Thursday, August 31, 2023

King of Killers, Starring Frank Grillo and Alain Moussi

If Jorg Drakos were more like big tech or big unions, he would just bribe politicians to regulate his competition out of business. Instead, the notorious assassin plans to personally usher his rivals into an early retirement. Should any hitman survive his unlikely tournament, they win 10,000,000 dollars. That money would help Marcus Garan care for his sick daughter, Kimberly, but Drakos might also hold some answers regarding the murder of Garan’s wife in Kevin Grevioux’s King of Killers, which opens Friday in New York.

After his wife’s untimely demise, Garan walked away from contract killing, but he needs money fast for Kimberly’s heart surgery. According to mystery man Roman Korza’s initial pitch, Garan was supposedly hired to kill Drakos. Then he discovers Drakos has set up this little assassin convention for his own satisfaction, to decide who is really the best of the best. He has lured them to a Tokyo highrise (it looks more like a mid-sized building in Cleveland, but whatever), which he tricked-out with secret mirrors and traps. The idea is the draw numbers to face him, like the Minotaur in the labyrinth, one by one, but Garan quickly figures out they need to break the rules to survive.

King of Killers
(that’s Drakos’s nickname) is based on Grevioux’s graphic novel, but the narrative itself is pretty straightforward, in a meatheaded kind of way. However, it builds to an improbable twist ending that implies some extraordinarily irresponsible risk-taking. Nevertheless, it clearly teases an intended sequel that I would be totally down for.

Despite its moronic attempts at cleverness,
King of Killers still has some terrific fight scenes. Frankly, this is probably Alain Moussi’s best showcase since the underappreciated Kickboxer reboots. He definitely has the right chops for Garan. Likewise, Frank Grillo chews the scenery spectacularly as Drakos, who is way more amusing than most shadowy super-villains.

We Kill for Love: The Erotic Thriller Doc

They were quite a thing in their time, but they could not survive the double-whammy of the collapsing video store market and the rise of puritanical woke-ism. Somehow, low-budget horror has weathered the perfect storm, but sexy thrillers with words like “deadly,” indecent,” “eyes,” “body,” and “night” in their titles just could not maintain market share. The filmmakers and stars who worked prolifically in the genre look back on their work in director-producer-editor Anthony Penta’s documentary We Kill for Love, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

The genesis of it all was Brian de Palma’s
Dressed to Kill, which established just about all of the genre’s tropes and motifs. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat was its Citizen Kane and Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were its Star Wars-sized hits. In between, there were a lot of cheaper films, promising, but not necessarily delivering naughty thrills, for customers of independent video stores and late-night cable TV.

The phenomenon was well underway during the mid-to-late-1980s, but it maybe reached its peak in the early 1990s. Andrew Stevens is a major reason why. He leveraged his notoriety as an actor (from films like
The Fury and Death Hunt) to get his screenplay produced. He also starred in Night Eyes, which is definitely one of the documentary’s touchstone films. To Stevens’ credit, he is a good interview subject, who can discuss his career with self-aware perspective and a sense of humor.

Occasionally, there is some horror crossover in
We Kill for Love, mainly thanks to Fred Olen Rey. Penta and his academics (whose political commentary on the 1980s is often dubious) also convincingly identify straight-to-video erotic thrillers as the disreputable offspring of film noir and hardboiled pulp on the male side and gothic romance on female side. (However, class envy played little role in the genre’s success. The characters’ luxurious lifestyles were just a further dimension of its voyeurism.)

Indeed, voyeurism often factored very directly in the storylines, but they were not X-rated. They were “naughty” rather than “dirty” movies. Yet, many of the actresses who frequently appeared in these films have had to push back when they were unfairly labeled “porn stars,” like Amy Lindsay (whose credits also include guest shots on
Star Trek: Voyager, Silk Stockings, and Pacific Blue), who explains what it was like to be smeared with the “p” word when she appeared as an average voter in a commercial for Ted Cruz. Give Penta credit for covering this incident fairly.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz

He was a man of deep faith and deep neuroses. Despite his extraordinary success, Charles Schulz remained a very humble and humane man. What better means to tell his story than through the artform he perfected? Writer Luca Debus and artist Francesco Matteuzzi chronicle Shulz’s life with comic strips (including a double color panel every seventh page) in Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz, which releases today in bookstores.

Clearly, much of Debus’s dialogue is fictionalized. In real life, we usually don’t have reliable punch-lines on every third beat, but a comic strip pro like Shulz would surely appreciate it. Presumably, the Schulz family did not sanction
Funny Things, because none of the Peanuts gang are ever pictured, but it is hard to imagine they would object to its lovingly humanistic portrayal.

Most of the major events will be familiar to fans, especially if they have seen Apple TV+’s
Who Are You, Charlie Brown, but Debus places much greater emphasis on the impact of various family tragedies on the young Schulz. He also devotes a good deal of time to the cartoonist’s wartime service, his early professional service, and his long history of church work (which Apple predictably overlooks).

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia

Evidently, society can learn a lot from a bear and a mouse. In their first film, Ernest and Celestine taught us a lesson in tolerance. This time around, they tackle artistic freedom and rigidly controlled labor markets. Sadly, there is little social or economic freedom in Gibberitia, Ernest’s hometown of bears. That is why he left in the first place. Unfortunately, he must return to have his prized Stradibearius violin fixed in Jean-Christophe Roger & Julian Chheng’s Ernests & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, which opens Friday in New York, from GKIDS.

Ernest just woke up from a long sleep and boy is hungry, but there is no food in the house, so Celestine suggests they busk for money. Unfortunately, she trips on his slipper, breaking his beloved Stradibearius. The only luthier who can fix it lives in Gibberitia, so that is where she goes, with the reluctant Ernest trailing after her.

