Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, on OVID.tv

Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, whereas New Jersey is New Jersey. Yet, apparently, the Garden State is still a preferable place to practice neurosurgery, because of the superior equipment and working conditions. Nevertheless, Dr. Marta Vizy moves back to her native Hungary, to pursue a relationship with her lover, fellow neurosurgeon Janos Drexler. However, Dr. Drexler claims to have no memory of Vizy in Lili Horvat’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, which premieres tomorrow on OVID.tv.

As soon as she arrived, Vizy was supposed to meet Drexler at the Pest side of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, but he no-shows. Of course, they were too passionate to do anything mundane, like exchange numbers, but she quickly tracks him down at the university hospital. When he denies all memory of her, it cuts the ground out from under Vizy’s feet—almost literally. She nearly returns to America, but instead, she stays, joining the staff of the hospital, where Drexler now only occasionally consults. Not surprisingly, the Budapest neurosurgery community is rather small, so their paths soon cross professionally. At first, it is understandably awkward, but it becomes increasingly less so over time, in hard to define ways.

Some descriptions suggest
PTBTFAUPOT is some kind of noir thriller in the Cornell Woolrich tradition, but Horvat decidedly does not take the film in that direction. The periodic scenes of Vizy analyzing her situation during counseling sessions might suggest a Joanne Woodward-style mental heath awareness drama, but Horvat’s approach is too subtle and refined to serve as a mere PSA. Instead, she leans into ambiguity and takes inspiration from her characters’ vocation, inviting viewers to embrace our absolute inability to know another person’s mind.

That can be frustrating, but Horvat’s artistry is impressive. Robert Maly’s cinematographer is striking and the classical soundtrack gives the film a refined vibe, not unlike some of the finest films from Claude Sautet. Horvat often deliberately keeps viewers at arm’s length, but her style keeps us watching.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, on Topic

Sven Hjerson is to Agatha Christie’s novels what Beebo is to DC Comics. He is a fictional character within a fictional world. Several of Dame Agatha’s stories featured Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer not completely unlike herself, whose fictional detective was the fastidious Hjerson, who is not radically different from Hercule Poirot. Rather shrewdly, Swedish television capitalizes on the sleuth’s local potential in the eight-episode Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, which premieres Thursday on Topic.

Technically, the series should probably be called
Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver’s Hjerson, since it all presumably unfolds in the pages of her novels, but creator Patrik Gyllstrom (perhaps wisely) ignores the meta implications. It turns out Hjerson is actually Finnish, from the Swedish-speaking autonomous archipelago of Åland, but his professional career was spent solving crimes for the Swedish police, until his spectacular fall from grace.

However, his notoriety and brilliance are assets to freelance TV producer Klara Sandberg, who wants to escape her
MILF Hotel program, with a crime-solving show, starring Hjerson. Contacting the misanthropic recluse is tricky by design, but she knows she can corner him on an over-night ferry to Åland. There also happens to be a muck-raking journalist on-board, who meets an untimely death. Obviously, that will be their first case [sort of] together.

Each case lasts two episodes and they vary in degree of mysteriousness. The shipbound opener is about as twisty as a 1970s Quinn Martin two-parter. Fortunately, the subsequent mystery in Åland is considerably more involving. It starts with the strange disappearance of a man in chicken suit and features Bjorn Andresen (who played the teen Dirk Bogarde obsesses over in
Death in Venice) as Hjerson’s old crony Oscar (seeing the grey, wrinkly Andresen now should totally freak out anyone who saw Visconti’s film in theaters).

About the time Hjerson finally agrees to Sandberg’s proposal, at least in very general terms, they are approached by Ronda Svensson (a mystery novelist in the world created by mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, who was created by mystery novelist Agatha Christie) to investigate a murder that was committed in a manner precisely like one in her unpublished manuscript. Thematically, it is sort of like “Captive Audience,” the James Mason episode of
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but Gyllstrom and co-screenwriter Bjorn Paqualin take it in an interesting direction.

Impressively, Gyllstrom isn’t afraid to riff on Alec Baldwin’s negligent shooting incident (and make reference to it) in the concluding mystery-arc. However, in this instance, it is the jerky arrogant actor who gets shot. Obviously, this is a good case for the gossip-obsessed Hjerson, even though playing it coy with Sandberg. Again, this mystery isn’t bad, considering Gyllstrom has to wrap it up in ninety minutes, give or take.

Anastasia, on Paramount+

Putin's MO is to make the most vulnerable in his country suffer for the perceived slights of others. In retribution for the Magnitsky Act, Putin banned all American adoptions of Russian orphans, including those already in process, even though Russia has one of the world’s lowest adoption rates. Anastasia Shevchenko’s oldest daughter Alina was also a victim of Putin’s vengeful pettiness, because of her mother’s political activism (officially proclaimed “undesirable”). Shevchenko was sentenced to two years house arrest and strictly prevented from visiting the severely disabled Alina as her health declined in a Russian hospital. Finally at liberty, Shevchenko travels with her family to scatter Alina’s ashes in Sarah McCarthy’s short documentary, Anastasia, which premieres tomorrow on Paramount+.

Presumably, McCarthy would agree with the assertion Alina and the Russian orphans denied the opportunity of U.S. adoption are all innocent collateral victims of Putin’s wrath, since she also helmed
The Dark Matter of Love, which documented the plight of so-called “Pipeline Babies,” whose American adoptions were canceled, despite being well into the process. It is a subject you should raise with any ostensibly “pro-family” politician who voices support for Putin. In Shevchenko’s case, she dearly wished to visit Alina, but the government forbade it—and then pilloried her in the state media for choosing politics over her daughter.

After two years, Shevchenko, her young son Misha, teen daughter Vlada, and her own mother, can now travel to disburse Alina’s ashes. They cannot say so openly, but in addition to saying goodbye to Alina, they will also be saying goodbye to Russia. Post-McCarthy’s filming, Shevchenko is now living in Lithuania, having been branded a “fugitive from justice” by the Russian authorities.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

New Orleans is the perfect city for Mona “Lisa” Lee to escape to, because when you’re there, it is tricky answering a question like “have you seen anything unusual?” Her powers make her dangerous and her innocence makes her vulnerable to exploitation. Most of all, she is unpredictable, even if the film she appears in sort of is. Regardless, Lee will start to learn something about people in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, which releases Tuesday on BluRay.

