Thursday, April 30, 2020

Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin

“Clothes make the man,” Mark Twain told us. In this case, they make a French loser obsessive and delusional. Georges turns outlaw after donning a vintage Davy Crockett-style jacket. Indeed, he is so taken with it, he wants it to be the only jacket in the world, which is fine by the jacket in French provocateur Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, which opens virtually tomorrow.

Apparently, Georges has gotten the boot from his wife, but he rebounds with the jacket. Unwisely, he blows all his cash on it, before he discovers his wife froze their joint account. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The deerskin fringe just called to him. Fortunately, the seller threw in an old digital video camera that will allow him to pose (dubiously) as a filmmaker while hiding out in a provincial tourist town, during the off-season.

Despite his cluelessness, Georges recruits Denise, the local bartender and an aspiring film editor, for his film project. She can tell he is an amateur, but his supposedly experimental footage appeals to her hipster sensibility—especially when he starts filming the murders his jacket tells him to commit.

It is rather baffling how a dreary misfire like Deerskin could be picked up for distribution when Dupieux’s drolly subversive Keep an Eye Out has yet to get a real American release. Frankly, the best things about Deerskin are composer Janko Nilovic’s Bernard Hermann-esque musical cues. Unfortunately, the playfulness of Dupieux’s past films (especially Wrong, Reality, and Keep an Eye Out) is largely missing this time around. Instead, Dupieux belabors tired themes of “toxic masculinity.” If you don’t know what that term means, it is the kind of swagger the G.I.’s had when they liberated Europe from fascism. Obviously, they look askance at that kind of “toxic” thing in France.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

An Engineer Imagines: Appreciating Peter Rice

Generally speaking, architects are the ones with the visions. Engineers are hired to get the job done. However, as designs have become grander and less conventional, engineers have had to be more creative in realizing their visions. Peter Rice is a perfect example. He was the lead structural engineer on iconic buildings such as the Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre Pyramid, and the Lloyd’s of London Building. In his relatively short life, Rice helped drastically alter the look and possibilities of urban architecture. Marcus Robinson celebrates Rice’s legacy in the quietly reverential documentary An Engineer Imagines, which releases virtually today, in select markets.

During his tenure with the Arup Group, a design and engineering consulting firm, Rice played a leading role in the construction of the aforementioned landmarks, as well as Paris’s La Grande Arche de la Defense, the science museum and park complex of La Villette, and the new façade of Lille Cathedral. They are all stunning looking buildings, but Robinson weirdly spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing the lighting scheme Rise designed for the Full Moon Theatre, exclusively utilizing moonlight. Granted, it is a neat idea, but the Full Moon gets more screen-time than the Louvre Pyramid.

Frankly, the cinematic look of Rice’s projects really is the saving grace of Robinson’s film. The pace is slow to the point of even being sluggish, while the remembrances of Rice’s friends and colleagues are as respectful as you would expect, but not especially colorful. To make matters worse, Rod Morris’s score is exactly the kind of unobtrusive background music that could very well lull many viewers to sleep.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Shatter: Hammer’s Second Shaw Brothers Co-Production

This would be Peter Cushing’s final feature film for Hammer, but he did not reprise any of his famous gothic characters. He only shot for four days, but they were all on-location in Hong Kong, so at least he got an exotic trip out of it. Stuart Whitman played the title character but the real stars are the gritty 1970s-era HK locations seen throughout Michael Carreras’s Shatter (a.k.a. Call Him Mr. Shatter), Hammer Film’s second not-so great co-production with the Shaw Brothers, which releases today on BluRay.

Shatter is a hitman who usually contracts out his services to the Western intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong drug syndicate tricked him into executing the particularly nasty and destabilizing assassination of an African dictator. When Shatter complains to his regular HK contact, he finds he is now persona non grata. Even worse, Hans Leber, the money man for the contracting cartel, refuses to pay his fee.

Paul Rattwood, the local British station chief gives Shatter one day to leave town, but he is not going anywhere until he gets his money and some payback. Fortunately, he recruits a talented martial arts expert, Tai Pah, who can help keep him alive. However, Shatter is even more interested in Tai Pah’s sister Mai-Mee, a strictly professional masseuse working in a dodgy massage parlor.

Hammer’s first Shaw Brothers co-pro was the unfairly under-rated Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in which Cushing returned to the iconic role of Van Helsing. However, Shatter was sort of an additional throw-in from the start. It probably did not help that the original director, Monte Hellman, was fired early during the production, with Hammer president Carreras taking over.

Nevertheless, Lung Ti has several cool fight scenes as Tai Pah and his fellow Shaw Brothers regular Lily Li is warmly charismatic as Mai-Mee. The real problem is Stuart Whitman, who was badly miscast as the steely Shatter. Reportedly, he was physically ill during production—and he looks it. Of course, Cushing does his thing as Rattwood, but Anton Diffring (whose spotty previous Hammer tenure included their unsold 1958 pilot, Tales of Frankenstein) basically phones it in as Leber.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Tribeca ’20: Somebody Up There Likes Me

During rare nights-off from the Rolling Stones’ constant tour, their saxophonist-sideman, Tim Ries is allowed to book gigs for his “Rolling Stone Project” at nearby jazz clubs. When I saw him play Dazzle in Denver, Ronnie Wood was also there, checking out the show incognito in the back. It was nice to see him digging the music. As the last full official band-member, Wood has an interesting place in rock & roll history, but he wasn’t plucked out of obscurity. Wood reflects on his career in music and chaos that came with it in Mike Figgis’s documentary profile Somebody Up There Likes Me, which would have screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, had the CCP and their loyal stooges at WHO not lied to the world regarding human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.

Figgis has always been very hands-on composing music for his films. He is probably best-known for Leaving Las Vegas, but his subsequent career has been very up-and-down. Fortunately, his approach with Wood is quite similar to Red, White, and Blues, his laidback contribution to Martin Scorsese’s PBS anthology, The Blues. Figgis’s musical background also presumably helped build rapport with Wood, who discusses health and addiction issues with great frankness.

