Saturday, February 29, 2020

NYICFF ’20: Magic Boy

Some fantasy tropes are pretty consistent across cultures. For instance, magic really isn’t something you can pick up in your forties through some continuing education classes. You really need to learn it young, but from a gray-haired oldster. That is exactly what Sasuke sets out to do after he barely survives an encounter with a shape-shifting demon queen in Akira Daikuhara & Taiji Yabushita’s Magic Boy, which screens during the 2020 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The Toei-produced Magic Boy holds the distinction of being the first anime feature ever theatrically distributed in America, by MGM no less. That was back in 1961, two years after its Japanese release. There is definitely a pronounced Disney influence, but it gets refracted through the anime prism in an appealingly eccentric way.

As the film opens, Sasuke is more Nature Boy than Magic Boy, living in secluded harmony with his beautiful older sister Oyu and a menagerie of woodland animals, including bears, deer, and monkeys (where is this forest, anyway?). However, tragedy strikes when one of them (ever so coincidentally the mother of a young fawn) is eaten by a salamander monster that morphs into the evil, long-haired Yakusha.

Realizing how badly he matched up against the demon, Sasuke sets out to learn magic from a reclusive hermit, which is a perfectly reasonable strategy in a fantasy film. That rather inconveniently means Sasuke will leave Oyu alone and vulnerable to the attacks of the bandits aligned with the evil witch for several years. Fortunately, she catches the protective (and perhaps romantically interested) eye of righteous samurai clan-general Sanada Yakimura (he was a real cat) during one of his scouting missions.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Notorious Guns Akimbo

Formalist critics would argue the tempest in a teapot this film stirred up in rather neurotic circles should be irrelevant to our consideration of the work itself. To some extent, they are always correct, because the most elemental critical question for any film is whether it is worth watching. However, the small, self-important echo chamber known as “Film Twitter” is unhealthily obsessed with this film. The irony is rich: it is a film about an online troll who is forced to compete in a dark web death tournament, directed by Jason Lei Howden, who started trolling the Film Twitter trolls who cyber-shamed another film critic into reportedly attempting suicide, reducing her life to one racially insensitive joke. The whole business is pretty ugly, but now the original trolls are claiming victim status for themselves. The consequences for trolling are much more severe for the hero of Howden’s Guns Akimbo, which is still opening today in New York, so let's try to address it in a calm, business-like manner.

Miles Lee Harris is a meek coder, who only feels in control of his life when he trolling, but he prides himself in only using his power for good. The dark web death-match site Skizm is just the sort of exploitative outfit that deserves his caustic dressings-down. Unfortunately, they have considerable technical resources and absolutely no sense of humor. Before he knows what hit him, Harris has been tracked and abducted, so their tech support could graft big honking guns on his hands. Much to his shock, Harris must fight to the death on Skizm, facing the ragingly psychotic Nix.

At first, Akimbo seems like another clone of the gaming-gone-deadly sub-sub-sub-genre represented by the so-so likes of Level Up and Beta Test, but the film really perks up when Harris starts to man-up, roughly halfway through. Frankly, the last twenty or thirty minutes are massively violent, but also a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man

This invisible man is serious about invisibility, so he doesn’t mess around with hats, goggles, and bandages. That is rather unfortunate for the woman he stalks so stealthily. Fans will miss the iconic imagery of the 1930s Universal monster franchise, but they should still appreciate the tension of Blumhouse’s modernized take on The Invisible Man, directed by Leigh Whannel, which opens tomorrow nationwide.

After careful planning, Cecilia Kass finally manages to escape from her cruel and controlling lover, the fabulously wealthy Adrian Griffin. He made his fortune through his breakthroughs in optics, so you know what that means. Shortly thereafter, Griffin suspiciously commits suicide. At least it is suspicious to Kass and us. Sure enough, an invisible entity is soon tormenting her. He is especially vicious, devising ways to isolate Kass from her support system, including her platonic cop friend James Lanier and his daughter Sydney, with whom she has been crashing.

Forget all the hype about Invisible Man being a #metoo movie. That’s just lazy marketing hype. Yes, Kass definitely must overcome Griffin’s abusive and manipulative behavior, but this is really an old fashioned “woman in jeopardy” thriller (this a term we really use in publishing), raised to the power of one hundred. Despite the affection we all have for the disembodied raincoat gags of the 1933 films, the invisibility special effects this time around are quite impressive—and Griffin’s attacks are notably violent. Indeed, Whannel and the tech team fully live up to the frightening implications of an invisible monster.

Whannel’s nearly-in-name-only adaptation of Wells’ Invisible Man also shifts the focus from the unseen mad man, to his victim (or would be victim), Kass. Fortunately, Elisabeth Moss is up to the challenge of carrying the picture and playing complicated attack scenes by herself. Moss is terrific portraying her fear, alienation, vulnerability, and resiliency, which is a lot of emotional terrain to cover. Even though it comes in a pure genre film, this might be Moss’s best performance to date.

To Hong Kong with Love: Ten Years

In Hong Kong, the future may already be here, five years ahead of schedule. Tragically, it is a future of eroding freedoms and intrusive police state tactics envisioned by the filmmakers speculating on what HK life might be like in a decade’s time. Their 2015 anthology film won best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, despite the condemnation of the Mainland state media. The eerie prescience of Ten Years is undeniable when it screens as part of the Metrograph’s film series, To Hong Kong with Love.

Kwok Zune’s “Extras” is certainly stylish and maybe not as paranoid as it might have seemed five years ago, but the ironic kicker remains obvious right from the start. Two low level triads have been recruited to stage a phony assassination attempt to drum up public support for a draconian “public security” proposal. From the vantage point of 2020, the parallels with the extradition bill are almost spooky. Mike Mak’s stark black-and-white cinematography well serves the darkly cynical morality tale, but it does not land with the same emotional force as some of the later stories.

