Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Tanel Toom’s Last Sentinel

In lighthouse and deep-sea oil rig movies and series, like The Vanishing and The Rig, characters often feel like the rest of the world might have disappeared, leaving them stranded forever. For the rag-tag crew aboard this post-apocalyptic ocean fort, that is a very real possibility. Their relief is distressingly late and some of them are starting to act a little stir crazy in Tanel Toom’s Last Sentinel, which opens this Friday in theaters.

The seas have risen, but the two tiny surviving nations remain perpetually at war. It is just four of them manning this remote, seabound military outpost (modeled on WWII Britain’s Maunsell forts), but Sgt. Hendrichs will not let any of them slack off. Cpl. Cassidy tries to be an intermediary between him and the grunts, Sullivan and Baines, but it isn’t easy. Their relief is way, way overdue, but when a ship finally arrives, unannounced, it is a cause of concern rather than relief. In fact, Hendrichs almost uses the fort’s super weapon to blow them all up.

That would have been a mistake, but the empty vessel is still disconcerting. At least it isn’t full of rats, like in
Three Skeleton Key. It also holds some supplies, as well as a good deal of mystery. Regardless, it is still a sea-worthy ship, but Hendrichs is not about to let the squad abandon their post.

The basic concept of this
Waterworld-like world is familiar, but the execution of the Estonian Toom (an Oscar nominee for the short film, The Confession) is notably strong. The initial encounter with the derelict ship is surprisingly tense, as are several subsequent sequences. The isolated setting is definitely eerie and the spartan set design is highly effective. It all looks great, but unfortunately, some of screenwriter Malachi Smythe later plot points stretch credibility.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Quantum Leap: Ben, Interrupted

In the original Quantum Leap series, Dr. Sam Beckett encountered “evil leapers,” who were trying to set wrong events that had gone right. Dr. Ben Song’s rival, Richard Martinez, a.k.a. “Leaper X,” insists he is not one of them, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Regardless, Song finds himself reluctantly working with his presumed antagonist in “Ben, Interrupted,” tonight’s episode of Quantum Leap.

This time around, Song’s host is a private detective going undercover in a notorious 1950s mental asylum, sort of like Nelly Bly did, but without a good exit strategy in place. Fortunately, Song has the Quantum Leap team and their AI, Ziggy, to help guide him. His mission is to rescue his client’s sister, who was committed by her husband, for the sake of a quick and easy divorce. However, Song probably won’t be able to leap if one or both of them is lobotomized.

As a further complication, Martinez leaps into the body of one of the thuggish orderly-enforcers. He claims he wants to help, but Song is understandably wary. Nevertheless, he does not have a lot of options.

This is the first episode in a while that really digs into the “Leaper X” subplot. In addition, there is also more intrigue and drama involving Janis Calavicci, who apparently assisted Song make his unsanctioned leap. That means this episode really involves time travel, rather than mere small-bore family melodrama. The stakes are also huge, at least for Song.

The Legend of Gatotkaca

This is the first cinematic foray into the Indonesian “Satria Dewa” superhero universe—and probably the perfect time for it, considering how stale the Marvel and DC franchises are getting. At least this is something different, inspired the Mahabharata, albeit in a very modernized kind of way. Our hero still fights the Kaurava, but now they are more like an evil, genetic secret society in Hanung Bramantyo’s The Legend of Gatotkaca, which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Yuda’s mother Arimbi barely saved her son from a sinister supervillain, but the battle cost her memory. Since his teen years, Yuda has cared for her, dropping out of school to earn money. He therefore hoped to at least vicariously enjoy his well-heeled friend Erlangga’s graduation, but instead the valedictorian is mysteriously murdered on-stage.

Many of Jakarta’s best and brightest have recently fallen victim to a serial killer, who has the cops baffled. Of course, it is not really a mortal agent doing the killing. It is the Kaurava secret society, especially Beceng, their chief costumed assassin, who is knocking off those who carry the rival Pandava gene. Beceng also killed the father and brother of Dananjaya, who is sort of like the Hawkeye of the Satria Dewa universe. As Yuda starts asking questions, he meets the small band of Pandava resistance against the Kaurava cabal, led by Dananjaya.

Yuda also forges and alliance and perhaps something more with Agni, the daughter of Erlangga’s professor. With all their help, Yuda will unlock the secret of his mother’s mysterious heirloom, which holds the power of Gatotkaca, but he still has a lot of butt-kickings in-store for himself, at the hands of Beceng and the Kaurava.

Or something like that. Bramantyo and co-writer Rahabi Mandra lean into the series lore, presumably to please pre-existing franchise fans, but they often leave newcomers a bit confused. Regardless, if you consider the film a Sanskrit fusion of
The X-Men and Underworld, you might generally get the idea. In fact, many of the Javanese elements make a refreshing change from the vanilla superhero movies Marvel and DC have been churning out (more Ant-Man and Shazam movies, really?).

