Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Omen (1995 Pilot)

The Omen franchise had a lot of success on the big screen, but its TV history is spottier. The made-for-TV Omen IV: The Awakening does not have many champions, whereas the A&E-produced Damien was not bad, but short-lived. A lot of fans missed the first attempt at an Omen series, because the pilot was not picked up for a full series. (It is also dismissed as non-canonical and related in name only.) Yet, because it was produced in the 1990s, NBC aired it anyway, because the networks took their viewers for granted back then. Nevertheless, it was indeed broadcasted, so it technically counts as a “vintage episode.” With The First Omen releasing this week, it is a fine time to look back at the 1995 pilot for The Omen, if you don’t mind searching for a grainy internet version.

Dr. Linus is about to find his missing colleague, strung-up dead, in a ritualistic manner. Tragically, it was most likely of his friend’s own doing, to prevent an evil parasite from devouring another victim. Of course, Linus inadvertently releases it back into the world.

Being a man of science, he is not sure what to make of what he saw, even when he is visited by Aaron Rainier, a self-described “hunter,” who dedicated his life to fighting the all-consuming entity. However, photojournalist Jack Mann has become a believer, after watching the viral-like demon possess and destroy his pregnant wife. He will follow its trail to a Boston hospital, where Dr. Linus has been called in to consult on an inexplicable contamination afflicting Annalisse Summer, a nurse who contracted it from late sister.

In a way, the viral hot-zone-like aspect of the 1995 pilot is a lot like the
Star War prequels demystifying the Force with scientistic Midi-chlorians, except it is much more interesting. Although there is more science to explain the ancient entity’s powers, it still directly addresses issues of good and evil.

According to Rainier, most people burn themselves out trying to fight the evil virus, or whatever, which rather implies most people are inherently good. However, when it lands in an evil host, they develop a symbiotic relationship, in which the human accepts its presence, in return for power. At the end of the pilot, we learn the unseen force is heading west, as if it is searching for something. Could that have been a nasty little boy named Damien Thorn?

Unfortunately, we will never know, but the pilot holds up okay as a stand-alone. The pacing is quite snappy, which makes sense, since it was directed by Jack Sholder, who also helmed
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and The Hidden (which also features an unearthly entity hopping from person to person). There are a lot of big genre names involved, starting with Richard Donner, the director of the original film, who was on-board as an executive producer according to IMDb (but his name was not included in the broadcast credits).

Walker: The Quiet

There are two things they universally support in Texas: family and crime fighting, even in Austin. That is where the Texas Rangers are headquartered, after all. Nobody is more synonymous with the Rangers than Cordell Walker, first in the Chuck Norris series and now in the CW reboot. Since the original pilot, it looks like the writers better understand how to cater to audiences for those themes, at least judging by “The Quiet,” the fourth and final season premiere of Walker, which premieres Wednesday on the CW.

A lot has happened since at least one of us checked in on Walker, his family, and his colleagues. His team is still reeling from their fruitless pursuit of The Jackal, a serial killer who remains at large. Whoever the perp might be, he went underground at the end of season three. However, Walker and Trey Barnett must suddenly investigate fresh signs of the Jackal, without informing Captain Larry James, who was nearly broken by their powerlessness to stop the soul-crushing murders.

These scenes are considerably better than anything in the pilot, which admittedly, was three years ago. On the other hand, this episode’s self-contained case involves a fentanyl gang, but nobody ever mentions their original supplier: China. That’s kind of gutless.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Fall of the House of Usher, Graphic Novel

GKIDS's animated anthology Extraordinary Tales has an incredible claim to fame. It must be the only film that features the voices of Sir Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, and Roger Corman. Hearing Lee during “The Fall of the House of Usher” was probably what a lot of horror fans were most excited about, but the visuals were still spooky enough to hold up on their own. Raul Garcia had worked for about a decade on a series of Poe shorts, before incorporating them into Tales and providing the interstitial transitions. Now, he has adapted one of his constituent films into a stand-alone graphic novel, The Fall of the House of Usher, which is now on-sale.

Garcia was and now is probably more faithful to Poe’s short story than any other adaptation. He certainly stick’s closer Poe’s text than Roger Corman and Richard Matheson did with
House of Usher, the first and arguably the most faithful of their Poe films, which we all love, because of Vincent Price (and Corman and Matheson). Yet, Garcia developed his own twist, making the narrator somewhat nebbish looking, rather than a handsome love interest for Madeline Usher. Of course, she still dies—and it gets way worse after that.

Her brother Roderick remains as weird and tormented as ever. The visual contrast between him and the narrator helps give Garcia’s interpretation its own distinctive character. Most importantly, he created (and successfully transferred) a wonderfully macabre and decaying vision of the House of Usher. Even without Lee’s voice (which was a huge asset), Garcia’s
Usher still delivers all the old dark house vibes that give fans warm fuzzies (and cold chills).

Friday, March 29, 2024

Sight Unseen, on CW

Just because a detective might be blind doesn’t mean they aren’t observant. Indeed, there is a long tradition of vision-impaired crime-fighters, including Daredevil, Longstreet, Clive Owen in Second Sight, and Andy Lau in Blind Detective. Tess Avery is the latest. Her hereditary Leber’s Neuropathy came on quickly but decisively, forcing her to resign from the police force. Yet, we all know she can never walk away from solving crimes in creators Karen & Nikolijne Troubetzkoy’s Sight Unseen, which premieres Wednesday on the CW.

Avery was so good at her job, she used to make all the other detectives look bad, even including her partner Jake Campbell, who maybe also carried an ambiguously romantic torch for her. However, she abruptly resigns when she is unable to shoot a suspect fleeing with an abduction victim. Even though he nearly died during the incident, Campbell assumes it is a one-time choke, but she knows she finally inherited her late mother’s Leber’s.

She does not deal with it well. Refusing to confide in Campbell, she constantly dodges Mia Moss, her new adaptation “coach,” who is also legally blind. Instead, she relies on Sunny Patel, her video chat guide, much like the one featured in Randall Okita’s horror-thriller,
See for Me. Rather conveniently, Patel is an agoraphobe, so she is pretty much always available. She is also a true crime junkie, so she is also willing.