There is a blood moon out tonight, making it a fitting time for Lee to escape from her high security mental hospital. Given her powers of mind control, it seems weird she hasn’t made a break for it sooner. After inducing a few relatively mild cases of self-harm, she makes her way to the Big Easy, but the grittier, less touristy part. After forcing Officer Harold to shoot himself in the leg, she saves Bonnie Hunt (a fictional stripper and not David Letterman’s crony) from a violent woman on a jealousy bender.

Seeing Lee’s powers at work, Hunt takes her home and starts hatching schemes to harness those uncanny abilities for her own benefit. After a few days of mind-controlling ATM-withdrawers and Hunt’s strip club customers, Lee starts to suspect Hunt is maybe doesn’t deserve her help, but the stripper’s shy son Charlie does.

Mona Lisa
is a dramatic improvement over Amirpour’s disappointing sophomore slump, The Bad Batch, but it will inevitably draw unfortunate comparisons with the Kimiko “The Girl” Miyashiro character in The Boys. Their powers are different but their personalities and demeanors are similar. Intriguingly, we are told in passing Lee’s family defected from North Korea, but Amirpour never develops this potentially significant tidbit into anything.

Nevertheless, Jeon Jong-seo is excellent as Lee, vividly expressing her innocence and her anger. Kate Hudson nicely plays against type as the convincingly trashy Hunt. However, Ed Skrein turns out to be the surprise scene-stealer as the not-as-sleazy as he looks “Fuzz” (don’t call him a drug-dealer).

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Raven: Poe’s Final Days

Unlike Universal's 1935 film and Roger Corman’s 1963 film, this Raven does not pretend to be an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It is not as much fun either, but how can you beat Lugosi, Karloff, Price, Lorre, Corman, or Hazel Court? You sure can’t do it with John Cusack. Still, if you crank down your expectations, the atmosphere is reasonably entertaining in John McTeigue’s The Raven, which airs on ThisTV.

These will be the last days of Poe’s life and true to form, they start with bar brawl. He hopes to marry his well-heeled secret lover, Emily Hamilton, but her father, Captain Charles isn’t having any of that. The serial killer terrorizing Baltimore will be a more serious obstacle when he kidnaps her.

As Baltimore Police Detective Fields sleuths out, each of his killings were inspired by Poe’s stories. In an early act of “toxic fandom,” the mystery man demands Poe write new stories inspired by his crime scenes, or else Hamilton dies.

The idea of Poe as a detective holds plenty of promise (it was gripping as heck in Marc Olden’s supernatural novel,
Poe Must Die). The problem is many of the killer’s Poe homages are awkwardly forced. In one case, Poe even says so himself. The locked-room crime scene makes sense as a “Rue Morgue” reference—so much so that Fields recognizes it as such—and the pendulum murder of Poe’s real-life nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold is possibly the film’s high point for Poe fans, but from there, screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston really start grasping at straws.

Weirdly, John Cusack turns out to be a decent fit for Poe, thanks to his whiny, snarky nebbishness. Viewing
The Raven in retrospect, we can also draw parallels between the disgraced and dissolute Poe and Cusack’s own career, which subsequently took a nose-dive into VOD purgatory. Regardless, Cusack plays up Poe’s jerkishness without alienating the audience.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Scream, Queen, on TCM

Obviously, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge did well at the box office, since there were six more films released in the original non-rebooted franchise (including Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Freddy vs. Jason), but it has always been the most contentious of the series. Some fans complained screenwriter David Chaskin’s veered too far from Freddy Kruger’s established nature and motivations. (Future films kept him strictly dream-bound.) However, the homoerotic subtext (or text, per many critics) originally earned the film troll-ish scorn, but it built a cult following for the sequel over time. Lead actor Mark Patton found himself in the center of the controversy. After dropping out of show business, Patton reflects on the sequel he learned to embrace in Roman Chimienti & Tyler Jensen’s Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which airs late-night tonight on TCM.

In some ways,
Nightmare 2 was a possession film, in which Kruger tries to use the body of Patton’s character, the shy high school student Jesse Walsh, as a portal into our world. Instead of a jock, Walsh was a bullied teen, whose screams would subsequently be derided for their “girlishness.” Rather awkwardly, Patton happened to be closeted at the time.

The sequel’s stock has risen in recent years, thanks to critics driven by identity politics, who see it as a pioneering gay horror film—and not without reason. Walsh did not exactly exemplify “toxic masculinity.” There were several scenes in the boys’ locker room and even one in a gay bar. Unfortunately, it all generated a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny for Patton, culminating in his retirement from the public eye.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Battle for Saipan

Five Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service at Saipan, all of them posthumously. A campaign was launched to upgrade Guy Gabaldon’s Navy Cross to the MOH, which still continues after his death. Such valor testifies to the battle’s high stakes and brutal conditions endured by tens of thousands of American soldiers, including my grandfather. The attack on an American field hospital in this film is fictional, but it is consistent with the Imperial army’s scorched earth “banzai” charge. A handful of soldiers and medical personnel must stand against several Japanese platoons in screenwriter-director Brandon Slagle’s Battle for Saipan, which opens tomorrow.

Like Gabaldon (who was raised in a Japanese-speaking family), Maj. William Porter speaks some of the local lingo, but it is never explained how he picked it up. Regardless, he overhears plans of an attack on the nearby U.S. Army field hospital while dodging a Japanese patrol. He finds a rag-tag facility lacking proper supplies for the many patients they have. Porter even brought another—the only other survivor of his scouting party. Vic, the lead surgeon, never expected to fight, but he completed basic like any other serviceman, so he and Porter will have to spearhead their defense.

