Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Primal: Hunting Big Game with Nic Cage

Nic Cage famously bought two albino king cobras, a Mongolian dinosaur skull, and the reportedly haunted LaLaurie mansion in New Orleans, so it figures he would have an affinity for a hunter who bags a rare white jaguar. However, this hunter-trapper is motivated by mercenary motive rather than a collector’s impulse. Yet, he is not the worst passenger on this slow boat to danger in Nick Powell’s Primal, which releases today on DVD.

Frank Walsh briefly worked at ten zoos before finding his calling as a freelance trapper and seller of rare computer-generated beasts. When he bags the fabled white jag, he sees nothing but dollar signs, but getting it to his transfer point in Mexico will require some off-the-books transit. The dodgy freighter, the Mimer, is his paperwork-free ship of choice, but this time he will have company. The U.S. Marshall Service must transport an apprehended cartel assassin out of Brazil fast, before the government reverts back old 1970s methods of criminal justice. Uncle Sam wants to try Richard Loffler legally, but he has a rare neurologically condition that precludes air-flight.

Naturally, Loffler soon escapes and turns loose Walsh’s beasts to distract his former captors. The white jag is the deadliest of the menagerie, but there are also two venomous snakes unaccounted for. Right, Primal is a lot like Snakes on a Plane on a boat, with Nic Cage thrown in for extra irony. That could be decently entertaining, but screenwriter Richard Leder goes out of its way to tell us the U.S. military trained Loffler to kill, offering him up as a simple-minded microcosm of American foreign policy. Inevitably, the secret bad guy turns out to be an NSA agent, which makes no sense, since the NSA specializes in electronic intel rather than field work. Seriously, if you’re going to slander than American intelligence community, you should at least take the trouble to slime the right agency.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know

You might have missed one or two of their comebacks. In fact, you maybe just assumed they always stayed on top. Regardless, they remain the archetypal, decade-defining band of the 1980’s. Their five vintage band-members tell their story in Zoe Dobson’s BBC-produced Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know, which is now available on Showtime.

The timing was perfect for Duran Duran. They burst onto the British scene just as the so-called New Romantic thing was going mainstream. They broke out first in the UK, but their look was tailored-made for MTV. Indeed, it is nice to see Russell Mulcahy (director of Razorback and Highlander) get credit for directing the “Hungry Like A Wolf” and “Rio” videos that were so instrumental in solidifying the band’s image and putting them in teenagers’ homes on a daily basis.

Throughout Dobson’s profile, we hear extensively from the “classic period” band-mates: Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor, and Andy Taylor. Coincidently, they had three Taylors, none of whom were related. They also had their one or two of their own Stuart Sutcliffes, but we don’t hear about them. Weirdly, Dobson and the band also skip over their James Bond theme song, “A View to a Kill,” which was a pretty big hit, even though it was written for the worst bond film ever.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Contenders: The Lighthouse

Lighthouse keeping was a heck of a profession. So-called “wickies” shared all of sailors’ common superstitions, but faced unique challenges of isolation, inclement weather, and potential madness. Recently, filmmakers have discovered how well suited these lonely outposts are to serve as the settings for horror movies and psychological thrillers. Rising genre star Robert Eggers and his co-screenwriter brother Max looked to Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished short story and the historical “Smalls Lighthouse” incident as inspiration for The Lighthouse, which screens during MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Ephraim Winslow assumes he will be sharing most of the lightkeeping duties with the senior keeper, Thomas Wake, but instead the crusty old timer assigns him all the menial tasks, while hoarding the hands-on light-tending for himself. He seems perversely attached to the light, even stripping himself naked in its presence.

In addition to Wake’s blowhard bullying, Winslow must also fend off a rather mean-spirited one-eyed seagull. Of course, Wake sternly warns him against harming the nasty bird, because he shares the old folk belief that seafowl carry the spirits of dead sailors. The junior lightkeeper is further unnerved by visions of a seductively sinister mermaid and a tentacle beast worthy of Lovecraftian fiction. The only thing keeping him sane is the expectation the ferry will arrive soon to take him back to the mainland—but it doesn’t.

The Eggers Brothers’ narrative is very much like that of Chris Crow’s The Lighthouse, but the two films are worlds apart stylistically. Crow’s film is a tight, tense two-hander, but it looks like the classy BBC Films production that it was. In contrast, Eggers’ Lighthouse is shot in a claustrophobically tight aspect ratio and lensed in a strikingly stark black-and-white by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke.

The resulting film is like watching a fever dream recorded on a vintage kinetoscope. In terms of tone, some of the best comparative titles might be the trippier, occult-themes films of Georges Méliès. It looks incredible, but the Eggerses really couldn’t figure out how to end it, so they just sort of stop without fully developing a number of their themes.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Contenders: Long Day’s Journey into Night

Can a big-screen romance also incorporate elements of film noir and experimental cinema? New Yorkers said “yes,” making Bi Gan’s sophomore feature an arthouse hit that was held over week after week. Mainlanders begged to differ—vehemently and angrily. Admittedly, the clever marketing campaign was a bit of a bait-and-switch, inviting couples to smooch along with the co-leads on opening night, New Year’s Eve 2018, according to the western calendar. Apparently, they were not as enraptured with the nearly hour-long 3-D tracking shot that forms the film’s second half as were international critics. New Yorkers can see it on the big screen [again] when Bi’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which screens today as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Luo Hongwu has a sketchy past, but he has returned to Kaili City at some risk, to find his former lover. It will be difficult, because he never really knew her name. She simply called herself Wan Qiwen, just like the [fictional] actress. They used to meet in an abandoned house that would flood when it rained. Wan wanted to escape from her abusive underworld husband, but she disappeared from his life as well.