The action is also pretty intense. Let’s put it this way, Yayan Ruhian (“Mad Dog” from
The Raid) plays Beceng—and he hasn’t lost a single step. He definitely delivers in the fight scenes, making a spectacularly nasty bad guy.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

NYICFF ’23: Moominvalley

Swedish-speaking Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s Moomins characters are popular throughout Europe and maybe even more so in Japan, where there have been numerous anime adaptations and one of two Moomins theme parks. However, they have a smaller cult following here in America, mostly from fans of Japanese animation. The British dub for Sky TV could still find an audience here, if a streamer picked it up, given the voice talent (including Kate Winslet and Taron Egerton during earlier seasons). For Moomins lovers, three episodes of the third season screen again today during the 2023 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Moomins look like hippos, but they are trolls—of the pre-social media variety. They are also quite sweet-tempered. It is mostly Moomins in Moominvalley, but they are a few other creatures, like the Kangaroo-looking Sniff and some humanoids, who are referred to as “Hemulens.” Perhaps for accessibility’s sake, the three episodes selected for NYICFF feature the Moomins helping their human friends.

In “Toffle’s Tall Tales,” Moomintroll (son of Moominpappa and Moominmamma) and Sniff help the five-year-old-looking little boy Toffle, who was changed to non-binary in this series (to appease the new kind of woke trolls), find a safe place to stay while the residents of Moominvalley hibernate. Their journey gets thoroughly complicated by Toffle’s penchant for spinning outrageous yarns. Conveniently, Jansson has been dead since 2001, so she had no feedback on the revision to her original character.

In “Miss Fillyjonk’s Last Hurrah,” Moomintroll misdiagnoses a tiny chicken bone lodged in her throat as inevitably fatal, so instead of trying to cure her, he convinces his severe spinsterish neighbor to finally enjoy some adventures in life, while she can. It is a very O. Henry-ish “carpe diem” episode, but pleasantly so.

Finally, in “Snufkin and the Fairground,” Moomintroll’s best friend (who displays anarchist tendencies in Jansson’s books) takes over a popular amusement park, after the previous owner resigns. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be a weak manager.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Outer Limits: Please Stand By (Pilot)

The Twilight Zone had its share of extra-terrestrials, but first contact and alien invasion were really specialties of The Outer Limits. The was true right from the start—the very start. The first episode aired that under the title, “The Galaxy Being” was very slightly re-edited from the unaired pilot, appropriately known as “Please Stand By.” That “being” was from another galaxy, who did respond well when he suddenly found himself in our world. In honor of the show’s 60th anniversary, the original pilot screens tonight at UCLA.

Sit back and enjoy, because cosmic forces will be controlling the transmission we are about to watch. Allan Maxwell is a brilliant scientist, who uses his radio station as a cover for his underground SETI research. Basically, his DJ-brother Gene “Buddy” Maxwell programs polite jazz and bachelor pad-ish easy listening. It was probably a good spot on the dial to hear Joe Bushkin and Eddy Duchin, if you could pick-it up. Dr. Maxwell deliberately keeps the output low, so it does not interfere with his own experiments.

Much to his surprise, Maxwell’s microwaves create a link through which he and a mysterious alien from Andromeda start communicating. The scientist could continue their trans-galactic exchange all day, but his wife insists he attend their local town’s long-planned awards ceremony in his honor. He turns the station’s output down even further, to maintain a stable connection, while the “Galaxy Being” “holds the line,” but the fill-in DJ cranks it way up, inadvertently dragging the alien into our world. Havok soon follows.

Obviously, the network picked up
Outer Limits, but they had creator Leslie Stevens (who wrote and directed the pilot) somewhat water-down its intensity. They also cut a line from the Galaxy Being that suggested his people might just come to Earth and kick our butts, now that they knew of our existence. That is especially unfortunate, because it represents one of the earliest pop-culture manifestations of Cixin Liu’s “Dark Forest” concept, decades before the Chinese novelist’s Three-Body trilogy.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game

Playing pinball is sort of like the video game experience, except the ball and flippers are actually real. The game seems cool in a retro way now, but it was some of the most fun you could have for a quarter in the early1970s. Unfortunately, it was still banned in New York City, thanks to the Puritanism of the Progressive reform movement. Inexperienced GQ journalist Roger Sharpe played a major role in legalizing the game. Sharpe’s campaign for pinball respectability is quite charmingly dramatized in Austin & Meredith Bragg’s Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, an MPI-supported film, which releases today on VOD and in select theaters.

As a divorced twenty-five-year-old with hardly a quarter to his name, Sharpe came to the City with vague dreams and limited prospects. However, when he finally found a pinball machine, in an adult bookstore, the college pinball wizard started to get his groove back. Then the store was raided—for the pinball machines, not the porn.

By this time, Sharpe had secured a junior writing position at
GQ. He also started dating Ellen, a very pretty but somewhat older single-mother working in the same office building. First, Sharpe parlays his pinball outrage into his first major GQ piece. After that, he is able to secure a book deal for his illustrated pinball history. In the process, he interviews all the founding fathers of the much-maligned pinball industry. As a result, he starts to make a name for himself as a pinball expert. Soon, the trade industry group covering pinball approaches Sharpe to testify on behalf of the game in front of the New York City Council, but Sharpe is leery of potential negative attention.

