Sunday, December 31, 2023

Magnum P.I.: Series Finale, on NBC

The corruption of one of Hawaii’s governors should not surprise anybody. In this instance, he has been thoroughly compromised by a highly organized blackmail operation. However, Magnum and Higgins must first work another case before they can get to the blackmailers in the back-to-back episodes that conclude the fifth and final season of Magnum P.I. this Wednesday on NBC.

Initially, “Ashes to Ashes” starts out as a tragedy. TC Calvin’s firefighter girlfriend Mahina is quite distraught over a death she was not able to prevent. To make matters worse, the victim’s niece has fallen under suspicion, but Mahina is convinced she is innocent of Uncle Moku’s presumed death-by-arson, so TC calls in a favor from Magnum.

Thanks to some legwork accompanied by snappy romantic banter, the he and Higgins quickly determine the body was not Uncle Moku, but rather an already deceased corpse stolen from a nearby mortuary. That means the real Moku could still be alive, but he would necessarily be in grave danger.

“Ashes to Ashes” features some solid procedural stuff, but the secondary storyline, chronicling “Kumu” Tuileta’s first day volunteering with Rick Wright at a veteran’s helpline is far more memorable. As you might expect, events take a dramatic turn in the tradition of
The Slender Thread. Magnum P.I. is (or rather was) one of the few television/streaming shows featuring veteran characters who are not solely defined by their PTSD. However, in this case, the PTSD storyline is handled with sensitivity and empathy. It is also a great feature spot for series regular Amy Hill as Tuileta.

At one point in “Ashes to Ashes” Magnum and Higgins cut some legal corners for the sake of justice that will have repercussions in “The Big Squeeze.” Unbeknownst to them, they were recorded by henchmen working for Sam Bedrosian, a returning villain from four episodes ago, who uses it as leverage against the detectives. He needs them to solve the murder of the man responsible for his blackmail operation. Obviously, they cannot involve the cops, but their friend Det. Gordon Katsumoto catches wind of it anyway.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Twilight Zone: The Obsolete Man

When The Shift released in theaters, some critics were scandalized by the very notion of Evangelical science fiction. Yet, some of the best science fiction of all-time has been shaped by Christian faith, including novels by C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Gene Wolfe, and Walter M. Miller Jr. Viewers could also see legit Christian-themed sf during the Golden Age of Television, including “The Bitter Storm” episode of Tales of Tomorrow. However, one of the greatest examples came from an unimpeachable liberal, Rod Serling, who wrote “The Obsolete Man,” one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, which airs tomorrow as part of SyFy’s annual Twilight Zone New Year’s marathon.

Before “Time Enough at Last” (the post-apocalyptic tale of the bibliophile who breaks his glasses) Burgess Meredith starred as Romney Wordsworth, a former librarian who has been declared “obsolete” now that books are illegal. After a nearly two-year investigation, he has been sentenced to death, but he is granted permission to choose the particulars.

Even during his initial hearing, Wordsworth directly invokes his faith in a Christian God, whereas the Chancellor openly expresses admiration for Hitler and Stalin. Later in the episode, Wordsworth invites the militantly atheist Chancellor to visit him during his final moments, to listen to him read the Psalms. That was not what the Chancellor had in mind, but Wordsworth turns the tables on him, thanks in part to his carpentry skills. Get the significance—he is also a carpenter.

“The Obsolete Man” is one of the most under-appreciated
Twilight Zone episodes and one of the greatest dystopian science fiction productions of any length. Meredith is genuinely inspiring as Wordsworth and Fritz Weaver perfectly channels the mindset of statist extremists. As the Chancellor grows more desperate, he truly shows the oppressive bully to be a coward at heart.

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Perfect Murderer, on Eurochannel

Kamenar is a homicide detective with a death wish. Even after a lifetime dealing with death, he was unprepared when it came for his family. This case might finally kill him, or possibly lead him towards redemption when he finds himself protecting his late daughter’s estranged friend in Jozsef Pacskovszky’s The Perfect Murderer, which premieres tomorrow on Eurochannel.

Both Kamenar and his wife have essentially given up on life. He is daring every criminal in Budapest to kill him, whereas she is about to enter a convent. Much to his surprise, he discovers his daughter’s former bestie Petra is the prime suspect in a murder. CCTV has her entering the luxury flat before the murder and exiting after, which is a bad look for her. Indeed, his colleague refers to her as, you know, “the perfect murderer.” However, he soon discovers another deleted access to the security system.

For a while, it looks like Kamenar might just keep Petra a captive in his “new” bachelor pad. Yet, he will become her protector when parts of her story check out. In fact, she most likely scratched the real killer, who is presumably out to get them both. He will need someplace secure to hide her, like a nunnery.

Perfect Murderer
looks and sounds like it has the makings of a fiendishly twisty thriller, but the ho-hum plotting is predictable and the execution is rather flat. It is easy to guess who the surprise villain is, due to the small cast of characters and Mr. X’s conspicuously weird behavior. Perhaps his predatory pursuit of his implied sexuality also possibly says something about Orban’s Hungary.

By far, the best thing
Perfect Murderer has going for it is craggy Zsolt Laszlo’s incredibly hard-nosed performance as Kamenar. He is all grizzled gristle, but, somehow, he makes it believable when Kamenar becomes Petra’s guardian angel. Nora Horich is a convincing hot-mess as the endangered witness. Plus, Gyozo Szabo also adds rumpled grit as Kamenar’s schlubby but possibly dangerous rival, Szabo Ormos.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

I Am Burt Reynolds, on CW

You do not get to be the biggest movie star of all time if people don’t like you. In his prime, everyone felt a friendly connection to Burt Reynolds, because he seemed like such a fun guy. That was also reflected in his movies—perhaps a little too much. He made a lot of bad ones, but it is sad to think we won’t have any new Burt Reynolds movies ever again. The “last movie star’s” personal and career ups and downs are chronicled in Adrian Buitenhuis’s I Am Burt Reynolds, which premieres Saturday on CW.

