Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Root Letter: Pen Pal Noir

Periodically, there are campaigns to revive the lost practice of letter writing. This film could be part of that effort—and it makes a compelling case. It also represents the road rarely taken by video game film adaptations. It is inspired by Kadokawa’s “visual novel” mystery game, but even faithful players might not realize the connection if they weren’t informed by the opening credits. Yet, Sonja O’Hara’s Root Letter deserves credit for being its own thing when it releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Carlos Alvarez is the hard-working son of an immigrant maid in Oklahoma and Sarah Blake is the frustrated daughter of an opioid-addicted single mother in Baton Rouge. They have very different tastes in music, but they find they can relate to each other when assigned to be pen pals, through their high school English classes. In fact, they keep exchanging letters, even after the project ends—and then Blake goes quiet.

Alvarez could tell something was very wrong from the last letters he received, so he drives to Baton Rouge looking for her. It will not be easy, since he does not even know what she looks like. Starting with her school contact info, Alvarez tracks down her deadbeat fair-weather oxy-addled friends. They claim to know nothing, but the way they say so holds a great deal of menace.

Root Letter
is about as slow and brooding as a film can get and still be considered a thriller, but that is arguably a neat trick to pull off. O’Hara and screenwriter David Ebeltoft have a great deal of compassion and sympathy for their pen pal protagonists—and they are relatively forgiving of hardscrabble world they inhabit. Nearly every character in this film is a victim to some extent—the question is how they respond to their circumstances.

Still, it probably wouldn’t have killed O’Hara to stir the pot a tad more vigorously. However, she gets some great work from her young cast. Danny Ramirez (whom the press materials are eager to remind us played Fanboy in
Top Gun: Maverick, which is definitely a seriously cool credit) brings an old school understated film noir intensity to the film as Alvarez.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Who Invited Them, on Shudder

In Manhattan and Los Angeles, we have progressive district attorneys, who proudly refuse to prosecute criminals. People no longer feel safe in those communities, which also happen to be major hubs of film production. Consequently, you can expect a major boom for home invasion horror, like this film. In this case, writer-director Duncan Birmingham tries to soften the blow with some gun culture criticism, but the fact remains Margo and Adam are not safe in their own home, just like the rest of LA. It is their turn to deal with the lawlessness in Duncan Birmingham’s Who Invited Them, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

Technically, Tom and Sasha did not “invade.” They crashed Adam’s house-warming party. Margo really doesn’t feel like it is her party too. That reflects some of the fissures in their marriage the uninvited guests will exploit. After all the real guests leave, the couple pops out of the bathroom, claiming to be the next-door neighbors. They seem hip and connected, so Adam instinctively cozies up to them. Both Tom and Sasha have a knack for pushing their buttons, so for a while, it feels more like a Polanski film than
Last House on the Left. Things get super uncomfortable, but the threat of violence is not imminent (but perhaps implied).

In fact, the verbal sparring is clearly the part that interests Birmingham, because when the film reverts to the violent business at-hand, it follows the usual, uninspired, rote pattern. He also wraps it up as quickly as possible, only pausing to show a firearm wielded in a way that would disgust any actual gun owner.

Despite Birmingham’s labored efforts,
Who Invited Them still makes a persuasive case for gun ownership. There are dangerous, evil people out there, whom Angelinos have to face on their own. Of course, our DAs would offer victims the chance to face the psychopaths who duct-taped them up in group therapy “Restorative Justice” sessions, rather than sending to prison. Yet, somehow, that probably would not be much of a “healing” experience for Margo and Adam, after what they endure at the hands of Tom and Sasha.

Dead Flip: 1980s Horror for Teen Readers

If you can’t afford the Stranger Things pinball machine, you can at least read this book instead. In it, a trio of Eighties kids encounter the pinball equivalent of the Polybius arcade game, but instead of Men in Black, it runs on black magic. The scrawniest of the three falls victim to its power, but his other two friends will not uncover the truth until the 1990s in Sara Farizan’s YA novel, Dead Flip, which goes on-sale today.

Maziyar “Maz” Shahzad, Corinne “Cori” O’Brien, and Sam Bennett had always been inseparable, united by their geekly passions, but they were on the verge of the age when their coed friendship would get awkward. Halloween 1987 might have been their final time trick or treating together, even if Bennett had not mysteriously disappeared that night. Upset that his friends had opted for a party with the popular kids instead of visiting more houses, Bennett was drawn to the newly refurbished pinball machine at their favorite convenience store.

Shahzad also had a weird physical reaction to the Wizard-themed machine, but it really got its hooks into Bennett. Somehow, it made the young boy disappear. At least, that is what Shahzad always thought, but he couldn’t really verbalize the suspicion, because it would sound crazy. Instead, the guilt he carried affected his grades and his emotional well-being. He and O’Brien drifted apart, especially after he transferred to a new school. By chance, he and O’Brien bump into each other at the mall in 1993, which providentially reawakens their memories of 1987, just in time for a major new development in the case. Of course, it is too crazy for them to bring to parents, so they will have to deal with it together and with the help of a few of their new friends.

Occasionally, Farizan uses turns of phrase that would have sounds out of place in either the golden age of the 1980s or the bad old 1990s, but there is a good deal of on-target, era-appropriate nostalgia (plenty of
Monster Squad references, but no Cannon action movies). Generally, she accurately captures the tone of a childhood without social media. The Stranger Things comps are unavoidable, but the Polybius urban legend was much more of a model for the story.

Yet, it is the relationship between the old friends and their new friendships that will keep the younger intended audience reading. At times, O’Brien and Shahzad’s devotion to the imperiled Bennett is quite poignant. It is also rewarding to see these central characters growing up and taking responsibility for their lives, especially under such extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, there are a few interior monologues from O’Brien complaining about the unfair social demands of high school life for an in-the-closet young woman like that go on a little too long. Yet, that kind of content is demanded by the YA literary gate-keepers these days, and they don’t appreciate subtlety, so there it is. At least regular readers can blow through them relatively quickly and get back to a good story.

