Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Arthur, Malediction

How often have you wished cloying juvenile fantasies like the Harry Potter movies would turn into horror films instead. It sort of happens here, but not really. It is the Arthur series that started with Arthur and the Invisibles (Minimoys) that gets transformed. That film bombed in America, but it was a huge hit in Europe. Director Luc Besson blamed Harvey Weinstein for re-cutting it (always a safe strategy). Regardless, those kiddie fantasies meant a lot to Alex and his friends, so they set out in search of the original shooting locations, where they find trouble in Barthelemy Grossmann’s Arthur, Malediction, written by Besson, which releases on VOD this Friday.

This horror film takes a long time to embrace its genre. First, there is a long “cute” flashback to Alex’s slumber parties, devoted to watching the
Arthur films. Then, we endure the festivities for his eighteenth birthday party, which is largely spent the same way. The only difference is his budding romantic attraction to his formerly platonic Arthur pal, Samantha (played by Besson’s daughter, Thalia). However, for part two of the celebration, the gang takes a road trip to the original Arthur house.

Despite previously published reports of an American shoot, the house is right there, in the
Deliverance region of France. The locals are not welcoming, but they ignore the bad vibes. They also miss the clearly audible sounds of people scampering through the woods, up to no good, during the night. Finally, the predators start to make their move the next day.

The supposed “meta-ness” of
Malediction is wildly overblown. This is really about as related to the Arthur series as Point Break is to Richard Nixon. However, it certainly says something that Besson would openly pursue the association. (Disney isn’t exactly the same family-friendly company anymore, but it is still hard to imagine them releasing a slasher film featuring a psycho wearing a Mickey Mouse mask.)

Basically, the film abruptly shifts from treacle to so-so survival horror. What really distinguishes the film is the disparity of the two halves. If you really know the
Arthur films, the design of dilapidated is probably quite impressive. Even if you don’t, the film has a distinctive sense of place. Unfortunately, the vividness does not extend to the characterization.

Through the Shadow, on Globo (Brazil)

How do you adapt Henry James’ Turn of the Screw for Brazil? You make Peter Quint look somewhat like Coffin Joe and give him the name “Da Silva.” It truly is a scary combination. As you would hope and expect, a naïve governess finds problem children and gothic horror in Walter Lima Jr.’s Brazilian coffee plantation take on Henry James in Through the Shadow (Atraves da Sombra), which airs tomorrow night on Brazilian Globo.

Laura is an innocent convent-trained teacher, who has seen little of the world. She is a bit freaked out by Afonso, the uncle and absentee-guardian of his brother’s two children, but she still accepts the position as their guardian. Elisa still lives in their late parents’ remote plantation manor, while Antonio is enrolled in a prestigious boarding school, but we can all predict an imminent expulsion in his future, right?

Although Elisa is welcoming, the newly returned Antonio is seriously bratty. He is a bit younger than many film versions of brother Miles. However, he is a serious Hellion, especially since there seem to be a sexual component to his mischievous gaze. It turns out he had a close relationship with Bento Da Silva, the former groundskeeper, who corrupted Laura’s predecessor. Rather alarmingly, Laura seems to be seeing the top hat-wearing cad on the roof and in the shadows, but only she seems to see him. The isolation and her weird behavior give the other servants cause to start questioning her sanity.

The James novella inspired scores of adaptations, including Jack Clayton’s classic
The Innocents, Dan Curtis’s popular TV movie, and the not-so memorable The Turning, so there is always room for one more, especially from Brazil. In this case, the coffee plantation, with its heat and the openly lusty field hands, make for an appropriately evocative setting.

Blacula: Return of the King

Monsters are supposed to come back from the dead, especially when their movies are hits. Frankly, only two Blacula films never seemed like enough for fans. As the 50th anniversary of the sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream approaches, there is reboot talk, but it could never be as good as the original. To satisfy that thirst, an original Blacula plays was released regionally a few years ago. Now, there is finally a direct sequel, but in graphic novel form. Blacula rises again, understandably for vengeance, in Rodney Barnes’ Blacula: Return of the King, illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander, which releases today.

Prince Mamuwalde had tragically bad luck. He sought the assistance of Count Dracula in liberating his people, but discovered the vampire was an undead racist. The Count killed his beloved Princess and imprisoned him in a coffin for centuries, after turning him undead as well. He did as vampires do in the first two films, but with a sense of guilt and a social conscience.

For the crimes he involuntarily committed, Mamuwalde has been condemned to Hell, where he enjoyed the ultimate Prince of Darkness’s grudging respect. Of course, you cannot keep a vampire as angry as Mamuwalde buried for long. So, he rises from the grave once again, in search of Dracula. However, a contemporary group of urban vampire hunters (most of whom have lost loved ones to the undead) will team up with an aspiring paranormal YouTuber to find and kill the legendary Blacula for good.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Ark, on SyFy

This spaceship carries no livestock, just grains and agricultural supplies. However, the crew can be fairly animalistic. It is not exactly Lord of the Flies on-board. Only the senior officers die in a freak interstellar accident, leaving behind three lieutenants and all the worker bees. Somehow, they must all find a way to work and flock together, in order to survive in showrunners Dean Devlin & Jonathan Glassner’s The Ark, which premieres Wednesday on SyFy.

Events takes place one hundred years from now. Things are apparently bad on Earth, yet the crew of Ark-1 expects the people they left behind will still be there when they reach the planet they set out to colonize. Unfortunately, something unexpectedly struck the Ark mid-course, while everyone was in their cryo-genic chambers. As luck would have it, the officer’s bay was completely destroyed, but the general populations’ wing largely survived, except for another senior officer, slumming with the proles.

That leaves Lieutenants Sharon Garnett, James Brice, and Spencer Lane as the remaining officer corps. Somewhat controversially, Garnet “takes charge,” due to her more broadly-based operations experience. Brice is an action-oriented Kirk or Riker type, so he basically goes along with her, but Lane seethes with resentment—and keeps seething.