Figgis does not interview a lot of talking heads, but the ones he does are pretty impressive, including fellow Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts. He also talks to fellow Faces member Rod Stewart, Imelda May (who played with Wood early in her career), and Wood’s wife, Sally. We also get to hear Wood rehearsing informally in the studio.

Tribeca ’20: The Tiger Who Came to Tea (short)

The example of Joe Exotic (and his equally dodgy critics) should make it clear big cats are not to be trifled with. Therefore, we can all agree hosting a tiger for afternoon tea is an inherently dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, it is hard to say no when one just up and knocks on your door, because when is such an opportunity likely to repeat itself? Sophie and her Mummy will indeed host the big cat in Robin Shaw’s UK Channel 4-produced The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which would have screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, if the CCP and WHO had acted more responsibly during the pandemic breakout in Wuhan.

Sophie and Mummy had to stay home because of rain, so they decided to make the best of it and throw a tea party. Somehow the tiger smelled out their sandwiches and pastries. He is quite a shocking site on their doorstep, but it would be rude not to invite him in.

Rather surprisingly, there is always an aura of danger surrounding the tiger. As voiced by David Oyelowo, Sophie’s tiger friend is not so very different from Shere Khan in Disney’s animated Jungle Book. Although he never does anything violent, he eats way more than a reasonable guest would.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

I Led 3 Lives: Baited Trap

Whittaker Chambers’ Witness is a masterpiece of American memoir, but it is rarely granted the respect it deserves, because it is too honest. It is like the Cold War equivalent of the Confessions of St. Augustine, wherein Chambers chronicles his work as a propagandist for the US Communist Party and as a spy for the GRU. Indeed, Chambers made it clear (and subsequent archival documents confirmed) there was little functional distinction between the legal party and the clandestine Soviet espionage services. That is why it is an incredible opportunity when Herbert Philbrick has a chance to get his hands on the party membership rolls, including the secret, non-card-carrying members. There is also a very good chance he is being set up in “Baited Trap,” our next episode of the I Led 3 Lives binge, which is findable online and on Alpha Video’s non-chronological I Led 3 Lives, Volume 3.

It is always a hassle when Philbrick is summoned to Party headquarters, because he must get off on the wrong floor and then take the stairs. His new assignment is largely clerical in nature, but it involves highly sensitive information. Using a certain code, he will be typing an updated membership list, for Moscow, after hours in the Party offices. Most likely, Jack Blake, the Party’s glad-handing public face, will be watching closely for any slip. Nevertheless, scoring intel like that would be quite a victory for the FBI (and the cause of freedom).

Even though the narrative of “Baited Trap” is still pretty simple (as necessitated by its half-hour time-slot), it is by far the tensest, most suspenseful episode yet. Lew Landers, who directed Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Raven (as Louis Friedlander) takes over the helming duties and he tightens out all the slack.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Fiorello La Guardia never whined in the media about Italianophobia. Instead, he was louder than anyone criticizing Mussolini. He even recorded propaganda radio broadcasts in Italian that were transmitted into the fascist country. Frankly, there really isn’t anyone notably following his example with respect to Islamic terrorism today, except Ayaan Hirsi Alli. La Guardia is also the reason why National Socialist agents of influence are operating in Los Angeles instead of New York, at least according to Lewis Michener, a cynical anti-fascist cop. He and his new Hispanic partner must investigate a racially-fraught murder case that has been further complicated by an evil supernatural entity in the first season of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, which starts Sunday night on Showtime.

We silly mortals do not realize all our strife is really caused by the shape-shifting demon Magda to expose all of humanity’s hatred and pettiness to her rival, the crypto-Catholic cult deity Santa Muerte. The problem is Santa Muerte isn’t willing to help play defense. Instead, she is content to merely collect the souls murdered in Magda’s wake.

It starts when Michener and freshly promoted Mexican-American Detective Tiago Vega are assigned to the case of a rich Beverly Hills family ostensibly murdered by a Mexican cult. However, the flatfoots quickly deduce the over-the-top face-painting was really to draw suspicion away from the real killer. That leads Michener and Vega to the victim’s employer, a massive Evangelical ministry fronted by Sister Molly, an Aimee Semple McPherson-like figure.

Unfortunately, their investigation will be interrupted by a riot orchestrated by Magda, right in Vega’s back yard. Local activists were there to protest the motorway closeted Nazi-sympathizing Councilman Charlton Townsend rammed through the neighborhood. Much to his horror, Vega is forced to shoot his own trade unionist brother, after Magda possesses his body. To make matters worse, their youngest brother Mateo sees him do it. That drives the junior Vega into the arms of a Pachuco gang led by one of Magda’s personas.

Meanwhile, Michener pursues an active off-duty investigation of German agents with his old kvetching cronies. They are definitely outmanned and outgunned, so the cop will forge a risky alliance with Benny Berman, Meyer Lansky’s top lieutenant in LA. Dentist and local German-American Bund leader Dr. Peter Craft is not even on their radar yet, but Magda is playing with him big-time, in the guise of an abused German war-wife, whose plight fans his anti-Semitism.

City of Angels is a follow-up in-name-only to the original Penny Dreadful, which was dramatically better in nearly every respect. To start with, the tropes of gothic horror are always going to be more fun than race wars and identity politics. More problematically, none of the supernatural business involving Magda and Santa Muerte is scary at all. Instead, it is just lame.

What works is Nathan Lane’s wise-cracking portrayal of Michener and his dogged pursuit of Nazi agents. His riveting interrogation work in episode six (1-6 were provided to reviewers) is really awards-worthy. Lane and Daniel Zovatto also bicker and banter effectively as the odd couple partners, but the latter looks understandably listless during scenes of Vega family drama.

