Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Coma: A Russian Dreamscape

Prepare to plumb the collective unconscious, but it is deeper and more real than Yung ever imagined. It is a shared-dream world inhabited by coma patients, shaped by everyone’s aggregated memories. This is indeed a trippy place to suddenly awaken, but it holds even greater secrets that will eventually be revealed in Nikita Argunov’s Coma, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

When you wake up in “Coma,” you do not remember who you are (so come up with a nickname you can live with), but there are flashes of memory regarding what you were. It is an unstable world, populated with shadowy monsters called reapers, so “the Architect” is lucky someone expected him and dispatched a team of soldiers to collect him. He is pretty clueless at first, but eventually his ability to build things with mind surfaces under stress. “The Architect” (there was one in
The Matrix too, but he was very different) is a lot like Neo, “the Chosen One,” but there is something nagging him in his repressed memory about how he went into his coma in the first place.

Coma
boasts some legitimately eye-popping visuals. Previous Russian special effects-heavy genre films have been decidedly hit-or-miss (take The Guardians, please!). However, Coma is legit. As an added bonus, the twists and turns in the screenplay (credited to Argunov, Timofei Dekin, and Aleksey Gravitskiy) hold together surprisingly well. The only real drawback is the cold fish ensemble, but fortunately they are often dwarfed by the spectacle of the fantastical world. Also, they have been dubbed, which admittedly could rob their original performances of some of their texture and nuance.

Rinal Mukhametov is okay as the bewildered Architect and Anton Pampushnyy is sufficiently thuggish as Phantom, the hard-charging squad leader who arranges his initial reception. Probably Lyubov Aksonova fares best as Fly, the woman they are both interested in, but the big villain arouses our suspicions right from his initial entrance.

Skin Walker, Co-Starring Udo Kier

You could definitely say Regine has family issues. She thought her deformed half-brother Isaac died in child-birth, but he might have survived to become the monster killing people in the woods. Either way, her father is still Udo Kier, so she certainly did not have it easy growing up. She has returned for her unbeloved grandmother’s funeral, but stays to uncover her family secrets in Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker, which releases today on VOD and DVD.

Regine had a traumatic childhood, as her fractured memories and flashbacks cannot attest. Just when she is poised to start a new life with her grungy boyfriend, she returns home to the family chateau. Claus, her old pops is not exactly welcoming. Instead, it is her mother’s old lover Robert who wants to talk to her. Partly, he wants to warn her about Isaac, but sees her as a means to reconnect with her mother. In fact, things get a little weird between them. Unless, Regine is just plain nuts.

Buckle up sports fans, because Neuman’s jarring narrative shifts could cause whiplash. Honestly,
Skin Walker plays like a film that had two or three cast-members die during production and was subsequently cobbled together by the producers, as best they could. Logic goes out the window, but it almost takes on the up-and-down thrills of a roller coaster—almost but not quite.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Red Penguins: The Pittsburgh Penguins Russian Co-Venture

Who knew documentaries about Russian hockey would become a sub-genre in themselves, but here is the third getting serious distribution. They have the obvious advantage of a sports topic, but they also use athletics as a proxy to examine larger geo-political developments. In this case, when the Pittsburgh Penguins looked for opportunities in Russia, they found excitement and danger instead. Gabe Polsky chronicles their short but eventful venture in Red Penguins, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Quick history lesson for Millennials: we won the Cold War, the Socialist USSR lost, and it was a good thing for the world. Consequently, the Red Army hockey team, the pride of Soviet propaganda, was in danger of financial collapse. Their “Ice Palace” had fallen into disrepair and the team could not even afford new jerseys. Seeing an opportunity, Howard Baldwin, of the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group, negotiated a financial-management arrangement with the Red Army team.

The Penguin group gave them an infusion of cash, with the expectation the team redubbed The Russian Penguin would start generating merchandising revenue and serve as a pipeline of Russian talent to the Pittsburgh team. Steven Warshaw was the young, crazy marketing kid who was supposed to make it happen.

Somewhat logically, the history of the Russian Penguins parallels that of Russia’s political history. The Yeltsin years were wild and rather dangerous, but also a good deal of fun. However, the fun came to a stop when the mobbed-up oligarchs solidified their holdings under Putin. The Pittsburghers’ Russian adventure parallels that storyline.

Initially,
Red Penguins is a larky doc that reminisces over the strippers who worked in an underground club in the Ice Palace basement, whom Warshaw eventually brought up on the ice to provide mid-period entertainment. Indeed, Warshaw shrewdly fell back on those old marketing standards, sex and booze, which really started to pay dividends when combined with a hammy mascot and improved play on the ice. Unfortunately, the party came to an end when mobsters started circling the team, with the winking encouragement of the team’s Red Army bosses.

Anyone contemplating a joint-venture in Russia or China should watch
Red Penguins first. As Baldwin and Warshaw explain, they so expected the Russians to skim a little off the top, they even budgeted for it. Yet, the extent of the Russian stealing was so great, it led to a management crisis.

Ostensibly, the Russians won and the Pittsburghers lost, but in a short-sighted way which illustrates why the Russians are still not a global economic power (unlike China). The open Russian corruption scared away Disney, whom Baldwin was courting for a multimillion-dollar merchandising and programming deal. Apparently, Eisner denies it now, but Polsky pretty well establishes their considerable interest. The Russians might have taken Baldwin and company for several hundred thousand dollars, but the opportunity cost for doing so could well have been tens of millions. You can see this kind of thinking throughout the late Yeltsin and early Putin years. The oligarchs grabbed the natural resource companies, but the manufacturing and service industries remain stuck in the mud. Putin is a dictator who means us harm, but the Russian economy is a sickly dog.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Coroner (Pilot)

In the days of Burke and Hare, anatomists were not held in high regard by the popular press. Times have changed. These days, some of our favorite TV crime fighters are pathologists. The CSI franchises and Da Vinci’s Inquest (also Canadian) are the best examples, but the tradition goes back to Quincy M.E. Dr. Jenny Cooper, Toronto’s freshly appointed coroner, now joins their ranks. The protagonist of M.R. Hall’s mystery novels comes to American television, when the Canadian series Coroner premieres this Wednesday on the CW.

As a former ER doctor, Cooper thought she knew the sort of things people did to each other, but now she sees the patients who do not make it to the hospital. Frankly, she is maybe not in the best mindset for her new gig, since her husband recently died from an aneurism right in front of her eyes. However, she will need the job, when she discovers the mountain of debt her late spouse left her holding.