In addition to his search for Wan, Luo is also carrying karmic baggage leftover from the murder of his childhood best friend Wildcat. Of course, Wan is foremost on his mind, even though he claims to have trouble remembering her. In fact, his memories somewhat intrude into his present, until he steps into a dingy movie theater and puts on a pair of 3D glasses, at which point the film completely dives down the rabbit hole into a noir wonderland. Suddenly, Luo finds himself pursuing Wan’s doppelganger as he takes a Dante-esque journey through a surreal analog of Kaili City.

Simply on a technical level, the dreamy possible dream-sequence tracking shot is quite a feat, involving multiple locations and a great deal of movement, even including aerial shots. Yet, it is also here where the film really starts to pay off on an emotional level, as Luo and Wan-not-Wan seductively circle each other and verbally spar.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What She Said: The Pauline Kael Doc

In the internet age, there should be thousands of different critical takes on any given movie, but perversely, the interconnectedness of online criticism has instead led to conformity. Cats should be an exceptional case of critical uniformity, but it is rather an extreme example of an everyday phenomenon. Armond White often catches a lot of flak from our colleagues for being a frequent outlier, but they are not angry at him for being wrong. They’re insecure in their own judgment and afraid he might be right. Outliers are important, because often they are indeed more on-target, like Pauline Kael’s dissenting (at the time) rave for Bonnie & Clyde. The famous film critic gets her own moment on the big screen in Rob Garver’s documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, which opens today at Film Forum.

It is a shame Kael could not review her own documentary. Frankly, there is a good chance she would argue it lacked sufficient critical distance. It is not exactly hagiography, but pretty much everyone heard from in the film starts with the assumption Kael is the most important film critic, ever, perhaps excepting the Cahiers du Cinema crowd that became the nouvelle vague filmmakers Kael helped champion.

Regardless, Kael was something of a pioneer a couple times over, as someone who became famous writing about film on a professional level and as a woman in a journalistic field. She famously championed films of the so-called “New Hollywood,” especially Bonnie & Clyde, but she also infamously panned many beloved films, like The Sound of Music.

Garver covers her critical feuds and her most controversial reviews, most notably her panning of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. However, he ignores the most famous quote, somewhat apocryphally attributed to her. John Podhoretz sets the record straight, but Kael proudly acknowledged she only knew on person who voted for Nixon in 1972, just the same. It is still inadvertently revealing, because it admits an insularity of perspective.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chichinette: The Accidental Spy

She had one of the best code-names ever. Technically, it might have been more of a nickname, but “Chichinette,” the French slang word for “pain in the neck” (or perhaps someplace else) stuck with this French Jewish secret agent. She was recruited late in the war, but her intel was sufficiently game-changing to earn her a chest full of medals. Nonagenarian Marthe Cohn tells her story for our benefit and the many audiences she still regularly addresses in Nicola Hens’ Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, which opens tomorrow at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

Born Marthe Hoffnung in the German-speaking contested French region of Lorraine, the blond Cohn had the perfect background to spy on the occupied Germans, despite her Judaic heritage. Yet, for most of the war, Cohn focused on smuggling refugees and fugitives to the free zone, on a volunteer basis. She would also help shepherd most of her family to safety, but not the sister who was her primary partner in illegal border crossings.

After the liberation of France, Hoffnung tried to enlist with the free French army, but she was relegated to clerical duties, until an officer finally recognized the value of a native German speaker with professional nursing experience. Just sneaking her into Germany was a neat trick. Many tense moments followed, but the information she managed to relay back could very well have saved the Allies months of time and thousands of lives.

It is a great story, but Hens really takes her time in telling it. Frankly, the first half of the film is problematically slack, inviting us to watch in rapt silence as Cohn and her husband Major worry over hotel wifi passwords and the view from their Airbnb. Cohn’s story is loaded with intrigue and historical significance, but there is just no denying the dullness of the first forty-some minutes of hens’ doc.

Holiday Gift Guide: Humanite, the Beloved Community

From Afro-Cuban percussion to Brazilian bossa nova rhythms, jazz listeners are unusually open to international sounds. That is even truer of jazz musicians. Anyone who plays jazz is going to encounter some opposition in their careers, so they can easily identify with other musicians facing their own struggles. Multi-reed performer Kirk Whalum uses his Civil Rights-era Memphis childhood as a jumping off point to understand the hardships and triumphs experienced by several global musicians with whom he records new music for the project documented in Jim Hanon’s Humanité, the Beloved Community, which is now available on DVD for your last-minute holiday shopping needs.

Whalum is pigeon-holed as a “smooth jazz” artist, but his great mentor was the fiery Texas Tenor, Arnett Cobb. Yet, Whalum explains his greatest influence was and continues to be the empowering voices of the gospel singers he grew up listening to as the son of a minister. Regardless, he has chops, as well as the flexibility to play with a variety of artists from around the world.

Frankly, some of the best sequences in the film involve Whalum’s memories of 1960’s Memphis, particularly his time spent at the Lorraine Motel, which was a center of the local African American community before it became known as the site of the Martin Luther King assassination. Subsequently, Hanon follows Whalum and English trumpeter (and associate music producer) James McMillan as they collaborate with musicians in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Indonesia, and Japan. By far, their best-known musical comrade is Keiko Matsui, who also gets tagged with the “smooth” label, but that does a grave disservice to her wonderful touch and elegant melodies.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Girard’s The Song of Names

It was a legendarily disastrous canceled concert, almost like a classical Frye Festival. The promoter was indeed ruined when Dovidl Rapaport failed to arrive for his much-anticipated concert debut. Unfortunately, that was Martin Simmonds’ father. For years, Simmonds searches for the man who was like a brother to him, hoping to find the closure he needs. It might not be fully satisfying, but at least he will have some answers when he finally tracks down the mysterious Rapaport in Francois Girard’s The Song of Names, which opens Christmas Day in New York.