Tribeca ’20: The Last Ferry from Grass Island (short)

TVB is not what it used to be. Recently, pro-democracy viewers and advertisers have started boycotting the Hong Kong network, due to its pro-Beijing, anti-“One China, Two Systems” biases. However, Ah Hoi and his elderly mother Ah Ma still watch the broadcast channel out of habit. Old ways die hard and so do old hitmen in Linhan Zhang’s short film The Last Ferry from Grass Island, which would have screened during the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, had the CCP not covered up the extent of the Wuhan outbreak and falsely denied it involved human-to-human transmission. (Some selections have still been made available for press coverage.)

Ah Hoi is old school. He still speaks Cantonese and watches 1980’s movies, like Police Story (co-starring Last Ferry’s lead actor Tai-Bo). Of course, he does not panic when a young hired gun sneaks onto his fishing boat to cap him, especially when he recognizes she is his former Mainland Chinese protégé, Xiao Ma.

Last Ferry
unfolds as a wistfully elegiac slow-burn thriller, but astute Hong Kong watchers will read some between-the-lines commentary regarding the HK localism movement and traditional HK culture. To put it bluntly, this is a film about a Mainlander sent to murder a pre-1997-generation Hong Konger, after all.

Friday, April 24, 2020

True History of the Kelly Gang: Brooding with Ned

In 1906, Ned Kelly was the subject of what is considered the very first feature length film (Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang). He has been subsequently portrayed by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, so nobody can say his story is untold. However, some films are more accurate than others. Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant strive for historical and psychological authenticity with their historically-informed adaptation of Peter Carey’s biographical novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which releases today on VOD and opens old school at the Ocala and Mission Tiki 4 Drive-Ins.

Ned Kelly’s childhood was awful, as viewers will see and see and see again. His father was emotionally distant and largely incapable of providing for the family, whereas his mother was an Australian Lady Macbeth. Eventually, she “apprenticed” Kelly to the infamous Harry Power and then told him to man-up when he came running back, appalled by the bushranger’s violence. At last he learned a trade.

Frankly, the first act of True History is a grubby endurance test for viewers, but things pick up when Kelly comes of age and into his own. Initially, the prodigal Kelly resists the outlaw ways of his family, but his is forced into crime by circumstances and the villainy of Constable Fitzpatrick, with whom Kelly was formerly on (warily) friendly terms. The rest is violent history.

Although Kurzel and Grant generally side with those who see Kelly as a Robin Hood rebel instead of those (largely English) who disparage him as a cutthroat, they still drain the heroism out of his story. Instead, we get a naturalistic, proletarian Kelly. This a gritty, dank, and dirty looking movie, to a fault, but it still covers the major bases of Kelly’s life. Kurzel also displays a bit of a punk rock aesthetic that gives the film a slightly more contemporary vibe.

George MacKay (from 1917 and particularly impressive in For Those in Peril) is perfectly cast as Kelly. He is not huge of stature, but his wiry physicality and burning intensity create a palpable sense of dangerous instability on-screen. Surprisingly, Essie Davis is even fiercer as Mother Ellen Kelly.

Thousand Pieces of Gold, Restored in 4K

She is one of the best-known figures of the Idaho Gold Rush era, but even her name is a matter of contention. She started life as Lalu Nathoy—maybe—but the rustic miners called her “Polly”—and it stuck. There might be debate over biographical details, but she is widely recognized as strong frontier women. History and legend mix within reason throughout Nancy Kelly’s freshly 4K-restored 1990 film, Thousand Pieces of Gold, based on Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s biographical novel, which opens virtually today.

Technically, Nathoy’s father sold her into debt-slavery, but we probably shouldn’t judge him to harshly, given her nomadic family’s dire poverty. Nevertheless, the Chinese who trafficked her into San Francisco looked down on her, because of her Northern Chinese heritage. Jim, a Chinese pack-mule trader, purchases for resale to Hong King, who is supposedly her new husband, but he is really just a brothel owner, operating in a hardscrabble gold rush town.

Nathoy manages to avoid a life of sexual servitude through sheer force of will and the support of a few townsfolk who still take the abolition of slavery seriously. Most notably, this includes Charlie Bemis, a former Union prisoner-of-war, who also happens to be Hong King’s landlord. He is clearly attracted to “Polly,” but he is a gentleman, at least by the rough standards of the frontier.

Anne Makepeace’s adapted screenplay prints a lot of the legends surrounding Lalu/Polly, but that makes obvious sense from a narrative standpoint. It can even be defended from a historical perspective, because all the legends and lies surrounding figures of the Old West have become just as important as the verifiable facts.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Shudder: 0.0 MHz

In Korean horror movies, Shaman exorcist have a lower life expectancy than red shirts on Star Trek. So-hee is an exception who sort of proves the rule. She is the moody daughter of a shaman, who has a bit of the shine herself. Those are all classic “final girl” indicators. Seriously, she really should have known better than to go out stirring up a supernatural hornet’s nest, but she lets her paranormal investigation club do it anyway in Yoo Sun-dong’s 0.0 MHz, which premieres today on Shudder.

The club is called “0.0 MHz” because that is supposedly the frequency at which the human brain can make contact with ghosts, or some such silliness. Regardless, So-hee does not seem to have much interest in ghost-chasing, so it is hard to see why she signs on for their latest field trip. Nebbish Sang-yeob aspires to be a horror novelist and not-so secretly carries a torch for her, so his presence makes sense. Yoon-jung, the party girl, is out for a good time, while their charismatic leader Tae-soo and the jerkheel Han-seok are both out to score with her. Unfortunately, they have chosen a really sinister location: the isolated house in the mountains that was the scene of the disastrous exorcism during the prologue.

