Thursday, March 28, 2019

White Chamber: Dystopian Simplicity and Elegance

Centuries ago, Edmund Burke warned us revolutions inevitably lead to reigns of terror, but we keep willfully forgetting his lessons. This latest polemical dystopian thriller is a case in point. It seems to welcome both the revolution and its associated terror. The shoe will switch to the other foot in Paul Raschid’s White Chamber, which opens tomorrow in select theaters.

As the film opens, a woefully unlucky clerical worker is getting the snot tortured out of her by a notorious terrorist, who has apparently taken over the top-secret facility, where she pushed paper. The titular room of wondrous methods for dispensing pain was way above her pay grade—or so she claimed. Of course, when the movie shifts gears, flashing back five days prior, we realize there is more to her involvement than she lets on.

In this dark vision of the future, Britain’s immigrants have risen up, openly revolting against the respectable, hard-working, crown-respecting class. Hopefully, most Americans will still be horrified by the prospect of open warfare as a method of settling differences of political opinion, but it is dashed frightening that this seems like a reasonable course of action within some quarters of the UK. In fact, it seems like Raschid considers the violence not merely an unfortunate byproduct, but a jolly good end result in its own right.

Still, it should be duly noted Shauna Macdonald and Oded Fehr play quite an effective cat-and-mouse game together as captive and terrorist (don’t you so get how we are supposed to question which is which?). As Anglophile movie patrons might expect, the great Nicholas Farrell helps humanize the film as the senior scientist assigned to the White Chamber project. Of course, the actual task at hand does not make much sense, but nobody is much worried about logical narrative details.

However, the real star of the film is the design team responsible for the chamber itself. It is indeed white, but it is considerably more cinematic than four plain white walls. Some hard work and quality performances went into the Chamber, but its manipulative trickiness does not sustain itself well over time. The ultimate implications and takeaways are also quite confused when not profoundly problematic. Not recommended (check out Infinity Chamber for a better dystopian confined-space film), White Chamber opens tomorrow (3/29) in select cities, including the Gateway Film Center in Columbus and simultaneously releases on VOD platforms.

Money: The Wolf of Yeouido

A broker’s job is relatively simple: buy low, sell high, and take your commission. They are also supposed to avoid insider trading. That will be the tricky part for Cho Il-hyun. The young broker was struggling before he started making trades on behalf of a secretive financial mastermind. Unfortunately, his high six-figure commissions come with legal scrutiny and potential physical danger in Park Noo-ri’s Money, which opens tomorrow in Queens.

Cho did not attend the right school or have the right parents, so he is stuck with a lot of gofer work as a very junior broker. That changes in a hurry when a senior broker introduces him to the mysterious money man, known simply as “The Ticket.” Cho fully understands he is violating dozens of Korean financial regulations, but he should get away with it, as long as he follows the Ticket’s security protocols.

However, Cho’s under-exercised conscience starts to reassert itself when he realizes several ineffective CEOs conveniently died to drive up the value of the Ticket’s recent stock purchases. It also dawns on him just how expendable he is to the Ticket and his dodgy circle of Yeouido financial district elites.

Money is a sleek, sharp financial thriller, that is smart about its financial shenanigans and its office politics. You can tell it is intelligent, because Park never resorts to the trite shorthand of loading up the soundtrack with tunes like Th O-Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” Pink Floyd’s “Money,” or Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” Instead, she surrounds Ryu Jun-jeol’s Cho with some of Korea’s best character actors, including Kim Min-jae and Jung Man-sik ravenously chewing the scenery as Cho’s colorfully corrupt seniors.

Arguably, both Ryu and Yoo Ji-tae are both a bit too pretty and bland for Cho and the Ticket, respectively, but Jo Woo-jin more than makes up for them as Han Ji-cheol, the financial services investigator, who is one of the clammiest, most off-putting cops you will ever see crusading for justice in the movies. Won Jin-ah is delightfully Machiavellian as Park Si-eun, Cho’s femme fatale girlfriend. Plus, Daniel Henney kicks up the energy level even further in his important cameo as Korean-American fund manager Roy Lee.

Watching Money will give you new respect for those unsung compliance officers. Cho never makes things easy for them. However, it is always great fun to watch the scams and schemes unfold. Enthusiastically recommended, Money opens tomorrow at the AMC Bay Terrace in Queens and the AMC Ridgefield Park in Jersey.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Vigilante: Olivia Wilde Out for Payback

No matter how much it asserts its feminist bona fides, this film will always be considered rightwing—and with some justification. It is highly debatable what Murphy Brown might think of Sadie, an abuse survivor who frequently takes the law into her own hands, but Dirty Harry would approve of the intention (but not always the execution, so to speak). Sadie will deliver some frontier justice to abusive husbands and mothers alike in Sarah Dagger-Nickson’s A Vigilante, which opens this Friday in New York.

Sadie has found her purpose defending the innocent, yet she will never truly be free until she faces up to the husband who terrorized her. Inconveniently, he is missing, but presumably not dead. We will see her intervene on behalf of several clients, while searching for the disappearing deadbeat.

And that is pretty much it. Daggar-Nickson is clearly more interested in Sadie as a character under stress than as an action figure, but her screenplay is still quite stark and spare, especially when it comes to those extravagant plot points. Nevertheless, she throws in some temporal gamesmanship to needlessly confuse the timeline. A Vigilante is not You Were Never Really Here, but it is surprisingly close, stylistically.

Regardless, Olivia Wilde does some of her best work probably ever as Sadie. She de-glams and goes largely non-verbal throughout her viscerally intense performance. In fact, only Tonye Patano manages not to whither next to her as Sadie’s support group leader. Problematically, that is especially true of Morgan Spector, who turns out to ne a big nothing as her husband.

Daggar-Nickson walks an exasperatingly fine line. Clearly, she refuses to indulge in the baser, cathartic impulses of traditional grindhouse revenge movies. As one might expect, by standing in the middle and refusing to make a choice, she still sets a tone for the film. Thanks to Wilde, it isn’t bad, but it should have much more visceral pop to it. It is not terrible, but it is definitely a missed opportunity.

