Friday, September 30, 2022

Family Law (Pilot), on CW

Maybe a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but what is he, if he hires his toxic, alcoholic daughter? Abigail Bianchi is actually the third of Harry Svensson’s three grown children (all from different mothers) that he hired at his family law firm. She is not happy to be there, but it is her only option after a drunken vomiting courtroom incident. Even in Canada, the courts frown on such behavior, but each case offers more dramedy-redemption in writer-creator Susin Nielsen’s Family Law, which premieres Sunday on the CW.

In the pilot episode, “Sins of the Father,” Bianchi does not know her entitled half-siblings very well and neither of them is happy to have her join the firm. Before the regurgitation incident, Bianchi was a hot shot litigator, so she feels like family law is beneath her. Only the transgender receptionist is happy to see her.

Currently, Bianchi is separated from her unfaithful husband, who still has custody of the kids, because she is such a dumpster fire. Their little boy always looks forward to her visits, but their teen daughter is openly siding with dad and against her. At least she has the boozy support of her Ab-Fab mother Joanne Kowalski, Svensson’s first wife. Perhaps understandably, some of Bianchi’s baggage comes out during her first case for the firm, involving years of unpaid child support from a father, who answered an online ad for a no-strings-attached sperm donor.

Honestly, most of the legal plotlines of the pilot episode feel like they could have been brainstorming notes discarded from the writers’ room when
L.A. Law was cancelled in the mid-1990s. It is basically the same formula. The pilot gives us one primary case, addressing a mildly controversial issue, while also following a slightly comical secondary case (this time around it is a doggie custody battle).

Family Law
might not be stylistically innovative, but that is no great sin. The problem is the complete and utter lack of characters any sane viewer would want to spend time with. Bianchi is abrasively annoying, Svensson is insufferably arrogant, and the step-siblings combine the worst of both. Even Lauren Holly generates more eye-rolls than laughs as the diva-ish Kowalski.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever, on Apple TV+

Well into the 1950s, the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood was considered the most rural area in the borough. Technically, it could still be. Traditionally, it was also predominantly Irish Catholic. Not surprisingly, the locals took exception to antiwar protesters who casually smeared the troops as “baby killers.” Out of that shared frustration, Chickie Donohue, a peace-time veteran and Merchant Marine, hatched a scheme to deliver beer to his neighborhood friends serving in-country. Much to everyone’s surprise, especially the soldiers in combat, Donohue followed-through. His real-life adventure is now the subject of Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Donohue still lives at home, because he and his mother think it would be a waste to pay rent while he is gone for months at a time with the Merchant Marine (who also have a crucial role to play during times of war). However, that means there are plenty of opportunities for arguments with his anti-war activist sister. During a gripe-session with the “Colonel,” the bartender at their local watering hole, Donohue latches on to a crazy idea to deliver beers to the troops in Vietnam, as a way to express their appreciation. However, it was not a totally unrealistic idea for Donohue, because there happened to be a supply ship leaving for Saigon that still had a vacancy.

With a duffle bag full of Pabst and a list of names and general locations, Donohue sets off, naively heedless of the chaos and danger he would be stepping into. For the sake of dramatic cohesion, Farrelly and co-screenwriters Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones compressed Donohue’s months-long mission into a 72-hour pass—over the final days of January, 1968, thereby raising the dramatic stakes, as those who know their history will immediately understand.

Clearly, Farrelly is going for a
Good Morning Vietnam vibe, but Greatest Beer Run proves that is easier said than done. It so obvious Farrelly and his co-writers feel duty-bound to criticize the war, without attacking the troops in the way so many New Left protesters did. As a result, the film twists itself into pretzels, not infrequently questioning the motives and integrity of the government and top military brass, while attempting to sympathize with the enlisted men. It almost reaches Jekyll-and-Hyde extremes.

Indeed, Coates, the war correspondent played by Russell Crowe is supposed to be one of the good guys, but his smug moral superiority is absolutely nauseating. Regardless, he cannot help comparing unfavorably with Donohue, whom Zac Efron portrays winning earnestness—and nebbishness, very much contrary to his image. This is definitely some of his best work.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Interview with the Vampire, on AMC

New Orleans really is the perfect place for vampires. It is a city built around nightlife, where they bury their dead above ground. The new series reboot definitely capitalizes on the New Orleans vibe, but it also embraces the homoeroticism of the original novel. This definitely is not Tom Cruise’s Lestat. What was once implied is now explicit in creator Rolin Jones’ Interview with the Vampire, which premieres Sunday on AMC.

Years ago, vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac sat for an ill-fated interview session with rookie reporter Daniel Molloy. Years have passed. Molloy is now an aging journalist, facing his mortality. With the CCP pandemic raging, Molloy agrees to a do-over with Pointe du Lac, meeting him in his luxury Dubai penthouse.

This time around, Pointe du Lac is a Creole vampire, who saved his family fortune through his administration of several Storyville sporting houses. How he met Lestat de Lioncourt hardly requires much explanation. Although de Lioncourt first humiliates Pointe du Lac with his favorite high-class prostitute, they are soon sharing her services. Pretty soon they do not even need her at all. By this time, de Lioncourt has turned his vampire apprentice-lover. However, Pointe du Lac still attempts to maintain ties with his family, despite the increasingly awkward complications of his sexuality and vampirism.

In the film, Pointe du Lac was played by Brad Pitt, which made sense, whereas Cruise portrayed Lestat. Honestly, it was a miracle the director Neil Jordan was able to make that work to the extent that he did. Louis’s new Creole-ness is certainly woke-compatible, but it fits relatively easily with the novel’s themes, further emphasizing Pointe du Lac’s outsider status.