By far, the weakest constituent film is Wong Fei-pang’s “Season of the End,” in which a duo of cultural anthropologists collect specimens from razed working class neighborhoods in a rather absurdist, Beckett-ish fashion. It is far too reserved and mannered to make any appreciable impact with general audiences.

Fortunately, Jevons Au’s “Ðialect” represents a dramatic improvement. Screenwriters Chung Chui-yi, Ho Fung-lun, and Lulu Yang tell the deceptively simple but heartfelt story of a Cantonese-speaking cab-driver facing the potential loss of his livelihood, because of legal mandates requiring Mandarin fluency. Leung Kin-ping’s terrific performance as the driver is subtle and dignified, but still quite poignant. It is a quiet human story, but it also has direct relevancy for Hong Kong’s Localist movement.

“Dialect” alone would be enough to justify recommending Ten Years, but the courageousness of director-screenwriter Chow Kwuh-wai’s “Self-Immolator” demands to be seen to be believed (and marveled at). Unfolding in pseudo-documentary-style, the POV camera crew tries to undercover the identity of a protestor who indeed self-immolated, apparently in response to the death in prison of hunger-striking independence activist Au-yeung Kin-fung.

Chow explicitly refers to the notorious Falun Gong self-immolations as most likely propaganda operations faked by the CCP and its secret police, while consciously echoing Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Communist Czechoslovakia. It is an amazingly bold work of cinema, but it is also an enormously gripping and suspenseful short film.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Co-Starring Cronenberg)

The Clifton Hill promenade is sort of like Branson, but with waterfalls and conspiracy theories. Tourists regularly flock to the family friendly attractions on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but the atmosphere there is really weird during low season. Of course, that is the perfect backdrop for the crime and corruption that unfolds in Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill, which opens this Friday in New York.

When Abby was a young girl, she witnessed a kidnapping while on a family camping trip. During the intervening years, she developed a reputation for telling stories, so her long-suffering sister Laure just assumes there is nothing to it. Nevertheless, when Abby returns to Niagara after her latest crash-and-burn, she resolves to finally solve the mystery. Her dubious investigation soon encompasses the wealthy but suspicious Lake family, who own a good deal of the tacky businesses on Clifton Hill, and the Moulins, a married duo of magicians clearly styled after Siegfried & Roy.

Abby is definitely an unreliable protagonist, but there is still something rotten in Niagara. After all, it’s Clifton Hill, Jake. Frankly, the secrets and conspiracies will not be particularly shocking to genre fans, even though Shin does his best to over-complicate them. However, he does a crackerjack job of establishing the tense mood and getting mileage out of the local idiosyncrasies.

In fact, one of the best things going for Disappearance is the character of Walter Bell, a scuba-diving local historian, who records his “Over the Falls” conspiracy theory podcasts from the town’s UFO diner. He is a memorable eccentric, especially since he is played (with understated elan) by legendary cult film director, David Cronenberg.

Blood on Her Name

Leigh Tiller has made some terrible decisions in her life, but let’s blame her problematic father for them. That’s what she does. It was certainly ill-advised to marry a crook and maintain his chop shop business while he is in the big house, but killing one of his violent associates will really be a doozy. Naturally, the cover-up makes everything worse in Matthew Pope’s Blood on Her Name, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Even with the off-the-books work, Tiller is struggling to make ends meet. Partly it is due to the restitution payments her sullen son Ryan still owes after blinding a would-be bully in a violent altercation. With a son on probation and a husband in the pen, Tiller panics after killing the latter’s former partner. It was an instinctive decision that she did not think out. Clearly, the cuts and bruises on her face suggest something happened. There is also a body to dispose of, but Tiller rather rashly returns him to his swampy home, so at least his wife and son will have some closure. Empathy—it might just be the end of her.

Of course, one darned thing happens after another for Tiller. Soon she is lying to everyone. She might even have to turn to her father Richard, but since he is the corrupt local sheriff, he could probably fix her problems.

Sometimes it is entertaining to watch hapless characters dig themselves deeper and deeper holes and sometimes it is painful to watch, because there is something about them that strikes a chord with us. In this case, it is just excruciating to see Tiller make every wrong decision possible. Granted, it is hard to prepare yourself mentally for this kind of situation, but Tiller is just hopeless.

Yet, maybe the most tiresome aspect of Name is constant flashbacks to the time Tiller witnessed her father do something truly awful during her childhood. We’ve seen this sort of motif before, but it is way overdone this time around.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

To Hong Kong with Love: Umbrella Diaries—The First Umbrella

The people of Hong Kong have spoken, over and over and over. They voted overwhelmingly for universal suffrage in the city-wide privately-sponsored 2014 referendum. Then they came out in record numbers for the Umbrella protests of 2014 and the Five-Demands-Not-One-Less demonstrations of 2019, finally codifying their commitment to democracy with the historic landslide election of reformer candidates in the December district council elections. Of course, Beijing and its puppet executive Carrie Lam did not want to hear them. Yet, there was a time in 2014 when activists genuinely hoped the Communist government would abide by the principles of “One China, Two Systems.” James Leong documents those hopefully early days of the movement in Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s ongoing film series, To Hong Kong with Love.

Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the democracy advocacy organization founded by academics Benny Tai and Dr. Chan Kin-man only wanted to “occupy” Central as a last resort. They conceived of the 2014 referendum as a means of expressing Hong Kong’s democratic ideals and aspirations. Unfortunately, Beijing arrogantly insisted on pre-selecting the candidates, which they described their brand of democracy, in aptly Orwellian terms. The leadership of Occupy Central was profoundly disappointed, but the students of Hong Kong just weren’t having it. They jumped out ahead of Occupy, launching massive demonstrations, forcing Chan and Tai to scramble to catch up.

The violence unleashed by the Hong Kong Police Force in 2019 was so brutal, it makes the tear-gassing and thuggery recorded in First Umbrella look comparatively mild. Nonetheless, it is clear from the anguished responses of parents and students looking on from behind police cordons, Hong Kong’s innocence died during 2014. The HKPF murdered it.

