Monday, November 30, 2020

Ikarie XB-1, Restored and Uncut

They set off to seek out new life and new civilizations three years before the original Star Trek launched. They found a strange form of space madness five years before the first Soviet adaptation of Solaris (and nine years before Tarkovsky’s classic). It too was loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel, but for years it was only known as Voyage to the End of the Universe, in a cut that was heavily edited and redubbed by American International Pictures (AIP). Happily, Jindrich Polak’s Czech science fiction masterwork has been fully restored in its entirety, which releases this Friday, via Film Forum’s virtual cinema.

was also considered an influence on Kubrick’s 2001, at least in terms of its sleek space-age design. It is just as moody and brooding as the 1968 Solyaris, but also displays some of groovy vibe of vintage DEFA sf films, like Eolomea. You can tell just by looking at Ikarie that it must have been influential. The narrative sounds relatively familiar, but keep in mind, it was the product of the early Cold War-era-1960s.

Sometime in the future, a crew of scientists embark on a fifteen-year journey, searching for life in the Alpha Centauri system. As we can tell from the in media res prologue, one of the crew goes raving mad and will threaten the safety of all abord the Ikarie. It doesn’t just happen. The deranged Michael will apparently be infected with something. The question will be—is it the doing of mysterious aliens, or is it perhaps somehow related to the evil derelict NATO space vessel they find drifting from a dark era long-passed.

The very idea of a NATO starship does not make sense, since the North Atlantic Alliance has never been involved in space exploration—just maintaining the peace and containing Soviet expansionism, but obviously
Ikarie XB-1 had to incorporate some kind of propaganda to earn its release. In most other respects, the futuristic crew do not sound much different than Star Trek’s Starfleet. Regardless, story is really just a vehicle for the wonderfully retro sets and Jan Kalis’s absolutely stunning black-and-white cinematography.

The Ikarie model is just okay (a bit like
Space 1999’s Eagle), but the interiors will make sf fans swoon. Admittedly, the antiquated robot owned by crew mathematician Antony Hopkins [definitely not “Sir Anthony”] is transparently modeled after Robbie the Robot, from Forbidden Planet (1956), but that adds to the retro charm. Yet, there is a grace to spacefaring scenes that clearly prefigure 2001 (all that’s missing is The Blue Danube accompaniment).

Arguably, the cast acquits itself quite well, especially considering what a strong stylistic stamp Polak put on the film. Otto Lackovic delivers a Shatner-worthy freak-out as Michael and Radovan Lukavsky provides Picardian steeliness as Macdonald, the first officer, who makes all the hard decisions. Of course, the Ikarie has its share of expendable crew members too, just like the Enterprise.

76 Days: Scenes from the Wuhan Lockdown

One of Hao Wu's Mainland-based co-directors preferred to remain anonymous in the credits of their film documenting Wuhan during the lockdown. That is totally understandable, given how tightly the CCP regime has controlled information regarding the outbreak. However, there is one name conspicuously missing from the film: Dr. Li Wenliang, the “whistleblower” doctor who was arrested and forced to recant his warnings of a coronavirus outbreak, before eventually succumbing to Covid-19 himself. His full story needs to be told, but Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and anonymous focus solely on the anguish that resulted inside four overwhelmed Wuhan hospitals, struggling to keep up with pandemic in 76 Days, which releases virtually this Friday.

There is no background or context provided during
76 Days, just an immersive examination of the triage, in the style of a Wiseman doc, but with more urgency. It is hard to say whether some of the action was recorded in Dr. Li’s Wuhan Central Hospital, now also known as “Whistleblower Hospital,” because Wu did his best to obscure details that could identify people and places during the editing. His efforts were aided by the head-to-toe PPE-gear that almost entirely renders the medical personnel anonymous. Of course, this also presents a “dramatic” challenge, but the catastrophic nature of the situation still comes through, in scene after scene.

