she is summoned to the tourist trap island, by the news her mother’s grave was desecrated. Of course, someone or something wants to lure her there in Mickey Keating’s Offseason, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

When Aldrich arrives with George Darrow, her close-to-being ex, the groundskeeper is nowhere to be found. The locals are not exactly friendly either. Darrow is understandably eager to leave the island before the drawbridge closes (or rather opens) for the duration of the offseason. However, a strange force keeps steering them into dead-ends.

Keating is very definitely an up-and-down filmmaker, but
Offseason might his most successful film yet, in terms of crafting mood and atmosphere, even more so than Psychopaths and Darling. It is also probably his most polished film, so far.

There is definitely a lot of
Shadow Over Innsmouth vibes going on. The flashbacks are mostly padding, but the film definitely mines the tight little island setting for maximum impact. Production designer Sabrena Allen-Biron notably contributes some memorably eerie analog sets and trappings that really give the film a distinctive look and texture.

Brace Yourself for Ninja Badass

The doughy, pasty-white ninjas of Indiana are about to wage an all-out war. Who will lose? Eventually everyone, but good taste and dignity will be the first casualties. Rex isn’t much of a ninja, but he will have to cowboy up if he wants to save the girl and stop the evil puppy-eating cannibal ninja cult in writer-director-everything-else Ryan Harrison’s Ninja Badass, which opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Rex is a screw-up, who is completely oblivious to his ineptitude. Nevertheless, when Big Twitty, the leader of the local chapter of the Ninja VIP Super Club, kidnaps the attractive woman from the pet store (along with their stock of puppies), Rex decides to “rescue” her back. Fortunately, Haskell, a relatively law-abiding ninja, agrees to tutor him, for revenge, after Big Twitty tears his arm off.

Of course, neither Rex or Haskell can walk and chew gum at the same time. However, Big Twitty’s estranged daughter Jojo is a match for her father. She has no illusions regarding Rex’s idiocy and incompetence, but she still reluctantly teams up with him.

Basically,
Ninja Badass was made for people who find Troma movies too sophisticated and pretentious. It is chocked full of crude gore and deliberately cheesy superimposed special effects—including puppies going into the blender. Seriously, it makes The Greasy Strangler look like a drily witty Noel Coward comedy.

There is little point in submitting
Ninja Badass to an in-depth critical analysis. It is meant to be ridiculous and shocking, which it is. However, a film like this running over one hundred minutes is just excessive. Honestly, after one hour, we totally get the joke and then some.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

The Policeman’s Lineage

This Korean cop thriller is based on a Japanese novel and tries for some serious old school Infernal Affairs-style Hong Kong vibes. For third-generation cop, Choi Min-jae, the line between right and wrong is straight as an arrow and clearly demarcated. For his new boss, Park Kang-joon, that line is wavy and fuzzy, but fortunately he always has an innate sense of where it is. Choi is not so sure, which makes his new assignment rather tricky in Lee Kyoo-man’s The Policeman’s Lineage, which releases today digitally.

Choi just blew a prosecution on the stand, because he would not lie or dissemble regarding the rough treatment of the accused. He would not appear to be a good candidate for Kang’s team on paper, but Internal Affairs transfers him, to serve as their undercover source anyway. They know Kang will take Choi, because he has a connection to the naïve cop’s father.

It turns out the death of Choi’s father remains surrounded in rumors and innuendos. Both Kang and AI will try to play him, by promising to reveal all. However, as Choi fils pursues his investigation of Kang, he finds plenty of controversy and departmental politics, but not the smoking guns he expected.

Lineage
does not quite rank with the best of Korean thrillers, but for the most part, it is respectably hardboiled and entertainingly cynical. Bae Young-ik’s adaptation of Joh Sasaki’s novel tries a little too hard to over-complicate the narrative and all the behind-the-scenes secret cabal maneuvering sometimes feels a little too pat and forced.

After Lambana, a Filipino Graphic Novel

What happens when the human world encounters that of mystical Diwata folk spirits? Human authorities naturally try to regulate them and their magic out of existence. Yet, for one mortal, Diwata magic might hold the only hope for treating his mysterious ailment in After Lambana, written by Eliza Victoria and illustrated by Mervin Malonzo, which goes on-sale today.

Conrad Mendoza de Luna does not know it yet, but there is a significant connection between him and Ignacio. He just knows him as a grateful IT client, who might have sources who might provide underground medication for the so-called “Rose” disease, wherein physical flowers start laying roots, until they bloom through the skin. It is not always fatal, but de Luna’s is located right over his heart.

Magic diseases seem to demand magic cures, but any form of spellcasting is now illegal now that the gateway to the Diwata realm of Lambana has been forcibly closed. Those who were in the mortal world at the time must now live in permanent exile. De Luna will meet several, while following Ignacio through the back alleys and midnight markets of Metro Manila.

After Lambana
starts in a noir vibe, but it slowly unfolds into folk-inspired fantasy. Victoria’s intriguing world-building never feels like mere exposition, because it is so richly archetypal, and yet grounded in the various traditions found throughout the Philippines. She convincingly depicts the culture clash between the materialist mortal world and the magical Diwata realm. It is exactly the sort of vision of an intersection of the human and the fantastical that the film Bright should have realized better (but didn’t).

Monday, June 06, 2022

Rondo and Bob: The Creeper and his Texas Chainsaw Fan

Rondo Hatton honorably served his country in WWI, but his name became synonymous with villains and monsters. Due to his acromegaly, his was often cast as hulking brutes, including “The Creeper,” in a few late classic Universal Monster movies. The pathos of Hatton’s life fascinated several young fannish future filmmakers, including Robert A. Burns, who is best known as the art director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Joe O’Connell tells both their stories in the dramatic-hybrid documentary Rondo and Bob, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Although Hatton’s acromegaly started manifesting after he was admitted to a field hospital, it was unrelated to the mustard gas attack he had been caught in. Eventually, his first wife left him, but he went back to his work as a Tampa reporter. He met his second wife while on assignment at a local society function. She would have been the obvious choice to be a movie star, but the studio saw Hatton as a possible replacement for Boris Karloff.

In addition to being one of the foremost authorities on Hatton, Burns was also the guy who put all the creepy stuff in
Chainsaw Massacre, like the bone furniture and the chicken in the birdcage. Unlike Hatton, he was apparently somewhat standoffish around people. One family member diagnosed on the spectrum speculates Burns might have been too. Regardless, O’Connell’s subjects contrast greatly, with one looking menacing, but being a wonderful person inside, while the other looked like anyone else, but was hard to get to know.

As a result, the Hatton segments are dramatically more compelling. Yet, probably more time is devoted to Burns, because there is more available material (including his unreleased proto-found footage microbudget horror film,
Scream Test). Unfortunately, that makes the film feel somewhat unbalanced. We want to spend more time with Hatton and his second wife, Mabel Housh, because O’Connell and his cast humanize them so compellingly.