Friday, August 31, 2018

S.M.A.R.T. Chase: Orlando Bloom’s Shanghai Job

In today’s go-go Shanghai, transporting valuable art should be a high-growth business. Unfortunately, Danny Stratton’s company suffers when they lose a Van Gogh in the prologue. However, they will have a chance for redemption when his closest competitor is killed in a car bombing. The whole living-and-breathing thing will definitely give him a competitive advantage, but he wants some payback to go with his comeback in Charles Martin’s British-Chinese co-pro S.M.A.R.T. Chase (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

One minute, Stratton is riding high in the back of an armored car and before you know it, he is doing demeaning bodyguard work for club kids. His core group stayed with his company (Security Management Action Recovery Team): the grizzled hardnose, Mach Ren, the martial arts specialist J. Jae An, and the drone flying computer geek teen, Ding Dong Tang. Alas, Stratton’s sort of fiancée, Ling Mo (Mach’s niece) throws him over, because she gets sick of his self-pity. Yet, she helps him get back in the game with a contract to transport a priceless vase. When the gang that stole the Van Gogh takes a run at the vase, Stratton goes off script, deciding to play for all the marbles.

As far as action movie premises go, this one is perfectly fine, but Martin and screenwriter Kevin Bernhardt never take it far enough. The producers really should have brought in a moonlighter from Jonnie To’s Milkway Image to punch it up. Instead, all of the action scenes have a rather competent blandness to them.

Still, it is great fun to watch Simon Yam play a slightly unhinged character like Mach, even when he is half-asleep, which seems to be the case here. Orlando Bloom is better than you might expect as Stratton, but that bleach-blond look is such a mistake. Even though An is not much of a character, Hannah Quinlivan shows all kinds of future potential as she struts through the film. Yet, the honors for effort and execution go to Jing Liang, who vamps it up as villainess Tara Yen, whose fingers nails are the most memorable aspect of the film. On the other hand, Martin unforgivably squanders Shi Yanneng/Xing Yu and his real deal Shaolin chops as Long Fei, Yen’s chief henchman.

Given the terrific supporting cast, S.M.A.R.T. Chase (a.k.a. The Shanghai Job, a.k.a. S.M.A.R.T.: Dragon and Phoenix, a.k.a. Smart Chase: Fire & Earth) really ought to be several times better than it is, especially since Bloom isn’t so bad as a martial arts lead. You also have to wonder if the compulsively busy Yam still remembers filming S.M.A.R.T. Whatever. It feels like it was deliberately made to be a time killer to watch on international flights. Not really recommended, but just sort of eh, S.M.A.R.T. Chase opens today (8/31) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

The Little Stranger: Abrahamson Adapts Waters

The Ayres family could be the Ushers of the British interwar period. Their once great manor, Hundreds Hall, has fallen and it can’t get up. Yet, the dour new doctor remains fascinated by the house and the family, because of his experiences as an impressionable youth. The corrosive past is never past enough in Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, adapted fairly faithfully from Sarah Waters’ novel, which opens today in New York.

Dr. Faraday’s interest Hundreds Hall started with his mother’s stories of her years spent in-service there. However, he became fully obsessed when he visited the estate in its heyday, for a children’s fair the Ayres family hosted. He was probably even more struck by the wild young Ayres daughter Susan, whose untimely death shortly thereafter was the initial spark of the family’s rapid decline.

Years later, Faraday (nobody calls him by his Christian name) returns to the village to join the local GP’s practice. One of his first house calls is the now dilapidated Hundreds Hall, where Roderick (not Usher) Ayres is technically head of household, but most of the practical matters fall to his sister, Caroline. When the villagers (including Faraday’s partner) talk about her, they say condescending things like: “she’s not pretty, but she has a good head on her shoulders.” In contrast, neither Roderick’s head nor his body healed properly after his return from WWI. He is also somewhat haunted by the death of sister Susan, as are the rest of Ayreses, which at this point only amounts to Caroline, and their imperious mother, Mrs. Ayres (again, no Christian name giveth).

So, is the ghost of Susan Ayres haunting Hundreds Hall? It very likely seems so, unless she is just a loud unnerving metaphor for her family’s profound dysfunction. Either way, Faraday still wants in, so he pursues Caroline like he never could before the Great War.

Obviously, the film and its source novel have a lot to say about class, as well as gender roles and maybe even the treatment of veterans, circa Downton Abbey. However, it still functions as an intriguingly suggestive ghost movie—not in the scare-the-pants-off-you tradition of The Conjuring, but in a what-the-heck-did-I-just-see-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye kind of way.

There is also an eerie resemblance between Domhnall Gleason and Oliver Zetterström, who plays the youthful but still uptight Faraday, seen in fateful flashbacks. As a character, Faraday is a cold fish, who has let his covetousness warp his entire life, but he is only too credible. Ruth Wilson plays Caroline Ayres with an appropriately British stiff upper lip, but she still conveys a sense of a myriad of neuroses barely contained beneath her public façade. Of course, the great Charlotte Rampling is terrific as the regal yet haunted (in maybe more ways than one) Ayres matriarch.