Det. Donovan “Mac” McAvoy and his partner Det. Taylor Kim are a bit surprised to see her offer what looks like a quick prayer over her first pick-up, but he warms to her relatively quickly. Her dogged pursuit of the truth rather matches his own working methods. He also shares her empathy for the kids incarcerated at the juvy facility where two supposed suicides were found.

The actual mystery Dr. Cooper investigates in the pilot is not particularly complicated and resolves itself surprisingly easily, but the first episode also has to carry a lot of exposition. However, the chemistry developing between her and Det. McAvoy is already quite promising. Plus, Cooper’s foreboding visions of a sinister black dog are quite a distinctive motif. Still, the general level of writing seems pretty conventional, largely on par with shows like
Profiler and Crossing Jordan, from about twenty years ago.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team, on PBS

If there was a year history went off on the wrong course, it was probably 1992, well before 2016. For the previous twelve years, America was an optimistic nation, where we believed our best years were ahead of us. Clinton won the election by selling pessimism based on an economic recession that looks utterly trivial in retrospect. Years later, Trump and Obama both cynically exploited that lingering pessimism, yet back in 1992, the nation had good reason to stay optimistic. Pres. George H. W. Bush, the so-called “Foreign Policy President” had lived up to his billing, thanks to the help of his team. Top Bush foreign policy officials look back at his administration in Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team (directed by Lori Shinseki and produced in conjunction with the Miller Center of Public Affairs), which premieres this coming Tuesday on PBS.

Fittingly,
Statecraft reminds us Bush 41’s involvement in foreign affairs started on a very personal level when he served as teenaged fighter pilot in WWII. He built an impeccable resume, most notably including his tenure as Ronald Reagan’s loyal vice-president. However, he largely brought in his own team when he succeeded Pres. Reagan. They were as experienced as he was, and in many cases they were long-time associates—often even close friends.

We hear from a number of them in substantive talking head interviews, including Defense Secretary (and future VP) Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, Chief of Staff John Sununu, Gen. Colin Powell, and advisors like Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley, and Robert Zoellick. It is definitely an impressive cast, who offer some considerable insight on the history they witnessed.

There is a lot of interesting material here, but
Statecraft is at its most illuminating for general audiences when it chronicles the leading role Pres. Bush played to facilitate the reunification of Germany. We now forget both the Soviets (really the Russians at that point) and our Western European allies were dead set against it, but Bush had a prescient vision that a unified Germany, which was still a full military member of NATO, would lead to a more stable and secure Europe.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Fukada’s A Girl Missing

Crime shows always tell us the first 48 hours are the most critical for finding anyone abducted. Saki Oishi returns home after a full week (but it seems much shorter in screen-time). However, that does not mean her family’s troubles are over, whereas they are only getting started for their visiting nurse. It is not the crime, but the lies and betrayals that really cause bad karma in Koji Fukada’s

Ichiko Shirakawa started out as the caregiver for the Oishi grandmother and became a friend of the family. She is particularly close to the eldest daughter, Motoko, who intends to join her in the nursing profession. Of course, Shirakawa is deeply concerned when the younger sister Saki disappears and thankful when she is found. However, her relief turns to shock when she discovers the girl was abducted by her nephew, who most likely happened to see her while she was in Shirakawa’s company.

What does that have to do with Kazumichi Yoneda, the hairdresser Shirakawa is stalking (quite successfully)? That would be telling, but all will be revealed as Fukada toggles between two time-lines. it would certainly be fair to say the unsuspecting nurse does not handle the sudden revelation particularly adroitly. Instead, she responds in a very human way.

There are mysteries in
Girl Missing, but they are more about the dark places in people’s hearts than crime scenes and investigations. Regardless, it is gripping stuff, in a slow boiling kind of way. In the process, Fukada offers a withering off-hand critique of drive-by tabloid journalism.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Shudder: Host

Fifteen or twenty years from now, oblivious teenagers will ask us why we watched so many zoom-based movies back in the day. We will have to explain to them it was because the CCP had no regard for human life and because the WHO only cared about pleasing their Chinese pay-masters. The quarantined format will surely get old and tired quickly, but this Shudder original has the advantages of not coming too late for the party and bringing a good gimmick. Doing a Zoom séance sounds like an extremely bad idea, but in the alternate reality of horror movies, sure, we can totally buy it. When Haley invites her friends to a video-conferencing spiritualism session, things go rather badly in Rob Savage’s Host, which premieres today on Shudder.

Haley is the one who really believes in the astral plane stuff and knows Seylan, the psychic. She doesn’t mind her friends incorporating a healthy amount of drinking into their evening, but she would like them to take it seriously. Oh, they will take it seriously alright—deadly so. It will be their own stupid faults for not treating the spirit realm with respect.

Yeah, you get the idea, but the claustrophobic and quarantined settings make it surprisingly creepy. Due to social distancing restrictions, Savage directed the entire ensemble remotely, but that gave him the perfect “laptop” perspective on the action.
Host only runs for about an hour, but Savage was wise not to pad it out. He builds up quite a bit of tension, without giving us time to ponder whether or not Zoom windows can constitute proper cinema.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Tora-san, Wish You Were Here

Even though he had plenty of heartache, Tora-san never really grew up. However, Japan watched as his family matured and came of age. Twenty-three years after the death of the beloved star, Kiyoshi Atsumi, longtime director Yoji Yamada reunited his surviving cast for the 50th Tora-san film, the moving tribute, Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Tora-san has been gone for many years now, but he still exerts an influence over his family, especially his beloved nephew, Mitsuo Suwa. The film starts with a memorial service to Suwa’s late wife, but it is really an elegy for Tora-san. For several years, Suwa has cared for his teenaged daughter Yuri, as a single father, but he is also just beginning to realize his ambition to be a novelist. Yet, recently he has been flooded with dream and memories of his high school love, Izumi Bruna. Tora-san knew her pretty well—and most definitely approved.

Of course, he is delighted when she happens to appear at his book signing. As luck would have it, the married Bruna has returned to Japan briefly for the UN and some family business. There is definitely a bit of the old spark between them, but he refuses to burden her with his own tragedies. He is his uncle’s nephew, after all.

Throughout
Wish You Were Here, Yamada flashes back to important scenes from the previous Tora-san films. However, this is not a cobbled together clip package, like On the Trail of the Pink Panther or certain disappointing series finales (that means you, Seinfeld). The Kuruma and Suwa families’ lives have gone on, so their stories continue here. In fact, Suwa’s reunion with Bruna is quite touching, in a wistful, Brief Encounter kind of way.

