Saturday, September 30, 2023

Django, on Netflix

He still comes to town dragging a mysterious casket, but this time, the spaghetti western legend carries a lot more emotional baggage. Much of it is guilt stemming from the fate of his long-lost daughter Sarah, his only surviving family member. They will soon be reunited, rather awkwardly, in co-creator-writers Leonardo Fasoli & Maddalena Ravagli’s ten-part series reboot Django, which premieres tomorrow on Netflix.

This time around, “Django” (the totally unremarkable, everyday alias he adopted) is a veteran of the Confederate army rather than the Union Blue. Eventually, we learn he only signed up for the enlistment bonus he thought he needed for his desperately poor family. Unfortunately, war changed Django, so he decided to stay away when it ended. Tragically, he learned too late his family needed his protection.

He has followed a lead to New Babylon, a town of mostly freedmen that looks like it was built by Ewoks. The leader, John Ellis, has been feuding with the ultra-judgmental “Lady” Elizabeth, who is leads a gang of marauding moralizers in the neighboring town. They have some very personal history together, which is partly why her Pops deeded the land for New Babylon to Ellis.

Despite their considerable age difference, Ellis is engaged to Sarah. It is a bit off-putting to some, considering he raised her like a daughter after the tragedy-to-be-revealed-later, especially to his son Seymour, who carries his own slightly incestuous torch for Sarah. Initially, she resents Django’s sudden reappearance, but he is quite helpful saving the good citizens of New Babylon from Elizabeth’s goons.

best approximates the neo-spaghetti Western it wants to be through its multinational co-production funding structure. English was probably the fourth or fifth language you would have most likely heard on set, even though it is an English-language production (albeit with considerable over-dubbing). However, it lacks the stark archetypal emotional simplicity of real vintage spaghetti westerns. When it is all said and done, there is practically nothing about Django that we won’t know. For this genre, that kind of over-sharing is annoying.

Fasoli and Ravagli build to a revelation linking the two families that is supposed to be grandly tragic but is really just contrived. However, the climactic gun fight in episode ten is a real barn-burner that partially makes up for all the slow brooding (yes, that is when the you-know-what finally comes out).

Matthias Schoenaerts (
Bullhead) has the right quiet hulking presence for Django (was his name-O), but he must spend more time on daddy issues than gunning down bad guys. Nicholas Pinnock has a convincing swagger and wears the mantle of flawed moral authority quite well as the senior Ellis. However, Lisa Vicari consistently kills any momentum the series might have built up with her whiny portrayal of Sarah. Noomi Rapace maybe fairs even worse. She is cartoony in the wrong kind of way as Lady Elizabeth.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Crazy Fun Park, on Hulu

Right, what could possibly go wrong in an abandoned amusement park? Frankly, the neighboring Australian town has been downright negligent by not razing this deathtrap. Every year, more curious kids are fatally lured to the park—and it is easy to see why. Unfortunately, Chester Dante’s lifelong best friend Mapplethorpe Landis will be the latest casualty. However, Dante’s grief is alleviated when he learns Landis’s spirit is still there. They all are. It turns out the ghost-park is indeed haunted in creator-writer Nicholas Verso’s ten-part Crazy Fun Park, which premieres Sunday on Hulu.

It sure sounds like these two friends were named after 1980’s horror filmmakers, Joe Dante and John Landis, doesn’t it? (The second episode is titled “One of Us,” so there’s a
Freaks reference too). Regardless, Mapplethorpe Landis is as annoying as his unlikely name. For years, they have worked on their epic zombie comic, but from what we can tell, Dante the artist is the one with the talent, whereas Landis the writer just keeps making up outlandish stuff, off the top of his head. Lately, Dante is starting to wonder if maybe he should start to grow up. In a further healthy development, he is also beginning to show an in girls, especially since Violletta Nakata moved to town.

Initially, all three explored Crazy Fun Park together, but later Landis returned on his own. It was the first night the lads ever had a row—and it is his last to draw living breath. Of course, Dante is wracked with guilt, but when he returns to the scene of the accident, the ghostly Landis has some reassuring news for him. The problem is Remus, the sinister leader of the spectral gang, is a stickler for enforcing the “rules” government ghostly interactions with humans (unless they are not in his interests). Dante will literally play his games and abide by his rules. As his grades nosedive, everyone starts worrying about Dante, particularly his parents and Nakata. Meanwhile, Remus manipulates Dante and Landis to serve his own schemes.

Most of the ghosts are “nice” in
Crazy Fun Park, but it is still more horror than comedies like Topper and the like, albeit in a R.L. Stine-writing-for-his-younger-readers kind of way. Justin Holborow definitely has the right Kiefer-Sutherland-in-Lost-Boys-thing going on as Remus, which helps a lot.

Farhadi’s Dancing in the Dust

Nazar is divorcing out of immaturity—both his own and that of Iranian society. Sadly, he truly loves his young wife, Reyhane, but his parents and friends insist on the divorce, because her mother is rumored to be a sex-worker. Of course, they do not use the term “sex worker” in early 2000’s Iran. Nazar’s lack of responsibility makes everything worse in Asghar Farhadi’s freshly restored debut feature, Dancing in the Dust, which releases today on VOD.

Nazar borrowed money to marry Reyhane and he still owes her mother a dowry. Thanks to the divorce his parents insisted on, he is now deeply in debt, with nothing to show for it. To avoid his creditors, he even sleeps at the zoo, where he works mucking out stalls, as one good whiff will confirm.

That all sounds very much like the Farhadi of
A Separation and The Salesman, a filmmaker who has come to specialize in the emotionally harrowing intersection of intimate family drama and the unyielding Iranian legal system and the surrounding social prejudices. However, Dust takes an un-Farhadi-like excursion into feverish absurdity, when Nazar stows away in the van of an old venomous snake-catcher (who was making a sales call at the zoo). A few hours later, Nazar wakes in the arid plains, where he must contend with the angry snake-dealer.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Muzzle: K-9 Officers Fighting Fentanyl

Chinese exports have fallen drastically recently, except their illicit fentanyl trade. One brave LAPD officer will be killed trying to fight a gang of Mainland-connected fentanyl traffickers. He happened to have four legs, but as a K-9 officer, he is due the same honors as his two-legged colleagues. Naturally, his partner-handler is keen to avenge him in John Stalberg Jr.’s Muzzle, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Of course, Officer Jake Rosser has PTSD, because every veteran character must have PTSD. Hollywood simply refuses to consider any other aspect of the military service experience. Fortunately, partnering with Ace has been therapeutic for Rosser. Consequently, when Ace is murdered in the line of duty, Rosser starts spiraling downward again.