The “good news” is there will be some opportunities for advancement. The bad news is plentiful and it just keeps coming. Obviously, food and water will be the most pressing. Their food will run out unless young “4-H Boy” Angus Medford can retro-fit his super crops. However, that will take water, which is also running low. The Ark-1 is huge, but it was only intended for a few weeks on-board living before and after the crew went into suspended animation.

Obviously, Devlin took inspiration from the original
Star Trek (on which his mother Pilar Seurat guest-starred in the “Wolf in the Fold” episode), Space: 1999, and the original Battlestar. The best thing about The Ark, at least based on the first four episodes provided for review, is the crew dynamics—especially the triumvirate of Garnett, Brice, and Lane. They must also deal with Felix Strickland, the head of ship security, who is outside the chain of military command, allowing him to act independently. He is given a woke-ish identity, but that helps explain his resistance to the charms of station “influencer,” Cat Brandice. Regardless, his no-nonsense persona is a positive for the show’s chemistry.

Unfortunately, the youthful Heinlein-esque characters are a mixed bag. As played by Ryan Adams and Stacey Read, 4-H Boy and the motor-mouthed Alicia Nevins are aggressively and unremittingly annoying. However, Miles Barrow adds a lot to the show as Nevins’ likable but mysterious prospective boyfriend, Baylor Trent, who had a rather complicated
Summer of ’42-ish relationship with one of the late senior officers.

Quantum Leap: Leap, Die, Repeat

In many ways, JFK was the “Nuclear President.” He was partly elected due to the supposed “missile gap.” He also mentioned the potential of nuclear energy in his “We choose to go to the moon” speech. That is exactly the day Dr. Ben Song leaps to, finding himself in an experimental reactor about to have an accident requiring a major government cover-up in “Leap, Die, Repeat,” tonight’s episode of the new Quantum Leap, which airs tonight on NBC.

Initially, Dr. Song feels like he is in his element, with science geeks like Dr. Edwin Woolsey. However, his enthusiasm dampens when the entire place explodes. Ordinarily, that would be that, but he and the Quantum Leap team are somewhat relieved to discover he is actually in a time loop, but only somewhat. To save everyone and leap on, he will have to figure out who sabotaged the facility.

“Leap, Die, Repeat” is a clever way to break format without really breaking format. Instead of simply riffing on
Groundhog Day and other similar films, it offers a fresh take on time-looping. However, this episode has a terrible sense of the era’s history. Song and his holographic guide, Addison Augustine, roll their eyes when Col. Parker tells him his job is to guard the facility against Communists, but the Cuban Missile Crisis would happen just one month and four days after JFK’s “Moon Speech,” so it was a totally valid concern. Also, the janitor says he reads science fiction novels like Solaris, but Lem’s classic Polish sf novel was not published in English until 1970 (secret plot twist, maybe?).

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Solomon King, Restored on BluRay

Solomon King was the kind of hero we always need more of. He was a CIA-trained private detective and petroleum-drilling entrepreneur—sort of like the “blaxploitation” Matt Houston, who inevitably found himself swept up in Middle East intrigue. Fittingly, it still mostly plays out on the streets of Oakland in producer-director-star-everything-else Sal Watts’ long-lost, but now rediscovered and restored Solomon King (co-directed with Jack Bomay), which releases Tuesday on BluRay.

Comparisons to Rudy Ray Moore’s
Dolemite are apt, because Solomon King really was a passion project for Watts, who even provide the wardrobe from his chain of hipster fashion clothiers. King is also a bit like Dan Freeman in The Spook Who Sat By the Door, because both took their paramilitary training back to their old neighborhoods, but King is a total capitalist. The film opens with King’s brother Manny (played by Watts’ business partner, but not biological brother, James Watts) in an unnamed Persian gulf nation, showing Princess Onneba their vastly improved drilling operation, when terrorists strike.

Manny manages to safely escort her to Oakland, where King will protect her. Soon, they become full-fledged lovers, but King somehow also manages to find himself in the arms of Samaki Miller, a CIA officer his old boss O’Malley assigned to work undercover as a singer in King’s nightclub, to keep an eye on him.

The restoration worked wonders on the film, but there are still drop-out jump cuts. We’re basically missing an early love scene, but by and large, the restored
Solomon King is a smooth viewing experience. Maybe most importantly, it sounds great. For years, the film was best-remembered for the soundtrack, released on Watts’ label, of course. It is indeed the kind of up-tempo instrumental funk (plus Miller’s number, recorded by Helena Hollins) you expect. Probably, its best-known musician would be guitarist Arthur G. Wright, who lays down a cool groove.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Slamdance ’23: Space Happy

Phil Thomas Katt might be the perfect the ultimate Florida musician (outside Miami’s Cuban traditions). He loves space, NASA, big hair, and the 1980s—just like a lot of us. Katt started out on the Pensacola music scene right when music videos were taking off and he is still plugging away. Director Louis Crisitello introduces viewers outside the Panhandle to Katt and the friends he works with in his documentary Space Happy: Phil Thomas Katt and the Uncharted Zone, which screens online as part of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.

Katt started out playing roller rinks as just plain “Phil,” like Cher or Charo, where he received highly encouraging receptions from teenaged girls. So, logically, he just kept doing it. As he got older, he branched out into radio DJing and video production, becoming the godfather and den mother to the local music scene. Through his radio and public access show, “The Uncharted Zone,” he created a showcase for their videos he helped create.

They are admittedly a bit cheesy, but that is how they all music videos looked in the early 1980s—and now that is all part of their charm. Hipsters might be inclined to laugh at the videos and some of their songs, but if you heard a lot of them in Pensacola bars, you would probably enjoy it. (It should also be noted Ken Manning’s hand-drawn cartoon-like storyboards for his “Gulf Breeze UFO” video are really cool—so much so, they should be made into an animated short one day.) Regardless, Katt’s circle works steadily as musicians, which is even saying something here in New York. For Pensacola, it is pretty impressive.