Leong mainly sticks to a strictly observational approach, but he captures key players at pivotal moments. Tai, Chan, Joshua Wong, Oscar Lai, and Agnes Chow all appear at length. The film also turns out to be admirably fair and balanced, given the equal time it allows pro-Beijing activist Robert Chow, who subsequently became notorious for his “snitch line” to inform on student activists and their schools. He is slick, but his smooth talk is undermined by his followers’ crude attempts to harass and intimidate young pro-democracy students. Indeed, this might be the most important part of the film, because it foreshadows the rampages committed by pro-Beijing “white shirts” in 2019.

NYICFF ’20: Fritzi: A Revolutionary Tale

Totalitarian regimes cannot afford to let children grow up to be free-thinkers, so they try to beat them into obedience while they are still children. That means schools are more often a place of indoctrination than education. Young Fritzi becomes the focus of her teacher’s wrath through no fault of her own. However, history is on her side in Matthias Bruhn & Ralf Kukula’s animated feature, Fritzi: A Revolutionary Tale, which screens during the 2020 New York International Film Festival.

Fritzi and her best friend Sophie are so close, they are almost like sisters. That is nearly as true for their mothers, so Fritzi and her family agree without hesitation to look after Sophie’s dog Sputnik while she and her mom vacation in Hungary. They had heard reports that the Hungarian border was becoming rather porous during the summer of 1989, but they never gave it much thought until Sophie fails to return for the start of class.

Their venomous teacher, Ms. Liesegang openly condemns Sophie for abandoning the socialist state in class, but Fritzi naively defends her friend. That immediately puts her on the outs with Liesegang and the school’s Young Pioneer enforcers. Soon, only Bela, the hipster son of democracy activist parents will talk to her. Fritzi still does not fully understand the hypocrisy and oppression of the East German system, but she will learn the hard way when she innocently attempts to find her way to the Federal Republic, to reunite Sophie and Sputnik.

This is 1989, so there is a happy ending waiting for Fritzi, but getting there will not be easy. Along the way, she gets swept up in the Monday Demonstrations at St. Nicholas, first as an inadvertent bystander, but eventually as an active participant. Of course, we know where it is all headed, but Beate Volcker’s adaptation of Hannah Schott & Peter Palatsik children’s novel vividly captures the hope, fear, and uncertainty of the era. They also manage to shoehorn a girl-and-her-dog story into the grand historical events of 1989 quite nicely.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers

They are like the code-talkers of criminal capers. A corrupt Romanian police inspector has been sent to the Canary Islands to learn the ancient aboriginal whistling language known as El Silbo. The crooks he is in metaphorical bed with suspect his police and prosecutor colleagues will assume it is only the sound of birds chirping. He will pick up the El Silbo language quickly, but extracting himself from his extra-legal dilemma will be considerably trickier in Corneliu Porumboiu’s archly clever thriller, The Whistlers, which opens this Friday in New York.

When Gilda the femme fatale makes contact with Cristi, the bent copper, she catches on quicker than the audience does that he is under surveillance. She comes up with an appropriately femme fatalle-ish justification for her presence in his apartment, but she assures him the sex means nothing. Nevertheless, when they meet again on La Gomera in the Canaries, he cannot help feeling something for her.

She is part of the gang that has been bribing Cristi. Despite his inside information, the head of the Romanian operation has been arrested, so they have devised a plot to break him out of custody. That could leave Cristi a tad bit exposed, but the syndicate is not too worried about him. Cristi is also rather concerned about the abuse Gilda must take from a local La Gomera gangster. He would like to find a way to save her from the gang, even though he is still not sure he can trust her.

The Whistlers is indeed a clever little noir, with all kinds of surprises in store for viewers, making it a radical change of pace from Porumboi’s previous cerebral features, like The Treasure and Police, Adjective. The tone of Whistlers is considerably cooler than the average cross-and-double-cross criminal melodrama—like glacially cool—but it still delivers the genre goods.

Vlad Ivanov, who memorably played the semantically intimidating copper in Police, Adjective is perfectly cast as the drily cynical Cristi. He just looks like a crooked cop, but he also convincingly conveys a sense of Cristi’s increasingly conflicted motivations. Likewise, Catrinel Marlon keeps viewers happily guessing regarding Gilda’s intentions with Cristi. Yet, maybe the best noir work comes from Rodica Lazar, chewing the scenery with gleeful abandon as Magda, the prosecutor who is probably more corrupt than anyone, in her own mercenary way.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Opening in Brazil: Countdown

Yes, this cursed app is the work of demonic forces, but its still not as evil as Huawei. It foretells the time of downloaders’ death, but any attempt to alter its prophecies makes it ferociously angry. Those with impending dooms who try to cheat fate are in for some uncanny torment in Justin Dec’s Countdown, which opens this week in Brazil (having recently released on DVD here in the U.S.).

The victim of the prologue reluctantly downloads the “Countdown” app after succumbing to drunken peer pressure. That’s never a good idea in horror movies. Even though she refuses her inebriated boyfriend’s offer of a ride home, she still perishes in a freak accident. That rather makes him a believer, since he did indeed plow his car into a tree. It turns out his countdown is nearly up too. RN-in-training Quinn Harris tries to talk sense to him, but he inevitably dies at the precisely foretold second as well. That rather unnerves her, since she also has the infernal app at this point—and it says she only has a matter of days.

Of course, everyone is downloading Countdown, so she soon finds another short-timer to team up with. She and Matt Monroe seek salvation from cell phone stores and the Catholic Church. In this case, the latter is more helpful, but only after they find a pop-culture fanboy Father who self-taught himself demonological lore.