There are a few reasonably colorful characters in the hospital, particularly, the demoted commanding officer, Gen. Jake Carroll, but the narrative still boils down to: the Japanese attack and the Americans defend. It is simple, unfussy, and pretty effective for what it is. This is hardly
Hell to Eternity (based on Gabaldon’s story), but lead thesp Casper Van Dien bears some resemblance to Jeffrey Hunter.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Echo 3, on Apple TV+

Every leftist guerilla organization always just turns out to be a drug-running terrorist group. It is hard to think otherwise, especially when you find yourself captured by one, like American research scientist Amber Chesborough. When a “new” revolutionary group takes her hostage in Colombia, they quickly put her to work in a drug lab owned and operated by the Venezuelan government. Ordinarily, her chances for release would be minimal, but her husband and brother are highly motivated special operators in creator Mark Boal’s Echo 3, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

The well-heeled Prince (indeed) and the white-trash Bambi just became brothers-in-law, but they still argue heatedly and increasingly bitterly. It will only get worse. Chesborough planned an expedition into the Colombian rain forest hoping to find natural compounds that could counteract the chemical effects of addiction. However, guerilla activity is the rise (real-life events have somewhat outstripped Boal’s series, considering the terrorists are now in power). It is a particularly fraught time for Chesborough to visit, since she may or may not have had freelance ties to the CIA that she tried to keep secret, even from her new husband. In retrospect, the military-grade tracking device he sewed into her pack was also a bad idea.

Graciela’s hipster terrorist gang is not about to release Chesborough anytime soon and the U.S. State Department is determined to avoid conflict, like always. However, the Colombian military is not wholly unsympathetic, even when Prince and Bambi start going rogue.

Echo 3
has a great premise (adapted from the Israeli series When Heroes Fly), executed with a very high degree of military, political, and cultural accuracy—at least based on the first five (out of ten) episodes provided for review. This series gives viewers an excellent sense of boots-on-the-ground realities in Venezuela and regions of Colombia. On the other hand, there are pacing issues, including an inconveniently slow opener (helmed by Pablo Trapero) and an entire episode devoted to one incident that easily could have been condensed to fifteen minutes or so.

Nevertheless,
Echo 3 has some nifty scenes of urban warfare and commando-style action. Boal, who wrote and produced Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has solid understanding of and affinity for characters like Bambi and Prince. Most of their scenes ring true, while most non-political government officials, like the Embassy Chief of Mission, are crisply professional rather than lazy caricatures. Just wait till all the professionally over-sensitive-and-easily offended, who were so unhinged over The Terminal List get a load of Echo 3.

The series also has great sympathy for the average Colombians and Venezuelans who are suffering under leftist terrorism, who are embodied by Violetta Cardiz, a dissident Venezuelan journalist working in Colombia, whom the terrorists also target. Portrayed with great subtlety by Martina Gusman, Cardiz’s perspective and traumatic background really adds a lot to the series.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

5-25-77: It was a Long Time Ago…

Forget about May the Fourth/Force. 5/25 is the real birthdate for Star Wars. If you grew up in the late 1970s or the 1980s, it completely changed how you related to movies. It certainly blew Patrick Read Johnson’s mind. He eventually went to Hollywood, caught on as a special effects guy and directed films like Spaced Invaders and Angus. Johnson revisits his pivotal introduction to Star Wars and the awkward high school moments before and after in 5-25-77, which releases today on DVD.

Initially, Douglas Trumbull was “Pat Johnson’s” idol and
2001 was his touchstone film. We see him laboring away at his backyard sequels to Jaws and The Planet of the Apes, but he never quite finishes anything. He is sure he has to leave Wadsworth, IL, so he can apprentice under Trumbull in Hollywood, but he has no idea how to get there. Then he meets Linda, an actual prospective girlfriend, who somewhat distracts him with other common high school concerns, but she can’t shake his filmmaking ambitions.

Thanks to Johnson’s indulgent mother, Johnson eventually makes it to Hollywood, but he is clueless when it comes to networking. However, he gets to see some early footage of
Star Wars thanks to Herb Lightman, the editor of American Cinematographer magazine. Johnson tries to become a prophet hailing the coming of Star Wars, but his classmates would rather act like they are characters in American Graffiti, or maybe a rowdier 1980s teen comedy.

5-25-77
is a love letter to Stars Wars (and Close Encounters, Silent Running, and 1970s science fiction in general), produced by Gary Kurtz (Star War, Empire Strikes Back, and Dark Crystal). It is achingly earnest, to the point of being overly self-serious. Johnson’s thinly fictionalized self is also a walking face-palm, who often makes the film an excruciating viewing experience. The ample examples of Johnson’s half-baked DIY filmmaking ingenuity also get to be a bit too cute.

Nanny, Produced by Blumhouse

Aisha is not like Alice in The Brady Bunch. She doesn’t feel like one of the family. However, Rose, her little charge, took to her immediately and her often-absent hipster father isn’t so bad either. Aisha can even handle Rose’s neurotic mom Amy. Instead, the real danger might be coming from her homeland in Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, produced by Blumhouse, which opens Wednesday in New York.

Aisha is an illegal immigrant, because of course she is. Modern filmmakers are conditioning audiences to automatically assume immigrants like Aisha must be here illegally. Supposedly, Rose is a fussy eater with behavioral issues, but she rarely gives Aisha trouble. Instead, Amy is a real pain, who often “forgets” to pay Aisha. Presumably, Adam “fetishizes” the Third World subjects he shoots as a photo-journalist, but he generally tries to be an “ally.”

Regardless, Aisha has bigger problems, like the son in Senegal she only sees over whatsapp. Initially, her guilt seems to be metastasizing into nightmares and brief hallucinations, but the dreams and visions are growing steadily more severe and macabre. Yet, Aisha just keeps shaking them off.

That gets to the real problem of
Nanny, which is billed as an elevated horror film. You can only watch so many nightmares that end when the dreamer wakes before an ostensive horror film becomes a drama about sleep disorder. There are some intriguing references to the traditional spirits of Senegal, but Jusu devotes far more time to the dysfunctional dynamics of Rose’s family—and we’ve seen that all before.

