Sunday, June 30, 2024

This is America, Charlie Brown: The Music and Heroes of America

Of course, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang love jazz. For years, their specials were scored by the great Vine Guaraldi—and to jazz fans, he was indeed great. They even had the occasion to talk about music, including several jazz masters in the final episode of This is America, Charlie Brown, “The Music and Heroes of America” (directed by Sam Jaimes), which screens at the Paley Center as part of its Independence Day celebration.

Schroeder has an important class presentation on the history of American music, but he is reluctant to hire Snoopy. You know that beagle is a wild improvisor. However, it turns out he could use some of Snoopy’s solo virtuosity. Much to his surprise, his portion of the program performing Great American Songwriters like Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, and George M. Cohan are quite well received.

Then Franklin takes over to present spirituals, the blues, and jazz. Throughout the program, Lou Rawls sings (off-camera) standards like “When the Saints” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Ironically, even though this episode discusses jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, it was one of the few episodes of the series not scored by a composer known for their jazz work. While five previous episodes featured music from Dave Brubeck, Dave Grusin, David Benoit, George Winston, and Wynton Marsalis, “American Music” was scored by Ed Bogas (who succeeded Guaraldi as the in-house composer for
Peanuts specials) and Desiree Goyette.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Admissions Granted, on MSNBC

Academics and politicians rarely try to anticipate the unintended consequences of the policies they devise—and it shows. They even more rarely try to adjust their schemes in response, more frequently doubling down in the face of resistance. So-called “affirmative action” as represented by race-based college admissions criteria is a case in point. Few early advocates of affirmative action could anticipate colleges discriminating against Asian applicants to boost other minorities groups. That this happened is no longer a matter of opinion. Supreme Court found Harvard and the University of North Carolina did indeed so discriminate in landmark 2022 decisions. Documentarians Hao Wu and Miang Wang chronicle the historic court cases from the perspective of the plaintiffs, their allies, and defenders of the status quo in Admissions Granted, which premieres tomorrow on MSNBC.

Yes, there are a lot of Asians attending Harvard. Several of the students who were represented by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) wanted to join them. Yet, despite having near perfect test scores and grade point averages, as well as impressive extracurriculars (one even sang at Obama’s inauguration), they were not accepted. Evidently, many applicants post online the moment they open their Harvard admissions emails. Watching some, the future plaintiffs could not help notice their fellow Asians seemed to be getting rejected or waitlisted at much higher rates than other demographic groups.

Eventually, they joined up with SFFA, founded by several conservative Asian activists. Soon, legal strategist Edward Blum would join their cause. Blum had experience a legal course all the way to the Supreme Court. He is also Jewish. “Coincidentally,” he became a lightning rod for Harvard protesters. Several times in the film, we hear Harvard students, ostensibly protesting on behalf of “diversity,” chanting: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Edward Blum has got to go!” That is a verbatim quote, which prompts the question of just where they wanted him to go. Regardless, it seems the practice of demonizing Jews is nothing new at Harvard.

Admission Granted might be the most fair and balanced ninetysome minutes you will see on MSNBC for the rest of the year, but there are no guarantees regarding the twentysome minutes of commercials. Despite all the defenders of partially-race-based admissions trying to slander Blum’s character, Wu and Wang give the time to fully make his case. Viewers hear a good deal from both sides, but it is worth noting which side tends to engage in unsupported ad hominin attacks, frequently targeting Blum.

Recognizing the complications of reality, several of the SFFA-supported plaintiffs express mixed feelings regarding the case. They lament the likelihood the Roberts Court would entirely strike down affirmative action (as they did), but they still maintain Asian applicants are not treated fairly, which is not right. Conversely, defenders of affirmative action never really engage with SFFA’s arguments.

The degree to which Harvard consistently and pervasively gave Asians their lowest rating in its broad “personal” admissions category is deeply troubling. It implies Asian students demonstrate traits such as “courage” and “perseverance” at comparatively lower rates. Yet, their willingness to fight as part of Harvard and UNC cases clearly suggest otherwise.

Friday, June 28, 2024

June Zero: Israel, 1962

During Adolf Eichmann's trial, Israel mandated that only Sephardic Jews could serve as his prison guards, because his victims were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Originally indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, anti-Semitic protestors regular deny the very existence of the Sephardic Jews. “Go back to Poland” is a hateful threat directed at Jewish students you often heard screamed on college campuses in recent weeks. Given the alarming rise in hate crimes targeting Jews, like last weekend’s violent attack on a Los Angeles synagogue, Jake Paltrow’s June Zero resonates differently than when it started its festival screenings. A young Sephardic boy experiences a unique vantage point on history in June Zero, which opens today in New York.

David Saada has mild klepto impulses, so his father decides to scare him straight with a part-time job in the factory owned and operated by Schlomi Zebco, a still-feared former anti-British Zionist revolutionary. Zebco does not owe his father anything, but he sees some possible use for the scrappy kid. He happens to have a big job coming in that will require small hands and an understanding of mechanics.

Zebco has been hired by the state to create a crematorium for Eichmann. They intend to cremate him, so his grave could not become a pilgrimage site for Ivy League faculty members. (They were really thinking of Nazi thugs, but here in 2024, they are largely one and the same). In a supreme irony, they provie vintage schematics from Topf and Sons, the German engineering firm that had a lion’s share of the concentration camp contracts and was later nationalized by the East German Communist regime.

The job came to Zebco through an old crony, Haim Gori, a Moroccan Israeli overseeing Eichmann’s prison detail. Despite being Sephardic, Gori is horrified by his prisoner, but also mindful of his responsibility. Frankly, the section focusing on Gori bears some similarity to horror films, because the unseen Eichmann seems to disturb his jailers in ways comparable to a Hannibal Lecter or Michael Meyers. Yet, Paltrow never shows the monster directly, using clever framing akin to that of Michael Jordan in
Air, to prevent humanizing him to any extent. Instead, he is pure bogeyman.

