Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tales from the Loop: Science Fiction Gets Moody and Thoughtful

This little Middle American community is a company town, but that plant where everyone works is an underground laboratory for cutting edge physics experiments known as “The Loop.” At its core is a huge Macguffin called “The Eclipse.” Think of it as three parts super-collider and one-part Obelisk from 2001. The Eclipse seems to make strange things happen for those whose lives revolve around—or maybe they just happen on their own in writer-creator Nathaniel Halpern’s sort-of science fiction sort-of anthology series, Tales from the Loop, which premieres Thursday on Amazon Prime.

Perhaps it is fitting Amazon supplied the press with non-sequential episodes, considering Tales addresses subjects like time-loops and alternate realities. Episodes 101: “Loop” and Episode 104: “Echo Sphere” pair up well together, because they closely follow the domestic dramas of the Willard, whereas Episode 106: “Parallel” could very well be the best of the series. Think of it as Somewhere in Time with more overt science fiction elements.

In contrast, the fantastical is decidedly dialed down in “Echo” and possibly intended as a matter for interpretation in “Loop,” despite the depressed looking robot constantly trudging across the background. The series starts with a suitably cryptic introduction from Russ Willard, the founder and director of the Loop. We then meet a little girl whose emotional disturbed mother works as a researcher at the Loop. She befriends Willard’s grandson, Cole, after her mother and all traces of the woman’s existence disappear after conducting an off-the-books experiment using a stolen fragment of the Eclipse. However, the well-meaning Cole has a hard time finding an adult who will bother to listen to them.

“Echo” is definitely the least genre of the episodes up for review, but it is definitely a showcase for Jonathan Pryce, portraying Russ Willard. It still features the same eerie retro-futuristic, post-industrial, alternate 1980s landscapes that distinguished Simon Stalenhag’s original conceptual art books, particularly the rusted out Echo Sphere itself. Supposedly, the number of times your voice echoes inside foretells the length of your life, so if it doesn’t echo at all, you can guess what that means.

Instead of the Willards, “Parallel” focuses Gaddis, the lonely and lonely-hearted security guard posted in a small booth outside the entrance to the Loop. He happens to find a tractor abandoned in the field behind the bungalow where he lives, which is interesting to us, because it appears to levitate like the landspeeders in Star Wars. However, it is interesting to Gaddis because he finds a picture of a man inside that becomes the focus of his romantic fantasies, much like Dana Andrews in Laura. When he finally fixes the tractor and fires it up, it returns through the wormhole it came through, where he finds his alternate, more sociable self is engaged in a relationship with the man in the picture.

ReelAbilities ‘20: Angel’s Mirror (short)

Despite some statutory reform (considered to be part of the Olympic hosting PR spruce-up), disability is still widely stigmatized in Mainland China. That is why a young boy who is new to the neighborhood cannot imagine why a pretty girl never comes out to play. A connection may or may not be forged in Cheng Chao’s short film, Angel’s Mirror, which “screens” as part of this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival New York—now presented online.

Ironically, the only audible dialogue in Mirror are spoken by the boy’s mother, who sends him out to play with half a Yuan, while the adults unpack. He soon falls in with a pack of similarly aged boys, who congregate around the courtyard’s ping pong tables. At first, he is confused when they all stop and turn to stare in unison, but he quickly realizes they are gawking at Angel. When he pulls out a pocket mirror to signal her, he starts to communicate and interact with her—but he still doesn’t fully get it.

It is impressive how much Cheng’s film conveys without dialogue. It is a sensitive, classy production that looks and sounds great, thanks to Liu Lianjie’s child’s eye cinematography and the warm, delicate musical selections licensed from Motohiro Nakashima. Hao Yiming and Zhang Zhijing are both wonderfully expressive young actors, as the new boy and Angel, respectively. However, Cheng’s conclusion doesn’t really hit the inspirational note he is going for. In fact, it is a bit baffling.

Monday, March 30, 2020

ReelAbilities ‘20: Oliver Sacks—His Own Life

Oliver Sacks died in 2015, but watching a documentary profile at such times as these can only make us wonder of what he would have made of the age of the CCP-virus, a.k.a. COVID-19. The practice of social distancing probably would have pained him, but he would surely be doing his part as a medical doctor (thank you medical professionals and first responders). Sacks did not live long enough to witness the pandemic Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed allowed to escape early detection in Wuhan to infect the world, but he had time to see his writings embraced by an initially skeptical medical community and to take stock of his life and career in Ric Burns’ Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, which “screens” as part of this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival New York—now presented online.

Burns gives Sacks the full biographical treatment, tracing the psychological and emotional impact of his schizophrenic brother’s struggles during his formative years. His complicated relationship to his mother, who probably never really accepted Sacks’ sexuality, also features prominently. Although these issues clearly contributed to Sacks’ bouts with depression, they arguably helped make him such an unusually empathetic doctor.

Ironically, the book most responsible for Sacks’ fame, Awakenings, was initially a modest seller that made Sacks almost a pariah amongst the neurological establishment. His hide-bound peers simply refused to believe he had produced such dramatic results administering L-Dopa to patients in an apparent locked-in neurological state. They didn’t really change their mind until the Hollywood movie co-starring jazz legend Dexter Gordon was released.

Burns and Sacks’ colleagues do a nice job explaining how many of Sacks’ concepts and practices were so far ahead of his time. The study of what constitutes “consciousness” concerned Sacks long before Nobel Laureate Francis Crick started consulting him on the subject.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Self-Quarantine Viewing: The Mercenary

It is a terrible idea to leave a soldier-for-hire like Maxx for dead. His former comrades-in-arms do it twice. They are fortunate the first time, because a brave parish priest convinces the human weapon to renounce violence, but the bad guys are perversely determined to keep poking the bear. Sooner or later, Maxx is bound to start doing what he does best in Jesse V. Johnson’s The Mercenary, which is now available on DVD and VOD.