When they finally reach the Balkan-looking Gibberitia, Ernest finds it has drastically changed. All music consisting of more than one note is now forbidden and instruments are confiscated (ironically, some extreme punk could still be legal). However, there is an underground resistance, which presumably includes Ernest’s luthier, but they might not be so happy to see him. The law outlawing music is known as the “Ernestov Law,” named in his honor by his father, Nabokov, Gibberitia’s chief judge. He passed the anti-music regulations when his son left home to pursue music, rather than follow in his father’s jurist footsteps, as required by Gibberitian law and tradition.

Trip to Gibberitia
takes an unexpectedly dystopian turn, but it works much better than the third act of Mark Osbourne’s The Little Prince. Clearly, the “-ov” suffixes added to the character names suggest a commentary on Russian authoritarianism, either from the Soviet past or the Putinic present. It is also easy to hear Eastern European influences in the score composed by jazz cellist Vincent Courtois, which further emphasizes the Iron Curtain vibe.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Spanish Dancer, Restored, with an Original Score by Bill Ware

Maritana, the dancing Roma girl, and her lover, Don Cezar de Bazan, are characters created by Victor Hugo, who subsequently inspired works by Massenet, Mendelssohn, W.S. Gilbert, and a French stage adaptation by D’Ennery & Pinel, on which this film was also partly based. It further inspired a competing silent movie from Ernst Lubitsch that released around the same time, but to less acclaim. Despite its popularity at the time, the restored print had to be assembled from two 35mm nitrate prints and two 16mm prints. Fortunately, we now have every scene, representing almost the entire original running time. Yet, what really brings the restoration of Herbert Brenon’s silent The Spanish Dancer to life is the new score composed by jazz musician Bill Ware, which cineastes can hear when it releases on BluRay tomorrow, from Milestone Films.

Maritana is a wild spirit, who definitely never does anything the easy way. Perhaps that is why she falls in love with the wastrel Don Cezar de Bazan after reading his dreadful fortune. He does indeed lose his money and his social standing, but he finds allies among Maritana’s people. Don Cezar must keep moving to evade the sheriff determined to send him off to debtor’s prison, but he and Maritana arrange to meet in the Square of the Galloping Charger, when it will be thronged with people for the feast day festival.

Unfortunately, the cash-poor honor-rich Don cannot resist dueling despite the King’s decree to the contrary. That gets him sentenced to death. All is not lost, because the French-born Queen owes Maritana a favor. However, the deceitful Don Sallustre is working behind the scenes, to undermine everyone, for his own benefit. You know he is a devious snake-in-the-grass, because he is played by Adolphe Menjou.

Spanish Dancer
is a rollicking swashbuckler comedy that almost feels like an early silent predecessor to the Richard Lester Musketeer movies, but probably nobody involved in their production had the opportunity to see Brenon’s film in its full glory. It actually turns into a deliciously ironic farce, albeit one that still holds life and death consequences.

Spanish Dancer really gallops along at a brisk tempo thanks to Ware’s original score. As you would expect from a vibraphonist and bassist, it has a strong rhythmic drive and a propulsive underlying beat. Ware’s percussive elements often evoke the vibe of flamenco and other forms of Spanish music, while the orchestration remains rooted in jazz forms. Regardless, it sounds great. In addition to the composer on vibes and bass, it also features Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Bobby Previte on drums, and Rez Abbasi on electric guitar.

It is amazing what a fresh new score can do for a silent film. Suddenly, we are more receptive to the images, because we can better relate to the music (instead of an old timey-sounding piano). What looks exaggerated in isolation becomes passionate or “extreme” in a contemporary sense, when working in concert with the music. This is especially true for the generation that was raised on music videos, who are used to seeing music related only by theme or mood layered over an otherwise unassociated narrative. Ware’s score is a great example, even though he maintains some Spanish and Roma flavorings.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The Great Monster Yonggary

Forget Godzilla vs. Kong, because it was so disappointing. What would really be cool would be Yonggary vs. Wangmagwi, a battle of the Korean kaiju. There is even some bad blood between the respective monsters. Yonggary was completed first, but Space Monster Wangmagwi beat it into theaters, earning accusations of plagiarism. Wangmagwi has recently been restored to its full earth-shaking glory, but Yonggary still only exists in the English-dubbed print produced by American International Pictures. Even with dubious English dialogue, it is still fun to watch the Godzilla-like monster smash stuff up in Kim Kee-duk’s The Great Monster Yonggary (a.k.a. Yonggary, Monster from the Deep), which screens as part of the film series, Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s.

Ever so coincidentally,
Yonggary starts with a newlywed pilot, recalled to duty after his wedding, to monitor a nuclear test in the Middle East from space. In Wangmagwi, our hero pilot was forced to postpone his wedding, so it was totally different. Regardless, the Korean space program is way more advanced in Yonggary than it is in The Moon. Be that as it may, the nuclear blast unleashes a monster buried deep within the Earth and it starts making its way straight towards the Korean peninsula, triggering catastrophic earthquakes in its wake. The prognosis is bad for South Korea, but that should mean a good part of the Mideast and China must be reduced to rubble. Tough luck for them, but we won’t be worrying about their fate in Yonggary.

You can also forget the astronaut. Instead, Kim and co-screenwriter Seo Yun-sung follow Il-woo, the socially awkward scientist, who has been dating the bride’s sister, Soon-a. Il-woo seems to get along better with her bratty brother Icho, who takes it upon himself to investigate Yonggary, to find his Achilles heel—again, not unlike

Presumably, the original Korean print of
Yonggary is better. Presumably, fewer characters speak with English and Transatlantic accents, but that is part of the eccentric fun of the AIP dub. What matters is the suitmation is awesome. It was Cho Kyoung-min in the rubber Yonggary suit and he totally devastates every scale model in his path, like a tornado bearing down on a trailer park.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Plot Against Harry

Yes, Harry Plotnick is a gangster, who runs the numbers game for the Jewish mob, but do not judge him too harshly. After all, the old school numbers racket always used to payout more of the take than state lotteries. Having just finished a nine-month prison stretch, Plotnick re-enters society right when other gangs are moving in on his territory. He also rather suddenly discovers he has a larger family than he realized in Michael Roemer’s nearly lost The Plot Against Harry, which is now playing at Film Forum.