The intertwined narrative strand focuses on Micha Aaronson, a member of the prosecution, who is now giving a guided tour of the Warsaw Ghetto, where he barely a savage flogging. There seems to be a mutual attraction percolating between him and Ada from the local consulate, but they also have very different perspectives on Israel should express its collective memories of the Holocaust.

This is an important segment, because it reminds viewers Israelis are not monolithic. They debate and disagree, just like other nations. However, it is also important for viewers to remember, with their post-10/7 hindsight, all Jews (Israeli or not) will be treated alike by Jew-hating terrorists, who happily murdered Israeli peace-activists at Be-eri.

Indeed, there are powerful scenes in each section of
June Zero (a reference to the tabloid that opted not to date its Eichmann execution issue). Weirdly, the film might have been even more successful if it was a more sharply defined triptych, with characters only crossing over to maintain a sense of continuity.

Bloodline Killer, on Tubi

It is Halloween night. If horror fans think they know what that means, they are probably right. A masked serial killer will murder Moira Cole’s husband Dillon and leave her grown sons scarred for life (in one case, literally). Perhaps the worst part is the axe-killing comes from inside the family in Ante Novakovic’s Bloodline Killer (a.k.a. The Skulleton), which starts streaming today on Tubi.

Frankly, it would have been worse if Cole had not come out of the house with her firearm loaded and ready. She put several shots in the so-called “Skulleton” killer. It was enough to blast him off her son Conor, but he still manages to get away. Yet, it is not exactly a clean getaway. It turns out the nurse attending the Coles recognizes their description of the masked killer as her brother. Instinctively knowing where he might flee, she finds him, drugs him, and securely chains him up in her basement. He would probably be happier in that mental hospital Michael Meyers kept escaping from.

Years later, the lack of closure torments the Coles. They are also disgusted by the exploitative
Skulleton movie franchise, much like the Stab movies in Scream. The Cole Brothers barely contain their mutual hostility, which is awkward, since they both still live with mom. Understandably, she remains reluctant to confess she probably knows the Skulleton and might have witnessed his first murder at an early age. She has suppressed the details, but eventually her ancient-hippy-looking shrink, played by Bruce Dern (a two-time Oscar nominee), will drag it out of her—probably around the time Skulleton escapes for another Halloween killing spree.

Clearly, Novakovic and screenwriters Anthony & James Gaudioso, who play Det. Trusten James and Conor Cole, were inspired by the old school
Halloween franchise, including the maligned sequels that made Michael Meyers and Laurie Stode long lost siblings. The early Haddon-esque vibe is quite nice, but the contrivances are annoying and the entire mid-section moves slower than molasses.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout

It is tempting to say the notorious Howard Hughes-produced epic The Conqueror “bombed,” but much like Waterworld, it actually did decent box office when it initially opened. However, Hughes did not see any profits when you factor in what he spent on marketing. Of course, it is not like any of that money came out of the pocket of its iconic star, John Wayne, but tragically, he was one of many cast- and crew-members who contracted cancer years after making the dubious movie. Filmmaker William Nunez chronicles the film’s controversial history in The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Ironically, the location shoot near St. George, Utah was quite pleasant for both the local community and their Hollywood visitors. Unfortunately, the area was closely downwind from the nuclear testing grounds in Nevada. That was probably something Hughes and the studio executives should have thought more about at the time.

Apparently, they were too busy making bad cinematic decisions. Even though there was little criticism of “yellowface” casting at the time, having Wayne portray Temujin, a.k.a. Genghis Khan, was still quite the head-scratcher. Oscar Millard’s pretentiously “elevated”-sounding screenplay did not do Wayne, or the film itself, any favors. Plus, actor Dick Powell was clearly hired to direct because he was happy to defer to Hughes, rather than assert his authority or judgment.

Roughly the first half of
Hollywood Fallout serves up some fascinating and rather bittersweet Hollywood history. Sadly, but inevitably, the film takes a grim turn as the residents of St. George start contracting cancer at suspiciously high rates. When they notice how many of their old Hollywood guests were also stricken with suspiciously high rates of cancer, they start putting the pieces together.

Nunez and his interview subjects convincingly indict the now-defunct U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for its callous and contemptuous disregard for average Americans’ safety. (Nolan’s
Oppenheimer does not make them look so great, either.) They were dissolved in 1975, with most of their duties absorbed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The Imaginary, in Cinema Daily US

Studio Ponoc's THE IMAGINARY is another terrific Japanese anime adaptation of a British YA fantasy that features the kind of rich world-building and quality animation genre fans crave. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review up here.

Domino Day: Lone Witch, on Sundance Now

This witchcraft series might depress the business of hook-up apps. Blame Domino Day. She considers herself a witch, but the way she sucks the life force out of men is very much like a vampire. Technically, she is a lamia, even though she never shape-shifts nor slithers on a serpentine tail. She does not know her true nature, but she intuitively understands it would freak out other witches in creator-writer Lauren Sequeira’s six-episode Domino Day: Lone Witch, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

Day is trying to lay low in Manchester. She works part-time as a barista, but she lives by sucking the life-force out of horny jerks she meets through apps. She never takes enough to kill them, but she always lives them seriously depleted and with their memories wiped. Unfortunately, she did not find her latest victim’s recording device. He will be a problem.

Her ex, Silas was a problem too, but she banished him to an alternate dimension very much like “the Further” in the
Insidious movies. Much to her surprise, Silas returns, but he insists he harbors no ill-will. Silas still hopes to harness her power to restore his own magic. Silas’s spell-casting abilities were [justifiably] hobbled by his mother Esme, the governing elder witch for Manchester. Clearly, Day needs help from the local coven that discovered her presence, but she only trusts Sammie, a practitioner of aura magic. In fact, she will have good reason to be angry with Kat, the coven leader, who secretly consorts with forbidden ancestor spirits.