Unfortunately, Campbell’s new partner Leo Li is one of those cops who cares more about his “numbers” than justice, so Avery must constantly supply Campbell with the motivation and ammunition to do the right thing. In the premiere episode, “Tess,” she starts by searching for the still-missing woman. For a change of pace this time, Avery believes the husband is innocent. Given the limited number of supporting characters, that leaves very few alternate suspects.

Of the first three episodes provided for review, the second, “Sunny,” probably serves up the best crime story. Since hit-and-runs are notoriously difficult to solve, Avery returns to one of the final cases she worked before losing her vision. Soon, she suspects it involves the disappearance of a disgraced tech-lifestyle guru, which is definitely the sort of case Det. Li would like to solve. Avery still has trouble leveling with Campbell, even though their on-screen chemistry starts to take on greater definition.

Again, the mystery of the third episode, “Jake,” has a very Quinn Martin-esque lack of mystery, because there are literally only one or maybe two suspects it could be. However, writer Russ Cochrane does a nice job using the search for a John Doe’s identity to tease out elements of Avery’s character. It also introduces her deadbeat brother Lucas, who will obviously get into serious trouble later. We learn more about Patel’s issues, but so far, they do not land as compellingly as Avery’s.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners

One of the PR hazards of terrorism is that when you set out to kill innocent people, sometimes you kill the “wrong” innocent people. That is the case for Doireann McCann, when her IRA cell inadvertently blows up two children and mother, who happened to pass by their pub bombing at the worst possible moment. Until the heat blows over, they hide out in the remote coastal village of Glencolmcille, where nonpolitical hitman Finbar Murphy lives. He has had enough of killing in general, but he remains just as dangerous as he ever was in Robert Lorenz’s In the Land of Saints and Sinners, which opens today in theaters.

In 1974, “The Troubles” were heating up, but Murphy kills for money rather than a cause. Bart McGuiness was supposed to be just another job, but instead of begging for his life, he tells Murphy to make something of his lonely life before it is too late. If there is an award for performances under five minutes, Mark O’Regan ought to be in contention for his portrayal of McGuiness. Consequently, Murphy rather takes his words to heart, so he tenders his notice to his shady boss, the reclusive Robert McQue, and starts putting the moves on his single neighbor, Rita Quinn.

Murphy also notices the local barmaid’s daughter Moya is being abused by one of her mom’s unwelcomed house-guests. That would be Curtis June, part of the IRA hit squad that accidentally killed two little girls in Belfast. McCann just invited her way into her late brother’s home, obviously using the threat of violence. They were supposed to be laying low, but June’s behavior attracts Murphy’s’ attention. He basically tells McQue he is hiring his own services. McQue is against it, because he suspects June’s IRA affiliation, but Murphy mind is made up. Of course, McCann is the sort to hold grudges and extract an eye for an eye.

Land of Saints
is Lorenz’s second film with Liam Neeson, following The Marksman. Both are similar in theme and vibe to Eastwood’s Gran Torino (which Lorenz produced), in the way Neeson’s older, crustier characters come to terms with their life decisions and decide to face-down dangerous foes, because they refuse to abide by any ethical code. The Marksman is a more straight-forward action movie (but a good one), whereas screenwriters Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane tell a more sophisticated story of IRA intrigue.

Arguably, it is pretty impressive that the well-known assembly of Irish thesps would appear in a film that casts the IRA in such a negative light. This is a great cast, featuring the hardnosed trinity of Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, and Colm Meaney. Neeson does his thing as Murphy, but Lorenz helps him stretch a bit into more emotionally complex territory. As usual, Meaney is more fun than a sale on Guiness Stout as sleazy, crotchety McQue. Hinds radiates decency as Vincent O’Shea, the honest local copper (who thinks Murphy is a rare book dealer).

Thursday, March 28, 2024

STEVE! (martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces, in Cinema Daily US

I'm happy to announce my first review for CINEMA DAILY US is now up. Both "pieces" of Apple TV+'s STEVE! (martin): A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES deliver a lot of laughs and nostalgia (especially for Gen X'ers, who grew up watching his caareer evolve from the "Wild and Crazy Guy" to THE FATHER OF THE BRIDE). Review up here.

Fred Cavaye’s Farewell, Mr. Haffmann

A crisis can bring out either the best or worst in people. Joseph Haffmann sees both from his employee Francois Mercier and Mercier’s wife, Blanche. As a Jewish French citizen born in Poland, Haffmann witnessed violent Jew-hatred before, so insists on sending his wife and children to safer territory before it is too late. Unfortunately, he stays behind just a little too long, leaving himself at the mercy of the Merciers in Fred Cavaye’s Farewell, Mr. Haffmann, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Haffmann was not Coco Chanel, but he developed a loyal and discerning clientele for his elegant jewelry designs. His longtime shop assistant Francois Mercier has a solid grasp of business side of things, but he lacks Haffmann’s talent. Nevertheless, Haffmann trusts Mercier to legally assume ownership while he and his family are exile. Unfortunately, the Germans choke off all transit out of Paris before Haffmann can depart.

Despite their understandable fears, the Merciers agree to shelter Haffmann in the basement, but they are skittish about sending letters to the former boss’s family. Nevertheless, Blanche warms to Haffmann as they all settle into the new reality, at least until Francois decides to make it weird. For years, the Merciers have struggled to conceive, but to no avail. Blanche has been certified fertile. Presumably, Francois is shooting blanks, but Haffmann has three children.

Obviously, the bargain Mercier proposes is an extraordinarily bad idea. It freaks out his wife and leads to long-term angst and misunderstandings. Ironically, Haffmann and Blanche will fake it rather than make it, but it still jeopardizes his position over the long-term.

Farewell is sort of like a cross-between the Czech Holocaust-era drama The Protektor and the Steinbeck novel Burning Bright (admittedly not a major work). Given the confined setting, it is easy to see the film’s stage roots. It is indeed based on Jean-Philippe Daguerre’s play, but Cavaye’s direction helps open it up a little, so it never feels conspicuously stagey. In fact, his experience helming thrillers like Point Blank paid dividends for Farewell, during the near misses and narrow escapes.