Frustratingly, it is not recommended for those who will be most interested in a film titled, A Vigilante. For Wilde’s fans primarily, it opens this Friday (3/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

QWFF ’19: Hawaii

During Romania’s dark days of Communism, the state controlled all three means of production with an iron fist, most definitely including natural resources, in accordance with the principles of socialism. Owning land was completely out of the question, especially a farm valued at $3 million. Taking possession of such a property in the Aloha State would be an utter pipe dream, but an oppressed cab driver is determined to claim his inheritance and his freedom, despite the serious risks in Jesus del Cerro’s Hawaii, which screens as part of the 2019 Queens World Film Festival.

Even though his sister married a borish Party member, Andrei Florescu’s family will always be under suspicion, due to his father Vasile. Back when the regime really consolidated power, Vasile and his two brothers tried to escape via a makeshift hot air balloon. He was captured alive and another brother was recovered dead, but Petrus disappeared, never to be heard from since—until now. It turns out, Petrus made it to America and eventually settled on a nice little coffee plantation in Hawaii. He lived a happy life there, but he missed his family, so when he died, he willed his estate to Vasile.

Unfortunately, Ceausescu’s strict socialist government does not recognize property rights. If the Party found out about the bequeathal, they would claim it themselves. That is not something Florescu, his father, or the American government would like to see come to pass. Increasingly annoyed by the petty humiliations and constant shortages of socialism, Floresu resolves to claim the property for himself in neighboring Yugoslavia, where Tito has much more liberal policies regarding property ownership. However, just as he starts wrestling with visa and passport applications, he ever so coincidentally meets Ioana Balan, who happens to be perfectly his type. Unfortunately, she is also her boss’s type. That would be Scarlat, a ruthless officer in the secret police.

Even though it is a much darker film, the hot air balloon plot element brings to mind Delbert Mann’s better-than-average live-action Disney movie, Night Crossing, which dramatized the Strelzyk and Wetzel families’ escape from East Germany. There is a bit of black humor, at Ceausescu’s expense, but there is no nostalgia for life under his misrule. In fact, del Cerro and co-screenwriters Manuel Feijoo, Beatriz G. Cruz, and Ruxandra Ghitescu incisively explain the psychological ramifications of living under a repressive regime, including how some dissidents could take leave of their families, potentially forever, for the sake of freedom.

Dragos Bucur is terrific as Florescu, who initially seems to be a likably roguish everyman, but he develops into a figure of great depth and poignancy.  Likewise, Cristina Flutur’s work as Blatan really sneaks up on viewers, especially when she is forced to confront the consequences of her decisions. Constantin Cojocaru performance as old Vasile is similarly complex and humanistic, while Andi Vasluianu absolutely chilling as the sadistic and manipulative Scarlat.

Frankly, it is probably a little too easy to see the Communist past in contemporary Bucharest, but production designer Calin Papura and the design team still deserve credit for their impressive recreation of the drably draconian Ceausescu era. It provides a timely reminder of what socialist living was like and also makes the case that nice guys can be interesting too. Very highly recommended, Hawaii screens tomorrow night (3/28), during the 2019 QWFF.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

King of Thieves: Michael Caine Recruits the Old Gang

They were like a real-life Going in Style, but these retirement aged crooks had sharper elbows. They also pulled off what is considered the biggest heist job in British history. This is the third film version of the unlikely Hatton Garden caper, but the first to reach our shores in any noticeable way. Crime does not pay, not even for seniors, but at least it provides a way to pass the time in James Marsh’s King of Thieves, which releases today on DVD.

Brian Reader didn’t exactly go straight, but he got out of the game relatively on top. Out of his past “known associates,” John “Kenny” Collins is somewhat comfortable, but Terry Perkins, Danny Jones, and Carl Wood are largely scuffling. When “Basil,” a socially awkward security specialist comes to Reader with a potentially lucrative score (a safety deposit company catering to gem merchants), he has no trouble recruiting his old accomplices. The question is whether the recently bereaved Reader’s heart is really in it. Just try doing him dirty and see what happens.

Details of the Hatton Garden heist are still coming to light, even at this late date. Regardless, the Rififi-esque caper business is pretty entertaining, but Joe Penhall’s screenplay focuses more on the subsequent double-crosses.

Of course, the whole point of King is watching Sir Michael Caine do his thing as Reader. He has been stealing jewels in films since before you were born, so show some respect. He’s Michael Bloomin’ Caine and he is terrific as Reader. When he gets hacked off, all that old magic comes back with a vengeance.

As usual, Ray Winstone is as compulsively watchable as ever as the brawler, Jones, while Jim Broadbent takes advantage of the opportunity to finally chew some scenery as the goonish Perkins. Tom Courtenay plays Collins as a bit of a silly duffer, but it is just embarrassing to see Michael Gambon stuck as the butt of jokes as Billy “The Fish” Lincoln, the incontinent fence. Still, there is Caine and Winstone.

Clearly, nobody better understands the appeal of this greybeard A-Team than Marsh because he openly invites nostalgia by incorporating clips from their classic street-smart swinging sixties films, most especially the original Italian Job. British pop-jazz vocalist Jamie Cullum also maintains the cool retro vibe with his groovy, brassy cover of The Killers’ “The Man.”

Harry Brown is still probably the ultimate Michael Caine film, but it is great to see him strut his way through a capery lark, more or less in the tradition of Italian Job and Silver Bears. Recommended for fans of heist movies and the accomplished cast, King of Thieves releases today (3/26) on DVD and BluRay.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Screwball: MLB’s Doping Dopes

It was like the World Series of criminal stupidity. Since it largely unfolded in South Florida, this scandal was fully stocked with colorful characters. There were not a lot of good guys, but arguably the worst of the worst was Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez. Yankee fans could have told you that. The 2013 Major League Baseball doping scandal gets an irreverent but still damning treatment in Billy Corben’s Screwball, which opens this Friday in New York and Miami.