The series has plenty of sexual undercurrents, but Sequeira wisely keeps more bubbling under the surface rather than in viewers faces. Frankly, sex usually leads to very bad things, so it almost offers a weird argument for abstinence. (Of course, there is a long history of vampirism serving as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, so the same can be true for lamias.)

Walker: See You Sometime (Series Finale)

It is time to ride off into the sunset. Fortunately, there will be no crime in the entire state of Texas while the Rangers wrap-up some final personal and administrative business. It was a tough season for Cordell Walker, so maybe he would be happy to know this will be the last. Frankly, he is lucky to be alive for “See You Sometime,” the series finale of Walker, which premieres tonight on CW.

Apparently, The Jackal had Walker strapped to a gurney and buried alive, so he is still understandably a bit shaky. To his credit, he is finally starting to open with his family and girlfriend, because he cannot pretend this case wasn’t brutal on them too.

Consequently, there will be no crimes solved in this episode. Instead, it is all about character pay-off. The only open question left to resolved is who gets the promotion to lieutenant? The answer is embargoed, but even if it weren’t, it would be no fair telling.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Something to Stand for with Mike Rowe, in The Epoch Times

SOMETHING TO STAND FOR WITH MIKE ROWE is an entertaining and insightful direct tribute to America's veterans and Founding Fathers, as well as a nice indirect tribute to his inspiration, Paul Harvey. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

The Vourdalak: A French Take on A. K. Tolstoy

Dracula is a predator, who stalks and seduces his prey. The Vourdalak is a terrorist, who menaces and exterminates entire families. They are both vampires with 19th Century literary roots. While A.K. Tolstoy’s Vourdalak predates Dracula, Stoker’s bloodsucker has been far more popular in film. Nevertheless, the Vourdalak filmography has grown steadily in recent years. Director Adrien Beau adds his contribution when the French-language The Vourdalak opens this Friday in theaters.

As many horror fans know from the Mario Bava anthology
Black Sunday, a traveling nobleman finds shelter with a family that has a serious Vourdalak problem. In this case, the Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe is a lightweight twit, who probably will not be missed by his elite family. On the other hand, gruff Jegor and his grown siblings have definitely been missing their father Gorcha. He soon returns home, but he seems changed.

Frankly, the death’s head-looking Gorcha is more creepily emaciated than the skeletal Dracula in
The Last Voyage of the Demeter. D’Urfe’s hosts should have immediately staked him, but Jegor is too blinded by filial loyalty.

Somehow, Beau uses trappings of historical drama, the powdered wigs and the rancid mud and fetid muck, to create a weirdly sickly vibe. His
Vourdalak might not be the scariest horror film ever, but it is one of the last ones you would choose to place yourself into via a virtual reality simulation. Also, on a subconsciously level, d’Urfe’s dandified dress and his talk of courtly malaise reinforce the vibe of decay and corruption.

Gorcha (voiced by Beau) is spectacularly creepy, like a life-size, live-action Crypt-Keeper. Everything about him is spectacularly foul, in a very cool way. Usually, it takes a while for Gorcha to return in
Vourdalak adaptations, but Beau was obviously eager to introduce him—with good reason.

Monday, June 24, 2024

A Gangster’s Kiss, Co-Starring John Hannah & Patsy Kensit

Blokey Jack is making a bigger mistake than Shelley Long when he decides to leave his EastEnders-like TV series to make movies. Planning to appear in a gangster film, he starts researching the role by shadowing his old school pal Danny, who works as an enforcer for his crime-boss uncle, Don. What could wrong? Judging from the body they are burying in the in media res prologue, plenty. There is no shortage of mayhem but the comedy is not so funny in Ray Burdis’s A Gangster’s Kiss, which releases today in some markets on VOD.

This will be the worst internship ever. Old Jack was just supposed to keep his head down and his mouth shut. Unfortunately, Mus, one of three sort of Turkish brothers supplying drugs to Don’s operation, recognizes Jack and wants to strike up a friendship with the minor celebrity. The actor tries to decline his advances diplomatically, but fails spectacularly. Suddenly, a gang war threatens to erupt in London—and it will mostly be his fault.

There is no question much of the film was cast in hopes of appealing to late-1980s/early-1990s nostalgia. There is Patsy Kensit (
Lethal Weapon 2, Absolute Beginners) appearing as Don’s lawyer, Crassus, whose tough-luck counsel seems more likely to inspire turning state’s evidence than maintaining the code of silence.

John Hannah (
Four Weddings and a Funeral) bizarrely plays Mus’s brother Mem, who sports an eye-patch, peg leg, and a hook for a hand. At least Martin Kemp (The Krays and Spandau Ballet videos) understands how to ham it up without overindulging in schtick as cranky Uncle Don.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Music for Black Pigeons, with Lee Konitz, Jakob Bro, Paul Motian, etc.

The musicians in this documentary are a looser group than a band, but they are more tightly-knit than a game of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It is more like one degree of Jakob Bro, whom all the assembled jazz artists perform and record with (often for producer Manfred Eicher of ECM Records). The resulting music is adventurous but still melodically accessible in Andreas Koefoed & Jorgen Leth’s documentary, Music for Black Pigeons, which screens as part of Laemmle’s Culture Vulture series.

Obviously, Koefoed and Leth were documenting Bro and his musical associates for over a ten-year period, since they recorded extensive footage of the late, great Lee Konitz. Although captured late in his life, Konitz still sounds terrific. In fact, Bro’s music seems to inspire him, even if he does not entirely “get” it. He certainly gets the vibe. (He also supplies the film’s title, in a perfect example of the alto and tenor player’s sense of humor.)

Unfortunately, Koefoed and Leth were not able to record the legendary Polish composer-trumpeter Tomas Stanko before his death, but he captures Bro composing and recording his tribute, “To Stanko,” fittingly produced by Eicher. For fans of Stanko, their reminiscences alone will be worth the price of admission.