If it were not for a career-ending injury, this documentary might have been on ESPN instead. Reynolds assumed football would make him a star. Instead, a drama teaching cast him in a play. That landed him stage work in New York, which led to television and eventually films.

Even at the start, Reynolds’ filmography was what you might describe as inconsistent, but there were always bright spots. Buitenhuis and company spend a good deal of time on John Boorman’s
Deliverance, which was the film that made him a star. If Reynolds had accepted more roles like that, his career might more resembled that of Jon Voight, who discusses the film and Reynolds in great detail. The film also calls out the grossly underrated Sharky’s Machine as an example of Reynolds’s talent as a director. Had he pursued more such opportunities, his career might have somewhat parallelled that of Clint Eastwood. Instead, Reynolds opted to continue being the biggest movie star of all time and the #1 box office draw in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Some of those movies are still pretty bad, but some, like Hal Needham’s
Smoky and the Bandit, remain action-comedy classics. With good reason, Needham, Reynolds’ friend and fellow-stuntman-turned director plays an important role in I Am Burt Reynolds (previously, their friendship was the subject of the terrific doc, The Bandit). Arguably, his loyalty to Needham worked out relatively okay for Reynolds, but evidently others amused the actor’s generosity. Of course, he had his share of tabloid-fodder relationships. Buitenhuis does not even address his romance with Dinah Shore, instead focusing on Sally Field and to a greater extent Loni Anderson, especially their lavish wedding and acrimonious divorce.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Princess Anne: The Plot to Kidnap a Royal, on BritBox

In 1974, the UK allocated shockingly few resources to Royal protection. They got a whole lot more than they paid for on the fateful day of March 20th when a lone wolf tried to abduct Princess Anne. The men who foiled the brazen attack relive their courageous actions in Princess Anne: The Plot to Kidnap a Royal, directed by Laurence Turnbull, which premieres tomorrow on BritBox.

There have been other documentaries and news specials on Ian Ball’s unlikely scheme, but this one is particularly proud of the scale model it commissioned. It certainly took Chief Superintendent Jim Beaton back to the scene of the crime. At the time, the junior inspector was Princess Anne’s protection officer—her only protection officer, armed solely with a small Walther PPK that jammed as soon as he started firing. There was no escort and no back-up to help Beaton once Ball pulled in front of the Princess’s Rolls. If you are wondering how Ball knew where she would be, he simply called Buckingham Palace and they told him.

Beaton took three bullets protecting the Princess. Ball also shot the chauffeur, another policeman responding to the noise, and a very drunk journalist who also rushed to the aid of Royal Rolls. However, Ball finally met his match when Ronnie Russell, a former boxer who trained at a club sponsored by the Krays, arrived on the scene.

Although they are very different chaps, Beaton and Russell are admirable examples of the British character at its finest. The modest Beaton speaks with complete authority calmly explaining what went down and how, while Russell’s colorful commentary is highly entertaining. The scale model is all very nice, but Beaton and Russell are the real reasons to watch
Plot to Kidnap a Royal.

The Dyatlov Pass Mystery, the Graphic Novel

It is a shame the original Leonard Nimoy-hosted In Search of… never “investigated” the strange deaths of the nine Soviet hikers known as the “Dyatlov Pass Incident,” because it would have been a perfect thematic fit for the series. However, many of the relevant records were sealed until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since then, there have been many books and documentaries that offered speculation, but nobody has conclusively solved the case. Many theories informed Jando & Mayen (artist Gonzalez Jandro & writer Cedric Mayen)’s graphic novel, but the truth remains elusive in The Dyatlov Pass Mystery, which goes on-sale today in e-book formats.

Ten experienced hikers set off into the Ural Mountains in January of 1959. One got sick and turned back. The other nine died. Officially, the cause of death was hypothermia, but some bodies showed signs of extreme violent trauma—and just as mysteriously some did not. The KGB has recruited honest police officer Lev Nikitch Ivanov to solve the case and do it quickly (so as not to distract from the Party Congress underway), much like the protagonist of the Russian TV series
Dead Mountain.

Just finding all the bodies is an ordeal, but the great disparity in their conditions produces more questions than answers. Obviously, the detection of radioactivity stirs Ivanov’s suspicions, but the Red Army and KGB quickly close off that line of Ivanov’s inquiry.

The narrative and structure of
Dyatlov Pass Mystery is indeed very much like that of Dead Mountain. Both cut back-and-forth between the hamstrung investigator’s doomed efforts to get to the truth and the drama of the Dyatlov expedition’s final days. The weather turns bad and internal dissension grows, but the true nature of the “overwhelming force” that caused their demise is deliberately kept mysterious.

On the other hand, Mayen unambiguously suggests the KGB played a significant role covering up whatever really did happen. Therefore, they shoulder the blame for the conspiracy theories that have proliferated. Ironically, Mayen makes the bossy Dyatlov a surprisingly unsympathetic character. However, he clearly invites reader empathy for Ivanov, who is clearly stuck in an impossible situation.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

In a Land that No Longer Exists: Striking a Pose in the GDR

Suzie Schultz was one of the few East German women to wear her country’s Haute Couture. That was because the GDR fashion industry produced its pret-a-porter collections solely for export to the West, in exchange for hard currency. They still had to drape the clothes over pretty models, so that was where she came in. However, she ran afoul of the Stasi because of her friendships with gay and otherwise undesirable colleagues in screenwriter-director Aelrun Goette’s In a Land that No Longer Exists, which is currently available on outbound international American flights.

It is early 1989. Viewers should know what that means. The Stasi is strenuously trying to prevent it, but obviously they will fail. Regardless, when the college-bound Schultz is caught with a copy of Orwell’s
1984, she is banned from university and assigned a menial factory job as punishment. From what her mechanic father hears from clients, she got off easy. That does not make her proletariat co-workers’ hostility any easier to take. Then one fateful night, “Coyote” a freelance fashion photographer takes a candid Bill Cunningham-style picture of her that Sibylle, the leading GDR fashion magazine, publishes.