However, the best part about the new series is the older, dramatically more cynical Molloy, now portrayed by Eric Bogosian, who is a major trade-up from Christian Slater. Time after time, Molloy undercuts the eroticism and moral relativism Louis tries to cloak his story in. Repeatedly, he asks tough questions about the vampires’ victims and their bereaved families. Honestly, it is a shame so few real-life journalists demonstrate this kind of integrity and tenacity.

The Dark Heart, on Topic

This five-part series is based on a real-life Swedish true crime book, but it could be any number of cases, since family members are always the first suspects when someone is murdered. It sure looks like Sanna Ljungqvist killed her strict father, Bengt, with her boyfriend Marcus Tingstrom, the thuggish poppa of her child, but volunteer missing persons-searcher Tanja Thorell is the only one investigating the case in director-co-creator Gustav Moller’s The Dark Heart, which premieres today on Topic.

Ljungqvist is fresh out of school with a forest-management degree, but Bengt condescendingly dismisses all her new ideas for their forestry business. Ironically, that pushes her into the arms of brooding Tingstrom, whose father has long-feuded with Bengt, as their fathers did before them.

It sure seems like something bad happened to old Bengt, because he has been missing for over a year in the later time-line. Ljungqvist’s older sister Emelie, who hasn’t lived on the family tree farm in years, contacted Thorell’s missing persons group. Basically, she administers a Facebook page and a list of a few dozen volunteers, but she mobilizes them all to search the woods around the Ljungqvist farm. However, Ljungqvist and Thorell will not grant them permission to search their property, thereby raising Thorell’s suspicions—quite rightly so.

Dark Heart
was probably conceived as a thriller that explored the troubling emotional terrain of family dysfunction, like Blood and Broadchurch, but it leans much more towards angst than suspense. Although the initial split narrative is a little confusing, viewers will pretty much know what happened and are where it is headed, right from the start.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Hostages, in The Epoch Times

The Hostage Crisis was an international crime and a national tragedy for the Iranian people. HBO's HOSTAGES eventually makes that point, exposing the way the Ayatollah manipulated the incident to consolidate his hold on power. Fittingly, it premieres during the Masha Amini protests. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Smile—Turn that Frown Upside

The lost verses of Charlie Chaplin’s classic tune probably go something like “smile, even though you're being tormented by a supernatural entity,” right? Weirdly, the song is not heard during this film, unless it is buried deep in the closing credits. There is no cheap irony, but there are jump scares. However, those jump scares are unusually effective in director-screenwriter Parker Finn’s Smile, which open Friday nationwide.

Dr. Rose Cotter is an incredibly diligent emergency room psychiatrist, but even she is shocked when her new patient, Laura Weaver, brutally kills herself during their first session. The experience understandably disturbs her, but she feels an additional sense of unease. Her eyes must be playing tricks on her, because she keeps seeing her late patient’s maniacal smile on other people.

Slowly, she starts to suspect a mysterious something is stalking her. Her wealthy fiancé is not much help, but her torch-carrying ex-boyfriend, who conveniently happens to be the cop who responded to Weaver’s suicide case, helps her research the victim’s past. It turns out, Weaver also witnessed a grisly suicide a week earlier. That man also watched a shocking self-annihilation a week before, and so on and so forth.

might be a studio horror film, but you can see the influence of the “elevated horror” trend. Finn seriously addresses issues mental health and family dysfunction in ways that never feel exploitative. The film could even be therapeutic, were it not for the very standard horror movie ending.

There are still a lot of jump scares, but they really make you jump like a nervous jackrabbit. At nearly two full hours,
Smile is a bit too long (ironically Finn adapted it from his short film), but there are a number of super-sharply executed, highly memorable scenes, such as Cotter’s prison meeting with an accused murderer, who might have escaped the Smiley curse.

Spirit Halloween: The Movie

Visit our stores and maybe you’ll be possessed by an angry ghost” is an unusual commercial message for a company to put out, but Spirit Halloween is not your typical retail chain. They only open brick-and-mortar stores for 60 to 90 days out of the year, usually taking short-term remnant leases. It is easy to see why middle school monster fans like Jake and his friends would be fascinated by their inventory. However, sneaking into the big-box pop-up on Halloween night is obviously just asking for trouble in David Poag’s Spirit Halloween: The Movie, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Jake loves Halloween, because it brings back fond memories of his late father. Unfortunately, his obnoxious friend Carson believes he is already too old to trick or trick. Instead, he wants to go to a teen party or pull stupid teen pranks. Somehow, he and Jake come to a compromise, agreeing to secretly spend the night in their local Spirit Halloween. Their third friend Bo knows it is a bad idea, but he is even more passive than Jake.

Unbeknownst to them, the store leased an empty old Kmart or whatever, built near the site of the orphanage legendary real estate developer Alex Windsor tried to evict, before his untimely death from witchcraft. Windsor has become a local legend, but his ghost is very real. He still hates kids, but he would be happy to take possession of one of the boys’ bodies. They could use some adult supervision, but they will have to settle for Carson’s teen sister, Kate (which will be just fine with the smitten Jake). She figures out what they are up to, but she does not expect to also find Windsor’s ghost controlling Spirit Halloween’s ghoulish animatronics and standees.

This film could also be called “Product Placement: The Movie,” but it is easy to see geeky pre-teens loving it (we probably would have). It is not
The Monster Squad, but it has Christopher Lloyd channeling his Who Framed Roger Rabbit persona as the sinister Windsor. The various possessed Halloween decorations are amusing and most likely will inspire increased sales from indulgent parents.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Munsters: Revived by Rob Zombie

This beloved TV family was more apple pie-American than the Waltons, the Cleavers, or the Simpsons, but they originally hailed from Transylvania. Sure, some most fans might be somewhat fonder of the Adamses or the Collinses of Collinsport, but we all have a soft spot for Herman Munster and family. That’s why everyone had the same thought when Rob Zombie’s remake was announced: “he better not screw it up.” At least he gets the tone right in The Munsters, which releases today on DVD and Netflix.