Given the title, it is probably a safe bet that Sharpe “saves the game,” or at least contributes to the repeal of New York’s ban. However, the Braggs still make the drama surprisingly pacey and entertqainingly grabby. Their use of the older, third-wall-breaking Sharpe to offer sly commentary on the unfolding action works much better than in previous films. Thanks to Dennis Boutsikaris’s portrayal of the somewhat more mature and graying Sharpe (who was onboard with the film, as an executive producer), all the exposition is weirdly fun and amusing. Frankly, we could listen to an entire multi-part documentary, featuring Boutsikaris adopting Sharpe voice, to talk about pinball history.

Yet, throughout the film, the Braggs give equal weight and significance to Sharpe’s relationship with Ellen and her son, Seth. As Sharpe, Boutsikaris explicitly says there are things that are more important than pinball, in almost exactly those terms. That means the younger Sharpe has more to do once he “saves the game,” which is a refreshing break from the typical climatic testimony cliché.

As Roger and Ellen, Mike Faist and Crystal Reed (also very good in
Swamp Thing) have insanely appealing chemistry, right from the start. Their relationship necessarily has its ups and downs (otherwise this would be a pretty dull film), but viewers immediately start rooting for them. It is also worth noting the work ethic and values espoused by Ellen, who at one point explains how she grinds away as a secretary to provide for her son, in order to avoid resorting to welfare. That is really quite something to hear in a film.

Faist and Reed are terrific handling the grounded romantic comedy. Bryan Batt and Mike Doyle also deliver a lot of snarky laughs as Harry Coulianos and Jack Haber, the now legendary art director and editor of
GQ. Among other things, Pinball nicely recreates the groovy milieu of 1970s magazine publishing.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Leave, on Shudder

The Norse Wolf Cross looks satanic, but it is actually Pagan. Either way, it is a handy symbol for a horror movie. Hunter White was found with one when her adopted father, a cop, responded to a call, regarding a baby wailing in a cemetery. Having taken DNA tests and done extensive research, she secretly visits Norway in search of her roots in Alex Herron’s Leave, which premieres on Shudder tomorrow.

White told her father she was leaving to start college at Georgetown (where
The Exorcist was set, a completely unrelated fact), but she is headed to Norway instead. Her DNA is 99% Norwegian and she discovered Cecilia, a Norwegian Death Metal vocalist, was playing in Boston the night she was abandoned. Despite a rocky start, Cecilia turns sympathetic, deducing White is the birth daughter of her now-institutionalized bassist, Kristian, and Anna Norheim, the girlfriend her presumably murdered in a particularly grisly fashion.

From there, Hunter follows the trail to the Nordheims, who are welcoming, but also suspiciously hardcore fire-and-brimstone Christians. Some supernatural force keeps telling White to “leave,” as per the title, but she keeps ignoring it.

That’s right, this film teases good old fashioned satanic panic, but turns into to be all about evil Calvinists. It does not do itself any favors in this regard. The film starts with the frighteningly evocative scene of White’s discovery in the graveyard, but that is just about the film’s first, last, and only scary moment. The rest is a bunch of silly stuff with sinister Evangelicals, including a patriarch pushing eighty, who somehow consistently overpowers the twenty-five year-old White.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Voices from Chernobyl, on OVID.tv

When watching this documentary, the parallels between the Soviet Union’s response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the Wuhan Covid outbreak look eerily comparable. Reports were covered-ep and whistle-blowers were silenced, resulting in thousands of deaths that might have been prevented. Yet, Nobel Prize winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich’s book was not just an expose. It also thoroughly documented and expressed the love and grief of survivors. Luxembourgian filmmaker Pol Cruchten adapted her book with his artistically rendered documentary, Voices from Chernobyl, which premieres today on OVID.tv.

The words are spoken in French, but they are adapted from the Ukrainian and Russian of survivors—if “survivor” is the right term. Many widows of reclamation workers and fire-fighters remain in mourning years after the disaster. Alexievich also talked to a teacher, who explains how damaged her young students have been by the incident. Physically, they are under-sized and sickly, while psychologically, they are preoccupied with death. Counter-intuitively, she are her colleagues are oddly pleased to see any signs of traditional school children misbehavior, since it signals signs of inner life.

We also hear (or in many OVID viewers case, read in subtitles) the words of the chief of the Belarusian nuclear authority, who had cautionary reports regarding the Chernobyl disaster stolen from his office. Had the authorities acted on his warnings, it would have saved hundreds of lives—maybe thousands, but the Soviets preferred to pretend nothing was wrong, in hopes of avoiding an international propaganda disaster. The lives of thousands of Ukrainians were disposable towards that end. Remember, good old Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary at this time—you can see his rotting portraits abandoned throughout the wreckage of Pripyat Cruchten’s cameras capture.