According to the autopsy, Ace was really killed by fentanyl poisoning, not the injuries he sustained from the fugitive drug dealer. Even though Rosser is suspended pending a clean psych evaluation, he starts following the leads back to a new fentanyl gang, with convenient connections to a Chinese pharmaceutical company. He also starts training a new partner.

Rosser can relate to Socks. She was badly mistreated by her last handler, whose identity is shrouded by an Internal Affairs investigation. Socks will be more of a project than Leland, the department’s senior trainer, recommends for Rosser, but they quickly form a bond. Rosser also deduces Socks’ murky past involves the same fentanyl gang that killed Ace.

Muzzle is considerably darker than Turner & Hooch, since there is an Old Yeller moment within the first ten minutes. Yet, we get to know Ace sufficiently well for his funeral, with full departmental honors, to be darned emotionally crushing. Screenwriter Carlyle Eubank never cops out or opts for easy sentimentalism. This is a tough, gritty police story that features K-9 cops on nearly equal footing with their human counterparts. It also has the honesty and guts to call out China for its role in the fentanyl trade.

[Empty] Head Count

Periodically, local jurisdictions wanting to get tough on crime have tried to reinstate chain gangs, until the professional criminal advocacy groups threaten to sue. Admittedly, this penal practice looks pretty dangerous when an unseen wild animal (straying far outside its natural habitat) starts feasting on the line. However, our anti-hero takes the opportunity to escape, leaving his chain-mates to their fate (they were fine, mostly), in Ben & Jacob Burghart’s Head Count, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Technically, Deputy Sawyer saved Kat’s life. He repaid him by stealing his police cruiser. He still has the leg iron, minus the chain, but folks don’t seem to notice or care much around the Kansas-Missouri border. In fact, he rewards the friendly encouragement of one old timer by stealing his pick-up, which conveniently comes with a revolver. The Burgharts will make a big show out of the running total of bullets he has chambered. Keep in mind, reloading is always an option.

Turns out Kat is a terrible fugitive. He keeps hanging around his brother and his ex-girlfriend, Jo much to the annoyance of her current man. Even dumb old Deputy Sawyer can find Kat, but instead of arresting him, he forces him to steal from an illegal gun dealer.

Frankly, the most memorable work in
Head Count, which really ought to be called “Bullet Count,” comes from Ryan Kwanten as Sawyer, which is saying something. Unfortunately, it is almost immediately evident Aaron Jakubenko cannot carry this film, partly because Kat is such a dull and unappealing character. There is a late, third act attempt to bolster sympathy for him, but it still involves foolish behavior and stupid choices.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Hunt for Raoul Moat, in The Epoch Times

There will always be criticism of drama based on true crimes, but BritBox's THE HUNT FOR RAOUL MOAT generally gets the right balance between the suspense of the chase and elegiac sympathy for Moat's victims, including the cops he deliberately targeted. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Nightmare, on Shudder

Slam some coffee or Mountain Dew and try to sleep as little as possible. That is the health advice we regularly get from horror movies, so it only seems prudent to follow it. Seriously, sleep paralysis and night terrors will get you every time. Mona definitely suffers from such disorders, but with demonic complications in screenwriter-director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s Nightmare, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

Mona and her boyfriend Robby just bought their own apartment, surprisingly cheap. Why yes, somebody died there, but the details are vague. The neighbors are also rather high-strung and it isn’t just the stress of having a new born. Unfortunately, all that distress seems to migrate to Mona after the mother’s suicide.

It is hard for Mona to discuss her nightmares with Robby, partly because he is an insensitive idiot, but also because it is his dark doppelganger who terrorizes her dreams. Sleep specialist Aksel Bruun has seen it before. In fact, he saw it when he tried to treat Mona’s neighbor. His sleep clinic is state of the art, but for a medical man, he is strangely well versed in the lore of Mare, the nightmare demon.

distinguishes itself from other sleep paralysis horror movies with its sinister demonic twist. These aren’t just creepy guys in hats. Dennis Storhoi is also terrific as Bruun, playing him in the Peter Cushing tradition of doctors fighting evil supernatural forces, but with more Scandinavian reserve.

Herman Tommeraas also gives off the right bad John-Cassavetes-in-
Rosemary’s Baby vibes as Robby. There is something about him that feels off, beyond his being a Millennial. However, Eili Harboe just doesn’t connect as Mona to the extent she did playing the title character in Joachim Trier’s Thelma.

Saturn Bowling

Maybe Armand (not really Jr.) would have been less violent if hockey had been his estranged father’s sport. Instead, Armand (not really Sr.) was all about hunting and bowling. Admittedly, the latter should be rather peaceful, but his illegitimate son makes it lethally dangerous when he takes over management of his late father’s late-night bowling lane in Patricia Mazuy’s Saturn Bowling, which apparently currently playing in New York (instead of opening this Friday, as previously scheduled).

Guillaume would like to keep Saturne (en français) Bowling open, but he is already plenty busy as police detective on the fast-track to advancement. His illegitimate brother Armand would be the logical choice to manage it, even though they were never close (as per their father’s wishes), but Armand must respect a few traditions. Their dad’s dog will still have the run of the place, as will his hunting buddies. Guillaume eventually agrees, because he has no other prospects, but the old cantankerous coots really rub him the wrong way.

The advantage of a nightlife spot like Saturne Bowling is it provides Armand an opportunity to hit on women. When he finally convinces one to come up to his apartment above the lanes, he beats her to death in a horrifyingly violent scene. Seriously, it is more disturbing than anything I have seen in the last year’s worth of horror movies, so consider yourself cautioned.
 Of course, he will do it again—and it will be Guillaume’s job to catch him.