In fact, Katt even scored a viral hit through his work with Mark Gormley, who is admittedly a bit of an acquired, novelty taste. To his credit, Katt is not bound by genre, working extensively with country artists and even a jazz harmonica player too. Everyone has good things to say about him, including his wife and longtime radio and creative partner Tommy Robinetti.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Man in the Basement

It is worth remembering Kipling’s advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing their and blaming it on you,” when considering this film. The Sandbergs’ nasty new neighbor is a master at provoking their anger, so he can pose as the victim. Unfortunately, Simon Sandberg invited the Holocaust-denying internet troll Jacques Fonzic into his building, by selling him his basement (a stand-alone entrance storage unit) in Philippe Le Guay’s The Man in the Basement, which opens today in New York.

It helps to have a sense of the Sandberg’s building. The apartments (administered under condo terms) face a courtyard, with stand-alone cellar storage available in the basement level. Due to subdividing over the years, the Sandberg family (including Simon’s mother and brother David) wound up owning two “basements,” so they decided to sell one.

Fonzic stepped forward to buy it. Supposedly, he would only use it as intended, but he started living there, much to the building’s alarm. Rather belatedly, Sanberg started to dig into Fonzic’s past, learning he had been dismissed from his high school position for teaching Holocaust denialism. Even though they had not finalized the transfer of title, they are still stuck with him under French law, because they cashed his check and gave him the key. Alarmed by his vitriol, they hire lawyers to void the sale. However, they are not prepared for Fonzic’s psychological warfare. Soon, his manipulations turn their neighbors against Sandberg and sow divisions with his wife Helene and daughter Justine.

Le Guay and co-screenwriters Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann chillingly depict the ways Fonzic uses the Sandbergs’ emotions against them. It is truly painful to watch the mixed Jewish-Catholic family keep walking into his traps. This film has real insights into how extremists seed doubt among ostensibly decent people and stimulate dissension. Le Guay also vividly and viscerally illustrates the dire consequences of losing one’s cool. However, his command of tone is uncertain, vacillating from thriller, to Polanski-ish horror film, and over to a social issue drama, in the tradition of
Skokie and Denial, never permanently settling on one.

Slamdance ’23: Mad Cats

You know how cats are always adorable in Japanese films, like The Cat Returns and Rent-a-Cat? Not these cats. Still, Taka Kurosawa is definitely taken with Ayane. She looks human, but is sort of a cat, like Nastassja Kinski in Cat People, but more heavily armed. They are going to need those guns to rescue his brother Mune from a cult of humanoid cat-monsters in director-screenwriter Reiki Tsuno’s Mad Cats, which screens online (Utah only) as part of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.

Kurosawa isn’t much, but he’s the only hope left his brother. Fortunately, a mystery woman drops off an analog cassette telling him where to find his bro. Soon, he has the boss cat’s assassins chasing after him. Fortunately, homeless Takezo saves him once accidentally and then Ayane saves them both intentionally. She will have to do so again, repeatedly.

Mad Cats
is a wild micro-budget ride that obviously requires viewer indulgence suspending their disbelief. However, if you enjoy watching assassins fighting in Emma Peel cat suits, then Mad Cats will be bigger for you than any Avatar movie. There are all kinds of shooting, slashing, and high kicking. Tsuno might have had a limited budget, but he can mount and film some deeply satisfying fight scenes. Frankly, the weird cat-monster business is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Starring Jerry as Himself, in the Epoch Times

There is a big game-changing twist to the docu-re-enactment-hybrid STARRING JERRY AS HIMSELF (screening at Slamdance), but it is still safe to say you should be wary if you ever get a call from Shanghai police. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

We Are Not Alone, on Roku

It looks like we can also blame Richard Nixon for the alien invasion of Earth. He is the one who agreed to fund the Voyager probe, which the Gu’un just followed its trajectory back to us. If only he hadn’t been such a liberal big-spender. They are here regardless and they intend to stay. Poor Stewart is the junior bureaucrat recruited to help communicate the new overlords message in Fergal Costello’s We Are Not Alone, which premieres tomorrow on the Roku Channel.

The alien invasion was especially traumatic for Stewart, because their advance capsule landed on his best friend Robbie when they were leaving the pub. The Gu’un really don’t get how things work here, so the regional commander decides to govern the UK from Clitheroe, because it is in the dead center of the country. She adopts the inappropriate name of Trater, due to an equally iffy grasp of the language. The Gu’un all chose odd new “earthly monikers, because the sound of their real names cause humans to void their bowels.

Stewart lacks ambition under the best of circumstances, so he is very conflicted about working for the alien occupiers. However, he likes the generous new salary and the swanky new pad. Unfortunately, he will have to share it with his alien minder, the dim-witted Greggs. Even more awkwardly, the resistance pressures him to be their inside saboteur. Most of the Anti-Alien Alliance (AAA) does not inspire much confidence, except for Elodie, the pub owner he has long carried a torch for.

Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond (known for writing and appearing in the original
Ghosts) have a knack for penning “stupid” sounding dialogue, in a smart way. They also make a drolly amusing Heckle and Jeckle pair as Cirsch and Darrenth, two flat-footed Gu’un sentries. Their soft science fiction is not groundbreaking, but they and Costello really keep the dialogue consistently snappy.

Slamdance ’23: Stars in the Ordinary Universe

The multiverse is not just for superheroes. This time, we traverse alternate planes to meet average people. In fact, they are sometimes exactly average and tragically ordinary. Self-awareness of their extraordinarily unexceptional nature becomes a cosmic challenge in Bowon Kim’s Stars in the Ordinary Universe, which world premiered at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.