Along the way, characters regularly ask, WWTSD? What would Tora-san do? However, that does not always mean it is the right thing to do—sometimes quite the contrary. Indeed, one of the film’s most heartbreaking moment revisits the time Tora-san was too timid to grab the love he had always yearned for.

Yamada shrewdly selects clips that showcase Atsumi’s flair for comedic delivery, as well as his sensitivity as an actor. He really made Tora-san the insecure but lovable slacker, who became like family to his Japanese fans.

Japan Cuts ’20: The Murders of Oiso

Kazuya Ito and his three goony “friends” are your basic kick-down kind of guys. Their job is basically to do mild thuggery and some occasional hard labor for the construction company owned by Ito’s uncle. He runs the town of Oiso, much the same way he ran their high school when he was the basketball coach. However, they are rather confused by the power vacuum left by the boss’s suspiciously sudden death in Takuya Misawa’s The Murders of Oiso, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Ito is the one with the family connections and he is not about to let the other three forget it. Eita is the one with the attractive girlfriend. This is also a fact Ito is keenly aware of. The entire town is in for a surprise when Ito’s uncle dies falling on his lawnmower (sounds painful). It turns out he secretly remarried a much younger woman, who now expects the condolence money and her inheritance.

With “Murder” in the title, Misawa’s film sounds more thrillery than it is. It is more of a deconstruction of the thug life than a mystery or crime procedural. It’s about sucking up and doubling-down. Misawa’s elliptical narrative structure is so coy about the actual crimes and sins going on behind closed doors, it is hard to feel much investment. We can respect the rigorous severity of his aesthetic approach, but the net effect is rather cold-blooded.

Likewise, the twenty-ish cast clearly commits whole-heartedly, but they blend in more than stand-out as the mumbling, self-loathing, and embittered toughs. These are honest, but not necessarily showy performances.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Cuban, Featuring the Music of Hilario Duran

Afro-Cuban jazz exploded in late 1940s New York when Dizzy Gillespie collaborated with musicians like Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo. The fictional Luis Garcia was very much a part of the scene, but he had disappeared by the time of the second Afro-Cuban boom in the 1980s. Sadly, the years were not kind to Garcia, but a young care-giver at his long-term nursing facility reawakens some of his memories through good music and good food in Sergio Navarretta’s The Cuban, featuring the music of Hilario Duran, which opens virtually this Friday.

The Canadian nursing home staff only knows him as “Mr. Garcia,” whom they consider “difficult.” He hardly ever eats and he will lash out from time to time. However, Mina Ayoub notices his Benny More poster, so she starts humming one of the Latin Jazz songs she learned from her grandfather, which seems to get a glimmer of recognition from Garcia. Soon she is sneaking him Cuban food (in violation of the head nurse’s strict rules) and letting him listen to Afro-Cuban jazz during meals.

Ironically, Mina’s sudden deep dive into Cuban culture leads her protective Aunt Bano to suspect she is getting carried away with a man. As it happens, Ayoub has started seeing Kris, a grad student, who has some expertise in vascular dementia and music therapy, but she hasn’t let it get serious yet. Since they still maintain social ties with friends and family from Kabul, it would be difficult for her to pursue a relationship with a non-Muslim, as her cousin’s recent arranged marriage awkwardly illustrates.

Navarretta and screenwriter Alessandra Piccione pull off a tricky balance, allowing Ayoab to make just enough of a connection with Garcia to justify the film’s enthusiasm for music therapy, without raising unrealistic expectations. Sadly, he will never be self-sufficient or even lucid by any meaningful standard, but he might just play again. Of course, Ayoab’s hazy resemblance to his great, lost love is an easy contrivance, but Navarretta and company try their best not to overplay it.

The best part is everyone involves understands the importance of the music itself. Duran composed, adapted, and performed a real-deal Afro-Cuban soundtrack. His opening theme captures the perfect tone of elegant melancholy, while tracks like “El Canonero,” “Mambo Rico,” and “Descarga En Changui” are exuberantly brassy and percussively rhythmic. Duran also puts his stamp on crowd-pleasing standards like “Guantanamera,” (one of the best versions recorded in quite a while, thanks one of several terrific trumpet solos from Alexis Baro). Plus, Alberto Alberto and lead actress Ana Golja contribute some soulful vocals.

Summerland: Evacuated to the Countryside, with Gemma Arterton

England is the home of the stiff upper lip, but even Churchill or King George VI would bawl like babies if they had to live with Alice Lamb. She never signed up to take in a child evacuee from London, but she somehow got stuck hosting poor Frank (he’d rather face the Blitz). Yet, she might just start taking a shine to him in the brief time before she has him reassigned to more human guardians in screenwriter-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland, which releases this Friday in very select theaters and on VOD.

Lamb lives alone and only cares for her research on Pagan folklore. In a movie from the era, this would mean her intended was killed during the war, but as a contemporary production, we expect it means something else (which would be correct). That also explains why she feels so alienated from her fellow villagers. Lamb is less than welcoming when Frank is almost literally dumped on her doorstep. She insists Mr. Sullivan, the genteel white-haired school master find another place for him, but his intelligence starts to win her over in the meantime. Unfortunately, her own emotional immaturity will inevitably precipitate a crisis with her temporary ward.

Most of
Summerland is very safe and conventional, but it suddenly takes a wildly contrived turn during the third act. Still, it is an impressive star-vehicle for Gemma Arterton, who displays a wide range of prickly, anti-social behavior as Lamb. Lucas Bond’s Frank most certainly looks and acts like a curly-haired moppet, but he is effective expressing the grief and confusion of a child confronting the tragedies of war. Likewise, Dixie Egerickx makes a strong impression as Frank’s tough on-the-outside, insecure on-the-inside friend, Edie (but the talented young thesp will probably have to change her name soon to avoid getting canceled).

Monday, July 27, 2020

Shine Your Eyes: From Lagos to Sao Paulo

Aptitude for music and mathematics come from the same part of the brain, so it rather follows Ikenna Igbomaeze was good at both. In Lagos, he played in an Afrobeat band with his younger brother Amadi, but he came to Sao Paulo to teach advanced statistics. Or so he told his family. With no communication from his older brother in over a year, Amadi has arrived to track him down. However, instead of a respectable academic, he learns his older brother turned into either a con man or a mad, delusional genius. Either way, Ikenna seems to be avoiding a reunion with his brother in Matias Mariani’s Shine Your Eyes, which launches globally this Wednesday on Netflix.