Plotnick’s is well passed his Damon Runyon-esque prime and he knows it, but he is still bluffing his way through, because that is all he knows. Many of his numbers runners have defected to younger gangs that they also better identify with, in terms of ethnicity. He is so agitated by the current state of affairs, he nearly wrecks another car in a road rage incident.

As fate would have it, his former brother-in-law, Leo, is behind the wheel. Much to Plotnick’s surprise and embarrassment, Leo also happens to be driving the gangster’s ex-wife, Kay, their grown daughter Millie, and the son-in-law and granddaughter he never knew he had. It would seem to be an awkward start, but Leo takes it upon himself to pull Plotnick back into the family. Kay also decides to drop a bombshell of her own. When she walked out on Plotnick she was pregnant with their second daughter, Tillie, who is surprisingly willing to let him into her life, probably as a way of annoying her mother.

Shot in 1969 on the gritty streets of New York,
Plot only had a one-week Seattle theatrical engagement in 1971, until it was rediscovered and re-released to great acclaim in 1990. It is a wryly amusing mobster comedy that somewhat wistfully captures the end of the era for neighborhoodly gangs that observed some sort of code of honor. It is maybe not the comedy classic some critics make it out to be, but it is as funny as many of Jack Lemmon’s 1960’s comedies and has a similarly bittersweet vibe. You could think of it as the Zero Mostel gangster movie he never made.

Regardless, Martin Priest is wonderfully deadpan as the sour-faced Plotnick. It is a great showcase for the late actor, who mostly did episodic TV guest-starring gigs (including
The Reporter and East Side/West Side, which jazz record collectors might know from their soundtracks). He is very funny, especially when playing off Ben Lang as the big-hearted, slightly naïve Uncle Leo. They get a nice Matthau-and-Lemmon rhythm going between them.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Muratova’s The Long Farewell

She is Mommie Dearest in the Soviet Motherland. Yevgenia Vasilyevna Ustinova is a manipulative, domineering mother and she has no intention of changing any aspect of relationship with her son Sasha. However, when he decides to make a change, it sends her spiraling in Kira Muratova’s freshly restored, which opens today in New York.

Ustinova has very different ideas of what Ustinov should do, even including who he should marry. He might not necessarily disagree with the last part, but he seems to have finally realized their massively codependent relationship is toxic. Consequently, he has decided to move in with his father, who was long-estranged from his mother, even before he started teaching way out in Novosibirsk. Ustinov has not informed Ustinova of his decision yet, but she discovers it through her motherly snooping. That opens the floodgates for more compulsive behavior.

Brief Encounters, The Long Farewell was also censored by Soviet authorities soon after its release, for reasons that eluded most international critics. In this case, aesthetic issues are probably mostly to blame. At times, Farewell is almost Godard-like, particularly in Muratova’s use of repeated dialogue for an absurdist effect. This is most definitely not Socialist Realism. In fact, you would hardly know it takes place in the USSR. Nobody seems to building socialism or smashing capitalist. Rather to the contrary, much of what goes on appears rather decadent and unhealthy.

Still, it is worth noting Ustinov’s father is in Siberia, which perhaps implies he was once on the outs with the socialist regime. Conversely, Mother Ustinova works as a translator, which maybe implies some level of trust, since she must have contact with foreigners and outside sources of information. Then, there goes Sasha, choosing him over her.

Zinaida Sharko gives a spectacularly dark diva-like turn as Ustinova. This is the kind of emotionally intense performance Meryl Streep’s defenders like to pretend she gives, but she was never really capable of anything like this.

Muratova’s Brief Encounters

As a district committee councilor, Valya should be shining example of socialist feminism. Unfortunately, she cannot get much done or get much respect from colleagues. She doesn’t even mind that much, because she enjoys the mantle of authority, for its own sake. That makes her the polar opposite of her husband Maksim, but that is why she can’t let go of him. It turns out the same is also true of her new housekeeper. It is a classic love triangle, but the off-kilter presentation got it banned during the Soviet era. Viewers can judge it for themselves when Ukrainian Kira Muratova’s freshly restored Russian-language Brief Encounters opens today in New York.

Valya is super-organized in the office, but terrible at house chores. That will be Nadia’s job. The socially awkward young woman from the countryside will be Valya’s new live-in help. She is home much more than Maksim, who quite surprises Nadia when he finally turns up. Her first [moderately] big city job was at the neighborhood bar Maksim used to frequent with his fellow geologists.

They sound like scientists, but they live more like troubadours or tramps. It is an itinerant lifestyle, ostensibly surveying the countryside gold and silver, but they devote more of their time to drinking and singing folk songs.

That might not sound like your commie uncle’s Socialist Realism, but so what? Most critics just assumed the Soviet authorities rejected Muratova’s fractured narrative and Nouvelle Vague-like techniques. The presence of Vladimir Vysotsky, the popular underground folksinger often surveilled by the KGB, probably did not help either.

However, Muratova’s portrayal of apparatchik corruption includes more arsenic than a lot of critics realized. At one point, she tells Maksim the story of a man who suddenly lost his running water because his neighbor, Valya’s former crooked boss, lost his position and privileges. It turns out his floor’s water supply was only for his benefit.

You have heard wokesters belittle “first world problems.” In 1960s Ukraine, having running water constituted a very real “second world problem.” Tellingly, Valya adamantly refuses to allow on new housing project to open, because the state developer cannot manage to get the water running to the pipes. Yet, Valya is taking all the heat from approved residents, because they are desperate to move out of the single-room dwellings they share with multiple families. Given these sequences, it is easier to understand why Soviet censors took a good hard look at
Brief Encounters and said “nope, not a chance.”