In fact, it is when Father John finally appears that Countdown really starts to perk up. Arguably, the first act is largely derivative of the Final Destination franchise. However, P.J. Byrne’s likably loopy portrayal of the good Father and his character’s intriguing exorcism strategies crank up the energy and taps into some deep Blatty-esque good vs. evil themes.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sundance ’20: Lost Girls & Mole Agent

Hitchcock loved putting average everymen into breakneck thrillers. To a large extent, that is what happens to the three protagonists of three standout films for mystery thriller fans that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. They also happen to be stories grounded in reality, but the circumstances of each are vastly different.

One of the best films of any genre at this year’s Sundance was Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark, which featured the festival’s most classically Hitchcockian hero, Greville Wynne, the real-life British businessman who was recruited to make contact with a highly-placed Soviet mole, as an amateur spy, completely unaware of the greater stakes involved. Full review here.

Liz Garbus’s Lost Girls is also directly based on a true story, but rather than playing a grand game of espionage, Mari Gilbert finds herself in a harrowing nightmare when her daughter Shannan disappears, presumably because she is another victim of the Long Island Serial Killer (a.k.a. Craig’s List Killer). Based on Robert Kolker’s well-received true crime account, Lost Girls follows Gilbert’s campaign to shame the Suffolk County police in to conducting a more thorough investigation, as well as her own free-lance efforts.

The problem is the cops on the case are not particularly motivated to investigate the serial murder of prostitutes like Shannan, nor are they inclined to dig too deeply in the gated community where she was last seen. The fact that the victims came from families decidedly on the lower end of the socio-economic and educational spectrums does not help either. Mari Gilbert is the roughest of family-support group, but she is also the toughest. Police Commissioner Richard Dormer starts to grudgingly respect her, so he might even start pushing the investigation a little.

In many ways, the Craig’s List killings were similar to Robert Pickton’s prostitute murders depicted in Rachel Talay’s On the Farm, but at least the Vancouver serial killer was eventually brought to justice. The Long Island murders remain unsolved, which necessarily implies an unsatisfying conclusion for Lost Girls. Yet, Amy Ryan’s withering intensity as Gilbert and the world-weary sadness Gabriel Byrne brings to Dormer still make Lost Girls deeply compelling. In fact, screenwriter Michael Werwie manages to shape the material into a surprisingly suspenseful narrative, while Garbus nicely balances the socially conscious anger with gritty procedural elements.

Mr. Sergio is sort of a spy like Wynne, but he is even more ordinary than Gilbert. He also happens to be a spry 83-years-old, which makes him the perfect candidate to go undercover as a nursing home resident in Maite Alberdi’s Chilean documentary, The Mole Agent.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Elem Klimov’s Come and See

During the Glasnost era, Soviet director Elem Klimov personally supervised the release of scores of previously banned films. Technically, he was a Communist Party member, but he was always out of step with Party orthodoxy. His anti-war masterwork was about as far as a film can get from Socialist Realism, but its hyper-reality is arguably the best cinematic recreation of what it is like to experience war first-hand. Viewers can witness the terrible sound and fury of Klimov’s vision in all its brutal power when the freshly restored Come and See opens today at Film Forum.

Much to his mother’s alarm, her teenaged son Flyora has volunteered for the Soviet partisans. This appears to be an official Red Army-affiliated company of partisans, which probably makes matters worse. Of course, when they come to collect her boy, they also plunder the family farm. Maybe it is just as well Flyora does not impress the legendary commander Kosach, who holds him back from combat. However, he orders the boy to surrender his sturdy boots to a salty old comrade.

Unfortunately, Flyora will find himself in the thick of war when the National Socialists over-run the Soviet Socialists’ defenses. Soon, he is navigating a hellscape of artillery bombardments and war crimes. The lad latches onto several companions in order to survive, which he does, but that is often not true for those around him.

Frankly, it takes a bit of time to unlock because the naïve Flyora we meet in early scenes seems so willfully blind to everything we can see around him. However, his slow transformation is a harrowing spectacle to behold. First-time actor Alexei Kravchenko (now an established veteran) appears to genuinely age thirty years during the course of the film. From a callow child, he evolves into a creature in and of war.

Come and See is also an overwhelming achievement on a technical level. Klimov and cinematographer Alexei Rodionov employ long, complex Steadicam tracking shots that are clearly a forerunner to Mendes’ 1917. Yet, it is the disorienting maelstrom of sound effects that really instill the sensation of being in the middle of a war zone.

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

Things are already worse than when this film was locked. Less than two months ago, the nation was shocked by a violent attack on a Rabbi and his family in Rockland, New York. Perhaps even more concerning over the long-term, the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination has recruited two high profile surrogates with a history of pushing anti-Semitic tropes: Linda Sarsour and Amer Zahr. They happen to be affiliated with the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who endorsed and campaigned for UK Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn, whose own troubling history features prominently in writer-director-on-camera presenter Andrew Goldberg’s Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations, which opens today in New York.

Goldberg examines four specific manifestations (or “mutations”) of antisemitism: far-right domestic terrorists in America, Hungary’s state-sponsored campaign demonizing George Soros, the Israel-hating far-left in England (personified by Corbyn), and Islamist terrorism in France. Frankly, he deserves credit for his non-partisan, equally penetrating treatment of both extreme sides of the spectrum. Arguably, the initial American section already feels dated due to the absence of the Rockland attack and the Jersey City shooting, which were rooted in very different ideologies, but are still probably too recent to put in sufficient perspective. Regardless, the hate-mongers and mass-murderers Goldberg covers are indeed alarming, particularly because they represent a wider trend.

Of the four mutations of antisemitism, Hungarian nationalist Viktor Orban probably practices the subtlest brand, which is a rather unsettling contention to suggest. Nonetheless, Goldberg and the Hungarians he interviews convincingly identify the age-old anti-Semitic imagery and motifs in his campaign against Soros. Admittedly, Soros is no angel (ask the Bank of England), but it is terrifying to see a state-funded propaganda campaign targeting a single individual.