Eventually, the Islamist outrage industry will start protesting this film, because the opening action sequence features Maxx liquidating dozens of terrorists in a Mosque, which doesn’t seem to trouble the film in the least. It certainly shouldn’t trouble viewers either, but the world is insane. Things get a bit dicey on the next gig their team-leader LeClerc accepts from a Latin American drug cartel. When one of his colleagues tries to have his way with a village woman, Maxx intervenes, but almost gets killed for his efforts.

Kindly Father Elias nurses Maxx back to health and guides him back to the path of the righteous. Unfortunately, LeClerc and his mercs have taken over the local drug trade. Periodically, they abduct villagers to labor in their meth factories. At first, Maxx merely trains the villagers in self-defense, but when LeClerc learns he is still alive, all bets are off.

So, any questions? Nobody is likely to confuse The Mercenary with art cinema, but it is definitely a competent, self-aware direct-to-DVD action movie. Johnson is one of the best in the business at staging action on-screen (see for instance: Avengement, Debt Collector, and Accident Man). Former French Foreign Legion paratrooper Dominiquie Vandenberg does not have the star power of Johnson’s frequent protag, Scott Adkins, but as a former competitor in Thailand’s “Iron Circles,” he clearly has the skills, the physicality, and the street cred for a bad cat like Maxx. After watching The Mercenary, we’re frankly keen to see more of him.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

ReelAbilities 20: Code of the Freaks (now online)

Anyone who has read David Skal & Elias Savada’s biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning knows how overdue we are for a documentary profile of the eccentric filmmaker. If any of film could sustain a feature-length examination, it would be his cult classic Freaks. This is not that film, but the controversial 1932 release is still an important touchstone in Code of the Freaks, a survey of disability in cinema, which screens as the “opening night” film of this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival New York—now online for obvious reasons.

If you find the films discussed in this documentary “inspirational,” than the commentators largely think you are a shallow jerkweed. Frankly, it is rather rewarding to hear them torch the cheap sentimentality of films like Radio and Men of Honor. However, films you probably thought were quality, like Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot and Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God fare little better.

Admittedly, many of the clichés that are called out are rather problematic, like the prevalence of mercy killings as acceptable resolutions in films such as Million Dollar Baby. Still, this documentary just doesn’t have hardly anything positive to say about any film, except Browning’s Freaks. Their treatment of the Universal monster movies is rather unfair, because those films always humanized the monsters (especially so, given their era). Interpreting the Mummy’s wrappings as code for the bandages of disfigurement is really pushing it. Someone also misattributes Frankenstein to Browning, which will not help its case with old school horror fans.

Again, the film makes a legitimate point about representation, but it would be much cleverer if it singled out cases to praise. It would be great if more thesps of differing abilities could be cast in roles that are not defined by such status. Arguably, this film creates a disincentive to represent the disabled. Why would a filmmaker bother, if a doc like this will turn around and slam them for not getting everything absolutely perfect.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Resistance: Marcel Marceau Defies the German Occupation

During WWII, underground partisans had to keep their mouths shut to be effective, so yes Marcel Marceau was good at it. He already had ambitions to perform on stage, but his underdog humanist empathy compelled him to help guide refugee children to neutral Switzerland. The real-life Marceau’s filmography is a bit spotty (a small part in Barbarella, the only speaking role in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), but Jesse Eisenberg does a nice job portraying him in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance, which releases today on VOD (it would have opened in theaters too, but you know.)

Clearly, Marceau must be talented, because Gen. George S. Patton serves as his opening act in the flashforward prologue. When the proper narrative starts, Marcel Magnel is still working in his observant Jewish father’s Strasbourg butcher shop, but by night he performs Chaplinesque routines for unappreciative night club audiences. His father does not think very much of his performance art either. However, when Magnel agrees to help welcome a busload of newly arrived Jewish orphans to their new chateau sanctuary, he suddenly finds an appreciative audience for is gentle pantomime.

A bond quickly forms between Magnel/Marceau and the kids, which finally impresses his longtime crush, Emma. The local relief organization also starts noticing the supposedly irresponsible Marcel is around much more often than his self-proclaimed activist brother Sigmund. However, as the war starts to turn against free France, all three take leading roles teaching the children survival skills and then join the Resistance together—at the worst possible time. Yet, instead of seeking vengeance, Marceau (the name on his forged papers) prefers to embrace life, by saving as many of the refugee children as he can.

Although Eisenberg performs plenty of bits associated with Marceau and Chaplin, the film never wallows in the sad clown schmaltz of Life is Beautiful or the twee preciousness of Jojo Rabbit. Nobody needs to tell these kids about war or death. They understand just as well as the adults. It also helps that Eisenberg achieves a nice balance for Magnel/Marceau, depicting his artistic sensitivity just as well as his gutsy resolve.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Murder Death Koreatown

It is a hoax or maybe a hoax of a hoax. There’s too much that doesn’t add up, but it is one of the most convincing found footage films—probably ever. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the protagonist any less annoying to spend time with. Still, someone out there is responsible for some eerily clever execution, but nobody has yet to claim responsibility for Murder Death Koreatown, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

According to publicity materials, MDK came about because a guy knew a guy who knew a guy. Supposedly, a film editor known simply as K Anon came into possession of footage sent to him by an old college buddy that he acquired from the filmmaker, a former friend of his who is now mysteriously missing. Initially, the editor was disturbed by the material, but he eventually stitched it together into this film. For the unknown filmmaker, it all starts with a tragic domestic murder in his Koreatown neighborhood. That Macguffin appears to be a true but not especially remarkable crime.