And it is a good story, nicely told. Perhaps most impressively, Farizan nicely handles the constant flashbacks and flashforwards, skillfully using them for dramatic effect. Recommended for teens who enjoy retro 19980s horror and Gen X parents,
Dead Flip is now on-sale wherever books are sold.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Loving Highsmith (not Loving her Documentary)

This is just a reminder Patricia Highsmith also wrote books. It will be important to keep that in mind during this documentary, because it relentlessly focuses on the private life she wanted to keep private. As a result, Highsmith most likely would have been horrified by Eva Vitija’s Loving Highsmith, which opens Friday at Film Forum.

Throughout her life, Highsmith kept journals she did not want other people to read. In fact, she wrote large notes at the beginning of later journals emphasizing what she wrote within was for her eyes only. Vitija excerpts those diaries extensively throughout
Loving Highsmith.

For the first six years of her life, Highsmith lived with her grandmother in Texas and consequently always retained some sense of being a Southerner. In fact, you can somewhat see a Flannery O’Connor sensibility in her work, especially in regards to the dark side of human nature. The Texas relatives Vitija interviews seem relatively accepting of her sexuality, but they are still a bit surprised when the filmmaker informs them Highsmith once had a fling with her cousin.

Highsmith made her name with
Strangers on a Train, but Hitchcock is only mentioned in passing. However, the novel Carol (a.k.a. The Price of Salt) is discussed at length, because of its lesbian themes. There is a bit of discussion of Tom Ripley, her signature anti-hero, but a great deal of that centers on the fourth book, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, because it was partially shaped by one of her own romantic relationships.

Loving Highsmith
will make viewers miss the Formalist school of literary criticism, which held it did not matter who or what an author might be. The only valid question was whether the book was any good. Instead, it is clear Vitija is only documenting Highsmith because of her sexuality. Her work is of secondary importance.

That is a shame, because Highsmith is a hugely significant writer, who arguably transcends genre. She has inspired filmmakers like Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, Claude Miller, Rene Clement, Wim Wenders, Todd Haynes, and even Sam Fuller (who helmed an episode of the
Chillers anthology, based on her short stories). Indeed, the most interesting sequences are those in which Highsmith explains her books are not really about crime or murder, but the feeling of guilt, or the absence thereof.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Woman in Black: The New Hammer Adapts Susan Hill

Arthur Kipps' assignment sounds like a nightmare from Hell: one solid week of paperwork. He is supposed to organize the ratty old papers of the late Alice Drabow, the former owner of Eel Marsh House. Frankly, the visitation of a vengeful ghostly woman sounds like a welcome distraction from such drudgery, but unfortunately, her appearances are a harbinger for yet another child dying in the beleaguered local village. Despite the tragedies, poor Kipps still has to get all those blasted papers in order in James Watkins’ Hammer-produced The Woman in Black, which airs Thursday on Comet.

Kipps’ beloved wife died in childbirth, leaving him to raise their son Joseph on his own. The senior partner of his proper Edwardian firm says he is sympathetic to Kipps’ situation, which means he really isn’t. Regardless, Kipps must sort out the Drabow estate if he is to have a future with the firm. Unfortunately, the local solicitor has been decidedly uncooperative, so Kipps must go to Eel Marsh House and process all the paperwork, so they can clear the title for the prospective heirs.

Of course, he receives a nasty welcome from all the locals, except the wealthy and skeptical Sam Daily. Yet, he too lost his young son in an incident attributed to the Woman in Black. According to legend, whenever she is seen, a child dies through an act of self-destruction. As a result, Kipps only makes things worse for himself in the village when he asks about the strange woman he has seen around the Eel Marsh grounds. Children do indeed start dying, which is especially alarming to him, since Joseph and his nanny are scheduled to visit over the weekend.

Woman in Black
is an entertaining gothic throwback, which made it an altogether fitting production for the relaunched Hammer Films. As well as channeling vintage Hammer, Watkins also picked up a step or two from films like Bayona’s The Orphanage, using the full frame to tease viewers with shadowy figures, half-seen from down long hallways. Yet, the wonderfully lush and decaying set designs are pure vintage Hammer. Plus, the isolation of Eel Marsh House, built atop a rise in tidal basin that is inaccessible during high tide, lends the film additional claustrophobic creepiness.

Since Daniel Radcliffe now shuns J.K.
Rowling as a heretic who should be burned at the stake, this could be his new favorite film. It is the second screen adaptation of Hill’s novel, following a 1989 BBC production, and the first to spawn an original sequel. It is refreshingly atmospheric and suggestive, rather than bluntly gory.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Godlings and the Gates of Chaos

This team of superheroes certainly holds franchise possibilities. That would delight the low-budget film company The Asylum, because the characters are based on the gods of ancient civilizations and therefore fair game for their “mockbuster” coattail riders, like for instance their recent Thor: God of Thunder (not “Love and Thunder”). Thor is not one of the Godlings, or their allies, but they will meet Brokkr, one of the dwarves who forged his legendary hammer. Unfortunately, an evil Mesopotamian goddess is threatening the Godlings and the world they protect in Luke C Jackson’s graphic novel Godlings and the Gates of Chaos, which is now on-sale.

Milo just thought he was a fun-loving teen, with a talent for magic tricks that was sometimes actually magical. However, he is the mortal incarnation of the Greek god Dionysus. Fortunately, his once and future colleagues with the Knights of Horus found him when their enemies were about to assassinate him. Like it or not, he is the newest member of the team, along with Diana (whom he vaguely remembers as Artmeis), Ra (the Egyptian sun deity), and Chaac (the Mayan rain deity).

However, he won’t be the new guy for long. They soon recruit Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of destruction. Her latest physical form is still young and immature, but she is extremely powerful. She is also a bit unstable, which is why the minions of Irkalla, the Queen of the Mesopotamian underworld try to lure her to the dark side. She has plans Tiamat could help advance.