Although the structure of
Black Pigeons has a somewhat free-association vibe, it certainly fits the music. Yet, the film’s approach is still very intentional. Clearly, they want to elicit some insight from the musicians into the process of creating music, either than before or after they perform. Sometimes it is amusing and in the case of bassist Thomas Morgan, it is almost uncomfortably revealing. Yet, they were right to include that interview segment, because his difficulty verbalizing the process actually says a lot.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Oakville ’24: One Must Wash Eyes

The CCP is not the only oppressive regime engaging in the extraterritorial harassment of their critics. Iranian agents have already been indictment for the attempted kidnapping of democracy advocate Masih Alinejad—on American soil. She is a prominent activist, but the brutal Islamist regime has also targeted average people too. Consequently, Sahar has good reasons to worry about herself and her family when she is photographed at a Canadian demonstration in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in director-screenwriter Sepideh Yadegar’s One Must Wash Eyes, which premieres tonight at the 2024 Oakville Film Festival.

To remain in Canada on her student visa Sahar must pay her overdue tuition. Unfortunately, her mother has been unable to transfer the money, because her Uncle Hekmat has yet to buy out her late father’s share of their business. Her mother is trusting, but Sahar is justifiably suspicious. Things go from bad to worse when she is clearly and identifiably photographed at a Woman, Life, Freedom demonstration.

Immediately, her boss at the Persian grocery store fires her, fearing his association with her will jeopardize his frequent visits home. (Frankly, his shocking lack of sympathy for the democracy cries out for fuller exploration.) Shortly thereafter, Sahar gets a call from her mother, informing her the family received a threatening visit from the Basiji morals police.

Even though rational people would consider Sahar the smallest of small fries, viewers need to understand there nothing far-fetched in Yadegar’s screenplay. In fact, the authoritarian regime comes after everyday people like her all the time. If anything, Yadegar shows tremendous restraint in her depiction of their extraterritorial repression.

Despite the necessarily heavy political themes,
One Must Wash Eyes (an awkward title, almost guaranteed to change that refers to Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s verse) is still more of a character study, examining the impact of extreme stress and alienation on the increasingly desperate Sahar.

Pegah Ghafoori (from
From) is terrific as Sahar. She is an almost painfully realistic character, who makes a lot of mistakes, but they are all only too believable. Throughout it all, Ghafoori keeps her performance honest and grounded. Remember when you finished your degree? Now try to imagine going through that time while fearing for your safety and that of your family, but not trusting anyone enough to ask for help.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Titanic, Suitable Version for Iranian Families (short), at UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema

Advocates of censorship argue it leads to more social stability, but the opposite is true. It also makes people dumber and impoverishes cultural life. If you doubt any of those points, the staff’s experiences preparing James Cameron’s Titanic for the Iranian state broadcaster will set you straight. It is an exercise in stupidity captured in a brilliant short film. The satire stings throughout writer-director Farnoosh Samadi’s Titanic, Suitable Version for Iranian Families, which screens tomorrow during the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

The state broadcaster prematurely announced the premiere of a
Titanic in “suitable version for Iranian families,” creating an online firestorm. The Islamist regime loyalists are offended by the notion that a decadent Hollywood movie could be such an event in Iran. Reform-oriented moderates are put off by the extensive censorship they rightly assume such a broadcast would require. According to staff-members coming in and out of the office-editing suite, at least an hour has already been axed, with more cuts looming.

Don’t start boycotting James Cameron, because the staff—all state employees—readily admit they have pirated the film. In discussions cable networks could relate to, they mostly agree they need to start airing films like
Titanic to compete with satellite dishes. However, they cannot really show Titanic, because they must cut scenes, change dialogue, and add clothing through rotoscope animation—and not just to nude scenes, but also any neckline with more than four inches visible. As if all that were not sufficiently absurd, they are bowdlerizing Titanic while Woman, Life, Freedom protests rage on the streets below.

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

Here is another reminder goths are annoying and Gen Z’ers are helpless. As if we could forget, right? In this case, it is true for the undead as well. Sasha is a young vampire, but she refuses to feed herself, because she of her unusually acute empathy. She is sort of like a vampire vegan, but the bags of blood that sustain her obviously comes from someone. Sasha must figure out her diet in Ariane Louis-Seize’s Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, which opens today in New York.

Sasha immediately demonstrated prodigious musical talent, but her fangs were late coming in. Even now, they only come out under extreme stress. She refuses to hunt, so her parents send her to live with her cousin Denise, who behaves like a vampire on a CW series. Cut off from bagged blood, Sasha considers killing herself, but she wanders into a suicidal support group instead. That is where she meets Paul.

Figuring out Sasha’s secret, the bullied teenager assures her that he would be just fine letting her drain his body of blood. Ethically, Sasha thinks she could maybe handle that, but first she wants Paul to enjoy a little karmic payback.

Humanist Vampire Etc
is probably the moodiest vampire film since Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but it is not nearly as stylish. Amirpour’s film has a noir vibe entirely missing from this French-Canadian tale of undead angst. It also lacks the quietly expressive charisma of Sheila Vand.

Instead, both Sara Montpetit and Felix-Antoine Benard are relentlessly sullen and sulky. Frankly, they are more lifeless than undead. Unfortunately, Noemie O’Farrell’s Cousin Denise is not nearly vampy enough to compensate for their blandness.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Federer: Twelve Final Days, in Cinema Daily US

Fans will be pleased to see the tennis legend get the send-off he deserves in FEDERER: TWELVE FINAL DAYS. It is carefully scripted, butit is still an interesting snapshot of the sport as it prepares to lose one of its star players. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

The Exorcism (Not The Exorcist, or is it?)

Anthony Miller is not an exorcist, but he will play one in the movies—hopefully. Unfortunately, the role is really taking a lot out of him. The director is demanding, but a real-deal demon is even scarier. Cheekily, the film-within-the-film is code-named The Georgetown Project. Horror fans know what that refers to, but the demon wants to rewrite the ending in Joshua John Miller’s The Exorcism, which opens Friday.