However, as our faceless protag pours over details of the crime, he starts to notice discrepancies, or at least he thinks he does. As his interest grows, he decides to shoot a guerilla documentary on the case. Soon, he is being pressured to drop his investigation by various neighborhood residents, because they either want to cover-up the truth or possibly they just find him obnoxious. His long-suffering girlfriend is not thrilled with the project either. Undaunted, he starts to suspect the involvement of a weird street preacher and other creepy Koreatown denizens. Rather ominously, he starts to believe secret messages have been left to him in the form of eccentric Korean graffiti scrawled throughout the neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Curtiz: The Man Behind Casablanca

It was banned in neutral Ireland, because it portrayed the National Socialists and the Vichy collaborators unfavorably, but for the rest of the world, Casablanca was an instant classic. It spawned two very short-lived TV series adaptations, but no filmmaker has dared remake such an iconic film. However, success was far from certain during its hectic production. Jewish-Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz wrestles with his personal demons and interference from multiple quarters as he struggles to complete the beloved movie in Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s mostly English-language Hungarian film Curtiz, which starts streaming today on Netflix.

Curtiz was born Mano Kaminer in Budapest, but he Hungarianized his name to Mihaly Kertesz and then anglicized it to Michael Curtiz when he arrived in America. When he started directing films for Warner Brothers, he already had a reputation as a master filmmaker from his European work—which his ego and casting couch proclivities reflected.

Casablanca is one of about a dozen films in-production on the Warner lot, but it is the only film the Office of War Information is interested in. That means Curtiz must endure constant demands and feedback from Mr. Johnson, a government bureaucrat consulting on the project. Jack Warner makes it pretty clear Curtiz is on his own, but he is still expected to make another hit. To further complicate matters, the director’s estranged daughter Kitty has taken a studio job as a way of worming her way back into his life. Curtiz and the screenwriters Philip & Julius Epstein cannot even settle on a decent ending. His only ally on the production is legendary producer Hal B. Wallis, but Curtiz does his best to alienate him with his diva-like behavior.

Topolanszky and co-screenwriter Zsuzsanna Bak rather shrewdly chose which of the Hollywood legends associated with Casablanca to portray on film and which to only show in shadows or out of focus. Both Jozsef Gyabronka and Christopher Krieg are really terrific as S.Z. Sakall (Curtiz’s fellow Hungarian émigré, who played Carl) and Conrad Veidt (who played Maj. Strasser), respectively. Frankly, Krieg’s turn as Veidt might just change the way you see Casablanca, which is meant as a very high compliment. The only other cast-member who gets legitimate screen time in Curtiz is Oscar Reyes portraying Dooley Wilson, but he is not much of a factor in the behind-the-scenes story.

The rest of the ensemble is also quite strong, fortunately including Ferenc Lengyel, who is appropriately imperious yet complex as the man himself. Scott Alexander Young’s Wallis also gives the film a conscious and a dry wit. Declan Hannigan similarly deserves credit for humanizing Johnson, at least until Topolanszky & Bak suddenly and problematically decide to dehumanize in an ill-advised narrative left-turn.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Grudge (2020): Because You Can’t Keep an Angry Ghost Down

It’s human-to-human transmission rate is minimal, but the site of Kayako Saeki’s violent angry death is 100% infectious. The death rate is nearly as high. It is time to go back to Tokyo circa 2004, where it all started for the American remake series. Instead of rebooting, the series branches off in a separate, simultaneous, but not so radically different direction in Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge, which releases today on DVD.

Flashback to 2004: Fiona Landers is an expat social worker in Japan, who pays an inspection visit to the house of horrors that started it all. She subsequently returns home, taking Kayako and her grudge with her. Soon, tragedy strikes the Landers family, as evil become deeply rooted in their home. That means Saeki is quite an efficient multi-tasker, since she was simultaneously tormenting Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge (2004).

For obvious reasons, the Landers House quickly develops an evil reputation. Det. Goodman still refuses to step foot inside it, which seems rather strange to his new partner, Det. Muldoon, since he ostensibly investigated the multiple homicides that occurred there. It wasn’t just the Landers who met untimely deaths. The realtors handling the sale of the property, Peter and pregnant Nina Spencer, met similar fates.

As is usually the case in horror movies, Muldoon relocated to exurban Pennsylvania hoping to find a safer, more stable environment to raise her son Burke after her husband’s devastating death from cancer. Needless to say, those plans go out the window once she enters the Landers house. From there on, she is in for the full Grudge treatment.

The Grudge 2020 is a respectable American installment in the franchise, but Pesce’s reputation as the indie auteur who helmed The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing will raise many fans expectations well above what the film delivers. We’ve seen just about all of it before, but Pesce does it with a surprisingly prestigious cast. There are two Oscar nominees in Grudge 2020: Demian Bichir, who is terrific as the devout but world-weary Goodman and Jacki Weaver, who helps humanize the thankless role of Lorna Moody, an assisted suicide activist, who pays an ill-fated visit to the current owners of the Landers house.

Red Flags: CCP Infiltration of Australian Universities

By now, it should be painfully clear when the CCP knocks on your door, they are not there to help. That’s true even when they offer large sums of cash. Many American institutions of higher learning have been tempted by the generous research grants ostensibly private Chinese companies have dangled before them, but Australian universities have accepted to an especially alarming extent. These shadowy ties are exposed in the Australian Broadcasting-Four Corners in-depth report, Red Flags, which releases today on iTunes.

Several American Universities have recently closed their campus Confucius Institutes, described by a recent Senate report as a centers of propaganda dissemination, with good reason, since they are directly controlled by China’s State Council, Consequently, all speakers and educational material they provide are approved by China’s authoritarian government. University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj was formerly an advisor to the CI regional organization, until he resigned after Australia passed new “Foreign Interference” disclosure laws.