Mazuy definitely displays an unflinching commitment to explore the dark side of human nature, but it is often so busy being dark, it neglects the work necessary to be suspenseful. When it is shocking, it is truly shocking, but the rest of the time, it is just dark and seedy. That atmosphere certainly gives the film a strong flavor, but it does not build or compound towards a worthy finish.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Heist 88, on Showtime

Contemporary caper movies clearly suggest computerization made the banking system more susceptible to hacking-savvy thieves. Yet, the truth is the greatest vulnerabilities in a security system are the spots that require human touches. Jeremy Horne is a master at exploiting those human weaknesses. In 1988, Chicago’s largest bank was on the verge of computerization, but that left just enough time for Horne to try to pull off a big score in Manhaj Huda’s Heist 88, which premieres Friday on Showtime (and Paramount+ with Showtime).

Horne (loosely inspired by the real-life Armand Moore) has already been convicted of fraud in Detroit, but before he must surrender himself, he jaunts down to Chicago for his brother’s memorial service. That night, he is super-interested to learn his nephew Marshall King, has several friends who work in the wire transfer department of a major bank, but they are all underpaid and under-appreciated. Of course, that gets Uncle Jeremy thinking.

They know the CFOs and money movers who frequently call to transfer money. Therefore, if they also know their codes (confirmed independently over the phone), they can transfer their funds. Horne just needs to arrange the right distractions to help facilitate the process. He also must maintain the trust of King and his friends, but that gets tricky when he keeps springing new accomplices on them. He does it anyway, because he wants to arrange a nice pay day for his old cronies, Buddha Ray and Bree Barnes. Plus, he will need their experience as fellow conmen.

There is a lot fun capery stuff in
Heist 88. There is also an intriguing time-capsule dimension, capturing the banking industry in a time of technological transition (which banking industry employees should particularly appreciate). This was the end of an era for an old school bluff-your-way-through crook like Horne.

Unfortunately, the social commentary is often intrusive and way off target. Seriously, 1988 was a great year for economic opportunity—for everyone in America, across the board. However, screenwriter Dwayne Johnson-Cochran makes it sound like the early 1930s. It is a shame, because it interrupts some great performances.

It is always cool to watch crafty character actors like Courtney B. Vance and Keith David do their things.
Heist 88 gives them both a good showcase to do exactly that, as Horne and Ray, respectively. Keesha Sharp (whom you hopefully do not recognize from Titanic 666) is also terrific as Barnes.

The Kill Room

Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word outraged the art world, because it exposed its increasingly postmodern ideas to the general population. Since then, the gallery world has become even more prone to trendy theories and irrational exuberance. Arguably, the hardest thing to believe in this satire is its success recruiting Pulp Fiction co-stars Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson to star in Nicol Paone’s The Kill Room, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Patrice Capullo’s gallery was on its last legs, largely thanks to her self-destructive behavior. However, thanks to a referral from her Adderall dealer, gangster and self-proclaimed Yiddish bialy-baker Gordon Davis offers he a money laundering deal she cannot refuse. Capullo will record sales of junky paintings they supply, funneling the “clean” money back to the gang’s account, minus her cut, without arising the IRS’s suspicions, because contemporary art prices defy all conventional logic. They just need physical paintings to keep things “legal.”

That job will fall to Reggie Pitt, the gang’s reluctant hitman, who decides to paint under his unofficial nickname, “The Bag Man,” a reference to his preferred technique, asphyxiation by plastic bag. At first, Pitt considers it a chore. However, when Capullo’s intern releases news of his first big “sale” to the gallery trades, suddenly every collector wants a Bag Man original.

The premise of
Kill Room is sort of like the art world variation of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers, except it could potentially take Capullo’s gallery to the lofty heights she always dreamed of. The problem is Davis’s “business associates” do not appreciate the sudden media attention. In fact, they hate it and fear it.

Jonathan Jacobson’s screenplay is cleverer than you would expect. The film also has the guts to make one of the villains a mysterious art-collecting Russian oligarch, who has a featured role to play in the climax.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Deliver Us, Co-Starring Alexander Siddig

They are the ultimate Cain and Abel brothers. One will be the Messiah and the other will be the Anti-Christ. Of course, the big question is who will be whom? A lapsing priest will protect them both, believing (or at least hoping) all of God’s children are born innocent in Cru Ennis & Lee Roy Kunz’s Deliver Us, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Father Fox is one of the Vatican’s most scholarly young priests, who also has an excellent record as an exorcist. However, he intends to renounce his vows, because he has fallen in love Laura “Kusic” (the press notes did not bother to supply her surname, but that is what it sounded like), an Estonian mining heiress, who is currently battling unfounded claims of water contamination. It seems the Devil very definitely works through environmental scare-mongering.

The Vatican browbeats Father Fox into accepting one last assignment. Supposedly, it will not be an exorcism, but rather a miracle vetting. Apparently, Sister Yulia is pregnant with twins, the immaculate way, of course. Learned Cardinal Russo, whose work Father Fox frequently cited in his own scholarship, has some theories as two who her unborn sons might be. Father Saul, from the ultra-righteous secret ecclesiastical society, Vox Dei, more-or-less confirms those theories when he attempts to abort both infants. However, the subsequent sacrilege Father Fox witnesses (whether real or a vision) makes him suspect Vox Dei hopes to subvert the Church rather than defend it.

With Kusic’s help, the Father and the Cardinal try to protect Sister Yulia and her babies, once they are delivered. Of course, “Father” Saul is hot on their trail—and the Anti-Christ is apparently trying to assist him. Meanwhile, a series of freakish environmental events seemingly herald the End of Days.

Deliver Us
has some decent Catholic-themed demonic horror, which will strongly resonate with Catholic faithful who are frustrated with the state of the Church in Rome. Father Saul warns us the Anti-Christ will come when people feel furthest from the Church. Those are eerily frightening words, particularly coming at a time when the Pope has turned his back on faithful shepherds, like Cardinal Jospeh Zen of Hong Kong, cutting a deal with his oppressors, the CCP, which undermines the Church’s autonomy, instead—but perhaps I digress.