The concept of the Godlings is not radically original (basically Marvel’s Thor and the Avengers crossed with Percy Jackson), but Luke C Jackson forgoes a lot of the obvious usual suspects, for a broader selection of heroes. Instead of yet another Hercules, he gives us Dionysus and Nemesis, who is currently estranged from the Godlings, because they are not sufficiently retributive for her tastes. Jackson does not slavishly mold the young heroes’ personalities to match their ancient personas, but he generally captures the broad strokes of their powers and iconic traits. That might be a plus, especially if
Godlings inspires some young readers to take a deep dive into ancient history and religions.

The art credited to Caravan Studio is energetic and the action scenes are easy to follow. It is colorful and accessible for the younger demographic, but the wealth of historical sources will intrigue some older superhero fans, as well. Again, the Godlings are hardly unprecedented, but they are solidly executed for what they are. Recommended for young superhero readers looking for something a little different from the big two corporate universes,
Godlings and the Gates of Chaos is now available from Magnetic Force.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Funny Pages, Inspired by Underground Comix

If you are an anti-social misanthrope who enjoys laughing at other people’s freakish misfortunes, you are probably a consumer of underground comix, from the likes of R. Crumb. Nobody is forcing you. Of course, most fans like young Robert are convinced there are great truths in those baroquely gross pages. He has a talent for drawing comics like his idols, but not for healthy human relationships, as we see in painful detail throughout Owen Kline’s wince-inducing Funny Pages, which opens today in New York.

Mr. Kitano, Robert’s high school art teacher, always got him. Unfortunately, he is killed in a freak accident, after an awkward nude modeling incident with his student. You can tell right from the start this film will spare us nothing.

In defiance of his conventional parents, Robert announces he will pass on college, to pursue a career in comics. He will not be living under their roof either, to prevent them from playing that parental card. Since his only income comes from part-time work at the comic book store, Robert takes a shared room in an illegal basement apartment in Trenton, with two old perverts. What he really needs is a mentor and thinks he might have found one in Wallace, a former color-separator from Image Comics. Unfortunately, Wallace is an on-spectrum neurotic with impulse control issues that border on psychosis.

Funny Pages
is unpleasant, but that certainly makes it true to the spirit of the underground comix that partially inspired it. Kline and his cast make Ghost World look innocent and uplifting. As result, the film hardly feels like any sort of love letter to comics—more like an indictment.

Daniel Zolghari is relentlessly abrasive and charmless as Robert. That means the young thesp takes direction well, but that doesn’t make his performance any easier to watch. Matthew Maher is also spectacularly ticky and creepy as Wallace, which is definitely something.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing: George Miller Adapts A.S. Byatt

As a scholar of myth and folklore, Alithea Binnie is familiar with the Twilight Zone episode “The Man in the Bottle,” or similar such tales. She expects the magical granting of wishes to necessarily result in ironic unintended consequences. Yet, the djinn offering her wishes has a good point when he argues she has free will, doesn’t she, so why should she be bound by the fate of others? However, when he tells her his story, he gives her plenty of examples of things not to wish for in George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Binnie is used to academic conferences, but there has been something a little off about this gathering in Istanbul. It must be fate, or something, that soon guides her to pick up an old but supposedly valueless bottle in a bazaar. Guess what’s inside. Yes, Idris Elba. The djinn only needs a little time to adjust to Binnie’s language of choice and her physical scale. Then he must grant her three wishes, or suffer a terrible fate.

Naturally, Binnie asks how he got in that bottle in the first place. It is quite an epic story, spanning thousands of years and featuring a cast of characters including the likes the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and various royal despots from Byzantine antiquity. Ironically, his tragic history rather reinforces Binnie’s skepticism regarding wishes, but it also fascinates the Joseph Campbell-ish scholar.

Admittedly, Miller has a little trouble wrapping up
TTYL (even though it was adapted from the A.S. Byatt short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye"), but his patience and deft touch has produced a terrific film, loaded with rich visuals and exotic settings. Somehow, Miller managed to evoke Thief of Baghdad vibes in a way that should not arouse the professionally offended.

Idris is about the only thesp who could play the Djinn with the appropriately imposing physicality and dry wit, while still evoking the sense of an old soul within. He also generates a lot of heat on screen with Aamito Lagum, as the Queen of Sheba.

Last Journey of Paul W.R.: The Feature

Sometimes you wake up and just don’t feel like saving the world. That is basically what happened to Paul W.R. The problem is, he is scheduled to do exactly that. Only he has the sufficient skills to save Earth from a collision with the Red Moon in Romain Quirot’s Last Journey of Paul W.R., which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

One day, the Red Moon just appeared in the sky, big and ominous looking, but Paul W.R.’s father Henri recognized it as a source of cheap energy. Unfortunately, the celestial satellite did not take kindly to being exploited, or at least that was Paul’s theory. Regardless, the Red Moon shifted into a collision course with Earth and only Paul W.R. can navigate through its magnetic field to deliver the explosive charges. Of course, this would be a suicide mission, but the grateful world has hailed W.R. as its hero and savior.

A slight complication developed when Paul W.R. disappeared days before doomsday. Dystopian France’s jackbooted police and surveillance system are on the lookout for him, but there are a lot of options for hiding out in the wasteland. What does he want? Maybe he isn’t sure himself.

Paul W.R. won’t tell us either, because unlike the short film
Last Journey of the Enigmatic Paul W.R., the title character never breaks the fourth wall this time. He also no longer has the omniscient power to read minds, whether he wants to or not, so apparently, he really is a lot less “enigmatic.”

Indeed, Quirot made considerable changes in expanding Paul W.R.’s story to feature length. Unfortunately, most of them water-down and undermine the poetic poignancy of the original short. After screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, it is now available online here. It is highly recommended, but maybe viewers ought to just stop there.