The stately Hundreds Hall is also a terrific trump card for the film. It is endlessly atmospheric, whether seen in its heyday or its shabby nadir. This is a locale that cries out to be haunted, if it isn’t already. Even though it is not intended as a straight horror film, there is still some spooky stuff going on, particularly the business involving the servants summoning bells. It is subtle, but effective. Highly recommended as a genre film for viewers of PBS’s Masterpiece and equivalent British period dramas, The Little Stranger opens today (8/31) at several New York theaters, including the Regal E-Walk.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Cattet & Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan

Instead of Gialos, Belgian filmmakers Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani are now paying homage to Italian Poliziotteschi movies, but there is still plenty of patent leather for them to fetishize over. They must swoon whenever they pass a Coach store. It is still a case of style over substance, but at least they give viewers a little bit of plot-like stuff in Let the Corpses Tan (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Although it is based on famously untranslated French cult novel, Cattet & Forzani are still more interested in reveling in the images and tropes of Italian genre cinema (as was even more the case in their gialo pastiches, Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears), than telling a story, which is so bourgeoisie. In some ways, this orgy of double-crosses and shoot-outs shares a kinship with the remake of Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs, but it has a far less cohesive narrative than its predecessor.

Most of the action takes place in the Mediterranean ruins surrounding Luce’s villa, which serves as an artist colony and a crash pad for anti-social anarchists. She has been whiling away the time with her dissipated ex-lover, Max Bernier, a burned out novelist, and Brisorguiel, the slimy lawyer she has been hooking up with. Rhino’s gang is indeed expected, because Luce digs rough outlaw types, but she did not know they had planned to heist gold bullion from an armored car before their arrival (not that she would have cared). Rhino is even sufficiently cool and collected to give a lift to Bernier’s estranged wife, their daughter, and the nanny, after executing the uniformed couriers.

True to criminal form, things get awkward quickly when the gang breaks into two hostile, double-crossing factions, led by Rhino and Brisorguiel. Then two motorcycle cops blunder into the scene. From here on out, the film basically boils down to a series of armed skirmishes. However, the characterization is so thin, it is often impossible to figure out who is shooting at whom.

That is really a shame, because they no-fooling helm some impressively down-and-dirty action sequences. Unfortunately, they insist on punctuating the blazing gun fights with trippy interludes featuring scenes from a scatological passion play, in which Luce plays a fluid-spouting Mary Magdalene-slash-satanic figure. Even if you do not self-identify with Christianity, these nauseating fever dreams are just interminably painful to sit throw. Oh, for the love of Dario Argento and Franco Nero, show us some mercy.

Once again, the real star of Cattet & Forzani’s film is their regular cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, who achieves some amazing visuals with a 16mm camera, the Corsican sun, and who knows how many Red Bulls. The film looks great and it is by far the duo’s most accessible work, but there is still not a lot of there there. Again, style has it all over substance. Recommended primarily for the Belgian filmmakers’ fans, Let the Corpses Tan opens tomorrow (8/31) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Boarding School: At Least There’s a Low Student-to-Teacher Ratio

At this ultra-Christian academy, they won’t serve Jacob bacon, because he is Jewish and that is their idea of sensitivity. Frankly, he would prefer to have the bacon. There really isn’t much point to their weird attempt to keep him kosher, especially given the staff’s habit of murdering students. However, they probably are not the only psychopaths in Boaz Yakin’s Boarding School (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

After Jacob’s supposedly cool step-dad walked in on his cross-dressing episode, he shipped Jacob off to the New England fundy school, to spare the nerves of his high-strung mother. The student body is suspiciously small, but Jacob is surprised to find he already knows one of his classmates. Christine is the obnoxiously entitled daughter of his step-dad’s well-heeled boss. Frankly, her anti-social behavior borders on outright sociopathy, but she has a weird fascination with Jacob and his sexuality.

While Christine rebels against sinister headmaster Dr. Sherman’s perverse discipline, Jacob tries to protect the weaker students, with mixed results. He also finds himself drawn to Christine, despite her mean streak. As difficult students not-so mysteriously die off, they start investigating the dodgy school, quickly deducing it is like a Hogwarts for conspicuously inconvenient kids.

If this film had been made fifteen years ago, it would be a legend, but today it is totally ho-hum. These days, a gender identity questioning youth like Jacob could be a budding reality TV star, especially growing up on Manhattan’s Westside (we’re assuming it is the UWS, but maybe it is the Upper East). Frankly, it is hard to believe any Manhattan parents would entrust their kids to the titular boarding school, even (or especially) if it really was what it presented itself to be.

Still, the weirdly sexually-charged and massively dysfunctional relationship that develops between Jacob and Christine is consistently intriguing. The film is at its best when they are verbally sparing. They look pretty young too, which adds further elements of danger, as well as a bit of sexualized ickiness. However, most of the actual horror movie stuff is pretty standard issue—and rather tame, at that.

Regardless, Luke Prael and Sterling Jerins are quite well cast as Jacob and Christine. They truly look and sound like problem children. Will Patton and Samantha Mathis are almost always interesting to watch on screen, but they seem to be bored playing garden variety villains like Dr. Sherman and his accomplice-wife Isabel.

Frankly, Boarding School is more confused than its central character. Most of the time, it feels uncomfortable serving as a horror movie, but it doesn’t have any other ideas. Not recommended, Boarding School opens tomorrow (8/31) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Big Brother: Getting Schooled By Donnie Yen

Think of this crusading teacher movie as “To Sir, with Kung Fu.” Imagine what LuLu’s title tune could have been with lyrics like that. In fact, Henry Chen will even inspire a student with Cantopop dreams. The Hong Kong born-and-raised former U.S. Marine quickly wins over his class of under-achievers, but they will have to pass the HK university admittance exam for themselves in Kam Ka-wai’s Big Brother (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Chen was a real trouble maker when he attended Tak Chi Secondary School, but he still distinguished himself as the class Tai Kwon Do champion. He continued to sharpen his marital arts skills while serving as a Marine, gaining self-discipline in the process. However, he needed a new direction after a particularly rough Middle East deployment, so here he is, teaching at his alma mater. At first, his five hardest cases think they can prank Chen, but that misconception lasts about ten seconds. Yet, Chen surprises everybody, by really digging into their troubled circumstances.