However, it often feels like Ennis, Kunz, and co-screenwriter Kane Kunz try to have things both ways to maximize the scares. Maybe one of the infants is not necessarily destined for evil, until they need him to start implanting temptations and
Scanners-style pain in people’s heads. This film already has so many archetypal hooks—a little less would have ended up being a little more.

Regardless, Alexander Siddig is terrific as Cardinal Russo, both at his erudite start and his apocalyptic finish. He really is an under appreciated genre character actor (and occasional romantic leading man). Co-director Lee Roy Kunz has a Jared Leto thing going on as Father Fox that mostly works for the film. In fact, if you are a fan of Leto, it should be easy to pretend you are watching him.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Gangnam Zombie, on DVD

One of the worst things about zombie outbreaks is the negative impact on property values. We’re supposed to loathe a character in this Korean zombie movie for thinking that way, but it is hard to deny her logic. The re-sale value of her mixed-use office building-upscale shopping center will plunge rather steeply in Lee Su-seong’s Gangnam Zombie, which releases Tuesday on DVD And BluRay.

It all starts with a feral cat (they really are nasty creatures). The small-time crook it infects stumbles all the way to Seoul’s Gangnam district, eventually entering a building sort of like the Deutsche Bank Center (formerly Time Warner). Likeable Hyun-seuk works there, but he isn’t getting paid by his slimy boss, who is trying to build a knock-off “Funny or Die” viral prank video channel. Business is bad, but Hyun-seuk does not want to go home to the countryside, because he carries a torch for his sexually harassed co-worker, Min-jeong.

Fortunately for all his co-workers, Hyun-seuk was an alternate for the national taekwondo team, so he can fight zombies from a safer distance using his jump-kicks. He will do his best to save everyone, even their Scrooge-like landlady, who is always complaining about poor people’s lack of manners and hygiene.

It is fitting some of
Gangnam Zombie takes place in a mall, because Dawn of the Dead obviously looks like an inspiration for Lee, especially in terms of its class-conscious social commentary. Frankly, some of the landlady’s dialogue is absolutely laughable—in the wrong way, from Lee’s perspective.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Relax, I’m from the Future, Co-Starring Julian Richings

Maybe science fiction has done us a disservice, filling our heads with unnecessarily dire warnings regarding the space-time continuum and time paradoxes. Perhaps if we ever achieve the means to time-travel, we should just take the opportunity to see famous bands before they started to suck and load up on collectibles. That is the approach lunkheaded Casper takes, but there is a decent chance he might be dangerously moronic in director-editor-screenwriter Luke Higginson’s Relax, I’m from the Future, which is now playing in New York.

Naïve Casper has obviously been blessed with good luck rather than brains. When he arrives through the time-portal thingy, fate delivers him to Holly, a hard-partying underachiever, who finds his future-talk amusing. Being a failed-activist millennial, she is sufficiently inconsequential to history, allowing her to serve as Casper’s front for placing sports bets (a lot of hockey, since they are in Canada) and buying lottery tickets.

Life becomes quite enjoyably meaningless for both, at least for a while. Unbeknownst to them, Doris, an enforcer from the future stationed in the current time-period, is always on the lookout for potentially disruptive time-travelers like Casper. Given his knowledge of cataclysmic future events, Casper is fairly confident he cannot mess things up too badly. However, his obsession with Percy Sullivan, a darkly cynical cartoonist, leads to trouble. In the future, Sullivan will be a popular cult icon for fans like Casper, who cannot resist crashing his “celebrated” suicide. Perversely, all that might change when Sullivan refuses to continue after Casper’s rude interruption.

The feature-length
Relax grew out of Higginson’s short, which focused on Casper fateful meeting with Sullivan. In fact, this is the point where the feature starts getting good. The first act is largely a hodge podge of Casper’s buffoonery and a lot of radically-charged whining from Holly and her fellow lesbian friends. In contrast, Casper’s dilemma as to what to do about a still-living Sullivan constitutes a rather clever and darkly comic time-travel problem, which continues to compound in increasingly outrageous ways.

Friday, September 22, 2023

The Irrational, on NBC

Dr. Alec Mercer is a behavioral psychologist, who often consults with the cops and FBI—sort of like Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald in Cracker, but with somewhat more social grace. He could hardly have any less. Mercer still has more than his share of baggage, but it is understandable, given the tragedy he lived through. Mercer will solve fresh crimes every week, while working on the season-long (presumably) mystery of the domestic terror bombing that left him badly burned in creator Arika Mittman’s The Irrational, which premieres Monday on NBC.

Mercer’s credo is people often act irrationally, but often in a perversely predictable kind of way. He came to mild prominence through his ability to predict seemingly erratic behavior, which obviously has handy law and order applications. His incisive mind is so Cumberbatch-Sherlock-like, even his FBI Agent ex-wife, Marissa will call him in on cases. However, in the pilot, it is the mayor who requests Mercer’s assistance.

Dylan Hayes, the son of a U.S. Senator, stands accused of murdering his girlfriend and the cops are not inclined to investigate much further, because he conveniently confessed. However, Mercer suspects it is a false confession generated by suggestions (possibly planted by the real murderer) and Hayes’s persistent survivor’s guilt, as the sole survivor of an IED attack in Iraq.

It is frustrating that the only veteran’s stories Hollywood is interested in telling invariably focus on PTSD. There is more to the military experience than that, such as courage, camaraderie, sacrifice, and many days, just plain boredom. However, Caleb Ruminer’s portrayal of Hayes and Mittman’s writing display a good deal of sensitivity towards veterans.

The second episode (out of three provided for review) directly references Putin’s assassination of Alexander Litvenenko with Polonium 210, which is reasonably gutsy. In “Dead Woman Walking,” a journalist investigating a Belarusian oligarch is dosed, most likely fatally, with Polonium, but she still has time to work with Mercer to catch the killer (who might not be much of a surprise, given the limited weekly cast of characters, but decidedly does not fit the typical profile of TV villains).

The same true for the third episode, “The Barnum Effect,” in which Marissa enlists Mercer’s help diagnosing the pilot presumed responsible for a fatal plane crash. Everyone wants to write him off as a suicidal annihilator, but Mercer keeps poking holes in their assumptions.

