Friday, May 24, 2024

The Keeper, in The Epoch Times


As a society, we need to think more about our veterans, to do right by them. That is why Sgt. George Eshleman helped bring his story to the big-screen. He hiked the entire Appalachian Trail carrying the names of 363 fallen veterans. He hoped his journey would spread awareness of the urgent veteran suicide crisis, but he also found healing, It is a deeply moving human drama, executed with sensitivity and professionalism, despite its extremely indie resources. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

The Cold Blue, on TCM

The Memphis Belle is one of the most famous planes in both American and movie history, right up there with the Spirit of St. Louis and Air Force One. William Wyer captured the B-17’s flight crew in action in his classic The Memphis Belle documentary, which has since been preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. However, Wyler and his cameraman shot a lot more footage of B-17s than he included in his 45-minute doc. Fortunately, those outtakes survived in the National Archives, waiting to be rediscovered, restored, and incorporated into Erik Nelson’s The Cold Blue, which airs Sunday on TCM.

Frankly, there might be more interest for
The Cold Blue now, thanks to the success of Masters of the Air and its companion doc, The Bloody Hundredth, than when it first released. The title is no joke. Both the sky and the sea in Wyler’s previously unseen footage appear eerily blue. This color film has that vintage 1940s look, much like that of the Oscar-winning Marines at Tarawa. The Flying Fortress could also be a brutally cold, sub-zero ride. In fact, several of the surviving vets providing context for Wyler’s film clips have stories of crewmates who lost hands or fingers to frostbite.

Even if the commercial timing was not ideal. It is a good thing Nelson made this film when he did, because the Army Air Force veterans were not getting any younger. Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Paul Haedike, one of Nelson’s funniest and most colorful commentators just passed away this March. His contributions are priceless.

Thanks to him and the rest of the Airmen, viewers really get a sense of what it was like to serve on the Flying Fortress. The iconic plane emerges as a bit of a contradiction. In many ways, it was a death-trap, particularly with respects to the freezing temperatures crew experienced and the thin aluminum fuselage that offered no meaningful protection from enemy fire. Yet, they also praised the B-17 for being a tough old bird that could withstand tremendous damage and keep on flying.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Garfield Movie, in The Epoch Times


There is more plot than you might expect, but Garfield is the same endearingly lazy fat cat you remember and the visual gags are consistently funny in THE GARFIELD MOVIE. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Sight, in Ciinema US Daily


Inspirational but never simplistic, SIGHT chronicles the life of leading eye surgeon and Chinese Cultural Revolutiion survivor Dr. Ming Wang. It is also another timely reminder of how the Maoist Red Guards literally waged war against knowledge and traditional Chinese culture. CINEMA DAILY US review up herehere.

The Great War, on History Channel

World War One led to the rise of some of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th Century, including the Bolsheviks in Russia and the National Socialists in Germany. Yet, it also established America as a global super-power and the leader of the free world, a role we have maintained to this day, despite the growing chorus of isolationist voices. Essentially rebuilding the American military from scratch was no easy task, which is why Gen. John J. Pershing emerges as such a significant and underappreciated figure in American history throughout The Great War, the two-part chronicle of American involvement in WWI, airing this coming Monday and Tuesday on History Channel.

There is some discussion of the causes and consequences of WWI, but director Mandla Dube and the expert commentators mostly concentrate on profiling American soldiers and explaining how the tides of war shifted. Like the Doris Kearns Godwin portraits of presidents in crisis (including
FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) The Great War incorporates dramatic re-enactments with traditional talking head analysis. It also includes a lot of coverage of the Harlem Hellfighters, which is only fitting—and maybe convenient, since Dube probably already had a lot of good material, having also directed History Channel’s Harlem Hellfighters documentary special.

Archduke Ferdinand does not even get a shout-out and everyone lets Wilson off easy for campaigning on a promise to keep America out of the war and then changing his mind (and his virulent racism). However, they make a convincing case his appointment of Gen. Pershing was his best decision as president.

There is very little discussion of the War before America joined the fight, but it is made clear the Allies were on the ropes. England and France desperately wanted American reinforcements, but to his credit, Pershing refused to sacrifice his ill-trained men as mere cannon fodder. It is shocking how few American soldiers were serving in uniform at the time war was declared. That is why so many National Guardsman (like my great-grandfather) were deployed for overseas combat.

In the re-enactment sequences, Langley Kirkwood perfectly captures Pershing’s commanding presence and nicely conveys his empathy for his soldiers. The details of the General’s tragic personal life will probably be new information for many viewers. Gabriel Miya also cuts an impressive figure as artist and Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin. However, some of the battlefield re-enactments, including those of the all-white 1
st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) seem less grounded in history than those in History’s presidential predecessors. At times, the tone feels similar to Steven Luke’s fictionalized war movie also titled The Great War.

However, there are some top-notch experts providing insight and context, starting with General David Petraeus. There are further illuminating contributions from Col. Douglas Douds of the U.S. Army War College, Prof. Richard S. Faulkner of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and Col. Robert J. Dalessandro of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Chief Detective 1958, on Hulu

Lee Je-hoon’s unit is like the “Untouchables” of post-Korean War Seoul. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jongnam station is very touchable. Awkwardly, the station captain is probably the most corrupt of the whole crooked Jongnam lot. To fight crime and serve the common good, Lee and his teammates must frequently work around their colleagues and superiors in creator Park Jae-beom’s Chief Detective 1958, which starts streaming today on Hulu.

Eventually, Lee becomes the revered central character in the vintage early 1970s K-drama
Chief Inspector, to which Chief Detective 1958 serves as a prequel. However, when the new standalone series opens, Lee is new in town, having just transferred from Hwangchun, where he set the national record for arresting cow thieves. He figures he should keep arresting criminals in Seoul, but the blatantly corrupt Choi Dal-sik keeps releasing them and forcing him to apologize.