You might not know this film is multiversal without the descriptive copy. It all certainly looks like our ‘verse. However, multiverse concepts might appeal to the teen girl in the first story. She frequently watches a science YouTuber, even though her grades are always precisely average for her class. She therefore takes exception to his crypto-Darwinism, because its implications question the necessity of her incredibly average existence.

The weakest segment follows the homeless man she saw watching porn in an internet café, or rather a different multiversal edition of him. He was raised to “dream big,” so he has always aspired to be president of the Republic of Korea, even when his mediocrity became undeniable.

The third strand follows a man who always knows the complete and utterly varnished truth and is pathologically compelled to tell every uncomfortable detail of it. Thematically, it does not fit so well with its predecessors, but it is amusing. Basically, it plays like an
SNL skit from the early 1990s, back when the show was funny.

Ordinary Universe
is the definition of a festival film. Its commercial theatrical prospects are limited, but it is clever, in a distinctive, rarified way. It addresses some big ideas, in an off-kilter fashion, especially the first segment. The sporting cast also mines a good deal of deadpan humor from the cerebral material. It isn’t exactly Everything, Everywhere All at Once reconceived by Hong Sang-soo, but maybe that is an okay starting reference point, along with the Harmony Korine-Alexey Fedorchenko anthology film, The Fourth Dimension.

Exploring the meaning of life through humor is a worthy undertaking, rarely attempted with this level of eccentricity. Kim’s ambition is impressive. It is nice to see something different—and this film definitely qualifies as that. Recommended for fans of philosophical microbudget science fiction, Stars in the Ordinary Universe screens online
through Sunday (1/29) online, as part of Slamdance ’23.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool

Generally, it is a bad idea to vacation in despotic, dystopian regimes, because of their disregard for civil liberties, but at least you can usually also count on them to be corrupt, as well. James Foster is about to discover how true that is. It is a hard, trippy lesson to learn in Brandon Croneberg’s Infinity Pool, which opens Friday in theaters.

Most synopses of
Infinity Pool go something like: “a couple checks into a luxury resort and weird things happen.” That sounds like a feature-film addition to the budding “strange hotel” genre represented by The White Lotus and The Resort, but the mysterious stuff really isn’t due to the gated resort. The chaos all starts when Foster and his wife Em venture outside the hotel’s barbed wire fortifications, with Gabi and Alban, a couple who claim to know the fictional repressive island of La Tolqa well.

Unfortunately, their outing leads to a whole lot of trouble. Ironically, this further strains the Fosters’ already rocky marriage, pushing him towards the trouble-making Gabi. She knows how to stoke his ego, claiming to have read his poorly selling novel, while also stimulating his carnal desires.

The big Macguffin in
Infinity Pool is pretty original and highly provocative. Frankly, it is revealed fairly early and offers grist for a good deal of speculation. However, it is also dressed up with a lot of lurid debauchery, which sometimes overwhelms the smart stuff (which is in there). Let’s put it this way: the audience sees way more of Foster’s fluids than we need to. If you don’t follow that, it is just as well for you. Eventually, the depravities undermine the narrative, which ends with a whimper rather than the clever summation the inventive premise deserves.

Brad Anderson’s Blood

For what its worth, blood is rich in protein, so don’t judge Jess Stokes. It is the only source of nourishment her son can keep down after he was bitten by a hyper-rabid dog. Like any mother, she will do anything to save her child, but she must go to extreme lengths in Brad Anderson’s Blood, which opens Friday in New York.

Stokes had self-medication issues three years ago, but she is now totally clean. She is also a nurse, which should count for a lot, but her very ex-husband Patrick (who never shaves and always wears Carhartt jackets) still holds her past against her during custody hearings. She has just moved her teen daughter Tyler and ten-year-old-ish son Owen to her family’s old farmhouse, because that is what she can afford. Her ex is raring to regain sole custody, so Stokes is super-careful. Nevertheless, Owen gets himself bitten by his dog Pippen. After disappearing into the night, the formerly friendly pooch returned in a Cujo-like state.

For a while, Owen’s condition is touch and go, but he responds to blood transfusions—especially those taken orally. Stokes found out the latter part by accident and is reluctant to share her discovery with her colleagues. Instead, she takes Owen home to nurse him herself. Of course, as Seymour Krelborn could tell her, maintaining a steady supply of fresh human blood is tricky business. Plus, Owen’s behavior is altering.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Bezos: The Beginning, in The Epoch Times

BEZOS: THE BEGINNING is a surprisingly evenhanded case-study of Amazon's genesis that also celebrates the controversial founder's adopted Cuban American heritage.  EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Kompromat: How the FSB Operates

Westerners working in Russia (and also China) take note. If a French diplomat running the Siberian Alliance Française is not safe from the FSB’s so-called “Kompromat” frame-ups, you aren’t either. Leave while you can. Transparently inspired by the real-life Yoann Barbereau, the thinly fictionalized Mathieu Roussel finds himself the subject of a coordinated campaign to ruin his reputation and falsely imprison him. However, the soft, decadent Westerner turns out to be a surprisingly resourceful fugitive in Jerome Salle’s Kompromat, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Admittedly, Roussel makes some highly questionable decisions early on. First he moves his wife and young daughter to Irkutsk, because he believes spending time together in Siberia will heal his ailing marriage. Then, he stages an explicitly LGBTQ-themed dance performance for a gala attended by his local oligarch sponsors and government contacts. It does not go over well. To cap things off, during the reception afterwards, Roussel openly flirts with Svetlana Rostova, who is married to Sacha, a disabled Chechnya veteran, who also happens to be the son of the local FSB commander.