Høj talks a good game about cultural exchange working both ways, but he never cites examples of how the UQ CI branch ever promoted the values of democracy and free expression in China or even with the many Chinese students enrolled at the university. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case, given the way CCP-loyalist students were allowed to attack and intimidate pro-democracy students from Hong Kong and the campus allies, like activist Drew Pavlou, with impunity.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ultraman Movies: Orb & Geed

The Ultraman franchise is as Japanese as Godzilla or Gamera, but these guardians of galaxy save the world instead of destroying it. When a kaiju attacks, you better pray there is an Ultraman patrolling our universe. Ultraman Orb is one of the best of Ultra brotherhood. Geed, not so much. As part of their ambitious Ultraman BluRay program, Mill Creek Entertainment has recently released Ultraman Orb: The Movie—Let Me Borrow the Power of Bonds and Ultraman Geed: The Movie—Connect the Wishes.

You have to love the awkward secondary titles. In fact, many viewers will enjoy the nostalgia of revisiting the superhero series they loved as kids. Many might be surprised to know it is still a going concern in Japan, where they continue to launch new series and films focusing on particularly Ultraman heroes. Typically, a relatively self-contained motion picture is released as a capper to each Ultraman sub-series. The payoff is probably richer for fans who followed the series, but the general premise is never hard to understand: superhero fights kaiju.

Ultraman Orb
is definitely the better of the two film, in large measure because Orb and his human alter-ego Gai Kurenai (who walks the Earth in leather dusters, like Caine in Kung Fu) inspires more confidence. In Borrow the Power, directed by Kiyotaka Taguchi, he returns to Japan just in time. There are space monsters massing for some sort of attack. Apparently, the nexus of the nefarious business is a creepy mansion that suddenly appeared on the outskirts of town.

Orb will have to investigate single-handedly, since Ultraman X has been confined to a handheld device called the X Devizer. Rather ominously, the Ultra’s old pseudo-nemesis Jugglus Juggler works as the Lurch-like butler in the strange manor that serves as some kind of portal between dimensions and universes. Orb will not be able to defeat the forces of evil on his own, even after borrowing the powers of other Ultramen. Fortunately, an all-time fan-favorite from the early series makes a rousing cameo to save the day. Even if you never watched the franchise before, Taguchi makes his significance and steely presence immediately clear.

In fact, Taguchi generally does a nice job of keeping things lively. Hideo Ishiguro is satisfyingly cool as Orb/Kurenai, while Takaya Aoyagi chews some serious scenery as Juggler. Plus, Miyabi Matsuura is appealingly wide-eyed and shows some decent action chops as Naomi Yumeno, the leader of SSP, a student group dedicated to aiding Ultraman, who are a bit like Nancy Drew and her friends.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Self-Quarantine Viewing: Foxtrot Six

Angga is a former commando now serving in Congress. He is sort of like an Indonesian Dan Crenshaw, except the Jakartan has made some ethical compromises along the way. Angga has a plan to wipe out a troublesome guerilla outfit, but he changes his mind when he realizes his long-lost love is their leader. He and his old comrades fight hard to undo the machinations he sets in motion in Randy Korompis’s English-language Indonesian action movie, Foxtrot Six, executive-produced by Mario Kassar (T2 & Rambo of fame), which is now available on VOD platforms.

Once a hero, Angga has been co-opted and corrupted by the Piranha Party, the political wing of the powerful “Piranhas Corporation.” They were going to call themselves the Evil Predators Inc., but the public relations department convinced the top execs to tone it down. Angga successfully pitches them a scheme to distract the populace and discredit the rebels known as “The Reform,” (again, so subtle these names), but he has to take on his old nemesis Wisnu as his chief enforcer.

Unbeknownst to Angga, Piranhas and Wisnu have hatched a much bigger and bloodier false flag operation. They intend to “martyr” seven of their own unsuspecting congressmen, including Angga’s closest ally. Of course, the Reform will be scapegoated. It turns out that includes Sari Nirmala, Angga’s great love and the mother of the daughter he never knew he had. Suddenly it is up to Angga, four of his former fellow commandos, and Nirmala’s taciturn lieutenant known as Spec to save the country and vindicate the Reform.

Frankly, none of the conspiracy stuff makes much sense and the Angga-Nirmala subplots are eye-rollingly melodramatic. What is most frustrating is that Julie Estelle, probably still best known as “Hammer Girl” in The Raid 2, really does not have any real action to perform in Foxtrot.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Miss Phryne Fisher is a semi-professional detective, very much in the tradition of the Thin Man, except she has always claimed to be a confirmed bachelorette. That is why the romantically-interested but often exasperated Detective Inspector Jack Robinson was so surprised when she married a maharajah for political reasons. He was even more shocked by the reports of her death, but those turn out to be assuredly premature in Tony Tilse’s Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, the first Phryne Fisher feature film, which premieres this coming Monday on Acorn TV.

Much to the despair of the Home Office, Miss Fisher (formerly a British expat resident of Australia) breaks the daughter of a Bedouin woman out of prison in the British Mandate. Supposedly, she lost her life during the escape, but of course she is alive and well and quite pleased to crash her own funeral. At this point, DI Robinson resolves to finally get off the Phryne Fisher emotional roller coaster. However, when Fisher starts investigating a murder that took place at the estate of her host, Lord Lofthouse, he reluctantly agrees to help, as usual.

Rather inconveniently, Lord Lofthouse has been framed for the crime. Presumably, the murder was related to Middle East intrigue, since the victim was a sheikh, who was backing out of a deal with the Lofthouses. In what might come as a bit of a surprise to Miss Fisher fans, the case also involves supernatural elements, including a giant cursed emerald.