As the eldest brother, Ikenna is the one expected to assume responsibility for the Igbomaeze line. Yet, from Amadi’s perspective, his mother’s favoritism goes beyond the culturally-based expectations for the first-born. Regardless, Ikenna’s long absence is painful to her, so Amadi has come to dutifully collect him. Unfortunately, he quickly learns his brother faked his professorship. Instead, he spent a good deal of time at the horse track, where he apparently had a “system.” It is there he meets one of Ikenna’s cronies, Miro Kuzko, a Hungarian-Brazilian (and supposed university provost), who offers Amadi a place to crash.

Pursuing leads from Ikenna’s social media and abandoned laptop, Amadi manages to retrace his steps. However, a disturbing portrait starts to emerge of a mathematical mad man, who started to believe he could predict the underlying equations governing reality. You can definitely think of it in terms like
The Matrix.

A lot of media descriptions play up
Shine’s immigration angle and the fraternal Cain and Abel theme, but the film morphs into something like Aronofsky’s Pi, albeit a less science fiction-driven version. Still, Ikenna’s ferocious mania almost has us believing he cracked the universe’s code. It is a rather drastic change of pace from the last film Mariani co-directed (with Maira Buhler, who co-wrote Shine, along with Igbo screenwriter Chika Anadu), the mysterious post-modern documentary, I Touched All Your Stuff, but these two films certainly prove he has a knack for surprising viewers.

Tell Me a Story: Pilot

Fairy tales express primal fears and anxieties, so it rather makes sense that we can find contemporary parallels. Creator Kevin Williamson takes Jungian archetypes a step further by reconceiving three fairy tales as a braided modern-day psychological thriller. Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and Hansel & Gretel get a just-before-Covid New York makeover in Tell Me a Story, which makes its broadcast network debut tomorrow on the CW (following its run on CBS All-Access that really entailed limited viewer access).

Two hard-core armed robbers and one of their reluctant, hung-over brothers are planning to hit an exclusive jewelry store. Their stylish disguise will be pig masks. Chances are, it will not go down smoothly, but that will have to wait for the end of the pilot episode. Meanwhile, Kayla Powell has moved to New York with her widower father Tim, after her mother’s untimely death. For now, they will be staying in her grandmother’s townhouse. Why yes, she happens to have a red slicker.

The recently discharged Hannah Perez and her screw-up half-brother Gabe will be our Hansel & Gretel analogs, but it is not exactly clear how from the first episode. Thanks to his poor judgement, he involves her in a decidedly sticky situation. When they leave, they most certainly will not want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them.

Tell Me a Story
had respectable reviews and viewer feedback when it launched on CBS’s premium platform, but streamer-app fatigue was already an issue by that time. CW is not hiding its origins, but it not unreasonable for them to launch it like an essentially new show. Based on the pilot, it is not dazzling enough to justify yet another subscription fee, but it is sufficiently interesting to try again next week.

So far, the cleverer and strongest fairy tale parallels are those of the
Red Riding Hood arc. Daniella Campbell has enough charisma to carry the segments as Powell/Red Riding Hood, while Pauline Singer adds some energy as her new, hard-partying friend Laney Reed. Plus, it is a little mind-blowing to see Kim Cattrall playing the grandmother (maybe she should reconsider another Sex in the City movie, before she is typecast as a grandma).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Voices in the Wind

Nearly 16,000 souls were documented killed as a result of the 3/11 Fukushima hurricane and tsunami. Over 2,500 are still listed as missing, denying their next-of-kin the catharsis of final closure. Haru is related to three of them: her parents and little brother. She found a home of sorts with her Aunt Hiroki, but she even loses her to a stroke (presumably). With nobody left to lose, Haru feels compelled to travel home in Nobuhiro Suwa’s elegiac road movie, Voices in the Wind, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Haru is a sad young woman, but Hiroki is patient and understanding. Haru probably only realizes how so, after discovering her comatose. The collective totality of her loss sends Haru off on a compulsion to visit her old home, but it will involve a long, not well-thought-out trek. Fortunately, she encounters several people willing to help her, because they share a similar sense of grief and survivor’s guilt.

For a while, it seems like Japan is a paradise for hitchhikers and runaways. However, Haru eventually escapes a potentially ominous encounter only through the intercession of Morio, a former power plant employee, whose daughter would have been Haru’s age. He has been living out of his minivan, but he agrees to return to their home district with Haru, after taking a detour through Tokyo in hopes of finding Mehmet, a Kurdish immigrant who volunteered for the Fukushima rescue effort.

Voices
takes its title from the final impromptu leg of Haru’s journey, which almost seems spoilerish. Yet, even when you know—as the festival description and prior reviews have revealed—Haru ends her trip at the so-called “wind telephone” booth (where survivors place “calls” to deceased loved ones), the scene is still emotionally devastating.

It is truly a remarkable performance from 17-year-old Serena Motola, culminating in the extremely cinematic phone booth. She never resorts to cheap shtick, but instead she expresses the depth of Haru’s sorrow through her haunted eyes and twitchy body language.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Labyrinth of Cinema

Usually, when characters fantastically enter classic cinema, it is to find comfort and sanctuary, as in The Purple Rose of Cairo, but nobody would want to magically travel inside a film like Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima. Three Japanese film buffs find themselves in that position when they are sucked into a marathon screening of vintage Japanese WWII movies during Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Sadly, this is the final night of business for a quaint little neighborhood movie theater in Onomichi, Obayashi’s hometown and the setting of many of his favorite films. They are going out in high spirits with an all-night screening of WWII propaganda films (an odd choice, but its Obayashi’s world). Mario will miss the theaters because of Noriko, a young teen employee, as much as the movies themselves. When she gets vortexed into a jazzy musical (the innocuous kind allowed by Imperial censors), it is all well and fine, but when the films start depicting combat, Mario goes in after her. Reluctantly, Hosuke (a diligent film student) and Shigeru (an aspiring yakuza) go in with him.

Despite the wartime themes and the shifts from the Edo era to the Great Pacific War, the three audience members-turned-participants navigate the film landscape fairly easily. Yet, they are always powerless to save Noriko in her various film guises. However, the stakes really go up in the film’s final hour (out of three), when the three film-lovers befriend a travelling drama troupe visiting Hiroshima in early August, 1945. Now they want to save all their new friends from what they know is coming.

Labyrinth
is probably not Obayashi’s best film, but it might be the ultimate Obayashi film. Here he combines the breakneck pacing and surreal wtf-ness of House with the wistful nostalgia of his coming-of-age films, like I Are You, You Am Me and Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast. The general anti-war sentiments and specific anger regarding Imperial militarism he expressed in Hanagatami (and the documentary Seijo Story) is here in spades, but he also evokes memories of his “school girl” films, like The Little Girl Who Conquered Time.