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, on Prime

Any and every jazz listener was a Wayne Shorter fan. Yet, when it came to science fiction movies and comics, he was a fan too, just like the rest of us nerds. In fact, one of his final releases was a three-disc set that came with an accompanying graphic novel that Shorter wrote. Dorsay Alavi leans into the saxophonist’s otherworldly interests (without losing sight of his music) in the three-part Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, which premieres tomorrow on Prime.

It is almost three and a quarter hours of Wayne Shorter, which is just fine with us. Like his former boss, Miles Davis, Shorter had distinctive periods. The first episode starts in childhood and takes him through the “Second Great Miles Davis Quintet,” including most of his Blue Note tenure. The second installment covers Weather Report, the fusion super-group that went through nearly as many phases of its own, as well as some of his subsequent projects, like
Native Dancer, featuring Milton Nascimento. The final hour mostly focuses on his celebrated quartet (with Danilo Perez, Brian Blade, and John Patitucci), as well as the orchestral works he merged them into. Sadly though, each period is also marked by at least one terrible personal tragedy, sometimes more than one.

Casual fans may not be aware the TWA flight 800 crash impacted Shorter in a very direct and personal way, but it certainly did. In fact, one of the most memorable interviews of the entire docu-series is that with Shorter’s former road manager, who had to break the news to the jazz legend while he was on tour. However, Alavi mostly focuses on Shorter’s childhood relationship with his brother Alan, a much freer avant-garde trumpeter, who died suddenly in 1988, soon his betrothal to a cousin of Herbie Hancock (one of Wayne Shorter’s closest friends and musical collaborators), largely glossing over their adult relationship.

Jazz listeners will be happy to see Alavi scores sit-downs with just about everybody they would want to hear from, who are still alive, including Hancock, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Dave Holland, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, Wallace Rooney (obviously recorded before his tragically early demise), Peter Erskine, and the other three members of Shorter’s Quartet. Conversely, Shorter’s history is also a sad reminder of how many greats we have lost, often far too soon.

Honey West: The Pilot, the Middle, and the End

It was one of several TV crime shows that featured cool jazz-influenced scoring. On the other hand, it maybe contributed to the mistaken notion exotic pets are cool, considering the title character’s habit of driving around in a convertible with her pet ocelot. Conceived as an American version of Emma Peel from The Avengers, she kicked a fair amount of butt in her limited time. In recognition of the early female private eye, UCLA screens the pilot, 14th, and final 30th episodes of Honey West this Saturday.

In the series opener, “The Grey Lady,” West and her dude-Friday, Sam Bolt, labor to foil a series of jewels thefts, mostly on spec. In the process, she judo grapples with a smug euro-trash cat burglar, showing off the fight choreography that was definitely one of the show’s strongest suits. Cesare Danova is certainly smarmy as the stealthy Abbott, but Kevin McCarthy (from
Invasion of the Body Snatchers) oozes even more sleaze as her prospective employer, Jerry Ivar. It is pretty simple, by necessity, given the half-hour format, but the fight scenes and the overhead camera work are on par with what they were doing over at The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

“Invitation to Limbo” (directed by Tom Gries, who also helmed the criminally underappreciated
Breakheart Pass) is similarly Peter Gunn-like in its stylish simplicity. However, the premise harkens back to the inspiration of The Avengers, while also evoking themes from The Manchurian Candidate, which had been withdrawn from circulation two years earlier, following the Kennedy Assassination. While working their latest case, West and Bolt discover a corporate espionage ring using hypnosis to brainwash otherwise loyal employees into revealing proprietary secrets. A longer running time might have allowed more intriguing complications, but the topic is even more timely today, given the CCP’s strategic espionage targeting intellectual property and commercial technology.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Invasion, Season Two, on Apple TV+

Evidently, alien invasion tourism will inevitably take you to an Oklahoma cornfield. It does have the advantage of being off-the-beaten path, like pretty much everything else in Oklahoma. However, the frontline for the human resistance is in the Amazon, outside a crashed but not always dormant alien ship. The far-flung characters introduced in the first season start to get together to fight in season two of co-creators Simon Kinberg & David Weil’s Invasion, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Some of the people we met in season one were really smart and some were just sort of average, but they were thrust into extraordinary circumstances—even more than the rest of the everyday Earthlings forced to deal with an alien invasion. Mitsuki Yamato is still the most interesting of the bunch. She is the one who brought down the alien ship by hacking its code. Since then, she has been fighting to avenge her astronaut lover old school-style, with Molotov cocktails. However, Nikhil Kapor wants to recruit her for his team.

Kapor, also the best new character, was the sort of callous tech titan who would have said genocide is “below my line” before the aliens came. He really has not changed appreciably, but the prospect of saving the world appeals to his ego. He could also afford to put together a cutting-edge facility to study the strange transmissions that inexplicably emanate from the wrecked ship.

Meanwhile, former Navy SEAL Trevante Cole is home, but his mind is back in London, where he saved weird Caspar Morrow from the aliens. Morrow had visions of the nasty ETs and sometimes appeared to have the power to ward them off. Unfortunately, he slipped into a coma—and his survival prognosis is particularly bad, after his doctors are unable to evacuate him when the alien monsters attack. Nevertheless, his ambiguous school friend Jamila Huston feels compelled to save him, because of messages she believes Morrow is sending through her dreams.

Former doctor-reluctantly-turned-housewife Aneesha Malik is still determined to save her children and her teen son Luke is still a total pill. However, he also has a bit of that alien “shine.” In fact, there might be more kids like him and Morrow out there. She does not want any part of the resistance group known as “The Movement,” which sounds uncomfortably cult-like, but she might not have much choice. Regardless, Cole is coming to her general area, armed with Morrow’s notebook and looking for answers.

With its combination of rural and far-flung international locations, the moody
Invasion often feels like Stephen King’s The Stand re-conceived as an alien invasion epic. That is meant as a compliment. Invasion is far superior to its fellow Apple streaming-mate, Foundation, because it combines several familiar elements into something that feels very distinctively its own thing (instead of copying from Dune and pretending it is based on Asimov’s Foundation books).

