Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 23, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Oakville ’24: One Must Wash Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 21, 2024

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

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

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

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

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Federer: Twelve Final Days, in Cinema Daily US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agent Recon, Co-Starring Chuck Norris & Marc Singer

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Franz & Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Sound of Hope, in The Epoch Times

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

What Remains: The Work of Three Skarsgards

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2024

Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics, on History

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, on Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Holland’s Charlatan

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 14, 2024

Danger in the Dorm, on Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Hotel Cocaine, on MGM+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Blood Free, on Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Presumed Innocent, in Cinema Daily US

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

Firebrand: The Story of Wife #6

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2024

Wild Eyed and Wicked: Folk Horror and a Fencer

They could use more monster-slayers in the horror genre, but aside from Van Helsing, you mostly find them in fantasy. Lily Pierce will try to fix that, combining her mother’s interest in medievalism with her fencing skills. Unfortunately, her neurotic, self-defeating nature might still be her Achilles heel in screenwriter-director Gordon Shoemaker Foxwood’s Wild Eyed and Wicked, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Pierce witnessed her mother Silvia’s suicide as a child and she has yet to recover. It also frayed her relationship with her father, who dealt by not dealing with anything. The reason it so torments her is because she thought she felt a presence influencing her mother. Since then, she has a nagging feeling something haunts her too. Consequently, she kept people at arm’s length. Only her new, boring girlfriend Willow has gotten her relax her guard to any extent. Of course, Pierce does not want her around when she revisits the scene of the crime: her old family farm.

Although her father Gregory is stuck in denial, Pierce can feel the presence. Sometimes she even sees it, in visions or lurking in the shadows. She intends to face it, using the medieval techniques laid out in her mother’s books and that broadsword.

First of all,
Wild Eyed and Wicked gets credit from a former fencer for using the right terminology. It is a foil (or a sabre or an epee), not a sword. It really annoying when a supposed fencer makes this fundamental mistake, as in the Embrace of the Vampire remake.

Beyond that, the fusion horror and traditional fantasy elements is intriguing. This film is built on the foundation of a promising concept: Pierce’s suspicion the family line has been has been tormented by a demonic parasite since medieval times (which might be why the immigrated from Ireland, way back when). Essentially, it is folk horror with roots that date back to

Unfortunately, the ever-so-deliberate pacing drains out a lot of the tension and fear. The atmosphere is certainly heavy with dread, but it cannot overcome all the whiny Gen Z angst from Pierce and Willow.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Tribeca ’24: They All Came Out to Montreux

It hardly seems fair. The biggest jazz fests regularly invite non-jazz artists, but how many jazz musicians get the same hospitality from rock and pop fests, like Lollapalooza? The Montreux Jazz Festival is a prime example. Over the years, it has regularly hosted big name stars from a host of genres. That is not necessarily good or bad, but it something jazz fans are keenly aware of. They still programmed a lot of amazing jazz sets, including many that were immortalized as absolutely classic live albums recorded by the likes of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Oliver Murray profiles the fest from all musical perspectives in the feature-documentary cut of They All Came Out to Montreux, which screens at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Montreux was (and largely remains) a wealthy, but largely sleepy Swiss town perched on the shore of Lake Geneva. Lifelong festival director Claude Nobs founded the festival as a project of the municipal tourism office—and it worked. Under Nobs’ leadership, often in close, unofficial consultation with Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records, Montreux grew into the pre-eminent European music festival, encompassing just about every musical style (but there was always a solid helping of jazz on the program).

Thanks in part to Ertegun’s help, Montreux’s international reputation spread through the live albums recorded at the festival, including Bill Evans’ Grammy-winning
Live at Montreux. Arguably, the most important might have been Les McCann and Eddie Harris’s Swiss Movement. Appropriately, Murray incorporates considerable live footage of their classic performance of “Compared to What,” but does not fully explain what a popular crossover hit it became in 1969 (at the time, Swiss Movement was like Kind of Blue—one of the few jazz records non-jazz fans might own).

Murray obviously has a thorough grounding in jazz (he previously helmed
Ronnie’s, a documentary about the legendary London jazz club) and he secured interviews with real deal jazz authorities, like the late George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival), the late Michael Cuscuna (producer for Blue Note and Mosaic Records), and Quincy Jones, who needs no introduction.

Of course, there are a lot of styles of music documented in Murray’s doc, which accurately reflects the character of the festival. Some of it was also pretty significant too. For instance, Queen and David Bowie recorded “Under Pressure” at the Montreux studio while they were both appearing at the festival. Nevertheless, the lengths he takes to de-center jazz might just start to vex some jazz supporters.