The deliberately fake-looking aesthetic (reflecting the 1940s era) takes some getting used to and the tripped out interstellar prologue will be a stumbling block for some. However, Obayashi builds to a real smack-down of an emotional payoff. Granted, it takes three hours to get there, but the film is never boring along the way. In fact, it is one weird episode after another, including a meeting with Yasujiro Ozu, discussing his wartime compromises.

No matter how adventurous they might be, viewers need to fortify themselves before starting
Labyrinth, because it is a three-hour visual barrage. It is also truly distinctive auteurist filmmaking. In Seijo Story, Obayashi seemed to be constantly editing this film—and now we can see why it was such a painstaking process, but his efforts with cinematographer-co-editor Hisaki Sanbongi bear considerable fruit. Every character call-back and each narrative parallel reverberates with significance (and there are many).

Friday, July 24, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Sacrifice

Before Japan was traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it was traumatized by cults like Aum Shinrikyo and the United Red Army. Midori is a college student who was traumatized by both. Her mother forced her to join the Sacred Tide cult, but she snapped out of their spell when she witnessed the destruction of 3-11. She never freed herself from the Tide’s clutches, but Midori did. Unfortunately, the cult has not forgotten about the young woman or her psychic powers in Taku Tsuboi’s Sacrifice, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Just before the disaster struck, Midori (the evil collective called her “Ap”) saw visions of it in a prophetic dream. That certainly impressed the Sacred Tide. Even though she managed to escape, they still keep tabs on her through brainwashed members stalking her on campus. To make matters worse, she is having catastrophic visions again.

Meanwhile, the popular but under-achieving Toko tries to take out her frustrations on loner Okita, after discovering his morbid fascination with a string of cat mutilation-murders. However, his interest is not what she assumes. Instead, he is conducting his own investigation, because he suspects the crimes are linked to the murder of a classmate.

Although
Sacrifice lacks the operatic sweep and outré imagery of Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, the films are close cousins thematically. However, there is a ripped-from-the-headlines matter-of-factness to Sacrifice that just might make it more unsettling. Tsuboi vividly portrays how cult members willingly surrender their individuality. He also makes it clear doomsday cults are in the doomsday business.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Special Actors

This cult supposedly worships a god from Jupiter about to celebrate its 8,396,825,800th birthday (hey, who’s counting anyway?), but if it all sounds very Thetan, you’ve got the right idea. Of course, what the cult leaders really worship is money. A complex con worthy of The Sting is underway to expose them for what they are, but a struggling thesp with an acute physical aversion to confrontation is surprised (and a bit alarmed) to play a leading role in Shinichiro Ueda’s Special Actors, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Poor Kazuto literally faints at the first site of aggressive behavior, so all his auditions quickly go from bad to worse. It has also made it difficult to hold down a job. His doctor makes it clear his issues are mental, not physical, but he is not ready for the rigorous work required to change. He also happens to be broke, but he fortuitously meets his long-lost brother, Hiroki, who hooks him up with an unconventional acting gig.

At the “Special Actors” agency, Kazuto and Hiroki are sent out into the real world to fulfill clients’ practical requests, like making them look good in front of a woman they are trying to impress. However, the stakes dramatically escalate when the agency is hired by a young woman, whose older sister has fallen under the cult’s influence. The brainwashed sibling is about to sign over ownership of the family’s quaint country inn to the cult. Obviously, this is a job for the Special Actors, who send nervous Kazuto and brash Hiroki into the lion’s den as undercover cult recruits.

Ueda caused an unlikely international sensation with his debut film,
One Cut of the Dead, which maybe features the biggest perspective changing twist since The Sixth Sense. He keeps the switcheroos coming in Special, but we are primed to expect them, especially since this is essentially a big con movie. Ueda maybe presses his luck a little this time around, but it still jolly good fun.

More importantly, Ueda’s sophomore is just brimming with heart, just like
One Cut. Kazuto is painfully shy, but we feel for him as much as Ueda clearly does—and we root for him accordingly. As his namesake, Kazuto Osawa looks like the saddest of sad sacks and acts like a nervous puppy dog, but when he has his day, it is quite satisfying.

The Rental: Just When You Thought B&B’s Were a Safe Alternative

It is amazing how deeply the film industry hates the gig economy. Most ride-share drivers you see in movies are creeps, but online bnb hosts are depicted as predatory criminals in a malevolent league of their own. Such seems to be the case again, but at least the execution is stylishly eerie throughout Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut, The Rental, which releases tomorrow on VOD and at select drive-ins.

Charlie and Mina have finally scored a major infusion of capital for their hipster start-up (doing whatever), so to celebrate, they book a weekend getaway for themselves and their respective romantic partners. You know, someplace coastal and isolated. It is a tight-knit group, since Mina is involved with Charlie’s underachieving loser brother, Josh. In contrast, Michelle is a straight-arrow type (albeit one who is not opposed to a little recreational MDMA use), but she still gets along better with Josh than Charlie does.

Things are a little awkward when the couples meet the renter, Taylor, because he initially declined Mina’s booking (presumably for unenlightened reasons), before accepting Charlie. He also has an unfortunate habit of saying things that can be taken the wrong way, or maybe reveal too much. Nevertheless, three of them get high and party the night away after the exhausted Michelle turns in early, but when they wake up, they start to notice some unsettling things around the property.

The Rental
was co-written and co-produced by Joe Swanberg, so it makes sense it is aesthetically similar to some of his genre related films. Despite following a narrative very much like that of 14 Cameras and Welcome Home, The Rental is a stylish slow-burn that holds viewers transfixed. In terms of vibe and visceral impact, it recalls Hallam & Horvath’s unfairly underrated Entrance.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Satrapi’s Radioactive

Marie Curie and her husband-partner Pierre named Polonium after her native homeland, Poland. She never forgot where she came from—nor did France’s Dreyfus-era press. Their scientific discoveries changed the world, but it would also be the death of them both. That is the price of progress in Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, which premieres this Friday on Amazon.

Marie Sklodowska (born “Maria”) is brilliant, but she does not suffer fools gladly or mince her words. She has no illusions why the Parisian scientific community allows her inadequate resources. Of course, it does not help that she constantly calls out Prof. Gabriel Lippmann and his university colleagues for their sexism. Help arrives from an unexpected quarter: Pierre Curie, who is also an establishment outsider, but much more resourceful.