The most of the events in Screwball transpired after the Balco doping media frenzy, so nobody involved can plead ignorance. The dopers knew they were doping and the consequences they were risking. However, Tony Bosch thought he had a system that could avoid detection while still giving performance enhancing benefits through strategic mini-dosing. Rather inconveniently, the jig was almost up when his star client, Manny Ramirez, went off the regimen and tested positive. However, that perversely led an even bigger client to Bosch’s doorstep: A-Rod.

Suddenly, Bosch’s Biogenesis was awash in clients from the professional, college, and most disturbingly, prep levels. He even experimented with franchising Biogenesis’s services through a chain of South Florida tanning salons owned by a shady pair of brothers. That was how Bosch met Porter Fischer, a tanning meathead who would become an unlikely but important witness against nearly everyone involved, through sheer dumb luck.

Screwball is a compulsively watchable, highly entertaining true crime doc, but viewers should be warned. They could get headaches from all the forehead slapping and face-palming it inspires. Sure, Corben exposes plenty of greed and corruption, but most of the time “stupidity” is the word that best defines the actions of the primary figures.

Corben has an affinity for documenting the intersection of illicit drugs and pop culture (in films like Limelight and Square Grouper), so the baseball doping scandals are a logical subject for him to explore. In this case, he makes each twist and turn clear and easy to follow. Each connection is fully established, so there really aren’t any unsubstantiated claims left hanging by the time the film ends.

However, Corben makes an aesthetic choice that will be divisive (and most likely distracting), by staging his dramatic recreations with child actors, sort of making Screwball a black sheep cousin to Bugsy Malone. It certainly distinguishes the film from the pack, but the novelty value yields drastically diminishing returns. Frankly, Corben probably would have been better off employing goofy animation instead.

Corben also needlessly alienates potential viewer by taking a cheap shot at Pres. George W. Bush, who was out of office by the time most of the events of the film took place. If you want to talk presidential politics and steroids, you could better ask why Obama’s Justice Department so conspicuously let Lance Armstrong off the hook. Still, most Yankee fans will appreciate seeing A-Rod and Ramirez (a longtime Red Sox) get put under a searing microscope. One thing is for sure, the film is never boring. Recommended for bitter Yankee fans and viewers of Real Sports and the 30 for 30 series, Screwball opens this Friday (3/29) in New York at the Cinema Village and in Miami at the Tower Theater.

QWFF ’19: Bad Bad Winter

What’s a little wealth redistribution between friends? You could also call it home invasion, armed robbery, and hostage-taking, but that would be too honest. Regardless, a group of old Kazakhstani friends will not be friends much longer in Olga Korotko’s Bad Bad Winter, which screens as part of the 2019 Queens World Film Festival.

Dinara has returned to the provincial town of her school days to close out her recently deceased grandmother’s cozy cottage. Since leaving to study medicine in Astana, here fortunes have improved greatly and so have those of her businessman father. In contrast, the prospects of her old classmates have stayed as lousy as ever—or even gotten worse. Nevertheless, she is still sufficiently interested in her old flame Marat to spend the night with him.

Regrettably, Marat happens to spy her granny’s rather sizable untapped stash of cash, so he returns the next day with his suspicious girlfriend Arai, and fellow schoolmates Aibek and Sanzhar, who are facing a potential murder charge along with Marat, if they cannot adequately grease the necessary official palms. Obviously, they intend to steal that cash Dinara subsequently tucked away, but finding it again will be trickier than Marat expected. For a while, everyone pretends this a just a soiree for old friends, but they eventually acknowledge what it really is: a home invasion. Of course, Dinara knew it all along. After all, she always was the smartest one in class.

The strange is-this-a-thriller-or-isn’t tone of film’s first thirty minutes or so makes it hard to pigeonhole, but it is weirdly effective. Of course, it inevitably becomes clear this is indeed a rather dark crime drama, at which point Dinara strips away the pretenses and levels a withering moral judgment on her captors.

It is too bad New York’s congressional delegation probably will not see Winter, because it depicts redistributionist class-warfare as the thuggery it is. Frankly, Aibek’s threats and justifications are uncomfortably similar to their own rhetoric. It is also telling how Dinara’s “guests” berate her one minute for wearing frumpy old clothes and then accuse her of lording her wealth over them.

This is also a great example of a film helmed by a woman and powered by a formidable female lead, but it is not likely to turn up in surveys women-driven filmmaking. Regardless, Tolganay Talgat is absolutely riveting as Dinara. It is fiercely intelligent performance that covers an awful lot of physical and psychological ground. As the psychotic Aibek, Zhalgas Zhangazin exudes creepy malevolence. There is something deeply unsettling about his violent sense of entitlement, probably because it hits so close to home. Tair Magzumov manages to project an extremely weird pathos as the remorseful junkie, Sanzhar, while Nurgul Alpysbayeva further ratchets up the hothouse tension as the jealous Arai.

With its confined setting and five principal characters, Winter has all the elements of the classic stage thriller. Korotko marshals them all quite effectively, but there is also some subtle social commentary (especially regarding the Kazakhstani justice system) woven in. Very highly recommended, Bad Bad Winter screens this Wednesday (3/27) during QWFF ’19.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

BUFF ’19: The Unthinkable

What happens when a paranoid invasion thriller comes out of the country that gave us Ingmar Bergman and Lukas Moodysson? You can expect some serious angst. Alex, an emotionally damaged electro-experimental musician, has enough neuroses for all of Scandinavia. However, the mysterious crisis that befalls Sweden might just be the catalyst that reconnects him with his estranged father and the great love of his life in filmmaking collective Crazy Pictures’ The Unthinkable, which screens today during the 2019 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Alex and Anna were once a thing, but he let his family strife and resulting mental hang-ups undermine their pastoral teen romance. Years later, he is an arrogant musician (specializing in distorted piano stylings), who is out of touch with most of his old friends and family. Yet, he happens to cross paths with Anna again just as strange things start going down—like explosions in transportation hubs, drivers losing control of their cars, and planes falling out of the sky.