The Golem of Venice Beach, Graphic Novel

Venice, CA has a huge homeless problem, even more so than the rest of Los Angeles, which is saying something. Not so surprisingly, it is partially its own fault, since local zoning and regulation has made it impossible to build a single new unit of housing since 2007. That means there are plenty of homeless camps where you might find strange and unsavory types. The Golem definitely counts as strange, but he does not look so glaringly out of place in the home of Muscle Beach. He now goes by the name “Adam” and his personality has evolved, but he is still a product of his Kabbalistic origins in Chanan Beizer’s graphic novel The Golem of Venice Beach, mostly illustrated by Vanessa Cardinali, which goes on-sale today.

Jake is descended from the line of the original Prague rabbi whose blood first animated Adam, so the Golem is sworn to protect him and his last living relative—a Holocaust survivor from the old country (in the 1950s, Venice was home to many survivors, because of their cheap rents). Adam already saved Jake once during childhood, but the moody slacker still carries guilt from the incident.

Adam is keenly aware of man’s inhumanity by now, so he only intends to act exclusively when the Rabbi’s bloodline is in jeopardy. That rather annoys Jake, who wants Adam to save his new girlfriend, who is forced to preside over Santa Muerte ceremonies to protect a brutal Venice drug gang. Frankly, she is one of the graphic novel’s most intriguing characters, because she is part damsel-in-distress and part femme fatale. The exact ration is yet to be determined in part one.

That means there is a part two yet to come. As a result, part one ends without a whole lot of resolution. There is a little, but not much. On the other hand, the mix of visuals styles is distinctive. Particularly notable is the renowned comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who contributed the cover and the Prague-set prologue. Cardinali handles most of the contemporary story, in a slightly cartoony style, but evokes the funkiness of Venice.

Monday, November 21, 2022

MEAD, on DVD

MEAD is a lot like HAL 9000, but cuter and with a conscience. That is a strange thing to say about a character who originated in underground comix, but Kitchen Sink Press actually published a lot interesting titles (including Xenozoic Tales and Will Eisner’s The Spirit). Regardless, his reluctance to kill people is what forces him to turn renegade in J. Allen Williams’ MEAD, which releases tomorrow on DVD/BluRay.

At this point, it is just MEAD and Friz, his human operator/companion, at-large in the universe. They had his creator Tam in common, but when they had to make a break for it, the evil Admiral Gillette killed her during their escape attempt. After that, Friz became a pirate, navigating the toy-looking starship MEAD is paired to. However, they really need to find some dark matter to properly power-up. Instead, they rescue Phoebe from the bounty hunters that came looking for them.

AIs like MEAD have the extraordinarily dangerous ability to create illusions in the minds of the crews pursuing them. Inconveniently, Gillette has the prototype helmet that counteracts MEAD’s illusions. However, his leadership skills under combat conditions are rather lacking. Bellowing threats at people is not very effective when they see a gigantic version of the beloved robot toy Timmy the Wonderbot lumbering towards them, like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

If
MEAD had been released in its current version thirty years ago, it would have been hailed as a game-changing integration of live-action with CGI animation. Today, it is just sort of interesting looking. The story is just okay too, even though it was adapted by Jan Strnad from his original story, “To Meet the Faces You Meet,” which was published in the Kitchen Sink anthology Fever Dreams.

The Bermuda Triangle, on History Channel: The Challenger Discovery


When genre fans hear “Bermuda triangle,” we want to think ghost pirates. However, you have to treat the wrecks within that treacherous area of water with respect, because people died there, including U.S. military service personnel. The crew of History Channel’s new Bermuda Triangle expedition series made news before it aired with their discovery of a significant section of the Challenger space shuttle, the largest recovered since the mid-1990s. Logically, The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters starts with that news-making find, when the first episode premieres tomorrow.

In terms of tone,
Into Cursed Waters is less like In Search of… and more akin to the excellent documentary To What Remains. At the beginning of the episode, the team led by Mike Barnette is actually looking for the U.S. Navy’s Martin PBM Mariner rescue plane, which was lost on December 5, 1945, somewhere in the Bermuda triangle. Ironically, the Martin Mariner was searching for the five planes of “Flight 19,” a training mission that was also lost after flying in the Bermuda Triangle that fateful day.

Barnette’s investigators identify two potential sites for the team to dive. Technically, one is a bit outside the Triangle area. It turns out what they found there did not look like a traditional aircraft. Eventually, they take their findings directly to NASA, who immediately recognize the wreck for what it is.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, on PBS

Maybe Cousin Matthew’s untimely death was part of King Tut’s curse. Remember, Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl of Carnarvon, the fifth Earl being the one who funded Howard Carter’s search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He almost pulled the plug, but Carter convinced him to bankroll one more fateful season. Of course, Egyptian Egyptologists Dr. Yasmin El Shazly and Mahmoud Rashad are way too responsible to talk about curses. (That’s my job.) However, they are fascinated by the young pharaoh’s death and the suspects who might have done him in throughout the two-part Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, which premiere back-to-back Wednesday night on PBS.

It is the 100
th anniversary of Carter’s discovery, so there will be a good deal of books and programming coming to mark the occasion this month. Everyone knows the boy king died young, but El Shazly and Rashad do a nice job explaining his place in his era. Even though Tut had little time to do anything important himself, his reign was still crucially important, because it represented a transition from his father Akhenaten’s monotheistic embrace of the god Aten to his grandfather-successor Ay’s restoration of the polytheism advocated by Egypt’s powerful priest class.

Throughout the program, Ay and his successor, the powerful general Horemheb (sort of like Tut’s Gurney Halleck), are identified as the two prime suspects in the boy pharaoh’s convenient death. El Shazly and Rashad talk to numerous colleagues on all sides of the issue. Ironically, this might be the most “fair and balanced” exploration of a historical controversy you will see on PBS all year. Eventually, the hosts try to come to some sort of conclusion, but they are not dogmatic in their arguments.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Automat, on TCM

For decades, Horn & Hardart automats helped New Yorkers and Philadelphians maintain their buying power during times of inflation. Their New Orleans-style chicory coffee was only a nickel and everything else in their locations was priced in increments of five cents. Their machines were exclusively tooled for nickels, so when they finally raised the price of coffee, they had to double it to ten cents. That was the beginning of the end, but Horn & Hardart had a good run, which Mel Brooks and other famous former customers look back on fondly in Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary, The Automat, which airs Tuesday night on TCM.