Perhaps the gutsiest section of the film documents the depth and extent of Labour’s antisemitism that generated in over 1,000 complaints, according to media reports. Goldberg could have filled a twelve-hour documentary with Corbyn’s troubling comments, writings, and associations, but what he includes is more than enough to raise all kinds of questions regarding the British politician’s judgement. He also takes on former London mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone, who resigned from the Labour Party after bizarrely arguing Hitler was a Zionist.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

NYICFF ’20: The Prince’s Voyage

Prince Laurence is quite a distinguished-looking primate, even more so than Dr. Zaius in the Planet of the Apes movies. He is a warrior, an inventor, an explorer, and the leader of his people. He also finds himself a stranger in a strange land in Jean-Francois Laguionie & Xavier Picard’s animated feature The Prince’s Voyage, which screens during the 2020 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Prince Laurence always believed there were lands beyond his realm. Following a pitched battle, he fatefully washes up on its shores. Young Tom saves his life, seeking help from the eccentric scientists squatting in an abandoned museum and their kindly servant. Prof. Victor Abervrach considers the Prince vindication of his widely mocked theories, so he intends to introduce the regal Laurence at an upcoming academic conference. The Prince has intuitive contempt for Abervrach, but he quickly develops a deep rapport with Tom, who very much resembles Kom, in whom he took a similarly paternal interest in during Laguionie’s earlier feature, A Monkey’s Tale (but think of Voyage as more of a companion film than a sequel).

Eventually, the Prince starts exploring the hyper-industrial Nioukos megapolis, with Tom as his guide. However, he eventually learns there is more to this world than even its pompous scientific community realizes. In fact, the comparison to Planet of the Apes is rather apt, except the human outsider is a monkey—and the ruling Nioukos monkeys are too. Admittedly, Laguionie & co-writer Anik Leray make some rather heavy-handed points regarding the perils of living out of synch with nature, but the fable-like atmosphere and strange-but-familiar environment are a pleasure to sink into.

Hunters on Amazon

In 1977, thriller fans were primed to look for fugitive National Socialists under every bed. Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil had been one of the biggest bestsellers of the previous year, following in the footsteps of Robert Ludlum’s Osterman Weekend and Frederick Forsythe’s Odessa File. Plus, in real life, Simon Wiesenthal’s heroic hunt for war criminals was reasonably well-reported. Meyer Offerman has recruited a team to do similar work, but their methods are more hardcore in the first season of Hunters, created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, which premieres tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

Jonah Heidelbaum knew his grandmother Ruth survived a concentration camp, but she never talked about the Holocaust. Yet, he suspects her murder was somehow related to her status as a survivor, based on what he heard while cowering around the corner. Offerman definitely agrees.

Offerman met and fell in love with Heidelbaum’s grandmother while they were both held captive in the camps. Over time, their relationship became rather complicated, but she was still his primary researcher, who compiled the files and testimony that now supports the group’s Nazi-hunting. Naturally, Heidelbaum wants in, but the rest of the Hunters are skeptical, especially the not very merciful Sister Harriet. Martial arts expert Joe Torrance and the Pam Grier-inspired Roxy Jones are nearly as unwelcoming. However, Murray and Mindy Markowitz, an old married couple who happen to be crack weaponsmiths, and Lonnie Flash, a Jewish exploitation movie star (sort of a forerunner to the Hebrew Hammer) are more sympathetic.

Even before her murder, Offerman’s group detected signs of increased activity on behalf of the secretive Odessa-esque organization. Viewers know they have Biff Simpson, a highly placed mole in the State Department, who has convinced Jimmy Carter to lift trade sanctions on Latin America. Apparently, they have big plans that require a mystery import from the southern hemisphere.

is peppered with many amusing faux-grindhouse visual gags in the Tarantino-Machete tradition, but it still has a very incomplete understanding of the era it is trying to recreate. Sometimes it is small details, like a reference to Kramer vs. Kramer, which was released two years later (in 1979). However, some errors reflect a more fundamental cluelessness regarding the greater social trends of the era. For instance, in one scene, naïve Heidelbaum goes undercover as Young Republican canvasser, hoping to score a signature from a suspected war criminal in Huntville, Alabama. However, a YR would be almost unheard of in the solid democratic South of the 1970s. (Alabama voted squarely for Carter and the Huntsville district elected Dems until 2010.) Even more to the point, the rampant crime and fiscal collapse that defined Abe Beame’s mayoralty in New York are largely, if not entirely ignored.

Nevertheless, given the alarming increase in anti-Semitic violence, here and abroad, it is definitely satisfying to see some old school retribution. The shadowy conspirators and the German fugitives hiding in plain sight totally have it coming—and the Hunters frequently give it to them, in graphically poetic terms.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

NYICFF ’20: On-Gaku—Our Sound

Kenji and his friends have absolutely no musical training, but they can pound things. That is more than good enough for punk rock. Somehow, the three knuckleheads tap into something raw, primal, and transformative when they take up instruments in Kenji Iwaisawa’s anime feature manga-adaptation On-Gaku: Our Sound, which screens during the 2020 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Kenji is a brawny high school meathead, whose primary satisfaction has come from rumbling with school rivals, but even that now leaves him bored. He and his running mates Oota and Asakura swipe two electric basses and a drum set from the school band room and suddenly they are beating out a hypnotic pulse. They christen themselves Kubujutsu (a martial arts reference), but soon learn there is also a folk-rock trio on-campus named Kubitjutsu (a fine arts reference), led by the confidence challenged Morita.

Of course, the sensitive folkies are terrified when they hear Kenji and his pals are looking for them, but it turns out both groups really dig each other’s music. They might even both play the town’s rock festival, if Morita and Kenji do not mess things up, in their own distinctly idiosyncratic ways.

In terms of animation style and attitude, On-Gaku shares a kinship with Beavis & Butthead, but the humor is much drier—like bone-dry. At times, Kenji and his mates are so laconic, viewers will start to wonder if the film is stuck. Yet, whenever that tension is released, the effect is hilarious.