One thing the feature has going for it that the short didn’t is Jean Reno, who plays Paul’s scientist-industrialist father, with his usual gravitas. This time around, Paul’s brother Eliott is the one that can read minds, but he picked up the uncanny talent after he failed to fulfill Paul’s mission. Unfortunately, he came back changed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Private Lives, in The Epoch Times

Milos Havel's Barrandov Studios made some great films and some unfortunate propaganda, during both the German and Soviet occupations. However, that leads to some intriguing drama in the Czech series PRIVATE LIVES (airing on EuroChannel and streaming on Freeve). EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid

You might think it would be easier to fight off hostile aliens in the year 2022 than back in the Fourteenth Century Goryeo Korea, but Earthlings would be technologically outclassed in either era. At least back then they had magic and superheroes. In addition to all of the above, this film also has time travel, so it pretty much has it all. However, it will not necessarily be clear which alien from the future is inhabiting which human character from the past in director-screenwriter Choi Dong Hoon’s wildly inventive Alienoid, which opens Friday in New York.

630 years ago, the Earth’s resident prison warden, simply known as “Guard” and Thunder, his AI assistant, drove their SUV into Goryeo times to recapture a fugitive alien. Guard represents a galactic order that imprisons the consciousnesses of their criminals inside the brains of humans on Earth. In most cases, both the host and the imprisoned remain unaware of the situation. However, when the aliens are awakened, they can take control and run amok. In this case, their fugitive sought to escape into the past. Guard and Thunder nabbed their quarry, but the collateral damage left infant Ean an orphan.

Stone cold Guard was willing to abandon her to fate, but the stealthy Thunder smuggled her back to 2022 for Guard to raise as his daughter. He is not an affectionate father, but parenthood helps establish his human cover. However, Ean is smart for her age, so she suspects Guard is involved in something weird.

Meanwhile, six centuries earlier, Murak, a clumsy, but sometimes powerful Taoist dosa magician is on a quest to find a legendary blade. Initially, he finds himself competing against the mysterious “Girl Who Shoots Thunder,” who wields some very contemporary firearms, but the real threat comes from a cabal of alien body-snatchers.

is a crazy kitchen sink movie, filled to the rim with every possible science fiction and fantasy element imaginable. Yet, it is also highly refreshing, because it creates a whole new science fiction universe that is not tied into and carrying the baggage of the Marvel or DC Universes. Hollywood just doesn’t have this kind of originality or ambition anymore. Is this really the safest or most cost-efficient way of imprisoning criminals? Probably not, but it certainly provides the impetus for a lot of crazy and thoroughly entertaining mayhem.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Cinequest ’22: Here Be Dragons

David Locke wanted to see justice done by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but not so surprisingly, he finds the UN-chartered organization is stymied by politics (imagine that). It is personal for him, because a Serbian war criminal killed the woman he loved. When he gets a lead on her killer, the ICTY is too busy winding down its mission and patting itself on the back, so he goes it alone in director-screenwriter Alastair Newton Brown’s Here Be Dragons, which screens during this year’s Cinequest Film & VR Festival.

While stationed as a UN “Peace-keeper” during the Yugoslav Wars, Locke came face to face with Ivan Novak, just when he was dumping the bodies of his girlfriend’s village. Yet, he was ordered to stand down, because his unit was insufficiently armed and was only authorized to conduct a prisoner exchange. As the top investigator for the ICTY, he believed Novak had been killed. However, just as the ICTY announces its dissolution, Locke is approached by his girlfriend’s brother, Emir Ibrahimovic, the only survivor of the massacre.

Now a wealthy Swedish industrialist, Ibrahimovic has information regarding Novak’s whereabouts. It turns out, he is living openly under an assumed name in Belgrade. To add insult to injury, he currently runs PTSD and reconciliation workshops for survivors of the civil war.

is directly rooted in the events of the early 1990s and 2017, but in terms of tone, it is very much akin to some of the anti-hero thrillers of the 1970s. Brown seems to have a bit of a man-crush of the lead actor (and producer) Nathan Clark Sapsford stalking through the dark streets of Belgrade in his half-overcoat, but to be fair, he is pretty cool looking.

Sapsford doesn’t merely brood. He plays Locke so tightly-wound, he could snap at any moment. Yet, he is not an empty existential protag. Throughout it all, Brown makes it clear the man always holds to some notion of justice. In contrast, Slobodan Bestic’s Novak is a surprisingly subtle and challenging figure, who tries to literally embody the notion that healing comes through the passage of time, rather than cathartic retribution. That is literally what his counseling argues.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Cinequest ’22: Mixtape Trilogy

Even the biggest names in jazz often play intimate clubs, so jazz fans have an unusually good chance of interacting with their favorites. If you go to up-and-coming musicians’ gigs, you might just make a friend. Some of my favorite musicians are even in-real-life friends with my entire family. It is nice to know this can also happen in other musical genres. To illustrate the point, documentarian Kathleen Ermitage examines the close relationships the Indigo Girls, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, and rapper Talib Kweli have with special select fans in Mixtape Trilogy: Stories of the Power of Music, which screens during this year’s Cinequest Film & VR Festival.

Sadly, this film could never screen in China, under the current CCP regime. For one thing, Indigo Girls super-fan Dylan Yellowlees identifies the Tiananmen Square Massacre as one of the defining incidents of her late-1980s youth. That would be simple enough to edit out, but the state censors still would never approve Yellowlees’ open and frank discussion of her coming-out-experience, which largely overlapped with that of the band’s. Understandably, it was easy for her to identify with them and she found great meaning in their lyrics. When Yellowlees finally met them while working as a programmer for a local theater, they got on like a house on fire.

Likewise, Iyer found something of a kindred spirit in Garnette Cadogan, a restless academic with adventurous taste in music. Arguably, this is the most personal segment of the film, since their relationship appears to be the closest. Indeed, Iyer often describes Cadogan as a member of his family. Sometimes, Iyer can be counter-productively didactic, but the greatest controversy he and Cadogan address in the film is the criticism the pianist does not sufficiently swing. That is the sort of tired debate that hurts jazz rather than defending it, so Cadogan was right to call it out. (Indeed, Iyer’s
Radha, Radha is a rich and rewarding composition.)