Lily is a ghoul (with the moistest) living with her father the Count, who wants her to settle down with a wealthy Nosferatu. Instead, she falls for Herman Munster, the days-old creation of Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang. He was stitched together soon after the death of two brothers. One was a brilliant quantum physicist. The other was a moronic nightclub comic. Guess which one’s brain Wolfgang’s assistant Floop was supposed to steal and which he plundered instead.

The Count thinks Herman is an idiot, but it is love at first sight for Lily. Unfortunately, the Count is not wrong about Munster, which makes him easy prey for Lily’s scammer brother Lester, a compulsive gambling werewolf deeply indebted to fortune-teller-real estate developer Zoya Krupp (yes, we still love Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva in
The Wolf Man, but the Roma stereotypes are getting a bit outdated).

Unlike every other film Rob Zombie ever made,
The Munsters is sweet and gentle. You won’t hear anyone leveling charges of toxic fandom to defend the film, because it respects what made the original so enduring—a loving nuclear family, who just happen to look like vintage Universal monsters. To that end, there are a number of warmly pleasing sequences, like Herman and Lily’s duet on “I’ve Got You Babe” and Herman’s introduction to Lily’s uncle, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The problem with Zombie’s script is that it is a totally unnecessary origin story. We completely get who the Munsters are. There is no need wasting time explaining. Just cut to the riffing on classic monster tropes. Frankly, there is not a lot of genuine conflict to drive the narrative, such as it is. We do not even get to meet Eddie or Marilyn Munster yet, but the original cast-members Butch Patrick and Pat Priest who portrayed them have voice-over cameos (as Tin Can Man and an airline announcer) that viewers should be forewarned of, because otherwise they aren’t likely to register.

Preman: Silent Fury

Premen are not exactly triads, because they pretend to be guardians of their neighborhoods. Consider them Indonesian “community organizers.” Of course, when crooked politicians want a block cleared of residents, they are the ones to call. Naturally, they turn on one of their own when his son witnesses one of their murders in Randolph Zaini’s Preman: Silent Fury, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

For various reasons, some related to his deafness, Sandi has profound self-esteem issues. He really believes he is only fit to be enforcer for Guru’s Preman gang. When he first joined the Preman, they were more like what they present themselves to be, because they were led by the respected Haji. Now, Haji is on the other side, refusing to vacate the neighborhood a mobbed-up politician wants to re-develop.

Unfortunately, Sandi’s son Pandu sees Guru murdering Haji. Sandi hopes to stash Pandu with his estranged mother, but Guru’s assassin is hot on their heels. The flamboyant Ramon is a notoriously messy killer, who enjoys snipping up his targets with his hairdresser’s scissors. Right, you won’t see a villain like Ramon in a Hollywood movie anytime soon.

definitely isn’t Hollywood, but it and other Indonesian martial arts releases make a good substitute for the action films we used to enjoy from Hong Kong. Tragically, the HK film industry has been profoundly compromised by the CCP, to the point where the propaganda outweighs everything else. Preman has plenty of the old school, bone-crunching action we’re missing and it is also weirdly eccentric, which also follows in HK traditions. At one point, Sandi cuts through a small army of Preman thugs, who appear in his mind’s eye as fuzzy cartoon animals.

Zaini plumbs his antihero’s subconscious deeper and further than most martial arts films ever attempt. At times, it is downright neurotically existential. However, Zaini always takes care of the action business.
Preman’s fight scenes are particularly distinctive, because of Sandi’s preferred weapon of choice: the monkey’s fist, a rope on a string that takes on lethal power through centrifugal force.

Graphic Novel: Blood Stained Teeth

It turns out the Birchers were kind of right. There is a hidden cabal operating behind the scenes. They just happen to be vampires rather than central bankers. It is an exclusive brethren, but not exclusive enough for the First Council. As far as they are concerned, the only decent vampires are those who are born that way, unlike the crass “sips” Atticus Sloane keeps turning. His vampire-turning business has gotten too prolific and conspicuous, so they give him a deadline to kill all his sips in three weeks, or else, in artist-creators Christian Ward & Patric Reynolds’ graphic novel Blood Stained Teeth: Book One: Bite Me (collecting issues 1-5), which goes on-sale today.

Sloane is a vinyl collector, but he collects hipster bands instead of vintage jazz. Over the years, he has developed a taste for human music and luxuries, which he pays for with his vampire turning service. Aside from Joey, Sloane’s familiar companion, the vampire does not care much for his sips. Usually, they desired immortality for the obvious tacky reasons. He does not care much for the First Council either, but they are most certainly powerful enough to kill him.

Therefore, when the impose their mandate, he must comply. To emphasize the point, they kill Joey in front of him, but his familiar continues to advise him in his mind’s eye, like Luke Kirby’s wife in
Panhandle or Kaley Cuoco’s one night stand in The Flight Attendant. Unfortunately, many of his creepy sips will be harder to kill than poor Joey.

Frankly, the whole vampire council feels awfully “familiar” by now, from franchises like
Underworld, Blade, and A Discovery of Witches. Ward and Reynolds introduce Bram Stoker as the Council’s spokesman, but that is not enough to liven up the undead premise. They are still just the same vampires talking about their own superiority.

Still, the art has a gritty, old school vibe that aptly suits Sloane’s bloody beatdowns with his nasty sips. Arguably, the Council is right—he has been irresponsible. In fact, Sloane is a rather unappealing character, so it is hard to care about him, his predicament, or his sips, except to root against them all.