Everyone automatically accepts Daesh’s statement taking credit for the explosions, except Alex’s father Björn, who is good at connecting seemingly unrelated dots, because he is a paranoid conspiracy loon. He has some ideas about who might be responsible. Not to be spoilery, but they rhyme with Gagamir Spewton. Alas, the scruffy nutter hasn’t been wrong yet, much to his chagrin.

Unthinkable is basically a disaster melodrama that incorporates a handful of genre elements, but Crazy Pictures deftly keeps raising the stakes and cranking up the tension (and the family drama). Look hard enough and you can find elements of Red Dawn, X-Files, and Autumn Sonata. Frankly, Alex is more than a bit of a pill, who quickly taxes our patience, but it is rather fascinating to watch the older, wiser Björn suss out to the dastardly plot afoot.

There are also some remarkably well-coordinated scenes of multiple car collisions and plummeting helicopters, both in terms of special effects and stunt work. Unthinkable has stuff that can hang with most of what you find in Roland Emmerich’s latest films. Alas, it also has dreary old Alex.

If you want to see moody and petulant, then brother, Christoffer Nordenrot delivers it in spades as miserable Alex. On the other hand, Jesper Barkselius shows tremendous range as Björn, running the gamut from cringy abusive parent to remorseful alienated crank. Lisa Henni is also somewhat bland as Anna, but they are Swedish after all, and big, earth-shaking spectacles are usually not the most flattering actor’s showcases.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Unthinkable is how realistic it is, especially the closing coda, which clearly implies who is most likely the responsible supper-villain. It certainly establishes how much of a bummer Armageddon could be, yet it makes it all look tremendously cinematic. Recommended for fans of apocalyptic cinema, The Unthinkable screens tonight (3/24), as the closing selection of this year’s BUFF.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

What The!? ’19: To the Night

Even tortured-soul Brooklyn artists have to buy groceries and pay rent on their Taj Mahal-sized lofts, but apparently not Norman. He has the luxury of focusing on his own destructive excesses. We hardly ever see him creating his self-absorbed installations, so being a father to his baby boy Caleb is obviously a non-starter. Norman’s anguished ego takes precedence over everything else in Peter Brunner’s To the Night, which screens during this year’s What The Fest!?.

Decades after his parents died in a house fire (more like a mansion fire), Norman is still emotionally hobbled by the childhood trauma. Strangely, he doesn’t really seem to grieve for them, per se. Instead, it is all about him. Nevertheless, he remains perversely obsessed with fire. The tragedy has deeply shaped his work, but without any resulting cathartic effect.

Unfortunately, this means Norman continues to binge on drugs and lash out physically, largely without consequences. His girlfriend Penelope problematically endures his periodic violence, presumably because she believes Caleb needs a father, but Norman could even be a danger to him too. So, yeah, fun stuff.

Frankly, To the Night has very little genre elements, making it a dubious selection for What The. Clearly, Brunner wants to show us the world through Norman’s warped perspective, but instead of psychedelic Mad Hatter crazy, he is drunk-stoned-angry-self-loathing demented, which is a darker and drearier proposition altogether.

That said, enormous credit must be granted to Caleb Landry Jones for his scary ferocious commitment playing Norman. He is so harrowingly convincing portraying all his rage benders, strung-out brooding, and mental collapses, he runs the risk of forever alienating everyone who has this film burnt onto their corneas. Likewise, Eleonore Hendricks looks believably and distressingly terrified most of the time.

After about twenty minutes, viewers will start to wonder why does this film exist (some of the blame can go to auteur Ulrich Seidl, whose imprimatur and production company no doubt opened many doors), but after another twenty minutes they will just be wondering when it will all end. No doubt an audience exists for a tonally grim, aesthetically severe film like this, but there is probably a narrow sliver of a Venn diagram overlap with the patronage of fantastical film fests. For most of us mere mortals, life is too short for the combination of Brooklyn grime and Euro pretension, when To the Night screens tonight (3/23), during What The Fest!?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop

Japan was one of Singapore’s most important trading partners during the city-state republic’s early years of independence and it is still true today. The two nations enjoy strong economic and political ties, yet many older Singaporeans still bitterly remember the pain of the Japanese occupation. These long harbored resentments led to a schism within a Japanese ramen chef’s family. However, he will find cathartic healing through food in Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop, which opens today in New York.

If you want to get technical about it, Masato will leave the film’s proper ramen shop after about fifteen minutes, following the death of its master chef, his emotionally detached father Kazuo. While going through his father’s effects, he found letters and his Singaporean mother’s Mandarin journal. Although he cannot read them, they fire his curiosity regarding the family she was estranged from. Hoping to find answers, as well as recipes for the local-style comfort food she used to cook for him, Masato impulsively returns to the Singapore he only knew as a small boy.

With the help of Miki, a food blogger he met online, Masato tracks down his Uncle Wee, who is delighted to welcome him into the family and teach him the recipe for Bak Kut Teh, or pork ribs soup. Unfortunately, the grandmother Masato never met will be pricklier to approach.

In many ways, Ramen Shop is a text book example of weepy culinary cinema. Many a sentimental tear will be shed over warm bowls of soup. However, Masato’s smart and sensitively drawn relationships with Uncle Wee and Miki elevate the film to a higher level. Khoo and screenwriters Tan Fong Cheng & Wong Kim Hoh deliver plenty of the expected big hanky moments, but the real pay-off is surprisingly subtle. It also should be stipulated pork ribs soup looks delish, even if it isn’t as photogenic as other movie-memory-stirring foods.