Shortly before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, Simmonds’ father Gilbert took young  violin virtuoso Dovidl Rapaport into their home, promising to nurture his career from the presumed safety of London. Even though young Martin was jealous of Rapaport’s prodigious talents, he too took pride in protecting his surrogate brother. However, the uncertainty of his family’s fate back in Poland tormented Rapaport, causing anxiety that often manifested itself in boorish and anti-social ways. Nevertheless, his talent only grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he recorded an album that electrified the critics. Everything was fine at the rehearsal and sound-checks, but when it was time for the uninsured concert to start, Rapaport was a no-show.

That betrayal of his family continues to haunt Simmonds for decades. Obsessively, he tracks leads that take him back to Communist era Poland, but to no avail. His wife Helen worries about the financial and emotional strain, but she still mostly accepts his quest for the truth.

It makes sense Girard, who helmed Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, would be interested in bringing music critic Norman Lebrecht’s novel to the big screen, because Rapaport’s artistic temperament is not completely dissimilar from Gould’s. Yet, Martin Simmonds is undeniably the film’s protagonist and the primary character everyone will identify with.

Tim Roth is terrific as Simmonds, humanizing his neuroses and making his obsessive behavior sympathetic rather than creepy. He also has some really smart and appealing chemistry with Catherine McCormack playing his wife, even though her character is somewhat thinly sketched. In contrast, Clive Owen emphasizes all of grown-up Rapaport’s rough edges and standoffishness. Frankly, he does some nice work, but he really helps tilt the film towards Roth’s Simmonds.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Holiday Gift Guide: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Alvin Schwartz made R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike possible. Although they far eclipsed him in terms of fame and merchandising, he was the favorite gateway drug of choice for a generation of young adult horror readers. His three short story anthologies (largely inspired by folklore and urban legends) continue to post strong backlist sales, thanks in good measure to Stephen Gammell’s now iconic illustrations. Thirty-eight years after the initial publication of the first book, several of Schwartz’s tales have been cleverly adapted in Andre Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, co-produced and co-adapted by Guillermo del Toro, which is now available on DVD for all your holiday shopping needs.

It is Halloween 1968 in rural Mill Valley, PA. Richard Nixon is poised to win his first presidential term, so things aren’t all bad. Stella Nicholls and her fellow horror fan high school pals have prepared a satisfyingly effective counter attack for when bullying Tommy Millner inevitably comes looking for them. Fleeing from the number-two-smelling jock, they take refuge in the car of Ramon Morales, a teenaged migrant farm worker “following the harvest.” He and Nicholls are both rather shy, but they still have instant chemistry.

Since it is Halloween, Morales drives them to the local haunted house, once owned by the proud Bellows family. According to legend, young Sarah Bellows, the “different” daughter, was kept locked in a secret room by her cruel parents, without any human company. Nevertheless, people would sneak into the house to hear her tell her scary stories. Of course, bad things were said to happen to her listeners afterward, especially when she continued the practice as a ghost. Unfortunately, the tall tale turns out to be true.

Devoted fans of the original anthologies might take issue with the approach taken by Øvredal, del Toro, and screenwriters Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman, because it elevates the framing device to the primary narrative, instead presenting Schwartz’s stories as Sarah Bellows’ tales, which unfold is real life, tormenting her victims, as they magically appear in her journal. However, for viewers not invested in the Schwartz trilogy, it is a shrewd way to shape the material and build towards a legitimate climax.

Arguably, this concept maybe wouldn’t have played out as well without the screen charisma of Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, playing Nicholls and Morales. They are refreshingly earnest and their chemistry is based on the degree to which they identify with each other, rather than sexuality. Colletti has some surprisingly poignant moments with Dean Norris, memorably playing her single (abandoned) father Roy. Frankly, there should have been more of them together.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Mereilles’ The Two Popes, on Netflix

Pope Benedict XVI listens to Thelonious Monk. Pope Francis listens to ABBA. That alone pretty well tips the scales in Benedict’s favor. They might have booth spoken for God, but they are still mortal men. Yet, despite their political-theological differences they find they faith still unites them in Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, which premieres today on Netflix.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, had no desire to be pontiff, but he found himself the chief runner-up when Pope Benedict was elected by the Vatican conclave. Disillusioned by the new Pope’s theological conservatism, Cardinal Bergoglio returns to Argentina and considers resigning from the College of Cardinals.

Just when Bergoglio petitions Pope Benedict to allow his resignation, the Pope summons him to Rome. The Holy See has been rocked by the Vatican bank scandal and Benedict’s health is in decline, but not his mind. Both men are at a crossroads, but they will have to have their doctrinal debates before they can get to the really profound truths regarding the Church and themselves.

In many ways, The Two Popes is a surprisingly humanistic portrait of two men who both served in one of the most influential positions on Earth. Although it is glaringly obvious Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarton are more sympathetic to the liberalism of Francis, they still treat Benedict with a good deal of respect. Arguably, the film humanizes both Popes to a great extent.

Regardless, what makes the film is the remarkable casting. Both Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are absolute dead-ringers for Benedict and Francis, respectively. Of course, they both also happen to be very fine actors, but Hopkins finds more humor in his portrayal of the German Pope—and thereby creates an even more complex and human portrait.

Holiday Gift Guide: Christmas Presence

They say “Satan Never Sleeps.” His minions don’t work bankers’ hours either. That means the evil entity haunting a remote country house will be just as ornery on Christmas Eve. A group of boozy, sexually frustrated friends is in for a harsh holiday in James Edward Cook’s Christmas Presence (a.k.a. Why Hide?), now available on DVD for your last-minute shopping needs.