A few parent-teacher conferences later and Chen has his class in the best emotional state of their young lives. However, trouble is brewing from developers who covet Tak Chi’s real estate. Naturally, Chen will find himself under fire from the HK educational bureaucracy, like Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, and in real life, but Henry Chen is not about to slink off after a few “Oh Captain, My Captains,” as if this were a HK Dead Poets Society. He’s played by Donnie Yen, after all.

Yen can light up the screen with his energy and charisma, but it is also really obvious when he is not feeling it. However, in this case we can see he is really digging the change of pace. There are two really dynamite extended fight scenes in Big Brother, but for the most part, this is a pretty straight teacher-who-makes-a-difference movie. Granted, Chan Tai-lee’s screenplay follows a well-established formula, but the sunny vibe and Yen’s charm make it all quite enjoyable. Of course, when Yen throws down, he throws the heck down.

Plus, the supporting ensemble is ridiculously attractive. Model-turned actress Gladys Li is obviously going to be a star judging from her scene-stealing work as tomboy Gladys Wang. Gordon Lau also supplies a strong rooting interest as second-generation Pakistani immigrant and aspiring Cantopop singer Gordon Xiang. On the grown-up side, Taiwanese actress Joe Chen develops some nice chemistry with Yen as his reserved (but interested) colleague, Ms. Liang.

Kam keeps everything moving along quite spritely. He also happens to be a rather encouraging case of a plugger who made good. After decades of A.D. work, including on the first two Ip Man films, Kam has now directed four big, commercial films in just three years, including the entertainingly old school Colour of the Game. In this case, he manages to balance the action and high school drama to satisfy Yen’s followers and those attracted by the youthful supporting players. Recommended with dopey affection for fans of Yen and HK cinema, Big Brother opens this Friday (8/31) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Blood Fest: Fans Become Meat for the Grinder

Does it really make sense to stop for a booty call when you are being stalked by a psycho killer? Teenage hormones are powerful that way, but they greatly jeopardize your chances of surviving a horror movie. Nobody understands those rules better than the fans attending a weekend horror party, but they break them anyway in Owen Egerton’s Blood Fest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

“Blood Fest” is sort of like a renaissance fair for horror, but not quite as cheesy. It is exactly where Dax Conway wants to be, but his talking head psychologist father won’t allow. For Conway, horror movies were something he shared with his late mother, but his father blames them for warping the mind of her murderer. Fortunately (not really), he will gain access through the reluctant help of a former classmate now pursuing her scream queen dreams.

However, as soon as the party starts, horror movie huckster Anthony Walsh reveals all the horrors are real and he is filming everything for his next gore-fest. To survive, Conway and his friends, hacker doofus Krill and his inexplicably platonic friend Sam, will have to rely on their knowledge of horror films if they want to survive the real horrors in store for them.

With its hip inside-fandom perspective, Blood Fest should have been much funnier than it is. There are some clever parts here and there, particularly the gags involving the fan-favorite tree-planting slasher franchise character, the Arborist. Dubbing the slasher part of the Blood Fest theme park “Hoddertown” is also a nice touch. However, it suffers in comparison to the thematically similar Funhouse Massacre, because Blood Fest completely lacks its manic energy.

It does not help much either that Robbie Kay’s Dax Conway is such a dull, uncompelling lead. In contrast, Seychelle Gabriel lights up the screen as Sam, with her mega-watt screen presence. Jacob Batalon can be painfully cringey as Krill, but he also lands some of the film’s best lines. Frankly, his explanation of why clowns are scary might just become definitive. However, the real shortcoming is Egerton himself, who isn’t sufficiently flamboyant or sinister to carry off a role like Walsh, regardless of the meta-irony.

Blood Fest sounds like a total stitch, but it is really just sort of okay, making it a disappointment based on expectations. Still, you have to give Egerton credit for ending it well, considering that is where ninety-five percent of horror movies crater. Even so, it remains stuck in the okay zone. Nothing you can’t wait on for Netflix or Shudder, Blood Fest opens this Friday (8/31) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

FrightFest ’18: The Golem

This creature of Kabballah looks nothing like German silent film star Paul Wagener. Instead, he resembles the young son still mourned by the woman (now presumed barren) who created him. That will make him especially dangerous when he turns against those he is supposed to protect (like Skynet or Cujo) in Doron & Yoav Paz’s first English language film, The Golem (trailer here), which premiered during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Frankly, in this isolated 17th Century Lithuanian Jewish village, there are not a lot of educational opportunities for women in general, but the study of Kabballah and mystical texts is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, Hanna eavesdrops on the Rabbi’s lectures and pours over the books her husband Benjamin reluctantly smuggles home for her. Alas, she is not nearly as intimidated by the subject matter as are the Rabbi’s properly male students. That means only she will have the guts to create a golem to protect the village from a rampaging feudal lord, but she might not have the strength to destroy the creature when it brings out all her maternal instincts.