Initially, he proposes a collaboration, but she is skeptical. However, she is eventually won over by his intelligence and respect, both professionally and romantically. Together they discover the new elements radium and polonium, as well as the phenomenon called radiation. It will be Pierre who shows mysterious signs of sickness first. However, Madame Curie will have dramatic second and third acts.

Radioactive
is adapted from Lauren Redniss’s illustrated biography, so it is somewhat surprising Satrapi, the graphic novelist of Persepolis, did not try to realize bigger and trippier visuals for Radioactive. Frankly, her cinematic canvas feels weirdly small in scope, despite the occasional historical vignettes illustrating the mixed legacy of the Curies’ discoveries (the Enola Gay flying over Hiroshima, a cancer patient receiving an early form of radiation treatment). (Actually, the legacy is even more mixed than Jack Thorne’s screenplay let’s on—just ask anyone descended from the Marines slated for the amphibious assault on Japan.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Seijo Story

Nobuhiko Obayashi was the mad genius behind House (and the sensitive auteur who helmed many other great Japanese films). Kyoko Obayashi is the producer (and den mother and caterer) who helped make them possible. As their names suggest, they were also happily married for over sixty years. Isshin Inudo & Eiki Takahashi profile the Obayshis and document the post-production work on their final ambitious collaboration in Seijo Story: 60 Years of Making Films, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Seijo is to Tokyo a lot like what Studio City is to Los Angeles, but it is also home to a first-class university. That is where the Obayashis met as undergrads and collaborated on their first 8mm films. He somewhat logically decided his emerging talents as novelist and musician made him best suited to be a film director. She used her organizational skill to support his films. At first, she refused all credit, but eventually she has been duly recognized as a top producer.

As a filmmaker, Obayashi has helmed celebrity commercials, experimental films, coming-of-age dramas, and unclassifiable genre films. Initially,
House was a flop, but in recent years, it has become a smash hit at midnight screenings. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it now. Yet, he is the first to admit their films have been a team effort.

Japan Cuts ’20: Extro

If you want to work as an extra in the Japanese film industry, you will find yourself wearing a lot of Edo-era historical costumes. If you’re really lucky, you might get crushed by a kaiju or two. No matter what the context, extras must blend-in and never stand-out. It sounds easy, but it will be quite an adventure for some extras pursuing their trade in Naoki Murahashi’s mockumentary, Extro, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Kozo Haginoya is now semi-retired, so he has time for the extra work that comes his way through the Lark Agency. He mostly appears in Jidaigeki period productions filmed at the near-by Warp Station Edo, a model samurai-era town. Yet, his dream is to play a fireman, like Steve McQueen in
Towering Inferno. Regardless, it will be touch-and-go for him just trying to make it through this episode of The Claws of Edo.

Unfortunately for Lark, Haginoya will not be Lark’s most embarrassing client. That’s when
Extro takes a rather madcap turn. Murahashi definitely gives Japanese extras the Waiting for Guffman treatment, but he is so deadpan about it, the film’s zaniness totally sneaks up on the audience. For at least the first hour, viewers could be fooled into thinking they are watching a legit documentary, especially given the presence of real-life stars like Yuki Saito, Koji Yamamoto, and Riho Miaki (a.k.a. J-Pop star Riho Kotani), playing themselves.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia

Even though he recently lost his mind, it is important to remember Rudy Giuliani saved New York not once, but twice. He restored law & order and economic vitality as mayor, but before that, he liberated the City from the tentacles of organized crime. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he spearheaded an unprecedented prosecution of New York’s “Five Families,” all at once. The FBI agents and prosecutors explain how they did it in the three-part documentary series Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia, directed by Sam Hobkinson, which premieres this Wednesday on Netflix.

The FBI had been trying for years to take down the Mafia, but to little avail, until an Ivy League law professor offered the FBI a free seminar on applying the relatively new RICO statute. For the special agents reluctantly attending, it was a revelation. RICO provided a legal framework to tie the bosses to the crimes of their captains and soldiers. This would be a game-changer when paired with greater wiretapping latitude and technology.

Fear City
is largely told from the perspective of the FBI and prosecutors, which is actually a nice change from most Mafia-centric mob programming. As a result, there is no phony sentimentalizing the Mafia as some sort of “family”-style organization. Instead, they make it clear what predatory parasites they were. John Savarese, a young prosecutor Giuliani assigned to the case, explains he was particularly outraged by the Mafia’s crimes as an Italian-American, because the Mafia preyed on newly arrived Italian immigrants, forcing their way into their neighborhood businesses.

It will probably be particularly galling for the old thugs to see their longtime critic, Curtis Sliwa, making similar points in the opening (but nobody can deny he adds color). In addition to Savarese, we also hear from Giuliani himself, as well as his lead prosecutor, future Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and many of the FBI Agents assigned to the Five Family-specific task forces. However, some of the wildest talking-head interviews and recreation-sequences feature the mysterious technician who placed their bugs, often literally under the bosses’ noses.

Japan Cuts ’20: Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

His full name is Torajiro Kuruma, but everyone calls him just plain Tora-san. After forty-nine films, Japanese fans felt like he was a member of the family. Technically, the movie franchise reincarnated him. Tora-san originally premiered in a one-season TV series that outraged viewers by killing him off in the final episode. Yoji Yamada never made that mistake. He would helm Kiyoshi Atsumi in all but two Tora-san films, starting with the original, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (a.k.a. It’s Hard to Be a Man), which screens as part of the Tora-san sidebar celebration during the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Tora-san always fought with his father, so he left home early and never came back. However, he has started feeling sentimental, so he decided to return home. His kid sister Sakura is all grown up now, but she still lives with their aunt and uncle, because her marriage prospects are limited without a dowry. In fact, Tora-san comes home just in time to spoil a potential marriage negotiation arranged by her employer.

Poor Tora-san will never master the art of courtship. However, this will be the first time he tries to romance a woman on his own behalf, when he starts putting the moves on Fuyuko Tsubouchi, the daughter of Gozensama, the temple priest. She is way out of his league, but there might be hope yet for Sakura.

A Tora-san statue has been erected in the Shibamata district of Tokyo, where the films are set—and appropriately so. Starting with
Tramp, the films lovingly capture the rhythms of life blue collar, lower-middle class neighborhood. Everyone works hard and does the best they can there, even Tora-san.