McKenzie has gathered her friends together for Christmas in an old country manor as if they were characters in an Agatha Christie novel. They are a gossipy, neurotic bunch, especially Hugo the flamboyant fashion designer and Samantha, who aspires to be the lesbian E.L. James, even though she admits she doesn’t know who that is. Schlubby Marcus and his wife Anita, the world’s worst psychic, are barely on speaking terms, while Samantha’s matronly partner Jo is annoyingly chipper. It is already fun times, even before the weird black swirling cloud of evilness starts preying on them one by one.

is sort of like the horror movie version of Branagh’s Peter’s Friends. In fact, Cook spends so much time on character development, the genre stuff largely takes a back seat during the opening and middle sections. However, he rather rectifies matters during the third act. In fact, the film crescendos with a nasty bit of business that comes way out of left field. It is bound to be a divisive turn of events, but you have to give Cook credit for boldness.

Regardless, Presence features some wonderfully caustic dialogue and a number of immensely colorful performances. This is one of the relatively rare horror comedies that is legitimately funny. In fact, it earns considerably more laughs than scares, but that’s okay, since it’s all intentional.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Iskander: Shadow of the River, on Shudder

The last time most viewers saw French Guiana on screen, either Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman or Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek were escaping from a French penal colony in their respective Papillons. Neither film exaggerated the steamy climate. The French overseas department borders Brazil and Suriname, but it is as frog as the Champs-Elysees or French Algeria until 1962. As such, the same Gendarmerie and National Police are responsible for the law enforcement. It is a tough posting, but Chloe Bresson is a tough cop, but not exactly a diplomatic or politically shrewd one. Her first case in the tropical region turns into a nightmare with supernatural dimensions in the four-episode Iskander: Shadow of the River, directed by Olivier Abbou, which premieres today on Shudder.

Bresson’s new boss has no illusions how she ended up in Guiana. Her career is in freefall, but she still refuses to change her hard-charging ways. Although they clash initially, she just might be the perfect partner for Det. Joseph Dialo. He is much better equipped to deal with the indigenous population (just about anyone would be), but he is just as driven. In fact, he will become even more obsessed with their latest (and first case), for personal reasons that will be revealed over time.

The bodies of a Western couple are found brutally murdered and strung up on the mast of their small yacht. There is also the body of an exsanguinated sloth, but their six-year-old-ish son is missing. Given the hallucinogenic properties of the sloth’s blood and the word “Iskander” carved into the victims’ chests, the detectives quickly conclude the crimes are the work of a voodoo cult. Bresson follows up references to Iskander in previous case files, while Dialo simultaneously pursues his own leads, from more personal sources.

Iskander is loaded with atmosphere, dread, foreboding, and an especially keen sense of place, but the narrative could have benefited from a little tightening. Frankly, it might have been better conceived as a two-hour feature than a three-hour-and-change limited series. Be that as it may, it is cool to see such a dark, Conrad-esque exercise in genre storytelling. Even though Abbou and creator-co-screenwriter Aurelien Moras are careful to respect all Guianese ethnicities (except maybe the temp-working Euro French), it still pretty impressive they have the guts to build a horror story around voodoo rituals and indigenous lore.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Submitted by Brazil: Invisible Life

Manoel Gusmão better make good Pao de Queijo, because he is terrible father. He is indeed a baker, which is almost stereotypical of Portuguese Brazilians in the early 1950s. Gusmão equates the ordinary with the respectability he craves, but sadly, his strict sense of propriety will have tragic consequences for his daughters in Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, Brazil’s official international Oscar submission, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is 1951, before Facebook and internet searches. Euridice and her older sister Guida are both remarkably sensitive young women, but in vastly different ways. The former loses herself in music and aspires to a career as a classical pianist. The latter is an unabashed romantic, who is about to abscond with her lover, a Greek sailor. Alas, running away with a merchant seaman works out about as well as we would expect.

When she inevitably returns home conspicuously pregnant, Guida is turned away by her rigid father, who deceitfully claims her sister is abroad, having accepted a music scholarship in Austria. He intends to make a clean, irreparable break with Guida—and he does. Of course, the older sister writes many letters to Euridice, but they are always intercepted. Eventually, she considers her correspondence to be more of a form of therapy than communication. Yet, the two sisters who pine for each other’s company will continue to live in Rio, quite oblivious to the other’s presence.

Thusly unfolds a fable of so close, yet so far, but Aïnouz is shrewdly restrained when it comes to staging scenes of the sisters’ near misses and almost crossed paths. Rio is a large city and their respective corners of it are practically different universes. Instead, this tale is one of profound and abiding irony, in which the sister denied her birthright as a member of “respectable” society, ultimately lives a happier life toiling on its margins, with an adoptive substitute family.

This all maybe sounds like one of the more socially conscious Globo evening soap operas, but visually Invisible Life is a feast of deep saturated color, evocative lighting, rich textures, and lovingly crafted period trappings. This is a tactile film that puts you physically into the kitchens, factories, and parlors of 1950s Rio. You can almost smell the feijoada and feel the trembled breathing.

Just as Guida’s storyline is more interesting and proactive than that of the more passive Euridice, Julia Stockler’s performance is much livelier and more passionate as the former than Carol Duarte’s moody and reserved portrayal of the younger sister. Barbara Santos is also charismatically earthy as Filomena, the retired prostitute who becomes a surrogate mother and sister to Guida.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Abominable: Oscar Qualified

It is an animated film, but it touches on several of China’s territorial disputes. The plucky young heroes are on the road to Mt. Everest, claimed by both China and Nepal, but the entire nation of Tibet is an occupied sovereign state. Yet, passions were really enflamed by the blink-and-you-missed-it appearance of China’s so-called “Nine-Dash Line” demarcating their illegal claim to hegemony over the South China Sea. It was on-screen long enough for Vietnam to ban the film and Malaysia to demand the scene be cut. Perversely, this time around, the Hollywood studio declined snip the offending image, presumably for fear of offending China. The geopolitical context is quite ugly, but the story and characters are cute in Jill Culton’s Abominable, a Chinese co-production co-directed by Todd Wilderman, which releases today on DVD.