There are more issues of
Blood Stained Teeth coming, so do not expect much resolution at the end of the first tradepaper collection. Yet, it is really just more of the vampire intrigue you have already seen before. Blood Stained Teeth is simply too much like other things to recommend when it goes on-sale today (9/27), wherever books and comics are sold.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Buozyte & Samper’s Vesper

This titular teenaged girl is a budding Dr. Frankenstein of botany. She has a talent for splicing together partially sentient plant-things. Apparently, that is a good thing, because her post-apocalyptic world is not dangerous enough already. Unfortunately, the world-building is solely concerned with visuals and has no regard for logic in Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper’s Vesper, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the dystopian future, people no longer act out of logical motives or incentives. They just behave the way screenwriters need them to. The elites in the mega-city “citadels” are going to be evil and Vesper, the plucky bio-engineering teen caring for her paralyzed father Darius, will be impossibly noble. He lost his mobility while serving in the Citadel’s army, so they fitted him out with a hovering drone to serve as his real-world avatar—and then cut him loose.

Father and daughter live in the no man’s land surrounding the Citadel. They even spurned the grubby survivalist community led by Vesper’s gangster-like uncle Jonas, but they are still forced to trade with him for the bacteria that powers her father’s life-support system. Vesper hopes deliverance might finally be at-hand when she gives shelter to a Citadel resident who crashed in the wasteland. She hopes her talents for bio-engineering will earn her a place in the mega-city, with a referral from Camelia. However, it quickly becomes clear the mysterious woman is in fact not the potentially helpful power-broker she made herself out to be.

is an amazing looking film, but the social systems it posits are simplistic at best. Why would the Citadel create these revolutionary potent seeds and then just keep them locked up, awaiting a dissident to steal them? What exactly is their end game? Being mean is not a sufficient answer. Yet, Buozyte and Samper clearly expect critics will reflexively accept and praise their crude class warfare, which has indeed been the case so far.

In a way, those awesome visuals are a bit of a tease, because we only see those striking behemoths featured on the poster from a distance and therefore are never allowed to explore their mysteries. Weirdly, there is also a crazy cult compulsively stacking objects, sort of like the zombies in
Cell, but you have to admit lifting from one of the least prestigious Stephen King movies is an unconventionally original proposition.

Quantum Leap 2022: July 13th, 1985 & Atlantis

Why Would you repeat an infamously disastrous scientific experiment? Because it involves time travel. We all know Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and found himself leaping into lives that he had to set right, before he could leap out and repeat the process again. Now Dr. Ben Song is in a similar position, but that was not the plan. He was supposed to be the holographic communicator and his lover Caitlin Bassett was supposed to be the leaper. For some reason he leaped without telling anyone in the new Quantum Leap, which just premiered on NBC and Peacock (the second episode “Atlantis” airs tonight).

The Quantum Leap project had been mothballed after Beckett was declared lost in time. The original program director and hologram Admiral Al Calavicci (the late Dean Stockwell) has passed away, but the military relaunched project under the Herbert “Magic” Williams (Beckett leaped into him during Williams’ Viet Nam service). Song was considered the glue who held the team together, so everyone is shocked when he leaps without warning, after installing some strange new code.

Inconveniently, Song experiences amnesia after leaping, an anticipated side effect. Frankly, Williams and Jenn Chou, the project’s security director, are a bit suspicious of Song, particularly since he apparently had been in recent contact with Calavicci’s brilliant but somewhat unstable daughter Janice. However, they all must work together to get him through his first leap.

It seems Song is now part of a gang that will successfully replace the Hope diamond. For extra added nostalgic detail, the heist will go down in Philadelphia during the Live Aid concert. Unfortunately, Song initially manages to make things much worse for his host body, which could very well set the pattern for the show.

Like the 1989 series, Song finds himself leaping at particularly dramatic moments, but the launch of the space shuttle at the start of the “Atlantis” episode might have been beyond the means of the 1989 precursor series. Director David McWhirter nicely capitalizes on the claustrophobic Shuttle setting and the storyline will resonate with viewers who remember the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Plus, Carly Pope and Leith M. Burke both do strong, commanding work in their guest shots as the Shuttle first officer and commander.

One of the reasons
Quantum Leap 2022 is so good, so far, is that it is not a remake, reboot, or re-conception. It is a continuation of the original series that obviously respects (and makes frequent reference) to its characters. If the first season ends with Song leaping into Sam Beckett (as fans maybe are already hoping), it will earn a standing ovation and a champagne toast.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

1989: a Spy Story, on MHz

Before 1989, if you were named in Stasi records as a mole or an informant, you could count on that intel staying secret. After 1989, you were potentially in a heck of a lot of trouble. That is the position Saskia Starke finds herself in as a mole in America’ West German embassy in Sven Bohse’s 1989: a Spy Story (a.k.a. Wendezeit), a film produced for German television, which premieres this Tuesday on MHz.

Actually, Starke is not the original name she was born with. However, as the daughter of a high-ranking Stasi agent, she had to do her duty, assuming the identity of a West German leftist, who defected to GDR. The real Starke had been estranged from her former National Socialist parents, so it was easy for her imposter to re-start her life fresh in West Berlin.

Eventually, she married her husband, a diplomat in the West German embassy and wormed her way into an in-country analyst gig with the CIA. Yet, it was only by luck that her colleague Betsy Jordan blabbed during a dinner party about an operation to pick up a Stasi defector who could burn her. Starke manages to liquidate him before his rendezvous with the CIA, but that tips off the Agency that they have a mole in the embassy. It will be Jeremy Redman’s job to find the deep-cover Stasi agent. Supposedly, he is the one who sleuthed out the Walker spy ring—and he immediately suspects Starke.