Yu Dae-cheon, the honest leader of Investigative Unit #1, counsels patience, but Lee is spoiling for a fight. He finds a natural ally in Kim Sang-sun, the hard-charging
Lethal Weapon-like detective nicknamed “Mad Dog” because of his habit of biting suspects. They soon recruit Jo Gyeong-hwan, a burly laborer, who is tired of seeing average folk getting pushed around. They also poach the college-educated Seo Ho-jeong from Unit #2, because Lee understands they can use someone like Charles Martin Smith’s forensic accountant in de Palma’s The Untouchables.

Unit #1 will definitely fight corruption in the Jongnam station over the course of the series, but they also work separate, discrete cases each episode. Out of the first four episodes, their plan to catch a band of armed bank robbers in episode three, “Highwaymen,” is the best written and directed. We have all seen thousands of bank heists on TV, but Park and writer Kim Young-shim come up with some wild new wrinkles.

The case of infants murdered by an evil orphanage in episode four, “Yellow Turtle,” is so grim, it out SVUs
Law & Order SVU. To its credit, it also challenges attitudes towards disability. Unfortunately, many of the American servicemen depicted in episode two, “The Headstrong Unit of Jongnam,” are just villainous caricatures. No matter how virulent racist attitudes were in the 1950s, there is no way a white 2nd Lieutenant would dare strike a Korean American First Lieutenant and expect to get away with it. The American military has had a few issues in the past, but chain of command is absolutely sacrosanct.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Darkness of Man, Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

There was a time when Interpol was a law enforcement agency, but not the badge-carrying kind. Their red notices facilitated the extradition of international criminals. Sadly, Interpol today is practically a criminal organization that harasses human rights activists at the behest of member states like Russia and China. The romantic image of Interpol agents is woefully out of date, but it is a convenient role for Jean-Claude Van Damme and his Belgian accent to assume. A few years prior, Russell Hatch investigated drug trafficking by Korean and Russian gangs with his DEA counterpart, but he became tragically personally involved in the case. Now, his sole remaining purpose in life is protecting the son of his late lover and key informant in James Cullen Bressack’s Darkness of Man, which releases today on VOD.

Frankly, Hatch should have left the country long ago, but he still mopes around Koreatown, while looking out for Jayden. His mother’s brother and father were high-ranking members of the Korean mob, but she wanted a different life for him. That made her a valuable source for Hatch, who contrary to protocol, fell in love with her. Unfortunately, her family fed her bad information luring Hatch into an ambush and faking her overdose death.

Of course, Hatch survives, but he is merely a hard-drinking shell of his former self, moping around Ktown. However, when Russian enforcers threaten the proprietor of his favorite bodega, Hatch springs into action. Hatch quickly finds himself at war with the Russian mob, even though he understands that suits the Korean mob only too well.

In general, Van Damme’s VOD action movies are a cut above the industry standard. He has also kept in decent shape, so Van Damme’s movies look especially good when compared to the bargain basement vanity projects tubby Steven Seagal has been inflicting on the world. To his credit, Van Damme is also acting his age. Like his character in
The Bouncer, Hatch is an aging, world-weary hardnose. He gets his butt kicked pretty hard sometimes, because he is human—with some mileage.

In fact, Van Damme delivers a rock-solid noir performance throughout
Darkness of Man. Peter Jae is suitably unhinged as Dae Hyun, Jayden’s gangster uncle. Ji Yong Lee plays a crucial but hard to spell-out role as Mr. Kim, the bodega owner. Kristanna Loken also does some of her best VOD work in several years as Hatch’s vet and potential love interest, Dr. Claire.

Monday, May 20, 2024

The 1% Club, on Prime and Later Fox

After Who Wants to Be a Millionaire the set design for gameshows has gotten fancier and flashier, but the questions have gotten steadily dumber. Take for instance The Wheel, if it still streams on Peacock after NBC canceled it. This one has all the sweeping spotlights, but the questions are a little different. An ability to recognize patterns will help you quite a bit if you are a contestant on the new American adaptation of creators Andy Auerbach & Dean Nabarro’s The 1% Club, which premieres Thursday on Prime Video, before later airing on Fox, starting June 3rd.

Charles Van Doren had his issues, but he was a learned man, so it would be interesting to see him compete on a show like this. The set-up ought to outrage all those critics of
The Bell Curve, because it presupposes a distribution of intelligence, but, of course, it makes no demographic assumptions therein. 100 contestants are given $1,000 to risk on a series of questions. According to statistical surveys, 90% of Americans answer the first question correctly. The next question should have an 80% success rate, steadily diminishing down to the titular 1%, for a share of a pot that could potentially be as large as $100,000.

These are not trivia questions or applied mathematics. There might be a bit of reading comprehension involved in early questions, but most depend on logic and the analysis of sequences. You could well be smarter than the participants, but you really have to watch. If you merely half-listen while multi-tasking, you will not see the sequences or spatial relationships the problems refer to.

This is somewhat different concept for a gameshow that clearly worked quite well in the UK, where the franchise originated, before spawning international editions in Australia, Israel, Germany, France, and now the USA (with future editions coming soon to Ukraine and several other nations). Evidently, there is an app that will allow viewers to play along. Yet, it doesn’t seem like it would be as fun to watch with others as Fox’s
The Floor, which probably had most of its viewers blurting out answers as soon the images flashed across the screen.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Despaired, on BET+

When it comes to reliability, Japanese demons put the U.S. Postal Service to shame. When you mail something, there is maybe a 50% chance it will reach its destination (at least judging by recent experience). However, a grieving letter-carrier Jill Hill keeps receiving an ominous supernatural letter, over and over again, until she finally succumbs to temptation in Jean-Pierre Chapoteau’s The Despaired, which is now streaming on BET Plus.