Frankly, 0.0 MHz is pretty standard stuff, but it works better just because it is K-horror and has trappings of shamanism. In fact, the film picks up significantly during the second act, focusing on Yoon-jung’s possession. Choi Yoon-young really ought to be in a different film, because her performance as the bleached-blonde Yoon-jung is way more fun than anything else in 0.0 MHz.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Angus Macfadyen is Robert the Bruce

Some actors are destined to revisit the same character in vehicles produced by very different filmmakers, like Peter Ustinov portraying Hercule Poirot or Bela Lugosi as Dracula. It turns out Angus Macfadyen will be similarly identified with Robert the Bruce. When he played the Scottish icon in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart, the focus was on the Bruce’s tragic failings. However, he would redeem himself. That is why he is considered a “national” hero. It is understandable why Macfadyen would want to return to the role to tell that tale, but this isn’t that film. Instead, the future king’s literal winter-in-the-wilderness is the subject of Richard Gray’s Robert the Bruce, co-written by Macfadyen, which releases this Friday on VOD.

When the Bruce tells his army at the end of Braveheart: “you died with Wallace, now die with me,” it is not exactly the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but it was appropriate. Die they did. As Gray’s film opens, the Bruce has been crowned king of Scotland, but only a remnant of his army remains. The common people revere him as their king and a symbol of Scottish independence, but most of the powerful clan leaders are aligned with England. Recognizing reality, the king disbands his army, but that leaves him vulnerable to turncoats out to collect the bounty on his head.

Robert the Bruce will be harder to kill than they expect, but he still suffers serious wounds at their hands. Fortunately, the king finds refuge in the mountain cottage home of Morag and her children, but it puts them in an awkward position. She is the widow of a soldier who died fighting with the Bruce, but her brother-in-law is the local sheriff, who is loyal to England and highly motivated to collect the reward for the king’s capture.

There is some hack-and-slash action right at the start, when Robert the Bruce has his infamous duel with John Comyn, and then again during the climax, but there is a lot of talk and farm-work in between. Frankly, the Bruce spends a good quarter of the film hiding in a cave. Admittedly, doing justice to the Battle of Bannockburn could have been understandably beyond the film’s budgetary means, but it concentrates on a decidedly odd period of the king’s life.

Still, Macfadyen finds grandness in the Bruce’s redemption, despite the film’s relatively small scale. It actually helps that he is older and more grizzled. In terms of tone, it is a lot like the Unforgiven of Scottish swashbucklers, but Macfadyen and co-screenwriter Eric Belgau still invite us to believe in the possibility of justice and heroism.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

1BR: The New Tenant

The standard of living in LA is pretty tough. The real estate market there is nearly as bad as it is here in New York, but you also really need a car. That is why an aspiring costume designer jumps at an affordable Hollywood apartment. Of course, there is a reason it looks too good to be true. There will be no lease-breaking in director-screenwriter David Marmor’s 1BR, which releases this Friday on VOD (because that is how things release these days—thanks CCP).

Sarah has come to Hollywood to pursue her designing dreams, but her dismissive father is convinced she will never make it. Her fellow temp also thinks she is a poor little lamb. However, Sarah’s new apartment is initially a source of encouragement, even though she is secretly keeping her cat in the pet-less complex. However, strange noises in the walls keep her up at nights. It even starts effecting her work and studies. Then things take a massively dark turn.

1BR starts off like an unnerving Polanski film, but it evolves into something altogether different and creepy. So far, everyone has respected the film’s secrets, but it might be the year’s best cinematic critique of coercive collectivism, so far. Let’s just say terms “security” are used in ways that will make you decidedly not feel secure.

It is also a viscerally intense genre film. Frankly, there are some scenes that are almost too tough to watch. Nevertheless, it is worth the fortitude, because Marmor’s subsequent revelations are jaw-dropping—and squirm-inducing.

Party Hard, Die Young: Dead Austrian Teenagers

A little social distancing would have been healthy for this class of Austrian teens. However, this is the “before-times” and these kids are young, dumb, and randy. That is tantamount to a death sentence in slasher films. True to form, a masked man with a grudge will try to bump them off one-by-one in Dominik Hartl’s Party Hard, Die Young, which releases today on DVD and streams exclusively on Shudder.

Julia and her friends intended to party their spring break away at an EDM festival underway on a picturesque Croatia isle. Of course, the techno will come in handy muffling their screams. The island setting is also convenient, since the ferry to the mainland leaves almost never. When Julia’s bestie Jessica storms off after a fight, she makes herself easy pickings as the first victim. The guilt-wracked Julia is convinced something bad happened to her, but the rest of her class and the worse-than-useless cops don’t want to hear it. Unfortunately, as the bodies of Julia’s classmates start to pile up, everyone has to admit there is probably a killer on the loose.

Even by the standard of slasher movie teens, Julia and her friends are glacially slow to figure out who is out to get them and why. Frankly, once they do, our sympathies shift to the Smiley Face slasher. That is a problem, because the killer really isn’t very interesting, but his victims are just completely appalling characters. That includes Julia too. She is the only potential victim that gets fleshed out to any extent, but Elisabeth Wabitsch’s portrayal is still pretty colorless.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Why Don’t You Just Die: Death and Death in Russia

Andrei Gennadievitch is a Russian cop, but he is nothing like Arkady Renko in Martin Cruz Smith’s novels or Inspector Rostnikov from Stuart Kaminsky’s mystery series. Gennadievitch is a big bull of a man, but he is a thoroughly corrupt, shameless excuse for a human being. He is not the sort of person you want to tangle with, but the hapless Matvei will try to kill him anyway. A whole lot of bloody mayhem will ensue in director-screenwriter Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die!, which releases today on VOD (theatrical distribution planned for earlier in the month was cancelled due to the CCP-virus, so forward all your complaints to Xi Jinping in Beijing).

Poor Matvei has been played rather badly by his girlfriend, Olya. Her father is a thug with a badge, but her allegations of sexual abuse were pure fabrication. She wound-up Matvei and sent him off after her father, armed only with a hammer. He wasn’t expecting Olya’s emotionally-deadened mother to be home as well, but she is. Nevertheless, he and Gennadievitch are soon engaged in vicious combat, using as weapons whatever they might find throughout the apartment.