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Messaging the Monstrous: The Green Inferno

You can tell from imdb the cast of Eli Roth’s Cannibal Holocaust-inspired film appeared in many subsequent projects, some even soon after its release. Nobody died during the shoot and Roth never implied that they did, nor did he depict any animal killings on-screen, real or simulated. Yet, viewers cannot miss the spirit of old school Italian cannibal exploitation movies in Roth’s The Green Inferno, which screens at MoMA, as part of its Messaging the Monstrous: Eco Horror film series, in recognition of its status as a true work of modern cinematic art.

Initially, Justine admires the commitment and idealism of Alejandro’s campus “social justice” organization, but her roommate Kaycee recognizes his charisma as the persuasive snake oil of a cult leader. Nevertheless, Justine agrees to participate in their upcoming “action,” in which they will live-stream themselves blocking bulldozers poised to clear-cut a portion of the Peruvian Amazonian rainforest. However, she is bitterly disillusioned when Alejandro puts her life at risk, to capitalize on her father’s position as a UN attorney. Things get worse on the return trip, when their plane crashes in the middle of hostile indigenous territory.

Justine survives with a handful of activists, awkwardly including Alejandro. His behavior is a bit troubling, especially when he discourages and even actively hinders escape attempts. It turns out he is a truly hypocritical scumbag—and one of the most detestable, but distinctly notable movie villains of the late-twenty-teens.

As in Deodato’s cult-favorite, a group of privileged Americans (who would traditionally be profiled as woke hipsters) go to the Amazon and make everything worse. There might be an environmental message to
Green Inferno (don’t raze the rainforest, because it will have dangerous consequences), but it is the depiction of the professional activist-class is what really defines the film, because it cuts so close to the bone. Roth’s screenplay, written with Guillermo Amoedo made a lot of critics uncomfortable, because there was a lot of truth to it.

Plus, it addresses the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, in ways that highlight the horror of the practice and undercut cultural relativism. Frankly, anyone requiring “trigger warnings” should skip this film. It was intended for grown-ups.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Pulse, on BET+

These game designers and gamers aren’t like the characters of One Second After. Their digitally-dependent lives make them particularly unprepared for the destruction wrought by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). However, they think they unique insight that will help them overcome, because the disaster appears to be unfolding just like their scenario of the horror-survival game they wrote and play. Regardless, they must somehow fight their way out of the building in the six-episode Pulse, which is now streaming on BET+.

The game of
Pulse is personal to Jaz, Caspar, and Errol. They designed it together and modeled the playable characters after themselves. After selling out to a big company, they reluctantly made many compromises when designing the new reboot. Jaz is tired of hearing criticism from Eddie, the building’s toxic-fan security guard, especially since she largely agrees with him.

Unfortunately, they all must take Eddie’s notes seriously when an apparent EMP fries all the building’s electronics. Rather perversely, Eddie starts conducting a deadly
Pulse game in real life, tauntingly challenging Jaz and her colleagues to survive each deadly level of the building. Originally designed for the state secret service, the blocky brutalist behemoth has some seriously evil feng shui. It was a scary place, even before all its occupants started going stark raving mad. First the EMP started scrambling the electrical charges in everyone’s brains. Then a carbon monoxide leak drove them into full-blown psychosis.

The Pulse office was spared the worst effects of the chemicals, but the EMP really did a number on Jaz. She was already diagnosed with Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS), but its effects have been intensified by the electric charge. Ironically, in the game, her character’s AIWS gives her an advantage to see beyond the deceptions of ostensive reality, which also might now be the case for Jaz in real life too.

Pulse has issues with logic, but it was clearly made by and for survival horror video game players. Everyone who was disappointed in Netflix’s utterly dreadful Resident Evil reboot (probably the worst series of the year), should watch Pulse instead. It is a high energy, often bloody celebration of mayhem, which also features some absolutely crazy, but weirdly satisfying twists. Most of what fans want from Resident Evil they can find here.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Spin Me Round: Comedy Scored by Pino Donaggio

You will learn more watching a few hours of the Food Network than from attending this casual Italian restaurant chain’s special managers’ training workshop, but it has the distinct advantage of being in Italy. That definitely interests Amber, who has never been out of Bakersfield. She hopes to find romance in Italy, but stumbles across trouble in Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round, which opens today in New York.

Initially, it seems like there is a bit of a bait-and-switch going on with the managerial seminar. They were supposed to stay in founder Nick Martucci’s villa, but instead they are stuck in a strip mall budget inn. However, when Amber catches Martucci’s eye, he tries to whisk her off her feet. His loyal assistant Kat facilitates his courtship, but she also shows an interest in Amber as well.

Much to Amber’s surprise, all the attention ends just as suddenly as it began. Martucci appears to be romancing other women in the program, while Kat mysteriously disappears. She starts to suspect it is all some sort of sleazy grooming operation, especially when her colleague Dana reveals he and his fellow manager Fran are two of the only men to ever participate in the program. They also both happen to have names commonly associated with women.

has a reasonably promising premise, but it was not sufficiently developed. Frankly, it only really gets funny when Amber and Dana team-up to sleuth out the truth behind their seminar. Alison Brie and Zach Woods bounce off each other nicely in these sequences. However, most of the first half of the film just tries to force laughs out of uncomfortable situations. It does not help that Spin features several thesps whom the dictation-taking entertainment press keeps trying to convince us are funny, but they really aren’t, such as Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon. True to form, they just sap the energy out of Spin.

Orphan: First Kill

This entire film is a spoiler alert for its possible franchise, because if you haven’t already seen Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (released in 2009), it reveals the original film’s big shocking twist in the first ten minutes. There is a very good reason nasty little Leena has been confined to an Estonian asylum for the criminally insane. Viewers know her better as Esther, the name she adopts after her violent escape in William Brent Bell’s Orphan: First Kill, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

Dr. Novotny kept warning his staff to always be on their guard when around the little monster, but they just didn’t listen. A few bloody murders later, Leena finds a photo online of Esther Albright, a missing American girl she can pass herself off as, due to the passage of time and a bogus Russian kidnapping yarn. Of course, Albright’s sensitive artist father Allen is so overcome with joy, he unquestioningly accepts everything she says. However, Tricia Albright knows there is something wrong with her story and their child psychologist also notices some inconsistencies.