When it comes to traditional British mysteries with uncanny overtones, The Pale Horse is much more intriguing and suspenseful. Even though Crypt of Tears released in Australian theaters, it still very much looks and feels like a TV production. There is plenty of fan-service for the faithful, but viewers who are not already on-board with the franchise are unlikely to be won over by Crypt of Tears.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Glenn Danzig’s Verotika

There have been a few films based on Glenn Danzig’s ultra-mature horror comic, Verotik, including the adults-only Grub Girl. That would be the higher quality, more socially redeeming movie. This is the other one. Danzig himself helms an anthology of three “greatest hits” stories and does quite a job of it with the already notorious Verotika, which is now available on VOD.

At least the explicit naughty bits in Grub presumably served the purpose for which they were intended. Just what Danzig was going for is beyond mortal understanding. The sleazy bafflement starts with “The Albino Spider of Dajette.” Poor Dajette is a fetish model with eyeballs on her breasts, who develops a nightmarish psychic connection with a pale spider monster.  Supposedly, it is set in Paris, but the city never looked so cheap and dingy. Honestly, you will hear better fake French accents in a Le Pain Quotidien in Paramus, New Jersey.

The worst part of “Albino Spider” is it is probably the best story of Verotika, but it won’t feel that way at the time, because it comes first. Next, Danzig uncorks “Change of Face,” his ambitious but smarmy homage to Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face. A serial killer stalks beautiful women to physically steal their faces. Naturally, she is a stripper, so Danzig can incorporate stripteases into the film, but if that is what you are looking for, an average episode of The Sopranos would be sexier.

For the third and mercifully final installment, Danzig rips off the Elizabeth Bathory legend with “Drukija Countess of Blood,” who does indeed bathe in the blood of virgins to retain her youthful appearance. Considering Danzig and his design team cannot realize a convincing strip club locale, it should come as no surprise the period setting is well beyond their grasp. Yet, “Drukija’s” greatest problem in on the printed pages of the script. Danzig doesn’t even give us a structured narrative here. He just forces us to watch endless examples of the Countess’s brutality.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Self-Quarantine Viewing: Trauma Center

Calling it “Die Hard in a hospital” gives it too much credit, but at least it stars Bruce Willis. That means the super-prolific star of almost-straight-to-DVD thrillers is now starting to rip himself off. However, his character will spend most of the film on the streets, doing police stuff. That leaves an injured witness to fend for herself when crooked cops come to kill her in Matt Eskandari’s Trauma Center, now available on DVD and VOD, the kind of film that could have self-quarantiners asking: “what the heck was that?”

San Juan Police Det. Wakes’ snitch has just been killed by the ring of dirty cops he was about to expose. His moronic partner soon follows him into permanent early retirement. However, there is a witness, Madison Taylor, whose rebellious sister Emily has also been admitted, following a nasty asthma attack (potential hostage alert). Shock has obscured Taylor’s memory of the attack, but the shooters will still come after her, because meat-headed Det. Pierce lodged a traceable bullet in her leg. (They also pumped several rounds into Wakes’ partner, but supposedly those were carefully fired to obliterate against hard surfaces—or something like that.

Wakes moves Taylor to the infectious disease floor for safe keeping (that will be a red herring for hyper-conscious viewers mindful of the Wuhan virus—which did indeed originate in Wuhan). Unfortunately, Pierce and the slightly smarter Sgt. Tull flash their badges and lock down the floor. The cat-and-mouse business proceeds from there.

The weird thing about these slapped-together films is how good Willis is in them. Maybe it helps that his screen-time is comparatively limited, but he is still the only one who really shows any star power. Regardless, everyone would surely agree nobody better represents Puerto Rico than Bruce Willis and Nicky Whelan. They must have some boffo film production tax incentives there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Superman: Red Son

Lord Acton’s famous dictum has been confirmed over and over throughout history: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet, it has never been applied to Superman—until now. Fortunately, the baby Kal-El landed in Middle America, a devout land governed by Constitutional principles. Suppose he landed in Soviet Russia instead. That is the what-if alternate timeline scenario explored in Sam Liu’s animated feature Superman: Red Son, which releases today on DVD/BluRay.

Svetlana is amazed by young Mishka’s powers, so she convinces the naïve boy to put himself at the service of the Soviet state. Alas, no good deed goes unpunished in Stalin’s regime, because the innocent woman will be condemned to a gulag for knowing Superman before he was a symbol of Communist power. Initially, the costumed hero follows Stalin loyally, but a challenging interview with tough-talking American journalist Lois Lane prompts him to discover the truth—including poor emaciated Svetlana’s fate.

Unfortunately, Superman is not ready to embrace freedom. Instead, he stages a coup d’état, replacing Stalin as General Secretary. With Superman literally leading the Red Army, America is suddenly at a distinct disadvantage in the (not-so) Cold War. However, Eisenhower has a key ally: Lane’s husband, the genius inventor and industrialist Alexander “Lex” Luthor.

There is a lot in J.M. DeMatteis’s adaptation of the Red Son graphic novel that is smart and insightful. Stalin is definitely depicted as the monster that he was, but Superman’s supposedly benign dictatorship is not much different. Lord Acton’s warning regarding absolute power is absolutely spot-on here. The roles played by Brainiac and Wonder Woman are also quite clever, with the former becoming the allegedly perfect Socialist administrator and the former representing the Amazons, who like the so-called “Non-Aligned” nations of the Cold War era, protest their neutrality while favoring Superman’s USSR, until they can no longer ignore the truth of the despotic regime.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Self-Quarantine Viewing: In Search of Last Action Heroes

In times like these, we could use some heroes. It makes us nostalgic for the 1980s, the golden age of action heroes. That was the decade action really came into its own as a distinct genre. Back then, even our president, Ronald Reagan, was an action hero. At a time when we’re self-quarantining and social-distancing, we will try catch up on some DVD/VOD releases we missed when they released earlier in the year. Oliver Harper’s In Search of Last Action Heroes, (co-produced by David A. Weiner, director of In Search of Darkness) is a particularly good viewing choice, because as an entertaining documentary survey of 80’s action, it also gives viewers plenty of good ideas for subsequent films to watch—and it is indeed available on DVD and VOD.