Several years have passed since Hill’s husband Wayne was fatally shot, but rather than recovering, she steadily sinks further into despair. Frankly, her now-teenaged son struggles to engage with her. Of course, this makes her a prime target for the ancient Japanese entity repeatedly sending her an evil “to the Despaired” form letter.

Inside, are instructions for bringing someone back from the dead. Naturally, Hill was not paying very close attention to the fine print, so her newly returned husband explains she will need to deliver four souls quickly, or he will go back downstairs to his eternal torment. This might sound like a demon impersonating Hill, but it turns out her husband was no boy scout. Perhaps his murder was not so random either. Regardless, Hill tries to comply, searching for the “marked” souls, who are destined for the same place her husband just left.

Admittedly,
The Despaired is a low-budget b-grade horror movie, but the way it addresses big archetypal themes, like bereavement, temptation, and damnation, still resonates to a surprising extent. Both the “human” and demonic elements are rather unsettling. However, the subplot supposedly explaining the mysterious Coco’s involvement with the Hill murder comes off like a forced afterthought.

The Despaired
also makes a career in the Postal Service look profoundly dismal. In fact, the entire setting looks economically depressed and relentlessly gloomy. This is a very fatalistic film, but in a way that distinguishes it from a lot of other mindlessly nihilistic horror flicks.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Big Cigar, in Cinema Daily US


THE BIG CIGAR has a fantastic soundtrack, but it lacks both historical perspective and a sense of irony. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review up here.

Hong Sang-soo’s In Our Day

Even though Hong Sang-soo is a film director, he seems to believe actors are the dullest people in the world. Once again, he apparently sets out to prove it with his latest film. Supposedly, this is a film about coincidence, but the not so ironic happenstances are weak and tangential in Hong’s In Our Day, which is now playing in New York.

Sang-won is an actress, who is crashing with her friend Jung-soo and Jung-soo’s cat Us, now that she has returned to Korea after a long absence. Hong Uiju is a poet who lives alone, since the death of his cat. That is really a shame for the poet and the audience, because Us is probably the most interesting character in the film.

Today, both will be visited by aspiring thesps, who supposedly want to ask them big meaningful questions. However, when Ji-soo and Jae-won try to get out the words, they sound pretentious and inarticulate. Sang-won and Uiju also eat ramen with red chili paste. Yes, that is a big deal in this film. Perhaps you can understand why Us eventually runs away from home.

Maybe Hong was trying to recapture the inspiration of his best films,
Hill of Freedom, Yourself and Yours, and Right Now, Wrong Then, which slyly riffed on doubling motifs, while employing hip bifurcated structures. If so, he was really forcing it. Unfortunately, his shallow and annoying characters need even more work than the skeletal narrative.

Frankly,
In Our Day feels more like an improv workshop than a proper film. Perhaps the only memorable dialogue comes when Sang-won explains to her cousin Ji-soo how she never felt she ever gave an honest performance, because she knew her directors always wanted a predictably safe canned response. Kim Min-hee (often referred to as Hong’s “muse”) delivers this pseudo-monologue with such earnestness, perhaps it should tell the director something.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Taking Venice, in The Epoch Times


TAKING VENICE chronicles some fascinating Cold War history, but it doesn't do the now-defunct USIA agency justice. Ironically, the doc shows how the USIA could promote American values through art and culture, when it recruited the right people. Frankly, we need an agency like the USIA leveraging "soft power" today, as we face militaery-geopolitical threats from China and Russia. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

You Can’t Run Forever, Starring J.K. Simmons

A sheriff must be pretty bad if his electorate votes to recall him mid-term. In this case, it left two very junior deputies responding to calls on their own. Maybe that would not be so bad on average days, but Miranda is definitely not having a typical.day. A psycho is chasing her through the woods, killing anyone who crosses his path in Michelle Schumacher’s You Can’t Run Forever, which opens today in New York.

Viewers will get more details later, but Wade Bennett was always pretty jerky, so when he gets triggered, he sets off on a killing spree—and he hasn’t stopped yet. He follows Miranda and her stepdad Eddie from a rest-stop, killing him and chasing her into the forest.

To make matters worse, Miranda was already fragile. She never really recovered from finding her father’s body, after he committed suicide. However, she harbors no anger towards Eddie or her half sister Emily. They were both trying help her heel, but they are understandably distracted by her mother Jenny’s pregnancy. Eventually, Miranda manages to get a message to her mother, but it is all too clear Deputy Morgan and Deputy Dwyer are out of their depths, especially the latter. To be fair, they are also quite busy dealing with all the dead bodies Bennett leaves in his wake.

It should be noted Bennett did not intend to hunt Miranda for sport. He simply wants to kill her, even after she runs into the woods. This is not yet another
Most Dangerous Game. Instead, it is another stalker movie, very much in the tradition of Paronnaud’s Hunted.

There are a lot of contrivances in
Run Forever and some serious credibility issues. Bennett is older than I am, but somehow, he can cover vast distances in the blink of an eye. Admittedly, he is considerably more onery too. Yet, the film works to a surprising extent, because we genuinely care about the family in jeopardy. Schumacher and co-screenwriter Carolyn Carpenter exercise good judgment and wise restraint by not introducing an exploitative abuse subplot. To the contrary, Eddie is a good stepfather, who dies trying to protect Miranda. Consequently, his death has tragic resonance that makes viewers care, perhaps even in spite of themselves.