Boston/Japan ’20: The Journalist

Pick your paranoid poison: military industrial complex or deep state. The conspiratorial world views of the far left and the far right definitely seem to be converging, probably because they were never really that different to begin with. You can see elements of both brands of tinfoil hat-wearing fever dreams in Michihito Fujii’s political thriller, The Journalist, which screens as part of the 2020 Boston Festival of Films from Japan.

Erica Yoshioka is the journalist, just like her late American-trained father. Unfortunately, he fell victim to a scoop that imploded on him, ultimately costing him her life. His example will weigh heavily on her when she sees conscientious bureaucrat Toshinao Kanzaki kill himself after getting scapegoated for government malfeasance. She suspects Kanzaki was the anonymous source that sent her revealing documents regarding a dodgy medical college, suspiciously funded by the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office (CIRO, Japan’s CIA) rather than their HHS.

Obviously, Yoshioka will not be getting anymore information from him, but his disillusioned protégé Takumi Sugihara might be ready to crash the system. The CIRO bureaucrat was already sick of the online trolling and disinformation operations he oversees. The death of Kanzaki might just push him over the Deep Throat edge. However, he still has a responsibility to protect his pregnant wife and unborn daughter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

WFA ’20: Polybius (short)

It is sort of like the evil version of The Last Starfighter. Of course, it is still set during the 1980s, just like all good horror movies are. A suspicious arcade game seems to have an insidious effect on players, but the investigating sheriff certainly inspires confidence in Jimmy Kelly’s short film Polybius, which screens during the 2020 Winter Film Awards.

There is a new game at the magic store where Michael Bower and his friends hang. It seems to involve puzzle-solving skills, so it appeals to the brainy teen. Unfortunately, his interest quickly turns to obsession, resulting in suicide. Sheriff Atkins has seen several such cases in recent weeks, so when his sister Jennifer blames the game, he gives credence to her suspicions.

Arguably, Polybius is more of an exercise in horror fan service than an attempt to generate suspense or scares, but it is really smart and self-aware fan service. First and foremost, it stars genre legend Tom Atkins as the namesake Sheriff. As usual, he is great fun to watch, but he also gives us quite compellingly portrayal of a world-weary but empathetic lawman. However, real fans will notice Stacey Nelkin, his co-star in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, also sort of “appears,” as the picture of Atkins’ wife on his desk and as the voice of the radio dispatcher. Plus, young Jennifer Kelly deserves credit for her impressive work as grieving Jennifer Bower.

Balloon: Escaping Socialism

Hot air rises, even back in the cold, dingy GDR. Unfortunately, the wind rarely blew in a northernly direction. That is one of the many reasons why escape using a hot air balloon was such a desperate and unlikely plan. Nevertheless, two families oppressed by the socialist state will risk everything trying to sail away to freedom in Michael Bully Herbig’s historically accurate Balloon, which opens this Friday in New York.

If this premise sounds familiar, it is because the Walt Disney company produced Night Crossing in 1982, based on the same historical episode. Directed by the Oscar-winning Delbert Mann, the previous film is quite under-appreciated, but this is definitely a story worth re-telling, especially by German filmmakers.

In 1979, Erich Honecker rules East Germany with an iron hand, at Moscow’s behest. Border guards have orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to cross over to the west, because that is what defending socialism entails. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families are determined to escape the oppressive regime to give their children better lives, so they have been secretly stitching together a hot air balloon as a means of escape. Unfortunately, Gunter Wetzel, the engineer who designed the balloon has come to the conclusion it cannot support both families. Due to the Wetzels’ circumstances, they defer to the Strelzyks, whose flight falters heartbreakingly close to the border.

Unlike the Mann film, which build up the maiden flight, Herbig essentially starts with the initial failed escape attempt and then cranks up the tension as both families go back to the drawing board, mindful that the dreaded Stasi is closing in on them. Rather awkwardly, the Strelzyks live right across the street from the local Stasi section chief. At least, Baumann is a dim-witted blowhard. On the other hand, Lt. Col. Seidel, who is overseeing the investigation of the first balloon crash site and the resulting manhunt, happens to be a shrewd and ruthless predator.

Well-known for comedy in Germany, Herbig set out to make his equivalent of The Lives of Others with Balloon. That is a daunting film to invite comparisons to, but Herbig fares surprisingly well. While Balloon does not have the same tragic heft and inspirational uplift, it is a grittily realistic film that is also nerve-wrackingly tense.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sundance ’20: Regret & Bad Hair (Midnight shorts)

Horror can address human frailty better than any other genre. We make our own nightmares after all. For instance, two of the films included this year’s Sundance Midnight Shorts Program were made possible by vanity and denial. People do it to themselves in Oskar Lehemaa’s Bad Hair and Santiago Menghini’s Regret, which screened during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Lehemaa’s Bad Hair should not be confused with Justin Simien’s feature-length Bad Hair, which also screened as part of the midnight section at this year’s Sundance, even though they share some common themes. In the Estonian short, the follically-challenged Leo has ordered a decidedly suspicious hair-growth product. As part of the instructions, he shares his ratty looking remnants and almost stops there, struck by the improvement his bald head represents.

Unfortunately, he goes ahead applying the goop. What follows is some of the wildest, yell-out-loud body horror you will ever see. In fact, the big, destructive finale is sort of anti-climatic compared to the slimy stuff and the hairy chaos it wreaks. Sten Karpov is a heck of a good sport letting all that goey lunacy fall upon his head as part of his performance as Leo, but the real stars are the hair and makeup effects artists, including Hella Marats, Iris Muntel, wig-maker Kerli Laaberg, and “hair punchers” Liisi Roht and Arlin Saan.

In contrast, Menghini’s Quebec-set short is all about atmosphere. Wayne’s father has died, but he is not dealing with it—not one little bit. Instead, he is using a business trip as an excuse for his absence. However, his guilt will metastasize and manifest itself in semi-corporal form, literally haunting Wayne during his long night of the soul.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Boston/Japan ’20: Erica 38

She was a lot like the Bernie Madoff of Japan, but maybe slightly more human—or not. She could sell a Ponzi scheme as well as anyone, but no amount of money will heal her daddy issues. The con artist’s life unfolds in a not wholly unsympathetic manner during the course of Yuichi Hibi’s Erica 38, which screens as part of the 2020 Boston Festival of Films from Japan.