When Hardart teamed up with Horn, he thought introducing New Yorkers to NOLA chicory coffee would be a winning strategy—and it was, even for their early diner-style restaurants. However, when they adopted and perfected European automated serving techniques, their brand really took off. All Hurwitz’s interview subjects warmly laud the automats for the democratic environment. Visitors could often find millionaires seated next to homeless people there, much like New York’s mass transit. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, New York’s swelling homeless population contributed to Horn & Hardart’s downfall, because it looked like nearly all of them passed their time loitering at their automats.

However, the food was always good—especially during the Depression. At that time, Horn & Hardart bought in such volume, they could still offer quality food at affordable nickel prices.

Mel Brooks was definitely a fan. He isn’t just Hurwitz’s lead interview. He also wrote and performed “At the Automat,” the endearingly sentimental original song heard over the closing credits. His old crony Carl Reiner was also a regular, who sat for an automat interview before his death in 2020. There are reminiscences from other famous people, but some of the most interesting commentary comes from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who explains how his childhood automat visits inspired his hospitality approach for the coffee chain. (Hearing him talk might make you wish he hadn’t been muscled out of the 2020 presidential race, especially considering the alternatives we were stick with.)

Friday, November 18, 2022

Mickey Mouse: Horror Icon

He is not exactly Prof. Van Helsing or Agent Fox Mulder, partly because he is a total scaredy-cat. Nevertheless, Mickey Mouse has had repeatedly confrontations with the supernatural and lived to tell the animated tales. In fact, some of his ghostly shorts are his most beloved. In honor of the premiere of Disney+’s new documentary, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, we look back at his scariest appearances.


Mickey started encountering ghosts as early as 1929 in Walt Disney’s
The Haunted House. Basically, Mickey is a weary traveler who takes shelter from a storm in an old dark house haunted by the bony monsters from The Skeleton Dance. It is a simple premise, but it was sufficient to make it a classic. Plus, the way the skeletons play a tune using their ribs like vibraphones still holds up as a clever piece of business.

The next year, Mickey reluctantly saved Minnie Mouse from a rabid-looking gorilla that escaped from the zoo in
The Gorilla Mystery. It is worth noting this 1930 film predated the big primate horror of Murder in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi, The Ape starring Boris Karloff, Bride of the Gorilla with Lon Chaney Jr., and the godfather of all mad monkeys, King Kong. Technically, it was a spoof of the silent movie The Gorilla and its soundie remake, but both are now considered lost films.

Disney once again revisited horror themes in
The Mad Doctor, Mickey’s first encounter with a Frankenstein-like scientist (who dognaps Pluto), but it would not be his last. There is a lot of cool imagery for vintage horror fans, but we can’t help wondering why didn’t Mickey just bring Pluto into the house, on such a dark and stormy night.

If you have only seen one Mickey Mouse cartoon, there is a good chance it was “Lonesome Ghosts.” Way back in 1937, Mickey, Goofy, and Donald Duck were the Ajax Ghost Exterminators, predating the Ghostbusters by forty-some years. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good at ghost-busting. In fact, the bored ghosts called them, just to throw a scare into them.

Angelopoulos’s The Dust of Time

Even for Greek Communists exiled after the Civil War, the USSR was a cold, inhospitable place to live. The mother of Greek-American filmmaker “A” was eventually sentenced to a Siberian gulag and his father was deported, yet somehow, they still managed to find each other again. Their story inspired A’s film within the film, but memory is a tricky thing and so is the narrative approach in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Dust of Time, which screens as part of the UCLA Library Film & TV Archive’s Angelopoulos retrospective, Landscape of Time.

A's latest film is based on the letters his mother Eleni wrote to his father Spyros, while she was banished to a Siberian gulag. Even though he is filming in the illustrious Cinecetta studio in Italy, he is distracted by personal problems, mostly those generated by his disturbed daughter, also named Eleni. It appears she ran away from home, but on the plus side, he finds one of his mother’s missing letters in her room.

Flashing back to early 1950s Temirtau in Kazakhstan, where the Greek exiles had set up their own Soviet style colony, A’s parents are briefly reunited. He had assumed the identity of a dead comrade to sneak her out, but they are discovered by the other Communists. Ironically, Eleni would then spend decades with their torch-carrying Jewish family-friend, Jacob, who would become a Refusenik during his long tenure in the gulag with her.

Angelopoulos’s temporal shifts can be especially confusing, because of the way he blends the time periods in the transitional scenes, with A appearing in the past, or his youthful parents seemingly walking through the present (circa Y2K New Year’s Eve), but that also gives the film a rather striking sense of un-reality.
Dust of Time also features a gorgeous score composed by the late Angelopoulos’s regular collaborator, Eleni Karaindrou. The “Dance Theme,” heard performed by a full orchestra in a recording session for A’s film and as a piano solo performed by Spyros, is wonderfully melancholy and nostalgic-sounding.

Dust
is a lovely film to look at and listen to, but it still manages to capture the bleakness of the Soviet Communism—rather surprisingly so, given the general ideological tenor of contemporary Greek art house cinema. With wide, wide-swept shots of the mean, Brutalist gulag buildings and the icy surrounding tundra, Angelopoulos and cinematographer Andreas Sinanos vividly evoke the loneliness of Siberian exile. The scene of Jacob translating in a storeroom full of Stalin statues and paintings, hastily withdrawn from public display in the early days of the Khrushchev thaw, is also wonderfully surreal.