Perhaps the most poignant sequences involve a young couple, who are desperate to finally see their infant daughter, who was born while her pregnant mother was in treatment for Covid. Nicknamed “Little Penguin” by the hospital staff, the unnamed baby has yet to be held by her parent’ arms, but at least they are all expected to survive. The prognosis is not so good for other patients.

Indeed, opens with the chilling scene of a hospital employee wailing for deceased father, whom she is not allowed to see, due to safety protocols. In shaping his codirectors’ footage, Wu largely avoids overtly political references. However, there is a weird incident involving a distressed elderly patient, whose son on a cell phone basically tells him to suck it up and start acting like a Party member.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Taiwan B-Movies at AFA: Taiwan Black Movies

Before Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, there was Woman Revenger and Lady Ninja. Starting in 1979, there was an explosion of ROC exploitation filmmaking that not so coincidentally coincided with Taiwan’s super-charged economic growth and the development of the democratization movement. Hou Chi-jan surveys the films and their cultural significance in Taiwan Black Movies, which screens as part of Anthology Film Archive’s free online retrospective, Taiwan B-Movies.

Sort of euphemistically (but maybe not really), the Taiwanese “Black” or B-movies are referred to by critics as the “social realism” films. In fact, the film that launched the genre,
Never Too Late to Repent, was a very realistic depiction of prison conditions. Those that followed cranked up the violence to levels previously unseen in local cinema, while pushing the sexual envelop as much as they could at the time.

Back then, the KMT was still anti-Communist (whereas it is now infamous as Taiwan’s pro-CCP party), so adaptations of Mainland “Scar Literature,” novels chronicling the horrors of Mao’s regime, could count on a little slack from the KMT censors. Ironically, the awkwardly titled
On the Society File of Shanghai would give rise to a major Taiwanese exploitation subgenre: the women’s revenge film. Indeed, a number of the clips seen in TBM look like they could have come from a dingy print of Lady Snowblood, or something even tougher.

Hou’s talking heads represent a fairly wide spectrum of film criticism. Collectively, they probably express just as much disdain for these films, as they do admiration and nostalgia. Each point is also vividly illustrated with relevant film clips, but sadly, a number of these films are obviously not well preserved.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Holiday Gift Guide: Valley of the Gods

This film is like a clown car loaded with symbolism. No matter how hard you try, you will probably never finish unpacking it. It also has some striking natural scenery and a really interesting supporting cast packed in there. Lech Majewski is probably best known in North America for the wonderous “cinematic painting” The Mill and the Cross and he brings the same genre-defiance and distinctive visual sensibility to bear in the fabulistic Valley of the Gods, which is now available on DVD. It would indeed make quite a memorable gift for any fan of Jodorowsky-ish auteurs on your shopping list (but be warned, they will keep talking about it for months to come).

Either a lot happens in
Valley, or maybe not that much. Engineering titan Wes Tauros is about to secure the uranium mining rights for the Navajo Nation’s Valley of Gods (near Monument Valley), where the spirits of their ancestors are thought to reside. The deal has split the community, largely but not entirely along generational lines, between those who value the spiritual over the material concerns and those desperate for greater opportunities.

John Ecas was a copywriter with the Tauros company, but he is now concentrating on his midlife crisis and pining for his wife, who left him for her hang-gliding instructor. On the advice of his unconventional shrink, Ecas has embraced absurdity as a means of therapy. It was during his resulting misadventures that he crossed paths with Tauros, in his incognito homeless avatar. Ostensibly, Ecas is summoned to Tauros’s grand castle in the sky to serve as his Boswell, but the weirdness that unfolds could just be the novel he is finally writing.

There are a lot of visual references going on in
Valley—so much so, astute viewers may start to second-guess how much they are projecting themselves. Regardless, cineastes will inevitably see echoes from dozens of films, starting with the grand vistas of John Ford’s classic Monument Valley westerns. Ecas’ trippy spirit walk brings to mind John Cassavetes dropping-out in Paul Mazursky’s Tempest. Tauros is frequently likened to Howard Hughes within the film, but his Xanadu is also reminiscent of Hearst Castle, while his statue garden is shrewdly compared to the Medusa’s lair. Fittingly, the great Keir Dullea appears as Ulim, Tauros’s trusted butler and confidant, because there are elements of the wildly over-the-top climax that bring to mind 2001.