She was once a true believer in Socialism, but Starke's faith has been shaken. However, she still ardently believes in staying alive and at liberty. Given her circumstances and shifting beliefs, her reactions to current events in the GDR are quite conflicted, but she has to put on a happy face at work. She also totally freaks when she learns her rebellious daughter has been secretly seeing an East German punker, for so many reasons.

is a really smart and sophisticated espionage thriller (written by Silke Steiner) that has a lot of le Carre-esque betrayals and shifting loyalties, but is consistently critical of the Communist experiment in misery. It definitely looks and feels like 1989 (wasn’t that a great year) and Bohse keeps building the suspense as Redman gets closer and closer to uncovering Starke’s secret mission.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Karamay, in the Epoch Times

KARAMAY might be the most "radioactive" film in Mainland China. It is a heartbreaking, epic indictment of the CCP corruption that led to the deaths of 288 school children in the Xinjiang city. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Escape from Kabul, in The Epoch Times

ESCAPE FROM KABUL has issues, but it viscerally documents the danger Biden put our troops in with his chaotic, unplanned retreat from Afghanistan. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Mariam, on

There is little about Kazakhstan's formal social structures that you might call progressive. The government was one of Putin’s closest allies (at least until his invasion of Ukraine), whereas the Islam practiced on the steppe still maintains traditional gender roles (at least it is still demonstrably more moderate than that practiced in the Middle East). A desperate woman will get little help from either the government or her community when her husband disappears in Sharipa Urazbayeva’s Mariam, which premieres Monday on

One day, Mariam’s husband left for the market, but he never returned that night. The next day, she files a report with the police, who are coldly professional and a little condescending. Eventually, his horse makes his way back Mariam’s lonely farmhouse, but there are still no signs of him.

As the weeks pass, the owners of the cattle her husband tended transfer them to another tenant farm, thus leaving her with no means to support her three young children. Yet, without a body, the authorities will not issue the death certificate she needs for government benefits. It is a real-life Kafakesque situation that lead thesp Meruert Sabbusinova could certainly relate to, because
Mariam’s story is largely based on her own. Initially, Urazbayeva intended to chronicle her plight in a documentary, but it evolved into this dramatic narrative.

There is indeed a big twist towards the end that threatens to complicate all of Mariam’s efforts to build a new life. Somewhat perversely, nearly every description of the film gives it away. Maybe it is pretty easy to guess, but still.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Panhandle, on Spectrum

Pretty soon, we’ll all be living in Florida or Texas, because they are the only states with any jobs. Hopefully, we won’t dilute the local culture. Bell Prescott named his pet alligator Moseley in honor of the state’s first governor, so he is about as Floridian as it gets. He is also an agoraphobic basket-case who took an advanced criminology degree online, in hopes of solving his wife’s murder. Her cold case heats up in Carla Kettner & Nicholas Stoller’s Panhandle, which premieres Monday on Spectrum.

Ever since the murder of his wife Vida, Prescott has been unable to leave his family home outside the dying town of Boggsville. When her body was found in the swamp, the lazy county sheriff just assumed it was methheads. Unfortunately, Sheriff Grant is now supposed to handle all of the town’s real law enforcement. Cammie Lorde is the only police the community has left, but she is only supposed to write speeding tickets to fund the failing town’s municipal government. Nevertheless, she responds to the call from Prescott’s estate, when the recluse finds a suspiciously blue corpse in his shrubbery.

Against protocol, he starts analyzing the body. Initially, his presumptuousness annoys Lorde, but she grudgingly admits he might somewhat know what he is doing. Reasonably, he assumes the new body is related to his wife’s murder, which indeed turns out to be the case. The twitchy Prescott needs Lorde’s help to pursue his investigation, so he offers up his files solving numerous regional cold cases in exchange for her cooperation.

Inevitably, the course of their sleuthing will lead to some uncomfortable revelations for Prescott. He will try to confront the mental projection the grieving Prescott regularly summons of his late wife for company, but he is still (mostly) aware that she is only in his head (like Michel Huisman in
The Flight Attendant).

is a lot like a Carl Hiaasen adaptation that didn’t have to pay Hiaasen a cent. There are plenty of gators, guns, and distinctly Floridian attitude. It wouldn’t be the same show if it were set anywhere else, which was a good part of its intention. The battery of directors also keep it moving along briskly, while not letting the humor overwhelm the mystery business.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Bandit, Co-Starring Mel Gibson

Robert Whiteman racked up more frequent flyer points than George Clooney in Up in the Air. That was one of the perks of being “The Flying Bandit,” aside from all the free money banks gave him (not voluntarily). He was a good bluffer, who carefully prepared for each heist, but the security of Canadian banks also looks invitingly lax, at least judging from Allan Ungar’s Bandit, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Gilbert Galvan, Jr. was a small-time crook, who headed north in 1985, after escaping from an American minimum-security prison. He adopted the name Whiteman after buying a homeless derelict’s ID to get a job selling popsicles. Poor Det. Snydes might have been saved a great deal of aggregation if the popsicle company had not decided to down-size their bike-cart operation. Instead, he started using techniques he picked up from a theatrical costume store to rob banks, while romancing Andrea, the evening admitting clerk at the homeless shelter he is crashing at. That is definitely a power move.

Whiteman gets plenty of insight into Canadian bank security practices just by asking. Seriously, this story is so Canadian. Of course, Galvan/Whiteman cannot keep knocking over banks in the same town where he wants to make a life with his new girlfriend. To properly expand his business, he takes a loan from Tommy Kay, the local gangster-fence, who becomes his business partner. Soon, Whiteman/Galvan is jet-setting across Canada, holding up branches of his favorite national bank.