Meanwhile, Mercer is also delving into his own murky memories of the bombing that left visibly burn scars on his face. The alleged lone bomber is coming up for parole, but Mercer and his ex both suspect it was planned by a larger cabal.
  Throughout it all, he will have the assistance of his research assistants, Phoebe and Owen, who probably aren’t even making minimum wage for their efforts.

We do not know much about the two grad students yet (she has mother issues and he has difficulty expressing his emotions), but Molly Kunz and Arash DeMaxi have nice chemistry with series star Jesse L. Martin. Sometimes their vibe is a bit like the doctors doing rounds on
House M.D., but far, far less caustic.

Dark Asset, Starring Byron Mann and Robert Patrick

Sometimes, "super-soldier” programs turn out great, like with Captain America and sometimes they create monsters, as in Universal Soldier. The chip implant “John Doe” received definitely follows in the latter tradition. Even though he has the latest revised software, “Doe” still goes rogue anyway in Michael Winnick’s Dark Asset, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

The nefarious Dr. Cain hoped to show-off Cain’s augmentations to a visitor from “the agency,” but it is clear Agent Wilds has both ethical and practical reservations, even before “Doe” pulls off an incredibly violent escape. Apparently, the former Special Forces guinea pig managed to change his passcodes and Cain’s augmentations helped him do the rest.

Even though Cain’s financial backers, including the criminally bland former Senator Benson, have dispatched their early, sexier female “super-spies” to liquidate Doe, he still takes the time to chat up Jane in a hotel bar. In fact, he will tell the skeptical business traveler all the dirty secrets of Dr. Cain’s organization. Frankly, it is hard to see how he would know about so many other super-spies’ backstories, but he does. Regardless, you have to wonder why he thinks his crazy yarn will seduce the super-model looking woman. She can’t help wondering herself.

The basic premise is certainly familiar, but Winnick and co-scripter Terri Farley-Teruel try to dress it up with the pick-up line flashbacks. It is a little too cute and the twists are a bit too obvious. However, it is fun to see action genre vet Byron Mann get a starring role. He always has action cred, but it is also amusing to watch him smirk and charm his way through the courtship scenes with Helena Mattsson, playing Jane.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

From the Shadows, Starring Keith David

Dr. Amara Rowan is sort of like an academic Amazing Randi, who specializes in debunking supernaturally-themed cons. Frankly, four survivors of the Hidden Wisdom cult would be thrilled if she could debunk the heck out of the horrors they barely lived through. They have seen some things and Dr. Rowan will see some too in Mike Sargent’s From the Shadows, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Before their falling out, archaeologist Dr. Joseph Cawl launched the Hidden Wisdom cult with his more scientifically-rigorous colleague, Dr. Leonard Bertram. For a while, they promoted it through late night TV commercials, like an average cheesy self-help program, but there was something sinister at its core. Supposedly, Hidden Wisdom and Cawl went the way of Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians when the compound mysteriously went up in flames. However, four very scared cult-members survived and now they want to tell their story to Dr. Rowan, via online conferencing, from undisclosed locations.

Many of the survivors complain of seeing “Shadow People,” whom he audience can often spy moving furtively in corners of their video feeds. Of course, Dr. Rowan and her videographer Peter are skeptical, but they will be convinced when a hooded figure starts attacking the ex-Hidden Wisdomers, one-by-one.

Although Sargent’s budget was obviously severely constrained, he still manages to realize a respectably Lovecraftian vibe. The effects are not great, but the dark, claustrophobic locations help cover for them.

Neither Confirm Nor Deny: Project Azorian

There was a time when journalists were not inclined to take the government’s word for what constituted “disinformation.” Can you imagine what Jack Anderson would have thought about the Department of Homeland security working with social media sights to suppress news stories and opinions they didn’t approve of? Of course, because all ethical judgements are situational these days, many of the same cheerleaders for censorship will be happy Anderson broke the story of the CIA’s “Project Azorian” salvage mission. Regardless, there is no denying it was quite a story, which Philip Carter chronicles in the documentary, Neither Confirm Nor Deny, which releases tomorrow.

In 1968, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-129 (and its highly sensitive nuclear codes) sank somewhere in the Pacific (it was one of four subs that mysteriously sank that year, probably because of kaiju). In 1974, the CIA located it and hatched a Clive Cussler-worthy mission to recover it from the sea floor. Naturally, they wanted to keep their efforts secret from the Soviets, so they approached Howard Hughes to help create their cover story.

Supposedly, the CIA mission would appear to be a deep-sea mining initiative launched by Hughes Industry, which made sense because the reclusive tycoon had mining and nautical companies. He was also a little eccentric. Obviously, for the plan to work, the CIA had to maintain its secrecy, which meant keeping the operation out of the newspapers.

Perhaps the biggest, juiciest revelation in
NCND is the news that CIA director William Colby supplied Watergate dirt to Sy Hersh, who agreed to kill his story on Project Azorian in return. This comes directly from Hersh himself.

Throughout the film, Carter tries to intertwine Project Azorian with the Watergate scandal, but Hersh’s horse-trading with Colby is the most significant point of intersection. Quite inconveniently for the Agency, details of the operation broke during the time of the Church Committee hearings. However, it seems unfair in retrospect to lump Azorian in with the black ops the Committee was investigating. The off-the-books operation might have technically violate international salvage laws, but you could still argue it was a case of finders-keepers.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

It Lives Inside

Horror movies are inclusive. Demons of any faith or tradition can be just as deadly, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. In this case, it is a pishacha, a soul- and flesh-eating demon of Hindu lore, running amok. That the last thing Sam wants to think about is an embarrassing legend from her parents’ homeland. The Americanized high school student has no use for those old stories, until she finds herself fighting a pishacha in director-screenwriter Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside, which opens Friday in theaters.

Sam appreciates her father’s successful career focus and contemporary attitude, but her mother’s incessant emphasis on tradition is a constant source of angsty teen embarrassment. She also dropped her grade school bestie, Tamira because of her inability to assimilate. Unfortunately, Tamira has not been doing well lately, so their cool teacher, Joyce, hopes Sam can reach out. Instead, she is appalled to see Tamira is bedraggled and unkempt, schlepping around a ratty, stinky jar. The disturbed Tamira is such a threat to her nouveau popularity, Sam pushes her away, breaking her nasty mason jar—at which point very bad things happen.