The cast is also considerably better. Shioli Kutsuna is even more spectacularly neurotic as Yamato, while Shane Zaza is entertainingly arrogant and elitist as the snide Kapor. Golshifteh Farahani still solidly anchors the series as the Malik, the desperate mother trying to protect her often uncooperative children. Shamier Anderson broods hard as Cole, while continuing to exhibit convincing action chops. Unfortunately, the younger thesps are often annoying, except Paddy Holland, who is terrific as Monty Cuttermill, Morrow’s former bully, who agrees to help rescue him.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Brightwood: Profoundly Lost and Hungover

Jen and her disappointing husband Dan are about to get sucked into some kind of time loop, or something, with the worst possible people: each other. Unfortunately, the viewers have to go through the looping with both of them. Their marriage is on the rocks and it is easy to understand why. The real question is how they got together in the first place. Of course, the more pressing issues are what is happening to them and how do they get out of it in director-screenwriter Dane Elcar’s Brightwood, which releases today on VOD.

Dan made a drunken spectacle of himself at a work party in Jen’s honor the night before, so now she is being not-so-passive aggressive about it. Technically, it was her idea to jog around the nearby large pond or small lake. The thing is they just cannot get around it. Instead, they keep coming back to the same “no swimming” sign. The vibe is very weird, especially when they hear a high-pitched headache inducing tone. Then they notice a mysterious hooded figure.

Elcar (the son of Dana Elcar, the first Sheriff Patterson on
Dark Shadows) cleverly directs the traffic for a number of near-misses and weird encounters that we later see from different perspectives and angles. Yet, they never build to a suitably trippy revelation. Instead, we’re stuck going through all the loops with two of the lost annoying movie characters of the year.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Golda, Co-Starring Liev Schreiber as Kissinger

In many ways, the Yom Kippur War was a lot like the Tet Offensive. It was a surprise attack over a holiday that caught Israel by surprise. The media spun Tet into a Communist victory, even though the South and their American allies successfully beat back the Viet Cong. It is impossible to spin the Yom Kippur War as a victory for Egypt and Syria for several reasons, starting with the obvious fact Israel still exists. However, it was looking really grim during the initial days. Guy Nattiv takes viewers into the celebrated Israeli Prime Minister’s war-room in Golda, which releases Friday in theaters.

Some Israelis blamed Golda Meir for not being better prepared for the 1973 war, but clearly Nattiv and screenwriter Nicholas Martin do not. There were early warning signs, but they were interpreted very differently by legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Mossad chief Zvi Zamir. Unfortunately, Zamir was more right than wrong. Being a natural politician, Meir basically split the difference between their recommendations. It also certainly did not help that Meir had promised Kissinger and Nixon to wait for her war-mongering neighbors to fire the first shot, before Israel would start to defend itself.

However, having stayed true to her word, Kissinger agrees to expedite more military aid and diplomatically pressure the Soviets to stay out of the fight. It is important to remember Israel and the U.S, did not enjoy as close a relationship then as we do now. In fact, Nattiv and Martin nicely illustrate the legacy of the Yom Kippur War, including the Camp David Accords and a much closer alliance between our two countries.

Frankly, it is kind of shocking Liev Schreiber agreed to play Kissinger, especially since the film portrays the former Secretary of State in at least a halfway sympathetic manner, if not better. Apparently, it is tough to turn down an opportunity to appear opposite Dame Helen Mirren. For viewers, it was worth Schreiber risking his career, because their terrific scenes together crackle with wit and intelligence.

Mirren is also pretty good is her scenes with everyone else, particularly Lior Ashkenazi as IDF Chief of Staff David Alazar, Rami Heuberger as Dayan, and Rotem Keinan as Zamir. Less successful are the private moments she shares with confidential secretary Lou Kaddar (played by Camille Cottin) exploring all her aches and physical failings. We can all empathize, but a little of this goes a long way—and there a lot of it. Nevertheless, what starts as a good feature-showcase for Mirren evolves into an effective ensemble film.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Cinequest ’23: Sloane: A Jazz Singer

Carol Sloane led a very jazz life. You can tell from the number of career “comebacks” she pulled off. Her last one came very late in life and she had a documentary crew there to film it. A lot of people might not recognize her name, but they should. Michael Lippert followed the late jazz survivor as she prepared for a live recorded engagement at Birdland in Sloane: A Jazz Singer, which screens during the 2023 Cinequest Film Festival.

Maybe you don’t know Sloane’s name, but Concord Records sold a whole lot of her albums in the early 1990s (before the label shifted its focus in “hipper” directions). She also appeared on
The Tonight Show many times in the early 1960s (but often during the optional 15-minute openings many stations did not carry). She also befriended both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, neither of whom did much of anything to further her career, but her greatest cheerleader, Oscar Peterson, certainly did. There were definitely a lot of missed opportunities in her career, but she was still far from unknown.

Unfortunately, she was also held back by personal problems, including a troubled relationship with Jimmy Rowles (the renowned jazz accompanist) and caring for her husband Buck, during his slow demise. As her friend, executive producer Stephen Barefoot puts it, she had a lot of ups and downs—and her downs really got down there.

However, it would be a mistake to consider her a name from obscurity. You don’t just book Birdland by cold-calling. She was on Columbia Records when they were the most important label in America and a jazz powerhouse. She subbed for Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Jazz listeners always knew her. It is just the media that is culturally illiterate.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

The Winter King, in the Epoch Times

In the post-Roman, early-Arthurian Britain of THE WINTER KING, nation-building is hard and tax-collection is thuggish, just like today, but magic still has an ambiguous role to play. It is a grittier take on King Arthur that has its merits, so far. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

761st Tank Battalion, on History Channel

It is doubly tragic that Gen. George S. Patton succumbed to injuries from an untimely accident in 1945. Had he lived longer, he might have helped the men of the761st Tank Battalion get some of the recognition they deserved, but were long denied because of the color of their skin. Initially, Patton’s opinions on the fitness of black soldiers reflected those of his class and his fellow officers. However, Patton had praise for the 761th and signed-off on Presidential Unit Citation request that was nixed by top brass until 1978. Fittingly, Morgan Freeman, the star of Glory and the voice of God, helps tell their neglected story as host and executive producer of director Phil Bertelsen’s feature-length History Channel special, 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers, which premieres tomorrow.