Instead of talking heads, Cruchten superimposes the words of Alexievich’s interview subjects over scenes of ghostly Pripyat or carefully composed tableaux, symbolically representing the horrors of Chernobyl. Stylistically, it is a lot like experimental hybrid films, such as
Scars of Cambodia or Into the Crosswind. Cruchten’s cast are more like interpretive dancers than traditional thesps, but there is definitely something acutely expressive about their screen presences.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Back to the Drive-In

Drive-ins were widely considered the big winner of Xi’s pandemic, because they were the only theaters open during the shutdown—but not so fast, mister. It turns out they also suffered from the same supply chain issues and staffing woes that affected every other company. Often, opportunity turned into frustration, but drive-in proprietors carried on. Writer-director-everything-else April Wright follows eight drive-ins as they plug away amid the pandemic’s aftermath in Back to the Drive-In, which releases today on VOD.

If you have seen the documentary
At the Drive-In about the Mahoning Drive-In in Pennsylvania, you will be familiar with the general state of drive-in business. Converting to digital was a challenge for most, if not all, but it was necessary to keep screening the latest Hollywood studio tent-poles. Some, like Bengie’s Drive-In still largely feature new releases, except during the pandemic shutdown, when they had to rely on older films.

However, many drive-ins have found success with repertory programming. After all, what sounds like more fun to watch on a hot summer night, a timeless favorite like
Jaws or Jurassic Park or the next Marvel product, carefully sanitized for the Chinese market? In fact, the Greenville Drive-In really embraces the retro rep spirit, designing special cookies and cocktails to accompany films like The Great Lebowski (obviously, they were serving White Russians that night).

All the featured drive-ins share a number of problems, like supply chain issues. Everyone seems to have problems stocking staple items like popcorn cups. Of course, they also complain about the cost of doing business with the studios. However, the Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod must contend with heavy fog that is unique to their location.

One of the cool things about Wright’s film is seeing the new Drive-Ins spring up, like the Field of Dreams Drive-In the owners literally build in their Ohio back yard. The owner-architects of the Quasar Drive-In in Nebraska emphasized nostalgia in their design, incorporating vintage equipment acquired from shuttered drive-ins around the country. Good luck to them both.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Gotham Knights, on CW

Honestly, the new leadership at Warners probably saved the DC franchise by axing the unreleased Batgirl movie if reports were correct it killed off Michael Keaton’s Batman. He was a lot of people’s introduction to the Caped Crusader and superhero movies in general. Seriously, they bring put him back in the mask, just to murder him? That would have produced some massive ill will. However, killing off a hardly seen Batman in a CW show based on a DC video game is another matter. Yes, Batman is about to die (violently), but his adopted son and a rag-tag band of rejects hope to find his killer and clear their names in Gotham Knights, developed by Natalie Abrams, Chad Fiveash, and James Stoteraux, which premieres tomorrow on CW.

Turner Hayes’ birth parents were also murdered, which was presumably why fellow “orphan” Bruce Wayne adopted him. The wealthy philanthropist never revealed his secret identity to Hayes. He seemed determined to keep his adopted son separate from his Dark Knight world. Yet, he still trained Hayes extensively in martial arts and fencing. The now-privileged teen only learns the truth when Batman is murdered, presumably by Duela, the slightly unhinged daughter of the Joker and Harley Quinn, and her current running mates, Harper Row (known in the comics as Bluebird) and her trans brother Cullen.

Just as Hayes and his platonic bestie, Stephanie Brown, start using the Bat-computer to investigate possible payments to Duela’s crew, he finds himself framed as the source of funds. Barely escaping the crooked cops trying to kill them, Hayes reluctantly convinces the outsider-weirdos to team-up to prove their innocence. In addition to Brown, they have an ally in Hayes’s classmate Carrie Kelley, who also happened to be the final Robin—and isn’t wanted for murder.

Based on mysterious coins that keep turning up, Hayes and company deduce the real culprits are the Court of Owls, which is sort of like Gotham’s Illuminati, the secret power pulling all the strings. Working with Duela and the Rows is not easy, but as they start interfering with the Court’s criminal enterprises, they gain a reputation as a new vigilante group dubbed the “Gotham Knights,” by a press that is unaware they are also Gotham’s most wanted.

Gotham Knights
is definitely a mixed bag, but the stuff that works makes it compulsively watchable. As Hayes, Oscar Morgan too much of a cold fish to be a compelling lead, but Olivia Rose Keegan is entertainingly twitchy and erratic as Duela. Frankly, Navia Robinson portrays Kelley/Robin with the kind of grounded charisma that should have made her the lead of the series, whereas the constant whining of Fallon Smythe and Tyler DiChiara as the Row siblings gets to be a chore to sit through.

Fortunately, the series also gets some help from adults. Misha Collins is terrific as District Attorney Harvey Dent, who will slowly start to believe Hayes’s claims of innocence. Of course, since his name is Harvey Dent, he will have his own issues to deal with. Doug Bradley (of
Hellraiser fame) has one of the best guest-starring turns of the year in episode six, playing Joe Chill, the gunman convicted of killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, who wants to speak to Hayes before he is finally executed.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Quantum Leap: Ben Song for the Defense

1989 was a great year, except maybe here in New York. The city was about to descend into a period of chaos, ended by Giuliani’s election in 1993. Dr. Ben Song will not do anything to prevent that this leap. Instead, as a public defender, he scrambles to save a young man who will be wrongly imprisoned for manslaughter in “Ben Song for the Defense,” tomorrow night’s episode of Quantum Leap.