Schumacher also has J.K. Simmons growling and swaggering his way through the picture as Bennett. He still isn’t as scary as he was in
Whiplash, but he is still seriously sinister. In fact, Schumacher has Simmons in real-life too, since they are married.

Chernobyl: The Fall of Atomgrad, Graphic Novel

All the alleged sins of the capitalist system were committed by the socialist Soviets when they constructed the V. I. Lenin Power Station, a.k.a. Chernobyl. Cut-rate materials were used, because of budget cuts. They did not even bother building containment domes, because safety was a secondary concern (if that). As a result, the project came in under budget and ahead of schedule, so it looked like a “win,” at least for a while. Then when disaster literally struck, the government tried to cover it up, regardless of the danger to average citizens. Readers take a deep dive into the worst nuclear disaster of all-time in Matyas Namai’s graphic novel (or graphic history) Chernobyl: The Fall of Atomgrad, which is now on-sale.

Many people do not realize the Soviet Union also covered up what is now considered the third worst nuclear disaster ever at the Mayak Combine in 1957, but the rest of world did not hear about it until two decades later. Unlike other accounts of the mismanagement at Pripyak (dubbed “Atomgrad”), Namai spends a good deal of time on the construction, explaining how politics and propaganda demands trumped safety. In retrospect, having the same people responsible for agricultural collectives that produced famine shift to constructing nuclear power facilities sounds like a profoundly dangerous proposition.

Once again, nuclear scientist Valery Legasov and Party boss Boris Shcherbina play active roles in the response, but Namai casts them in a far less heroic light than the HBO miniseries. The cover-up is thoroughly documented, fully implicating Gorbachev himself. At every step, it was the average Ukrainians living in Pripyat and the surrounding areas who suffered the most.

Namai provides a detailed and methodical explanation of what happened at every step. It is a damning indictment of a government that valued ideology above all else. There can be no doubt after reading
The Fall of Atomgrad that socialism kills.

Even though many historical figures appear (almost always unflatteringly) in Namai’s narrative, they are rarely developed as characters per se. Namai’s
Chernobyl is text-heavy, but it does not read like a novel. Yet, it is still a gripping page-turner, in the grimmest way possible.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Faceless After Dark: Some Nasty Meta-ness for Terrifier Fans

What do you do if you survive a killer clown? Try to survive the sequel. Hopefully, that worked for Jenna Kanell, the star of Terrifier 1 and 2. However, her fictional alter-ego is not doing so well in this film. Bowie Davidson has a limited amount of [toxic] fandom from a cult clown-slasher, but she cannot figure out a second act until inspiration comes stalking her in Raymond Wood’s Faceless After Dark, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Lately, the only work Davidson gets are convention appearances, where she signs autographs for cretinous fans. (Kanell co-wrote the screenplay, so you should consider skipping her line at the next ComicCon.) Fortunately, she need not worry about making ends meet, thanks to her lover, Jessica, a vastly more popular thesp. In fact, Jessica just booked a superhero movie in Europe, leaving Davidson alone in their Hollywood Hills home. Like clockwork, an incel stalker fan wearing a clown mask invades their home, but Davidson is in better shape and she is more comfortable wielding her old horror props.

Her “friend” Ryan, who just let his financial backers drop Davidson from his long gestating film, advised her to work on her own thing and write what she knows—so she does exactly that. Essentially,
Faceless After Dark follows the template of Stacy Title’s The Last Supper, but without any of the wit or insight. Whereas the under-heralded 1995 film brilliantly depicted a group of left-wingers sliding down a slippery slope, with each of their murdered right-wingers becoming less defensible and more horrifying, Faceless is just Twitter-dopamine torture porn for the extreme left.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Nightwatch: Demons are Forever, on Shudder

Serial killers are beyond reform or redemption—but that’s a good thing for movie producers. When a serial killer film is successful, they can always make a sequel, even in Denmark. If you haven’t seen the original Nightwatch or the American remake (both helmed by Ole Bornedal), forget the name Peter Wormer. It seemed Martin Bork and Kalinka Martens survived the killer at the end of the 1994 film, but they never escaped the post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, Wormer also survived, so he most likely returns to his old ways in Bornedal’s Nightwatch: Demons are Forever, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

Despite the promise of a happy marriage, Martens was paranoid Wormer would return for her and Bork, she took her own life several years ago. Maybe in a future sequel, we will learn she was really murdered, but Bornedal does go there yet. Consequently, Bork has been a pill-popping shell of himself, who is largely dependent on his college student daughter Emma (played by the director’s daughter, Fanny Leander Bornedal), rather than vice versa.

Obviously, it is an extraordinarily bad idea, but Emma takes the same night watchman job at the morgue where her father worked in the first film. Her parents never told her about the incident with Wormer, so Emma hopes to learn more at the infamous site. However, her family investigation quickly leads her to the state mental hospital, where the blind and supposedly feeble Wormer remains in custody. Her inquiry takes on great urgency when a copycat killer starts gruesomely butchering Bork’s old friends, using Wormer’s old scalping M.O.

Fans of the original will be happy to see Bornedal got the old gang back together again—at least the characters who are still living, including Bork’s somewhat sleazy pal, Jens Arnkiel. The original
Nightwatch was a breakout film for both the director and lead actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, so it makes sense Bornedal’s screenplay explores the notion of legacy. Instead of just bringing back the old-timers for fan-mollifying cameos, Demons are Forever digs deeply into the long-term psychological distress experienced by the survivors and how it shaped their offspring—including Wormer’s (just who that might be would be telling, but it is easy to guess).