Miller is known for his mistakes off-screen, but he is trying resurrect his career.
The Georgetown Project would be a high-profile comeback vehicle, since the original actor cast in the Father Merrin-like role was killed during the prologue. As a bonus, Miller also secures a production assistant gig for his daughter Lee. They are not exactly estranged, but their relationship is certainly a bit frayed around the edges. He thought spending time together would bring them closer, but instead, he is humiliated when she sees Peter the director wielding all his past failures to prod him, in a method kind of way.

Meanwhile, the demon also starts playing games with Miller’s perception of reality. The combined pressure takes a toll on his physical, mental, and spiritual health. Unfortunately, the film’s technical adviser, Father Conor, does not suspect demonic interference until its claws are deeply embedded in Miller’s psyche.

The Exorcism
is not just broadly inspired by The Exorcist in the way of nearly every subsequent demonic horror movie. In this case, the echoes and parallels are deliberately intended. Miller’s father was actor-playwright Jason Miller (born John Anthony Miller), who starred as Father Karras in Exorcist I and III. Peter shares a name with Exorcist novelist and screenwriter, William Peter Blatty, but some of his confrontational tactics are reminiscent of techniques attributed to director William Friedkin. Also, Russell Crowe has had a few off-screen incidents, not unlike [his] Miller.

Regardless, the Anthony Miller of
The Exorcism is another example of the troubled souls he now seems to be specializing in, often in otherwise formulaic B-movies, like Sleeping Dogs. In the case of The Exorcism, his performance is just as good, but it comes in a better film.

Blackwater Lane, Based on a B.A. Parris Novel

Cass Anderson would be a perfect heroine for a Mary Roberts Rinehart “Had I But Known” mystery. She is rich, sensitive, and has a history of mental health issues. She also lives in a big, remote manor. Naturally, it is under renovation and the security system is dicey. However, she is married to the protective Matthew, but he starts to worry she needs protecting from herself in Jeff Celentano’s Blackwater Lane, based on B.A. Parris’s novel The Breakdown, which releases tomorrow in theaters.

Being England’s wealthiest high school drama teacher, the well-heeled Anderson promises her husband she will not take the sketchy Blackwater Lane shortcut home after celebrating the last day of school with her colleagues. Of course, it’s late, it’s rainy, and she’s had a few, so she does anyway. She does not have an accident herself, but she notices a car suspiciously parked by the side of the road and the woman inside looks extremely sleepy.

It turns out that was her best-friend Rachel’s co-worker, who was indeed murdered. At first, she is hesitant to mention it, because of her promise to Matthew. However, the police receive a tip that she was there. Subsequently, she starts seeing a mysterious figure watching her from the palatial grounds and a shadowy woman seems to haunt to tarp-strewn wing under renovation. As she remembers relatively mundane things differently than those around her, Matthew worries she might be headed towards another mental breakdown (see, there were two meanings to the word in Parris’s original title).

Anderson’s big creaky manor would be a great setting for a true gothic horror, but it really is more of a yarn in the tradition of Rinehart’s
The Bat. There are two twists horror fans will immediately suspect. One is too ambitious for this film, which necessarily leaves the other.

Agent Recon, Co-Starring Chuck Norris & Marc Singer

You might not read it in online descriptions, but this is the third film in a trilogy. It happens to be the first co-starring the legendary Chuck Norris in his first film since Expendables 2, so it is easy to understand why the marketing would play down the earlier films. In one way, the premise is pretty straightforward. The bad guys have a compound, so the good guys must break into it. In this case, the hero has augmented alien super-powers he harnesses thanks to the late scientist, whose downloaded consciousness will be installed into a rather grizzled-looking android. Viewers piece together the backstory as best they can, but nobody will have any trouble understanding the red-meat action in Derek Ting’s Agent Recon, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Jim Yung is sort of like JCVD in
Universal Soldier—or so I’m guessing. After getting dosed with some alien dust, he acquired superhuman powers. The government whisked him away to a secret base, where Alastair trained him so well (before his body was killed) that he is now a full-fledged super-soldier operative. Not surprisingly, he is called in when a shadowy AIM or HYDRA like group experimenting with alien dust kidnaps Captain Lila Rupert.

Initially, Colonel Green and his team (of two) are skeptical of Yung, but the officer eventually agrees it would be handy to have his abilities for the assault—making it a full four people against literally dozens. Apparently, there was some sort of outbreak, so to kill the “infected” they have to shoot for their livers. Yet, headshots seem to be more effective later—so if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, just use your best judgement.

Speaking of judgement calls, it is not immediately obvious why Ting’s script lured Norris away from his ranch and back to a film set. However, the necessarily stoic Alastair android certainly does not require much heavy lifting from an acting perspective. This film is certainly nothing special, but it is still a happy sight to see him wielding a heavy caliber machine gun, like Django or Jesse Ventura in

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Franz & Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath

They did not have no-fault divorce in 18th Century rural Austria. They didn’t have fun either, but there was a lot of severe Calvinistic religion. Consequently, depressed people, especially unhappily married women, resorted to extreme measures. Newlywedded Agnes will be one of them in Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath, which opens Friday in theaters.

In the prologue, a profoundly distressed woman hurls her infant into a waterfall. She is then gruesomely executed, but she was allowed to confess first, so from the standpoint of her eternal soul, she’s okay. According to Kathy Stuart’s research, which inspired the film, this was a thing at the time, like the 1700s’ suicide-by-cop.

Given the roots of Franz & Fiala’s screenplay, it bodes poorly for Agnes’ marriage. Her husband Wolf is no Valentino, but her mother-in-law Ganglin is a real handful. Agnes works like an ox and gets picked apart by Ganglin, but she isn’t getting pregnant anytime soon, because Wolf isn’t keeping his end up, so to speak.