Initially, the military did not want black soldiers in combat, reserving them for servile support duties instead. When the men of what would become the 761
st started armored training, their officers assumed they would fail, but they exceled instead, so they continued to train and train waiting to be sent into combat. As a result, they really knew their stuff, better than many of their white comrades, when they were finally shipped off to Europe to reinforce Patton’s army. He was skeptical, but he needed bodies desperately.

Bertelsen and his on-camera historians do a nice job explaining the 761th’s engagements under Patton’s command. Unfortunately, as a so-called “bastard brigade,” the 761th was not permanently attached to a brigade. Instead, they were dispatched wherever they were needed, sort of like a combat equivalent of substitute teachers. As a result, they were combat-deployed for a punishing 183 days straight. On the other hand, they had the advantage of being an armored unit, which camouflaged their skin color during battle conditions.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Harlan Coben’s Shelter, on Prime

Harlan Coben's Mickey Bolitar novels were conceived as a YA spin-off to his popular Myron Bolitar adult novels, but you wouldn’t know it from the streaming adaptation. The bestselling Myron is Mickey’s uncle in the books, but he is nowhere to be found in the series. Now the moody teen has a single aunt, perhaps to avoid conflicts with Coben’s Netflix deal for his grown=up titles. Regardless, Mickey still has a troubled mother struggling with mental health issues and his father is still dead, or is he? That will be one of the mysterious questions preoccupying the Myron-less Bolitar in the eight-episode Harlan Coben’s Shelter, adapted by the name-in-the-title Harlan & Charlotte Coben, which premieres today on Prime.

Coben writes thrillers, but the old dark house seen in
Shelter’s trailers looks rather spooky. It also starts with the two of the most terrifying words you can see together: “New” and “Jersey.” When he was a kid, Mickey Bolitar’s father Bradley was double-dog dared to sneak into the supposedly haunted mansion where the neighborhood weirdo “Bat Lady” lives. According to Aunt Shira, he was never the same afterwards. After his first eventful day of school, Mickey is also drawn to Bat Lady’s house, where she tells him his father is not really dead.

Of course, Bolitar would like to believe her, but he saw his father die before his eyes. Yet, the more he recalls the tragic accident, the more some strange little details stand out in his mind. The day started great, when he thought he was developing chemistry with the cute new girl in school, newbie to newbie, but then she ghosted him. The next day, he finds she has mysteriously withdrawn from school. He is suspicious and soon his new friends, geeky Arthur “Spoon” Spindell and gothy Ema Winslow, agree something sinister is afoot, presumably involving Bat Lady, a mysterious man with an octopus facial tattoo, and the still unsolved disappearance of Bradley Bolitar’s little league friend.

The tone of
Shelter is pretty dark, but you can still see the young adult roots. In fact, the best thing going for the series is chemistry shared by Bolitar, Spindell, Winslow, and Rachell Caldwell, the captain of the cheer squad, who joins their Scooby Drew Crew halfway through. It is consistently entertaining watching them snoop and investigate, even though we could do without so much attention to Caldwell’s straight frustrations with her dumb jock boyfriend and Winslow’s lesbian interest in the school’s leading online influencer.

Jaden Michael is believably angsty as Bolitar, but never to an obnoxiously overbearing degree.
 The wacky character of Spindell is a lot, but Adrian Greensmith keeps him kind of somewhat grounded, which is something. Abby Corrgian manages to convey Winslow’s sensitivity and intuition without making the character a complete wallflower. Howerver, the real discovery is Sage Linder, who outshines everyone as the gutsy, gun-toting Caldwell.

Constance Zimmer has a tough job, since she plays Shira Bolitar, replacing Myron, who was the commercial hook the source novel was surely originally sold with. However, she provides a nicely down-to-earth easy-to-identify-with adult influence om the series.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Snoopy Presents: One-of-a-Kind Marcie, on Apple TV+

In terms of temperament, Marcie is probably the closest to poor Charlie Brown, but she is no blockhead and there is no way her best friend, Patricia Peppermint Patty would ever forget about her. Still, there are times she takes Marcie for granted. In fact, many of the shy, bookish girl’s insights go unappreciated in Snoopy Presents: One-of-a-Kind Marcie, the latest Peanuts special, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Peppermint Patty is determined to win her school’s annual golf tournament, even though she has incredibly stiff competition from Snoopy. Her not-so-secret weapon is her caddy, Marice who can read greens and winds better than Bagger Vance. However, Marcie has other issues on her mind, like the insufficient number of pizza slices in the cafeteria at lunch time and the hall congestion in between periods that always makes the undersized underclassmen late for class. She has ideas to solve these problems, if people will listen to her.

does not have an original song like the memorable title tune of It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown, but it is another good opportunity for a long-time supporting Peanuts character to get a turn in the spotlight. Marcie is definitely a sweet kid, who has many admirable traits worth emulating. Plus, her golf tips are surprisingly good for a cartoon character.

Of course, Snoopy rocks golf clothes like nobody’s business. He has relatively little screen-time in this special, but he makes the most of it. Screenwriter Betsy Walters does a nice job deepening Marcie’s relationship with Peppermint Patty, in ways that the Charles Shultz family clearly felt was in keeping with the original comic strips and their conception for the special.