It turns out pishacha are a bit like djinn. You can biottle them up, but they still need to be fed blood regularly, or else. Now that this one is loose, she must trap it again. The good news is Russ, the jock Sam has had her eye on, is willing to help her find Tamira. Presumably, the pishacha has her stashed somewhere, so it can feed off her, until it totally consumes her life force.

It Lives Inside
is a high-quality horror production that is further distinguished by its use of Hindu legend. There are several seriously creepy sequences, but the pishacha never quite reaches the sinister heights of the scariest movie demons, like King Paimon in Hereditary or Valak in The Conjuring 2. It is more akin to the Nosferatu-like Dracula in Last Voyage of the Demeter—though certainly creepy, it won’t inspire lasting nightmares.

Dutta’s screenplay is also unvaryingly dark and serious. These kids don’t have much snarky sarcasm, but, admittedly, for a lot of grownups, that will be a heck of a recommendation. Be that as it may, Megan Suri and Gage Marsh are terrific as Sam and Russ, especially in their scenes together. They are generally smart and engaging kids, which is another highly valid basis for recommending
It Lives Inside.

Roots of Fire: Modern Cajun/Creole Music

It turns out music will survive if people value it. In the late Les Blank’s recently re-released 1989 documentary, I Went to the Dance, it often feels like the audience is watching the end of an era for great Louisiana roots music. Then this film comes a long, like the response to its call, introducing us to a generation of younger musicians building on the foundation of their elders. Maybe nobody is getting rich, but Cajun and/or Creole music is alive and kicking in Abby Berendt Lavoi & Jeremy Lavoi’s Roots of Fire, which opens this week in theaters.

After years of being told to scrupulous differentiate between Creole and Cajun, the Lavois’ talking heads now come along a ask us to basically consider it all “French Music.” After all, the black accordion legend Amede Ardoin first recorded just about all the foundational Cajun standards in the 1920s—and then went on the perform with white violinist Dennis McGee, who is widely considered the original defining Cajun musician.

On-camera commentators like Musician Jourdan Thibodeaux also point out the Arcadians had already mixed to a large extent with indigenous Canadians, before the British expelled them from the Maritimes. As far as the musicians in the film are concerned, everyone who plays music in Southwest Louisiana share considerable cultural commonalities. There is a spirit of brotherhood expressed throughout the film, at least until someone mentions the English (which is fair enough, given Arcadian history).

Obviously, the music is good, because we see Cajun musician and record label producer Joel Savoy throw a shindig for three groups of local friends, who were all nominated for the Best Regional Roots Album Grammy in the same year. (None of them won, but that’s no reason to put a damper on a good party.) Clearly, Cajun musicians are not inclined to allow extraneous details detract from the music, considering Savoy still regularly plays with his ex-wife, fiddler Kelli Jones.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Sung Kang’s Shaky Shivers

Considering how many slashers were set in the 1980s, both back then and in recent retro homages, some Millennials might wonder how anyone managed to live through the Awesome Decade. Yet, the 1980s and early 1990s felt so much safer and more rational than our current times. Technically, this horror mash-up takes place in 1993, but its roots appropriately go back to the Eighties. All kinds of monsters get in on the act in Fast & Furious thesp Sung Kang’s feature directorial debut, Shaky Shivers, which has a special nationwide Fathom Events screening this Thursday.

Obviously, things are bad, judging from the in media res opening. Lucy seems to think she is a werewolf and we will have reason to suspect she is correct. It all goes back to the previous day. First, an incredibly annoying customer tried to redeem a coupon from 1987 at kindly old Bob’s ice cream shop, where she works at with her best friend, Karen (you could have a name like Karen in the 1990s, without feeling any irrational shame). Then a sinister hippish Earth Mother cultist demands free ice cream out of a sense of entitlement. When Lucy refuses, something bites her.

Fast-forward back to the prologue—and she’s a werewolf, but that will be the least of their problems during the sunlight. Lucy had Karen drive her out to the local summer camp that was closed under mysterious circumstances, to put an end to her lycanthropy, but her friend was not prepared for the madness in store for her. Before night falls again, they must contend with zombies, big foot, and a black magic cult.

Shaky Shivers
often feels like a monster-themed Mad Libs that was accidentally adapted for the screen, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kang definitely leans into the mayhem and embraces the messy joy of practical effects, but somehow, he manages to downplay and minimize actual physical violence.

The Origin of Evil

The Dumontets are rich and French, so it is no wonder they are litigious, even among themselves. Yet, they still live together. The prodigal daughter might even move in with them in. Lucky her. They are uncomfortable to be around, but there is still the rich part. Social climbing gets dangerous in Sebastien Marnier’s The Origin of Evil, which opens Friday in New York.

Stephane Marson is not exactly Serge Dumontet’s long-lost daughter, since he never bothered to look for her. However, once she suddenly presents herself, he realizes she might just be her father’s daughter (illegitimate or not). Naturally, she wants to keep her prison-inmate girlfriend a secret from her new “family.” However, the new Dumontet daughter might have even darker secrets, but maybe that is why old Serge takes a perverse liking to her.

Of course, it does not hurt that she annoys Serge’s proper daughter, George Dumontet (both daughters have men’s names, because that was a Serge thing). George is one last appeal away from wresting control of the family empire away from the old man. In the courtroom, his shopaholic wife Louise sides with George, but she largely maintains neutrality within their seaside villa, despite her tart tongue. She is even somewhat receptive to Serge’s surprise daughter. Obviously, with serious money at stake, things are going to get ugly.

will remind some viewers of vintage 1960s and 1970s Claude Chabrol—and not just because its French. This is a deliberately paced thriller that takes its time introducing its characters and their circumstances. It isn’t until about halfway through that Marnier and co-screenwriter Fanny Burdino unveil their first big twist, which definitely changes everything.