Cavaye also has a terrific cast, starting with the great Daniel Auteuil, as Haffmann, who is neither a passive victim or a caricature of neediness. He is a family man, who does what he must, which makes him so easy to identify with. Sara Giraudeau is quite extraordinary portraying Blanche as she processes her moral/ethical confusion and disappointment in her increasingly opportunistic husband.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Gentleman in Moscow, in The Epoch Times

Showtime's A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW celebrates Russian culture, while mourning its ruinous history under Communism. It also serves up some nice espionage suspense, along with the tragedy. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Making Waves ’24: Libertate

The 1989 Romanian Revolution was televised, but only partly. People did not have handheld devices like we do now, so there were a lot of gaps. That was especially true in Sibiu, where a veritable civil war broke out between the military and assorted branches of the police, including those formally affiliated with the Securitate secret police and those assumed to be unofficially under their direction. The fighting was chaotic, but the aftermath was Kafkaesque, as recreated by Tudor Giurgiu in Libertate, which screens during the 2024 Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema festival in New York.

Like a cop in an 80’s buddy movie, Viorel Stanese has a bad feeling about going into work, because his child’s christening is only a few days away. Yet, he feels he must, because the station was recently overrun by angry protesters. He soon finds himself in a bizarre standoff with the military, with both sides accusing the other of firing live ammunition at the demonstrators (they call them “terrorists”), who are caught in the middle.

After twenty or so screen minutes of utter mayhem and a good deal of sheer terror, Lt. Col. Dragoman successfully takes control of the situation. However, he arrests everyone unfortunate enough to be swept up in his net, whether they might be Securitate, halfway legitimate cops, or long-suffering protesters. To house them all, he corrals themin a drained pool, posting guards around the perimeter. There they will stay, for weeks into months, as the military tries to sort them out.

Libertate feels like two separate films. The first is an amazing feat of controlled confusion in which bullets are constantly firing all over the place, but it is impossible to tell from where or whom. The second, longer part is an agonizingly claustrophobic exercise in absurdity that will make even seasoned viewers antsy. Arguably, both successfully transport viewers to a very particular place and time, under extraordinary circumstances, but the first is viscerally powerful, while the second is relentlessly uncomfortable.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Dead Hot, on Tubi

A little professional ambition would be good for these Gen-Z’ers. It would help break their repeating cycles of self-defeating hedonistic indulgence and angsty regret. Their lifestyle is clearly unhealthy, even before a mysterious party starts trying to Elliot Byrd and his boyfriends in creator Charlotte Coben’s six-episode Dead Hot, which premieres tomorrow on Tubi.

A year ago, Byrd’s boyfriend, Peter Ono, disappeared, leaving behind a severed finger and a pool of blood. It took a long time, but Byrd finally found a potential replacement in Will, who mysteriously suffers the same fate. Once was bad luck, but twice is a real problem. Together with his bestie, Ono’s sister Jess, Byrd investigates Will’s disappearance, only to discover his name really isn’t Will and he might not even be dead. In fact, it seems the mysterious Will was deliberately stalking him.

Meanwhile, Ono finally gets a hit from her DNA database service, alerting her to the existence of a close biological relative. Since her brother’s body was never recovered, she still holds hope that he might be out there somewhere. As her DNA match toys with her, Ono and Byrd start to suspect their respective dramas are somehow linked.

Coben (daughter of Harlan) develops some pleasantly nasty twists and turns for hapless Byrd, but her characters and their over-sexed slacker milieu quickly become abrasively annoying. Nobody has a serious job and they all act like they are in a state of perpetual adolescence. As early as the second episode, most viewers will start rooting for the murderous villains.

Monday, March 25, 2024

AFI New Africa ’24: Melody of Love

Ethiopia is not just the home of great Highlife musicians and Ethiopiques. Addis Ababa also has a hip and thriving jazz scene. Ironically, Michael, jazz guitarist (and amateur Michael Jackson impersonator) is just starting to catch on there. He has been playing real-life venues like the Africa Jazz Village (Ghion Hotel) and Sounds Jazz Club, with musicians like Mulatu Astatke (who plays himself). Unfortunately, Michael’s mother insists he join her and his sister in Belgium, even though he has zero prospects there. Dutifully, Michael will make his sad goodbyes throughout Edmundo Bejarano’s Melody of Love, which screens during the AFI’s 2024 New Africa Film Festival.

Melody of Love has some of the best incidental and background music of any film screening anywhere this month. Michael is sitting in with some very talented cats, most definitely including Astatke. He also has great friends, like Pollock, a fellow musician, and his romance with Melody is seriously heating up—like steamily so. Yet, his mother says come, so he will obediently go.

He knows this is the wrong thing to do and we the viewers know it is the wrong thing to do, but he does it anyway. Why, colonialism. Seriously,
Melody of Love has been described as a “meditation on the internalized weight of colonialism.” Yet, it seems more like a cautionary argument against immigrating from the only home you have ever known to a foreign country, where you no connections or work waiting for you. That might sound like an overly simplified reading, but it is one audiences can reach from a self-contained viewing, rather than supplementing the film with ersatz Frantz Fanon-style commentary.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Mole, on Eurochannel

Compared to Lino Ventura’s network in Army of Darkness, it looks like Marie-Helene Dumoulin’s “Vaillance” Resistance group had an above-average survival rate. Yet, they are understandably haunted by the memories of their fallen comrades, particularly their charismatic leader Castille. When Dumoulin discovers they were betrayed by an informer, she confronts her fellow survivors, hoping to uncover the truth in Josee Dayan’s The Mole (a.k.a. Marie-Octubre), which premieres this Friday on Eurochannel.

Thirteen years after the war, Dumoulin has built a successful fashion house, named after her Resistance code-name, Marie-Octubre, with the support of her old comrade and current lover, Jerome Massenet. The Vaillance group now spans the social gamut, including a prominent politician, lawyer, and surgeon, as well as a leftist professor, and a failed businessman who is considered little better than a con artist.