The publisher is hesitant to sign Schultz to a full-time contract, but her gay assistant Rudi coaches her to walk and carry herself like a proper model. Coyote’s “celebration of labor” spread shot at Schultz’s workplace seals the deal. Not surprisingly, Schultz grows increasingly close to Rudi as a friend and Coyote as a lover. However, their “anti-social” tendencies could make further trouble for her with the Stasi. In fact, it will not be the dissident Coyote whom they demand she inform upon. Instead, they want her to dish dirt on Rudi, solely due to his sexuality.

Schultz is a fictional character, but her story is directly inspired by Goette’s own experiences as a fashion model in East Germany. It is a tragic and provocative narrative and a timely reminder of the pervasive homophobia of the Soviet-dominated Socialist regimes. Goette also captures the arbitrariness and the pettiness of the Stasi’s punitive measures. There is little nostalgia in
Land that No Longer Exists, except for the giddily rebellious art shows staged by Rudi’s circle of friends.

The Possession: Continuing the Jewish Legacy of Horror Films

Here is a quick question for all the haters demonstrating on college campuses: do you enjoy horror films? They would hardly exist as we know them without Jewish artists and creators. Yiddish films like The Golem and silent German movies such as [Jewish director] Paul Leni’s Waxworks largely created the genre. Horror became commercially viable thanks to Universal Studio boss Carl Laemmle and Karl Freund, the cinematographer or director of many classic Universal Monster movies. Since then, filmmakers like William Friedkin, Sam Raimi, Lloyd Kaufman, and Eli Roth substantially contributed to the horror genre’s evolution. Recently, several horror films have re-embraced horror’s Jewish roots. The Raimi-produced The Possession led the pack, featuring the child-snatching demon Abyzou a decade prior to Oliver Lake’s The Offering. Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal’s Possession deserves a second look when it airs Friday on the Movies! Network.

College basketball coach Clyde Brenek is somewhat separated from his wife Stephanie, but she is extremely separated from him. Their daughters Hannah and Emily are stuck in the middle. During their weekend with dad, Emily acquires a mysterious box with Hebrew inscriptions at an estate sale. She quickly becomes weirdly attached to it. Soon thereafter, she starts lashing out and even tries to frame her father for abuse.

After consulting with a campus folklorist, Brenek realizes his daughter released the demon held captive in a dybbuk box. He seeks help from the Brooklyn Hassidic establishment, but they are too scared to help. However, the chief rabbi’s young, rebellious son, Rabbi Tzadok Shapir believes he is bound by his faith and duty to help the desperate Brenek family. Indeed, things get so bad while Brenek is in Brooklyn, his ex and their teen daughter are willing to listen to him when he returns with a strange rabbi.

Juliet Snowden & Stiles White’s screenplay is based on a non-fiction article chronicling the checkered history of the real-life dybbuk box now in the possession (so to speak) of Zak Bagans. Many of the demonic elements will feel familiar, but the film still fruitfully taps into deep archetypal themes. It is also not as graphic as many horror films, having successfully appealed its way down to a PG-13 rating.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Ozon’s The Crime is Mine

In 1937, Will Hayes of the MPA (as it is now known) approved Wesley Ruggles’ True Confession for release despite its “flippant portrayal of the courts of justice.” If only they could have seen Judge Gustav Rabusett, the dumbest investigating magistrate in all of Paris. He appears in the first French [super-loose] adaptation of George Berr & Louis Verneuil’s play after True Confession and the subsequent American remake Cross My Heart. Rabusett does little to inspire confidence in the French justice system. However, like Roxie Hart in Chicago, Madeleine Verdier knows you cannot buy the kind of publicity a murder trial produces, so when he tries to railroad her for the fatal shooting of a producer, she goes along for the sensationalistic ride in Francois Ozon’s The Crime is Mine, which opens today in New York.

Verdier is a struggling actress. Her roommate Pauline Mauleon is a struggling attorney. When Rabusett fits her for the murder of Montferrand, a dirtbag producer with a notorious casting couch, it serves both their purposes. Verdier had indeed fought off Montferrand’s unwanted advances that fateful day, but she left before he was killed. Like any sensible women living alone in a big city, Verdier and Mauleon keep a gun in their apartment. It happens to be the same caliber that killed Montferrand. Since ballistic science was limited in the 1930s, that was more than good enough for Rabusett.

It works out pretty well for Verdier and Mauleon too. Both become newsreel stars and tabloid sensations when the actress explains how she shot Montferrand to “defend her honor.” Cannily, Mauleon turns the trial into a feminist drama, starring Verdier. Fame soon follows, as well as a fortune (on credit). Yet, the real murderer is still out there, watching as the women reap the rewards of the crime Verdier did not commit.

The source material might be dated, but the way Ozon and co-screenwriter Philippe Piazzo skewer the tabloid media still feels fresh and relevant. The adoring media act more like Verdier and Mauleon’s press agents than investigative journalists. They are not reporting the news, they are picking sides.

Yet, Ozon never blames them for playing the press or the system. In fact, he invites viewers to enjoy watching Verdier and Mauleon get one over. Indeed, it is rather subversively entertaining, thanks to energy and vitality of Nadia Tereszkiewicz and Rebecca Marder as the thesp and the mouthpiece. They are having fun getting away with it and so do viewers—at least until the regally flamboyant Isabelle Huppert throws a monkey wrench in the works, portraying Odette Chaumette, a past-her-prime actress transparently inspired by Sarah Bernhardt.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Madame Blanc Mysteries Holiday Special, on Acorn TV

They do not have many White Christmases in the South of France, but the British expats still take their figgy pudding seriously. In this case, Jean White’s latest holiday special will be more like Holiday Inn, the chain rather than the movie. She and her friends have been invited to a free Christmas getaway at an exclusive hotel, but one of their hosts turns up dead in the latest “Holiday Special” episode of creators Sally Lindsay & Sue Vincent’s The Madame Blanc Mysteries, which premieres tomorrow on Acorn TV.