The clever thing about this episode is it breaks format slightly, without really breaking format. Since Addison Augustine’s military background was so helpful to Song in the previous episode, she hands the holographic baton over to her Quantum Leap Project colleague Jenn Chu, because of her knowledge of the legal system. Chu got her legal degree while serving time, so the former hacker certainly has some insights.

Unfortunately, Song’s host is so overworked, because crime in New York is starting to explode, she hardly has the time to give Camilo Diaz’s case the attention it deserves. No, that is not how the series’ writers room spins things. Regardless, Song has to get Diaz off, so he can save his younger brother from the gangs trying to get their hooks into him.

There is some decent courtroom drama in “For the Defense,” which harkens back to classic episodes of the original series, such as “So Help Me God.” However, the writers cannot help including little digs at the 1980s, which leads to some credibility issues, like Song’s host being in a romantic same-sex relationship with the second chair Assistant DA on her case.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Spy Among Friends, in The Epoch Times

A SPY AMONG FRIENDS is a carefully crafted espionage thriller that depicts the treachery and hypocrisy of Kim Philby. It turns out it was easier to admire the workers' paradise from afar than to live under it. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

The Magic Flute, Mozart Produced by Roland Emmerich

This classic tale is all about a prince trying to save a princess and it starts with a monster attack. We typically do not see it this way, but Mozart’s most popular opera is a total quest fantasy. Therefore, maybe it isn’t totally inappropriate to combine it with elements of Harry Potter, just slightly goofy. Young Tim Walker does not simply study Mozart’s opera, he journeys into it in Florian Sigl’s The Magic Flute, produced by Roland Emmerich, which is now playing in Los Angeles.

Walker, a Sensitive Andrea Bocelli copycat, has been granted rare permission to join the student body of Hogwarts-like Mozart Academy of Music, because of the recent death of his alumnus father. Before he died, Walker’s father asks him to return the rare
Magic Flute manuscript he nicked from the school’s library. He tries to sneak it back his first night there, triggering the mystical portal to the world of The Magic Flute.

Accepting Prince Tamino’s quest, Walker constantly sneaks out of his room at 3:00 to reinsert himself into the opera. His disappearing acts thoroughly confuse his sidekick Papageno, the opera’s comic relief. Meanwhile, in the real world, his flakiness annoys his roommate, Paolo, and his prospective girlfriend, Sophie.

The look of both worlds is quite amazing. The “Potterizing” of
The Magic Flute is sometimes quite clever, but Walker really ought to be better prepared for the trials he faces, considering how intently he studies the titular Mozart opera.

Regardless, probably the best part of the film, both in terms of special effects and vocal delivery is the Queen of the Night, played by real deal opera diva Sabine Devieilhe. She definitely rises above the often-awkward-sounding contemporary English translation of Mozart’s libretto.

Nobody else can match her range, but wisely, Jack Wolfe and Niamh McCormack really do not try, as Walker and his potential real-world love interest. Instead, they perform some likable vintage pop. Their romantic chemistry is lightweight, but agreeable.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Ritual Killer

Who better to catch a serial killer than an eighty-something year-old anthropologist? It probably makes more sense than asking another serial killer for help, especially since Dr. Mackles is an expert in Muti, the traditional spiritual medicine practiced in Southern Africa. It appears there is a rogue practitioner committing sacrificial murders to benefit his clients in George Gallo’s The Ritual Killer, which releases today in theaters and on VOD.

The guilt Det. Lucas Boyd carries after his daughter’s death has left him nearly non-functional, except when chasing violent criminals, who then bear the full brunt of his rage. He and his partner start investigating a trail of bodies mutilated with surgical precision that lead to the mysterious Randoku. The large, scarred man definitely stands out, but he is still frustratingly hard to catch.

To interpret the African writing and exotic spices found at a crime scene, Boyd enlists the help of Dr. Mackles, an African Studies professor, who is clearly freaked out by them. Initially, he tries to play cool and beg off the case, but he inevitably starts advising Boyd on the Muti aspects of the ritual sacrifices.

That all sounds like a passable premise, but the screenplay (unpromisingly credited to three scribes: Bob Bowersox, Francesco Cinquemani, and Luca Gilberto) proceeds in such an orderly straight line, it turns into a total snooze. At least the one moment of lunacy at the end gives viewers something to remember, but the rest is the stuff of mediocre 1990s TV-movies.

The legendary Morgan Freeman looks about as bored playing Mackles as he did in the underwhelming
Vanquish, which was also helmed by Gallo (maybe Freeman should stop working with him). The saving grace is Cole Hauser, whose hard-boiled brooding as Boyd is better than the film deserves.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Unicorn Wars, from GKIDS

Remember during basic training, when your drill instructor told you war was a lot more than teddy bears and unicorns? (Most New York film critics can ignore this rhetorical question.) Turns out that was a good thing. This eternally running war between teddy bears and unicorns is both brutal and pointless. It makes you wonder just what good is war anyway, except for halting genocide, repelling illegal invasions, and liberating oppressed people—but aside from that, what is it good for? Regardless, the titular war is not good for anyone except maybe the privileged teddy bear officers in Alberto Vasquez’s Unicorn Wars, from GKIDS, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Bluey and Tubby are two Kane and Abel teddy bear brothers, who are going through basic training together, Tubby acts like the shy, sensitive one, but Bluey is actually scared and damaged inside, due to his mother’s rejection. They recruits act like Care Bears around each other, but when the subject of unicorns comes up, they turn into blood-thirsty Z-emblazoned war criminals.