Shortly thereafter, Roussel is arrested on dubious molestation charges and held virtually incommunicado. After several harrowing weeks in prison (first getting beaten to a pulp in general population and then moved to solitary, for his own “protection”), he is finally granted house arrest, but this is obviously just another stage of the ongoing Kompromat (that is the FSB's official term for such operations).

Even the attorney hired by the consulate (one of the few honest criminal advocates still practicing) indirectly suggests Roussel should make a run for it, but he can only trust Svetlana (whom co-screenwriter Caryl Ferey named in honor of exiled Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich) will dare to help him. In fact, she already saved his life by delivering food for Roussel, while he was held in solitary.

Salle’s depiction of Russian prisons is maybe just slightly more horrific than you already assumed.
 However, the film soon settles into a ripping good chase thriller that also opens a revealing window into the state of today’s Russia. It is a land where half the population uncritically believes whatever the state media tells them, while the other half only communicates through encrypted apps like Telegram, due to fear of the pervasive state surveillance.

So, if you are an American still working in China, take note of the clever ways Roussel uses burner phones and carpooling/ride-share apps to evade the FSB dragnet. (Again, if you think this couldn’t happen to you, ask Mark Swidan about his recent experiences.) This is smart stuff, clearly based on reality.

Slamdance ’23: With Peter Bradley

Jackson Pollock often listened to early New Orleans and Swing jazz while dribbling and splattering his abstract expressionist masterworks, but reportedly, there were a few square easy listening records in his collection. In contrast, Peter Bradley’s taste in music is as hip as it gets. Perhaps the least soulful artist lists in his collection would be Stan Kenton, who is still pretty cool. Much like Pollock before him, Bradley has faced resistance in the art world. Now in his eighties, Bradley is finally experiencing a critical renaissance, which is sure to gain momentum following the premiere of Alex Rappoport’s documentary With Peter Bradley at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

Bradley was adopted in a family outside of Pittsburgh that often hosted traveling jazz musicians. He grew up knowing artists like Art Blakey, whom he still listens to today. He was even able to develop a “special relationship” with Miles Davis. Nevertheless, art was his thing—first drawing and then almost exclusively painting. Although his experiences with art schools were difficult, he wound up working for one of the most elite New York galleries during the day, while developing on his own pieces at night. Yet, the established art world never accepted him.

According to Bradley, he refused to play the they assigned to him—and it is fascinating to hear him explain how so. Bradley adamantly refused to create representational art, which was the only suitably style for the sort of racially politicized pieces that were expected of him as a Black artist. While not identifying as an abstract expressionist either, he explains his work explores color for its own sake.

At one point, Bradley excoriates the “anti-racist” posturing of a show curated by [white artist] Larry Rivers, filled with crude nooses and the like, which he reluctantly participated in. Bradley never directly addresses partisan politics during Rappoport’s doc, but he certainly sounds like an iconoclastic free-thinker, with little patience for dogma or cliché.

Above Snakes, the Graphic Novel

He is a man called Dirt, who has a spirit animal named Speck. Speck the vulture isn’t very spiritual. He is all about revenge. He also seems to be corporeal, at least to some extent, but Speck came to Dirt in a rather uncanny manner when the grieving husband swore revenge on the gang that killed his wife. Their long quest might finally come to an end, one way or another, in Sean Lewis’s graphic novel, Above Snakes, illustrated by Hayden Sherman, which goes on-sale today as a tradepaper bind-up.

Dirt is part of fraternity of drifters seeking vengeance on the high plains surrounding the town of Genesis, but he is one of the few who is serious enough to have a companion like Speck. Not surprisingly, he is not the only one out for payback from the Above Snakes Gang. So is gun-toting, tough-talking Annie, who might be interested in hooking up with Dirt, maybe in more ways than one.

There are a lot of black bandana-wearing Snakes to kill, so vengeance-seekers like Dirt always eventually meet a bad end. At least, that is what Tomb, the sinister medicine-show barker tells us, but he is not necessarily a reliable narrator. Regardless, there will definitely be blood.

Above Snakes
is a fresh take on weird westerns, incorporating a great deal of dark spirit-based fantasy. It is not exactly horror per se, but Tomb’s carnival-style segments are definitely macabre in a Nightmare Alley kind of way. In some ways, Dirt’s story casts an ironic light on the pursuit of vengeance, very much like revisionist westerns, but when he actually gets some, it is cathartic, harkening back to traditional westerns.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Ghosts of Monday, Horror in Cypress

Timing can be ironic and unfair. It probably sounded like a good idea to release this film on a Monday, but it comes out while its co-star, Julian Sands has gone missing in the San Gabriel mountains. Everyone hopes for a happy resolution of the ongoing search. That makes this review a little awkward, but at least it gives us a chance to acknowledge Sands deserves more credit as a horror icon (Warlock, Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, Gothic, etc.). He is definitely the best thing going in Francesco Cinquemani’s The Ghosts of Monday, which releases today on VOD and DVD.

The basic premise is pretty familiar: a camera crew comes to shoot a reality show pilot in a Cypriot resort hotel reputed to be haunted. In this case, the Grand Hotel Gula really is creepy. It has been closed since a mass poisoning was committed there decades ago, on New Year’s Eve (a Monday, in fact). However, the new owners plan to renovate and re-open, with the help of the show’s publicity. To make things creepier, the hotel was built atop an ancient site, where human sacrifices were offered to the local deity, so even the soil is soaked in bad mojo.

For some reason, Sofia feels like she has been there before—in a bad way. She has come to the shoot to support, her ex-husband Eric and the host, her famed-celebrity father, Bruce MacPherson. Immediately, Bruce can tell there is something wrong with the owners, Frank and Rosemary, who never, ever leave the hotel. Much to his regret, the crew is stuck there to, staying on the only refurbished floor.