In fact,
Origin is a deliciously clever, in ways that earn comparison to films that would be spoilery to mention. One thing is safe to say: the Dumontet family sure is something.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Mark Cousins’ The Storms of Jeremy Thomas

If given a choice, an independent film producer like Jeremy Thomas would probably prefer to be the subject of a documentary helmed by an idiosyncratic auteur whose approach is always a little off-center. At least we can hope that is the case, because that is what he got. Whether viewers feel the same is an entirely different question. Regardless, the celebrated but not-necessarily household-famous producer gets his due in Mark Cousins’ The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, which opens Friday in New York.

How big is Thomas in the business? He produced Bernardo Bertolucci’s best picture-winning
The Last Emperor. Yet, Cousins devotes more screentime to Dom Hemingway and Young Adam that the epic story of Pu Yi, the boy emperor. We even see more from Thomas’s Oscar acceptance speech than from the movie itself. That should give you idea of Cousins’ highly subjective perspective.

Instead, he structures the documentary as a road movie, accompanying Thomas as he drives from his country cottage to Cannes, where his latest film is premiering, Takeshi Miike’s
First Love. Frankly, cineastes could probably eagerly devour a documentary solely devoted to Thomas’s collaborations with Miike, also including Blade of the Immortal, 13 Assassins, and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.

By the way,
Storms is not always safe for work, because Cousins’ second thematic chapter, “Sex,” does indeed show a lot of it. It isn’t inappropriate given Thomas produced Roeg’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, Cronenberg’s Crash, and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, but just keep this in mind if you want to stream Storm in an internet café later. Bizarrely, Last Emperor is also ignored during the subsequent chapter, “Politics,” even though the scenes of the Cultural Revolution cry out to be compared with those of the May 1968 protests in The Dreamers (same director, even).

Cousins only interviews a select handful of Thomas’s colleagues, none of whom are directors (one might wonder about his thoughts on that matter). In any event, we hear from Debra Winger (
The Sheltering Sky and the unmentioned Everybody Wins) and Tilda Swinton (Young Adam and Only Lover Left Alive), who is rather amusing to watch as she tries to justify Cousins’ choice of title to herself during one of their interview sequences.

Bad City, on DVD

Kaiko City is a fictional Japanese metropolis, but the way the criminals run the city will look very familiar to residents of Los Angeles and Chicago. Gangs might end up literally running the city if mobbed-up businessman Wataru Gojo wins the mayoral election. A secret task force is determined to take him and his Korean gangster allies down before than can happen in Kensuke Sonomura’s Bad City, which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Ordinarily, we probably wouldn’t mourn for the Sakurada Yakuza clan, but at least they were homegrown and conducted themselves by some sort of code. However, Gojo prompted Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi to take out the Sakuradas, because he thought they had evidence of their collusion with high-ranking government officials. It turns out he was wrong. The proof is still out there, but they still managed to greatly weaken a major rival.

Prosecutor Hirayama’s case against Gojo just collapsed, so he will try a more off-the-books approach with his new double-secret task force. Technically, it will be run by his former protégé from Public Safety, Kaori Koizumi. However, the driving force will be the Eastwood-esque Det. Makoto Torada, a disgraced cop doing time for a murder he did not commit. Supposedly, he killed the son of “Madam,” the figurehead boss of the Korean mafia, whom Kim ought to show more respect towards.

It is always rewarding to see a film about an old guy kicking butt—and brother, is that ever Torada’s specialty. Although he is not superhuman, his cussedness almost counts as a superpower. His withering stare could knock small birds out of the air. The trio of regular cops attached to the task force also compliment him nicely. There is the big, burly Kumamoto (elegantly nicknamed Kuma or “Bear”), Nishizaki (who is a bit squirrely, but has legit martial arts skills), and the naïve rookie Megumi.

Sonomura knows exactly what people want in a throwback Yakuza movie, so he never over-complicates things. There is a fair amount of intrigue and betrayal going on with the opposing gangs, but he makes sure it always boils over into street-fighting at regular intervals. Frankly, the big, blowout gang-wars are amazing sights to behold. They are absolutely brutal and deadly intense, but they are also messy, ugly, and sometimes downright clumsy, which is exactly how street fight look in real life.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Gale: Stay Away from Oz, on Chilling

How can a franchise that is all about witches not be horror? Disney inadvertently proved the point when their 1985 sequel Return to Oz freaked out a generation of kids. Finally, someone had the conviction to lean into the horror potential of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s books, in this short film that is obviously intended as a proof-of-concept prologue. Dorothy Gale’s granddaughter definitely isn’t in Kansas either, but she does not yet understand her family’s fantastical history in Daniel Alexander’s Gale: Stay Away from Oz, which premieres tomorrow on Chilling.

Emily Gale never knew she had a grandmother named Dorothy, until she discovered her ancestor’s notebook among her late mother’s things. However, she is hoping the woman might have some answers regarding the strange nightmares and visions that have plagued her, since her sessions with her analyst, Dr. North, have not helped much.

The nursing home director is definitely surprised to see her, but not necessarily in a bad way. Nevertheless, the visit with her strange grandmother raises more questions than answers. For instance, the elderly woman compulsively clicks her heels is disconcerting and her emphatic warning to “stay away from Oz” is even more disturbing.

So, what is going on? Of course, viewers might have a better idea than the younger Gale, since we can pick up on all the references to footwear. The Oz-isms are as heavy as those of any David Lynch film, but they always make sense within the narrative (screenplay credited to Matthew R. Ford and the story to Alexander). It certainly succeeds in intriguing viewers as to what a full feature could look like.