So, basically whatever you might want to see, you can find in
Valley, maybe even kaiju. Of course, John Malkovich is perfectly cast as the eccentric and arbitrary Tauros. Dullea is aptly mysterious and a little bit unnerving as Ulim. Plus, the great John Rhys-Davies is wonderfully sly as Dr. Hermann, Ecas’s erudite analyst, who we can’t be absolutely sure truly exists. These are three of our favorite thesps, whom Majewski shrewdly uses in ways that play to their strengths.

Friday, November 27, 2020

ADIFF ’20: The Last Mambo

You have to give Latin Jazz credit, because it never lost its popularity with dancers. Bop and free jazz became the stuff of serious listeners, but Latin Jazz had people dancing the mambo, son, and cha-cha-cha, eventually morphing into salsa—and if you’re not dancing to salsa, there’s something wrong with you. New York gets a lot of attention in Latin music histories, but the Bay Area also had a distinctive scene that gets its due credit in Rita Hargrave’s The Last Mambo, which screens virtually as part of the 2020 NY African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Those who know their jazz history recognize San Francisco’s Fillmore District ranked alongside LA’s Central Avenue and New York’s 52nd Street. Hargrave and musician Wayne Wallace (the associate producer) make a case for Oakland too, especially the beloved Sweet’s Ballroom, where terrific local talent like Merced Gallegos, Carlos Federico & the Panamanians ruled the roost. It is actually surprisingly entertaining to watch Wallace’s walking tour of the former Raider town’s old musical haunts.

Sadly, Gallegos and Federico can only be seen in archival footage now, but Hargrave incorporates (relatively recent) interviews with the legendary Pete Escovedo (you might also recognize his percussionist daughter, Sheila E.), as well as the late, great Benny Velarde (the percussionist with Cal Tjader’s breakout group).

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

They call it a "blues party" but they really aren’t playing the blues. Yet, this 1979 West London get-together is not so different from a swing-era Harlem rent party or a hill country hootenanny. It is all about feeling the groove and hopefully your dance partner, while someone makes a little change at the door in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the second installment of his Small Axe film sequence, which premieres today on Amazon Prime.

They had to take all the furniture out to fit all the people they expected, but space will still be tight. Of course, that is the point. This is way, way before the era of social distancing. If Martha and her friend Patty meet a fellow they are interested in, they will definitely want to dance slow and close. Franklyn obviously catches Martha’s eye and vice versa. Unfortunately, his wingman crashed and burned with Patty, but that will not sabotage their mutual attraction.

Some of the music heard in
Lovers Rock isn’t what fans of the subgenre might immediately think of “Lovers Rock” either, particularly not Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.” Menelik Shabazz’s The Story of Lover’s Rock (which used an apostrophe) provides an excellent survey of the music, which derived from reggae, but was smoother, more romantic, and less political than the Jamaican-based variety of the period (ironically, considering the polemical nature of the other Small Axe films). However, it features the song that was arguably Lovers Rock’s greatest hit, Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” in a truly show-stopping sequence. First, we watch the dancers grind to Kay’s record and then we hear the entire house sing the lyrics as an ecstatic a cappella chorus.