Of course, it is hard to chronicle 80s films without referencing some films of the 70s that they built on. This is particularly true of Death Wish and Alien, whose sequel Aliens is considered an action film rather than horror movie (that is a debatable but defensible position). Two stars come to define the era for Harper and co-writer Timon Singh: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which makes sense.

As was the case for In Search of Darkness, Harper follows the development of 80s action in roughly chronological order. Along the way, he and his many talking heads cover the rise of Cannon Films and the influence of Hong Kong action auteurs. Fans will be thrilled to hear director Sam Firstenberg look back on the American Ninja franchise, but they will be disappointed the late great Steve James is overlooked during the discussion. (Honestly, I would argue James is sufficiently significance to warrant his own documentary. Email me if you agree.)

None of the really big stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, or even Michael Dudikoff (the American Ninja) appear in Last Action as interview subjects, but Harper talks to some really cool character actors and bad guy specialists, like Al Leong (Lethal Weapon), Bill Duke (Predator), Ronny Cox (Robocop), Vernon Wells (Commando), and Jenette Goldstein (Aliens), as well as Eric Roberts, who is in a class of his own. However, he gets a good deal of commentary from two contemporary action stars: Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White.

The Grizzlies: Discovering Canada’s Other Game

The best lacrosse players tend to fall into two demographics: prep school elites and First Nations descendants of the original inventors of the game. The struggling Inuit students of a remote arctic Canadian town would identify with the latter. A new high school teacher introduces them to the game, but of course, he will learn just as much as his students in Miranda de Pencier’s The Grizzlies, which opens this Friday in New York, at least as of the last we heard.

Russ Sheppard accepted a temporary teaching position at Kugluktuk High School in Nunavut (Canada’s northernmost territory, which split off from the Northwest Territories in 1999), hoping it would bolster his wait-listed employment application at an elite prep school. Basically, he is like Dr. Joel Fleischman with a lacrosse stick, but Cicely, Alaska was considerably more prosperous than the community he finds himself in. In fact, Sheppard is so concerned by the high rate of teen suicide, he tries to form a lacrosse team, just to give the kids something to do.

Outsiders cannot get anymore outside than Sheppard, so he constantly commits cultural gaffes. Nevertheless, the power of the game starts to reach many of the kids—and they grudgingly start giving him credit for giving a darn. Unfortunately, the school principle remains skeptical and his best players will be constantly distracted by family issues.

One way or another, you know adversity will be triumphed over in a film like this. However, de Pencier sidesteps the most obvious sports underdog clichés, making their based-on-a-true-story victories modest and believable. Still, she leaves some rather glaring loose ends conspicuously hanging.

There is no denying The Grizzlies follows a time-honored formula, but de Pencier largely avoids cliched fish-out-of-water humor, in favor of well-intentioned social drama. Frankly, it is a baffling shame the film is rated R, because there is nothing here you couldn’t see in an after-school special. De Pencier just presents it all with brutal honesty.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Niall Ferguson’s Networld

Things happen for a reason. That even includes the internet—especially the disappointing and dangerous parts. Hoover Institution scholar Niall Ferguson’s traces the disruptive rise of online social networks and draws historical parallels in the three-part Niall Ferguson’s Networld, produced and directed by Adrian Pennick, which premieres back-to-back-to-back this coming Tuesday on most PBS stations.

If you want to understand how the modern world got to be the way that it is, Niall Ferguson is indispensable reading and viewing. Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest is the most cogent and persuasive explanation of why Western nations have economically outperformed the rest of the world since the Marxian-influenced Ferdinand Braudel wrote Capitalism and Civilization. Arguably, the PBS documentary series based on Ferguson’s book is even more timely now than when it originally in 2012, so self-quarantiners should binge it first.

Although there are not as many epiphany moments in Networld, but there are still plenty of insights. Using his book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook as a roadmap, Ferguson directly challenges the notion the internet revolution was supposedly unprecedented, drawing direct parallels with the development of Gutenberg’s printing press and the transcontinental telegraph. He also directly compares social media influencers with the social authority granted to Free Masons like Paul Revere during the American Revolution.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Hunt: Forget Your Preconceptions

This might shock some people, but Donald Trump is a terrible film critic, especially when he hasn’t even seen the film in question. He pilloried this much maligned satire about liberal elites hunting red state conservatives, but it never really made sense how that premise could be a good look for the left. We could only wonder when the film’s release was postponed out of sensitivity to tragic news events. Ironically, those who retweeted Trump’s thinly veiled comments could be the ones who most enjoy Craig Zobel’s Blumhouse-produced The Hunt when it opens today nationwide—at least wherever theaters are still open. Seriously, this film cannot buy a break.

A group of snide leftwingers has abducted a group of “deplorables” (that would be there word for them), who will come to in a remote clearing wearing ball gags. As the bullets whiz by their heads, they figure out they are being hunted, but it will take them a bit of time to understand why. Supposedly to be sporting, the hunters also left them a crate of firearms, but the initial culling will be brutal.

Crystal, an Afghanistan veteran currently working a dead-end car rental job, is one of the few to survive the first ten minutes. Her survival skills are still finely honed and she has razor-sharp tactical judgment. As she navigates her way through the trap-laden countryside (that turns out to be somewhere in the Balkans), she steadily evens up the score. Of course, we can safely assume she will eventually face-off against Athena, the shadowy leader of “The Hunt.”