Jeremy and Judith Lloyd James, White’s “friends from the chateau” are kicking the tires on a potential hotel investment, so they invite her and some friends to help them give it a test drive. Of course, she invites Dom Hayes, who has become her full-fledged boyfriend after the last two seasons (which kicked off with her dodgy husband’s untimely death). He also invited along Police Chief Andre Caron, since he was facing his first holiday on his own. The last two years have also been bruising to his ego, since “Madame Blanc” has been solving all the murders in town before he can.

In a way, this will be a busman’s holiday for Caron, because their hosts are planning a murder-mystery party. Soon, it turns into a real busman’s holiday when the co-owner of the Hotel Sanguinet is murdered during the party players' performance.

Madame Blanc’s mysteries are about as cozy they come, so it will not bother fans one whit that this one is rather simplistic. Instead, viewers just continue to enjoy seeing realistic-looking, somewhat “middled-aged” adults like White and Hayes getting to play at being
Hart to Hart. Plus, the French Mediterranean locales are like exotic travel-porn. “Cozy” is definitely the word for this series.

Regardless, you would hardly know it was Christmas, or any other “holiday” from this “Holiday Special.” On the other hand, the Sanguinet has a ghostly backstory that adds some tragic dimension to the mystery.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Mingus: The Graphic Novel

Charles Mingus was a lot and a lot of things, including a genius. It is even tricky classifying his music: Bebop, ranging into free avant-garde, but also experimenting with classical Third Stream orchestrations, or something like that. He will always be tough to do justice, so this graphic novel shrewdly takes an impressionistic approach to biography. Key scenes from his life are recreated, along with symbolic representations of some of his greatest compositions in writer Flavio Massarutto & artist Squaz’s Mingus, which is now on-sale—for last minute shoppers you are cutting it close, but this would be a cool gift for a Mingus fan.

Following the course of the bassist’s life,
Mingus touches down in Los Angeles, New York, and finally ends with the ailing Mingus in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Nat Hentoff, the great jazz critic, producer, and libertarian commentator gets a surprising number of pages, but it is appropriate. It is also interesting to see Mingus essentially blow the opportunity to compose music for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (but you can still hear some of him and saxophonist Shafi Hadi in there).

Mingus addresses Mingus’s politics, vividly exploring the themes of his viscerally angry “Fable of Faubus.” In retrospect, he might have been a little unfair to Eisenhower, who dispatched the National Guard to integrate the Little Rock schools. Regardless, Massarutto also reminds readers that the musician’s union used to be two racially segregated unions.

Extended Family, on NBC

Apparently, real estate is so cheap in Boston even a financially struggling divorced dad can afford one and a half apartments. What is the deal with the half? He and his ex-wife still maintain the “Nest” where they were raising their children. For the sake of stability, the kids stay put and the parents rotate in and out. This contrived premise becomes even more awkward when she lands a rich new fiancé in creator-showrunner Mike O’Malley’s new sitcom, Extended Family, which premieres tonight on NBC.

As Jim Kearney and Julia Mariano explain to the camera (like they’re pretending to be characters on
Modern Family), after seventeen years of marriage, they wanted to return to their original friendship, while disrupting their thankless kids’ lives as little as possible. So, after their “divorce party,” they launched this unlikely home-sharing scheme.

It might sound like the set-up for a
War of the Roses-like premise, with the exes fighting over every last clause in their non-habitation agreement. Obviously, Mariano’s speedy engagement to Trey Schultz adds a further point of contention. Schultz is the owner of the Boston Celtics, much like co-executive producer Wyc Grousbeck (a real-life ownership partner). However, the fictional Schultz attended MIT. Based on the first three episodes provided to the press, he has no opinion on MIT president Sally Kornbluth’s congressional testimony suggesting calling for the genocide of the Jewish people could be acceptable on campus “depending on the context.” They might have to address it eventually, because the issue is not going away—and the blandly smug Schultz is usually positioned as the “voice of reason” in most episodes.

That is assuming the series lasts that long.
Extended Family feels very early 1990’s in the worst way. The “Pilot” episode revolves around Kearney’s attempts to pass off a replacement after he accidentally kills his daughter Grace’s goldfish while she was at camp. Somehow, we are supposed to believe the together-acting Mariano spent 17 years married to him. Even two weeks would stretch credulity.

“The Consequences of Making Yourself at Home” litigate the drama that arises when Shultz starts making unauthorized upgrades to “The Nest.” At least “The Consequences of Gaming” starts with a premise many parents can relate to. After two weeks away, Mariano (Abigail Spencer looking too smart for her sitcom antics) is shocked to find their son Jimmy Jr. reveling in the bloodlust of a violent
Grand Theft Auto-like video game. Unfortunately, they resolve the episode with an annoyingly abrasive turn into woke politics.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Noryang: Deadly Sea—Third in the Admiral Yi Sun-shin Trilogy

There are good reasons why Seoul has a fifty-foot statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. They definitely believe in the “great man” theory of history—and Admiral Yi was the man. He is responsible for pretty much every naval victory over Japan during the Imjin War. Thanks to him, there are enough David-over-Goliath victories to fill entire trilogy. Having previously triumphed in the Battle of Myeongryang, as seen in The Admiral: Roaring Currents, and the Battle of Hansan Island, depicted in Hansan: Rising Dragon, Admiral Yi’s hopes to finish off the Japanese invaders for good in Kim Han-min’s concluding Noryang: Deadly Sea, which opens today in New York.

Too many court councilors just want to rest on Yi’s hard-won victories and let the Japanese Navy slink home to regroup. However, those victories cost Yi many friends and at least one of his sons. He knows unless the Japanese Navy feels deep, wounding pain, they will just be back again in a few months.