Despite the cliched description of Tora-san as a “lovable loser,” Atsumi’s portrayal is much subtler than you might expect. He is a bit of an idiot, but he has heart and we definitely feel for him when it is broken. There is no question Atsumi was the sort of clown who could also make viewers cry. Indeed, it is rather sweet to watch his sibling chemistry with Chieko Baisho, who portrays Sakura with wonderful sensitivity. As a result, it is easy to see why Yamada had her return in many subsequent Tora-san films.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts '20: Wolf's Calling (short)

It was a questionable application of a problematic law. Much to his dismay, director Toshiaki Toyoda was arrested (but never charged) for possession of an antique firearm that had been passed down through generations of his family. At least it inspired this short film. A young woman will uncover a similar heirloom in Toyoda’s Wolf’s Calling, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

The woman did not know what to make of the piece, but presumably her ancestor did. Toyoda now flashes back to the Edo era, more or less. Samurai like Rurouni Kenshin largely thought guns were cheating, but if you had someone packing, you definitely put him in front. Eventually, that warrior will come to the fore. However, Toyoda will not show us the battle. Instead, we only witness the call-to-arms and assembly at Kasosan Shrine. It sounds simple, but it is still pretty awesome to behold.

The forest-shrouded shrine is an enormously cinematic location that Toyoda films from many dramatic and inventive angles. This is one of the rare short films that really deserves to be seen on the big screen—the bigger, the better. The sound should also be cranked up, because the evocative soundtrack was composed and performed by Seppuku Pistols, who bring a punk rock aesthetic to traditional Japanese courtly music. As a bonus,
Calling features a number of prominent Japanese films stars, including Tadanobu Asano as the veteran Takashi Shimura-like samurai.

PBS Short Fest ‘20: The Birth of Afrobeat

You can definitely say jazz drummer Max Roach was influential. He inspired an entire genre of music with one Downbeat article. At least, that is how the late, great Tony Allen explains it—and he should know. He is the one who applied Roach’s lessons playing with Fela Kuti. Allen looks back on the beginning of his career and forward to new projects in Opiyo Okeyo’s all-too-brief short documentary, The Birth of Afrobeat, which is far-and-away the best film streaming as part of the PBS Short Film Festival.

Hopefully, Okeyo extensively recorded Allen, both in performances and interviews, while he had the chance. Sadly, the great drummer passed away on April 30
th, but his legendary powers were not the slightest bit diminished when he performed and recorded with the Chicago Afrobeat Project. Several bandmembers duly express what an honor and thrill it was to collaborate with Allen, but they clearly have some pretty funky chops themselves.

Okeyo and co-cinematographer Michael Gabriele shot the film in black-and-white, which well suits the vibe of Chicago’s gritty and edgy jazz scene. He also incorporates some retro-style animation to illustrate Allen’s Afrobeat creation story. Everything about the film is very cool. The only problem is it is just too short. Allen could easily carry a full-length feature documentary, so hopefully that is what Okeyo ultimately has in mind.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Beyond the Night

Folks in this provincial village need a paintball range or some kind of venue for letting off steam. Their anxieties are running high, but being Japanese, they keep it locked inside. Sometimes, it is hard to tell from descriptions whether a film is a proper thriller or a drama. In this case, it is still hard to decide after screening it. Simmering emotions will indeed erupt into violence during the course of Natsuki Nakagawa’s Beyond the Night, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Mikiro Toyama has recently arrived in town, under rather murky circumstances. He is struck by Sotoko Hashida, a woman on his UPS (or whatever) delivery route, who seems to be bullied at work and abused by her husband. Yet, she is decidedly unreceptive to his cautious offers of help. We quickly learn she has a ragingly dysfunctional and codependent relationship with Atsuya Hashida, the underachieving son of a powerful local family. He definitely has sadistic tendencies, but she is not a masochist, per se. Their marriage cannot simply be boiled down to a dominant-submissive relationship. There is something more twisted going on between them.

The Hashidas also seem to share some dark secrets regarding her disappearing family members. In short, it is complicated, but Toyama is not inclined to let things go, even though the last time he developed a savior complex, it apparently did not work out so well. He will look to Sotoko for a cue, but her signals are definitely quite mixed.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Painted Bird: Adapting Kosinski

For years, Poland’s Communist regime conducted a deliberate and malicious disinformation campaign to discredit novelist and human rights activist Jerzy Kosinski. John Corry exposed The Village Voice’s willingness to do their dirty work in the pages of The New York Times. Today, Kosinski is still widely read, including in Poland where he was once forbidden, but the Voice is no longer in print. To crown his posthumous victory, the Kosinski novel the so disturbed his ideological enemies has now been adapted for the big screen. The language is the relatively new Interslavic, but the spirit and narrative remain faithful to Kosinski. Human cruelty defines the nightmarish vision of Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of The Painted Bird, which releases today in select theaters and on VOD.

A boy has been sent to live with his rustic aunt in the hopes that he will be protected from the war in the countryside. Unfortunately, her untimely death sets in motion a series of disasters that will brutalize his body and spirit. Showing no mercy, villagers violently shun him, in the ignorant superstitious belief that he is a cursed harbinger of misfortune. In some ways, this always turns out to be true, but their moral failings directly contribute to each tragic episode.

From time to time, the boy finds shelter with a sympathetic adult, like Lekh, the bird-keeper, who provides the title, by releasing a bird with painted wings, knowing full well the wild flock would tear it apart. Numerous times, he escapes likely deportation to concentration camps, most notably thanks to the intercession of a kindly (but dying) Catholic priest. He also finds an unlikely protector in the Red Army (making the Communist regime’s antipathy even more perverse). Yet, each encounter inevitably leads to fresh terror.

This is a tough film that initially shocks viewers and soon exhausts them. Nevertheless, there is a purpose behind the horrors and humiliations rained down on the Boy. It is like witnessing literal Hell on Earth, which by definition, never seems to end. Indeed, viewers will feel like they too are staggering through a hostile Hellscape, which is quite an accomplishment for Marhoul.

Stylistically, the dark, immersive intimacy of
Painted Bird shares a kinship with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksey German and Bela Tarr, but it has a stronger narrative drive. Indeed, it is one horrendous darned thing after another for the Boy. It compares very directly with Elem Klimov’s Come and See, but it makes the Soviet epic look positively upbeat. This is high auteurist cinema that makes no concessions to popular taste, but Vladimir Smutny’s black-and-white cinematography is undeniably arresting.