Again, who in their right mind would consider the concept of “The Hunt” good propaganda for the hard-left cause? Obviously, the participating hunters are profoundly intolerant of diverse opinions and show a fundamental disregard for the sanctity of life. Screenwriters Nick Cuse & Damon Lindelof also skewer the absurdity of their identity politics and the utter hypocrisy their “limousine liberal” snobbery and contempt for average working-class people. Really, the only thing the rightwing prey gets tagged with is a propensity to retweet fake news, but even that takes on rather complex and ironic dimensions.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Postcard Killings: Oscar-Winning Danis Tanovic Takes on James Patterson

They carefully select their victims, but they still manage to pick the daughter of an experienced serial killer hunting police detective. Unfortunately, it takes forever for the kneejerk anti-American Euro cops to take his advice seriously. People will die in the interim, but dogged Jacob Kanon will never stop hunting his daughters’ murderers in Danis Tanovic’s The Postcard Killings, based on the co-authored James Patterson novel, which opens tomorrow in New York.

It was Det. Kanon who bought the London honeymoon for his daughter and her newlywed husband, so he takes the grotesque circumstances of their murder especially hard. Some unknown perpetrator posed them in a grisly manner that resembles a famous painting. Actually, identifying the artistic sources of their inspiration will be one of the insights Kanon brings to the investigation.

Of course, the British copper in charge of the case initially tries to keep him at arm’s length, but the particularly public nature of the border-crossing killing spree makes it increasingly difficult for the multi-nation task force to refuse his specialized expertise. Before each killing, a local journalist is sent a cryptic postcard and afterwards they receive a horrific photo of the crime scene. It is unclear how the journalists are selected. None of them regularly cover the crime beat, but expat human interest-writer Dessie Leonard would like to transfer to harder news, so she agrees to work with Kanon to get the inside track on the story.

It might surprise some film snobs that Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic, who won the best Foreign Language Oscar (as it was then called) for No Man’s Land, would helm a straight-up serial killer thriller. Yet, this is the same Tanovic who directed the Pakistan-set whistleblower expose Tigers, so he clearly has an affinity for transnational drama. In fact, he executes the lurid crimes with operatic flair.

However, the story itself is rather standard issue stuff. Generally speaking, Patterson’s collaborations features two types of co-authors, up-and-coming crime novelists, which should include Swedish Postcard co-author Liza Marklund (who co-adapted their novel with Andrew Stern), and inconsequential hacks (like a nobody named Bill Clinton, whoever that might be). Maybe something was lost in the page-to-screen transfer, but we have seen everything here many times before.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse

Agatha Christie’s name is synonymous with mystery, but dabbled enough in supernatural fiction to fill a recent anthology, The Last Séance. Some of the stories are arguably shoe-horned in, like “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” wherein Hercule Poirot provides the Scooby-Doo explanation for an ancient curse. Probably the best story, “S.O.S” involves intuition and sensitivity more than the outright uncanny, but the title story would definitely work as a Twilight Zone episode. It is therefore maybe not so strange Sarah Phelps emphasizes the supernatural elements of Christie’s source novel in her two-part adaptation of The Pale Horse, directed by Leonora Lonsdale, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Mark Easterbrook still loves his first wife Delphine, but she is dead and his second marriage to Hermia practically is too. He was seeing the young and tarty Thomasina Tuckerton on the side, until she died rather suddenly—so suddenly, he had to make a stealthy exit from her flat. It turns out, her name was on a list that turned up in the shoe of a dead woman. Most those names correspond to a recently deceased body. Rather ominously, Easterbrook’s name is also on the list, but his is followed by a question mark.

To figure out if his life really is in danger, Easterbrook follows a trail of clues to the quaint village of Much Deeping, where a trio of fortune tellers have set up shop in a former pub still known as “The Pale Horse.” They do not look so intimidating, but there are rumors they wield dark magic to make their clients’ enemies disappear—for a price, of course.

It is weird how the BBC keeps taking wild liberties with this Christie novel. A few years ago, the Miss Marple franchise drained out most of the occult elements and added Jane Marple to what was a rare stand-alone non-series mystery from Dame Agatha. Now, Phelps swings the pendulum all the way back, pumping up the paranormal and a devising a head-trippily ambiguous but most likely supernatural conclusion.

Rewriting Agatha Christie is risky business that doesn’t always work in Pale Horse, but the sheer boldness of the final twist earns grudging respect for Chutzpah. Yet, Phelps’ Pale Horse really works as well as it does mostly because of Rufus Sewell’s brooding, tightly-wound performance as Easterbrook. Sewell’s specialty is portraying compromised characters with corrupting secrets, so he really is perfectly cast, in a darkly dapper kind of way. (Sewell was absolutely terrific in Rock & Roll on Broadway and the short-lived Zen. He really ought to be a much bigger star, but he is always reliable.)

Opening in Korea: Fukuoka

Cynical critics might label So-dam a “manic pixie dream girl” (its one of their cliched  terms), but she is way too laidback for the manic part. Nevertheless, she seems to have extraordinary powers of communication and strange things just happen around her. Regardless, she is determined to help two middle-aged man-children mature and move on with their lives in screenwriter-director Zhang Lu’s Fukuoka, which opens tomorrow in Korea.

Grouchy Je-moon thinks the twenty-one-year-old So-dam is a nut, because she constantly hangs out in his dark used bookstore and always wants to talk to him. He might have a point about that, even though he is the one hearing voices during the opening scene. Weirdly, she wants to travel with him to Fukuoka on Kyushu Island, but since he has a former friend there, Je-moon agrees to the suggestion.

He and Hae-hyo used to be close, but they had a falling out when they both fell in love with the same woman. Instead of choosing, she dropped out of college and disappeared from both their lives. It is twenty-eight years later, but neither has gotten over it. Initially, Hae-hyo resents their visit, but So-dam is a positive influence on them. They keep arguing like cats and dogs, but that is clearly what they like to do. Meanwhile, So-dam successfully draws out many of the neighborhood locals, conversing in Korean to native Japanese and expat Chinese speakers, with perfect comprehension (it is sort of like the linguistic mash-up in El Hipnotizador, but the characters recognize it happening and think it is odd).