Her real name is Satoko Watabe. Erica is the alias she used while laying low in Thailand (where the fifty-something convincingly claimed to be thirty-eight). The flashback structure reveals right from the start, Thailand will arrest Watabe and extradite her back to Japan, but she maintains her distinguished bearing, even behind bars. She is a swindler, but you know what? She has dignity.

Frankly, it is debatable whether Watabe really chose this path for herself. She was recruited by more experienced grifters at key junctures, but there is no question she took to the flim-flam business. For a while, she and Ikuo Hirasawa make quite the illicit team, both at business banquets and in the bedroom. However, it is inevitable that one of them will eventually betray the other.

Erica 38 has a slick, detached docudrama look that gives it a pronounced 1970s vibe (even though the events depicted occurred much later), somewhat like Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine or Thierry de Peretti’s A Violent Life. In fact, the film is ostensibly told through the lens of a documentary filmmaker following Watabe’s trail, in the tradition of William Alland in Citizen Kane

Friday, February 14, 2020

You Go to My Head: Memory, Love, and Architecture

Jutting out of the desert outside of Marrakesh, Fobe House looks like it could be the setting of a Chanel commercial directed by Bruce Weber. The white ultra-modern structures are not the sort of home you would forget. Yet, supposedly an amnesiac accident survivor has done just that, but the last thing her supposed husband wants is for her to recover her memory in Dimitri de Clerq’s You Go to My Head, which opens today in New York.

Dafne’s lover died in the land rover mishap and the desert would have finished her off too, if Jake hadn’t come along in the nick of time. She is dangerously dehydrated and suffering from shock-induced amnesia, but her physical strength will soon rebound. Jake initially acts out of compassion, but when the doctor presumes she is his wife, he just sort of goes with it. He even has a space for her to fill, left vacant by his wife Kitty, who apparently vanished several years ago.

Jake is an attentive nurse and also pretty good at crafting cover stories. Fortunately, Kitty’s clothes fit Dafne perfectly, when she choses to wear them. Nevertheless, she will inevitably start to question her real identity, because that is what happens in amnesia movies.

You Go to My Head is sort of a psychological thriller and sort of a romance, inhabiting the rarely trodden terrain between the two genres. De Clerq goes for mood and suggestiveness more than outright suspense, but that turns out to be a nice change of pace. Frankly, it is hard to resist any film that showcases the striking Fobe House (designed by Jake in the film and Guilhem Eustache in real life) and features two late-career tracks from Chet Baker: “I’m a Fool to Love You,” and the titular Coots-Gillespie standard. In fact, the latter’s lyrics are aptly suited to de Clerq’s dreamy and seductive vibe: “you go to my head/and you linger like a haunting refrain/And I find you spinning round in my brain/Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.”

A Simple Wedding

There is a good chance an Iranian wedding will at some point feature a reading from Hafez, the great Persian love poet. Nousha Husseini would probably prefer his satirical work. She is under tremendous pressure from her mother Ziba to marry, but the bi-sexual DJ-artist she falls for is not exactly the kind of husband her family had in mind. Nevertheless, Ziba is determined to have a big ceremony, even if it kills her daughter in Sara Zandieh’s A Simple Wedding (title irony), which opens today on Long Island.

Husseini works at the sort of public interest law firm where they talk about protesting patriarchy as if that actually meant something. (Try protesting patriarchy in her native Iran and we’ll all be much more impressed.) Regardless, Husseini is rather grateful when Alex Talbot and his band of feminist performance artists show up for her friend’s latest sparsely attended demonstration. There is definitely something sparking between them, even though she is initially a little unsure of Talbot’s sexuality. Needless to say, they quickly become an item, but Husseini tries to forestall his introduction to her parents for as long as possible—with good reason.

When they do finally meet, Talbot finds himself agreeing to marry Husseini, much to their mutual surprise. Yet, they go along with the plan, because they are crazy about each other. As viewers will expect, things start to get awkward when Husseini’s traditional Persian family meets Talbot’s divorced parents, as well as his father’s new husband. At least Husseini’s reassuring Uncle Saman manages to slip through the Iranian travel restrictions in order to attend.

It is hard not to think “Big Fat Persian Wedding,” especially since Rita Wilson plays Talbot’s romantically frustrated mother Maggie Baker (a little shticky, but could have been worse). However, the humor is usually sharper than the obvious comp and sometimes racier. Frankly, Zandieh & Stephanie Wu’s screenplay is surprisingly amusing, even though it is painfully obvious everybody will eventually come together and learn to appreciate each other’s differences.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Spy Intervention

Casual fans might not remember when James Bond got married, because it happened during the brief but glorious Lazenby era. Needless to say, it didn’t last. Maybe it will work out better for Corey Gage, but probably not. His relatively new marriage will get particularly rocky when his old agency tries to pull him back into cloak and dagger work—for his own good. The rusty super-agent tries to simultaneously save the world and his marriage in Drew Mylrea’s Spy Intervention, which opens somewhere tomorrow.

Intervention opens with a jokey faux anthropological prologue, in which natural history dioramas illustrates Sinbad-esque difference-of-the-sexes gags, like something out of early 1960s rom-coms. Like most of the jokes here, these bits really don’t land. At least we get a little forward momentum when Gage meet-cutes Pam Grayson during a mission that goes down sideways. She is the reason why.

Suddenly, Gage is willing to chuck away all the globetrotting and settle down with the mall-store makeup sales associate, even though that leaves his final mission unfinished. Of course, Smuts, his best friend at the agency (think more like U.N.C.L.E. or CONTROL from Get Smart rather than the workaday CIA) insists he return temporarily, to complete the job. Naturally, he will be partnered with a bombshell. It’s to save the world, but they also argue it will force him to remember what he’s really good at.