The late great Bruno Ganz gave one of the best performances of his accomplished career as the tragically friend-zoned Jacob. Irene Jacob also shows tremendous range portraying both the youthful-gulag-bound and grandmotherly Eleni. Of course, Willem Dafoe broods dependably as “A”—after the fifth or sixth time you write out “Angelopoulos,” you start to appreciate the brevity of his one-initial name (never actually heard in the film itself).

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Spirited, on Apple TV+

Charles Dickens was a professional writer, so right now, he’s probably looking down from Heaven, wondering if he’s ever going to be paid all the royalties and licensing fees he’s due for A Christmas Carol. Disney, Looney Tunes, and Mr. Magoo all had their versions. Now its Apple’s turn. It is a musical this time around and sort of a sequel, but a lousy jerk still has to learn the real meaning of Christmas from three Christmas spirits in Sean Anders’ Spirited, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Clint Briggs is a slimy PR-management consultant, who stokes social division for a living. As the manager of the elaborate Christmas-haunting division of the afterlife, Marley does not want to waste their time on Briggs, because he has been deemed irredeemable. However, Ghost of Christmas Present wants to take a shot at him, because he too was once considered irredeemable. If they convert him, the ripple effects will be enormous. There is even a ripple-themed song to drive the point home, but Marley reluctantly agrees, to prevent Present from singing it.

Briggs will be a really hard case. It turns out he is that annoying type of person who always turns questions back around on the asker, which Present is not used to. He is also thrown by Briggs’ regretful deputy, Kimberly, who inexplicably sees and interacts with him during his ghostly scouting trips. There might even be some chemistry there.

The world of the Christmas spirits is rather cleverly conceived, sort of like the visions of the after-life seen in films like
Defending Your Life. Even in death, you cannot escape bureaucracy. It is indeed a musical, but many of the numbers are designed as comedic set pieces rather than show stoppers. Nevertheless, “The View from Here” is quite a lovely medium-tempo ballad. However, a way-too-extended gag and musical number suggesting “good afternoon” were fighting words in Dickensian times gets down-right cringy.

In general, the jokes are hit or miss, but Ryan Reynolds is consistently funny as Briggs. Frankly, he regularly upstages Will Ferrell, who is clearly falling back on his Buddy the Elf shtick. Still, Ferrell has nice chemistry with Octavia Spencer’s Kimberly, who is believably flawed, in a down-to-earth, human kind of way. Sunita Mani also livens up every scene as the oddly hip and youthful Past.

The Last Manhunt: The Legend of Willie Boy

Maybe Willie Boy was here longer than we were led to believe. He died at the end of the Robert Redford revisionist western, but his legend still haunts the Mojave Desert around Ruby Mountain. He holds the distinction of being the final fugitive hunted down by an Old West posse. Yet, like Redford’s Deputy Cooper, Sheriff Wilson has little enthusiasm for capturing Boy in Christian Camargo’s The Last Manhunt, which opens tomorrow in New York.

There were only fifth-cousins (in 1909), but William Johnson was deadest against his daughter Carlotta’s relationship with Boy. They defied his prohibition, so a confrontation led to a scuffle and Johnson’s fatal gunshot. Wilson wanted to just ignore the whole thing and punt it to the tribal authorities, but the crime was committed in his jurisdiction. Inconveniently, Pres. Taft had an official visit planned, so Wilson has to mount a posse to make a show of maintaining the peace. However, the Chemehuevi scouts he recruits are friends of Johnson, who are out for revenge.

Of course, as vengeance-seekers, they should probably dig two graves and all that, which certainly turns out to be the case. Boy knows the desert better than anyone, so things get pretty ugly for the posse. Unfortunately, it is difficult for Wilson to defuse the situation, because a sensationalistic reporter keeps pouring fuel on the fire.

The true story of Willie Boy is still somewhat controversial.
Tell Them Willie Boy is Here was based on Harry Lawton’s “New Journalism novel,” whose veracity has been somewhat questioned in recent years, but both films are largely sympathetic to Boy. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two.

However,
Last Manhunt is an unusually draggy film. Camargo, who portrays Wilson with understated grit and complicity, has severe pacing issues as a director. This might be the slowest “Western” since Power of the Dog. Executive producer Jason Momoa’s big floating head on the poster is also a bit of a bait-and-switch. He only turns up occasionally as Wilson’s largely-assimilated Native crony, Big Jim. At least the “Big” part is true.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Presence: Horror on a Yacht

Thanks to the Russian oligarchs and Putin, the dictator they funded, big ostentatious yachts are going out of fashion. Recent movies are not helping their resale value much either, because they have become the setting for a lot of misfortune for their owners. Recently, Ruby Rose was the star of the low-rent Die Hard-on-a-yacht, Stowaway. Now, it is time for something supernatural to come on-board. It looks like Jennifer brought something like that with her when joining her pal Samantha on a cruise to Puerto Rico in Christian Schultz’s Presence, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Jennifer seems to be having a hard time of things after her “good friend” Samantha ghosted her, ambiguously hard.
 Yet, she is still somewhat leery when Samantha suddenly invites her on a cruise hosted by David, a dodgy venture capitalist, who supposedly wants to buy her new zipper design.

David is like the worst
Shark Tank shark ever, constantly overselling her on how much he is going to change Jennifer’s life. However, Samantha is acting squirrely too. Her relationship with David is nearly as ambiguous, which clearly annoys him. Jennifer can tell something is off, but she is rather distracted by her vivid nightmares and visions or hallucinations of “The Presence,” sort of like “The Shape” in the Halloween films, but nowhere near as menacing.

If you have a hankering for sea-bound horror, Rob Grant’s clever
Harpoon is still your best bet. Schultz definitely uses the swanky but ominous yacht to maximize the atmosphere. However, he and co-screenwriter Peter Ambrosio play it way too cute, deliberating keeping key plot points obscure. However, that makes their ending immune to spoilers.