Takumi Saito is achingly earnest as Masako. He also develops some warm and deeply compelling chemistry with Mark Lee and Seiko Matsuda, who both ironically overshadow him as Uncle Wee and Miki respectively. Lee provides the film some comic nervous energy, but never gets remotely shticky, whereas the luminously charismatic Matsuda truly lights up the screen. The same can be said of Jeanette Aw. She and Tsuyoshi Ihara generate more tragically romantic wistfulness as Masato’s parents seen in flashbacks than entire marathon of Nicholas Sparks movies.

It might be tempting to call Ramen Shop something like Departures with better food, but it happens to be more upbeat than the Oscar-winning gold standard of Japanese tear-jerkers. Plus, the film’s consultant chef, Keisuke Takeda really put the resulting Ramen-Bak Kut Teh hybrid dish on his restaurant’s menu, so you know the food is legit. Sometimes, it is just nice to see a quiet film that is completely free of cynicism—exactly like this one. Recommended for audiences of foodie movies and ultra-accessible foreign films, Ramen Shop opens today (3/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What The!? ’19: Depraved

In 1930’s Universal movies, Transylvania is the homeland of monsters. In Larry Fessenden’s latest film, monsters come from Brooklyn, namely Gowanus. That is much more believable, isn’t it? In fact, this is could well be the grungiest, most realistic take on Mary Shelley’s classic characters yet. New sentient life will get sutured together, but it isn’t exactly grateful for the favor after it experiences the Brooklyn scene in Fessenden’s Depraved, which premiered as the opening night selection of the What The Fest!?.

Alex, an obnoxious Brooklynite, is about to be murdered, but he will be back—at least a piece of him will, as a ghostly remnant within the hulking body Dr. Henry (surname cagily not identified) has stitched together from body parts. Occasionally, the new life form dubbed “Adam” experiences flashes of Alex’s memory, but not enough to help him make sense of the world.

His name is not intended as a Biblical reference. Instead, it has more personal meaning for the former military doctor turned mad scientist. This Dr. Frankenstein is not as blinded by vainglory and hubris as his cinematic predecessors. His desire to conqueror death was kindled by his service performing battlefield triage. Unfortunately, he largely lost his sense of perspective in the process. Needless to say, his financial backer, the entitled hipster Polidori was not a constructive influence.

Depraved looks like it was filmed in a shuttered Gowanus industrial building, because it really was. The is definitely the grittiest, least tweedy Frankenstein riff that openly advertises itself as such (for the record, there is an even grimier film involving a Frankenstein-like mad doctor on the festival circuit, but its Modern Prometheus connections are supposed to come as a surprise revelation). Regardless, Fessenden’s film definitely feels like it came straight out of Gowanus, with all the attitude and industrial waste that implies.

As Adam, Alex Breaux brings to life (so to speak) one of the most doleful movie monsters since Universal’s glory years. With his awkward hesitancy and confusion, he resembles a more nebbish Lon Chaney Jr. Likewise, David Call’s portrayal of Henry is unusually morally conflicted by genre movie standards.

Joshua Leonard (returning to his Blair Witch horror movie roots) is abrasively annoying and convincingly petulant and immature as Polidori. Yet, Addison Timlin might be who genre fans remember most, combining humor and pathos in her all too brief appearance as Shelley, the Iggy Pop listener Adam kind of-sort of picks up in a hipster bar. It is a very well-written and well-played sequence that serves as an analog to the Karloff monster fatally throwing the little girl into the lake.

As viewers should be able to tell from many of the character names, Depraved often alludes to the original novel and traditionally gothic films in sly ways. In what will be a relief to many, the film is not at all as lectury as one might expect, despite Henry’s military background and the fundamental folly-of-playing-god-theme (especially compared to Fessenden’s The Last Winter). Altogether, it is a pretty impressive work of ultra-indie auteurist horror cinema. Highly recommended for Frankenstein and Fessenden fans, Depraved had its premiere last night, as part of this year’s What The Fest.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Potrykus’s Relaxer

In 1999, New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. (a Queens Democrat) appointed Republican Andrew Eristoff to lead the council’s Y2K task force, because he just didn’t have anyone in his conference he confidently entrust with the job. That is how seriously we took potential Y2K glitches at the time. You might think everything worked out fine in hindsight, but don’t be so sure about it.  Regardless, Abner “Abbie” Harmeyer is not thinking about anything that responsible. He will spend the time leading up to the turn of the millennium (and potential catastrophe) trying to master the infamous level 256 in the old school Pac-Man game. The slacker lifestyle goes from drearily depressing to downright apocalyptic in Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Harmeyer is a reluctant accomplice in his abrasive brother Cam’s bullying, because he obediently accepts every asinine challenge the blowhard serves up. That makes Abbie the bigger dummy. The latest is particularly pointless, futile, and potentially self-destructive. Poor Abbie cannot get up from his couch until he masters the infamously glitchy level 256 in the old school Pac-Man video game. Of course, he has a deadline: Y2K. To perform at his best, Harmeyer will need fuel, so he will try to convince Dallas, a lowlife buddy, to bring over a Chuck E. Cheese pizza and some cherry soda, but alas, his credit is not very good.

If you can find a film with characters that are more irritating than those in Relaxer, then you have our sincerest sympathies. Watching this film will make you understand the compulsion animals have to chew off their own legs when they are caught in a trap. Potrykus definitely has a low-fi, grungy aesthetic, but he still managed to craft a distinctive mood piece in The Alchemist Cookbook. In contrast, the only tension produced in Relaxer is that experienced by viewers eager to escape this slacker purgatory.

It is a shame, because Potrykus’s old school analog elements (level 256, video game champion Billy Mitchell’s challenge, retro Y2K fears) have potential. Frankly, this kind of material should be like a hanging meatball in Potrykus’s power-zone, but Relaxer completely whiffs the nostalgia. Instead, the film is all about how low and cringy can Harmeyer get.

Joshua Burge goes all in as Harmeyer. His commitment is impressive, but hard to watch. Consider this fair warning: the sight of the clammy, shirtless Burge is probably something most rational people would prefer to spare themselves. Yet, as Cam and Dallas, David Dastmalchian and Andre Hyland appear to be locked in a death struggle to prove which can be the most annoying.