Even though Galvan was born here, Kay and Syndes are probably the characters American viewers will most identify with. It certainly helps that Mel Gibson plays Kay with such impish glee. He really has become the go-to guy to elevate okay VOD thrillers to the next level.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Raven’s Hollow, on Shudder

The truth is Edgar Allan Poe was not the hopelessly dissolute basket case he is so often cracked-up to have been. Unfortunately, the first biography of Poe was written by his bitterest literary rival, but it set the tone for most that followed. Seriously people, start checking your sources. During the early days of his enrollment at West Point, Poe was naturally seen as a leader, despite his awkwardness. However, his training will not prepare him for the supernatural evil he and his men encounter during a training excursion in Christopher Hatton’s Raven’s Hollow, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

As part of a survival-foraging exercise, Poe and four fellow cadets are roaming around upstate New York to prove that they can, until they find a man brutally strung-up in an apparent ritual sacrifice. He only speaks one word before dying: “Raven.” Rather logically, they infer he meant Raven’s Hallow when they chance across the nearby town. However, the townspeople are so inhospitable and so unconvincing protesting their ignorance, they arouse the suspicion of the cadets, even including the ones that do not want to get involved.

Therefore, Poe decides they should stay the night to investigate, even though the innkeeper Elizabet Ingram is ironically the least welcoming of the lot. On the other hand, she has a much friendlier daughter, whom Poe wouldn’t mind questioning at length. To make matters weirder, Usher, the inn’s stableman, warns them to leave while they still can.

You heard that name correct. There is also a Lenore, but Poe is told she was lost long before they arrived. Supposedly, she was taken by the Pagan demonic monster that terrorizes the town, which they call the “Raven.”

Hatton and screenwriter Chuck Reeves do a nice job of dropping meaningful Poe references without it turning into a distracting compulsion. There is also a third act explanation for his drug addiction that actually makes a lot of sense within the context of the film. The film looks appealingly Gothic, very much akin to the look of many prior
Sleepy Hollow adaptations, which makes it a dramatic departure from Hatton’s previous films, such as Battle of the Damned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Young Plato, in The Epoch Times

YOUNG PLATO is a nice documentary about educators making a difference in Northern Ireland that incidentally makes a good case for curriculum based on the Great Books of Western Civ. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Jeepers Creepers: Reborn

Twenty-three years ago, we were all worried about Y2K. That is a reasonably long interval of time to pass between sequels or prequels, but supposedly the Creeper only wakes every twenty-three years for his twenty-three day killing sprees, before going back into his uncanny hibernation. Perhaps this is why the latest Creeper film is vaguely presented as some sort of re-something. It also maybe partly refers to the ouster of the franchise’s controversial creator Victor Salva, who had no involvement with the picture. Once again, the risen Creeper is hunting for body parts to consume in Timo Vuorensola’s Jeepers Creepers: Reborn, which screens again tonight and tomorrow via Fathom Events.

It starts with an internet re-telling of the Creeper urban legend that closely evokes some of the events of the original film. Poor Laine has heard it all before. She has a responsible job, but her boyfriend Chase is the kind of horror fan who is into this kind of thing. Believe me fellow horror fans, we have to appreciate our partners’ patience—I certainly do. Laine’s patience will definitely be tested at the Creeper themed horror convention he has dragged her to, way out in Louisiana bayou country.

To make things more awkward, Lady Manilla, the proprietress of the local voodoo store, shows an uncomfortable interest in Laine. In fact, she seems to know the woman is pregnant, even before Laine takes the test. That is probably why Lady Manilla arranges for Chase to win a trip to an escape room at the old Creeper House accompanied by an obnoxious internet film crew. Creeping ensues.

Maybe the best part of the film is the prologue featuring genre favorites Dee Wallace (
Cujo, Critters, The Howling) and Gary Graham (Alien Nation) as the somewhat older couple, who are run-off the road by the Creeper’s Creeper-mobile. It is a clever way to encapsulate the lore for fresh viewers. Eventually, Reborn turns into the Jeepers version of Rosemary’s Baby, which screenwriter Sean-Michael Argo never fully explains and Vuorensola cannot manage to fully pull-off, but at least it’s a new angle.

However, the return to the Louisiana swamp land (shot in Europe) really works. The gothic trappings are cool and the old familiar design of the Creeper’s armored truck still looks like something from a Tim Burton movie. It is also refreshing to see Laine, Chase, and the surviving film crew actually make a plan to fight back against the Creeper. Sure, the mythos says he cannot be killed, but he’s looking older and haggard, so why not go down swinging? That way viewers get some legit suspense, in contrast to depressing horror movies like
Funhouse, where everyone just sits around waiting to die.

Graphic Novel: Slash Them All

Before Scream, nobody used meta-hipster references as a psychological defense mechanism in slasher movies. Writer-illustrator Antoine Maillard takes us back to those more grounded times. The high school students of this sleepy coastal town were already neurotic. Their anxieties will only be amplified by the mysterious killer who keeps bludgeoning them to death in Maillard’s graphic novel Slash Them All (translated by Jenna Allen), which goes on-sale today.

This film might be better titled “Bash Them All,” because a baseball bat is the weapon of choice for the silent killer. Somehow, a simple baseball cap successfully obscures his face—thanks also to Maillard’s clever POV framing. After the brutal murders of his first two victims, the high school closes and the adults panic, but many of the students continue partying like before, or maybe even harder.

Geeky Dan and tomboy Pola are the exceptions. They bonded over their outsider status and shared experiences with highly flawed single mothers. There might even be a romantic attraction underneath their friendship, but neither is prepared to deal with it. Of course, their mutual video game buddy Ralph is too preoccupied with Laura, the math teacher’s daughter, to notice their awkward chemistry. As the killer continues to strike, guilt torments two possible witnesses: a low-level drug dealer’s slacker roommate and Pola.

definitely pays homage to classical slasher movies, but it is much more psychologically complex than the genre’s most famous films. There is a lot of bad stuff going on for Pola and Dan and that negative energy almost seems to manifest itself as the faceless killer.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Dig, Starring Thomas Jane

Apparently, you do not need any permits to do salvage stripping or excavation work around condemned buildings in New Mexico. Ordinarily, we would applaud such regulatory liberty, but it works against the independent contractor who is taken hostage with his daughter in K. Asher Levin’s Dig, which releases Friday on VOD and in theaters.