Awkwardly, his key battlefield ally, Chen Lin, commander of the Ming Navy is crooked to his core. He also wants to allow the Japanese to safely retreat, so he can enjoy all the bribes they paid him. Chen Lin cannot turn on Yi outright, because he is under orders from the Ming Emperor, but it is questionable how far Yi can trust him.

Noryang might be the most interesting film in the trilogy, because of how it presents Chinese and Japanese characters, somewhat diverging from the first two films. Chen Lin is a slippery cad on the make. Yet, even he cannot help falling under the sway of Admiral Yi’s commanding personality. On the other hand, Japanese Admiral Shimazu Yoshihiro is a hard man who makes some brutal decisions, but Kim largely vindicates his judgement. His downfall comes in trusting his political rival, Japanese General Konishi. Maybe it is a hopeful interpretation, but Noryang just does not read like the kind of anti-Japanese propaganda Beijing would like to see.

Like the previous two films,
Noryang is also fully loaded with rip-roaring, but spectacularly destructive naval battles. Kim gives us about 75 minutes of intrigue and context, before heading back to the high seas, where the film stays for its remaining duration. With each film, Kim goes bigger and grander, reaching new heights in Noryang.

The sea clashes always took priority over quiet character development in the Admiral Yi films, but in
Noryang, his tense relationship with the scheming Chen Lin is grist for some first-rate military drama. Taking over from Park Hae-il and Choi Min-sik before him, Kim Yun-seok is almost too noble and too righteous as the great Joseon admiral.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Night Court Before Christmas, on NBC

Usually, a series needs a few seasons under its belt before building an episode around nostalgic flashbacks. Of course, Night Court has the benefit of its predecessors’ nine seasons in the 1980s. Yet, for its first special Christmas episode, it is only flashing back a few weeks—back when Grinchy Dan Fielding was still the unlikely Public Defender. He also kind of, sort of saves Christmas, but he is not happy about it in “Night Court Before Christmas, which premieres Saturday on NBC.

Recently, Fielding accepted an appointment to the bench in his beloved hometown of New Orleans, but he is still a weekly cast-member, so we will see how log that lasts. Abby Stone also broke up with her fiancé, so now she is “dating herself.” She gets torched pretty regularly over that, but the original show would have been harsher.

Tonight, the court is processing cases related to Santa Con, so it is packed with bad Santas. A little girl struggling with her parents’ recent divorce happened to slip her Christmas list to one of the disorderly drunks, because she would only entrust it to old St. Nick himself. Judge Abby is determined to find it, because she is hyper-into the Christmas spirit, so she enlists the reluctant Fielding. Meanwhile, “Gurgs” the bailiff is hiding her own Christmas surprise for Fielding: a personal appearance from his hero Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The second “Night Court Before Christmas” (a reference to the original series’ Christmas episode) harkens back to what made the original so popular, but also shows the limits of the playing-it-safe reboot. It is just too safe and too polite. However, viewers should give Abdul-Jabbar credit for being a good sport. He is willing to look a little silly in a surprisingly substantial guest turn, which follows in the tradition of Mel Torme’s weird appearances on the original.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Migration, from Illumination Animation

If you watch enough Food Channel, you know the secret to cooking duck is scoring the skin to properly render out the fat. The characters of this new animated family film would surely want you to know that. They have duck a l’orange on the mind after crashing a celebrity chef’s kitchen in Benjamin Renner’s Illumination-produced Migration, which opens Friday nationwide.

Initially, Mack Mallard was dead set against migrating from his family’s comfy pond, but his wife Pam wanted some excitement, his teen son Dax has a crush on a migrating girl-duck, and his duckling-daughter Gwen is easily influenced by her mom and brother. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Louie De Palma-like Uncle Dan agrees to come too.

Since this is their first migration, Daddy Mack is not hip to many of the dangers, including signs of bad weather. As a result, they Mallards find themselves sheltering with an old couple of predatory herons and take a dangerous detour through the mean air space of Manhattan. Fortunately, Chump, the leader of a gang street smart pigeons takes the family under her wing. They need an exotic bird to lead them to Jamaica—and there happens to be one caged up in a trendy restaurant.

Migration is like a lot of other family films, like Rio and maybe half a dozen other bird movies, but a lot of things are like many other things. In this case, Renner and the animators keep the energy level cranked up and earns a decent number of laughs. It is professional grade animation, especially the scenes of birds in flight, which look terrific on the big screen.

Danny DeVito is consistently amusing as lazy and wheezy Uncle Dan. In a way,
Migration represents a small Taxi reunion, since Carol Kane gives voice to the creepy backwoods Erin the heron. Awkwafina also delivers some realistic New York attitude as Chump, but Keegan-Michael Key lays on the accent distractingly thick as Delroy, the tropical parrot.

For the Murakami Fan: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

It is sort of like an animated Short Cuts, but weirder. By mixing and matching half a dozen stories (from various collections), American-born, European-based filmmaker Pierre Foldes may have cracked the code when it comes to adapting Haruki Murakami. The world is strange and sad, but also a little magical in Foldes’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which is now available on DVD (a perfect gift for Murakami fans) from Kino Lorber.

It is a few days after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Most of Tokyo has gone back to business as usual, but not Komura-san’s wife Kyoko, who obsessively watches the grim news footage in a near-catatonic state—until she suddenly up and leaves him. Komura works with poor beleaguered salaryman Katagiri-san, whose boss is clearly setting him up to be fired. The bank wants Komura out too, but at least they are offering him a package.

While he thinks it over, Komura agrees to deliver a mystery box to a co-worker’s sister up in Hokkaido. Meeanwhile, Katagiri-san gets a strange proposal of his own, from a seven-foot frog. “Frog” as he likes to be called will collect on the bad debt plaguing Katagiri at the bank, if he will help the self-assured amphibian battle the giant subterranean worm that threatens to destroy Tokyo.