Inevitably, Gennadievitch gains the upper hand, but Matvei keeps bouncing back. The title definitely refers to him. However, more people will get involved in the madness when Gennadievitch invites over his daughter for answers and Yevgenich (the partner he double-crossed) to help clean-up the mess. Instead, the wreckage just gets messier.

Although WDYJD is not explicitly political, it might just be the perfect representation of police work and criminal justice as it is currently practiced in Putin’s Russian tsardom. Corruption begets violence, which begets even more escalating violence. Press materials make the old Tarantino comparison, but watching the film gives us a hunch Sokolov has inhaled plenty of Takashi Miike as well. He has an eye for absurdly disgusting details, but more importantly, there is a dark logic to the way it all unfolds.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Abe: Seu Jorge Cooks (Portuguese Translation)

I've been a Seu Jorge fan since covering him at last Sundance, both as an actor in Abe, and as a performer at the ASCAP Music Cafe, so I'm thrilled to be able to post a Portuguese translation of my original film review, courtesy of Angelica Sakurada:

Abe: Seu Jorge cozinha

Se existisse mais cozinha fusion na Conferência de Taba, talvez existisse paz no Oriente Médio. Ou talvez não. Um chefe novato de treze anos tenta aproximar a sua família uma mistura de Israel e Palestina por meio da comida, mas as divergências deles podem ser muito grandes para os seus esforços culinários sanar, apesar da ajuda vinda do Brasil no filme Abe de Fernando Grostein Andrade, que recentemente foi lançado em VOD (video on demand) após o lançamento no Festival de Sundance de 2019.

Abe prefere ser chamado de “Abe”, mas sua família o chama de Abraham, Avraham, Avi ou Ibrahim, depende de qual lado da família está falado. Sua mãe e os pais dela são judeus de Israel, seus avós paternos são muçulmanos da Palestina, e seu pai é um ateu convicto. Como você pode imaginar, os encontros familiares são sempre difíceis. Francamente, eles batem boca tanto, que nunca chegam a apreciar a comida de Abe.

Para um garoto de treze anos, Abe é bom com a culinária básica (ou ele acha que é), mas ele precisa de um pouco de coaching para desenvolver criações mais ambiciosas. Chico Catuaba é o tipo de chefe que ele tem em mente como mentor. O baiano já teve seu próprio restaurante no passado, mas agora vende no bairro do Brooklyn a sua culinária exclusiva fusion brasileira-jamaicana que ele prepara em sua cozinha improvisada. Inicialmente, Chico Catuaba fica com um pé atrás em relação a Abe e com receio de problemas potenciais legais de exploração de menores que Abe pode trazer, mas a sinceridade do garoto acaba o convencendo. Entretanto, Chico Catuaba faz questão que Abe cumpra sua parte primeiro, antes de dar-lhe responsabilidades reais na cozinha.

O filme de Fernando Andrade destaca uma trilha sonora brasileira gostosa e cheia de energia, trazendo o co-protagonista Seu Jorge em duas canções (“Imigrantes” e “Meia Lua Inteira” de Caetano Veloso), Tulipa Ruiz com “Sal e Amor”, e o supervisor musical Jacques Morelenbaum com arranjos solos de violoncelo em “Brigas Nunca Mais” e “Samba de Uma Nota Só”. O som é ótimo e a comida parece deliciosa, então é fácil perdoar o aspecto previsível do roteiro de Lameece Issaq e Jacob Kader. De fato, Fernando Andrade executa de maneira leve o conto culinário em que o garoto vai crescendo, abafando os clichês óbvios e os potenciais desconfortos políticos ao máximo possível. Ao invés disso, ele foca na diversidade e carisma do conjunto dos personagens.

I Led 3 Lives: Dope Photographic

Recent news of Nicolas Maduro’s indictment for terrorism and drug trafficking certainly would not have surprised Herbert Philbrick. There is a long history of Communist governments collaborating with drug cartels, for money and to undermine the social fabric of the West. Back in 1991, Frontline (not exactly a rightwing echo-chamber) was exposing the complicity of Castro’s regime. Philbrick himself will help the FBI bust a Soviet-sponsored ring of pushers in “Dope Photographic,” our next episode of the I Led 3 Lives binge, which is findable online and also available on Alpha Video’s non-chronological I Led 3 Lives, Volume 1.

As an undercover counter-spy infiltrating a Communist cell, Philbrick has learned to live with the constant fear of detection (and liquidation). Nevertheless, his FBI handler is really exposing him to undue risks when he recruits him to help their investigation into a Soviet-backed dope ring. It turns out Philbrick’s office has a perfect view of one of the street-corners the pushers are thought to be working. His long-established photography hobby also gives him cover for buying a movie camera to record foot traffic. Nevertheless, Philbrick’s Communist masters are still suspicious, because fear and paranoia are the instruments they wield to keep their lackeys fearful and obedient.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Cellist: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky

Years before Elvis and his famous Sun Records label-mates were dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet,” Gregor Piatigorsky, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jascha Heifitz were hailed as the “Million Dollar Trio,” but they recorded and played together quite regularly. Piatigorsky was the first of the trio to take his final curtain call in 1976, yet his teachings and recorded body of work influenced every celebrated cellist who followed him. Writer-director-co-producer Murray Grigor & editor-cinematographer-co-producer Hamid Shams profile the revered classical musician in The Cellist: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky, which is now available on DVD.

Piatigorsky was born in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnipro, Ukraine) to a Jewish family in the year 1903—obviously an awkward time to come of age, with 1917 looming. He was working professionally at a young age, but the cellist was forced to escape Lenin’s dictatorship to study with the caliber of teachers his talent required. Despite finding success in Berlin and Paris, the National Socialist advance across Europe forced Piatigorsky and his wife to hastily immigrate to America. However, they did not have it nearly as rough as most refugees, because there were indeed advantages to be married to a Rothschild—as in the Rothschilds.