Relaxer takes a weird left turn late in the game that ought to be a mind-blower, but really just feels like a cheat, because Potrykus never lays an adequate foundation for it. Not recommended, Relaxer opens this Friday (3/22) in Grand Rapids at the Urban institute for Contemporary Arts and next Friday (3/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Hotel Mumbai: Facing the New Template of Terror

Deadlier and more destructive acts of terrorism have been committed in recent years, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks were probably the most successful at instilling sheer terror. Part of the horror was the vicious simplicity of it all: teams of armed gunmen shooting civilians indiscriminately. The coordinated attacks paralyzed the city, culminating in the siege of the venerable Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The tragedies and atrocities of those dark days are vividly recreated in Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai, which opens this Friday in New York.

This is not an action movie, but there is a weird parallel with Die Hard when Arjun starts his day having footwear issues. The hard-working Sikh is already expecting his second child, so he could not afford to miss a shift. Initially, the head chef Oberoi dismisses him for the day, but he relents, allowing him to borrow a pair of his ill-fitting shoes instead, thereby establishing him as both a stern taskmaster and a figure of compassion. Together, Arjun, Oberoi, and the rest of the Taj staff will do their best to save their guests when the terrorists start executing everyone, floor by floor.

Of course, there is a rather diverse clientele in the hotel that day. We soon meet the well-heeled Muslim Zahra and her Yankee newlywed David, who have a newborn baby and a British nanny up in their suite. Russian oligarch Vasili has two escorts waiting in his room, but the terrorists will get to them first. When news of the attacks first reaches the Taj they will admit a group of survivors, including Australian tourists Bree and Eddie. Unfortunately, the first pair of backpack-wearing gunmen also gain entrance with the group of refuge-seekers.

Hotel Mumbai is a harrowing film that will make many viewers uncomfortable (in ways that they should be discomfited). It is much like One Less God (a.k.a. House of War), another Australian film dramatizing the attacks in the Taj Mahal, but Maras and co-screenwriter takes it further and deeper. To their credit, they never obscure the Islamist ideology of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists committing the mass murders, with logistical support from elements within the Pakistani intelligence service. Chillingly, we hear a steady stream of the brainwashing encouragement from their Svengali, “Brother Bull,” which sounds like hate-speech seasoned with socialist class warfare.

Maras also strikes a good balance in terms of the violence presented on screen. A great many innocent hotel worker are executed at point-blank range, right before our eyes, but probably just as many are shot off-screen. As result, the film should not be accused of white-washing anything, but neither is it an endless cycle of death and sadism.

Dev Patel probably does his best work since Slumdog as Arjun. We can feel in our own guts the profound degree of his fear, which makes it so compelling each time he knuckles down and torques up his courage. Yet, if anyone emerges as an awards contender from Hotel Mumbai (an unlikely prospect, given the subject matter), it would be Anupam Kher, who radiates gravitas and gruff humanism as Oberoi. He practically becomes the personification of the stately hotel’s soul.

As the four primary on-camera terrorists, Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, and Gaurav Paswala are terrifyingly young-looking and chillingly blood thirsty. Jason Isaacs chews up the scenery and everything else that isn’t nailed down as the lecherous Russian, but he still bears watching. Nazanin Boniadi and Tilda Cobham-Hervey have some quite poignant moments (distressing, even) as Zahra and Sally, the nanny, but Armie Hammer is blandly vanilla playing her blow-dried American husband.

There is no question the Mumbai attacks established a template that has already been applied in an organized manner in Paris and by at least one unsponsored wildcat zealot in New York, but the original 2008 events still remain largely under-reported and under-analyzed in the Western media. That makes Hotel Mumbai rather timely and pressing cinema. It also happens to be an engrossing (and emotionally draining) human drama. Highly recommended for anyone interested in serious movies for grown-ups, Hotel Mumbai opens this Friday (3/22) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book of Monsters: BFFs vs. Occult Creatures

Literacy is power in horror movies—evil, demonic power. This is a volume in the tradition of the Necronomicon and [Todd and] The Book of Pure Evil. However, it holds the secrets of defeating the supernatural creatures as well as the rites for raising them. Yet, Sophie simply knew it as an heirloom of her late mother’s. Its full significance will be revealed on her 18th birthday in Stewart Sparke’s Book of Monsters, which releases today on VOD.

Sophie is a shy, barely in the closet lesbian. Her bestie is Mona is the exact opposite. She and their friend Beth think a wild birthday party is just the thing to help Sophie finally score with her crush Jess. However, things really careen out of control when a shapeshifting demon crashes the party and uses her mother’s evil book to summon five nasty monsters by sacrificing a virgin. So, yes, it will be that kind of shindig. At least Jess’s obnoxious, bullying friends will provide some meat for the grinder.

Honestly, the entire film is pretty meat-headed. If we’re going to be pedantic, it really doesn’t make much sense that Sophie and her ineffectual father would have such a sinister relic used laying about the house. Yet, the film’s upbeat energy and goofy humor just carry us along anyway. It is impossible to resist laughing at the over-the-top lunacy Sparke and screenwriter Paul Butler unleash, especially when the young ladies gear-up like Ash in Army of Darkness.

It might be Sophie’s party and she can cry if she wants to, but Michaela Longen upstages everyone as Mona, the trampy troublemaker. However, Daniel Thrace probably scores the most laughs as the nebbish torch-carrying Gary, while Anna Dawson camps and vamps it up something fierce, as Sophie’s mean girl nemesis.

Book of Monsters has plenty of dead teenagers, but its empowering portrayal of girl power friendships is what really distinguishes it. It is sort of like Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, with more comedic gore and raging power tools. So, what’s not to like?