Yet, they duly come together to honor Castille. When the eleven are finally assembled (twelve including Massenet’s longtime family servant Clemence), Dumoulin drops her bombshell. During one of her fashion shows, a German buyer rather casually revealed to her his role as a former SS intelligence officer, who received information from a Vaillance turncoat that led to Castille’s death.

Dayan’s remake of the 1959 Julien Duvivier film has the form and tone of an Agatha Christie movie. All the suspects are assembled in one place, where each one’s motives for betrayal are examined one by one. That is also why it is so much fun. Even though it was made for French TV,
The Mole is a terrific French thriller. It is particularly intriguing to see how Vaillance group encompassed leftwing and rightwing extremes, who inevitably point fingers at each other, in the wake of Dumoulin’s accusation.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Diarra from Detroit, on BET+

The good thing about dating in Detroit is any time someone ghosts you, you can just assume they were the victim of a violent crime and therefore not take it personally. Diarra Brickland’s friends assume she is kidding herself in that manner. Yet, as she starts looking for her non-responsive Tinder hookup, she uncovers evidence of some kind of foul play in creator-star Diarra Kirkpatrick’s Diarra from Detroit, which is now streaming on BET+.

Brickland is going through a rough patch. Due to her contentious divorce to the wealthy, snappy-dressing “Swa” (François), Brickland had to move back to her old, working-class neighborhood. Conveniently, she discovers the burglar she walks in on happens to be a childhood friend. Despite his criminal activity, he will take a lot of grief from Brickland, as will the rest of her long-suffering friends and co-workers.

They will all really give everyone an earful when Chris ghosts her. He was supposed to be a no-stress distraction from Swa, but Brickland thought they really clicked. That is why she is so hurt and confused when he bails on their second date. Believing she is owed an explanation, Brickland starts snooping around Chris’s apartment. What she stumbles across piques her suspicions, including a Russian thug, whom she meets under very unusual circumstances. Soon, she starts to believe Chris is actually Deonte Brooks Jr, who was notoriously abducted as a child in the 1990s and long-presumed dead, which would mean Brickland was ghosted by a ghost.

Admittedly, I am not the target demo for
Diarra from Detroit. There is a lot of sassy and often quite explicit talk about sex and relationships, very definitely coming from a black woman’s perspective. However, in the first three episodes (out of eight) provided for review, Kirkpatrick does a nice job balancing the ribald humor with a fairly sophisticated mystery. Kirkpatrick and company also fully explore the Detroit setting, both the good (the trendy hipster night scene) and the bad (like the crack house Brickland reluctantly visits).

The mysterious Russian turns out to be a surprisingly intriguing (and wildly sleazy) villain, played with great panache by Ilia Volok (who is really a Ukrainian American). Phylicia Rashad is also terrific as Vonda Brooks, Deonte’s mother, who has lived under a cloud of suspicion since her son’s disappearance. She and Volok really help elevate
Diarra from Detroit above garden-variety Lifetime originals.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Immaculate, Starring Sister Sydney Sweeney

In the Conjuring franchise’s Nun films, the evil nun is not really a nun. The demon Valak assumed its habit-shrouded form to pervert an image of Christianity. However, these nasty nuns are really nuns and the questionable priests are really priests. A young, innocent American novice assumes nothing bad can happen in her new Italian convent, but, boy, is she wrong in Michael Mohan’s Immaculate, which opens today in theaters.

Sister Cecilia truly feels like she was called to serve God, because she was miraculously saved from a near-fatal accident in her youth. Somehow, Father Tedeschi found her in Flint, to recruit her for the convent he ministers to. According to her new friend, the rebellious Sister Mary, the good Father has a knack for finding damaged or baggage-laden Sisters. Ostensibly, the convent is a hospice caring for senior nuns, but Sister Cecilia quickly suspects something more sinister is secretly going on there. Of course, we knew it from the start, thanks to the prologue that removes any possibility of ambiguity.

It turns out Tedesco and the Mother Superior have a plan for Sister Cecilia. It might be spoilery to spell it out, but the very title is a dead giveaway. On the surface,
Immaculate shares some thematic similarities with The Devil Conspiracy and Deliver Us, but the Anti-Christ never darkens its door. They are thinking about somebody else, which makes the third act and the brutal climax pretty disturbing (and arguably sacrilegious for the faithful).

The look of
Immaculate is terrific, but the art direction, set decoration, and production design can only get it so far. Andrew Lobel’s screenplay lacks the gloriously unhinged lunacy of Conspiracy or the archetypal depth and profound moral conflict of Deliver Us, Instead, it mostly serves as a broadside against the Catholic Church.

Early on,
Immaculate serves up some eerie vibes, but that is mostly thanks to the design team. However, the second and third acts are more concerned with attacking the Church and its least controversial and most widely held beliefs. Frustratingly, the of-the-moment Sydney Sweeney is entirely wasted as Sister Cecilia, who is a shrinking violet for 95% of the film and suddenly a raging Medea for the final 5%.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Hitchhiker: Ghostwriter

Unfortunately writers are not like painters. When they die, the value of their work does not necessarily increase. Trust me, my old house lost plenty of authors and hardly saw any bump afterwards. Somehow, that happened for gothic writer Jeffrey Hunt, except he is not really dead. He faked his death to reap the anticipated benefits. In contrast, movie fans always valued the recently departed M. Emmet Walsh, who invariably brought plenty of sly attitude to every classic character performance, like Det. Underhill, who is investigating Hunt’s death. Fans know it will be dangerous to underestimate him in the “Ghostwriter” episode of The Hitchhiker.

Hunt was reasonably well-reviewed, but he just never sold. However, his slimy agent Tony Lynch never dropped him, presumably because he was sleeping with Hunt’s wife, Debby. Naturally, Debby assumes she can finally be with Lynch when her husband reportedly drove his car into the ocean, to his watery death. She is therefore quite surprised and alarmed to find Hunt back home, having witnessed their passionate embrace.
  Of course, she and Lynch quickly figure out since the world thinks Hunt is already dead, they have a free hand to murder him for real.

The Hitchhiker was supposed to be HBO’s slightly naughty dark thriller anthology, but the sex and nudity seem relatively mild today. The small ensemble is also packed with talent. Naturally, the drawly insinuating Walsh is reliably entertaining. Willem Dafoe is also quite satisfyingly creepy as the bug-eyed Hunt. Frankly, we do not see enough of him playing sinister characters.