Of course, there is something sinister afoot, but Cinquemani does a nice job maintaining some sense of mystery during the first forty-five minutes or so. The setting is hugely creepy and the backstory pushes all kinds of horror buttons. The ending is a bit ridiculous, but it works pretty well up to that point.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Wandering Earth II

In the hit 2019 film and Liu Cixin’s original source novella, the Earth made like the Moon did in Space: 1999, spinning out of its orbit and into space. However, in the case of the Wandering Earth, this was done deliberately, to save humanity from its dying sun. It took a lot of work to make it happen. In the first movie, Earth escapes the sun, but the prequel shows how we handled the Moon first. Prepare for a whole lot of talk about the Roche Limit in Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth II, which just opened today in theaters worldwide.

Chinese astronaut Liu Peiqiang will save (or has saved) the Earthly civilization in
The Wandering Earth I. It turns out, he will now do it again, or rather has done it before. The film starts with a well-orchestrated terrorist attack against the space-elevator servicing what was then called “The Moving Mountain Project.” It is a brilliantly realized, extended action sequence, but it is also impossible to miss the Anglo-American appearance of most of the terrorists.

Indeed, it is blatantly obvious much of
WEII is intended as an allegory celebrating China’s hardcore “Covid-Zero” approach to crisis management and excoriating the Western preoccupation with individuality. Of course, it never shows Chinese scientists destroying evidence of the looming solar crisis, as was the case with the initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan.

Be that as it actually was, there are pieces of two really good movies in
WEII. The aforementioned space-elevator scene is a whizzbang set piece. The film also evolves into an intriguing speculative sf drama exploring the nature of artificial intelligence and sentient consciousness. Andy Lau plays Tu Hengyu, a computer scientist still mourning the death of his young daughter, whose consciousness he has digitally copied, in contradiction of current laws.

Hengyu’s efforts are risky, because he is trying to accomplish what the “Digital Life” movement, the major opponents of “Moving Mountain” project advocate. To do so, he needs the processing power of the HAL9000-like 550W super-computer running the project. This story arc takes several provocative twists and turns. Lau is also terrific as Tu, bringing a desperately needed human dimension (somewhat ironically) to a film that often desperately needs it. (However, it is sad to see the Chinese flag on Mr. Hong Kong’s shoulder, rather than HK’s five petals.)

The problem is these two parts are held together by long stretches of exposition and CCP-China propaganda, often relayed through UN-style speeches and news reports. This style of filmmaking is both boring and insultingly didactic. Frankly, the character of Zhou Jiechi, the wise Chinese ambassador to the UEG (the UN successor organization) is an insult to all the victims of Covid and the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang.

To Save and Project ’23: The Unknown (1927)

Tod Browning, the director of Freaks, was a longtime “friend of Stan Carlisle.” (David J. Skal’s Dark Carnival chronicled his connections with carnival sideshows in fascinating detail, but sadly it is only currently available in audio). Browning had the perfect leading man to be an amputee circus attraction in his frequent collaborator Lon Chaney (Sr.). Yet, ironically, this was one of the rare silent films in which Chaney appears without elaborate makeup. Long available in a moderately abbreviated cut, Browning’s fully restored The Unknown screens again during this year’s edition of MoMA’s To Save and Project.

Perhaps the only truly dated aspect of Browning’s film is the Romany (they say “Gypsy”) ethnicity of the Spanish circus troupe owned by Antonio Zanzi. However, the weird sexual issues feel years ahead of the film’s time. In this case, Zanzi’s daughter Nanon has such an aversion to the male touch, she recoils at the sight of mere arms. Somewhat logically, but misguidedly, she feels safe with Alonzo the Armless, the circus’s knife-thrower, who performs with his dexterous feet.

Unbeknownst to Nanon, Alonzo is a murderer, who has concealed his arms, to pass as an innocent-appearing circus performer. However, Alonzo has fallen hard for her. He will kill for her without hesitation, but he will also take more extreme measures.

The Unknown
is not exactly a horror film, per se, but it definitely explores the dark side of human nature, much like the original Nightmare Alley and del Toro’s inferior remake. All three films also share an affinity for carnival geeks and human oddities. This would pear up nicely with the Tyrone Power classic and completely overshadow its remake.

Perhaps most importantly, it features a terrific performance from Chaney—arguably his best, because it does not rely on any makeup or prosthetics (but, evidently, some stunt feet were employed). You can definitely see his heart breaking and rage boiling. He looks a bit like Karloff, rather appropriately.

You can see it all much better in the restored print, because the previous cut (widely “available” online) was based on a European print that had shaved little bits here and there from the dramatic sequences, to shorten the running time. No scenes were cut in their entirety, but the dramatic build-ups were often truncated.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

NYJFF ’23: Exodus 91

In late 1984, the IDF, the Mossad, and the CIA commenced one of greatest humanitarian rescue operations in history, evacuating thousands of Falasha Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel) to safety. Operation Joshua was the smaller sequel that soon followed. When the Marxist Mengistu regime lost its Soviet sponsor, a window of opportunity opened for an even larger but less covert operation. Israeli Ambassador Asher Naim was the man appointed to manage the risky negotiations. The heroic efforts of Naim and his colleagues to execute Operation Solomon are chronicled in Micah Smith’s documentary Exodus 91, which screens during the 2023 New York Jewish Film Festival.

The attempted assassination of Ambassador Meir Joffe, depicted in the film’s shocking first scene, created the vacancy Naim filled. He had just returned from a stressful posting in Finland, which at the time was a home for Soviet Refuseniks seeking asylum in Israel. He would be doing similar work in Ethiopia, but on a much greater scale, in a hostile country.

Combining archival video and dramatic recreations, Smith nicely conveys the chaos of the period. The rebels were closing in on the capitol, so thousands of Ethiopian Jews flocked to the Israeli embassy, living in squalid make-shift camps on the surrounding grounds. Disease ran rampant, but the embassy still encouraged more to come, suspecting an opportunity for a large-scale evacuation might arise suddenly and close quickly.