McQueen would have been a terrific music video director during the 1980s—and that is not meant as a slight. Quite the contrary. Every shot seems to marry-up seamlessly with the beats of the soundtrack, while cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s close-ups bring out the passion and the frustration of the characters. However, the sense that one of the more predatory guests is likely to overstep the bounds of propriety before the end of the night adds an uneasy vibe that prevents viewers from casting their cares away and simply enjoying the show. Of course, that also gives the film most of its dramatic tension.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Vinyl Generation: Records for the Revolution

I used to hunt for LPs nearly every day. It was a harmless and often culture-affirming pursuit that could have gotten me fired and possibly arrested had I lived under Communism in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Yet, those forbidden grooves helped fuel the Velvet Revolution. Tom Stoppard did not lie in his great play Rock & Roll. Some of those slightly older record hounds look back on the era of revolution and underground music in Keith Jones’ documentary Vinyl Generation, which releases today on VOD.

opens with its best scene, capturing a meeting between two 1980s-era record collectors in the park where they used to surreptitiously buy and swap vinyl. Tellingly, they both admit they are still a little freaked out by the sudden appearance of cops, when one happens by, purely by chance. They then chronicle the bands and underground venues that emerged during their youth, while also explaining the influence of Western recording artists on the Prague scene, particularly that of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed.

For those have a taste for uncompromising punk and hard rock, the first forty-five minutes of
Generation will be pure Nirvana (in the Eastern religious sense). Jones and his talking heads do a nice job establishing a connection between the music scene and what was concurrently happened in art, poetry, and samizdat journalism. Yet, utterly inexplicably, the Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe only appears in passing, even though their arrest and imprisonment directly prompted the Charter 77 Movement, which in turn brought Vaclav Havel to international prominence.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mariusz Wilczynski’s Kill It and Leave This Town

1970s Lodz was a perfectly representative city of Poland under Communism. It was industrial, depressed, and oppressively sinister. At least, that is how animator Mariusz Wilczynski, or his animated alter-ego remembers it. Time and events blend together as he delves into the nightmarish memories buried in his subconscious. Maybe this all happened him or maybe some of it happened to his family, but it all haunts him just the same throughout the darkly trippy Kill It and Leave This Town, which opens today via Anthology Film Archives’ virtual cinema.

Plenty of awful things happen in
Kill, but its narrative remains elusive. There is a filmmaker, perhaps not unlike Wilczynski, who hopes to finally finish a long-in-the-works project, very much like the eleven-years-in-the-making Kill. He still visits his ailing mother in the hospital, even though he [presumably] had a very difficult childhood. Who didn’t, in this harsh world? Yet, probably the most harrowing recollections come from the old man with a bird-ish beak, with whom the filmmaker shares a train car.

If you are a sheltered waif, who is triggered by disturbed sights and sounds (such as crying children), you will have a hard time with this film. However, you will be missing out a distinctive and defiantly challenging animated feature, following squarely in the tradition of Jiri Barta. Aesthetically, the closest comparison for Wilczynski’s ultra-minimalist, hand-drawn animation might be Don Hertzfeldt crossed with David Lynch. To put it another way, he takes the grossest, most disturbing and psychologically expressive elements of Plympton and Gilliam—and scrapes away everything else.

On the surface level,
Kill comes across as an apolitical film. Yet, just knowing this Hellscape is set during the Communist era is a devastating indictment. The damage done to the community and the individual psyche is profoundly and inescapably evident in every frame.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band

You have heard bands play "Hava Nagila” and “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” before, but those songs hold special significance when these musicians perform them. Arguably, everything they play has special significance, because of what they witnessed and survived. The apt name of their band explains why. Documentarian Tod Lending follows klezmer musicians Saul Dreier and Ruby Sosnowicz gigging, enduring the heartaches of their advanced years, and their celebrated return to Poland in Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band, which releases today on VOD.

All things considered, Dreier still lays down a solid beat on drums and Sosnowicz, a long-time accordion teacher, still squeezes with authority. They often play with a multi-reed musician, whose parents fled the National Socialists (a reasonable fudge), while Sosnowicz’s daughter Chana performs the vocals and serves as the road manager (keeping the band a focused, family affair). Neither Dreier nor Sosnowicz has returned to Poland since the war, but they have ambitious tour plans. Sadly, both men will experience loss yet again before leaving on their remarkable engagements.