The Engineer: The Shin Bet’s Hunt for a Terrorist

After his death, the Palestinian Authority named a street after Hamas’s mastermind of suicide bombings, Yahya Ayyash. That is the kind of partner for peace they are. Arafat even took time out from his talks with Rabin to praise the mass murderer. This film tells the story of how they got him. In 1993, peace was supposed to be breaking out in Israel, but explosions were rocking the streets of Tel Aviv instead, as viewers vividly see in Danny Abeckaser’s The Engineer, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

The film’s opening attack is particularly vicious in its execution. First one Hamas terrorist blew up his explosive vest on a crowded bus. Then a second detonated his after first responders rushed in to aid the wounded, followed by a third nearby. These should not be merely considered acts of terrorism. They are crimes against humanity that Yahya Ayyash, a.k.a. “The Engineer” planned and directed (from a safe distance, naturally). In this case, they also kill the daughter of fictional Senator David Adler.

The American-born Etan is like the Jack Bauer of the Shin Bet. He was on suspension after getting a little too carried away during his last interrogation, but after the recent mass murders, it is all hands on-deck, definitely including his. They will have some competition from a group of mercenaries recruited by Adler, to avenge his daughter. Etan has strict instructions from the Israeli PM himself: no strongarm stuff. However, his old associate Avi (whom Adler helped immigrate to American after some unspecified trouble) has no such constraints. Nor do the fellow former Mossad agents-turned mercs Avi recruits for the job.

Dead Shot, The Engineer is more serious and ambitious than the average straight-to-VOD action movie, but it falls somewhat short in the execution. Kosta Kondilopoulos’s screenplay reflects the complexity of the geopolitical dynamics faced by Israel in the mid-1990s and some of the acts of terrorism depicted are truly horrifying. However, the scenes presumably intended to show off Etan’s interpersonal skills, both with his family and his colleagues, drag interminably.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Moon: A Korean Space Disaster

It is not easy launching rockets into space. Just ask SpaceX. The Korean space agency had a similar (fictional) mishap, but they are trying again. Unfortunately, freak solar flares lead to unexpected problems and the deaths of two crew members trying to make repairs. That leaves Hwang Sun-woo stranded like Sandra Bullock in director-screenwriter Kim Yong-hwa’s The Moon, which opens Friday in New York.

The previous disaster basically ruined the career of the mission director, Kim Jae-guk, but nobody knows the rocket better, so he reluctantly agrees to return to help manage the new crisis. It is particularly awkward for Kim, because Hwang’s father took the blame for the rocket’s explosion with his very public suicide. Now, Kim feels duty bound to save his late colleague’s son.

It will be hard to do so without the help of NASA’s orbiting space station, but the nasty bureaucrats in charge of the agency will not risk the station during an inopportune meteor shower. He only has one potential ally in NASA, the space station mission director, Moon Young, who also happens to be his ex-wife. Obviously, Moon is important, since the film is maybe titled in her honor.

Apparently, Kim Yong-hwa hates NASA more than my college astronomy professor. Frustratingly, that institutional resentment blossoms into an anti-American bile that infects the entire film. (For what its worth, the Korean science minister is also a complete tool.) Regardless, the film inaccurately reflects the current realities of space travel. Sadly, Russia still controls most of the passenger traffic, which is why the success of private enterprises like SpaceX are in the world’s best interest.

Still, Kim manages to devise one convincingly crushing setback after another to the rescue effort. 
The scenes set in space and on the Moon look surprisingly credible. It is just hard to buy into anything that happens on Earth, which should have been the easier parts.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Miguel Wants to Fight, on Hulu

Miguel might be Generation Z, but at least he has ambition. He is tired of watching like a freeloader, while his friends leap into scuffles, to protect each other’s’ backs. He must be quick about, because his parents will be moving to a new city and they are obviously taking him with them in Oz Rodriguez’s Miguel Wants to Fight, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

Ironically, Miguel’s father is a boxing trainer, but he strongly discourages street fighting. Nevertheless, Miguel’s friends, Cass, Srini, and David (the son of a late boxing legend, who trained with Miguel’s dad) always “jump in” when somebody starts mixing it up with one of their gang. Up to now, they never noticed that Miguel never jumped in with them. It still really doesn’t bother them, but Miguel considers it a grave failing.

Given Miguel’s massive fandom for martial arts films, his previous reluctance to fight makes him feel hypocritical. He also believes he has let down his friends. However, they think they are humoring him, by assisting his campaign to debut as a brawler. Since Miguel is a nice guy, he needs to provoke someone else to throw the first punch. He has a few old bullies who would make good candidates, but absolutely not the hulking Damien Delgado. Of course, he should really just tell his friends the truth about his impending relocation, so they can make the most of their remaining time together.

In some ways, it is too bad Rodriguez’s film is skipping a theatrical release and heading straight to Hulu, because it would have had a lot of critical support. The banter between the Fab Four friends is appealing and the cinematic references are hip and clever. For each prospective foe, Miguel envisions their potential showdowns in the style of an iconic film or anime, including
Enter the Dragon, The Matrix, and One Punch Man.

Babylon 5: The Road Home

It has been thirteen years since the last Babylon 5 franchise property released, but the cast does not look like they have aged a day during the time that had elapsed. In fact, sometimes they look younger, depending on the alternate time line. That is the advantage of animating sequels. The airbrushing of wrinkles is remarkably effective. It also allows for the return of several characters whose original actors are now sadly deceased. If you were a fan of the 1990’s series, it should be far more appealing than another reboot that totally misses the point of the original. If you weren’t a fan, you might be a little confused but also intrigued by Matt Peters’ Babylon 5: The Road Home, written by series creator J. Michael Straczynski, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

Having saved the Babylon 5 station and pretty much the whole known universe during the Shadow War, John Sheridan (still voiced by original star, Bruce Boxleitner) is now the president of the Alliance. Leaving Babylon 5 is difficult, but it is required by his new position. However, his loving wife, Ambassador Delenn is still by his side (even though original thesp Mira Fulan is no longer with us).