Young Yi still mourns the loss of her father, from whom she first learned violin. As a coping mechanism, she works relentlessly, hoping to save enough money for the trip across China they always dreamed of taking. Then one night, she comes face to face with a giant hairy monster on the roof of her building.

The shy creature she dubs “Everest,” due to the clear homesick yearning inspired by a Mt. Everest billboard, is a fugitive from the sinister Burnish Corporation. Years ago, Mr. Burnish (an Anglo elite, naturally) swore he saw a yeti, but the world scoffed, so he has obsessively searched for another such beast ever since. Actually, Burnish (who looks a lot like Waldorf from the Muppets) is not nearly as nasty as his ambitious science advisor, Dr. Zara. She will be in hot pursuit behind Yi as she tries to lead Everest back home. She will have the dubious help of her enthusiastic little cousin Peng and the reluctant company of her popular, Fuerdai-esque neighbor Jin.

No doubt about it, Everest is just a big, endearing fur ball. His character design is rather simple, but totally charming. Yi is also likably earnest and resourceful. However, the best aspect of the animation are the strikingly scenic backdrops. From the sparkle of the Shanghai skyline to grandeur of Leshan Giant Buddha, Abominable truly looks terrific.

Acceleration: Let’s Speed Through this as Quickly as We Can

You have to have some degree of optimism when a film starts with Dolph Lundgren declaring: “let’s do this.” Unfortunately, it is all downhill from there. Still, even though it has been almost thirty-five years since his Hollywood debut in A View to a Kill, Lundgren is the most credible action-figure in Michael Merino & Daniel Zirilli’s Acceleration, which releases today on DVD.

Lundgren is not playing the most likeable of characters this time around. That would be the broad-shouldered Vladik, who has kidnapped Rhona’s son Mika to force her to run five deadly errands for him, all before the financial markets open the next morning. She has five sealed envelopes containing debts to collect and lowlife criminal rivals to whack. You think she’d open them all at once so she can figure out the most fuel-efficient route and maybe enter them all in her project management software, but apparently no.

The bad news is Vladik isn’t even the worst villain out there. The honors probably go to the scummy kingpin Kane, who intends to call in Vladik’s IOU’s in the morning. We can tell because there are a number of scenes in which he beats up various thugs for no discernable reason and also waxes poetic over diner pie.

We respect Lundgren as an action movie survivor and an anti-human-trafficking activist, so we try to give his films the benefit of the doubt. For instance, you can legitimately argue The Tracker has a distinctive Euro-Poliziotteschi vibe going on, but Acceleration is a pretty weak brew. Even Danny Trejo looks bored in his brief but unremarkable scene.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, on Shudder

Forget about Michael Jackson and the Brat Pack. The man who really made 1980s pop culture awesome was Tom Savini. His gory effects kicked off the slasher movie craze and then he helped take the genre to the next level. The great makeup and effect artist reflects on his work and his place horror history throughout Jason Baker’s documentary profile, Smoke and Mirrors: The Tom Savini Story, which premieres today on Shudder.

Like the great George Romero (who gave him his first big break as a gore artist), Tom Savini was raised in Pittsburgh and he never left town for long. For years, it was home to his workshop and the Savini School of Special Effects is now based just outside of town. These days, Savini spends most of his time teaching and consulting, but he made his name doing makeup and effects for films like Friday the 13th I and IV, Creepshow 1 & 2, Dawn of the Dead (technically from 1978, but most of us saw in for the first time in the 80s), Day of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and a host of lesser known gorefests, as well as a few vintage Cannon action films. Yet, for many admirers, the revelation that Savini has also done so much work for the legit stage (a great deal of it in Pittsburgh) will be quite a surprise. In fact, his stage Dracula sounds like some of his best work.

As fans would hope, Savini is willing to revisit the making of many of his career highlights. He is also surprisingly candid when it comes to his personal life. Many fans might have heard how his service in Vietnam inspired some of gorier work, he also explains its impact on his personal relationships. Yet, Savini now seems remarkably grounded and at peace with himself. In fact, you have to give him credit for taking a lot of subsequent family drama in stride.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Mubi Presents: The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine

Decades before Title IX and the Netflix short doc Little Miss Sumo, women’s sumo wrestling was a popular attraction in Japan. Evidently, many rural spectators flocked to bouts in the mistaken hope the wrestlers would grapple topless. These weathered peasants were exactly the sort of lumpen proletariat the anarcho-socialist Guillotine Society hoped to radicalize, so they too start attending the tournaments staged by Tamasaburo Iwaki’s touring wrestling stable. They will stir up considerably more love, lust, and tragedy than revolutions and consciousness-raising in Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, which screens tomorrow as part of the Mubi Presents series at the Spectacle Theater.

The Imperial regime cynically capitalized on the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to crackdown on revolutionary elements. That included assassinating the charismatic leader of the Guillotine Society, as well as his wife, a feminist professor, and their six-year-old nephew. As the new de facto leader of the underground organization, Tetsu Nakahama burns for revenge. However, the unpublished poet and self-styled Valentino is not a formidable man of action. When one reprisal attempt goes horribly wrong, Nakahama and the achingly conscientious Daijiro Furuta retreat to the countryside to lay low and raise funds for a further attempt.

One day, they attend some matches held by Iwaki’s wrestlers. Nakahama is immediately struck by Tamae Tokachigawa, a former prostitute, who survived a massacre of ethnic Koreans instigated by a clique of local veterans turned vigilantes. At the same time, Furuta is quite struck by the younger and more naïve Tomoyo Hanakiku (or “Kiku” for Chrysanthemum), who joined the stable after fleeing her abusive husband.

Suddenly, Nakahama and Furuta largely lose interest in politics, especially the former. Unfortunately, they will get dragged back in again when the vigilantes try to flush out the Guillotines by targeting the wrestlers. They are a sad, clumsy lot. Sort of like Clouseau, they suspect everybody and everything, but their methods are brutal and their hunches are not wrong.