For years, the teddy bears have waged a genocidal war against unicorns, fueled by propaganda dressed up as ancient wisdom. According to legend, the teddy bear who drinks the blood of the “last unicorn” will gain super-heroic powers, sort of in the
Highlander tradition. Of course, it doesn’t make sense. That is Vasquez’s statement on war.

It is hard to say whether
Unicorn Wars works or not, because it greatly depends on Vasquez’s intentions. If he set out to make a film about unicorns and teddy bears that would shock and horrify parents that accidentally took their kids to it, then Unicorn Wars is a smashing success and completely worthy endeavor. However, if it was meant as a lofty anti-war statement then it is a clumsy, ham-fisted, rub-your-nose-in-it failure. At some point, when you are constantly getting hit over the head, it starts to drag. That point comes awfully quickly in Unicorn Wars.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Sound of Silence, Hello Darkness

This is another extremely zeitgeisty horror movie that the filmmakers probably did not realize was so zeitgeisty. In this film, talking can lead to death, so express yourself at your own peril, just like when you brave censoring tech companies and woke trolls on social media. Counterintuitively, this time around, it starts very analog, with an old fashioned “wireless”-style radio, which had all kinds of wires. Soon, noise in general becomes weaponized in the T3 directing trio’s Sound of Silence, which releases Thursday on VOD.

Back in Italy, Emma Wilson’s tinkering father comes across a vintage radio, but after he fires it up, all heck breaks loose. Her father is now in a coma and her mother is being held overnight, due to her defensive wounds. When Wilson’s arrives with her boyfriend Seba (for Sebastian), her mother begs them to book a hotel rather than go to the family home, but of course, she insists on staying there.

Shortly thereafter, the radio starts menacing her. In several scenes, a spectral woman appears and disappears, advancing towards Wilson, as she turns the wireless on and off. Soon, any noise is sufficient to trigger the audio specters. The evil force also infects Seba as it had her father. However, she has one recourse not available to most people—the soundproof studio her father built for her during her teen years.

The quiet fearful quaking stuff has been done before, but the neo-Giallo style adopted by T3 (Alessandro Antonaci, Daniel Lascar, and Stefano Mandala) serves it well. There are several genuine nailbiter scenes, especially the on-off sequences. Admittedly, the conclusion does not make much sense, but what do we really expect, anyway? The epilogue also seems almost completely unrelated, but it is also seriously creepy, so why not?

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

The Stratum, on DVD

This sort-of-near-future world is sort of like Elysium, but with catfishing. However, you have to give hacker James Walsh credit. He is actually more than he presents himself to be. He looks exactly like his avatar, but he is a real person instead on AI. Unfortunately, his overtures to a lonely satellite resident might undermine her efforts to save humanity in Crash Buist’s The Stratum, which releases today on VOD and DVD.

The Peoples’ Terrorists, or whatever they call themselves, blame Gatesian oligarch William Wright and his company for all the ills in the world. When the even-worse-Covid hit, he ferried those who could pay to the safety of his Satellite of love. However, his secret daughter Ayla was inconveniently allergic to the life-support systems. Instead, she needed her own hermitically sealed capsule.

With all that free time, she created art and possibly discovered the formula for clean cold fusion. She is lonely though, so she talks to Walsh when he injects his avatar into her VR workshop, posing as an AI sent by her father.

That was not part of the original plan. Edgar Bane, self-proclaimed general of the Peoples Extremists hired him to hack Wright Corp. As he was touring through their system, he stumbled into Ayla’s virtual realm. While drawing out intel from her, Walsh starts to fall for the cyber-punk princess, so he takes exception to Bane’s “revolutionary” plans for her.

The Stratum was shot for less money than it would cost too buy two dozen Dunkin Donuts for your next office breakfast. However, co-screen-writing co-stars Buist and Lauren Senechal have sketched some interesting ideas in here. The “courtship” between Walsh (in his AI guise) and Wright works surprisingly well. The violent extremism of the Peoples’ Army is also highly realistic and all too believable (regrettably). Bane’s big plan is simply horrific. Yet, perhaps the film’s cleverest element is the crazy “Buddha” AI persona that manages the underground tech “Red Box” vending system.

Monday, March 06, 2023

Jon Wright’s Unwelcome

Redcaps are basically goblins or leprechauns gone bad. They are supposedly mainly Scottish, but also Northeast Ireland, where Jamie and Maya have just inherited a home. Locals call then the “Little People,” but if you cross them, you could get it right in the lucky charms. Criminal lowlifes are also pose a danger to their wellbeing in Jon Wright’s Unwelcome, which opens Wednesday in theaters.