Stylistically, the Paz’s Brothers’ Golem is dramatically different than the found footage conceit of their first feature, JeruZalem, but it definitely taps into some deep Jewish folkloric themes and tropes. This is as much a dark fable as it is a horror film, but it shares a kinship with the Frankenstein/Modern Prometheus and Faust archetypes, along with the Golem legend. Fate is a killer in this film, just like the Golem.

Israeli thesp Hani Furstenberg (recognizable to hardcore cineastes for her starring role in Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Place) is pretty impressive as Hanna, fully connecting with both the maternal and feminist elements of her character. Daniel Cohen makes quite a creepy kid playing “Hanna’s Son.” Frankly, none of the other male characters is a well-developed as Hanna, but they look and act era appropriate amid all the chaos and carnage.

Despite the dissimilarities of their two features, the Paz Brother consistently show a knack for projecting a vibe of ancient, soul-shattering evil. It is a moody film, sort of like The Witch, but it also seriously portrays the harsh realities of shtetl life in Old Europe. Recommended for fans of serious period horror films, The Golem is slated to open theatrically next year, following its premiere at this year’s FrightFest.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

In the books, Tom Clancy’s signature hero served as National Security Advisor, Vice President, and President for two non-consecutive terms. Maybe he will do so again, but for the present time, he has been rebooted back to his original government gig: CIA analyst (not including his prior military service). Of course, he always had an unlikely knack for getting out from behind his desk and into the field. Regardless of his job, he always has the same mission—to protect America from its foreign enemies. The titular character will do his duty in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (trailer here), which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Ryan has the Yemen desk at the CIA. It is not so hot in terms of prestige, but there is plenty of suspicious activity to track. Ryan has uncovered a pattern of sophisticated money transfers that seem to suggest a rumored new jihadist player is planning something big and horrific. Unfortunately, his new section chief James Greer is in full CYA mode after being cashiered back to Langley due a career-derailing kerfuffle in Pakistan. Needless to say, Greer is not pleased when Ryan does an end-run around him with the Treasury liaison, but it gets the ball rolling.

Soon, Ryan and Greer are jet-setting to France and Turkey in pursuit of the elusive “Sulieman.” When he has a spare moment, Ryan does his best to romance Dr. Cathy Mueller, whose infectious disease specialty might just come in handy later. They might just have a future together, whereas Sulieman’s terrified wife Hanin is desperate to escape with her children. There is also a bit of business with a remorseful drone operator that so far represents a momentum-killer for the series, based on the six episodes provided to the media. Clancy would have just told him to cowboy up, as does his infinitely more telegenic partner.

Showrunner-executive producers Carlton Cruse & Graham Roland deserve credit for some realistic and unvarnished depictions of terrorism on-screen. There is one particular attack in Paris that shows very little graphic carnage, but still manages to be absolutely shocking. Of course, they bend over backwards to provide counter-balancing Muslim characters, which even include the hard-charging Greer. It is more convincing in the case of Hanin, who is indeed a character who reflects reality for some many women in the Islamist world.

Frankly, U.S.-based Saudi actress Dina Shihabi deserves even more credit for her portrayal of Hanin, which is quite brave for multiple reasons. She is all kinds of fierce and vulnerable, so she should be the heroic feminist TV figure of the year. John Krasinski is actually quite a strong Jack Ryan (immeasurably superior to Affleck and Pine). Proving 13 Hours was not a fluke, he projects the right balance of everyman integrity and the rough-and-ready bearing of a combat veteran.

Wendell Pierce brings plenty of hardnosed attitude as Greer, while a surprisingly old-looking Tim Hutton shows a weaselly side we haven’t seen before as CIA bureaucrat Nathan Singer. In six episodes, Abbie Cornish does not get much to do besides eat Maryland crabs and send a couple fateful Ebola emails. Perhaps the weak link is Ali Suliman’s Sulieman, who is just sort of blandly sinister, like a garden variety terrorist from 24. (The attempts to blame his radicalization on French bigotry might be counter-productive, in this respect.)

Still, Cuse and Roland keep the stakes high, while Krasinski and Shihabi maintain viewers’ rooting interest. The characterization is mostly quite strong (in fact, the death of one unmentioned recurring character really stings) and the action scenes are energetically staged. Clancy probably would have wanted to tinker with it a little, but it will still exceed his fans’ expectations. Recommended pretty enthusiastically (again based on six episodes, a pretty fair sampling), Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan premieres on Amazon Prime this Friday (8/31).

Macabro ’18: Hostile

Call and raise—that is the name of the game in genre filmmaking. It is no longer sufficient to be stalked by a serial killer while trapped in confined space. However, if you make it a zombie doing the stalking, you might be in business. Basically, it is like a post-apocalyptic take on Curve and ATM, because those films were so awesome the first time around. However, there is the novelty of a few nice performances in Mathieu Turi’s Hostile (trailer here), boasting the imprimatur of Xavier Gens as executive producer, which screens during the 2018 Macabro in Mexico City.

Juliette is a survivor, but that does not necessarily mean she is one of the lucky ones. She scours the post-apocalyptic wasteland scavenging food and supplies for her unseen rag-tag colony of human remnants. The zombie-mutant thingies are out there, but she is not supposed to engage. Unfortunately, a freak accident puts her in a world of hurt. Her leg is broken and her capsized land rover is a prime target for the zomthing that comes shuffling along. Inconveniently, the undead humanoid monsters are pretty spry and fleet of foot this time around.