The humor of Intervention is always quite broad and mostly rather dumb. However, Mylrea and screenwriters Mark Famiglietti and Lane Garrison suddenly start scoring laughs with the manic farce of Grayson’s climatic dinner party. It’s probably not worth sticking around for, but there is some kind of payoff at the end of the tunnel.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Enter the Fat Dragon: Opening in NY but Not China

If Sammo Hung can do it for real, Donnie Yen can certainly pull off similar moves wearing some extra padding. When a hot-shot Hong Kong cop gets reassigned to the property room, he loses his trim physique, but he still has the same skills. The 1978 Hung fan favorite gets a re-whatevering in the portly shape of Wong Jing & Kenji Tanigaki’s Enter the Fat Dragon, which opens this Friday in New York—but not in China, where its theatrical release was canceled due to Xi Jinping’s super-proactive handling of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Initially, Fallon Zhu is the hardest charging cop on the HK force, but when he publicly embarrasses his superiors, he is transferred from police work to evidence warehousing. He is also dumped by his on-again-off-again fiancée, Chloe, a semi-famous second tier TV actress. Sitting around depressed in the property cage day after day leads to a lot of snacking. Despite the weight gain, he is happy to get back into action when he is tapped to escort a prisoner extradited (there’s a sensitive word in Hong Kong) back to Japan.

Of course, his dodgy Tokyo PD contact quickly loses the prisoner, but Zhu gets the blame, so he and his Chinese-Japanese interpreter go careening through Tokyo in search of the fugitive (frankly it often doesn’t look much like Tokyo, but so be it). He will also have the help of his former junior-now senior’s goofy expatriate chestnut-hawking pal Thor. Plus, as fate would have it, Chloe is also in Tokyo to make promotional appearances at the behest of the Yakuza front-man pulling all the strings.

The humor of Fat Dragon is definitely goofy and slapstick, but as his own action director (with choreographers Hua Yan and Tanigaki), Yen composes some gloriously loopy fight sequences that could very well equal those of vintage Jackie Chan movies. There is some incredible athleticism and acrobatics on display, much of which Yen performs wearing Santa Clause padding.

Boston/Japan ’20: Killing

A little existential angst is understandable in a ronin (masterless samuai), but Mokunoshin Tsuzuki takes it to a whole new level. He has skills, but his hesitancy to take life will be interpreted as a weakness in cinematic madman Shinya Tsukamoto’s lean, minimalist samurai drama, Killing, which screens during the 2020 Boston Festival of Films from Japan.

Tsuzuki has been marking time as a seasonal laborer in a remote agricultural village and serving as its unofficial protector. He likes his hosts, particularly the sweet-tempered Yu and trains hard with her amiable brother Ichisuke, but he realizes he must eventually restart his career as a swordsman. Fate seems to intervene when Jirozaemon Sawamura passes through the village, recruiting ronin to fight on behalf of the Shogun, not unlike Takashi Shimura in the opening scenes of Seven Samurai. He will take Tsuzuki as a member of the core group and also Ichisuke as a reserve, neither of which sits well with Yu.

To make matters worse, a band of suspicious ruffians starts camping nearby. Yu fears they will pillage the village once the ronin move on, but Tsuzuki is convinced they are merely rowdy and a little rough around the edges. He holds fast to that hope, even after they badly thrash poor Ichisuke. However, that will be more than enough to convince Sawamura otherwise.

Arguably, both Tsuzuki and Sawamura are both partially right. The former correctly predicts violence has a tendency to beget violence, but as they say in Texas (with Sawamura concurring), some of these characters just need killing. Regardless, Tsukamoto’s Killing is a rather elegant meditation on the nature of violence that actually fits the bushido spirit quite well. Real trained martial artists always try avoid fighting outside of a controlled tournament setting, unless it is absolutely necessary. It is not just because their skills are so deadly (though that may be true). It is more about inner discipline and walking the humble path.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Beanpole: The Tall Thin Girl from Leningrad

It is the post-war Stalin years, when nearly all Soviets were thin and emaciated from malnutrition. Average comrades would stay that way for the next forty-four years, while the privileged apparatchiks enjoyed the fringe benefits of a classless society. Iya Sergueeva is definitely classless and ordinary. Only her tall thin frame and her brief bouts of catatonia distinguish her from the faceless proletariat. Even though the war is over, she will still suffer acutely in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles and extends its New York run at Film Forum.

is inspired by, but not adapted from Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War. Naïve, suffering from PTSD, and probably somewhat on the spectrum to begin with, Iya is hardly even aware of Stalin’s existence, but the proof is in the poverty and privation all around her. Frankly, Iya is even less worldly than people assume, because her son Pashka is actually the child of her friend Masha.

There is an unspeakably heartbreaking tragedy less than fifteen minutes into the two-hour-plus film. Yet, the characters will have to soldier on, because they don’t have a choice, so the audience will as well. When Masha is demobbed, we start to get a sense of their relationship’s dysfunctional codependency. It might be emotionally unhealthy, but in Stalin’s Russia, you have to forge alliances to survive. For Masha, a bit of salt and some matches are a preferable substitute for foreplay, so she is handy to be close to.

This is a tough film, but a powerful film. Iya is the title character, but Masha is the true protagonist. She makes some highly questionable decisions, but she survives. In fact, the distributor really should have supplied to the Academy clips of Masha’s big scene explaining the reality of what it meant to be a woman “serving” in the Red Army, because it probably could have earned the Oscar shortlisted film an International feature nomination.

Vasilisa Peerelgina is absolutely riveting as the fierce but vulnerable Masha. Her big scene is a haymaker, but she also has plenty of quietly potent and poisonous moments. In contrast, Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays Iya with eerie detachment. Yet, it is not a one-note performance like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. She yearns for something to fill her emptiness and stews in her confusion and resentment when she fails to get it.