So, this film is three hours and nine minutes long. It is good, but that is still a tad bit excessive. In fact, the first two hours set in 1924 are considerably more engaging and engrossing than the subsequent hour set several years later. Arguably, it might have been more effective as an epilogue than a full third act.

Nevertheless, the cast is excellent and Zeze sustains an impressive vibe of wistful romanticism during the respite from the grubby business of revolt. Some ambitious programmer should consider pairing it with Radford’s Il Postino.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Black Christmas: Remade by Blumhouse

Bob Clark’s 1974 horror movie was the original “the calls are coming from inside the house” shocker, predating When a Stranger Calls by about five years. It was also the first really notable Christmas horror movie, but certainly not the best. Nevertheless, it has already been remade once. Blumhouse takes another stab at the yuletide slasher with Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, which opens today nationwide.

Apparently, at Hawthorne College, classes stay in session until sometime around December 23rd. Christmas trees and lights are everywhere, but students are just starting to leave for the semester break. Riley Stone will not be one of them. She always remains on campus with a small group of self-proclaimed “orphans.” Tragically, one of her coed classmates won’t be going home either, because a cloaked figure hacked her to death during an early kill-scene, after sending her a series of hostile texts. She won’t be the last.

We soon learn Stone and three of her closest sorority sisters have also received similar texts. As word spreads of other female colleagues who are missing and unaccounted for, Stone starts to suspect something horrific is afoot. The elitist fraternity she and her sisters just called out for date rape crimes are the logical suspects, along with their faculty advisor, Prof. Gelson (you’d think the smug defender of Western patriarchal meritocracy would have a doctorate, but evidently not). It turns out, Stone has filed a complaint against him, just to make it crystal clear Gelson is a bad guy.

This take on Black Christmas has to be the most clumsily didactic Christmas movie ever. Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe are not satisfied with making their points. They are compelled to beat them into the ground and salt the earth around them. Seriously, this film makes Knives and Skin look like a peace offering to the “patriarchy,” whatever that might be. Yet, most of their attempts to score sexual-political points will fail to land for a very fundamental reason. The stilted dialogue they put into the nasty frat brothers’ mouths sounds like things they want people to believe un-woke dudes would say, but the complete absence of authenticity or credibility is crushingly awkward. Kicking over a transparent straw horse like the evil Delta house will not impress anyone and it will only entertain especially militant social justice warriors.

It is a shame because Takal stages some reasonably intense scenes of slasher horror. Frankly, viewers will almost start roll with it when watching the psychotic Emperor Palpatine cos-player stalking the sisters throughout their weirdly elegant-looking sorority house. In a radical departure from previous Black Christmases, Takal & Wolfe add a wacky supernatural element. It is debatable whether this is a mistake or not, but it definitely kicks the film into the sphere of unintentional over-the-top comedy, ending the affair on quite a distinctive note.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Rabid: The Soska Sisters Remake Cronenberg

Our self-appointed cultural enforcers constantly demonize “toxic fandom,” but even they should concede horror fans have maintained an impressively open mind regarding this remake of early David Cronenberg. Probably, they assumed the Soska Sisters fully understood the enduring value of the original film and therefore would not reconceive it as a gender-swapped movie musical set inside a Somali refugee camp. Of course, Cronenberg’s body horror cult classic still remains plenty transgressive in its own right. Jen & Sylvia Soska update the story, but frequently tip their hats to Cronenberg during the course of Rabid, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Aspiring designer Rose Miller is bullied by her couture house colleagues and pitied by her condescending best friend Chelsea, because of her ugly duckling looks and borderline social anxiety. Things go from bad to worse when she is horribly disfigured in an auto accident. However, the Burroughs Institute (yes, the director just so happens to be Dr. William Burroughs) offers to take her on as a pro bono test patient for its radical reconstructive techniques.

Naturally, the initial results are amazing, bestowing her with supermodel looks, but there will be a few side effects. Suddenly, the vegan Miller starts craving meat—or rather red blood. She also starts experiencing blackouts and disturbingly vivid dreams. You do not want to cross paths with her during these fugue periods. Those who do start to exhibit disturbingly violent symptoms of their own.

The Soska Sisters offer plenty of olive branches to Cronenberg fans, starting with Dr. Burroughs, who even listens to a William Burroughs spoken word recording during one scene. The crimson surgical scrubs also conjure up memories of Dead Ringers. Unfortunately, it is not nitpicking to call out the ending for departing radically (and unsatisfyingly) from Cronenberg’s metaphorical punch-in-the-face closing.

Regardless, the Soskas’ execution is consistently slick and well-paced. In fact, they unleash several violent altercations with such surprising suddenness and visceral force, they will make most viewers bolt upright in their chairs. Clearly, the film is more than open to feminist and anti-consumerist readings, but the Soskas and co-screenwriter John Serge largely avoid didactic excesses. Instead, the vibe is more like vintage EC Comics, wherein mean, shallow pretty people deserve what’s coming.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Mob Town: Edgar Croswell Crashes the Mafia’s Party

In the time between Eliot Ness and Rudy Giuliani (before he lost his mind), Edgar D. Croswell was the great American gang-buster of his era. Although he later served on New York State Organized Crime Task Force, he worked the biggest case of his career as a New York State Trooper. In 1957, the mob threw a party in upstate Apalachin, NY (not Appalachia) and Croswell was determined to give them the reception they deserved. The dedicated lawman crashes the infamous Apalachin Mafia summit meeting in Danny A. Abeckaser’s Mob Town, which opens this Friday in New York.