As Juliette digs in for the siege, the film flashes back to scenes from her earlier life when she first met and commenced a relationship with her husband Jack, a wealthy French expat gallerist. It was a rocky start, due to her heroin addiction, but he helped her through it (only to have the world end on her later). Yet, weirdly enough, it is those relationship scenes that really work in Hostile, whereas the cat-and-mouse business with the zombie feels very been-there-done-that.

Still, experienced genre viewers should always take what they can get. In this case, it is the surprisingly effective chemistry shared by Brittany Ashworth and Gregory Fitoussi. Ashworth does a nice job showing us how damaged Juliette is, as well as her strengths. Fitoussi also plays Jack cool and sophisticated, but still acutely human. Together, they both make the audience feel rather sad that the world just up and ended like it did.

Without being too spoilery, we are duty bound to warn viewers Hostile ends with a ludicrous howler. Turi does his best to lay the emotional groundwork for it, but the sheer unlikeliness of the circumstances makes it a real head-shaker. Nevertheless, the work of Ashworth and Fitoussi deserves some notice. Hostile is recommended for festival patrons who can appreciate its merits and roll with its weaknesses, when it screens this Wednesday (8/29) and Saturday (9/1), as part of this year’s Macabro.

Akira: The 30th Anniversary

Seriously, aren’t you really relieved the proposed live action remake of Katsuhiro Otomo’s celebrated anime film, based on his own original manga, will probably never happen? Who needs another lackluster Ghost in the Shell from Hollywood? It would only demystify the film with cheap controversies. As it is, the breakthrough anime is already enjoying a moment, having predicted the 2020 Olympics would be held in Tokyo. In this case, it is a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, but close enough. Armageddon has come and gone and may yet come again in Otomo’s Akira (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at the Metrograph.

In 1988, Paleo-Tokyo went up in a puff of smoke. Somehow, it was all related to the so-called “Akira” experiments, designed to weaponize the powers of the eponymous “esper” with terrifying psychic abilities. Thirty years later, Neo-Tokyo hardly seems fit to host the Olympics. Motorcycle gang battle each other on the Blade-Runner-like streets with impunity. Vice is rampant and the social fabric is badly frayed. However, it is easy to believe the Neo-Tokyo Olympic Committee could easily ply the IOC with enough sushi and sake to overcome these drawbacks. Regardless, construction work is ongoing on the Olympic Stadium, which will play an important role in the third act.

Shontaro Kaneda’s relatively benign biker gang is mixing it up with their ghoulish rivals, when they cross paths with Takashi, an escaped esper fleeing the military authorities. Yes, thirty-one years after the Akira project destroyed the old city, the Japanese government is trying again. Col. Shikishima considers their recklessness something close to madness, but he is just as fanatical when it comes to following orders. Be that as it may, he scores a daily double when he picks up Kaneda’s bullied running mate Tetsuo Shima, along with Takashi. It turns out Shima’s psychic potential is off the charts, approaching the level of the now mythic Akira.

Thirty years ago, Akira hit Western audiences like a revelation from on high, showing the world the dramatic possibilities of animation, beyond talking cats and singing concession items. It told a story of cosmic dimensions, using stunning dystopian visuals that still look radically cool. Since then, there has been a lot of ambitious anime and animation, but Akira still largely holds up. Granted, the characterization is comparatively flat relative to films like Loving Vincent, The Breadwinner, The Wind Rises, and Your Name. Frankly, there are three very distinct characters who look like they were modeled on G. Gordon Liddy, which can be a tad confusing.

However, it has lost none of its visual pop or its dynamic energy. More fundamentally, when revisiting Akira, you can see the origins of many anime and science fiction archetypes right there on the screen. It really is one of the films that opened up international markets and international fandom for anime. It also goes big, even by contemporary standards. This is a film every science fiction and animation fan should see, to recognize how influential it has been. Highly recommended as a film and an event in film history, Akira opens this Wednesday (8/29) in New York, at the Metrograph.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

FrightFest ’18: Tigers Are Not Afraid

These are not Dickensian street urchins. They are the orphans of Mexico’s drug wars. They survive hand-to-mouth on the streets, constantly fleeing the victorious drug cartel of sadistic Satanists. Yeah, maybe building that wall doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Regardless, fairy tales do not get much darker than Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Estrella is on her own. Her school was closed indefinitely after getting riddled with bullets. Soon thereafter, her mother failed to come home one night. The implications are obvious in Estrella’s world, but she remains in denial for what seems like weeks. Eventually, hunger forces her to seek the company of a local gang of misfits, but their leader Shine is instinctively hostile to an older potential rival.

Nevertheless, she will earn her place in the pack when she apparently completes a rather daring task, but the truth is rather more complicated. Regardless, she inadvertently antagonizes the cartel affiliated with the local political boss, as a result. On top of that, Estrella also has weird visions—or perhaps they really are supernatural visitations.

Lopez loads up TANA heavy fairy tale symbolism involving princesses, tigers, serpents, protective chalk, and magical wishes. However, since there is so much quasi-magical realism going on in the margins, none of the individual elements feels excessive or over-wrought. You will rarely hear this here, but this is a case where more was more.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how much Lopez pulled off on a presumably limited budget. At times, it all looks too self-contained to the brain, as if five or six cartel death cultists massacred the tens of thousands of people living in Estrella’s demilitarized zone of a neighborhood. Yet, the limited and interconnected cast of characters definitely feels apiece with the fairy tale vibe.