Yet, there is no denying the value of the archive Nobs created by videotaping every performance (just look at Nina Simone, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, Weather Report, Ray Charles, and Quincy Jones, all “Live at Montreux”). It also left a wealth of material for Murray to excerpt. Almost every image in the film either came from the Montreux library or Swiss television.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

The Lazarus Project, Season Two, on TNT

Sure, you could call George Addo a mass murderer, but seriously, it depends on the context. Granted, he shot a bunch of people and deliberately caused a nuclear war that exterminated all life on the planet, but he knew his boss at the Lazarus Project would turn back time to the nearest reset point to undo it all. Even though Addo admits to a few lapses in judgement, it is hard for his old colleagues to trust him again. Unfortunately, things will get so bad, they will need him anyway in season two of creator-writer Joe Barton’s The Lazarus Project, which premieres tomorrow on TNT.

The Lazarus agents are not time-travelers. They just consciously relive certain periods of time until they figure out how to save the world. Actual time-travel is something their boss Elisabeth “Wes” Wesley wanted to prevent. Unfortunately, the renegade Time-Break Initiative managed to build a working time machine, completing the work of Dr. Kitty Gray, who died in a mysterious laboratory fire back in the 2010s. They just didn’t quite get it right.

Consequently, they opened-up a black hole that is literally fraying the fabric of time. Unless they can fix the problem, the Lazarus Project will be stuck in a decaying time-loop, until time ends for good. Rather awkwardly, Addo must repeatedly face Shiv Reddy immediately after having shot him. He keeps saving his life, with the help of his EMT neighbor, whom Addo must then kill over and over again.

Obviously, Addo cannot blame Reddy for being annoyed with him. What hurts is getting dumped by his wife (or girlfriend, depending on the reset) Sarah dumping him, after he literally blew-up the world to save her. To explain himself, Addo gives her the time-reset-awareness drug, but that rather leaves her feelings towards him even more confused. Regardless, they need to find someone who understands time-travel, but someone is killing all of Dr. Gray’s old colleagues.

Lazarus Project is the best-written new science fiction currently releasing new episodes, but hardly anyone in the U.S. seems to be talking about it. In the first season, Barton regularly used the resets to completely upend the narrative. For season two, he ups the ante with legit time-travel, but the frequent time resets still apply. It almost gets farcical as future characters keep re-encountering their past selves, or vice versa, but the [barely] controlled chaos is a blast. Frankly, every darned thing Barton keeps springing on viewers is exactly the stuff sf fans love, so why is there so little buzz for the series?

Paapa Essiedu is just as good playing Addo in season two as he was in the first season, or maybe even better. It is hard to think of a series protagonist who messes so badly and so often, yet we still root for him. He also faces a really dark, existential challenge this time around. Similarly, Rudi Dharmalingam is the heart and soul of season two, getting shot in the chest at the start of most episodes and getting steadily crankier as each reset plays out.

Friday, June 07, 2024

Trim Season, Starring Jane Badler

Look, marijuana is bad for you. That shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say. There are still a lot of valid reasons for legalization, but New York City’s inability to close all the unregulated pot shops that have sprung up greatly undermines much of that logic. In addition, some of the suppliers engage in witchcraft and bloody sacrifices. At least that is true of the Northern California farm in Ariel Vida’s Trim Season, which opens today in theaters.

Emma just got fired and her landlord is throwing her out, so her bestie Julia took her out drinking. They do not really like their exponentially more successful acquaintance Pua, but when her boyfriend (or whatever) James pitches a two-week temp gig trimming marijuana buds, they are receptive, because they need the bread.

Of course, even if you hadn’t seen the grisly prologue, anyone can tell sleazy James acts suspiciously like a recruiter for a human trafficking ring. Naturally, they are a bit put off by the armed men patrolling the work-site, but what did they expect? This is literally the drug business. However, the boss, Mona, is something else entirely.

Apparently, she is some kind of witch, who has the power to kill remotely though telekinetic powers, which she fuels through a potential lethal strand of super-weed. It can kill those who are not prepared for it, like the annoying co-worker who steals some of Mona’s stash. Frankly, it looks like Nancy Reagan was right all along. Just say no kids.

You should say “no” to this movie too. The sluggish pace suggests way too many of the “props” were used for real during the production. The pronoun-announcing trimmers are also too annoying to care too much about. Obviously, Emma is the film’s clear final survivor candidate, but her professional victimhood is tiresome right from the start. Frankly, only the energy of Juliette Kenn De Balinthazy registers to any extent as Lex, whose character is largely defined by her inability to feel physical pain (which could very well come in handy).