When Scott Brennan’s daughter Jane sneaked out of the house to party with the wrong crowd, he and his wife Linda tried to drag her back home. Since fate was feeling particularly manipulative that night, Linda was killed in a road rage incident on their way back. Ever since, both father and daughter have blamed themselves for her death.

They do not talk much anymore, partly because of their issues and partly due to the effects of the gunshot, which rendered her nearly completely deaf. In his quest to purchase her ocular implants, Brennan agrees to a dodgy high-paying gig stripping a deserted house miles outside Las Cruces. The sleazy Victor also requested a jackhammer and other excavating equipment. It turns out there is something buried deep under the house Victor does not want found when the house is demolished, so he and his sociopathic girlfriend Lola take Brennan and hostage, forcing them to dig it out.

Any film can be compelling if it is executed with style or inspiration, but
Dig is about as run-of-the-mill as it sounds. Even the name is boring. The only thing really notable about it is the casting of Thomas Jane and his real-life daughter Harlow Jane as Scott and Jane Brennan (in a way, that makes her Jane Jane). In fact, they often bicker like they really are father and daughter, giving the film credibility, but also making it painful to watch.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

This is Joan Collins, on TCM

Sure, there was conspicuous consumption in the 1980s (and it was great), but it was also a good decade for comebacks. Tina Turner and Chaka Khan had some of their biggest hits in the decade, while Joan Collins and Linda Evans became two of the era’s biggest TV stars on Dynasty. Collins played the femme fatale villain, so she was the more popular one. Dame Joan Collins looks back on her life and career in Clare Beavan’s BBC-produced This is Joan Collins, which premieres Tuesday on TCM.

If you hadn’t heard before, she was married a few times. Reading the narration drawn from her memoirs, Collins describes all her marriages quite frankly, including the first, which might have been the worst. Or maybe that was the fourth, Peter Holm, the faded Swedish pop star, who dragged her through the tabloids during their divorce proceedings.

Collins made some relatively big films while under contract to Fox, but by the 1960s, she was largely doing television guest spots. Still, for a lot of us, her pinnacle role came as Edith Keeler on the classic
Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Seriously though, when she mistakenly refers to “Dr. Spock,” it is a major groaner moment.

Somehow, Collins and Beavan overlook her appearances as The Siren in the Westverse
Batman, but she talks at surprising length about Bert I. Gordon’s Empire of the Ants, which is a major bonus. Of course, Dynasty is discussed in detail, for obvious reasons. Thanks to Collins, it was a huge hit that came to represent the Eighties. Several times, Collins asserts the greatness of the 1980s, which is absolutely correct.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Graphic Novel: Empty Eyes

Movies about kids can be creepy, like The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned. Pretty much every film about dolls is scary (like Annabelle, for instance). Diego Agrimbau combines creepy kids with creepy dolls in the graphic novel Empty Eyes, with art by Juan Manuel Tumburus, which is now available from digital retailers.

WWI is still grinding on, but the fighting is shifting away from the Polish-Russian border. That might sound like good news for the three surviving children of the Nurk Orphanage located in that vicinity, but Ofelia and her younger brother Otto have been preying on wounded soldiers for their meat. It was not their idea. Maurice Nurk, the bullying son of the orphanage directors is the mastermind, cannibalistic butcher, and cook. Even though his parents are now decaying corpses, he maintains a psychological hold over the brother and sister.

As soon as the siblings scavenge enough “food” for the long winter, Nurk plans to kill them too. Ofelia suspects as much, but she feels bound to Nurk as his accomplice. However, Otto has this strange feeling all the eyeless dolls castoff in a closet are trying to tell him something, because they are.

Without a doubt, Tumburus conjures up some spectacularly macabre imagery in
Empty Eyes. It is almost presented as fairy tale, but it is absolutely not for young children. On the other hand, it is quite a potent anti-war war fable, for mature horror fans. There is a tragic, otherworldly logic to it all that somehow makes sense in its nightmarescape environment.

Talk about the death of innocence, but there is still an EC Comics aspect of retributive punishment to Agrimbau’s narrative.
Empty Eyes probably couldn’t be adapted as a film, because of what it makes its disturbingly young characters do. However, both the art and the story are haunting. Somehow, the WWI setting is particularly apt for this tale. Even back then, running into a pack of hungry German soldiers was a perilous proposition, even without any weird uncanny business going on. Very highly recommended, Empty Eyes is now on-sale digitally, from Europe Comics.

Friday, September 16, 2022

CIFF ’22: Crows are White

If Ahsen Nadeem had set out to make a film about the Dalai Lama, His Holiness would have made him feel like the most import person in the world during his interview. Instead, he set out to document Kamahori, a monk from an unusually severe and spartan Japanese monastery on Mount Hiei, who cannot talk to him because of his vow of silence—and probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day, if he could. However, there is one frustrated, heavy metal-listening monk who will talk to him. Regardless, Nadeem certainly needs a good talking-to throughout his documentary, Crows are White, which screens during the 2022 Camden International Film Festival.

Nadeem is personally conflicted, because he loves a non-Muslim woman, whom he will soon marry, but he is afraid to tell his strict Islamic parents (who happen to live in Ireland). As he pursues the silent Kamahori, viewers soon suspect he is really trying to divert himself from his real and pressing problems. To some extent, he finds an understanding friend in Ryushin, a low-level monk stuck with all the monastery’s most mundane duties. For Ryushin, monastic life is a family tradition. He is frustrated in his desire to do good works, but cannot leave while his parents are still alive.