Sleeping Dogs, Starring Russell Crowe

Criminologists consider eye-witness testimony the most unreliable form of evidence. Roy Freeman understands that better than most, because he is an ex-cop and an early Alzheimer’s sufferer. Even though he was fortunate to be selected for a revolutionary treatment, he still cannot remember the troublesome case that comes back to haunt him in Adam Cooper’s Sleeping Dogs, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

At first, Freeman cannot even remember his parents, but thanks to his doctor’s experimental process, some of his memory starts to return. However, his Philly PD career is still a black hole. Nevertheless, he agrees to meet Isaac Samuel a death-row inmate days away from meeting his maker, for the murder of Joseph Wieder, a psychology professor, who once testified against him. Freeman learns that he and his partner Jimmy Remis worked Samuel’s case. Of course, Samuel protests his innocence and challenges Freeman to redeem himself. Maybe the old Freeman would have dismissed Samuel, but since his doctor told him to keep his mind engaged, Freeman starts re-investigating the case, starting from absolute scratch.

Not surprisingly, Remis is less than thrilled to have Freeman poking around, especially since his former partner now sees him as a stranger. Despite his still questionable mental state, Freeman soon stumbles across a primo clue: an unpublished novel apparently inspired by the murder, written by Richard Finn, who rather suddenly died from a dubious overdose. It turns out Finn’s college girlfriend, Laura Baines, was Wieder’s research assistant—and maybe she had other duties as well.

Based on E.O. Chirovici’s novel
The Book of Mirrors (also the title of Finn’s unpublished MS.), Sleeping Dogs builds towards pleasantly sinister twist, but it would be better suited to an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-style anthology, because 90-plus minutes gives thriller fans too much time to figure it all out.

Nevertheless, Russell Crowe is terrific as Freeman. In some ways, you could consider
Sleeping Dogs the disreputable cousin of A Beautiful Mind, because Crowe does a tremendous job expressing the ex-cop’s instability and confusion. The truth is a lot of Crowe’s recent performances have not gotten the notice they deserve, because they came in less “prestigious” films, like Land of Bad.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Sonoma ’24: Shé (Snake) (short)

Forget heavy metal. Classical music is better suited to horror. Just listen to the thunderous clash of compositions like Carmina Burana. Classical musicians are also more temperamentally inclined to appear in horror films, because, let’s face it, they can get pretty neurotic (in contrast, jazz musicians need to be cool). Unfortunately, young Fei is definitely neurotic—and then some. She is about to be pushed over the edge in Renee Zhan’s short film, Shé (Snake), which screens Friday at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

Fei is the first chair violinist in the orchestra of her elite performing arts academy. It is not just her seating position, it is central to her identity. Since she is bullied in school and taken for granted by her family, if she loses her chair, she loses everything. Yet, that is a real possibility when Mei transfers into her school and orchestra.

More than just a talented violinist, Mei seems to be a more pleasant and popular version of Fei. She could even be Fei’s doppelganger. To survive, Fei might have to resort to drastic violence. That is what the parasitic snakes and worms inside Fei’s body are telling her.

Palm Royale, on Apple TV+

Groucho Marx famously quipped: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Maxine Simmons would not find that funny. She is desperate to join the most exclusive country club in Palm Beach, to assure her entrée into the high society that congregates there in 1969. Naturally, the gate-keepers are dead-set against allowing her in, but the naïve social climber turns out to be quite resourceful in creator Abe Sylvia’s ten-part Palm Royale, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Simmons is so eager to join the Palm Royale, she scales the wall and invites herself in. Robert, the waiter, will see her out, because one the Korean War vet’s duties is ejecting the riffraff. Of course, Simmons would take exception to that. In fact, she would rather be known as Mrs. D’ellacourt, because her husband, Douglas D’ellacourt Simmons is the black sheep nephew of Norma D’ellacourt, the queen bee of Palm Beach society.

Unbeknownst to Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, Aunt Norma disinherited Douglas and the fell into a minimally conscious, nearly catatonic state. Frankly, she did it because of his marriage to gauche Maxine. Nevertheless, Simmons regularly visits the non-responsive Norma, to “borrow” from her closet. Weirdly, Robert, the obviously closeted (to everyone except Maxine) waiter, has an ambiguously protective relationship with Norma that sets him at odss with Simmons. However, he and the crass social climber will slowly warm to each other.

The other ladies-who-lunch are a different story, especially Evelyn Rollins, who considers herself Norma D’ellacourt’s rightful heir at the top of the social order. To claim her place, Rollins is desperate to get her hands on Aunt Norma’s infamous rolodex, which also holds all the blackmail fodder she has amassed on Palm Beach society.

Palm Royale
is billed as a comedy, but at least half the jokes poke fun at the recovering Aunt Norma’s attempts to speak, which come out as grunts and groans. If you think speech disabilities are hilarious than, boy oh boy, are you going to laugh during Palm Royale. You can tell the series is deliberately trying to milk D’ellacourt’s nonverbal utterances for humor, because one or two clearly echo thesp Carol Burnett’s famous Tarzan howls.

As a bonus,
Palm Royale also rewrites some history, erasing Kingdon Gould Jr., Nixon’s ambassador to Luxembourg and a WWII veteran, who was awarded two Silver Stars with Oak Clusters and a Purple Heart, replacing him Perry Donahue, Douglas Simmon’s corrupt real estate developer crony. On the other hand, it certainly makes Pres. Nixon look conscientious, apparently holding round-the-clock press conferences, updating the nation on developments in Vietnam, 24-7. Whenever anyone turns on the TV, there he is.