So, married life is not much fun for Agnes. It only gets scarier when she starts having visions—or maybe she is just getting ideas. Her mental and emotional health are questionable, but the only treatment for depression at the time, aside from more crummy work, was a bleeding, or some other medieval torture, from the dubious barber.

Devil’s Bath
(a metaphor for depression) has been positioned as a horror film, but it is really a bleak exercise in cinematic masochism. There is some atmospheric lighting, but nobody will ever be scared by Devil’s Bath—just depressed. Franz and Fiala have a genre reputation thanks to The Lodge and Goodnight Mommy, but this is a departure for them.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Sound of Hope, in The Epoch Times

Angel Studios' SOUND OF HOPE: THE STORY OF POSSUM TROT is as heartfelt as you might expect,but it is also surprisingly honest in the way it depicts the challenges of foster and adoptive parenting. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

What Remains: The Work of Three Skarsgards

It turns out mental hospitals for the criminally insane are especially depressing in Scandinavia. The cold weather and long, dark nights do little to liven up the ambiance. Regardless, that has been child-killer Mads Lake’s home since his late teen years. Evidently, his family’s house was far from nurturing. Perhaps that is why he develops weird, almost co-dependent relationships with his abnormal psychologist and the detective who originally investigated his case in Ran Huang’s What Remains, which releases this Friday in theaters and on demand.

Apparently, there were enough grounds under Finnish law to institutionalize Lake, but not enough to convict him of the heinous crimes everyone believes he committed. He was about to be released after a long confinement, but his tentative experiments with freedom were so disastrous, he hardly minds with his new shrink, Anna Rudebeck, cancels his release.

Instead, she starts delving into his psyche uncovering parental sexual abuse that seems pretty predictable. Meanwhile, crusty old Soren Rank (embodying a brand of existentialism far more fatalistic than Kierkegaard’s), who assisted the senior detective on the case years ago, starts interviewing Lake, under Rudebeck’s supervision, in hopes of uncovering information that might console the victims’ families.

What Remains
is about as bleak as films get. It unfolds almost entirely in drab institutional buildings lit to evoke the drabness of Dogme 95 movement. This is supposed to be a thriller, but somehow the conflict, tension, and suspense were misplaced somewhere inside the grim Brutalist building.

The buck starts and stops with Huang, especially considering the quality of his primary trio. Stellan Skarsgard is perfectly cast as the world-weary Rank and Gustaf Skarsgard manages to be both creepy and pathetic, simultaneously, as Lake. Andrea Riseborough (who dared to be Oscar-nominated, even though the Academy did not pre-approve her candidacy) is also appropriately off-kilter and cerebral, playing the neurotic shrink.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics, on History

The Olympics have a long, dark history of “sportswashing” its oppressive host countries. However, in the most classic example, the washing didn’t take. Jesse Owens was the main reason why Hitler’s 1936 Olympics turned into a propaganda misfire. It made Owens internationally famous, but his four gold medals were a tough act to follow. At a time when the world needs to reconsider how the Olympics (and other international sporting events) operate, viewers are invited to reconsider Owens’ life and legacy in Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics, which premieres Wednesday on History Channel.

Owens was truly the son of a sharecropper, who was born into dire poverty. Yet, when his family moved to Cleveland as part of the Great Migration, he encountered two white coaches, Charles Riley at Fairmount Junior High and Larry Snyder at Ohio State, who actively encouraged Owens. Some viewers might be surprised to learn how nationally famous Owens was before the Olympics, when he was competing at the collegiate level. In fact, his hectic schedule of exhibition appearances nearly exhausted him before the Olympic trials.

Using on-camera expert Jeremy Schaap’s book as a guide, director Andre Gaines (an executive producer on the
Children of the Corn reboot) and his talking heads clearly establish how much Hitler and the National Socialists had invested in the Games as a propaganda showcase for Aryan superiority and how much Owens and the other black American athletes ruined the plan. There has been revisionist chatter that Hitler was just feeling tired when he declined to congratulate Owens, or whatever, but Triumph will have none of that.

It also casts further shade on longtime American Olympic boss Avery Brundage, who successfully fought off proposed Olympic boycotts and did his best to avoid embarrassing Hitler during the Games. Perhaps the best sequence of the TV documentary covers Brundage’s disgraceful decision to replace Jewish athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in the 4 x 100 relay, because losing to black athletes presumably would sting less for Hitler. Metcalfe’s son points out how angry his father looks flying down the track, because he was as furious as he appeared.

Brundage was a disgrace, but sadly, the entire International Olympic Committee is now made up of Brundages who had no problem with Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Games, even though the CCP was committing genocide in Xinjiang and turning the free society of Hong Kong into a police state. Frankly, the 2022 Games were just like 1936, except there were no Jesse Owens or Ralph Metcalfe Uyghur- or Tibetan-equivalents in Beijing.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, on Hulu

Jim Jones was a lot like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, because he too was a socialist mass murderer. The deaths at Jonestown are now considered mass murder rather than mass suicide, because nobody had a real choice in the matter. Jones was also explicitly a communitarian socialist. In fact, Jonestown was conceived as a collective commune that tragically ended as all socialist utopias do. Viewers can watch the horror unfold in previously unseen video, much of it shot by Jonestown residents for “posterity” in the three-part National Geographic-produced Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, directed by Marian Mohamed, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

If you do not know the basic facts about the 918 Peoples Temple members forced to commit suicide in their Guyana commune, check out Shan Nicholson’s
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle first, because it much more forthrightly addresses Jim Jones’ ideology. Of course, both programs gloss over the extent to which the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk allied themselves with Jones’ Peoples Temple. Moscone even appointed to Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority and supported his campaign for the chairmanship, while ignoring reports of irregularities at the Peoples Temple.