The most intriguing figure who emerges from the film is probably Kassa Kabede, an Israeli-educated Mengistu loyalist, who is appointed the regime’s point person on Jewish immigration issues. In addition to Shai Fredo’s portrayal in recreations, Kabede himself sat for on-camera interviews, shortly before his death. He is definitely a complicated, ambiguous figure. However, Fredo proves you can still do serious acting in docu-re-enactments, especially his final negotiation with Naim wherein he discusses his school days in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, Naim died before production started, so his brother portrays him in contemporary interview segments. Docu-purists and Israel haters might object to this choice, but at least it is clearly identified as such during the film (unlike the controversial Tony Bourdain voiceovers, for instance). Clearly, there is no intention to fool anyone, because Smith frequently pulls his camera back at the close of re-enactments, to reveal the behind-the-scenes cameras and back-drops.

That also adds a strange hyper-real vibe to
Exodus 91 that can be a bit distracting, but also makes it quite stylistically distinctive. Erez Aviram’s score (featuring Israeli jazz musician Eden Bareket on sax) also adds sophisticated and evocative textures. Most importantly, the film tells a remarkable story.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Legions, from Argentina

As a shamanistic warlock, blood and faith are all that matter to Antonio Poyju. Both are central to his work and his identity. Unfortunately, his demonic nemesis has targeted his daughter Helena’s faith to undermine his bloodline. Poyju was never happy in contemporary urban society, so he is perversely just as comfortable cooling his heels in a criminal asylum, but he will have to finally break out to save his estranged daughter in Fabian Forte’s Legions, which is now available on VOD.

Poyju would prefer to still live as a medicine man-hermit in the rain forest, “mediating” between the spirit realm and our own world. However, a demon killed his beloved wife and stole the talisman that guarded Helena’s faith. As her belief waned, the demon grew stronger. The secular society attracted the teenager like a magnet, so the old man moved with her. However, he still practiced his severe brand of spiritualism, which was misunderstood in the capitol. Ultimately, he was committed to the mental hospital, while his son-in-law, Warren, files his appeal and serves as a buffer for the increasingly freaked out Helena.

Of course, we know she hasn’t seen anything yet. Unfortunately, old Poyju is right about everything. That means his daughter is in grave danger. He needs a lot of spiritual help to save her, but his cronies in the asylum mostly just provide comedic relief.

Weirdly, the inmates are staging a play based on Poyju’s demonic battles, but Forte wisely avoids meta gamesmanship, using it instead as a macabre and absurdist backdrop. Frankly, descriptions positioning
Legions as a comedy somewhat overstate matters, but it certainly has an off-kilter sensibility that helps set it apart.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

New Gods: Yang Jian, from GKIDS

Like nearly every other Chinese mythical figure, Yang Jian (a.k.a. Erlang Shen) makes an appearance in Journey to the West, but he is more prominent in the classic novel, Creation of the Gods and the fairy tale, Lotus Lantern. Those are the sources director Zhao Ji and screenwriter Muchuan primarily draw from for the second film in their mythical News Gods animated franchise. There is also a lot of weirdness added to Zhao’s New Gods: Yang Jian, a GKIDS release, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Around a millennium and a half ago, the gods were sort of overthrown, but they are still around. Yang Jian is proof, as the offspring of a goddess and a mortal man. That kind interbreeding is frowned upon, but he was still hailed as a hero, until an ugly incident closed his third eye. During the battle, Yang Jian was forced to seal his goddess sister inside a mountain. Rumor has it, his reason for doing so was surprisingly lurid (really, GKID?), but—spoiler alert—such talk is slander.

Nevertheless, Yang Jian was forced to leave his nephew Chenxiang with his master to train. Mourning his sister and his powers, the demigod makes ends meet by working as a bounty hunter with the crew of his steampunky flying airship (we’re guessing this part is new). Most of them look like pirates, but their loyal panting dog sometimes physically transforms into an adoring teenage girl. Again, odd choice.

Things veer more towards
Lotus Lantern and Creation of the Gods when Yang Jian is hired to find an outlaw who stole an ancient relic. Of course, his target turns out to be the still youthful Chenxiang, who is determined to use it to free his mother from the mountain. That puts both Yang Jian and his nephew in the middle of a cosmic power struggle that encompasses both the immortal and mortal realms. Or something like that.

Muchuan tells a highly convoluted story that gets even harder to follow with each whirling maelstrom the characters jump into. Not surprisingly, it works best when it is most grounded, following the misadventures of hardboiled, half-godlike bounty hunter, who has to fight using conventional martial arts.

Yang Jian makes the same mistake as Shang-Chi. They both establish likable heroes and put them through some nice early fight scenes, but their climaxes are empty noise. Probably the greatest martial arts movie finale was the showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. It had no whirlwinds or cosmic-rays, just two martial arts legends going toe-to-toe. That’s what movies like this should build towards, rather than incomprehensibly swirling magic.

At least Zhao finds a way to incorporate one very cool effect. During the course of the whooshing and swooshing, Yang Jian and Chenxiang get swept up inside a magic scroll, at which point the the animation shifts, replicating the style and color palette of ancient ink-wash painting. It looks amazing, even though the action is a little hard to follow.

Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, at the Japan Society

Legendary Prince Rama and evil King Ravana have appeared in many, many Indian films, even the superhero movie Ra.One, which is named for the super-villain, a digit reboot of Ravana. Yet, their story is probably best known to animation fans through films produced outside India. Nina Paley gave Rama’s loyal wife a feminist spin in Sita Sings the Blues. Before that, respected Indian animator Ram Mohan also collaborated with Japanese co-directors Koichi Sasaki and Yugo Sako to create the classic Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, which screens with freshy restored vividness tomorrow at the Japan Society.