The Blue Angels, in IMAX

There is most assuredly a heated rivalry between Naval aviators and Air Force pilots, but when it comes to recognition and popularity, the Navy’s aerobatic flight squadron, the Blue Angels have the overwhelming advantage over their Air Force counterparts, the Thunderbirds. Those blue planes with the yellow trim are just so cool looking. Yet, their sporty paint jobs serve a practical purpose, because the yellow wing-tips should line-up when the Angels are flying in the classic diamond formation. Getting the squadron to that point takes a lot of work, as viewers see in Paul Crowder’s documentary, The Blue Angels, which opens this Friday on IMAX screens (before releasing on Prime Video the following Thursday).

There have been Blue Angels films before (including one written by Frank Herbert), but this was the first time civilian camera planes were allowed inside their flight performance “box.” The aerial camera team previously shot
Top Gun: Maverick, so they had credibility. (Plus, Maverick co-star Glen Powell, who also appeared in Devotion, signed on as an executive producer.) The Blue Angels are even more selective than the Top Gun school at Miramar, but pilots only serve one three-year tour (although some have been brought back), so new team-members come into the squadron every year. As the documentary opens, Captain Brian Kesserling (“Boss”) and the rest of the Angels help train new right wingman Christopher Kapuschansky the formations and flight plans that make up the Blue Angels’ exhibition shows.

Crowder does a fantastic job explaining each pilots’ role in the formation. Kesserling (#1) and the second senior pilot, Major Frank Zastoupil (#4) fly in the front and back slots of the diamond, while #2 and #3 fly the wings. Meanwhile, #5 and #6 are considered “soloists,” but they also perform the spectacularly close passes, before joining with the diamond formation to form a delta.

You can get a decent layman’s understand of the Blue Angels’ routines, but the real attraction of the film are the gorgeous aerial shots. Aerial photography directors Lance Benson and Michael FitzMaurice did some amazing work. There is a reason why this film is on IMAX screens. Even when pilots are talking about their training, Crowder usually shows us cool shots of the jets in action. We also see some scenes of the pilots on the home front. These humanize the pilots, but they are not exactly revelatory.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

SIFF ’24: Scala!!!

When John Waters shows up in a documentary about a theater, you know some crazy films must have screened there. They programmed his movies, which definitely qualify. The theater was also known for showing horror, martial arts, art films, and sexploitation bordering on outright raunch. Of course, for regulars, its seediness was part of its charm. Staff, customers, and famous filmmakers remember the good times in Jane Giles &Ali Catterall’s documentary, Scala!!!, which screens again during the 2024 Seattle International Film Festival.

The Beatles filmed one of the concert scenes for
A Hard Day’s Night in the old Scala Theater. This is “new” Scala, but it has an apostolic link to the old theater, after the original location was demolished. Changing formats a few times, it eventually became the eccentric repertory cinema fans knew and loved, around the time it finally settled into its beloved sketchy King’s Cross neighborhood. Frankly, many talking heads make enthusiastic comparisons to grindhouse era Times Square, especially after the Scala started its tradition of all-night marathon screenings.

The programming was certainly eclectic, including high-end art-house films and sleazy exploitation fare. Of course, budding auteurs like Christiopher Nolan were regular patrons. Touring punk bands often crashed there, instead of renting hotel rooms. A lot of drugs were consumed on the premises and the restrooms were a veritable petri dishes overflowing with STDs. At least two people died there—that the staff are willing to cop to. So yeah, good times.

Admittedly, the wild anecdotes are often amusing. The Scala also screened some great stuff, including
Avengers episodes for the series’ fan society, as well as glorified porn. Just about all the talking heads agree the most representative Scala film would be Thundercrack!, a haunted house spoof with X-rated sex scenes, written by George Kuchar.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Nature: Saving the Animals of Ukraine, on PBS


Do you like dolphins? If so, you should despise Putin. Since the launch of his illegal invasion, the Ukrainian wildlife reserve on the Black Sea has found the corpses of at least 5,000 dolphins, but they estimate thousands more have died. Clearly, animals have suffered from Russia’s military aggression, just like the Ukrainian people. Yet, despite the chaos and danger, ordinary Ukrainians have risked their lives to rescue animals both wild and domestic. Viewers need to watch their brave efforts, which Anton Ptushkin documents in “Saving the Animals of Ukraine,” premiering this Wednesday on PBS, as part of the current season of Nature.

It sure is funny how everyone who was so concerned about the animals in the Baghdad Zoo have had so little to say about the animals of Ukraine. Regardless, the entire world saw images of desperate Ukrainian refugees carrying their beloved pet cats and dogs. As a result, at least one NGO talking head had to dramatically rethink they way he thought about refugees. Inevitably, many pets were still left behind, often not intentionally, but rather due to unexpected Russian bombardments. Zoopatrol was organized to save those animals, either by jail-breaking them outright, or noninvasively feeding them through front-door peep-holes (this mostly works for cats).

Perhaps their most famous rescue is Shafa, who was found by drones trapped on the exposed ledge of a completely bombed-out seventh-floor apartment, where she had been perched for sixty days, with minimal food or water. Despite her advanced age, they successfully nursed Shafa back to health. Since then, she has become an online sensation, symbolizing Ukrainian resilience in her own grumpy cat way.

Likewise, Patron the Jack Russell terrier has also become an international influencer, thanks to his work sniffing out landmines. Patron’s small size gives him an advantage over other ordinance-detecting dogs, because he is too light to set-off mines calibrated for human weight. That little guy is a charmer.