Yes, that is right. Makoto Shinkai’s
Suzume shares some plot points with a Murakami story. It is also the best of the intertwined narrative strands, because everybody loves giant frogs, right? You would have to be a Communist not to. Regardless, the unlikely relationship that develops between Katagiri and Frog wonderfully surreal and compelling.

He and Frog might be the best things going in
Blind Willow, but the rest of the film still works. The way Foldes combined different Murakami stories is quite savvy. As a result, the payoffs for each story amplify each other. They all seam to fit together seamlessly, like Robert Altman’s aforementioned treatment of Raymond Carver’s short stories.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Tribal: Veterans Tell Their Stories

Even if it were easy, a lot of people still wouldn’t care enough to serve their country. These three veterans did—and they still carry the experience (and in many cases, the physical and emotional scars) with them. All three former soldiers tell their stories of valor under fire and difficulties re-acclimating to civilian life in the Borrego Brothers’ documentary Tribal, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

The title comes from Sebastian Jungr, referring to unity of perspective, values, and way of life shared by soldiers serving together. It will confuse many viewers with little connection to the military, possibly even offending a substantial subset, but it is in fact an apt title. The Borregos and producer Mark Kershaw focus on three War on Terror veterans, Army vets SPC John “Michael” Gomez and SFC Omar Hernandez, as well as former Marine CPL Wade Spann. Plus, Kershaw (also formerly Army) appears after about an hour, to directly address his recovery process and his hopes to facilitate more veterans getting the help they need.

In large part,
Tribal simply consists of interview segments, relying on the power of its subjects’ own words. In some cases, the Borregos illustrate their harrowing survivor stories with evocatively stylized re-enactments that are not intended to be realistic. In some ways, these sequences are somewhat akin to some scenes in Beyond Glory, the film adaptation of Stephen Lang’s one-man show portraying multiple Medal of Honor recipients.

The primary message that comes through loud and clear throughout
Tribal is that society must do a better job easing veterans back into civilian life. Although PTSD once carried a stigma, all three interviewees agree there is a much greater acceptance within military circles today for those who need and seek mental health assistance—but it is still an issue.

A secondary point that emerges is the frustration of military decisions getting made to satisfy political calculations rather than on the basis of sound strategic and tactical grounds. A case in point would be Spann’s ferocious account of his unit’s advance through Fallujah and how they were suddenly ordered to withdraw, for purely political reasons. Unfortunately, the job was left to other units, who suffered needlessly high casualties, since the insurgent forces were allowed to regroup and reinforce. At least that is how he sees it and he certainly had an informed perspective to make a judgment.

Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman, on Peacock

The media and academia constantly tell us to trust them, because they know better. Yet, they failed the public spectacularly in the case of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini. The thoracic surgeon was so bad, he is now the subject of the second season of Dr. Death. You can watch all eight episodes or get the whole story in one-shot from the 90-minute companion documentary, John Pappas’s Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman, which premieres Thursday on Peacock.

For a while, Macchiarini was one of the world’s most respected surgeons and a short-list contender for the Nobel Prize, thanks to his revolutionary artificial trachea replacement surgery. He was so impressive, NBC News producer Benita Alexander fell for him while working on a
Today Show profile. She was so head-over-heels, she accepted all his crazy claims at face value, even including the one about the Pope agreeing to officiate their wedding. Ultimately, that one was a fabrication too far. Once she realized that bogus, she woke up to all his lies.

Meanwhile, Macchiarini’s experimental trachea patients were not faring well. In fact, they were dying. However, Macchiarini was still coasting on the glowing publicity that followed their initial surgeries, leaving two of his colleagues at [the formerly] prestigious Karolinska Institute to deal with the carnage of his dubious treatment. Together they wrote a damning report exposing Macchiarini’s falsified research. Perhaps predictably, the Karolinska administers turned on the whistleblowers rather than its cash cow.

Alexander declined to participate in
Cutthroat Conman, but considering how brutally honest and self-aware she sounds in the audio interviews incorporated from another project, viewers can understand why she did not want to revisit the Macchiarini experience again. Frankly, Peacock deserves some credit for telling the tawdry tale, because it does not reflect particularly well on NBC News.

To their further credit, Pappas and company also force viewers to confront Macchiarini’s victims, many of whom possibly could have been cured with convention treatment. The two-year-old girl will absolutely break your heart.

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Ghost Station, on DVD

It is hard to say which is more corrupt, the press or the government. A tabloid reporter will learn both institutions covered up some really horrific crimes to build Korea’s most notorious subway stop. Since then, people have quietly died at Oksu Station at a steady rate, but nobody talks about it, because the construction lined the pockets of the usual suspects: politicians, unions, and contractors. However, there is some kind of presence in the station and the more it is ignored, the more widely it lashes out in Jeong Yong-ki’s The Ghost Station, which releases tomorrow on DVD and BluRay.

Kim Na-young is having a hard time generating the clicks demanding by her newspaper, a disreputable, bottom-feeding, sleaze-mongering tabloid, most likely modeled on
The New York Times. They are even threatening to throw her to the wolves, when the subject of her “Miss Summer” feature turns out to be transexual and sues for the supposedly unwanted “outing.” Needing a scoop, her friend in the transit authority, Choi Woo-won, alerts her to an unusual accident, in which a speeding service train decapitated a victim along the old tracks no longer in public service, beneath the proper station.

It turns out the conductor of the service train and a witness from maintenance reported seeing a young child on the platform at the time of the accident. It is a pretty good story, but Kim is pressured to retract it when it is reported the conductor had already committed suicide by the time she took his statement. There is definitely something super-angry down there. In fact, the favorite J-horror term “grudge” is used in the English subtitles. Whatever it is, it marks its next victims with scratches on their wrists, like the ones that turn up on Choi.