Make no mistake, Mother Albright is one tough customer. People are always so dumb in horror movies, but not her, no siree. Esther is a master manipulator, but she will have a harder time pulling-off her
Bad Seed-esque head-games with Ms. Albright than she did with Vera Farmiga in the first film. In fact, their cat-and-mouse business is what makes First Kill so much fun.

It is pretty amazing Isabelle Fuhrman can still play Esther, over ten years after the first film released. Admittedly, she had some SFX help, but there is also something about the character’s sinister nature that encourages the suspension of disbelief in this respect. Yet, Julia Stiles’s performance as Albright is what really makes the film work so well. She is sharp and witheringly funny. As a result, she and Esther are pretty evenly matched, which actually builds the kind of tension and suspense that is hard to get from prequels (because let’s face it, logic already tells us exactly what will happen).

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Undeclared War, in the Epoch Times

Peacock's Undeclared War has some so-so personal melodrama, but its realistic depiction of Russian cyberwarfare and toxic propaganda makes it required viewing. Epoch Times exclusive review up here.

Beast: Idris Elba Hears the Roar

It is weirdly fun to compare and contrast this film with Noel Marshall’s infamous Roar. In that film, Tipi Hedren’s actual family pretended not to be scared-to-death of the very real lions, rough-housing around them. In this new film, Idris Elba’s fake family make-believes they are absolutely terrified of the CGI lion stalking them. The production of the latter was obviously much more responsible. The law of the jungle still remains harsh and unforgiving in Baltasar Kormakur’s Beast, which opens this Friday.

Dr. Nate Samuels’ family is going through a rough patch. After he and his wife separated, she soon was diagnosed with cancer and quickly succumbed. For his daughters, Mere and Norah, it was definitely a case of “bad optics.” To heal their family unit, Samuels brought them back to his wife’s ancestral home in Africa, where the couple’s mutual friend, Martin Battles works as a wildlife ranger (and possibly an underground anti-poaching activist).

Battles thought he would take them out on a nice photo-safari. Instead, they stumble across a village that had been decimated by a rogue lion. That would be the big one that escaped the poaching gang during the prologue. Uncharacteristically, he keeps ripping and gnashing his prey, without stopping to feed, because he is mean-mad with mankind, so when he sees the Samuels’ range rover, he starts hunting them too.

certainly has an environmental message, but it is a worthy, focused point. Tragically, there has been a surge in lion poaching, to meet the demand for increasingly rare tiger bones, which are used as an unfounded remedy for impotence in regional folk “medicine.” This is an illegal trade China (supposedly Africa’s best friend) could surely curtail, but the CCP isn’t doing that at all. Maybe the big cat should pay them a visit.

Regardless, there is no question the big guy is the star of
Beast and the CGI animating him looks surprisingly lifelike. Its movements are convincingly realistic and his behavior is suitably ferocious to create tension and suspense. However, the film never really instills any “personality” in him, beyond a vengeance-hungry killing machine.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Glorious, on Shudder

This film makes “sparing a square” look like not such a big favor after all—not that there is any toilet paper in this disgusting rest-stop bathroom. Hungover Wes isn’t making it any cleaner, either, but his neighbor in the adjoining stall will really make things messy in Rebekah McKendry’s Glorious, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Wes was on the road, missing his ex, Brenda, but she wasn’t taking his calls. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to get blind, stinking drunk at the lonely rest-stop and then burn his pants in a bonfire, but it apparently seemed like the thing to do at the time. As a result, he is in pretty bad shape when the voice of Farmers Insurance starts talking to him from the stall next door. There happens to be a hole in the wall, but it cautions him not to look, claiming its appearance would drive Wes mad.

The voice Wes will call Ghat claims to be something truly Lovecraftian and it certainly seems to have that kind of supernatural powers. Forr one thing, Ghat can get inside of Wes’s head, interrupting the memories he tries to retreat into. It wants something from Wes, and only Wes. Nobody else is invited to Ghat’s party.

is often pretty gross, but also pretty clever. McKendry deftly exploits the claustrophobia of the setting and its inherent ickiness. What really makes the film though is J.K. Simmons, whose voice is absolutely perfect for the commanding, yet weirdly ingratiating Ghat. This is probably the best voiceover performance of the year, even including most animated films.

Ryan Kwanten is similarly well-cast as the depressed and degenerate Wes. Just looking at him makes you want to take an Alka Seltzer. He also presumably carried on a pretty intense one-sided conversation, given Ghat’s crazy talk must have been recorded separately. Professionals do that all the time, but he had to reach some manic extremes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

On the Count of Three, on Hulu

Ironically, a crime spree can give a sense of urgency and momentum to life. Initially, Val and Kevin figured they had nothing to lose, except their lives, which they were tired of, so why not end it all by going a little outlaw? Perhaps a fresh perspective will change their minds, or perhaps not in Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three, premiering tomorrow on Hulu.

Kevin has been miserable all his life, for many reasons, starting with Dr. Brenner, who molested him when he was a young boy. Val isn’t much happier, but he doesn’t have as many excuses. Nevertheless, he wants to end it all too, so he springs his friend from the psychiatric hospital, where he was committed after his recent suicide attempt. Val wants them to do the job right, by simultaneously shooting each other in the head. Kevin is not against it, but he wants to celebrate their last day together first, possibly by settling some scores. Dr. Brenner is at the top of his list, but Val might also want to visit the father who did him wrong.