Lopez also gets fantastic work out of her young ensemble. Paola Lara is rock solid as the smart but frighteningly vulnerable Estrella. However, the revelatory standout is Juan Ramon Lopez, who is so intense as Shine, it is downright spooky. The various abandoned buildings and scarred urban backdrops also give the film quite a bit of sinister character. The mere fact that Lope had so many such locations available to her is terrifying in its own right.

So, maybe with drug wars raging in Mexico, this isn’t such a great time to abolish ICE after all—or maybe we can just replace it with magic chalk and wishes. These are not idle musings. Despite the fantastical elements, there is an undeniable urgency to TANA. If you want to understand a country’s dark collective subconscious, look at their genre films. In this case, Lopez dares viewers to confront Mexico’s lost generation of drug war orphans and the highly uncertain future they share with the nation. Yet, we still connect with these kids on an emotional level. Highly recommended, Tigers Are Not Afraid screens tonight (8/26), as part of this year’s FrightFest UK.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

FrightFest ’18: The Devil’s Doorway

The so-called Magdalene Laundries in Ireland have been the cause of so much suffering. For instance, they made the miserably mawkish film Philomena possible. They also provide a setting for satanic rituals in this period horror film, but let’s not get carried away with hyperbole. The black masses and possible sacrifice of the innocence are certainly bad, but they are not the affront to human decency that Philomena was. Of course, in 1960, Father Thomas Riley and his naïve assistant investigator Father John Thornton could not know that. Therefore, the infernal shenanigans they uncover will seem plenty horrifying in Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Father Thomas and Father John have been dispatched to this particularly dreary Magdalene convent to investigate claims of a Virgin Mary statue crying tears of blood. However, Father Thomas is convinced they are wasting their time, because these supposed miracles always turn out to be hoaxes. His name is Thomas—get it? He still goes through the motions, with the less skeptical younger priest duly filming every step, on grainy, era-appropriate 16mm.

As soon as they arrive, Father John starts hearing the eerie voices of children and catching glimpses of what seem to be apparitions out of the corner of his eye. Of course, Father Thomas does not want to hear about that sort of rot. He is too busy clashing with the sour-faced Mother Superior over her cruel treatment of the laundry women, but all bets are off when they discover a pregnant young woman chained up in the sub-basement displaying signs of physical abuse and demonic possession.

This movie is scary as all get out. Partly it is due to the oppressive grimness of the creaky Magdalene convent. The spookily evocative 16mm stock is also a factor. It really looks like it could be the remnant of something awfully sinister. However, the film’s unabashedly Catholic themes and demonic tropes really get at something buried deep within our collective Jungian subconscious. No matter what you believe, the Church is the primary bulwark against Hellfire falling from the sky, so when it is this corrupted by evil, we’re all screwed.

As an additional X-factor, veteran character actor Lalor Roddy might just give a career best performance as Father Thomas. It is an acutely human portrayal of man who is smart, vinegary, arrogant, and painfully self-aware of his own failings. If this performance were in “proper cinema,” people would be talking awards for Roddy, but alas, it comes in a found footage horror film, the lowest of the low. Helena Bereen also leaves an indelible mark as the despotic and despicable Mother Superior. When they go at it, it is like the verbal equivalent of bare-knuckles boxing.

Cinematographer Ryan Kernaghan, production designer John Leslie, and their minions all deserve enormous credit for the film’s eerie look and vibe. Granted, the logic of the found footage conceit breaks down here and there, but that is a common and relatively minor sin of the subgenre (probably just a few Hail Marys ought to cover it). Very highly recommended for fans of demonic horror and found footage, The Devil’s Doorway screens today (8/25) as part of this year’s FrightFest UK.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev

In 1960, the Soviet Union launched a campaign lionizing Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev to encourage Russian pride during the post-Stalinist thaw. That narrowly opened the window for a cinematic bio-pic. Andrei Tarkovsky would have been the Party’s absolute last choice to make such a film, but somehow Mosfilm put it into production anyway. They were not happy with the results, demanding cuts and withholding Tarkosky’s epic from domestic distribution. However, the rest of world immediately hailed the film as a masterwork. It is a powerful but demanding film that anyone with a serious interest in cinema as a legit form of art must wrestle with eventually. There is no time like the present, because the digitally restored Andrei Rublev opens today in New York.

Do not expect a conventional biographical treatment. There are no scenes of the precocious Rublev in short pants. We never even see him paint a single bush-stroke. Instead, Tarkovsky and co-screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky (the great Russian director, who also helmed Tango & Cash) skip over years and even decades, focusing on seven incidents in his life, whose full significance and inter-connectedness will be revealed in the final scenes.

When we first meet Rublev, he is one of a trio of itinerant icon-painting monks. Despite his relative youth, Rublev’s reputation proceeds him, much to the consternation of his Iago-like colleague Kiril. When the master Theophanes the Greek requests Rublev to be his chief assistant and de facto anointed successor, Kiril’s rage prompts him to break with the Orthodox Church. Although fame and accolades are Rublev’s for the taking, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the corruption of the Church and nobility, as well as the harsh and unjust conditions endured by the peasantry.

Rublev will also be traumatized by acts of barbarism that Tarkovsky stages in graphically violent long takes, on an epic scale worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Over fifty years later, these sequences still have the power to shock, but it is worth noting a notorious scene in which a cow is set on fire was cut from all but the earliest edits (the cow was fine, by the way).