BFF ’24: The Movie Man

“Recently, Dr. Gain-of-Function” Fauci admitted he had no idea where the recommendations for social distancing came from. He said: “it just sort of appeared.” That must boil the blood of small business owners like Keith Stata, whose local Highlands Cinemas in Kinmount, Ontario was not able to reopen any of its 70-seat screens until 2022, due to social distancing issues. It was touch-and-go as whether he could repair all the physical damage done during his involuntary closure, but as he says himself, “the show must go on” in Matt Finlin’s documentary, The Movie Man, which screens as part of the 2024 Brooklyn Film Festival and it also opens tonight at the Highlands Cinemas.

The Highlands Cinemas is quite an institution. Stata has amassed a genuine museum of movie memorabilia, including one of the Xenomorphs Stan Winston created for
Alien. It also stores hundreds of old analog projectors Stata salvaged from old theaters. Plus, the fortysome cats he adopted and his two dogs essentially have the run of the place.

It also shows films, which local residents appreciate, since every other theater in the Burnt River area had long since shuttered. Grudgingly, Stata made the studio-mandated switch-over to digital projection in 2012 to stay in the new release business. He also says something many theater owners are reluctant to admit: the quality of new films just hasn’t been as good lately, which has noticeably depressed ticket sales. The last twelve years certainly have not been easy for independent cinema owners—that much is certainly clear from
The Movie Man.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Cottontail, in Cinema Daily US

A Japanese fsmily takes a road trip to Beatrix Potter country in COTTONTAIL, a lovely, little Japanese-British co-production, featuring and accomplished cast and some big themes, like grief and the lingering pain of Alzheimer's care. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

Kafka, on ChaiFlicks

Franz Kaflka was such a distinctive writer, his name became an adjective—probably more so than any other author before or since. Nobody describes any book or film as Maileresque or Kingian. We just assume Kafka’s life was as Kafkaesque as his books, especially since he perversely asked his literary executor to burn his entire body of work while on his deathbed. The real Kafka might have been eccentric and socially awkward, he was not the sad, beaten down figure we might assume. At least that is the portrait that emerges in creator-director David Schalko’s six-part Kafka, which premieres today on Chai Flicks.

Yes, Kafka’s Bohemian (pre-Czechoslovakian) family could be difficult, especially his over-bearing father, who inspired “The Judgement,” one of his son’s stories that he never saw much value in. Kafka’s best friend and future executor Max Brod was different. Even though he attained much greater literary fame within his own lifetime, Brod always recognized Kafka’s brilliance. That is why he carries Kafka’s papers with him while fleeing the German occupation of Prague, at the close of the first episode.

Schalko and series co-writer Daniel Kehlmann often skip forwards and backwards along the historically-grounded timeline. Their non-traditional approach incorporates elements of the mockumentary, with characters often ironically breaking the fourth wall.

Just as the people in Kafka’s life have ample opportunity to discuss him, he also is allowed to address his relationship with them. The first episode, “Max,” focuses on Kafka and his literary friends, including Franz Werfel, whom Brod (and pretty much only Brod) referred to as “The Prague Circle.” Admittedly, Kafka was never Thomas Mann during his lifetime, but Schalko and Kehlmann suggest he was not a completely anonymous outsider artist either (indeed, the famous Kurt Wolf was his publisher).

Kafka was not Warren Beatty either, but his personal life was much more complicated and sometimes scandalous than anyone would expect from a “Kafkaesque” figure. The second episode, “Felice,” focuses on his on-again-off-again engagement to Felice Bauer and his affair with her best friend, Grete Bloch. The conclusion examines the caretaker role Dora Dymant assumed with the ailing Kafka. Yet, the fifth episode, “Milena,” is probably the most satisfying, because it breaks format, devoted all fortysome minutes to a pivotal meeting between Kafka and his then lover, married journalist Milena Jensenska.

Along the way, shows us Kafka at work in his insurance office, where he was somewhat appreciated. In fact, Schalko and Kehlmann present him almost like a Bohemian equivalent of Anthony Trollope and Wallace Stevens, middleclass businessmen who wrote classic literature when home from the office.

Just so we remember what it means to be “Kafkaesque,” the six-part series periodically dramatizes excerpts from Kafka’s work that relate to periods of his life. Notably, these include
The Trial, The Castle, “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgement.” It would not be accurate to describe Kafka as “revisionist,” even though Joel Basman’s lead performance humanizes him to a surprising extent. Instead, it shows how his somewhat morbid creativity refracted through his idiosyncratic and somewhat off-kilter personality resulted in such darkly absurdist visions.