It is true
Ghost Station is a lot like many Korean and Japanese horror films, but that only stands to reason, since it was co-adapted from a Korean webcomic by Japanese screenwriters, Hiroshi Takashi (Ringu 1 & 2) and Koji Shiraishi (Noroi). All the elements are familiar, but Jeong understands how to marshal them to their fullest effect. Indeed, the film borrows considerably from The Ring/u, but since Takashi wrote the original, he is stealing from himself, so who are we to object?

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Submitted by the Philippines: The Missing

Eric is sort of like a Filipino Whitley Streiber, as a fellow creator, who was similarly traumatized by his experience as an alien abductee. Or was he? Maybe he was emotionally wounded by something else. Regardless, the past comes rushing back to him just when things start percolating with a co-worker in Carl Joseph E. Papa’s animated feature The Missing, which the Philippines selected as its official International Film Submission to the upcoming Academy Awards.

Eric has been carrying a torch for Carlo at the animation studio where they both work. They were about to finally have something like a date when his mother calls, asking him to check on his Uncle Rogelio, who has gone silent for an alarming period of time. On their way to a late dinner, they pop in on Rogelio, finding a fly-infested corpse in bed. While Carlo fetches help, Eric is suddenly re-abducted by the alien that previously snatched him away during his chaotic childhood.

Of course, Carlo is rather baffled by Eric’s disappearance. Unfortunately, he will apparently flake out on Carlo several more times, as the alien persistently hunts him, hoping to finish what he started years ago. However, viewers can discern perhaps something less extraterrestrial tormenting the young animator.

Papa’s message is a little heavy-handed, but it actually works better through the various styles of animation than it would in live-action. For instance, the mute Eric is literally depicted without a mouth and during flashbacks, Rogelio’s face is obscured by ominous scribbles. Most of the contemporary scenes are produced in a rotoscoped-style of animation, converted from live-action film cells. However, the flashbacks are rendered in a simplistic, almost
South Park-like style. Yet, they certainly have a dark vibe.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Submitted by Panama: Tito, Margot, and Me

If measured pound-for-pound or per-capita, Cuba must be the most imperialistic nation in the world. The late Roberto “Tito” Arias would know. He was caught up in the 1959 ill-fated coup d’etat attempting to overthrow the Panamanian government, backed by Castro. Arias should have known better, especially since he and his wife, British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, were such good friends with John Wayne. They led interesting lives, as viewers learn from the documentary, Tito Margot, and Me, co-directed by their niece Mercedes Arias & Delfina Vidal, which Panama has chosen as their official International Oscar submission.

Fonteyn and Arias met at Oxford, where he was studying and she was performing. Sparks would fly, but it was not until fate brought them together again that they stuck for good. Yet, they still often spent months apart, due to his diplomatic appointments and her busy performance schedule. (Fonteyn was always one of the brightest lights of British ballet, but her star rose even higher when she became Rudolf Nureyev’s preferred partner after his defection from the Soviet Union.)

Unfortunately, Fonteyn was in Panama at the time of the aborted coup and sufficiently involved to find herself behind bars, until the British consulate sprung her. Meanwhile, Arias managed to reach Brazil, where he safely waited out the aftermath, before returning to Panama for his successful political comeback. Ironically, with his renewed prominence, Arias was nearly assassinated when a gunman’s bullet paralyzed him from the waist down. The co-directors and their on-camera commentators are rather sketchy when addressing his possible motives, but apparently some suspect he was a jealous husband.

Arguably, that makes Fonteyn’s devotion and diligence caring for Arias thereafter all the more impressive. Although Arias the filmmaker hardly knew her famous relatives, it is clear she wants to present their marriage as a great romance. It might have been more complicated during the early years, but they certainly stayed together through sickness and strife.

At regular intervals, Arias and Vidal incorporate interludes from dancers Maruja Herrara and Valentino Zucchetti that are appropriately evocative of classical ballet, but also sort of represent interpretive dance in the way they reflect emotional drama experienced by the famous couple, at various periods of their lives.

Friday, December 15, 2023

The Family Plan, on Apple TV+

Any former assassin who lets the phony passports in his bug-out bag expire must be slipping. Indeed, Dan Morgan got way too comfortable in his new life as a husband, father, a salesman of “certified pre-owned” cars. Inevitably, his old life comes looking for him in Simon Cellan Jones’s The Family Plan, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

“Dan Morgan,” as he now calls himself, has convinced his wife Jessica that he is safe and boring. Then, somebody tries to kill him while he is shopping for groceries with their little rug rat. Realizing his old boss has found him, Morgan tries to convince his wife, their college-bound daughter Nina, and moody teen gamer son Kyle to leave on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Las Vegas, where his old crony Augie will hook them up with fresh new identities.

Since he is afraid of how they will react to the truth, Morgan makes a great (and hopefully comedic) effort to shield them from the dangers pursuing them. Of course, his family starts to appreciate Morgan’s new spontaneous side. However, they are not so sure about his new found aversion to smart phones and social media.

Basically, screenwriter David Coggeshall starts with a familiar premise not radically dissimilar from
Mr. and Mrs. Smith, True Lies, or various Korean rom-coms like My Girlfriend is an Agent, but he tries to mine it more for family-friendly comedy rather than action-driven thrills. There are a few decent fight sequences, featuring action veterans like Maggie Q, Lateef Crowder, and the star himself, Mark Wahlberg. However, the overall tone feels like it was targeted towards a younger demographic than even the PG-13 rating would suggest.

Godard Cinema (Plus)

More than anyone else, Jean-Luc Godard advanced the notion that films could indeed be high art. Yet, his final films are almost “anti-cinematic.” Perhaps no other filmmaker was as lauded or as divisive. You should be familiar with some Godard films to have a basic, fundamental understanding of 20th Century cinema, but a completist must have a strong masochistic streak. Cyril Leuthy survey’s Godard’s life and work in Godard Cinema, which opens today in New York, along with Godard’s final short film Trailer for a Film that Will Never Exist: Phony Wars.