To further confuse matters, it is unclear whether Sylvia and the writers expect viewers to root for or against Maxine. She is tacky, manipulative, opportunistic, and delusional. Yet, she is also idealistic, a relentless self-improver, and in her own way, loyal and faithful. Mrs. Simmons is also keenly patriotic, but it seems like Sylvia and company consider that a questionable virtue. A major subplot involves the efforts of Rollins’s estranged step-daughter Linda Shaw to desert to Canada, which lands quite awkwardly for us grown children of Vietnam veterans. Our perspective and those of our military parents are definitely not included in
Palm Royale, not even from Maxine Simmons.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Land of Bad: Two Hemsworths Fighting Abu Sayyaf

Air Force Captain Eddie Grimm, call sign “Reaper,” does all his flying from a drone terminal, but he still gets credit for combat hours. Grimm is about to rack up a lot of them, because he has no intention of going home until the Special Operators he is watching over safely catch their e-vac. Unfortunately, his drone only carries a very finite payload of missiles in William Eubank’s Land of Bad, which releases today on VOD.

The mission is too realistic for comfort. Four operators must rescue a CIA asset from Alexander Petrov, a Russian arms dealer operating in a remote region of the Philippines controlled by the Wahhabi terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf. Honestly, this premise could be happening today or tomorrow. It will only be Sgt. J.J. “Playboy” Kinney’s second boots-on-the-ground operation, but the rest of the team, led by hardnosed Master Sgt. John “Sugar” Sweet is as tough as they come. Since Kinney is the Tactical Air Control Party officer, coordinating with Reaper, he should never have to fire off his gun during the mission. Of course, he will have to anyway, when Abu Sayyaf starts killing women and children.

Things get really messy, really quickly, turning the small patch of rain forest into the “land of bad” Kinney was warned about. As the presumed sole survivor, Reaper will try to guide Kinney to the rendezvous site, like Danny Glover and Gene Hackman in
Bat 21. However, Reaper can rain down fire on Abu Sayyaf positions, which is a handy extra advantage, but he must strategically pick his shots.

Land of Bad
is probably the best action/war movie featuring the U.S. military since Warhorse One, with which it shares several thematic similarities. Perhaps most notably, both films have the guts to make real-life terrorist organizations the bad guys. In the case of Johnny Strong’s film, it is the Taliban. For Land of Bad, it is the Islamist terrorists, Abu Sayyaf (and to a lesser extent, Russia).

Arguably, the dialogue, co-written by Eubank and David Frigerio, rings with even greater authenticity. Throughout their ordeal, the special operators can segway from casual flippancy to deadly seriousness and then shift back, with complete naturalness—and it sounds totally legit.

The action scenes are also both realistic and cinematic looking. It certainly does not hurt that Eubank has two Hemsworths to put through their paces. Liam helps flesh out Sgt. Kinney a bit more than you might expect, giving him some human neuroses, as well as a commando physique. Plus, Brother Luke is hard as nails playing the steely Sgt. Abell. Yet, neither can out bad-cat Milo Ventimiglia as the Master Sgt.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Late Night with the Devil

Unlike his successors, The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era really was a show for everyone. He regularly featured jazz musicians, like Buddy Rich and Joe Williams, as well as opera singers and classical musicians. It was hard to compete against his broadly based appeal, so his fictional second-place rival, Jack Delroy will try something desperate. Of course, horror fans know it will be a bad idea to invite a demonically possessed girl as a live studio guest, but he does it anyway in director-screenwriter-tandem Cameron & Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil, which opens in theaters this Friday.

In the 1970s, Delroy quickly became a strong second-place late night talk show host, but lately his show has been stagnating. Even the burst of sympathy that followed his beloved wife’s death was not enough to challenge Carson. Lately, the show has gotten somewhat Jerry Springer-ish. However, this special Halloween show will take it to a whole new level. In addition to Christou the psychic, Delroy has invited Lilly D’Abo, a girl who allegedly carries a demon inside her. Thanks to author and parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell, she supposedly has control over the evil entity trying to possess her.

To add further stress, Carmichael Haig, formerly Carmichael the Conjurer, a former magician turned paranormal debunker (clearly inspired by James “The Amazing” Randi) is also invited to be the obnoxious voice of skepticism. Right, what could possibly go wrong?

Late Night is a found footage film, showing the chaotic events as recorded by the show’s cameras, including the live feed during commercials. However, it does not feel like found footage. Instead, it is more like watching a “real” movie. The art and production direction are incredible. This is a crazy horror film, but it still manages to inspire nostalgia for the couch-sitting talk shows of the era. Delroy’s backstory, as a member of a reputed ritualistic “old boy’s” club adds even further dimensions of sinister intrigue.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Cinequest ’24: Shift

Some jobs are supposed to be boring or you are not doing them right. Late-night security guards are a good example. That is what Tom does for a living and he does it really badly. He starts to hatch all sorts of suspicions during the long nights he works at a 24-hour storage facility in director-screenwriter Max Neace’s Shift, which screens as part of the 2024 Cinequest.

Tom is a loser, who wants a job that will help him embrace his loserness. Your Storage in Washington Park, Chicago looks like just the ticket. His boss Hal seems a bit shifty, so to speak, but it is hard for Tom to pin down exactly how. Aside from a little mopping, Tom can just sit on the creaky office chair Hal dubbed “Grace Kelly” and watch the security monitors. Since it is the late 1990s, he does not have a smart phone to distract himself. Instead, he listens to Iris Keen, a DJ, who combines true crime talk with soul and adult contemporary.

Being relatively conscientious, Tom notices one of the cameras has slipped out of position. It happens to cover the unit rented by Mr. and Mrs. Jones, two of their regular customers. That is suspiciously convenient, because Tom knows he saw Mrs. Jones bring a younger man into the Your Storage one night, but he never saw him left.

As Tom’s voyeuristic paranoia escalates, Grace Kelly offers her commentary like a sarcastic Greek chorus. Yes, the chair talks, via silent subtitles. It might sound questionably eccentric, but the subtitles are unobtrusive and they are often archly droll. Frankly, “she” is funny enough to earn
Shift a lot of extra goodwill.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

First Look ’24: Limitation

There is a reason Putin thought he could get away with invading Ukraine. It is because Russia already got away with sabotaging a democratically elected government in Georgia. Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected Georgia’s first president with 87% of the vote. Less than a year later, he was toppled in a coup orchestrated by former Communists and street thugs. Filmmakers Elene Asatiani and Soso Dumbadze show it going down in real-time, through primary video sources foraged from the internet in the documentary, Limitation, which screens during this year’s First Look.