Their life in the United States was less dramatic, but enormously productive. It is rather amazing in this day-and-age to hear the overriding goal of Piatigorsky’s career was the popularization of the cello, but that just suggests how overwhelmingly he succeeded. Intriguingly, Piatigorsky and his wife also played critical roles as patrons of international chess competitions (which was very Russian of them).

Friday, April 17, 2020

A White, White Day, from Iceland

Iceland is only five hours by air from North America, but its closest neighbors are Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Their most recent international Oscar suggests the national temperament is as stone-faced and glacial as their geography. The slow burn is about as slow and reserved as it gets in screenwriter-director Hlynur Palmason’s A White, White Day, which opens virtually today in major markets.

Palmason does not do a lot of explaining, but it is clear Ingimundur still deeply mourns his late wife, who died prematurely in an auto accident, caused by the damp and misty climate. It appears the police chief has stepped down to some extent, but he still regularly puts in time at the station. He also attends regularly mandated counseling sessions, but his lack of enthusiasm is clearly evident. The saving grace of his life is Salka, the granddaughter he adores (for whom he shares day-to-day up-bringing responsibilities, due to yet another family tragedy).

Then one day he stumbles across evidence his beloved wife was having an affair. It really bothers Ingimundur, because it confirms suspicions that he tried to ignore at the time. As he grows increasingly preoccupied with her infidelity, the senior policeman starts stalking her presumed lover and exhibiting markedly more aggressive behavior.

White, White has been pitched as a thriller, but viewers will be forgiven if they just don’t see it that way. Palmason’s meticulousness and austere discipline are impressive, but also exhausting. There a lot of scenes focusing on people (often Ingimundur) sitting in a parked car, quietly brooding—a whole lot.

Basically, White, White lives by Palmason’s aesthetic and dies by Palmason’s aesthetic. The performance of veteran Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson is truly masterful, but there are limits to how far he can pull the audience through such a frosty viewing experience. In a weird way, he is also undermined by recent events, because one of his big eruptions comes during a video-conference meeting. Instead of being shocked, a lot of viewers are likely to think: “yeah, that was me during my 3:00.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

TCM Fest (Home Ed.): Mad Love

This is one sinister case of muscle memory. Much to his surprise, a recovering concert pianist suddenly finds he has a knack for throwing knives after the hands of a murderer are grafted onto his crushed arms. However, it is the deranged doctor who is the real danger to society. That stands to reason, since he was played by Peter Lorre making his American film debut in Karl Freund’s Mad Love, which airs as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2020 Home Edition, brought to you by the CCP, the WHO, and the viral outbreak they denied existed until it was too late.

Dr. Gogol loves diva actress Yvonne Orlac, but he is unaware she has already wed pianist Stephen Orlac, who has been away from Paris on an extended tour. Now that his return is imminent, she has announced her intention to retire from the stage. That prompts a lot of creepy behavior from Gogol, including buying her life-like statue from the city’s wax museum. Yet, suddenly he has the opportunity to be her hero when Orlac is the victim of a gruesome train derailment. Thanks to his brilliance, Gogol saves the day by (unbeknownst to them) transplanting the dexterous hands of an American killer freshly beheaded by the guillotine.

Of course, the rehab process is long and difficult, but Orlac is also rather unsettled by his hands’ apparent habit of tossing knives of their own accord, during moments of extreme stress. Gogol tries to be a decent chap about things, but his heartsickness eventually brings out the doctor’s dark side, spurring him to exploit his patients fragile state of mind.

Mad Love was produced by MGM rather than Universal, but it features three iconic actors of 1930s genre movies: Lorre (who needs no introduction), Colin Clive (who played Henry Frankenstein in the first two Frankenstein films), and Keye Luke (who had already started portraying Charlie Chan’s #1 son). Nevertheless, there is never any question this Lorre’s show from start to finish. He uses his entire M trick bag of bulging-eyed manic tics, but he still conveys Gogol’s acute pathos. Arguably, Gogol deserved better, but jealousy and obsession turned him into a monster.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint was sort of like the Emily Dickinson of abstract painting, except she was the first artist to ever do it. Her first abstract paintings erupted into the world fully formed, predating Kandinsky’s more hesitant experiments by several years. Cineastes will also know her as the artist who interests Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. Her art is boldly colorful, but the presentation is a bit sedate throughout Halina Dryschka’s documentary profile, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, which opens “virtually” this Friday.

Dryschka and her on-screen experts do a nice job establishing af Klint’s influences, science and spiritualism, as well as explaining why that was not as contradictory as it sounds today. Of course, the latter is what made the artist such a perfect fit for Personal Shopper. At times, she claimed her paintings just flowed through her, much like the automatic writing of Chico Xavier. She was even a member of a séance circle called “The Five,” so eventually someone is bound to produce a straight-up Hilma af Klint horror movie (can’t wait). However, her personal life was quiet to the point of being cloistered, but at least she apparently had one great, relatively reciprocal love of her life.

Visible scores a real coup uncovering a hitherto unknown 1928 exhibition of af Klint’s abstract paintings in London, when the conventional wisdom held that only a handful of her early academic paintings received any kind of public showing. On the other hand, all the talking heads wildly overstate their arguments regarding the perniciousness of the art-world’s so-called “patriarchy” and the crass commercialism of the art market. Yes, there are many more examples of men who found fame in the art world than women, but somehow Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt still eclipsed nearly all of their colleagues.

TCM Fest (Home Ed.): The Creature from the Black Lagoon

It is the only classic Universal monster movie set entirely within Brazil—the Amazon to be exact. The Creature would stalk the Everglades during his two subsequent sequels, but an expedition of foolhardy scientists originally came to him. Since then, the Creature has become an icon of 1950s 3D sci-fi horror that even inspired a recent best picture Oscar winner (The Shape of Water was originally developed as a reboot). Grab some coxinha or some popcorn (if that’s the best you can do) and enjoy Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon when it airs as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2020 Home Edition (because that’s where we all are).