Unfortunately, many of the stories Ptushkin documents are profoundly sad, like the two animal shelters that took very different approaches when evacuating their human staffs. Tragically, both shelters were near Hostomel Airport, which Putin’s thugs and mercenaries bombed into rubble, greatly distressing the animals in the process. Clearly, several on-camera experts suggest one shelter handled the challenge in a much more humane manner, but the real villain is Putin, who put both shelters directly in harm’s way.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

East Bay, in Cinema Daily US


EAST BAY is an unusually grounded and everyday-looking film for science fiction, if it really is sf. However, the ultra-independent indie has a lot of heart and integrity. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive reivew up here. Happy Mother's Day!

After the Flood, on BritBox

Flooding is often a human tragedy, but it also poses great risks and challenges for law enforcement. It will be all hands on deck for this fictional Yorkshire police force, when the waters start rising—even for the mega-pregnant PC Joanna Marshall. The newly promoted detective’s final day as a uniformed officer will be quite eventful, when she discovers a drowned body that wasn’t really drowned. As Marshall officially and unofficially works the case, she uncovers corruption within the local council government in creator Mick Ford’s six-part After the Flood, which premieres tomorrow on BritBox.

If you only watch only one episode of
After the Flood (and maybe you should), it ought to be the first. Marshall and her soon-to-be former patrol partner Deepa Das are literally waist deep in water flooding out a row of lower middle class town houses. Indeed, this episode’s special effects should be a nice appetizer for fans eagerly anticipating the extreme weather of Twisters.

From there, they are called to the river, where a newborn infant is caught up in the currents. Almost miraculously, a good Samaritan saves the baby, but he is swept out of Marshall’s grasp. In the days to come, she doggedly searches for news of the mystery hero, but Lee Ellison has his reasons for keeping a low profile.

This disaster sure kept Marshall busy. She is also first on the scene, when a building manager finds a body presumably drowned in an office building elevator. Except, the CSI-equivalent determines he was bludgeoned, not drowned. Since he has no I.D. Marshall rather rashly puts his DNA into a genealogy database, even though that violates British privacy laws. Therefore, she panics when the DNA matches with a sister in France, who won’t stop calling her. Marshall fears her career as a detective will be over before it even starts, especially when Tasha Eden arrives from France to demand answers regarding her brother, Daniel. That would be the brother she assumed already died five years ago.

The mystery of the not-drowned Eden holds promise, but Ford and co-writers Roanne Bardsley and Nina Metvier are more interested in scoring political points against the Conservative Council chair and the crooked real estate developer, Jack Radcliffe, whose latest project supposedly acerbated the recent flooding. Frankly, a lot of this intrigue is so predictable, it gets boring. (They also largely gloss over the scam of Radcliffe’s bogus “green tech” development.)

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Mr. Birchum, on Daily Wire+

As a junior high shop teacher, Mr. Birchum’s classroom concerns are binary in nature. His students are either wearing their safety glasses or they aren’t. Their power tools are either on or off. His students’ “lived experiences” and “their own truths” do no make any difference. Unfortunately, that is the kind of thinking his school’s new J.E.D.I. (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) officer wants to stamp out. However, the cranky wood-worker will not be quietly cancelled out of his job in the debut episode of Adam Carolla’s new animated series, Mr. Birchum, which premieres tomorrow on Daily Wire+.

It is the first day of school, but Birchum and his best buddy workmate, driver’s ed teacher Mr. Gage, are already dreading the stupidity of their students and the school’s bureaucracy—even before they meet Karponzi, the new J.E.D.I. officer. Since Birchum’s unwoke rep proceeds him, Karponzi is already gunning for him and the lazy, feather-nesting Principal Bortles is not about to object.

Mr. Birchum is a character Carolla developed early in his radio career, whom he resurrected to serve as a zeitgeisty critic of the decaying American educational system. There is a little bit of Archie “Silent Majority” Bunker in him and even more of Tim Allen’s
Home Improvement persona. However, Mr. Birchum is more right than wrong and he is smarter than 99% of the people around him.

He is also really funny. Yes, this is a Daily Wire+ series executive produced by Ben Shapiro, but it is important to remember Carolla paid his dues touring comedy clubs for years, before he became a leading free speech advocate and critic of “safe spaces.” Carolla and writers Mark Hoffmeier, Byron Kavanagh, and Mike Lynch score plenty of points against Karponzi’s rigid extremism. However, some of the funniest gags come from traditional workplace and family sitcom situations.

The show’s pointed perspective just gives them more bite, as when Birchum’s sympatico, woodworking-crazy stepdaughter Jeanie stages a protest against her realtor mother’s desecration of a mahogany fireplace. The writers even gently mock Birchum’s rightwing persona, when he grudgingly admits the teachers’ union he despises probably saves his bacon.

Nevertheless, some of the series satire is worthy of
South Park, which was obviously a source of inspiration. Arguably, J.E.D.I. is the funniest, most ruthlessly cutting acronym since Team America’s Film Actors Guild.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Force of Nature: The Dry 2

Everyone who saw the film The Dry (or read the novel) knows Aaron Falk’s teen years were difficult, before he joined the Australian Federal Police. It turns out, they were even worse. Falk has a new case, but it brings back even more painful memories in Robert Connolly’s Force of Nature: The Dry 2, also adapted from a Jane Harper novel, which opens today in New York.

For Falk, when it rains, it pours. Right about now a little drought wouldn’t sound so bad. Instead of the dry, dusty outback, Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper rushed to a rainy, lushly wooded national park in Victoria, where there whistleblowing informant disappeared during an annoying team-building retreat. Calling Alice Russell a “whistle-blower” is a bit of an understatement. Falk uncovered evidence she embezzled from her money-laundering conglomerate of shell companies, so he pressured her to photocopy incriminating documents for his investigation. He really put the screws to her before she left, so now he is feeling guilty.