Cult Massacre captures the megalomaniacal extremism of Jones in footage he had produced, supposedly to document the development of Jonestown. (In retrospect, even the name, Jonestown, should have been a warning of the personality cult’s toxicity, much like the renaming of Volgograd to Stalingrad.) In any event, his voice and vocal cadences sound truly creepy.

Cult Massacre
also features interviews with several survivors and notable witnesses, including Jones’s son Stephan. In addition to enduring the abuse and constant exhaustion of life at Jonestown, for years the surviving Jonestown residents had to carry the stigma of being cult members.

We also hear from now-former Rep. Jackie Speiers, who accompanied her late boss Rep. Leo Ryan on his fatal fact-finding mission to Jonestown. Yet, some of the most illuminating commentary comes from Special Ops AF Sgt David Netterville, who was part of the operation retrieving and repatriating the bodies, and Douglas Ellice, a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy. At the time, Guyana was a socialist nation on better terms with the Soviets (that is precisely Jones chose to relocate there), which must have made the aftermath even more difficult to manage.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Holland’s Charlatan

Jan Mikolasek was not a urologist, or even a doctor, but he claimed to diagnose all his patients’ ailments from a yellow liquid sample. Maybe he could, or maybe he was phenomenally lucky. However, his luck ran out when Czechoslovak Communist President Antonin Zapotocky died. Without the protection of his most famous patient, Mikolasek faces the wrath of the Communist state in Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, which screens during MoMI’s Holland retrospective.

The film is titled
Charlatan, but that is the regime’s perspective. Holland and screenwriters Marek Epstein, Martin Sulc, and Jaroslav Sedlacek largely accept the efficacy of his herbal treatments (he was a licensed herbalist). In flashbacks, we see Mikolasek train with a traditional country healer, after his horrific stint in the army. Even if he benefits from a massive and persistent placebo effect, there is little criticism of his practice from from his patients.

On the other hand, there obvious reasons why the Party is out to get him. Yes, he treated the occupying National Socialists (while covertly funding the resistance), but the Party appreciated those who sucked up to power. On the other hand, he fought the nationalization of his practice. He is also gay, secretly engaging in a sexual relationship with his married assistant Frantisek Palko, but maybe not without completely arousing suspicions.

Charlatan, Holland (the Polish auteur) returns to the Czechoslovakian Communist nightmare experience and reunites with Ivan Trojan, who co-starred in her monumental Burning Bush. Charlatan certainly reflects the paranoia and capriciousness of life under the Communist regime, but it is much more a psychological study, of a somewhat strange and deeply flawed individual. Of course, those shortcomings do not justify the Party’s orchestrated campaign to trump up charges against him.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Danger in the Dorm, on Lifetime

Colleges and universities have refused to take disciplinary action against students threatening their Jewish classmates and calling for the genocide of the Israeli people. So, why should we be shocked if they try to sweep a murder under the rug? Indeed, transparency of campus crimes has been an issue for years. It inspired Ann Rule’s first “story,” which in turn “inspired” the latest Lifetime original movie. Given the multiple disclaimers, viewers should consider Robin Hays’s Danger in the Dorm fiction rather than true crime when it premieres Sunday on Lifetime.

Kathleen Robets and her best friend Becky Swafford are incoming freshmen at a large university that is absolutely not Oregon State—at least not anymore. Roberts is the independent one and Swafford is the clingy one. Frankly, Roberts was feeling like Swafford was a little too clingy for college, so she moved into a single dorm room. As a result, Roberts is crushed with guilt when a masked assailant murders Swafford in her room.

However, neither the administration or the cops will use the “m” word. Instead, they issue statements claiming it was an isolated incident. Then the unknown perp attacks another coed, who survives, but is left coma-bound. At this point, Roberts and her resident advisor Sarah, start taking matters into their own hands. Defying corrupt Dean Carrigan and compliant Det. Harken, they start publicizing the brutal truth of the attacks, while distributing whistles and pepper spray. Wade Mullins, the frat boy wooing Roberts tries to be supportive, but his bro Conor Miller is suspiciously creepy—maybe too obviously so.

Throughout it all, Roberts is reluctant to return her mother Joanne’s calls, even though a psycho is literally stalking her campus. “Fortunately,” she only lives one hour away, so she can easily make unannounced visits.

Reality TV “star” Bethenny Frankel as Joanne, the high-strung mom, kind of makes sense, right? She might have been cast for her celebrity status, but she does the best work in this TV movie. (Frankel already has a half-dozen dramatic credits and originally pursued an acting career, so there you go, I guess.)

Amongst the skulls full of mush, Michelle Creber most stands out, in the right way, as RA Sarah. However, the killer’s over the top twitchiness insults viewers’ intelligence. In general, the cast does not inspire much confidence in the younger generation.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Hotel Cocaine, on MGM+

This seriies is a lot like Miami Vice, but the fashions are 1970s polyester, instead of 1980s pastels. The commodity dominating South Florida nightlife is still cocaine and the Mutiny Hotel’s club was the hottest spot around. Roman Compte did not want to get any closer to the drug business than managing the Mutiny, but he gets pulled into a full-fledged drug war in creator-showrunner Chris Brancato’s eight-episode Hotel Cocaine, which premieres Sunday on MGM+.

Compte was born Roman Cabal, but he changed it to break from his brother Nestor Cabal, who controls the coke trade in Miami/Dade County. Instead, as the manager of the Mutiny, he hosts the wildest, drug-fueled hedonism you can find in America. Maybe he should have kept further away from the illicit business, because DEA Agent Zulio decides to make him an informant, to capitalize on his family connections and access to information, whether he likes it or not.

Frankly, even Compte realizes he should have lawyered up when Zulio threatened to take his daughter Valleria away. Instead, he talks his way back into Cabal’s life and business, soon implicating himself in several crimes. He and his family also become targets when a Colombian cartel launches a war against the home-grown Cuban syndicates, like Cabal’s organization.