Guadagnino’s Bones and All

It is a condition some people just have to live with, like mental health issues or drug addiction. Unfortunately, it forces them to live secretive underground lives. They call themselves “eaters.” It would be ever so un-woke to call them cannibals, especially since they seem to have physical differences, like an enhanced sense of smell. Regardless, they need to eat people from time to time in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Maren’s father is suspiciously protective, but she still manages to sneak out to her friend’s slumber party, where she eats a girl’s finger. Her dad is disappointed when she comes home all bloody, but he is used to moving suddenly in the dead of night. He is also sick of it, so he abandons her after their latest relocation. Suddenly left to her own devices, and since attending school is always a risky proposition for her, Maren sets out to find her mother, whom she assumes can explain just what she is.

On the road, she meets several fellow eaters. Sully is the first. The older man radiates bad vibes, but he teaches her how to use her heightened sense of smell to detect other eaters and regular humans who are on the verge of death. (Unlike Anne Rice vampires, eaters can feed off dead people just fine.) That is very helpful, but he is still all kinds of creepy, so she decides to tag-along with the punky Lee instead.

Lee definitely looks like a skinny heroin addict, but he is a scrappy survivor. Unlike Maren, he still tries to maintain some connection to his family, particularly his little sister Kayla, but he deems it necessary to disappear for long stretches of time, for obvious reasons.

Bones and All
just can’t decide if it is going to be a cheesy teen romance or cannibalistic horror movie. Frankly, the latter elements wok better. Probably the best scene in the film depicts a chance encounter with a rather sinister eater and his human-cannibal sidekick. It sort of had to be good, because that is where the title comes from.

However, the sloppy attempts to draw “born that way” eater analogies often blow-up in the film’s face, because Guadagnino’s visceral and entrails-filled eating scenes are so graphic and gory. Watching them chow down on intestines will convince most viewers young eaters really ought to be enrolled in Evangelical eater-conversion youth camps.

Nevertheless, Guadagnino vividly conveys a sense of Maren and Lee’s isolation. Clearly, Malick’s
Badlands was a major visual and thematic influence. It is even partially set in the Dakota Badlands, which serves the film well.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, on Disney+

When the depression hit, Mickey Mouse licensing deals saved several companies from bankruptcy. That’s mouse power. He is still a constant pop culture presence. Just look at your wrist—you might see him there. Those big ears appeared in some of the most popular animated films ever, including Fantasia, but his significance as a corporate icon nearly overwhelmed his vitality as a character. Jeff Malmberg chronicles the Mouse’s history and his evolving role within the Disney Empire in Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, which starts streaming Friday on Disney+.

It all goes back to when Disney was a very different company, but it was in dire straits. Walt Disney had lost control of his first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to his distributor. According to one corporate mouthpiece, this is why the company has always been so notoriously rigid protecting its copyrights. Regardless, Walt Disney did indeed pivot to his next creation, Mickey Mouse. His original name was Mortimer Mouse, but Walt’s wife fortuitously suggested Mickey instead.

Obviously, Mickey was a hit, but the level of his popularity in the 1930s was even greater than
The Simpsons in the early 1990s and SpongeBob SquarePants in the early 2000s, combined. He became the iconic face of Disney, but even from the start, such a role demanded good manners, so Donald Duck was created to behave badly and serve as the butt of more jokes. Yet, there were periodic attempts to present Mickey in fresh new contexts, like his appearance as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Malmberg and his talking heads do a fairly good job of Mickey’s early development and his recent re-emergence, right up to the latest, short-short, “Mickey in a Minute,” whose production is documented throughout the film. However, they skip over a lot in-between. The most conspicuous omission might be that of the 1995 short “Runaway Brain,” which has been largely out of circulation, despite its Oscar-nomination, because of its enthusiastic horror imagery (including an
Exorcist reference). Also, the classic “Lonesome Ghosts” never gets its due depicting Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as the Ajax Ghost Exterminators, fortysome years before Ghostbusters.

Of course, the film also spends sometime wallowing in guilt over some of the dated cultural representations of the earlier shorts, but from what Malmberg shows us, Minnie looks like a much greater offender than Mickey. Rather awkwardly, former CEO Bob Iger appears as a talking-head in
Story of a Mouse, rather than current CEO Bob Chapek, but since the company’s stock just hit a nearly ten-year low under his stewardship, stockholders certainly won’t be in the mood to listen to him talk about Mickey Mouse.

Hansan: Rising Dragon

Sure, battling over one hundred Japanese ships with only 56 of his own sounds like tough odds, but Joseon Admiral Yi Sun Shin took on more than that with a mere twelve vessels of his own in the Battle of Myeongryang. That battle, depicted in Roaring Currents, transpired five years after this one, the Battle of Hansan Island. Like at Myeongryang, Admiral Yi is always outnumbered, but never out-strategized in Kim Han-min’s Hansan: Rising Dragon, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Lord Wakisaka Yasuharu has been dispatched to Korea to take charge of Japan’s invasion. In many respects, the campaign was going well, but they suffered an embarrassing naval setback as a result of their loss to Admiral Yi at the Battle of Sacheon. Presumably, that will the third film in Kim’s proposed Admiral Yi trilogy, which appears to be working backwards through his timeline.

Both commanders are preparing for a climatic battle, yet they each have difficulty unifying their rival officers. The Joseon emperor isn’t even present to offer council, which is probably just as well. Nevertheless, Yi must convince his colleagues to attack, rather than hunker-down in a defensive position that will only prolong the inevitable. Of course, the naval commanders also have spies placed in the enemies’ camps, but Yahuharu’s are particularly nasty, whereas Yi manages to recruit Junsa, a forcibly drafted Japanese sailor, disillusioned by his officers’ dishonorable conduct.

Like Kim’s first Admiral Yi film,
Hansan features some very cool naval battles. He has a talent for conveying tactics and strategy, without getting bogged down in technical detail. This is another big, sprawling film that is surprisingly well-served by its CGI.