Discussion of the Holocaust in Poland always comes with the caveat: it was the German occupiers who did the killing, which is true. They were also more Poles among the Righteous of Nations than any other nationality, many of whom attended the band’s special command performance, with Muniek Straszcyk, who has been dubbed the “Bono of Poland.” Yet, understandably, some survivors still have bitter memories of the nation, so it is good and productive to see government officials warmly welcoming the nonagenarian musicians (especially since the current president has discouraged open discussion of Poland’s past and been receptive to Xi’s Belt-and-Road overtures).

Monday, November 23, 2020

Iron Mask: The Russian-Chinese Co-Production Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Do You remember the Nikolai Gogol story about the Kung Fu warriors fighting to liberate the dragon who served as the ancient guardian of China’s tea supply? Neither would he. He wouldn’t know Jonathan Green either, the protagonist of Forbidden Empire, the 2014 film vaguely but still recognizably based on his novella, Viy. Green returns, traveling from Czarist Russia to Qing Dynasty China in Oleg Stepchenko’s Russian-Chinese co-production Iron Mask (a.k.a. Viy 2: Journey to China, a.k.a. Journey to China: The Mystery of the Iron Mask), which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Iron Mask
should not be confused with Dumas either, but there is a royal stuck inside a piece of iron head-gear. In this case, it is Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, imprisoned in the Tower of London. He shares a cell with the Master, a mysterious Chinese warrior, who has sort of taught him Kung Fu. The Master was the leader of a brotherhood serving the patron dragon of China’s tea-producing region, where dark forces have now taken control.

Ironically, that is where Green is headed. He had a tough scrape in Moscow, but the British ambassador managed to facilitate his release from prison, with the expectation the phony Czar’s assassin would permanently silence him. However, Cheng Lan, the Master’s protégé, protects him, while maintaining the guise of a man (Mulan-style). When Green’s wife gets wind of the situation, she helps the Czar escape from the Tower, so they can travel to China, to defeat the imposter witch-queen, fraudulently ruling in the Dragon’s name, exactly the way Gogol would have written it, if he thought
Viy needed a Kung Fu-fantasy sequel.

Just trying to write a brief synopsis of
Iron Mask is a handy exercise for putting the illogical randomness of the plot into perspective. To make things even nuttier, James Hook, the warden of the Tower of London is played by Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he doesn’t sound so conspicuously out of place in the Russian and Mandarin dubs.

Forbidden Empire
was an inconsistent mess, but it still hung together as a whole better than Iron Mask. On the other hand, Iron Mask boasts more entertaining highlights. Stepchenko and the producers are shrewd enough to deliver a fight scene between their two action icons: Jackie Chan and Schwarzenegger, as the Master and Hook, respectively. It is pretty good fight scene—and the climatic storming-the-castle sequence is definitely cool. A lot of credit goes to Helen Yao Xingtong, who shows off some terrific action chops as Cheng Lan and the imposter witch.

The Flight Attendant (Pilot)

Just when flight attendants thought they had finally lived down the naughty fictionalized memoir Coffee, Tea, or Me, hard-partying Cassie Bowden comes along to give everyone the wrong idea again. However, she will regret her ways when she wakes up next to a dead body in creator Steve Yockey’s The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s novel, which premieres this Thursday on HBO Max—with the pilot episode currently sneak-peaking on YouTube.

Bowden can be flaky, but her crewmates don’t mind. At least her work bestie Megan Briscoe keeps forgiving her—the others are starting to run out of patience. She really pushes it hooking-up with 1
st class passenger Alex Sokoluv mid-flight and then doubles-down on protocol violations by spending a wild night with him in Bangkok. Rather inconveniently, the fun comes to a screeching halt when he wakes up the next morning next to Sokoluv, whose throat has been cut.

Savvy enough to distrust the Thai justice system, Bowden does her best to tidy up after herself and sneak back to her hotel. She shortsightedly thinks she has made it once her flight lifts off, but then she starts having visions of Sokoluv guilt-tripping her for her disappearing act. Meanwhile, the body will be discovered.