Through a twist of fate, he understands the dangers of the fictional but highly representative Giralang Ranges. Years ago, he and his father desperately searched those woods for his mother, when she vanished during a family camping trip. Maybe coincidentally, the Giralangs were also home to a notorious serial killer, who might have still been active at the time of his mother’s disappearance.

Throughout
Force of Nature, Connolly juggles three timelines, with a good deal of dexterity. There is grown Falk searching for Russell in the present day. Three days earlier, Russell sets off into the woods with a group of women from her office, awkwardly led by Jill Bailey, the wife of her corrupt corporate kingpin boss, Daniel. Falk also constantly flashes back to some twenty or thirty years ago, revisiting his desperate search for his mother.

Connolly’s largely faithful Falk adaptations certainly follow a thriller-like template, but they focus just as much, or even more on the difficult circumstances that drove the characters to take such desperate, nefarious measures. Frankly, that approach is more successful in
Force of Nature than it was for the somewhat overhyped The Dry.

Of course, Eric Bana is just as moody and intense reprising the role of Falk. However, he convincingly handles Falk’s more traditionally procedural duties this time around. He definitely looks, acts, and sounds like a Fed with a chip on his shoulder.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Law & Order: No Good Dead (#500)

Thank goodness the collective Law & Order franchise has so many episodes. Otherwise, the Sundance Channel and MyTV might have to start producing their own programming. Of course, the franchise has far more than 500 altogether. This is just the mother ship’s half-millennial milestone. It also happens to be its most realistic, ripped-from-the-headlines case in quite a while. Only five days after his release from a paltry 5-year prison sentence, a violent sex-offender stands accused of murder in “No Good Deed,” the 500th episode of Law & Order, which premieres tonight on NBC.

Jack McCoy is gone, but certainly not forgotten. Nicholas Baxter, the new District Atorney, faces a hotly contested “re-election” campaign, so he is eager to convict Shawn Payne for the brutal murder and desecration of his social worker, Angela Hart. Although Dets. Riley and Shaw gave a look to her hot-tempered boyfriend, they quickly zeroed-in on Payne.

Given the brutality of the case and the intense media attention, Baxter wants a decisive conviction. Frankly, he is a little baffled why his inherited passive aggressive Executive ADA Nolan Price agreed to such a lenient plea-bargain. Of course, as far as Price is concerned, it was a miracle they prosecuted him at all (he must have served under Bragg too). He also claims he wanted to spare his surviving victim the further trauma of a trial. Yet, there is no denying the new murder victim.

Frankly, #500 is exactly the kind of episode the mature franchise needs more of. Take it from a New York city resident (for over two decades), “No Good Deed” definitely reflects the current state of the City. It vividly illustrates the dangers of plea-bargaining and early parole. Plus, Sam McMurray oozes sleaze as politically ambitious, leftwing Judge Steve Nelson, while Michael Hyatt inspires contempt as manipulative defense attorney Vanessa Carter. They will remind you why you always hated lawyers and politicians.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Weapons of Mass Migration, in the Epoch Times


WEAPONS OF MASS MIGRATION investifates illegal immigration on the ground in Panama's Darien Gap. It finds suspiicous activity on the part of cartels, the UN, and the CCP. The national security implications are serious. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Dark Matter, on Apple TV+

Somewhere in the multiverse, there must be an alternate Chicago that is a safe, peaceful city, with high-performing schools and a thriving economy. Obviously, that is not the Chicago of our universe. It is not Jason Dessen’s Chicago either, but he is definitely trying to find it again, to reunite with his wife and son—the ones he knows. Dessen’s unwilling odyssey through the multiverse unfolds in creator Blake Crouch’s 9-episode Dark Matter, adapted from his original novel, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Instead of becoming Richard Feynman, Dessen married Daniela Vargas and had his moody teenaged son, Charlie. It was worth it, but sometimes he wonders what might have been. The other Jason Dessen does not have to wonder. He became a hot shot physicist who built the 
“box” that serves as a portal between parallel universes, but he envies our Dessen’s happy family life. Consequently, he kidnaps the Dessen viewers identify with, marooning him in his own universe, so he can replace “our” Dessen with his family.

Despite his new wealth, Dessen desperately wants to return to his family, once he figures out why his life is suddenly so radically different. Amanda Lucas, the alternate Dessen’s lover and co-worker agrees to help him escape their industrialist boss, but navigating the box is a tricky endeavor. The first few doors they open nearly lead to disastrous consequences.

The box is a very cool riff on Schrodinger that sort of symbolically puts those who enter into super-position, with the help of psychotropic drugs. It is complicated to explain, but it represents some nifty speculative science fiction. Unfortunately, the characters are not nearly as interesting. In fact, they are mostly a rather annoying assembly of dull, joyless neurotics. That definitely includes Dessen—all of them.

That human factor definitely matters. It is ironic that we need to make that point regarding
Dark Matter, since that is ostensibly the whole point of the series. The notable exception would be Jennifer Connelly’s various performances as the multi-Vargas Dessens. She has the most opportunities to play variations on her character, which she fully capitalizes on. Each multi-verse Daniela is recognizably similar, yet distinctive in her own ways.

Tuesday, May 07, 2024

The Idea of You, in Cinema Daily US


Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine bring a lot of charm ot THE IDEA OF YOU. They are terrific together, but theyhet zero support from anyone else. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

Kitty the Killer

The so-called “Agency” is a lot like a Southeast Asian version of the La Femme Nikita covert organization. Each female assassin has a “guardian,” who is only supposed to watch over them. In practice, the watchers code-named “Grey Fox” will have to fight like heck. It sort of goes with the territory when you work for an assassination agency. They will have to fight each other when a power struggle splits the Agency. Again, this isn’t so surprising for a group of killers-for-hire. Whether he likes it or not, the new Grey Fox must look after his Kittys in Lee Thongkam’s Kitty the Killer, which releases today on VOD.