It starts out triumphant and full of hope, as Gamsakhurdia’s campaign smoothly segues into a victory lap. Yet, simultaneously, the anti-democratic elements immediately started demonstrating on the streets, with a vehemence that quickly crossed over into violence. Western critics argued Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist rhetoric was not sufficiently inclusive towards non-ethnic Georgian minorities, but you do not hear any such arguments from the Russian-backed coup-instigators.

Eventually, Gamsakhurdia and his supporters barricade themselves in a government building, eerily paralleling the 1993 Russian coup attempt, but the results were different. All the footage was apparently recorded by eye-witnesses and bystanders, but two clips feature “behind-the-scenes” footage of Western journalists, recorded by third parties, rather than their camera crews. ABC’s Sheila Kast gets credit for asking the putsch-promoters a tough question, but Christiane Amanpour largely peppers Gamsakhurdia with “your-detractors-charge-you-with-this” style questions, basically recycling their propaganda.

Friday, March 15, 2024

NCIFF ’24: Dounia, the Great White North

Poor Dounia desperately misses her father. You can blame Iran and Putin for that, because they enabled and encouraged the carnage Assad unleashed on his own country, particularly her hometown (as seen in her first film, Dounia: The Princess of Aleppo). Fortunately, Dounia and her grandparents found safe refuge in Quebec, where they have been largely welcomed by their new northern provincial community. Her mother died in Syria, but they still hope to be reunited with her father, whose fate remains unknown at the start of Marya Zarif & Andre Kadi’s Dounia: The Great White North, which screens during the 2024 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Dounia and her grandparents never come out and say it, but it seems like they find it weird that they must learn French after coming to Canada. Hopefully, the local version of identity politics-tribalism never turns violent, because Dounia’s family has seen more than enough of that.

Dounia forged a fast friendship with Rosalie, the girl next-door, who also happens to be the daughter of the school teacher. Even though she is starting to fit, Dounia worries constantly over her missing father, so their classmate Miguizou introduces them to her grandmother, whose Atikamekw wisdom might help the Dounia’s spirit animal guide her father to sub-Arctic Quebec. That might sound like a longshot, but this is a fable, not an expose or a white-paper report.

The Great White North
is also a quickie, clocking in just under an hour, making it highly appropriate for the under-10-year-old target demo. The animation might be a bit simple for serious connoisseurs of the medium, but it captures the look and feel illustrated children’s books.

First Look ’24: 1489

If you wonder what a Pax Putania might be like, look at the Caucasus. Spoiler alert: it isn’t very peaceful. Despite its security pact with Russia, Armenia was routed by Azerbaijan, a more “allied” Russian ally, during the 2020 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of the breakaway Artsakh region were Armenian speakers who more readily identified with Armenia, which makes Russian pretenses for invading Ukraine even more hypocritical. Tragically, Shoghakat Vardanyan’s brother Soghomon was a casualty of the conflict. Perhaps even more cruelly, Soghomon’s fate remained unknown when his sister picked up a camera and started documenting the family’s Kafkaesque anguish in 1489, which screens during this year’s First Look.

Soghomon Vardanyan was a musician, not a fighter, but he answered his nation’s call. Unfortunately, Armenia will be forced to accept humiliating terms after their military defeat. Vardanyan and her parents have few illusions, because they know Soghomon’s unit was nearly decimated in a disastrous engagement. They still try to hold onto some hope, but they feel mixed emotions when the body they are summoned to identify turns out to be another false alarm.

(titled after an identification number related to Vardanyan’s brother) is a quiet, intimate long-take film. Intuitively, Vardanyan develops the sort of embedded documentary filmmaking techniques Wang Bing has perfected over a two-decade span. She captures some heart-breaking family drama, while also participating in it.

The Bloody Hundredth, on Apple TV+

They did it the hard way, which was the right way and the American way. The 100th U.S. Army Air Force Bombardment Division flew in broad daylight, carefully bombing legitimate military targets. As a result, they suffered tremendously high mortality rates. In contrast, British Bomber Command flew night missions, largely dropping their payloads anywhere in the vicinity of large urban areas. You can directly compare the Hundredth’s conduct during WWII to that of the IDF’s today, conscientiously striving to minimize civilian casualties, despite the elevated risks for their own. The Hundredth’s service and heroism have been dramatized in the amazing nine-part series Masters of the Air. In addition to the concluding episode, Laurent Bouzereau & Mark Herzog’s one-hour companion documentary, The Bloody Hundredth also premieres today on Apple TV+.

Sadly, neither Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven or Maj. John “Bucky” Egan, the two most prominent Airmen featured in
Masters of the Air, are still with us. However, Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal and Harry Crosby, who also played significant roles in the series, discuss their wartime experiences at length.

The veterans of the 100
th make a critical point that is not readily apparent from the series. The skeleton of the famous B17 consisted of aluminum rather than steel, so any kind of ordinance would cut right through it. They took a lot of fire and a lot of flak—and did not always live to talk about it.

Bloody Hundredth
provides a concise but descriptive recap of the missions chronicled in the series. At times the scenes of aerial combat are so impressive and immersive in Masters of the Air, viewers might lose sight of the bigger picture, with respect to the overall tides of war. Bloody Hundredth provides wider context, explaining how the Hundredth needed to control the skies of Europe, to secure the Normandy landing.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Manhunt, on Apple TV+

In John Ford’s classic Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Samuel Mudd is portrayed as an innocent man unjustly convicted of abetting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. That view has predominated in the media, thanks to the efforts of the Mudd family, who elicited a letter from Jimmy Carter attesting to their ancestor’s innocence. Not so fast argued historian James L. Swanson, who linked Mudd to John Wilkes Booth well before the assassination. Edwin Stanton makes the case against Mudd and the rest of the co-conspirators, even including Jefferson Davis, in creator Monica Beletsky’s seven-episode Manhunt, adapted from Swanson’s book, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Lee has just surrendered, so Pres. Lincoln will finally enjoy an evening at the theater, against the advice of his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. For those wondering, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, the subject of
Saving Lincoln, does not appear in Manhunt. Obviously, Lamon’s substitute that night was not as diligent.