Just when Maya’s pregnancy test finally tests positive (as they hoped), she and Jamie are badly beaten by a gang of thugs. Fortunately, a presumably safe escape from London estate violence suddenly opens up when Jamie inherits a somewhat dilapidated but cozy Irish country home from his eccentric aunt. The only stipulation, according to his late aunt’s friend, is that they leave a little bit of raw liver by the gate to the woods each night as a “blood offering” for the “Little People.”

Okay, fine—Maya will humor her. The problem is grouchy old “Dad” Whelan is the only contractor available to fix the hole in their roof. It won’t take long to figure out why he and his creepy family were idle. Things will take a
Straw Dogs turn, but the Redcaps in the woods are the wild card that could save the couple, but at what cost?

Too much of
Unwelcome focuses on the Irish-style Deliverance business, but when the Redcaps finally show themselves, they turn out to be awesome. They are actually laugh-out-loud hilarious, in a darkly macabre sort of way. They out shine the Leprechaun and Gremlin franchises when it comes to attitude. The creature design work is also pretty cool.

It somewhat makes sense Wright (who previously helmed 
Grabbers and Robot Overlords) tried to hold back and not show too many Redcaps too soon, to maximize their impact, but they are far and away the best thing about the film. Colm Meaney is appropriately sinister as Whelan, but his abusive behavior is not nearly as much fun. Hannah John-Kamen and Douglas Booth are frankly a little too whiny and a little too drippy to embrace with much enthusiasm as Maya and Jamie.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Quantum Leap: S.O.S.

In The Final Countdown, the entire U.S.S. Nimitz is sent through a time warp. In this case, it is just Dr. Ben Song time-traveling. This Naval-themed leap will be extremely personal for Addison Augustine, his fiancé and holographic guide—not just because she is a veteran. She was actually Army, but her estranged father is the Executive Officer on the American battleship Song leaps aboard in “S.O.S.,” this week’s episode of Quantum Leap premiering Monday on NBC.

Awkwardly, Augustine knows exactly what went wrong during these 1989 war game exercises. Her father ignored a garbled distress call from an American sub, resulting in the loss of all souls aboard her—except he doesn’t. It is XO Alexander Augustine’s mentor and legendary commanding officer, who is convinced the S.O.S. is a Chinese ruse (not completely without cause). Unfortunately, there is a bit of a
Caine Mutiny situation going on, but in this case the captain is a little too decisive.

After a bit of a rough patch, the new
Quantum Leap continuation series returns to its early form. There is a lot of smart writing this time around, especially when the holographic Addison explains the cold hard truth about military chain of command to Song. He might not like his commanding officer’s decision, but he has to accept it, at least in the short term.

The truth about the incident turns out to involve questionable Chinese tactics that spiraled out of control. Even though Quantum Leap project director Admiral “Magic” Williams has a friendly “reach out” to his Chinese contact, the implications of this episode will likely get it banned by the CCP. It also applies finally time travel complications to big macro events, like a potential war that never originally happened. As a result, the stakes in this episode are considerably greater than mere family melodrama.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

NYICFF ’23: The Smeds and the Smoos (short)

In the new Avatar movie, the blue humanoids like to splash around in water. On this planet created by Julia Donaldson, it is the red creatures that enjoy the water, whereas the blue ones prefer to hop around trees. If they sound a little weird to you, the red people certainly agree. Neither the red Smeds or the blue Smoos will have anything to do with each other, until things take a Romeo & Juliet turn in Samantha Cutler & Daniel Snaddon’s The Smeds and the Smoos, the latest Magic Light Pictures Donaldson adaptation, produced for the BBC, which screens during the 2023 New York International Children's Film Festival.

Aside from not liking each other very much, the Smeds and the Smoos live simple, pleasant lives. They stay on their side of the pebble border, because, like Frost said, good fences, etc. One day, Janet the Smed and Bill the Smoo venture into the neutral forest, where they start playing together and eventually fall in love.

Of course, Grandmother Smoo and Grandfather Smed are having none of that, so Bill and Janet steal the Smed rocket, so they can live together on another world. The old rival matriarch and patriarch worry for their grandchildren, so everyone piles into the Smoo rocket, to search the universe for them—Smeds included.

You don’t suppose the Smeds and Smoos might learn to appreciate their differences during their quest? Yes, perhaps so. This time around, Donaldson’s story has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. However, this might be some of the best animation of any of the Magic Light Donaldson films, so far. The various alien worlds really are quite lovely. It has a richer, more sophisticated look than previous Donaldson short films, such as
The Highway Rat.

Friday, March 03, 2023

The Forger: Cioma Schonhaus’s Survivor Story

Cioma Schonhaus had two advantages that helped him survive the National Socialists. First of all, he looked more like a blond matinee idol than the regime’s anti-Semitic caricatures. Of course, it was not enough to look the part. He also had to have the right papers, but he could help himself there too. Schonhaus’s incredible survival story unfolds in Maggie Peren’s The Forger, which opens today in New York.

The rest of Schonhaus’s family have been deported East, but he is allowed to remain in Berlin, because of his menial munitions job—at least, for now. Most of his family’s flat has been sealed by the authorities and the contents exhaustively catalogued. Schonhaus has been relegated to one small room, which he happily shares with his friend Detlev Kassriel, a fellow Jew rendered homeless by National Socialist appropriation.