Brazilian zoologist (or some kind of scientist) Dr. Carl Maia is so amazed by a fossil discovery, he rushes back to the Instituto de Biologia Maritima to secure funding for a proper excavation, leaving behind his two assistants. Make that his late assistants. Of course, the Yankee scientists are blown away by the weird webbed and clawed hand, so they immediately set off with Maia to investigate where it came from.

Dr. David Reed and his colleague Kay Lawrence are all about scientist (and each other), while their boss, Dr. Mark Williams is more interested in publicity. Williams also has a bad case of green-eyed jealousy, but he is nothing compared to the Creature, who becomes obsessed with Lawrence, in a King Kong kind of way. In fact, he might not let the Rita, their rickety hired river steamer, leave his remote inlet.

This is actually an opportune time to revisit the Black Lagoon, given the release of Mallory O’Meara’s book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon, giving Milicent Patrick long overdue credit for her Creature design work. In fact, the Creature still looks pretty darn cool, with his gills, scales, claws, and webbing. He really does look like he should be quick and lethal underwater.

Much like the classic Universal monsters that came before him, the Creature also has similar pathos. You can’t help feeling for the big guy. Admittedly, Black Lagoon is essentially a B-movie, but the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds is surprisingly effective. James C. Havens gets a credit for directing underwater sequences, but there is still a consistency of tone and nice, brisk pacing. Indeed, it might just be time for a Jack Arnold retro, considering it could also include Revenge of the Creature (the one co-starring Clint Eastwood), The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Oscar-nominated documentary short, With These Hands, and two vintage 1970s Fred Williamson films.

As we can tell from the short shorts, Richard Carlson was pretty fit portraying Reed (and presumably his political judgment was sound, since he was also starring in I Led 3 Lives at the time). It is also easy to see why Julia Adams remained a fan favorite scream queen for her turn as Lawrence, who was relatively proactive, at least by the standards of the time. Madrid-born Antonio Moreno, who played Dr. Maia is obviously not Brazilian, but Nestor Paiva, who plays Captain Lucas, was Portuguese-American, which was pretty close for Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Romantic Comedy: Analyzing the Whole Genre

Is it the genre that is too limited or is it the viewer, whose frame of reference is too narrow? Anyone with screening habits that range beyond the latest multiplex release is probably not a big fan of the so-called “rom-com” in the first place. However, a lot of us still have maybe seen our share of Asian, Bollywood, or even Nollywood rom-coms. There is something universal about the genre, but Elizabeth Sankey chooses to view them through a very Hollywood prism that is obsessed with issues of representation in her documentary-essay Romantic Comedy, which releases today on DVD.

According to her introduction, Sankey had always been a huge fan of the romantic comedy genre, but she found it harder to relate to these films after her marriage. As we know so well, they mostly end with a walk down the aisle or a drive off into the sunset, rather than showing the real work it takes to make marriages and relationships work. That is a fair point, as is the skewering of the creepily obsessive behavior that is passed off as cute and quirky in films like While You Were Sleeping.

However, Sankey and her disembodied chorus of commentators (who speak over the constant montage of clips like the weirdos dissecting The Shining in Room 237) veer bit off base when they complain about the genre’s alleged lack of inclusion. Frankly, they are largely revealing the lack of diversity of their own Netflix queues. There have been plenty of rom-coms featuring predominantly African American casts that were legitimate box office hits, including the Best Man movies, Jumping the Broom, Think Like a Man, Love Jones, and About Last Night (the Kevin Hart remake).

Sergio, the Netflix Movie (English & Portuguese Reviews)

(You can find a Portuguese translation below the following English review, courtesy of Angelica Sakurada. The Portuguese is hers. Any controversial opinions are entirely my own.)

It was not exactly the United Nation’s finest hour when it tapped China to join its Human Rights Council, despite its dismal record of press censorship, cultural genocide in East Turkestan, and the continuing oppression of religious worship (plus, they made whistleblowers in Wuhan disappear during the early days of the current global pandemic). Hypocrisy and corruption have long been rife throughout the UN bureaucracy, especially during the days of Kofi Annan’s administration. The one shining exception was Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. He had the unique distinction among his UN peers for actually brokering equitable peace deals, but he was tragically killed by the Al-Qaeda faction that evolved into ISIS. After chronicling Vieira de Mello’s story in documentary form, Greg Barker retells it in the narrative feature simply-titled Sergio, which starts streaming this Friday on Netflix (after premiering at this year’s Sundance).

Vieira de Mello opposed the Iraq War—a fact Barker and screenwriter Craig Borten clearly do not want us to forget. In fact, they revel in his disagreements with Paul Bremer, the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq. Alas, it is no spoiler to mention the titular diplomat was killed during his Baghdad posting, because Barker uses it as a narrative device, flashing backwards to happier times, while U.S. Sergeants Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, firemen in civilian-life, struggle to unearth Vieira de Mello and his colleague, Gil Loescher, from the precarious rubble. Obviously, the prognosis looks bad.

Those better days include Vieira de Mello’s tenure as the UN’s Transitional Administrator for East Timor, where he negotiated the new nation’s peaceful independence from Indonesia. East Timor is also where the divorced High Commissioner meets Carolina Larriera, a micro-finance expert, who becomes his lover and UN colleague. Unfortunately, such distractions cause Vieira de Mello to neglect his sons. Indeed, family time is rare and awkward for the diplomat (sadly, a big pot of delicious shrimp moqueca is neglected during a short-lived family reunion).

Sergio’s biases are blatantly obvious, but they still probably could have been worse. Arguably, Bradley Whitford’s cartoonish portrayal of the nebbish Bremer as cynical villain is the most egregious aspect of the film. On the other hand, it forthrightly depicts the heroic efforts of von Zehle and Valentine to save Sergio and Loescher. It is worth noting von Zehle served as a technical advisor, which is a major reason why the rescue sequences are so tense and realistic.

Borten’s screenplay readily admits Vieira de Mello’s decision to evict the U.S. forces guarding the UN’s headquarters in Iraq left it directly vulnerable to terrorist attack. However, for some dubious reason, it omits al-Zarqawi’s cited motivation for the bombing in his statement of responsibility: the East Timor deal that result in a net loss of territory controlled by the Islamic Caliphate—in that case the Indonesian government.