Yi must have aged quite a bit in five years, because Choi Min-sik looked quite a bit older and more haggard in the previous film than Park Hae-il looks playing the role here. Unfortunately, he also lacks Choi’s gravitas and gritty charisma. Instead, Park is a bit standoffish and reserved.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Prophet, in The Epoch Times


PROPHET (screening via Fathom Events) is the inspiring story of Pope John Paul II's mentor, who stood up to the Communist regime's abuse and intimidation. The current Pope really should watch it. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, on Peacock


London needs to lose its suffixes. In 2006, Melanie Phillips described the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in her expose, Londonistan. Since then, the term “Londongrad” was coined to describe the London financial sector’s role as a safe haven for dirty Russian oligarchs’ money. Neither is a good look for the capitol of a major Western democracy. Unfortunately, that influx of dubious Russian money also led to a number of Russian state-sanctioned assassinations on British soil. The Buzzfeed journalists who broke the story connect the dots in the six-part Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, which premieres tomorrow on Peacock.

According to the Metropolitan Police, Scot (with one “t”) Young killed himself by leaping from his fashionable townhouse window, just like his associate, Boris Berezovsky also committed suicide. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary Russian politics finds the latter contention laughable. As a dissident, the former oligarch Berezovsky was one of Putin’s most prominent critics. He helped facilitate the defection of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, whom even New Scotland Yard agrees was poisoned with polonium.

For journalist Heidi Blake, the story started with the strange circumstances surrounding Young’s death. She and her colleagues were not even thinking of Russia, until they found multiple connections to Berezovsky in Young’s records. From there, they followed leads, the way the Metropolitan police should have.

Eventually, the team explains how they linked fourteen mysterious deaths to Russia, including Young, Berezovsky, and Litvinenko. Perhaps the weirdest case is that of Gareth Williams, a MI6 code-breaker, whom the London cops concluded committed suicide, by stuffing himself in a gym bag and locking it from the outside. Seriously, they stand by that farcical position.

Obviously, something is rotten in London, starting with the Metropolitan force. Yet, Blake and her colleagues were largely dismissed as alarmists and conspiracy theorists, until Russian defector Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and a police officer were poisoned with a Russian Novichuk nerve agent, which also murdered an innocent bystander.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Section 8, Co-Starring Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins

This outfit does not give away any housing vouchers, but they would be happy to check you into the morgue. Some of their members might very well have been mentally unfit for military service, but they certainly do not see it that way. However, their latest recruit takes issues with their ruthless tactics in Christian Sesma’s Section 8, which releases Tuesday on DVD/BluRay.

After Col. Tom Mason saved his butt in Afghanistan, Jake Atherton settled down with his family, but struggled to make ends meet working in his Uncle Earl’s garage. Then, it was all taken away from him, when he got into a scuffle with Fresh, a vicious gang-leader. Fresh killed Atherton’s wife and son, so he killed Fresh. Naturally, the LA DA prosecuted Atherton to the full extent of the law, because he has to protect his constituents (like Fresh). However, the mysterious Sam Ramsey offers him a deal Atherton cannot refuse—yet his instincts tell him he should anyway.

Suddenly, Atherton is performing some really dirty off-the-books jobs as a member of Section 8. Frankly, his handler, Liza Mueller is the only one who does not strike Atherton as a complete psychopath. However, when he goes rogue, Ramsey calls in hired-killer Leonard Locke, a stone-cold sociopath, to hunt him down.

Basically,
Section 8 is a bargain-basement knock-off of The Terminal List. It really isn’t much to speak of, but it is elevated to some extent, by Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins (seriously, you knew I’d go there, right?). Lundgren has the perfect gritty gravitas for Mason, who turns out to be the film’s most interesting character. On the other hand, Adkins’ Locke is basically an underwritten cartoon villain, but his fight scenes are terrific—and that is really what we look for in a film like this.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Rogue Heroes, in The Epoch Times


Epix's Rogue Heroes celebrates the swagger of the British SAS (which was needed to help win the War). The craziest thing about the series is how faithful it is to the historical record. Epoch Times exclusive review up here.

Taken Hostage, on PBS

Why is our current administration so determined to buy more oil from Iran rather than expand drilling here? It has the same environmental impact, regardless of where it came from. In the case of Iran, it is coming from a state that denies women their basic rights and vigorously persecutes any deviation from its rigid fundamentalist orthodoxy. It should be a complete pariah state for its gross violations of international law, yet there are those in Washington who are perversely determined to normalize relations. PBS reminds us of the regime’s criminal origins in Robert Stone’s two-part Taken Hostage, an American Experience special presentation, which airs this Monday and Tuesday.

This is not a round-number anniversary year of the 1979 Hostage Crisis, yet
Taken Hostage premieres about a month and a half after HBO’s Hostages. In some ways, they compliment each other, because both overlook important elements that are nicely covered in the competing production. For instance, Taken Hostage skips over the first storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, known as the “Valentine’s Day Open House,” which was de-escalated relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the Carter administration drew the exact wrong conclusion from the incident, assuming cooler heads would always prevail.

However,
Hostages never mentions Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the moderate revolutionary, who served as the new government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, until he was arrested (and ultimately executed) in 1980. Whereas, Stone makes his tragic arc and Ghotbzadeh’s relationship with journalist Carole Jerome (who escaped the country three hours before the Ayatollah’s secret police came looking for her) a major focus of Taken Hostage.

Perhaps for clarity’s sake, Stone (who also helmed the great doc,
Pandora’s Promise) employs far less voices than Hostages. The hostages themselves and their families are solely represented by Barry and Barbara Rosen. There are no interviews with hostage-takers. Of course, the Shah’s human rights abuses are established in detail. Yet, Taken Hostage better explains the underlying reasons for America’s alliance with the authoritarian ruler. It was not just the Cold War. Also, it was the vacuum left when the UK pulled out of its traditional role maintaining order in the Persia Gulf, right while the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War. We were a little busy at the time, so we turned to Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is important context often overlooked in critiques of U.S. foreign policy.

It is hard to think of a government appointee who failed more spectacularly than Gary Sick, Carter’s NSC specialist on the Middle East, but he was obviously very much in the middle of the government’s response. Wisely, Stone never gives him an opportunity to peddle his discredited “October Surprise” conspiracy theories. That alone would make
Taken Hostage a cut above Hostages.