Karen Swan makes a suitably Dorothy Gale-like heroine as the innocent granddaughter Emily. However, the real star is Laura Bailey, who chews the scenery with relish as the mysterious Dr. North. Margaret Hamilton and Jean Marsh (from
Return to Oz) would definitely approve. Of course, it leaves much unanswered, which is its job as a teaser, but that will inevitably frustrate the sort of viewers who wants everything spelled out immediately.

looks great, especially for a scrappy, boot-strapping short. There is no question this is the freshest take on Oz since Return to Oz (that counts Wicked too). It is also pretty fitting, when you consider the 1939 film’s macabre behind-the-scenes reputation. Recommended for fans attuned to the dark side of Oz (the Emerald City rather than the prison), Gale: Stay Away from Oz starts streaming tomorrow (9/18) on Chilling.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

Robert Bloch is overdue for a retrospective film series somewhere, but for now, we’ll just have to keep waiting. At least viewers are reminded Hitchcock’s Psycho was (relatively faithfully) based on Bloch’s novel, which was largely inspired by the case of Ed Gein, a.k.a. “The Plainfield Ghoul.” Gein is considered the first modern American serial killer, even though he was only directly connected to two murders. For the first time ever, several forensic experts (and a few podcasters) finally hear Gein’s own voice on newly discovered police recordings in the four-part documentary special Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, directed by James Buddy Day, which premieres tomorrow on MGM+.

In 1957, the crimes Gein committed were truly shocking. Even in the jaded 2023 of today, they are still plenty disturbing, but we have been somewhat conditioned to their nature, by the movies he inspired.
Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were directly modeled on Gein and there is a little bit of him in Hannibal Lecter too.

Consequently, you might be able to imagine some of the horror investigators found at the Gein house. They were there because of his impulsive and not well-thought-out murder of Bernice Worden. What they found was a horror show of body parts, either strewn about his apartment and as well as housewares and clothing crafted out of skin and body parts. However, most of gruesome materials were plundered from the local cemetery. In fact, several of the talking heads understandably make a big deal that there was never a proper accounting of what Gein took from where.

Frankly, Gein’s voice on the titular long-lost tapes is rather underwhelming, in a maybe predictably banal way. Arguably, it is more interesting listening to his primary interviewer, Judge Boyd Clark, a nearby authority figure, who happened to own a portable tape-recorder. As a jurist, he might have found his questions to be leading. On the other hand, he remains remarkably calm, despite the absolutely ghastly circumstances, drawing out Gein to a surprising extent.

The empathy and respect for the victims expressed by several contemporary forensic experts and Gein biographers is also quite notable. In an awkward contrast, the jokey banter of the “Last Podcast on the Left” true crime bros often feels inappropriate. Generally speaking, the dramatic recreations are competent and sometimes evocative, with relatively little tackiness. However, some of the ironic archival stock footage incorporated to make the 1950s look silly and sinister reflects a questionable bias. We remember Gein because he was the first and a shocking anomaly. When someone commits similar crimes today, they barely rate a
Dateline special, so let’s stop pretending the 1950s were an era of terrifying violence.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Elis & Tom: The Artists and the Recording

To a large degree, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim’s career was defined by collaborations: albums recorded with Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Frank Sinatra, Edu Lobo, and Miucha as well as songs co-written with lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. One of his greatest collaborations nearly didn’t happen, but fortunately, there was a meeting of minds and hearts that resulted in an absolutely classic album. Filmmakers Jom Tob Azulay & Roberto de Oliveira explain the respective career arcs of Elis Regina and how they worked together on their eponymous Bossa Nova record in Elis & Tom, which releases today in Los Angeles.

It all started with record label executive Andre Midani, who wanted to do something special for Regina’s ten-year professional anniversary. At that time, she was far more commercial in Brasil than Jobim (thanks to her MPB records), but he was still Jobim, a worldwide jazz superstar and godfather of the Bossa Nova movement.

Initially, Regina and Midani merely intended Jobim to be a “special guest” on an album of his songs, but that is not how Tom Jobim rolled, Instead, started exerting far more control over their sessions than Regina expected. She nearly abandoned whole project, as her surviving colleagues explain in detail. Happily, for listeners, Regina and Jobim made peace with each other and Jobim made peace with Regina’s arranger, Cesar Camargo Mariano.

The film begins and ends with “Waters of March,” which seems fitting. Probably no more inscrutable song was ever penned, yet it is endlessly evocative of imagery and memories. Of course, Regina and Jobim caress it perfectly.

Azulay and de Oliveira incorporate restored 16mm footage of the rehearsals and recording sessions that are often revelatory. In some cases, the rehearsals might be even better than the final product. Despite being looser and rougher, they have that in-the-moment spark, reflecting Jobim’s jazz grounding.

Wilderness, on Prime

Marriage, ambition, commitment—in the real world these things all lead to happiness, stability, and success. However, in the new subgenre of post-Gone Girl “unreliable narrator” thrillers, these never contribute to happy endings. This time around, Olive “Liv” Taylor (not Tyler) will explain the source of her scorn to viewers and show us what she did about it in creator Marnie Dickens six-episode Wilderness, based on B.E. Jones’ novel, which starts streaming today on Prime.

Taylor’s home life was a mess growing up, but she thought she was past all that when she married the well-heeled, socially-ingratiating Will Taylor. She even agreed to sideline her journalism career when his hospitality company transfers him to New York. It is a sacrifice, but it comes with the bonus of much more distance between her and her high-strung mother Caryl. Then Taylor discovers her husband cheated on her.

Of course, he makes all the usual excuses and prevarications: it didn’t mean anything, it was a one-time thing, blah blah blah. She sort of maybe believes him, until she discovers it was even worse than she thought. Nevertheless, she agrees to his suggestions of a healing dream vacation to Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and other big western marvels of nature. However, she starts harboring homicidal ambitions, as she relentlessly explains in the ponderously overwritten narration.

would have been a lot more fun if it went for a Hitchcockian vibe rather than emulate the Adrian Lyne-style of sexual thriller exemplified by Deep Water and Fatal Attraction. Dickens’ adaptation (assisted by Matilda Feyisayo Ibini for episode four) cannot seem to decide whether viewers should wish a plague on everyone’s houses or root for Liv Taylor, who increasingly displays sociopathic tendencies, especially as innocent people get swept up in the chaos she unleashes.

However, the extent to which
Wilderness humanizes and even empathizes with Cara Parker, “the other woman,” adds a surprisingly interesting dimension. In fact, Ashley Benson’s portrayal of Parker might be the best thing going for this series. Eric Balfour (the CTU freelancer who used to date Chloe on 24) is probably the second best thing, playing her clueless boyfriend, Garth. Unfortunately, though, we spend must more time with the Taylors, for obvious reasons.