In a weird way, it is refreshing to see a movie about teens where social media is the least of their worries. Obviously, Book of Monsters was conceived as the launch of a franchise—and we’re not opposed. Recommended for fans of gleefully unruly horror-comedies, Book of Monsters releases today (3/19) on VOD.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Out of Blue: Sort of Based on Martin Amis

As a police detective, Mike Hoolihan does not know much about Schrödinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but she has an intuitive understanding of how the act of observing holds consequences (yes, she is a she). Her investigation into the death of a popular astronomy professor will involve a piecemeal education in quantum mechanic during Carol Morley’s Out of Blue, which opens this Friday in New York.

Hoolihan has lived hard and copped hard. She is a case-closing machine, but she refuses to investigate the memory holes shrouding her own early years. The shooting of Jennifer Rockwell would just be another workaday case for her, except the deceased was the daughter of powerful city councilman Col. Tom Rockwell. Early suspects include the victim’s colleagues, Prof. Ian Strammi and Duncan Reynolds, who both keep prattling on about Schrödinger’s Cat. Of course, Hoolihan is more interested in the case’s similarities with a notorious serial killer, who terrorized New Orleans decades prior.

Out of Blue (deliberately missing the article) is probably the haziest, most narratively diffuse police procedural this side of the postmodern novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Unfortunately, most of the references to astronomy and quantum mechanics feel like a pompous, scientistic overlay, instead of an organic function of the narrative.

Frankly, just about every aspect of the film feels like it is trying too hard, except Patricia Clarkson, who is just effortlessly hardboiled and broken down. She could pass for the more mature version of Nicole Kidman’s Erin Bell, fifteen or so years after the events in Destroyer.

Even though the cosmic mumbo jumbo really doesn’t work, Johnathan Majors still does a nice job of selling them as Reynolds (the real fault lays with Morley, who never lays the proper foundation or establishes sufficient context). James Caan is clearly on familiar ground as Col. Rockwell, but he is still highly functional in the part, even if he never pushes himself. However, Jacki Weaver brings some impressive nuttiness (even by her past standards), as the bereaved mother, Miriam Rockwell.

Page to screen adaptations do not get much looser than Morley’s treatment of Martin Amis’s short novel Night Train, but as a one-two punch with London Fields, it should pretty much dissuade any cinematic takes on the sly writer’s work, for at least the next ten years. As of now, he is looking pretty unadaptable. However, Morley made several inexplicable choices, including replacing the title instrumental blues song with Brenda Lee’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is a little too on the nose, lyrically. On the other hand, the use of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” over the closing credits is downright inspired.

Admittedly, cosmic dimensions of Out of Blue sound cool and distinctive, but the execution doesn’t come together. Morley (best known for the massively depressing hybrid documentary, Dreams of a Life) never exhibits full command of her material, but Clarkson is right on the money, proving she is still one of the best in the business (even in flawed vehicles). It just really ought to be better. Anyone intrigued by its ambitions should wait until it pops up on free streaming platforms, which should be sometime soon after it opens this Friday (3/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Badla: The Hindi Invisible Guest

This Hindi remake is fifteen minutes longer than the original Spanish film, yet it doesn’t even have musical numbers. It is structural faithful to its source, but nobody rushes the great Amitabh Bachchan—nobody. The legendary Bollywood actor plays a legendary jury consultant, who will come out of retirement to crack a particularly sensational case in Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla, the Hindi version of The Invisible Guest, which is now showing in New York.

The narrative is basically the same, but many of the genders are flipped in Ghosh’s adaptation. Naina Sethi is the tech entrepreneur who is embroiled in an adultery-murder media feeding frenzy, but she has excellent legal representation. In addition to her high-priced attorney, she will have a session with Badal Gupta, who is considered the best witness prepper ever. Yet, he requires the whole truth to do his job properly—all of it. However, pulling it out of Sethi will be a struggle.

Thus, begins a verbal game of cat-and-mouse. Frankly, the circumstantial evidence against Sethi is pretty damning. She woke up in a locked room, next to the murdered body of the lover, Arjun Joseph, who threatened to expose her in a text. Of course, wily old Gupta can tell there is more to the story. He forces Sethi to rewind a few months earlier, when she and Joseph killed a young college student in an auto accident. Instead of doing the right thing, she dumped the body in the swamp, while he was rather awkwardly bluffing his way through an encounter with the victim’s parents. To make matters worse, a blackmailer subsequently lured them to the hotel, where Joseph was murdered and Sethi was knocked unconscious.

If you enjoy being played, Badla and The Invisible Guest before it are your kind of films. There are two or three big game-changing twists that are wonderfully over-the-top, totally unlikely, and gleefully entertaining. That is particularly true of Ghosh’s take, which relishes the melodramatic luridness of the scandal and mayhem.

Amitabh Bachchan plays Gupta—case closed. Watching him charm, cajole, and interrogate Sethi is more fun than any single film requires. In fact, Ghosh rather sensibly shifts the film’s center of gravity from the flashbacks to the interview sessions, because Bachchan is definitely his ace in the hole.

As Sethi, Taapsee Pannu hangs right there in the pocket with Bachchan. In fact, she is wickedly effective at turning each new revelation. Similarly, Tony Luke constantly upends our assumptions as the ill-fated Joseph. Unfortunately, Denzil Smith and his Morgan Freeman-voice are under-utilized as the investigating cop. However, Amrita Singh and Tanveer Ghani provide a moral core to the film as the victim’s parents.