Godard was part of the American film noir loving scene at
Cahiers du Cinema, but he was also deeply influenced by post-structuralist and “anti-colonialist” trends in leftist academia. His early willingness to break the staid established rules of filmmaking was exhilarating, as in Breathless. However, it is also important to remember Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg became iconic themselves, for the characters they brought to life under Godard’s direction.

Anna Karina, one of Godard’s most important partners, on and off the screen, gave haunting performances in films like
Made in U.S.A., but their ultimate impact is somewhat blunted by Godard’s extreme Maoist didacticism. In fact, Leuthy essentially argues Godard virtually disappeared in 1970s as a member of the Dziga Vertov filmmaking collective, because the agitprop films they cranked out (but nobody watched) were literally made by committee, undermining Godard’s auteurist role as a filmmaker.

For the most part, Leuthy and company do a nice job chronicling Godard up through the early 1980s, but
Godard Cinema is somewhat spottier thereafter. Nobody even mentions his unlikely King Lear, produced for B-movie moguls Golan-Globus and starring the unlikely cast of Norman Mailer, Molly Ringwald, and Woody Allen. It is challengingly avant-garde, but it might be Godard’s last true masterwork.

Frustratingly, Godard’s output thereafter became more like performance art provocations that self-contained cinematic statements. Leuthy largely accepts critical defenses of late-period Godard at face value. There is a bit of dissenting commentary in
Godard Cinema, but it is still largely one-sided. Yet, a figure as controversial and ideologically-charged as Godard demands a more even-handed or even confrontational approach.

Bardot, on CBC Gem

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brigitte Bardot movies probably contributed more to France’s trade balance than Peugeot and Citroen combined. She is still France’s most iconic celebrity, even though she hasn’t made a new film since 1973 (and her politics are a bit awkward). Mother-son writer-director-creators Daniele and Christopher Thompson lean into the sex and scandal of the movie star’s life in the six-part Bardot, which premieres today on CBC Gem, up in Canada, where a lot of people like to pretend they speak French.

Bardot was raised in a strict, upper-middleclass household, but her conservative father Louis could never really control her. At the age of fifteen she started making movies and commenced an affair with twenty-one year-old screenwriter Roger Vadim. That sounds creepy, but they were French, right? However, her parents did not see it that way. Yet, they eventually allowed him to marry their daughter when she turned eighteen, after several years of strict supervision.

Their first project together was …
And God Created Woman, which would be a breakout movie for both, especially her. Even though she was not yet a full-fledged star, the paparazzi swarmed her during the chaotic production (which is nearly the exclusive focus of the second episode) and their ferocity only intensified after the film became a scandalous sensation.

The Thompsons start with Bardot’s Lolita-esque teen years and take her through the tabloid-fodder aftermath of her work on Henri Georges Clouzot’s
The Truth. A lot of fans will be disappointed the Thompsons do not stretch the timeline further, to reach Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, which many cineastes must consider her best film.

In many ways, the Thompsons and lead thesp Julia de Nunez reinforce all the sex-kitten-in-a-state-of-arrested-development cliches about Bardot. Throughout all six episodes, she seems incapable of making good relationship decisions and displays a marked aversion to accepting responsibility for her life. While the treatment of Vadim is sympathetic, they essentially suggest Bardot ruined the career of her second husband Jacques Charrier. Perhaps not coincidentally, several episodes also end with the observation that Charrier and their son successfully sued Bardot for the way her memoir portrayed their marriage and her attempts at parenting.

Bardot the series lays waste to just about all the celebrities who crossed Bardot’s path, including her musical lovers Sacha Distel and Gilbert Becaud, producer Raoul Levy, and the “love of her life,” Jean-Louis Trintignant. Clouzot also comes off a bit rough at times, but he is redeemed at the 11th hour—Louis Do de Lencquesaing’s gruffly charismatic performance also helps tremendously in this respect.

It is hard to pass judgement on the Franco-Argentine de Nunez (a newcomer who won the role of Bardot in a nationwide casting call reminiscent of that for Scarlett O’Hara), because she is always so impishly kittenish and naively immature. Yet, we feel for her in later episodes, as the overwhelmed Bardot’s privacy is constantly violated and she is repeatedly betrayed by those around her.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Ruthless: Dermot Mulroney vs. Human Traffickers

Weirdly politicized critics might not acknowledge human trafficking is a problem, but the sound of money is likely to produce a lot of Sound of Freedom knock-offs, wherein human traffickers are brought to justice. That means the timing should be nice for this payback thriller, which was probably well on its way when the Jim Caviezel hit released. The victims are a little older, but the crime of trafficking is still unforgivably vile in Art Camacho’s Ruthless, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Wrestling coach Harry Sumner is still reeling from the murder of his daughter, so he is not inclined to ignore clear signs of physical abuse on his student, Catia Madson. Since the principal discourages making an official report, Coach Sumner pays a not so friendly visit to her mother’s thuggish boyfriend. Of course, the system protects creeps like Tom, so while the cops are arresting Sumner for breaking his arm, Tom sells Catia to his human trafficking associates.

Fortunately, the decent Det. Chuck Monaghan, who worked his daughter’s case, remembers Sumner and runs sufficient interference to keep him out of jail. Of course, he warns Sumner to stay away from Tom, but the coach has other ideas. Thanks to a few more broken arms, Sumner follows Catia’s trail to Las Vegas, where the slimy Dale Remington auctions teen girls through his luxury boutique hotel.

Camacho’s screenplay (co-written with James Dean Simington, Javier Reyna, and Koji Steven Sakai) is pretty simplistic and formulaic, but lead actor Dermot Mulroney treats these dead-serious themes with the respect and gravity they deserve. He burns with moral outrage and traumatic grief. Mulroney works a lot and
Ruthless is probably not even his most prestigious release of the week, but he is able to really identify with and express Sumner’s inner angst.