At this point, the film and all its promotional materials are covered with trigger warnings and referrals for counseling help. That is all well intentioned and maybe a little of it is helpful, but society managed to survive Hal Ashby’s
Harold and Maude and Burt Reynolds’ The End. We should be able to weather this film as well. Frankly, a little dark humor can be cathartic and healing.

There is some here (especially when it skewers Kevin’s kneejerk woke, anti-gun rights politics), but screenwriters Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch really should have cranked up the mordant attitude much higher. Too often, they focus on the sad and tragic (which are usually less therapeutic). However, Lavell Crawford and Tiffany Haddish both deliver some sharply cutting lines. The support work in
Count is first-rate, including Henry Winkler, who will shock and even scar those who grew up with him on Happy Days, with his coldly manipulative performance as Dr. Brenner.

Baby Assassins

Sometimes, on-the-job training is better career prep than advanced course work. Murder-for-hire colud be one of those vocations. It seems to suit Chisato Sugimoto and Mahiro Fukagawa, despite their conflicting Odd Couple personalities. They are compatible professionally, but their employer also insists they room together in Yugo (Hugo) Sakamoto’s high body-count comedy Baby Assassins, which releases today on VOD.

Sugimoto is cute and bubbly, whereas Fukigawa is a withdrawn self-avowed sociopath. Together, they have a knack for killing, but holding down their company-mandated part-time cover jobs is a different story, especially for Fukigawa. Unfortunately, their latest target was Yakuza-connected, which displeases the boss, Ippei Hamaoka. Only he should be able to kill his people. As part of his female-centric makeover of his gang, Hamaoka instructs his daughter Himari to find and eliminate the killers.

Eventually, matters escalate into a full-blown war between the Yakuza and the two clueless high school grads. However, it is more likely the two roommates will kill each other before Hamaoka’s enforcers can get their act together. This is a comedy, but Sakamoto is not fooling around when it comes to the action. There are some brutal, no-holds-barred fight scenes and plenty of headshot-style executions. It almost feels like a Miike film, but it is lighter, leaner, and more down-to-business focused.

It’s Her Story: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was not always topless when she performed in the iconic banana skirt, so it really isn’t cheating to depict in some sort of bikini top. Be honest, when you see a graphic novel biography of Baker for ages 7-10, isn’t your first question how they depict her vintage Parisian costumes (or lack thereof)? Parents who are fans can certainly supplement as they see fit, but those who are also concerned about the premature sexualization of their children shouldn’t object to anything in Lauren Gamble’s It’s Her Story: Josephine Baker, illustrated by Markia Jenai, which goes on-sale today.

Gamble does indeed follow the chronological facts of Baker’s life, including her triumph in Paris, her clandestine service with the French resistance during the German occupation, and her support of the American Civil Rights movement. Someone should really write a separate book about her work as a spy, because it is such an intriguing historical episode, but at a kid-friendly 48 pages, Gamble’s bio does not have the time or space to get sidetracked.

The only real problem is the clunky dialogue, which unnecessarily echoes the sentiments of the descriptive captions. They are mostly declarative or condemning statements that do little to humanize Baker. Young kids are smart, they can handle a little humor and nuance.

Regardless, Jenai’s art is colorful and vibrant, capturing the elegance and extravagance of Baker’s stage career. Some panels would make great posters, if the dialogue balloons were stripped out. It is also nice to see them drop Ethel Waters’ name—we can always hope the young readers will look her up too.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Harry O: Sound of Trumpets

Harry Orwell had a cool name, but the title of his series didn’t use the best part. He was also a little older and a lot more broken down than most TV detectives of his era, but that made him a credible jazz fan. His taste puts him in the right jazz club, at the right time, to help a legendary trumpeter in the “Sound of Trumpets” episode of Harry O, directed by John Newland (the host and director of One Step Beyond), which airs late night Saturday, as part of Decade TV’s weekend binge.

Art Sully (born Arthur Daniels) played with the greats, but it has been a while. He was just paroled after serving more than ten years for a dubious murder charge. He happens to crash Ziggy’s set at Orwell’s favorite Santa Monica jazz club and then crashes at Orwell’s pad. When he comes to, he “borrows” the MG that spent the better part of the series in the repair shop (MGs were like that). Despite his annoyance, the thugs that come looking for Sully convince Orwell to help the musician. He is also moved by the concern of Chuck Henry, another jazz legend, and Sully’s daughter, Ruthie Daniels, an up-and-coming vocalist.

By this time, the setting of
Harry O had already moved from San Diego to LA/Santa Monica, which meant all the time Orwell spent on the bus was particularly sad. The shift probably paid off, since Anthony Zerbe won an Emmy playing Orwell’s reluctant police contact, Lt. K.C. Trench. Based on this episode, Zerbe and star David Janssen had an amusing bickering-bantering rhythm going on. Of course, LA was also a more logical setting for a jazz story.

Although the specific musicians are not credited, this episode was scored by the preeminent bop trombonist J.J. Johnson, who knew everybody. For this episode, he used a lot of percussion motifs. Among the guest stars, Cab Calloway was of equal or possibly even greater stature, playing the decent and dignified Henry (an Ellington-esque figure), with his showman-like charm.

Brenda Sykes, who played Ruthie Daniels, also had important jazz connections, as the wife of vocalist Gil Scott-Heron. Frankly, it is a shame she did not record more, because she performs a nice jazzy rendition of “What is this Thing Called Love” and a more R&B-ish (but maybe even more distinctive) version of “Never My Love.” Plus, there is a one-armed former trumpeter turned pawnbroker, who must have been inspired by Wingy Manone.

Leonardo, on CW

Da Vinci is one of the major reasons why we have the term “Renaissance man,” because he was one of the originals (and one of the most important). Yet, he hardly ever finished anything. At least that is the impression viewers get from his latest episodic series treatment. Creators Frank Spotnitz & Steve Thompson focus more on the intrigue, scandal, and ambiguous sexual orientation, which is surely why it was acquired by the CW, where it premieres tomorrow.