Consider yourself warned: Badla will manipulate you and use your assumptions against you, jujitsu-like. It also follows Invisible Guest beat-for-beat, so viewers who have seen the Spanish film will find no surprises here. On the other hand, the tone of Ghosh’s film is not as dark, probably because the ensemble chews the scenery with relish that is utterly infectious. Needless to say, it starts with the great Bachchan. Recommended for fans of Bollywood and twisty thrillers, Badla is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

CPH: DOX ‘19/Sundance ’19: Sea of Shadows

Recently, Mexican drug cartels have developed an interest in fishing—the totoaba to be precise. That is bad news for the endangered fish, but even worse for the nearly extinct vaquita, a super-rare species of porpoise that has been devastated by totoaba nets, and not so great for biodiversity in general. There are thought to be less than one hundred still swimming the once species-rich Gulf of California (a.k.a. Sea of Cortez)—most likely far less than fifty. Tragically, their numbers will continue to diminish during the course Richard Ladkani’s documentary Sea of Shadows, which screens at the 2019 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH: DOX), after winning the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Blame China, where there is high demand for totoaba fish bladders, because of a decidedly unscientific belief in their supposed healing powers. It was a lucrative export item for local fishermen, but the impact on the vaquita specifically and the Sea of Cortez’s greater ecosystem (Jacques Cousteau’s quote calling it “the aquarium of the planet” gets a lot of play during the doc) spurred the Mexican government to prohibit totoaba fishing. This is an enlightened policy, but the enforcement has been an iffy proposition.

To capitalize on the six-figure black market price for fish bladders, the cartels stepped in, allying themselves with the extremely resentful local fishermen, for whom the government never really offered any alternate sources of employment. The result is the Mexican troops assigned to the anti-poaching task force are usually out-numbered and always out-gunned.

It is pretty shocking when a nature conservation documentary could pass for a sequel to Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land (which premiered at Sundance four years ago). Ladkani captures some tense, chaotic boots-on-the-ground action, but in this case, the bad guys always seem to win. Seriously, this would not be a fun ride-along. Yet, the bitterest, most-heart-rending moments come when Ladkani shifts his focus to VaquitaCPR, a Mexican government-sponsored initiative to preserve the remaining vaquita in captivity. Not to be spoilery, but these scenes get awfully hard to watch.

The only arena where vaquita advocates notch any victories is in the media, where powerful Televisa journalist Carlos Loret de Mora crusades against the cartels and poachers. He also broadcasts a hidden camera expose of the Chinese smuggling network. However, the vaquita also need a high-profile Chinese social media champion, like Hong Kong megastar Angelababy, whose campaign to protect the pangolin (which faces extinction for similar reasons) was featured during an episode of PBS’s Nature last year.

Frankly, the lawlessness and utter contempt for law enforcement documented in Sea of Shadows is absolutely shocking and deeply disturbing. It is all rather unnerving that this is all going on within easy driving distance from San Diego. Ladkani’s film is an urgent wake-up call, both regarding the potential extinction of the vaquita (and totoaba), but also the rising power of the cartels in Mexico—but it may have come too late.

Ladkani focuses entirely on the players directly involved in the efforts to save the vaquita, eschewing talking heads offering commentary from the sidelines, but Leonardo DiCaprio lends the film his name and star-power as an executive producer. It is also worth noting the controversial activist organization Sea Shepherd somewhat redeems itself for their thuggish bullying tactics and arrogant disdain for traditional Japanese culture documented in Megumi  Sasaki’s A Whale of a Tale, by sailing into harm’s way to protect the vaquita from cartel poachers. Recommended for viewers of nature and true crime documentaries, Sea of Shadows screens Friday (3/22), Monday (3/25), Wednesday (3/27), and Thursday (3/28) during CPH: DOX, following its screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mission of Honor: The Story of the RAF’s Polish Fighter Pilots

They survived the Battle of Britain, only to be killed during the so-called peace. Like so many of their Home Army comrades, a high percentage Polish RAF volunteers were purged and executed after returning to a Communist dominated Poland, despite their critical contributions to the victory over fascism. Their history of fighting for freedom made them a potential threat to the new socialist regime, whereas former Nazi collaborators could be trusted to have the right attitude towards power. That fact (forthrightly acknowledged) makes the heroics of the Polish fighter pilots ironically poignant in David Blair’s Mission of Honor (a.k.a. Hurricane), which is now showing in select cities.

Even though he is part Swiss, Jan Zumbach opts to continue fighting the National Socialists occupying his country as an RAF pilot. Like his commanding officer Witold Urbanowicz, he too fears for the safety of the woman he left behind in Poland. Unfortunately, they will not rejoin the fray as soon as they would prefer. Frankly, the RAF chain of command is not sure what to make of their Polish volunteers. With the exceptions of Zumbach and Urbanowicz, the Poles’ fluency in English is iffy at best. However, the Germans have been shooting down RAF pilots at an alarming rate, so they need reinforcements badly.

Of course, the Polish RAF pilots exceeded expectations quite swimmingly. Yet, they remained keenly aware of their outsider status. Still, they had the support of their British flight commander, John Kent, as well as many of the women serving in non-combat capacities. In fact, screenwriters Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith do a nice job giving overdue credit to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), primarily represented by Phyllis Lambert, who rather catches the eye of Zumbach.

Iwan Rheon might be Welsh, but he does a credible Swiss-Polish accent as Zumbach. He portrays the Polish ace with an appropriately heroic bearing but also gives him a dark, intense edge. Rheon also develops some smart, mature chemistry with Stefanie Martini as the surprisingly sexually frank Lambert. Milo Gibson comes across reasonably authoritative and Canadian as Kent, making his evolution from skeptic to honorary Pole pretty believable. Frankly, Zumbach and Lambert are the sharpest drawn characters, while Rheon and Gibson disproportionately carry the dramatic load, but Marcin Dorocinski adds some authenticity as the steely Urbanowicz.

Granted, Mission cannot match the technical accomplishments of Dunkirk, but its flying sequences look considerably better than those in Air Strike. Indeed, it is superior to Xiao Feng’s clunky anti-Japanese propaganda piece in just about every way.

According the closing titles, 56% of UK public opinion supported repatriating exiled Poles, even though it meant certain oppression and likely death. They also turned Winston Churchill out of office, but at least they were able to correct that sad mistake in 1951. Frankly, you have to give the film credit for ending on such an honest and bittersweet note, because most of the guts of Mission are generally stirring stuff. Recommended for fans of stiff-upper-lip British war films, Mission of Honor is currently screening at the AMC Arizona Center in Phoenix and is also available via VOD.