Whereas Paley undercut Rama’s heroics, Mohan and company somehow saved all the best fight scenes for his brother Lakshman or their friend, Hanuman. The latter happens to be a mighty flying monkey, so giving him screen time makes perfect sense—but we get ahead of ourselves.

There is first Prince Rama’s courtship of Sita and their banishment from her Kingdom of Mithila. The king had intended to anoint Rama his successor, but he is honor-bound to grant the two boons requested by his second wife, who insists on Rama’s expulsion, in favor of her own son’s ascension. Yet, the couple spent many happy years in the forest, with only Lakshman and a small army of cuddly woodland creatures for comfort, until evil King Ravana kidnaps Sita for himself.

This is where the film really starts getting good. While on the trail of Ravana, Rama and Lakshman meet Hanuman, who introduces them to his master, Sugriv, who has been deposed from his own kingdom. Rather pragmatically, Rama restores Sugriv to his throne, who then mobilizes his army to aid Rama in his quest. However, reaching Ravana’s island stronghold will be their first logistical challenge. Then they will face Ravana’s freakishly giant warrior-retainers.

A lot of Ghibli veterans worked on
Ramayana, presumably on the stunning fantastical vistas and awesome battle scenes. From time to time, there is a bit of un-Ghibli-anime awkwardness to the characters’ movement, but that sort of adds an element of nostalgia. Regardless, it is impossible to go wrong with army of monkey warriors. The second half is like a Planet of the Apes movie, wherein apes and men work together to fight the hydra-like Ravana and his batwing minions.

is incredibly respectful of the Sanskrit epic. There was a bit of controversy in the early going, but the final product became a symbol of Japanese-Indian cooperation. However, it is still highly watchable for audiences coming from outside Eastern religious traditions. They definitely emphasize the fantasy elements to such an extent, you could almost consider it a Hindu Clash of the Titans (we think of that as a good thing).

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Sorry About the Demon, on Shudder

Will is such a neurotic millennial nothing, even the demon terrorizing his new house doesn’t want to live with him. It looks like he has watched way too much of the Magnolia and Food Networks, because he is constantly baking cakes and making his own noxious candles. Consequently, it is easy to understand why he ex-girlfriend Amy dumped him. Unfortunately, that meant he had to find his own place—necessarily someplace cheap. The owners of the demon house make him a suspiciously good deal in screenwriter-director Emily Hagins’ Sorry About the Demon, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

In addition to his baking and crafts, Will works as a customer service rep for the saltiest toothpaste on the market. He really is as pathetic as he sounds. After Amy dumps him, he continues obsessing over her, until he starts notice the strange things going in his new home. He didn’t think he could afford to rent an entire house, but the Sellers Family are motivated landlords. Their daughter Grace was possessed by Deomonous in the prologue, but they made a deal to lure a replacement sacrifice for him to drag to Hell in her place.

That is where Will is supposed to come in, but for some reason Demonous wants nothing to do with him. Although terrified, the nebbish loser feels somewhat rejected again. He is still disturbed by it all, but his only friend, Patrick the lawyer, is skeptical. However, Patrick’s work friend Aimee (same name, different spelling), happened to work her way through college as a spiritual cleanser, so she can pick up on his house’s seriously bad mojo.

Some of Hagins’ pay-off gags are pretty easy to spot, but the demonic humor is still pretty amusing. It is probably about as funny as
Hell Baby, without the earlier movie’s somewhat recognizable cast.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Stonehouse, in The Epoch Times

Disgraced Labour MP John Stonehouse was pompous, corrupt, and possibly a spy for Communist Czechoslovakia, but never boring. BritBox's STONEHOUSE captures the bizarre humor of his scandals. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

A Fugitive from the Past, Restored at the Japan Society

We're not saying Tomu Uchida’s three-hour film noir masterpiece is dark, but it starts with a ferry disaster killing hundreds of innocent people. Those currents off the coast of Hokkaido are so treacherous, they even spit up two extra bodies. It turns out they were ex-cons, mostly likely responsible for a lethal home invasion. Det. Yumisaka will pursue the “third man” like Javert in Les Miserables. The cop from The Fugitive might be an even more apt comparison. Although Takichi Inukai (if that is his real name) is not a one-armed man, he has a crushed finger that definitely counts as an identifying characteristic in Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past (a.k.a. Straits of Hunger), which screens in its freshly restored glory at the Japan Society.

During the immediate post-war, black-market years, it was not just those straits that were hungry. Nevertheless, Inukai seems genuinely distressed by the fate of his traveling companions and also their victims. With the cops out in full force, Inukai takes refuge with hostess-oiran-prostitute-borderline dominatrix Yae Sugito, who gives him a bit of hard time, but rather takes a shine to the rough but shy character. The feeling is somewhat mutual judging from the whopper of a tip the mystery man left behind.

As Yumiska spends years following-up false leads, Sugito uses Inukai’s money to pay off her family’s debts and start leading a relatively straight life in Tokyo. Yet, ironically, she will return to her former profession, preferring the stability of life with her new paternalist mom-and-pop employers. Alas, the government eventually decides to be progressive and reformist by shuttering legal houses of prostitution. Forced to make another new start, Sugito happens to notice a provincial philanthropist’s picture in the newspaper. Mr. Kyôichirô Tarumi certainly bears a strong resemblance to the man responsible for her nest egg, who has taken on almost saintly status in her own head.

It is not hard to understand why
Fugitive (or Straits) is regarded in Japan as one of the finest Japanese films of all time. It truly combines elements of the sympathetic (if not wholly innocent) fugitive thriller, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, with the sweeping scope and tragedy of Les Mis (which Uchida adapted straight-up in 1931). His use of gritty widescreen 16mm also gives it a 1960s docu-drama vibe, but what makes the film so appealingly idiosyncratic is the delight Uchida takes in breaking all the rules. Inukai disappears for a long period of time, allowing the second movement to become an empathetic woman’s story, roughly akin to Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.