Grieving his friend, Stanton immediately takes charge of the investigation. Given Booth’s apparent involvement in an underground Confederate fifth column network, the manhunt falls under his jurisdiction. However, Stanton also understands the need to assert and maintain his authority, because he mistrusts the new president, Andrew Johnson, a unionist Southern Democrat, who was put on the ticket to shore up border state support. Right from the start, Johnson clearly signals his intention to scale back Reconstruction. However, he supports Stanton’s relentless hunt for Booth, especially since he was also one of the cabal’s targets.

The Mudd family is not going to enjoy
Manhunt, because it unequivocally portrays him as an accomplice, at least after the fact, as well as a racist and often violently abusive former slave-owner. Indeed, it would be a mistake to call Manhunt revisionist history. It is more like revisionist-revisionist history. After years of portrayals of Mudd as a railroaded Samaritan and Johnson as the victim of partisan politics, Beletsky and company, by way of Swanson, argue they were both villains who profoundly damaged our country. Frankly, after watching Manhunt viewers will wonder why Kennedy and Ted Sorenson included one of the Republican Senators who voted against convicting Johnson in Profiles in Courage.

Beyond that,
Manhunt is a decent dragnet-thriller and even better political thriller. Stanton’s pursuit of Booth is just as important as his efforts to maintain the scope of Reconstruction. They are different manifestations of the same desire to preserve and defend America. Series directors Carl Franklin (One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress) and John Dahl (Red Rock West and The Last Seduction) clearly know how to build suspense on both the large and small screens, which definitely broadens the accessibility of Manhunt. However, the history and politics are never dumbed-down.

Tobias Menzies is also terrific as Stanton, portraying him as a keenly intelligent man of principles, who does not suffer fools gladly. However, he also expresses all the grief and idealism that made him so compatible with Lincoln. Glenn Morshower (Agent Pierce in
24) is appropriately slimy as Johnson, in a flamboyant but not cartoony kind of way. In contrast, Patton Oswalt is badly miscast as Union Army intelligence chief Lafayette Baker. He looks conspicuously out of place, because he lacks sufficient gravity.

Exhuma: Feng Shui Horror

Feng Shui is one of those things you can’t help believing in when its bad. At this secluded grave site, it is really, really awful. A shaman, a geomancer, and their crony-partners (walk into a bar and then) rather ill-advisedly disinter the remains, but that will be a profound mistake in director-screenwriter Jang Jae-hyun’s Exhuma, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Something is tormenting the latest infant scion if a wealthy Korean-American family. Apparently, it recently finished off the father’s older bother and has moved on to the firstborn of the next generation. At least that is what Hwa-rim sensed. She is the shaman recruited by the Korean wing of the family. It turns out the great-grandfather is the likely supernatural culprit, but she will need the help of a veteran geomancer, like crusty old Kim Sang-deuk, to fight him.

Lately, Kim and his undertaker-sidekick Ko Young-geun have been scraping out a living by selling Feng Shui-vetted grave-sites, but he knows his stuff. According to the boy’s father, the mean old man was buried in an unmarked grave on eerie-looking mountain, on the advice of a dubious Japanese monk. Frankly, Kim never scouted there, because the vibes are so bad. However, Hwa-kim and her assistant/vessel Bong-gil are convinced the
  four can perform a cleansing ritual and then whisk the body away for cremation, but, of course, it will not be so easy.

Along with Na Hong-jin’s
The Wailing, Exhuma proves Korean Shamanic horror can be as potent as Catholic demonic horror. Exhuma is not quite as unhinged as Na’s film, but it has a quite slow-building eeriness that is distinctive. There are no jump scares, just loads of atmosphere and creepy lore.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Apples Never Fall, in The Epoch Times

Peacock's new Liane Moriarty domestic thriller APPLES NEVER FALL is essentially a soap opera-style mystery, but it is fun to watch the great Sam Neill scowl his way through it. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

One Life: Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir Nicholas Winton

Sir Nicholas Winton has been called the British Schindler, but his heroic rescue work went almost completely unrecognized until 1988. Of course, hardly anyone knew who Oskar Schindler was before the 1993 film. To this day, few people have heard of Varian Fry and the noble Raoul Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison, most likely sometime in the late 1950s. The modest Winton never sought fame, so he is surprised when it belatedly finds him in James Hawes’s One Life, which opens Friday in theaters.

When the National Socialists invaded the Sudetenland, most of the UK government buried their heads in the sand, but a young stockbroker of Jewish German heritage sprang into action. Hinton arrived in Prague as a representative of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, who believed his expertise in finance and bureaucratic paperwork could come in handy. The local chair Doreen Warriner was focusing on the most at-risk political refugees, because she barely had the bandwidth to handle them.

However, Winton is so struck by the appalling conditions endured by the largely but not exclusively Jewish children in makeshift camps, he launches an ambitious campaign that becomes known as the Kindertransport. British immigration authorities are not quite as obstructionist as the notoriously antisemitic Breckinridge Long in the U.S. State Department, but they require a fifty-pound deposit to insure the children would not burden the state, in addition to visas and pre-arranged foster parents to care for them. Back in England, Winton starts plugging away, with the help of his committee colleagues and his mother Babi, who was hard to say no to.

It is pretty mind-blowing Winton and his colleagues conducted this major fundraising campaign and logistical challenge using type-writers and regular mail service. However, the anti-Jewish hatred they encountered is depressingly commonplace in 2024. What would Winton think about his Labour Party’s persistent scandals involving antisemitism?

Screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake go out of their way to point out Winton’s left-leaning politics. Yet, the film takes on a new sense of urgency post 10/7. (In a twist of fate, its UK debut came less than a week after Hamas's savage mass murders, abductions, and weaponized rapes.)

Whether or not you can push outside events out of your mind, Sir Anthony Hopkins is still a marvel as the late-1980s Winton. He portrays the righteous rescuer with deep sincerity and humility that is very moving. You might not pick Hopkins and Johnny Flynn out of a crowd and assume they were related, but he plays 1930s Winton with similarly keen earnestness. We quickly believe they are the same man, seen decades apart.