Being a heads-up lawman, Croswell smelled a rat when he pulled over an associate of local bottling magnate and reputed mobster Joe Barbara, driving without a license. However, a judge in the mob’s pocket kicked him loose and Croswell’s boss was content to be rid of him. Of course, the whole sordid episode stirred Croswell righteous indignation and focused his suspicions on Barbara. A year later, Croswell’s on-and-off surveillance paid off when he observed Barbara buying suspiciously large quantities of meat, fish, and booze.

Having just solidified his position as boss of New York, New York (by whacking the interlopers), Vito Genovese wants to take a leadership position among his peers, so decided to call a summit someplace way off the beaten path. Barbara’s Apalachin home fit the bill perfectly. However, the mid-level mobster is about as subtle as a Joe Pesci character hopped up on Red Bull and amphetamines, so his manic preparations inevitable attract Croswell’s attention.

The real-life story of Croswell and the Apalachin meeting (which really did happen pretty much the way Jon Carlo & Joe Gilford’s screenplay depicts) is absolutely fascinating. However, as a work of cinema, Mob Town is a low-impact, overly safe endeavor. There is never much tension to speak of, but there is way too much slack, especially in the sluggish first act. Still, Abeckaser and his design team manage to give the film a strikingly stylish retro-period look and vibe. In terms of the cars, costumes, trappings, and settings, they over-achieve working within their indie budget constraints.

It is hard to say whether Abeckaser the supporting actor (who had a small part in The Irishman) is his own best ally or worst enemy, but you have to give him props for the energy and commitment of his over-the-top fuggedaboutit performance as Barbara. He also has some spirited chemistry with Jamie-Lynn Sigler, playing Barbara’s knowing and complicit wife, Josephine. Similarly, the great Robert Davi chews the scenery with relish as Genovese.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Great War: The Buffalo Soldiers Behind Enemy Lines

One of the great heroes of ragtime-early jazz music was bandleader James Reese Europe, who as a commissioned Lieutenant in the New York National Guard led his military band in performances and the 369th Infantry, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” in combat. Educating the public on Europe’s life, music, and legacy is one of our pet projects. Despite their music and service, the Fighting 369th is not as well-remembered as the 10th Cavalry Regiment, better known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” who deserve all their recognition. They served in combat during the American-Indian, the Johnson County, the Spanish-American, and Philippine-American Wars, and very definitely World War I. A somewhat prejudiced white officer will learn to appreciate his Buffalo Soldiers comrades in screenwriter-director Steven Luke’s The Great War, which opens this Friday in New York.

Armistice is imminent, but for geopolitical reasons, the troops in the trenches are supposed to fight to gain every last inch of ground before it goes into effect. Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing is not happy about it, but he has his orders, just like the soldiers under him. However, when he learns the 10th Cavalry’s heroic push has left them stranded behind enemy lines, he sends orders down the chain-of-command to dispatch a platoon to escort them to safety.

Captain William Rivers is less than thrilled about his assignment. Even though his best friend was the Buffalo Soldiers’ progressive late Captain, he still harbors rather unenlightened racial notions. Some of his men are even worse. However, orders are orders. Grudgingly, he starts to respect Private John Cain, the messenger from the 10th temporarily attached to his platoon. He also feels mixed feelings of guilt and respect for the mystery Buffalo Soldier who gave him the slapping he needed when temporarily paralyzed by “shellshock.”

Great War could be cynically dubbed “Saving the Buffalo Soldiers,” or “Glory Fifty Years Later,” but it is important to note the African American soldiers will have ample opportunity to fight like Hell during the third act. In fact, Luke does a pretty credible job giving the soldiers of the 10th independent agency and largely avoiding the pitfalls of “white savior narratives,” to use the nauseatingly woke term. His real talent seems to be staging scenes of warfighting on a limited budget, especially the rousing climatic battle.

Veredas: Bedouin

For these two thesps, the play is the thing—or rather the experimental film. They will play a pair of lovers in a variety of situations and contexts, but they will never have the time and conditions necessary to develop any sort of relationship arc. Playfulness and intentional artificiality trump narrative and character in Julio Bressane’s Bedouin, which screens tomorrow during the film series, Veredas: A Generation of Brazilian Filmmakers.

“Bedouin” is maybe a bit older than “Surm,” but more problematically, he often projects an air of potential violence (that does indeed manifest itself from time to time). Nonetheless, the actors keep coming together to play problematic courtship scenes. Of course, we can plainly gather they are thespians from the behind-the-scenes prologue.

Bressane certainly has the experimental filmmaker’s contempt for convention, but he still clearly has a love of cinema. During various sequences, he evokes the look and vibe of Golden Age Hollywood, film noir, and the Nouvelle Vague, with the collaboration of cinematographers Pablo Baiao and Pepe Schettino. Admittedly, his visuals compositions are often could interesting to eyeball, which is fortunate, because they are largely the whole point of the film.

Instead of traditional acting, Alessandra Negrini and Fernando Eiras are more like malleable clay dolls for Bressane to mold and place in position as he sees fit. However, it must be conceded Negri can be remarkably expressive through the use of mere body language. With her chops, she could have worked steadily during the old-time silent movie era.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Trivisa on Shudder

It is 1997, the year Mainland China and the United Kingdom agreed to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, establishing a separate system of governance for Hong Kong for the next fifty years. Today, both nations are trying to forget 1997 ever happened. As the handover loomed, three notorious real-life gangsters assumed the new regime would crack down on their business. Little did they know the CCP would appoint an HK Chief of Police who was a reputed Triad associate—allegedly—[cough]. Given the mounting uncertainty, they hope to complete one big score—perhaps even together in Frank Hui, Jevons Au & Vicky Wong’s Trivisa, co-produced by the legendary Johnnie To, which premieres today on Shudder.

In 1997, the so-called “The Kings of Thieves” are all at a career crossroads. Kwai Ching-hung has survived as an armed bandit, despite the bloody opening shootout, because he generally focuses on smaller, manageable targets. However, that means he does not have much of a nest egg to fall back on.