If you want to get sucked into somebody else’s life and throw your empathetic arms around them, Andrei Rublev will leave you cold like the Siberian tundra. However, the boldness of Tarkovsky’s grotesquely baroque vision is arresting, in an immersive kind of way. Even though they are ostensibly science fiction films, it is not hard to see echoes of Tarkovsky’s Daumier-and-Bruegel-like set pieces in Aleksey German’s Hard to Bea God and Andrzej Zuławski’s On the Silver Globe.

Frankly, it is Tarkovsky’s bold strokes that drive the film rather than his cast’s elocution and emoting. Still, Anatoly Solonitsyn performance as Rublev is genuinely haunting—you could even call it iconic. Yet, it might just be Nikolai Burlyayev’s manic, frantic portrayal of Boriska, a young aspiring bell-caster very likely in over his head that could very well define the film’s sense of hope and desperation.

Andrei Rublev is an unpolitical film, by just about every conceivable criterion, but it is easy to see why the Soviets thought it was bad for Party business. There is no question Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky vividly illustrate the dark side of orthodoxy—with a small “o.” Yet, the Vatican was hip enough to include on their “Great Films” list, compiled to mark the 100th anniversary of cinema (a pretty solid honor roll that includes obvious masterpieces and some genuinely worthy outliers). Frankly, it is the sort of film you are supposed to sink into and get a little lost in, but when it bites back, it clamps down hard. Highly recommended as one of the most important films ever, Andrei Rublev opens today (8/24) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

I Am Vengeance: Stu Bennett Rolls into Town

Devotion is an out-of-the-way English village, but you can find its ilk in plenty of 1980s Cannon action movies. Shunned by hope, it has become the home turf of a gang of ex-military drug-runners. Yet, it only needs one lone hero to start cracking skulls at High Noon to re-establish justice and order. John Gold will be that man in Ross Boyask’s I Am Vengeance (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Frankly, it had been a while since Gold had seen his former brother-in-arms, Sgt. Daniel Mason, but when he hears of his murder, the mystery mercenary jumps in his mint-condition muscle car and drives straight for Devotion for some payment. Mason and his equally dead father had been investigating Hatcher and his men, a former unit assigned to Afghanistan, who parlayed their poppy connections into a burgeoning narcotics empire. Not being the subtle type, Gold announces his intentions in the local pub as soon as he arrives.

From here on out, the narrative does not get much more complicated. Gold picks up Sandra, a drug-addicted party girl to guide him through Devotion’s seedy underbelly. Of course, Hatcher expects her to inform on Gold’s whereabouts, but the tall guy reckons as much anyway. Gold also manages to befriend Rose, the café proprietor and possibly the only decent citizen left in Devotion, but his relationships will remain strictly professional.

Nobody would call I Am Vengeance ambitious, but it is clear a lot of thought went into presenting former wrestler Stu Bennett (a.k.a. Wade Barrett) in his action leading man debut. The story is as straight forward as an 80’s Bronson film, but he is surrounded by a top-notch ensemble of thespian-athletes, starting first and foremost with former British kickboxing champion Gary Daniels as Hatcher. He definitely still has the moves and physicality to be a more than convincing nemesis. Likewise, Bryan Larkin and Wayne Gordon make worthy sparring opponents. However, Anna Shaffer is an awkward distraction as Sandra, the vapid, druggy, wannabe Dr. Who companion.

Bennett/Barrett can strut the strut, plus Wikipedia says he is a fan of Margaret Thatcher, so how can you root against him? It is also cool to see Daniels can still get the job done old school style (considering he is an action movie veteran older than many of us Eighties kids). It doesn’t have the same grungy exploitative purity as vintage Cannon films, but we can still relate to it on that level. Recommended as a guilty pleasure for late nights or Saturday mornings, I Am Vengeance opens tomorrow (8/24) in New York, at the Village East, with a simultaneous VOD release.

FrightFest ’18: Puppet Master—The Littlest Reich

They are vicious, homicidal National Socialist puppets, but at least they are not as annoying as the moralizing sock-puppets from Avenue Q. The killer puppets of Charles Band’s bread and butter franchise haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, they are now terrorizing full-size people in two separate cinematic worlds: Band’s continuing Puppet Master universe and the new licensed reboot (highly likely to generate sequels of its own). Everyone starts with a clean slate, but the little monsters and their nasty creator are just as evil as they ever were, maybe even more so, in Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

In 1989, there was a notorious incident at the mansion of former Hitler confidant Andre Toulon, a master of mad science and the occult. Since then, his hand-crafted mail order puppets have become morbid collector’s items. Indie comic book artist Edgar Easton is considering auctioning off the puppet that once belonged to his brother—his late brother, who died under mysterious circumstances.

He had been deeply depressed by his recent divorce, especially since he was forced to move back in with his parents. However, his sudden romance with Ashley Summers, the little sister of a former classmate has drastically improved his outlook. She is such a good sport, she is oddly game to accompany him to the convention marking the 30th anniversary of the Toulon Murders. Rather awkwardly, Easton’s obnoxious comic shop boss Markowitz invites himself along too, but he will be surprisingly handy to have around when things get crazy. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to collect so many Toulon puppets in one place.