Zulio just wants to bust Cabal and be done with it, but DC is more concerned about the Colombians’ Communist connections—and they well should. Of course, Latin American Marxist terrorists have always been deeply involved in the narcotics traffic. Castro was too. Of course, Cabal would never agree to a partnership if it enriched Castro. He is a drug kingpin and a killer several times over, but having witnessed Castro’s horrors first-hand, he could never enrich such an oppressive, mass-murdering regime.

Some partisans might be put off by the presence of a corrupt Republican congressman, but
Hotel Cocaine is rather astute in its references to Castro’s longtime profitable sponsorship of drug trafficking. Indeed, it will complicate efforts to negotiate a truce between Cabal and the mysterious Yolanda, who is leading the Cartel’s Miami campaign.

There is also a lot of vicarious sin and old school nostalgia for the hard-drinking, hard-partying 1970s in the first seven (out of eight) episodes provided for review. Supposedly,
Hotel Cocaine exposes the cost of unchecked vice, but it usually just makes the Mutiny look like a shamelessly fun party.

Even if its moralizing is counter-productive,
Hotel Cocaine is well stocked with colorful performances. Michael Chiklis (from The Shield) is no stranger to playing morally compromised cops. Rather intriguingly, his portrayal of Zulio starts out completely reprehensible, but than gets more human and complex in the later episodes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Blood Free, on Hulu

Considering Greenpeace blocked the cultivation of life-saving Vitamin A-enriched “Golden” rice in the Philippines, how do you think environmentalists would respond to entrepreneur Yoon Ja-yu’s laboratory-cultured meat and vegetables? Judging from the unhinged protestors outside her corporate offices, probably not well. In fact, she receives so many death-threats, she needs a bodyguard of Woo Chae-woon’s butt-kicking caliber. However, the former Korean Naval officer has his own agenda in the ten-episode Blood Free, which is now streaming on Hulu.

Woo showed up just in time, soon after a stockbreeder deliberately took a header off an overpass, onto Yoon’s SUV, in protest of the economic threat her company, Blood Free, represented to his livelihood. Soon thereafter, her lab’s computers are hijacked by a ransomware gang. Not so coincidentally, Woo had an encounter with the same gang during his military career.

His presence is not a coincidence either. The former president, Lee Mun-gyu helped facilitate his recruitment. Several years ago, Yoon was present when a terrorist bombing killed dozens of people and forced the amputation of Lee’s legs (along with his political career). Since then, Woo and Lee have suspected the official story was a little too pat and convenient.

Initially, Woo intends to investigate Yoon, but he gets distracted saving her life repeatedly. Clearly, someone has it in for her. The suspects include a Shining Path-style terrorist group, Park Dae-seong, the chairman of Blood Free’s closest corporate competitors (and awkwardly Lee’s son-in-law), as well as every farmer, rancher, and fisherman in Korea.

Although Yoon talks a green game (her company is called Blood Free, after all), the series does not feel very environmentally focused. In fact, there is sometimes a
Fountainhead-Atlas Shrugged vibe, as the government and special interests constantly try to pull down the innovative company Yoon has built with her blood, sweat, and capital. On the other hand, the storyline of terrorist-collaborators hiding in the upper echelons of government and industry is very much in the tradition of paranoid, post-Watergate thrillers (maybe there are some similarities with The Terminal List too).

Regardless, Ju Ji-hoon is as steely and hardnosed as it gets portraying Woo. He is not a superman, because Superman never bleeds, but his many cuts and scrapes just make him look tougher. Han Hyo-jo is also terrific playing the outwardly driven and inwardly sensitive Yoon. Lee Mu-saeng, Jun Suk-ho, Park Ji-yeon, and Kim Sang-ho also add lot of color as Yoon’s suspicious lieutenants. However, nobody can out-sleaze Lee Hee-jun as Seonu Jae, the Prime Minister (and the son of Park and grandson of Lee. It’s small world, isn’t it?).

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Presumed Innocent, in Cinema Daily US

Apple TV+'s PRESUMED INNOCENT is almost recommended for Turow fans, as a weird curiosity piece, to see how far it veers from the printed page (where's SAndy Stern?). Yet, it is just too conspicuously padded and lacks the bite of the original novel and film adaptation. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

Firebrand: The Story of Wife #6

Henry VIII was rather fickle in his affections. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, before Henry had him beheaded. That happened to two of his wives too. Old Cromwell never lived to see Henry’s final marriage to Katherine Parr, but she certainly takes his example, and those of her predecessors, to heart. Parr intends to keep her head on her shoulders and hopefully spur the Protestant Reformation further in Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s first English-language feature, Firebrand, which opens Friday in theaters.

Parr is not exactly happily married, but Henry VIII sort of left her in charge as regent while he was off, trying to lead his army. Unfortunately, his swollen, infected-looking leg ulcers forced him to return—and Parr must pretend to be happy to see him.

Of course, she isn’t. In fact, Henry’s return is rather ominous, especially considering his loyalists’ alarm regarding her “radical” Protestant inclinations. Rather rashly, she visited her “firebrand” evangelist friend Anne Askew. She even donated a necklace given to her by Henry to support her radical activism. Suddenly, she needs her allies to get it back. It is almost like the film turns into
The Three Musketeers Part I, but without the swashbuckling.

For the most part,
Firebrand unfolds like a decent BBC/PBS Masterpiece historical, once it finishes announcing its revisionist, feminist intentions. The history is hit or miss, but the intrigue is grabby. Aïnouz and screenwriters Henrietta & Jessica Ashworth fully capitalize on the historical ironies of Tudor history, culminating in the eventually ascension of the moderate-to-mildly progressive Elizabeth I.

Perhaps most memorably,
Firebrand presents Jude Law as you have never seen him before: a puss-leaking, flatulent bag of diseased flesh. There is absolutely nothing romantic about his portrayal of Henry VIII. Instead, he plays him like the sickliest Bond villain ever. The film is mostly just okay, but this is some of Law’s boldest work ever.