Leonardo Da Vinci is keenly aware of his illegitimacy and the sense of abandonment he carries all his life. Nonetheless, his middle-class notary father helped him attain an apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrochio. Not surprisingly, the student’s promise soon shows the potential to eclipse the master. Da Vinci’s work even attracts an offer of patronage from Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, whom Da Vinci rashly turns down, out of loyalty to Verrochio.

During his apprentice years, Da Vinci also forges an unusual relationship with Caterina de Cremona, a lowly servant, with ambitions many would consider well beyond her station. They do not exactly sleep together, because Spotnitz and Thompson clearly suggest that just isn’t Da Vinci’s thing. However, they still have a deeply felt, but highly tumultuous relationship. In fact, as the series opens, Da Vinci stands accused of her murder by Stefano Giraldi of the Milan constabulary. The truth will be revealed in flashbacks, prompted by his interrogations.

Admittedly, Da Vinci’s body of work is frustratingly limited compared to many of his contemporaries, but
Leonardo often makes him look like a serial procrastinator. Dan Brown fans will also be annoyed Spotnitz and Thompson never show him incorporating any Fibonacci sequences into his masterworks. The new series at least halfway accurately chronicles the major events of the Da Vinci historical record, especially compared to David Goyer’s Da Vinci’s Demons. However, the way the latter portrayed Leonardo as a carousing degenerate was much more entertaining than the humorless angst of Aidan Turner (from the new Poldark) this time around.

Nonetheless, Turner generates more than enough brooding and sexual confusion to keep the melodrama chugging along. Eventually, he and Matilda De Angelis (playing de Cremona) develop some intriguing chemistry together. Of course, James D’Arcy is reliably arrogant as the villainous Ludovico. The real problem is Freddy Highmore is badly miscast as the intrepid Giraldi. The part needed someone like Tim Roth, who can play it convincingly sly and cynical, before rediscovering his idealism, thanks to Da Vinci’s art. Highmore just wasn’t up to it, but he was an executive producer, so he was a fact of life.

Syndrome K, Narrated by Ray Liotta

This particular virus really was fake news. That is why it was so heroic and ingenious. After the German occupation of Rome in 1943, until its Allied liberation, a handful of doctors and supporting staff maintained the secret “K” ward, where they sheltered Jews, who were supposedly suffering from a completely fictitious virus. Documentarian and film score composer Stephen Edwards chronicles their courageous efforts in Syndrome K, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Fatebenefratelli Hospital was Catholic by affiliation and ownership title. Yet, the Jewish Dr. Vittorio Sacradoti made a professional home there before the Germans invaded and a literal home during the occupation. He also found sympathetic colleagues in the senior physician, Dr. Giovani Borromeo and Dr. Adriano Ossicini, who was already active in the anti-Fascist underground. Together, they devised the Syndrome K deception, as a means to shelter Jewish Italians, shrewdly exploiting the National Socialists’ phobic obsessions with disease and impurity.

They also harbored resistance figures on a short-term basis and provided communications support to the underground. Since they were literally owned by the Church, it is highly likely Pope Pious XII was aware to some extent of their activities, which he apparently approved, at least passively.

In fact, Edwards devotes a good deal of time to analyzing the controversial Pope’s actions in response to Hitler and the Holocaust. Rather than attacking or defending, Edwards and his on-camera experts are surprisingly evenhanded. While the Pope still gets mixed-to-negative marks, the rank-and-file priests and nuns who sheltered Roman Jewry throughout the city get their due credit. As a result, this is a film that should really bring people together and inspire good fellowship.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resnais at Film Forum: Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime

Claude Ridder is not your typical time-traveling hero, but he was a fitting protagonist for Alain Resnais, the late surrealist filmmaker, who was often associated with the French New Wave, despite never fully identifying with the movement. In fact, Resnais’s take on time-travel film could represent the ultimate Nouvelle Vague film, because of its radically fractured approach to time. After consenting to serve as a human guinea pig in a time-traveling experiment, Ridder finds himself uncontrollably reliving brief snippets of his life in Resnais’s Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (I Love You, I Love You), which is definitely worth re-watching in honor of the filmmaker’s recent centennial.

Ridder is a pitiable fellow in many ways. He still works as a shipping clerk at a Parisian publishing house, due to his chronic lack of ambition. Ridder also just survived a suicide attempt. Rather symbolically, he tried to shoot himself through the heart. Yet, his rather cavalier attitude towards life is what attracts the Crispel Research Center.

As the various blandly bureaucratic scientists explain to Ridder, they successfully sent mice back in time for one minute and then returned them safely. Of course, mice cannot discuss the experience, so they wish to recruit him to be their first human test subject. Ridder does not have any good reason to decline, so he agrees.

Much to everyone’s alarm, something goes wrong with the process this time. Ridder keeps randomly “quantum leaping” into past episodes of his life, many of which involve his troubled relationship with Catrine, who struggled with depression until her early demise. At various times, Resnais leads the audience to suspect something definitely transpired between them that contributed to her death and his suicide attempt.

Resnais’s 1968 film is often considered a source of inspiration for
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it is worth noting Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime also predates Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five and the subsequent George Roy Hill film adaptation. It certainly constitutes a fractured narrative, by any standard or measure. As Ridder endures the shuffle-play of his sad history for viewers to watch, each jump gets shorter, with surreal imagery starting to intrude into what had appeared to be an otherwise mundane existence.

Arguably, Resnais’s narrative approach was considerably ahead of the other genre films of its era. However, the scenes in the Crispel Center have a cold, sterile vibe reminiscent of classic 1960s science fiction films like Jean-Luc Godard’s
Alphaville and Dr. Heywood Broun’s early sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That coldness is similarly reflected in the characters, especially Ridder, who is standoffish and often rather self-sabotaging. Likewise, Catrine is usually moody and distant—or at least that is how he remembers her.

Resnais demands the audience’s full attention, by revisiting key incidents from different perspectives, at slightly earlier or later time-frames. It might look repetitive, but there are nuances to pick up on. Ultimately, when it all comes together, it lands with devastating emotional force.