After Nadeem marries his fiancée and three years pass, it becomes obvious he is really the subject of his film. Initially, Nadeem does not inspire confidence as either a subject or a filmmaker. Honestly, I hereby absolve anyone who checks out after his cellphone starts ringing during one of the monk’s most physically demanding ceremonies. Seriously, that kind of unprofessionalism is just disrespectful. However, those who stick it out, might start to warm to Nadeem, if they accept him as a serial screw-up.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Heathers: The Musical, on Roku Channel

Seriously, Gen X really did have to work harder than subsequent generations. For instance, our high school mean girls had to bully fellow students without the help of social media. Just imagine Michael Lehmann’s 1988 cult favorite Heathers with Instagram and TikTok. Wisely, the stage musical adaptation never tries to update anything. It doesn’t need to, because the black comedy still feels contemporary. The tunes composed by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy are also pretty rousing, as viewers can hear during the stage performance (or edited performances) Andy Fickman captures on film in Heathers: The Musical, which premieres tomorrow on the Roku Channel.

Heathers: The Musical
had regional and Off-Broadway runs here, but the original London production made it to the West End, where it was recently revived. This is that production. As you might remember, Veronica Sawyer (the Winona Ryder character) is somewhat shy, but she shrewdly takes advantage of an opportunity to ingratiate herself with the trio of “Heathers” who stand atop the school’s social food chain. Heather Chandler is the meanest of the lot. However, the freshly transferred Jason “J.D.” Dean (still Christian Slater’s best role) is not intimidated by her or the two dumb jocks she uses as her enforcers.

There are serious sparks flaring between Sawyer and Dean, but that threatens to snuff out her sudden popularity. After defying Chandler, Sawyer trundles to the head Heather’s house to make a groveling apology, but instead, she and Dean sort-of kind-of accidentally kill her. When they successfully make it look like suicide, they ironically turn her into an
After School Special-style martyr. Additional bodies will follow.

O’Keefe & Murphy, who also wrote the stage-book, stay quite faithful to the original film, but they somewhat bulk up the role of Martha Dunnstock, Sawyer’s unfortunately overweight childhood friend, which works out quite well, especially given Mhairi Angus’s nice featured performance. Frankly, the sets are more colorful than you probably remember the film looking, while the choreography is appealingly upbeat and energetic, in a
Fame-ish kind of way.

Of course, the show requires a strong Sawyer, which Alisa Davidson supplies. Her voice is impressive and she has a nice facility for comic timing. Frankly, she might have better chemistry with Simon Gordon playing Dean than Ryder and Slater had. Their initial courtship sequences are weirdly sweet and endearing, before it all descends into macabre chaos. After Sawyer, the most important character is probably her nemesis, Chandler, whom Maddison Firth portrays with entertainingly nasty flare.

CIFF ’22: Rewind & Play

This French television interview with Thelonious Monk recorded in December 1969 is a lot like the Orson Welles snow peas radio commercial. There is a good reason it was never released (except for the musical footage), but it wasn’t Monk’s fault. It was the interviewer who made an idiot of himself. Monk doesn’t take his guff in the unseen footage Alain Gomis fitted together into the short (65 minute) documentary, Rewind & Play, which screens during the 2022 Camden International FilmFestival.

Henri Renaud really should have known better. He was a jazz musician himself, having recorded with Roy Haynes and Zoot Sims, so it was not as if he didn’t respect the music. Renaud wore many hats, including producer, critic, and general gatekeeper, vaguely something like Gunther Schuller, but he was a terrible interviewer, as Gomis (who previously directed the terrific and jazzy DRC-set drama
Felicite) shows us in excruciating detail.

At first, he just seems a little uncomfortable, which is fair. Monk would certainly be an intimidating interview subject, but eventually his incompetence gives way to disrespect. In this case, Monk’s taciturn public persona serves him well. In fact, Renaud’s disastrous interview perfectly illustrates why Monk would adopt such a notoriously inscrutable public façade.

At least Renaud also asked him to play. You can hear Monk’s brilliance on his classic standards, like “’Round Midnight” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” Frankly, viewers will just want Renaud to shut up and let Monk play. It is worth noting the music from this aborted television special was eventually released on its own, as a solo concert, without any of the cringy chit-chat.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The U.S. and the Holocaust, on PBS

In the 1930s, Hollywood studios gave the German counsel veto power over prospective scripts to preserve access to a lucrative international market. Businessmen like Henry Ford lobbied to maintain friendly relations with the National Socialist regime, to protect his business interests in the country. Does any of this sound familiar to contemporary viewers? Yet, co-directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, or Sarah Botstein, never draw any parallels to the Xinjiang genocide, which their PBS brethren at Frontline described as “the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.” That silence is deafening in their new three-part documentary analyzing American silence, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which premieres Sunday on PBS.

Frankly, many viewers might be surprised to hear in the first episode that an estimated one million Americans protested Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies in the 1930s. Unfortunately, politicians were reluctant to take any kind of stand against the Axis or to aid the Allies—especially European refugees (whom were predominantly Jewish).

Burns and company largely associate the neutrality movement with anti-Semitism, which is surely partly true. However, the talking heads never mention the US Communist Party (which was at its peak of influence in the 1930s) relentlessly campaigned against American involvement in the War, until Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. More fundamentally, nobody really acknowledges how fresh memories the horrors of WWI were for Americans at this time. Still, there is no denying the ugly effectiveness of demagogues like Lindbergh and Coughlin.

Throughout the docuseries, the filmmakers and commentators contort themselves into pretzels to not judge FDR too harshly. However, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long emerges (deservedly so) as the chosen villain of the narrative, for his determined efforts to prevent humanitarian immigration and delay relief efforts the victims of the German regime. If nothing else, they successfully make their case against him.

To give credit where its due, Burns et al do acknowledge those who tried to do the right thing, including American rescuer Varian Fry. William Hurt portrayed Fry in Lionel Chetwynd’s cable film
Varian’s War, but he still has yet to receive the acclaim he deserves. However, the preponderance of the allotted time is devoted to indicting America’s failures to live up to its ideals.