At times, Littlest Reich is deliriously gory, seriously challenging the gleeful levels of mayhem in Band’s own films. Yet, S. Craig (Brawl in Cellblock 99) Zahler’s screenplay is surprisingly strong when it comes to characterization. Easton, Summers, and Markowitz are all quite sharp and funny. We actually root for them to live. Thomas Lennon and Jenny Pellicer have terrific bantering chemistry as Easton and Summers, while Nelson Franklin scores big laughs as Markowitz, before commandingly assuming the film’s heroic mantle.

Barbara Crampton also shows her under-appreciated comedic chops as Officer Carol Doreski, one of the original responding cops, who now gives lurid tours at the old Toulon house. Of course, Udo Kier does his thing as Toulon. Matthias Hues adds further cult weirdness playing a himbo hook-up, whose body is commandeered by the Toulon puppets.

As you probably figured out, Littlest Reich is not the subtlest film to come along. For instance, it literally ends with “To Be Continued” blazoned across the screen in big block letters (but there is also a short but amusing stinger at the very end). After the first rebooting, we’re already eager for more Puppet Mastery from Laguna, Wiklund, and Zahler. It is a fun film to watch on your own, but it should be an absolute blast at a festival setting. Highly recommended for fans of horror-comedies, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich screens twice tomorrow (8/24) as part of this year’s FrightFest UK—and finishes its New York run tonight (8/23) at the Village East.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

What Keeps You Alive: Happy Anniversary

Good golly, why didn’t they just get a nice hotel suite? Instead, Jules and Jackie thought it would be romantic to spend their one-year anniversary at the latter’s family hunting cabin. Alas, their two-year anniversary looks increasingly unlikely as events spin out of control in Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive (spoilery trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is a big game-changing twist pretty early on in the first act that would really be shame to reveal. You might still guess it from some of the awkward phrases that will follow, but if you haven’t ben tipped off to it, Minihan does a nice job camouflaging it for ten or fifteen minutes. We’re not kidding here—it’s a big one.

Regardless, Jules the city slicker will be pushed to her limits, both physically and emotionally. She might not be the outdoorsy type like her wife, but she has a strong survival drive. She endures all kinds of pain and nasty injuries, but the drama always feels completely believable in the moment.

Looking considerably more mature than she has in prior scream queen roles (such as Extraterrestrial and It Stains the Sand Red), Brittany Allen does arguably her career best work as Jules. Even when she is totally and utterly freaked out, Allen shows flashes of her intelligence and resilience. Hannah Emily Anderson also makes for a heck of a gung-ho outdoors sports enthusiast.

One of the possible advantages of What Keep’s hush-hush secret is that it makes it harder for the easily offended to complain, because that would commit the mortal sin of spoiling. In any event, it is bound to be divisive, so genre fans should see it sooner rather than later, before the party-poopers let the cat out of the bag. Still, Minihan has a few more surprises up his sleeve in what is a lethally effective, lean and mean thriller, perched on the boundary of psycho-horror.

There is no question What Keeps is alsso Minihan’s best work since the original Grave Encounters, which he co-helmed with Stuart Ortiz, under their Vicious Brothers moniker. It is a relentless film that will leave even jaded genre fans shocked, but satisfied. Very highly recommended, What Keeps You Alive opens this Friday (8/24) in New York, at the IFC Center.

FrightFest ’18: Lifechanger

Drew is sort of like a cross-between the alien in The Hidden and the legend of the Wandering Jew (in its more ideologically benign manifestations). To stay alive, he must hop from body to body, using up the vessel, but each time it tears up his soul a little more. He is looking for redemption, but he only seems to find more pain and produce ever higher body counts in Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

When we first meet Drew, he is in a woman’s body, killing her nosy husband. Fortunately, he has years of experience disposing of bodies. He takes no sadistic pleasure from any of this—quite the contrary. It is simply a cold, hard question of survival. His host bodies expire quickly. He can slow down the decay process with antibiotics or speed it up with cocaine, but one way or another, he will be moving on soon.

The one constant is his eternal monologue, voiced by genre veteran Bill Oberst Jr. Outwardly, Drew will take the forms of men and women of varying ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. He also takes on all their baggage, most definitely starting with their personal relationships. For quite a while, the successive Drews have been trying to find a way to get close to a certain someone from a much early “lifechange.” As a result, there has been quite a bit of turnover in the patronage of her favorite neighborhood tavern.

In some ways, Lifechanger is a darker, deadlier cousin to the fantastical Korean romance, The Beauty Inside. Even though each thesp playing Drew is very different, the cumulative effect of their work is quite impressive. Obviously, McConnell also clearly deserves credit for being an actor’s genre film director. He manages to keep everyone in the battery of Drews mentally and emotionally compatible, while maintaining the sad but sinister vibe.

Arguably, Lifechanger could just as easily be categorized as a thriller or a dark urban fantasy, but it probably makes sense to call it horror, because fans of the genre are probably the most receptive to something a little off-center and hard to classify. There are certainly enough dead bodies to hang with the horror crowd, plus karma is mean as a snake.

There is no weak link in the chain of Drews, but Rachel VanDuzer and Jack Foley definitely stand out, because they get the baton at key dramatic moments. As a result, they both really bring out the sad, acutely human Larry Talbot side of Drew.

In many ways, Lifechanger reconnects with the more empathetic horror tradition of interpreting monsters as tragic, lonely figures alienated from society (the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, etc.). It is smart, mature genre filmmaking, with very little special effects (unless you count the decent supply of blood). Very highly recommended, Lifechanger screens this Friday (8/24) and Sunday (8/26) as part of this year’s FrightFest UK.