The fantastical elements of Fukuoka are so light and understated, it is unclear whether they really are fantastical. Still, So-dam clearly has powers of universal translation and Hae-hyo believes he recently talked to a dead man, so maybe there is something a little out there going on.

Yet, it doesn’t matter all that much, because Zhang’s film is so wry and intriguing. He really out Hong Sang-soos Hong Sang-soo, while adding delicately subtle supernatural elements. By rejecting conventional scoring, Zhang evokes a vivid sense of place solely through ambient noise. Few filmmakers have a better sense of when to step back and let their films breath organically.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Witch: Subversion—Always Beware of Movie Orphans

There is no gifted & talented program sufficient for Koo Ja-yoon’s remarkable abilities. She can sing, dance, and get top grades without studying. She is also an adopted orphan, so you know what that means. Unfortunately, Young’s creators are out to bring her back into their shadowy fold in screenwriter-director Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Subversion (originally, there was a “Part 1” in there), which releases today on DVD.

Koo came along at a fortuitous time for an older couple still mourning their son and grandson. Technically, she escaped from the Skinner-Box-ish lab, where she was conditioned and enhanced. It was some sort of government-corporate co-venture that was forced to liquidate when the bosses got wind of how dangerous she is. If there was any question on that score, her relentlessly violent escape should put all doubts to rest.

For years, Ja-yoon grows up happily with the Koos, with all her traumatic memories apparently buried by her subconscious. Unfortunately, her mini-seizures are gaining in intensity, but the real trouble comes when she successfully auditions for an Idol-style talent contest, where naturally she becomes an overnight favorite. She also attracts the attention of the re-constituted cabal.

Honestly, at this point, the murky conspiracy stuff is dull and derivative. We’ve seen it all before, and it is usually easier to distinguish the faceless co-conspirators and their competing factions. Likewise, there is a long stretch between Koo’s initial escape and the inevitable fateful confrontation that drags interminably. Still, Park springs a few third act revelations on viewers that are clever and really pretty shocking.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Rendez-Vous ‘20: Burning Ghost

Love is the most persistent ghost, because it can haunt you forever. A twentysomething man and a thirtysomething woman will prove just how true that is. Technically, he died about ten years ago, but they still have powerful romantic chemistry in Stephane Batut’s Burning Ghost, which screens during the 2020 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Juste died through some sort of misadventure, but Kramarz, the gatekeeper to whatever comes next, allows him to stay in the realm of mortals, to guide recently deceased souls to her. He lives with a foot in both planes of existence. He can interact with mortals, as long as he never gets too involved. However, caution goes out the window when he crosses paths with Agathe.

She knew him when he used a different name, but he still looks exactly the same. Juste initially tries to deny it, but their passion for each other has also remained unchanged. Soon, he tries to pick up where they left-off, but that will somehow upset the cosmic balance of his supernatural existence.

Burrning Ghost could be the best ghost movie since Personal Shopper. Fans of Assayas’s foray into the supernatural should also appreciate the elegant tone Batut achieves, even though his film is not the slightest bit horror, while also being far less ambiguous. Instead, it is an exquisitely melancholy meditation on love and death, the two most fundamental themes art can address.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Original Most Dangerous Game

Richard Connell’s frequently anthologized short story finally went into the public domain this year, but it has been ripped off for decades. Tell me if you have heard this one before: there is a bad guy who enjoys hunting people for sport. It is not just Bacurau that just opened or The Hunt due to be released this week that “borrowed” this idea. There has also been Hard Target, Surviving the Game, 31, Preservation, Black Rock, Carnage Park, Turkey Shoot (and its remake, Elimination Game), The Tenth Victim, and The Prey that basically riffed on the same people-hunting-people gimmick. That makes this an opportune time to revisit the film that (officially) adapted Connell first, way back in 1932: Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game, which airs tomorrow on TCM, for those of you in quarantine.

Dashing young celebrity big-game hunter Robert Rainsford was enjoying a cruise with friends until their yacht foundered on the reef surrounding a remote island. It turns out the captain was correct to suspect the safety buoys had been moved. Alas, that would be the late captain. Only Rainsford eludes the sharks swarming their wreck, making it to shore, where he stumbles into the gothic fortress of Count Zaroff.

At dinner, he meets Eve Trowbridge, another shipwreck survivor, who took refuge with the Count, along with her drunkard brother Martin and two sailors that are now suspiciously missing. Since the Count recognizes the famous Rainsford, he invites him to join him hunting “the most dangerous game.” Of course, that would be man. When the horrified Rainsford refuses, he is forced to become the prey instead. The stakes will be particularly high for this hunt. If Rainsford survives until sunrise, he wins his life and the right to leave with Trowbridge.

Dangerous Game
was produced “pre-Code,” but it is still pretty cagey when it implies what Zaroff intends to do to the lovelly Trowbridge once he bags Rainsford’s head, but it is pretty easy for modern audiences to infer. However, the film’s pre-Codeness is vividly clear in the early grisly engine room deaths we see when Rainsford’s ship goes down, as well as the trophy heads Zaroff keeps in bell jars. This is an old movie, but for genre fans, it is surprisingly cool.

Frankly, Joel McCrea should be better remembered than he is. In his day, he was a big movie star, whose charisma could carry a film. He also had sufficient comedic timing to hang with Robert Benchley in the criminally under-appreciated Hitchcock film, Foreign Correspondent. Being the leading man is rather thankless business in a film like this, but McCrae is admirably energetic as Rainsford. He also has some decent screen chemistry with Faye Wray.