However, the two young men try not to let that stand in the way of a good time. Using uniforms abandoned at a tailor’s, Schonhaus and Kassriel regularly party the nights away at hot spots, pretending to be junior officers on the night before their deployments. During the days, Schonhaus is recruited by the once-socially prominent resistance leader Franz Kaufmann, applying his graphic design training to forge identity papers.

The Forger
is not exactly intended as a breakneck thriller, but Schonhaus’s ability to brazenly bluff his way out of sticky situations is hugely impressive and often highly entertaining to witness. However, it is also a meditation on the loneliness of exile (even within one’s own home) and the quality of life, even while enduring extreme pressure.

In fact, Schonhaus is not always so heroic. Sometimes he is rash and irresponsible, as so many of us were in our early twenties. Regardless, it might sound like a tired cliché, but Schonhaus really did try to live on his own terms—and he definitely survived to tell his story—he was the most compelling interview subject in Claus Rafle’s hybrid-documentary,
The Invisibles, which released a few months after his death.

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Unseen, from Blumhouse

Those thin, fragile little smart phone power-plugs are not just annoying. They could cost lives—Emily’s life to be specific. The vision-impaired woman received a miss-dial from Sam, a total stranger with a beat-up and unreliable-looking phone, whom she must rely on to guide her away from her kidnapper in Yoko Okumura’s Blumhouse-produced Unseen, which releases Tuesday on VOD (and launches on MGM+ in May).

Sam’s life is in a bad place. She is deeply depressed and works for a complete jerk at a gator-themed gas station, in a region of Florida where that sort of thing looks normal. Emily is in a worse place. She has just been kidnapped by her abusive ex-boyfriend, Charlie, who intends to gaslight her back into a dysfunctional relationship—or suffer the violent consequences.

Somehow, she manages to escape, but her glasses are damaged in the brutal scuffle, leaving her natural vision too blurry to navigate the Upper Michigan wilderness outside Charlie’s cabin. She cannot see her phone’s screen, but she manages to return her last call: Sam’s hang-up. The completely freaked-out cashier reluctantly agrees to guide Emily via video-phone, very much like the visual assistance operator in
See for Me, but she must also deal with her crummy job and Carol, a customer from Hell, who could only be played by Missi Pyle.

The concept and execution of
Unseen are indeed very similar to See for Me, but it works even better because of the more colorful characters and the superior chemistry between Emily and Sam. Midori Francis and Jolene Purdy develop some terrific digital-foxhole rapport and both are appropriately earnest and vulnerable, conveying the urgency of their situation.

Pyle is basically a caricature as the unhinged Carol, but she is funny and definitely ups the stakes for Sam dramatically. Most of her sequences defy credibility, but the lunacy is impressive. Unfortunately, Michael Patrick Lane’s Charlie is a bland, completely disposable villain.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Children of the Corn (2023)

This is one Stephen King property that can probably be remade without a lot of pressure. The first film from 1984 remains popular, despite departing significantly from the original short story, which really isn’t considered King’s best work anyway. Then there were a raft of questionable straight-to-DVD sequels and SyFy Channel remakes. The last film in the franchise was truly awful, so most fans should be willing to give director-screenwriter Kurt Wimmer a little leeway for his take on Children of the Corn, which releases Friday in theaters.

No strangers come to town this time around, because why would they? Boleyn Williams’ corn-farming community is dying, thanks to pestilence and faulty GMO seeds. It is so bad, her father wants to pull the plug and accept Federal subsidies for not growing corn. However, Williams wants to stay and fight. So does creepy little Eden Edwards and the corn cult that has sprung up around her. She used to live at the local group foster home, but when her brother went crazy-from-the-fields, the sheriff tried to gas him out of the house, killing two dozen other children in the process. Subsequently, Edwards has claimed to have a weird, pagan connection to the corn fields.

Ill-advisedly, Williams recruits Edwards’ help in staging a public inquiry into the state of local agriculture. She thought it would be a public forum, but Edwards and her cult quickly turn it into the corn-country equivalent of Robespierre feeding the guillotines.

Corn isn’t exactly fantastic, but it is certainly a healthy improvement over the dismal Children of the Corn: Runaway. It also shows some signs a bit of thought went into it, at least at some early stage. Although Wimmer starts out suggesting this will be an environmental horror, he quickly steers away from that dead end.

Despite the supernatural elements, this
Children of the Corn seems to more depict the insanity of mob behavior and cults. In some ways, it very definitely critiques the revolutionary impulse, which once again leads to violent horrors Williams never imagined, but Edwards is eager to unleash. It turns out show trials can go in a very, very ugly direction.

Elena Kampouris and Callan Mulvey are both surprisingly strong as Williams and her decent father Robert. In fact, Mulvey might earn Wimmer’s film the distinction of having the nicest dad of any Stephen King film yet. Unfortunately, Bruce Spence plays Pastor Penny as a sweaty, leering stereotype, but that certainly follows in the King tradition. However, young Kate Moyer is certainly creepy, in an appropriately
Village of the Damned-kind of way.