Japan Cuts ’20: Fukushima 50

Thanks to the fifty brave plant workers, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency was not Chernobyl. It wasn’t Apollo 13 either, thanks to irresponsible behavior of government and utility executives. Nevertheless, the courage and sacrifice of those who stayed behind at the Fukushima Daiichi power station has made them folk heroes. Their story is told in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Fukushima 50, which screens as the official centerpiece of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Initially, 50 of the 800 Daiichi plant employees stayed, but eventually their ranks swelled to 580, including firefighters and sub-contractors. Fifty is still a nice round number. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami (the shifting tectonic plates actually lowered the protective sea-barrier) just set off a chain of disastrous events. Of course, site superintendent Masao Yoshida is best qualified to lead the crisis response, but he is constantly micro-managed and second-guessed by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives in the capitol, as well as the Prime Minister’s office.

Fortunately, he can rely on the cool head and expert advice of his old colleague, Toshio Isaki, the shift supervisor. He was on-duty in the control room of the most critical reactor. It will also be Isaki who assigns “suicide squads” of veteran employees in a desperate attempt to relieve pressure on the containment facilities and cool the core.

Fukushima 50
is an unabashedly old-fashioned, but immediately gripping ripped-from-the-headlines disaster movie. There are some reasonably impressive catastrophe effects in the first act, but most of the tension comes from the claustrophobic setting and steadily escalating stakes.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Ghosts of War: When War Really is Hell

It is a small French chateau rather than a Romanian castle, but this piece of real estate is not so different from the one in the Michael Mann’s The Keep (based on the F. Paul Wilson novel). Bad things happen there, but unfortunately, it will be American GIs occupying it (with great trepidation) in director-screenwriter Eric Bress’s Ghosts of War, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

After some really nasty fighting, a unit of five American soldiers is ordered to hold a French chateau that was formerly requisitioned by the National Socialist occupiers. It sounds like a cushy mission, since it comes with beds to sleep in, but the men they are relieving are suspiciously eager to leave. Yep, the place is haunted—apparently by the original owners, the Helwig family, who sheltered local Jews. Presumably, the spirits of the Helwigs want their new guests to continue taking the fight to the German, at any and all costs.

Except, there is more to the story. Hello, big twist. Yet, ironically, the film starts to crater once Bress springs his shocking revelation. Up until then, the film is maybe not stunningly original, but it is a rather tense and effective exercise in historical haunted horror. The American GIs are definitely on the rough side of
The Dirty Dozen, but viewers can still sympathize with them (especially when we see the really crazy one making kind gestures towards liberated concentration camp prisoners). However, when the film starts showing off its game-changing secret, it also turns against the U.S. military.

Bress’s last directorial turn was
The Butterfly Effect from back in 2004 and you can find some thematic affinities between Ghosts and that film down the stretch. Nevertheless, he really should have kept it simpler. The claustrophobic first and second acts work, but all accrued good will eventually goes out the window.

Flannery: A Moral Writer for Our Times

Notoriously, a snobby establishment writer asked distinguished editor Robert Giroux: “do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great writer? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” It was the sort of tone-deaf comment that reveals more about the speaker than the subject, like Pauline Kael wondering how Nixon won because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Of course, O’Connor’s Catholicism thoroughly permeates her work, along with her mordant wit. For those who make a point of being put-off, she is easy not to get. Fortunately, the talking heads mostly get her in Elizabeth Coffman & Mark Bosco S.J.’s documentary, Flannery, which opens virtually tomorrow, in conjunction with Film Forum in New York.

She was a Southern Catholic, which was almost a contradiction in terms during the early to mid-20
th Century. It made her an outsider, yet both very directly shaped her identity. Her life was short, due to lupus, but her work continues to resonate. Wisely, Coffman and Father Bosco frequently let O’Connor speak for herself, through letters and journals read by Mary Steenburgen, her only long lost (until now) television interview, brief animated renderings of her work, and excerpts from film adaptations. Indeed, her filmography is not so inconsequential for someone considered so difficult to translate to the screen, including John Huston’s Wise Blood and a 1957 TV production of “The Life You Save,” starring Gene Kelly.

Her fascination with the grotesque is widely noted and generally approved. Yet, rather frustratingly, the film’s own experts sometimes appear compelled to apologize for O’Connor’s iconoclasm and disdain for pretension. She could skewer the pomposity of Eastern liberals just as ruthlessly as the ridiculous (yet sinister) rituals of the Klan. Even the theater listing hedges with caution, regarding potential hot-button objections.

Frankly, O’Connor is too complex, too bold, and too uncompromising for our current era of Twitter-mandated morality. It is a near miracle she hasn’t already been canceled. The irony is that she wrote with more moral authority than almost any other American writer. However, her stories did not present the easy, virtue-rewarded happy endings, like the kind found in recent Evangelical films. Instead, she presented the messy and uncomfortable truths of faith and grace, somewhat akin to Ferrara’s
Bad Lieutenant and Scorsese’s Silence, if we can continue the film comparisons.

Still, it is impressive that Coffman & Bosco set out to profile O’Connor in the current climate. In fact, it is in times like these that we need her writings most. Recommended as a start, but not as the final word,
Flannery opens virtually tomorrow (7/17).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Shudder: Lake of Death

Ruminating is unhealthy, especially in horror movies. Don’t dwell on the past or wallow in guilt, because it only invites trouble. Whatever you do, don’t leave the city on veritable guilt trip. For the sake of “closure,” Lilian does exactly that, but she will also be accompanied by a handful of acquaintances, who commit all the other drunken, jealous horror movie taboos. She might just get permanent closure in Nini Bull Robsahm’s Lake of Death, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

As orphans, Lillian and her twin brother Bjorn were always close—too close viewers can obviously tell. Last summer, he disappeared after she left, presumed to have drowned in the lake. This is her first time back to process all her grief and guilt. Inexplicably, her ex, Gabriel, has joined her, even though her prospective new man, outdoorsy Kai is a local. In addition, she brought along her pal Sonja, her latest boyfriend Harald, and Bernhard, an annoying paranormal podcaster.

Anyone who really knows their Norwegian cinema and mystery novels will recognize the characters and premise largely parallel that of Andre Bjerke’s novel Lake of the Dead (written under the pen-name Bernhard Borge), adapted for film in 1958. Robsahm modernized the circumstances a bit, turning the crime novelist into a podcaster. However, she kept the legend of Gruvik, the old rustic woodsman, who supposedly murdered his family and then killed himself after falling under the lake’s evil spell.

Perhaps Lake is a much more rewarding viewing experience if you are well versed in the precursors Robsahm is riffing on. Most American horror fans will find it a competent and slickly produced, but rather predictable cabin-by-the-lake movie. Seriously, if you are surprised by the third act revelations than you do not know the genre very well. Nevertheless, there is something satisfying about the atmospheric location and creepy set design. Likewise, real fans will also get a kick out of John Debney’s foreboding score (some of his best recent work).