As a film, Sergio moves along at a good pace and convincingly recreates the major events of his time, even though Barker and lead actor Wagner Moura are transparently mindful of protecting Vieira de Mello’s reputation throughout the film. They show some self-doubt and human weakness, but just enough to provide an opportunity for redemption. Ana de Armas is pretty believable expressing frustration with his workaholism and commitment phobia, but the character is largely defined in relationship to him.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death: Feel the Bruceploitation

Bruceploitation does not get much more exploitative than this. If you love Bruce Lee, chances are you hate this cash-in cobbled together by the [in]famous grindhouse distributor Aquarius Releasing. Problems of authenticity abound, but there is still something appealing about the hucksterism of Matthew Mallinson’s Fistof Fear, Touch of Death, which is coming imminently (due to a CCP-virus delay) on DVD and limited-edition collector’s Blu-Ray, from the Film Detective.

Frankly, the behind-the-scenes making-of story of Fist is probably more interesting than its actual narrative, or really narratives. While cataloging some film canisters for Aquarius, Mallinson unearthed The Thunderstorm, an early family drama the teenaged Lee made before he left Hong Kong for the U.S.A. The entertaining bonus feature, “That’s Bruceploitation,” refers to it as “Bruce Lee: Death of a Salesman,” because of its apparently similar family dynamics. Regardless, Bruce Lee had been dead since 1973, so any new footage was a boon to you know, exploit.

Waste not, want not, so Mallinson and screenwriter Ron Harvey were tapped to create a contemporary film around the footage. They were also allowed to plunder the Taiwanese Kung Fu film, The Invincible Super Chan for footage of what became flashbacks to Lee’s celebrated martial artist ancestor (said to be a famous “samurai” in ancient China, which is just so embarrassing for fans to hear).

The film starts out with the eternally cool Fred Williamson (who starred in many blaxploitation distributed by Aquarius), playing himself as he tries to make his way to Madison Square Garden, where he is supposed to do some color commentary for a match promoted by real-life New York dojo-owner, promoter, and minor exploitation star, Aaron Banks. Supposedly, the main event will crown Lee’s successor. To drum up further publicity, Banks holds press conferences claiming Lee was in fact murdered, by someone using the titular technique. However, Williamson takes issue with Banks’ presumptiveness and baseless speculation during his interview with Adolph Ceasar, the actor playing himself (more or less) as a sportscaster, who supposedly discovered Bruce Lee.

Ostensibly, Caesar tells us the Bruce Lee story in flashbacks to the black-and-white Thunderstorm, which then flashes-back to color excerpts of Invincible Super Chan, none of which make much sense. Without question, the best parts of the film were the original contemporary action sequences featuring martial arts-blaxploitation cult favorite Ron van Clief and Bill Louie, who was then a promising potential martial arts star, assuming the mask and mantle of Kato. Both involve the Bruce Lee-disciples saving joggers from predatory street gangs in Manhattan parks, so you cannot accuse Harvey’s screenplay of excessive originality.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

I Led 3 Lives: Pilot

It is a shame William F. Buckley is no longer with us, for many reasons, but especially because he was so effective at ejecting fringe elements from the Conservative movement. He was decidedly critical of Joseph McCarthy, especially in terms of his strategy and demagogic style, but his judgement on the HUAC committee was much more measured. Even today, Buckley’s books are required reading for anyone looking to really understand the era now derisively referred to as the “Red Scare.” The truth many hoped to obscure was the fact there really were many active enemy agents under the direct control the USSR trying to infiltrate and sabotage American institutions. Herbert A. Philbrick became the FBI’s most famous counter-spy. He successfully infiltrated the infiltrators and lived to write a memoir about it. Since we’re all stuck inside, let’s binge something different, I Led 3 Lives, the syndicated 1950s TV show based on his book, which is currently available online (at least for now).

If you enjoy dramatic voiceovers, then the IL3L pilot will be your catnip or caviar. In it, we meet Herbert Philbrick, a mild-mannered ad executive, who is secretly a member of a Communist cell (it is pretty clear from documents declassified from the Venona Project and the old Soviet archives, members involved in political organizing for the CPUSA were also expected to serve intelligence gathering functions for the Soviet intel agencies). However, he was secretly spying on them for the FBI. His handler, Special Agent James Adams does not seem so protective, but he has knack for appealing to Philbrick’s sense of duty.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Frontline: China Undercover

Frontline calls the cultural genocide currently underway in East Turkestan “the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.” The severity and pervasiveness of the CCP’s campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs they proceed to document justifies such a chilling statement. The world has no shortage of crises right now (again, thanks to the CCP), but the Chinese Communist government’s systematic human rights abuses demand the public’s attention and outrage. Therefore, PBS and Frontline deserve credit for producing and airing China Undercover, filmed, directed, and co-produced by Robin Barnwell, which is now available on the Frontline website and the PBS app.

Access to East Turkestan is tightly controlled by the Party, especially for foreigners and independent journalists. However, Barnwell and his colleagues were able to recruit an ethnic Han Chinese businessman living in Southeast Asia to be their secret eyes and ears in the locked-down region. Thanks to his Han heritage, the man they dub “Li” had much greater freedom of movement than native Uyghur citizens. Indeed, we see him cruise through security checkpoints that stop and invasively search Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs (who have it just as badly in East Turkestan).

Probably two million Muslims are imprisoned in re-education camps, judging from satellite photos of the massive detention centers. Also judging from satellite intel, it appears numerous mosques have been razed into rubble. However, it is hard for Uyghurs and Kazakhs to speak openly, because of the CCP’s Orwellian surveillance apparatus. It is so finely tuned, residents must speak in code over phone lines, because certain words and phrases will automatically alert the authorities. If someone is sent to the camps, they are said to be “studying” instead.