It is a bit of mess when Keng, the Grey Fox, sends Dina, his favorite Kitty, to retrieve a box from sleazy Wong, before he can sell it to the Japanese wing of the Agency. Whatever is in that box is a lot like the glowing briefcase in
Pulp Fiction. Keng has his reasons for wanting it, which puts him crosswise with Ms. Violet, the Agency’s boardroom boss, who unleashes “Nina the Faceless” on Keng.

The Grey Fox handily fends off hordes of generic henchmen, but the Faceless Kitty is too much for him. As he nurses his mortal wounds, Keng carjacks poor Charlie, a nebbish office worker, forcing him to become the next Grey Fox.

Or something like that. Honestly, it’s debatable how much of this weird story really makes any kind of sense.
 However, it is easy to get all the heads that get decapitated by katana swords. Charlie’s shtickiness can be a bit much, but the martial arts beatdowns are brutally spectacular. Sumret Mueangputt’s fight choreography is wildly cinematic, but also dirty and gritty.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Independent Lens: Space, the Longest Goodbye

The original Mercury 7 astronauts were test pilots, because they were expected to go up and come back down, while somehow holding their spacecrafts together. In science fiction, crew and passengers often spends millennia in suspended animation as they travel to distant galaxies. The three-year trip to Mars and back will be something in between, without the means to communicate with family back on Earth. It is a peculiar challenge that the psychologists and “human factors” specialists at NASA are trying to prepare for in Ido Mizrahy’s documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye, which airs tomorrow on PBS, as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

It is sort of hard to believe, but they did not really have people doing what Dr. Al Holland does at NASA, until he started his department in 1994. Of course, the hard-partying “Right Stuff” generation had their own ways of dealing with stress (read Tom Wolfe). There was also a deep institutional fear of confiding personal information that could potentially get astronauts scrubbed from future missions. However, Holland and his colleagues slowly gained their trust, after showing a need for their feedback, to help prepare future astronauts for longer and longer deployments on the International Space Station (ISS).

Mizrahy and Holland certainly diagnose potential problems, using the experiences of former astronaut Cady Coleman, her husband, and their son as a case-study. Hopefully, current astronaut and potential Mars crewmember Kayla Barron can benefit. The Naval Academy grad and her Army vet husband managed her 176 days in space, but they realize it will get more complicated when they have children.

Although it is still considered the stuff of science fiction, some form of deep sleep is duly considered as a method of combatting loneliness and isolation (along with virtual reality). However, Dr. Holland worries about the shock of waking up to three years of elapsed history. For instance, imagine how jarring it would be to suddenly learn the Mets won the World Series?

Viewers can learn a lot from
Longest Goodbye. It certainly instills a greater appreciation for the sacrifices astronauts make. However, the pacing feels a bit languid. Frankly, Ramachandra Borcar’s politely ambient score arguably does the film a disservice. It might feel like a good match to the celestial visuals, but it has a lulling effect. Some stronger, more emotionally resonant melodies would have better sharpened viewers’ focus.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Mind Body Spirit: Mindfulness Horror

New Agey influencers might see an old manuscript and think they found the next Celestine Prophecy. Yet, those who are a little older will be leery of opening their minds and spirits, for fear of what might enter. You can disregard old folk all you want, but, by definition, they are survivors. In contrast, Anya is clearly out of her depth and in great peril right from the start of Alex Henes & Matthew Merenda’s Mind Body Spirit, which releases this Tuesday on VOD.

Having inherited a creepy old house from the grandmother she never met, Anya moved in, hoping she will finally have the space to find herself, or whatever junky New Age term she might prefer. Anya aspires to be mindfulness-yoga influencer, but she lacks the confidence to post her videos. Fortunately, she keeps her camera rolling when she discovers the secret stairway to her grandmother’s creepy storeroom of what look like witchcraft supplies (otherwise, we wouldn’t have a movie to watch).

Her old Siberian babushka also left Anya a journal, which includes a ritual the would-be yoga guru assumes will recenter the spirit in the body. Of course, any horror fan immediately suspects [currently] what this ritual is actually intended for. Anya presumes her mother severed all connections with her grandmother, because of some prejudice against her supposedly heightened spirituality, but we know better—especially since we can sometimes see the old spectral crone skulking in the background, unnoticed by Anya.

Probably the best way to watch
Mind Body Spirit would be with a mindfulness lifestyle follower, who has no idea what is coming. Henes and Merenda create a good deal of tension and the details surrounding the Baba Yagi-like grandma are definitely creepy. The Russian cultural context greatly distinguishes Mind Body Spirit from other similarly occult films. However, Henes and Merenda often break the rules of the found footage subgenre, frequently having the camera move seemingly of its own accord, even into different rooms. It is not Grandma moving the camera either. I don’t want to be the found footage cop, but if you are going to do something, do it the right way.

Indeed, it is clear Henes and Merenda are trying to replicate the online viewing experience, because they periodically replicate the “buffering” effect and interrupt the action with three satirical commercials—two of which featuring “Kenzi Fit,” Anya’s vastly more successful frienemy influencer.

Frankly, those phony commercials are so perfectly on-the-money believable, they will probably anger a lot of turmeric-tea drinking New Age posers. There is a lot of sly commentary shoehorned into an impressively staged horror movie. Despite massively “cheating” in the execution of their found footage concept, the co-directors cleverly stage-managed the claustrophobic location, adroitly ushering the limited cast into and out of the camera’s field of vision, during several nifty tracking shots.