Although Sheridan left without his “lucky socks” (a call-back for the fans), he forgot something more important. A time stabilization beam the annoying pseudo-hive mind alien Zathras aimed at Babylon 5, for Sheridan’s benefit, after his previous misadventure with time travel. When the temporally-weakened Sheridan officially opens a new power station on Minbari, the tachyons untether him from his current time and dimension. As he jumps between alternate times and realities, he is drawn back to the Shadow War, but at much more dire junctures than his timeline ever witnessed.

Straczynski devises with some interesting time travel twists, based on quantum mechanics. The “observer effect” and entanglement get a good deal of calling out, in ways that make sense and move the story along. There is also a good deal of fan service, including Sheridan fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Sheridan’s first season predecessor, originally played by the late Michael O’Hare).

Monday, August 14, 2023

Dead Shot, The IRA Running Amok in 1975 London

The IRA could pretend their members were motivated by their Marxist ideology, but they were usually moved by much more personal considerations, like religion, revenge, or the approval of an abusive father. For Michael O’Hara, it is all about revenge. He is determined to find and kill the soldier who accidentally shot his pregnant wife, but his quest for vengeance is disillusioning rather than radicalizing in Tom Guard & Charles Guard’s Dead Shot, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

O’Hara had retired into exile, but he returned to Northern Ireland for his pregnant wife Carol’s delivery. Unfortunately, Tempest’s unit had the drop on him, but during the heat of the moment, he sees movement in the backseat of O’Hara’s car and squeezes off three rounds right between Carol’s eyes. It is a propaganda disaster, but Holland, the mysterious deep-state scary guy, promises to protect Tempest from prosecution if he joins his new task force. They will be chasing IRA terrorists in London, using the weapons and tactics of the battlefield. They will need them, because Keenan, a highly placed IRA leader, plans to escalate violent attacks on British civilians.

Although presumed dead, O’Hara is itching to find Tempest. Keenan dangles intel on the reassigned soldier as bait, forcing him to reluctantly assist a campaign of terror increasing directed at civilian targets. It does not sit well with O’Hara or “Catherine the Courier,” who has particularly personal history with Keenan.

The poster for
Dead Shot makes it look like a run-of-the-mill VOD action movie, but it rather more thoughtful than that. In many ways, it is a lot like the Dutch series The Spectacular, except it is set in London rather than the Benelux countries. It is a grim and gritty revenge thriller that critiques the ruthlessness of both Holland and Keenan, but the latter probably gets it somewhat worse than the MI-666 shark. Think what you will, but on some level, Holland is a professional, who makes decisions unclouded by emotions.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Billion Dollar Heist: The Bangladesh Central Bank Job

This is not just a true crime documentary. It also raises national security issues. The “Lazarus Group,” the hacking operation considered to be responsible for the 2016 hacking of the Central Bank of Bangladesh, has often been linked by cybersecurity experts to North Korea. Weirdly, this film never mentions those ties, but there is no debating the hackers got away with $81 million dollars from the Central Bank and they very nearly stole considerably more—just under a billion. Filmmaker Daniel Gordon and his cast of cybersecurity experts break down the caper and the dumb luck that prevented far worse losses in Billion Dollar Heist, which release this Tuesday on demand.

The planning was deviously shrewd. The hackers hit the Central Bank of Bangladesh on Friday, when most offices in the Muslim nation were already closed. They forged electronic instructions to withdraw Bangladesh’s currency from the Federal Reserve over the weekend, when nobody would be in the office. Then they transferred the loot to a branch bank in the Philippines, which be hard to contact on Monday, due to the Chinese New Year festivities.

The hackers almost got away with nearly one billion dollars, but they were undone by a typo and the coincidence of choosing a bank in Manila located on a street that shared its name with a company on the sanctions watch list. Ironically, they could have stolen quite a bit more, had they just been a little more patient.

Gordon and his on-camera experts never suggest the Lazarus Group was acting in concert with North Korea, but they argue the length of time needed to explore and hack the Bangladesh Central Bank’s system (perhaps even a full year to finally reach the bank’s Federal Reserve-dedicated terminal) would have required state support. They also suggest a large group of gamblers from Macau deliberately supplied a distraction and cover for the Lazarus team laundering the money through a Filipino mega-casino—so there’s that too.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Reinventing Elvis, on Paramount+

Steve Binder has an unusual distinction. He directed two TV specials that now have their own feature documentaries. One was the Stars Wars Holiday Special that really shouldn’t have been a holiday special. The other was the Elvis Comeback Special, which “Col.” Tom Parker wanted to be a Christmas special, but Presley and Binder had other ideas. They won the artistic battles and were vindicated by the special’s smashing success. John Scheinfeld chronicles the behind-the-scenes drama and analyzes the special’s legacy in Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback, which premieres Tuesday on Paramount+.

Baz Luhrmann’s
Elvis did a nice job covering the Comeback Special, which might have helped usher Reinventing Elvis through the pre-production process. When it first aired, it was titled Singer Presents…Elvis, but now it is known as The ’68 Comeback Special. Regardless, Singer sewing machines was the lead sponsor. Admittedly, they do not sound very rock & roll, so maybe we can understand why Parker thought they wanted Christmas carols. However, the rest of America and Steve Binder wanted the old dangerous, gospel and country loving rock & roll Elvis.

Parker is definitely the documentary’s villain. Scheinfeld’s graphic even label him as such. Presley is the “star” and Binder is the “hero.” Maybe not so coincidentally, Binder is also the executive producer. Regardless, he was definitely on the right side of history as far Presley fans are concerned and several of the dancers from the big production numbers all agree Binder was great to work with.

Of course, Presley was the star. Some of the talking heads make a good point when they argue the informal jam session performances Binder filmed were a precursor to
MTV Unplugged. It is also cool to see the great Scotty Moore getting shout-outs from the King. One thing is certain—there is no arguing with the effectiveness and screen presence of Presley’s black leather jump suit. It did make him sweat, but it sounds like his female fans thought that was a good thing.