In contrast, Yip Kwok-foon has pulled off some spectacularly lucrative jobs, but the resulting heat forced him to retire to the Mainland, where he runs a consumer electronics smuggling operation. It is a profitable business, but he must constantly bribe the Mainland cops, who go out of their way to belittle him.

Cheuk Tze-keung is still pulling off jobs in Hong Kong, but his boredom and arrogance are causing him to be increasingly reckless. Of the “Three Kings,” he is the most interested in the rumor they will be joining forces for an end-of-an-era gig, which did not originate with any of the trio in question. In fact, he starts offering a reward for information on the whereabouts of his other two colleagues, but he is scrupulously careful vetting tips, to keep the cops in the dark.

The Sanskrit title Trivisa is a bit too obscure, but do not let that dissuade you from this jolly dark and ironic gangster thriller. It is a reference to the “three poisons:” greed, anger, and delusion. Consider it the “Three Deadly Sins” instead. Indeed, this film really is about threes, because the trio of co-directors, Hui, Au, and Wong each focused on their own focal character: Kwai, Yip, and Chuek, respectively. Yet, even with the three directors working with their own cinematographers, the film feels very much like a consistent whole.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Veredas: Homing

Brazil is the home of churrasco steak houses, so it stands to reason any country that eats that much carne must have cowboys. You can find many of them in Minas Gerais (where they also make delicious cheese). Marcelo is a cowboy, who has always rode-herd over his boss’s cattle. Life will bring him to a crossroads in Helvecio Marins Jr.’s Homing, which screens during the film series, Veredas: A Generation of Brazilian Filmmakers.

Marins has always lived in rural Minas Gerais and he has no intention of giving up the cowboy life-style. He is just too attuned to the land and the animals, unlike his little sister, who moved to the big city. However, he has a dream of being a rodeo announcer (apparently, they are a lot like rappers in Brazil, maintaining a steady patter of rhymes laced with ribald braggadocio). It would seem like an odd ambition for the shy cowhand, but performing in front of his peers could help bring Marcelo out of his shell. Unfortunately, his plans will be threatened by crisis that strikes out of the blue.

Homing is a quiet, meditatively observant film that shares a kinship with documentaries like Sweetgrass. Marcelo Di Souza (who plays his namesake, like the rest of the neophyte ensemble) is clearly deeply familiar with this world. Nobody had to train him to ride a horse. Yet, it is still presumably fiction, given third act events, including the most artistically rendered, least action-oriented cattle rustling scene probably ever seen on-screen.

This is a film just about everyone will have respect and warm feelings for, even though it will probably lull half the audience to sleep. The love Marcelo and his sister share for each other is quite endearing and the profound Catholic faith of the rodeo cowboys is also quite poignant, but the simple truth is not a lot happens during its modest 85-minute running time.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Daniel Isn’t Real—Or Is He?

Luke’s imaginary friend certainly isn’t a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. He is slick, reckless, hedonistic, and sinister. He is everything Luke isn’t, except he maybe isn’t completely imaginary. At first, he gives Luke confidence, but then he drags the college freshman to some very dark places in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, which opens today in New York.

Daniel first appears in Luke’s young life at a moment when he was dealing with considerable trauma and angst. Initially, the “imaginary” friend provides some fun and distraction, but then he tricks the confused child into nearly poisoning his mother, Claire. When she recovers, she forces Luke to lock Daniel away in a dusty antique doll house. She assumes it is a bit of psychological role-playing, but it really works. Years later, Luke deliberately releases him, because of a vague notion Daniel could stimulate his artistic creativity. In retrospect, that was a really bad impulse decision.

For a while, Daniel helps Luke talk to girls in various social settings, but soon he is pushing Luke towards meaner, more aggressive behavior. Belatedly, Luke realizes Daniel’s influence makes him a danger to others—and himself. But wait, there’s more, which we won’t give away.

Happily, Mortimer does not overplay the “is-he-really-just-going-crazy” card, because a lot of horror fans are probably getting tired of that non-twisty twist. However, there is still some pretty cool imagery of Luke’s troubled subconscious manifested on-screen. It is not Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but it is impressive.

Knives and Skin: The Worst of 2019

Who do you think has more deadbolts, chains, and emergency locks on their doors, people who live in New York and Los Angeles or residents of small-town Middle America? If you watch a lot of contemporary, David Lynch-inspired genre films, you might think the latter, but you know it’s the former if you are actually a New Yorker or Angelino. This is the latest film to perpetuate this social-geographical disconnect, but the problems run considerably deeper for Jennifer Reeder’s almost unwatchable Knives and Skin, which opens today in NYC and LA.

Poor high school band musician and majorette Carolyn Harper is about to die from misadventure, but her schoolmates—even her supposed besties—take it in stride. Only her mother Lisa has any kind of reaction, wallowing in depression and perhaps even suffering a trauma-induced psychotic break.

Ironically, Joanna Kitzmiller’s mother is an even bigger basket case, for no clearly established reason. Kitzmiller’s knuckle-dragging jock brother (who happens to be weirdly nebbish looking) is the reason Carolyn Harper found herself in the difficult situation depicted in the prologue, but her mother never puts two-and-two together, even though she can “smell Carolyn on him.” At least, Joanna Kitzmiller is an unusually enterprising Millennial. She sells her mother’s dirty underwear to the pervy high school principal.

Two of Caroyn’s other supposed BFF’s are much more concerned with exploring their awakening lesbian attraction than worrying about their missing friend or jerkweed high school boyfriends. Frankly, they are probably perfectly matched, since there is so little to distinguish them from each other.

Clearly, Reeder has seen way, way, way too much Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. Alas, Lynch’s flare for idiosyncratic characterization and clever dialogue is completely missing from K&S. Instead, we get empty posing with pretensions of wokeness.