Kaley Cuoco is definitely a spectacularly irresponsible mess as Bowden. It is terrific portrayal of shallow excess, but the character will have to start growing up, for us to spend four more episodes with her. Fortunately, getting mixed up with a murder can have that effect on a person.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Legendary: Scott Adkins & Dolph Lundgren Fight Over a Big Lizard

Surely, Travis Preston's dear old mother must have been so proud when he decided to use his aptitude for math and science by becoming a cryptozoologist rather than a boringly conventional internist. It is his job to look for cryptids—monster hunting. Business has been bad for Dr. Preston, but things will heat up when he is recruited to find and protect a big Chinese lizard in Eric Styles’ Legendary (a.k.a. Legendary: Tomb of the Dragon, but it is more of a lair than a tomb and the dragon looks like a giant of the Komodo variety, but let’s not get hung up on international titles here), which airs Wednesday morning on Comet TV.

Preston’s last expedition in search of a gargantuan bear was a tragic disaster. It was really the fault of their trigger-happy trophy-hunting guide, Harker, but Preston is the one who got sued. He assumes his career is over, until attorney Doug McConnel hires him on behalf of his wealthy anonymous client, to track, capture, and protect a previously undiscovered giant lizard species that has been terrorizing a provincial Chinese village.

To do his job, Preston must compete with Harker, who has been hired by the local oil company to kill the beast. Harker has all the institutional advantages and greater resources. However, his former science advisor, Dr. Lan Zeng, helps level the playing field when she defects to Team Preston. They also team up with Jianyu, the local school teacher, who was trying to expose the petroleum company’s culpability, until he buys into their save-the-monster campaign.

Despite the presence of Scott Adkins and Dolph Lundgren, there are no martial art beatdowns in
Legendary—just a roundhouse punch connecting with Harker’s jaw. This is a creature-hunting movie, pure and simple. Actually, the creature’s CGI movements look pretty cool on the small screen, but the SFX team either couldn’t crack his attacks or the producers refused to show his choppers snapping down on victims, to preserve the PG-13 rating.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Belushi: The Man, The Documentary

In Brazil, Animal House was titled “House of Scumbags.” That seems a little harsh, but presumably the military government did not appreciate its gleeful defiance of authority. Here in America, it has become a perennial favorite, embraced by generation after generation of college kids. There is no denying John Belushi was a major reason why, even though many of the film’s fans were too young to remember him at the height of his fame. His TV-and-film career was relatively short, but he made a lasting impression on pop culture. R.J. Cutler documents his work and inner demons through the words of those who knew him best in Belushi, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

Appropriately we only see Belushi, obviously in archival footage, but Cutler chronicles his life through extensive audio interviews recorded by author Tanner Colby, for an oral history of Belushi, authorized by his widow, Judy. Included among the voices are the likes of Dan Aykroyd (his great friend), Chevy Chase (his great “rival”), Carrie Fisher (his co-star in
The Blues Brothers), John Landis, Harold Ramis, Jane Curtain, Bruce McGill (“D-Day” in Animal House), Jim Belushi, and Michael Apted (director of his under-rated change-of-pace, Continental Divide). To illustrate Belushi’s early years, Cutler also incorporates Robert Valley’s animated sequences, which really bring out both his slyness and his sensitivity as a kid.

Frankly, the broad strokes of Belushi’s career are still well known among comedy fans: Second City,
Saturday Night Live, Animal House, and the Blues Brothers album and movie. Cutler also does a nice job covering Continental Divide as an example of the mature career Belushi might have had and Neighbors as the disaster film that was the point where everything started to go wrong. In contrast, the big-budget Steven Spielberg bomb 1941 is only mentioned in passing, which is about right.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Girl, Starring Bella Thorne

Forget about post-industrial. This blue-collar ghost town is almost a case of post-humanity. The only people who still seem to live there are barflies and crooks. The sheriff is the worst of the latter, but our protagonist did not come for him. She is here to kill her long-absent father in director-screenwriter Chad Faust’s Girl, which opens today in select theaters, ahead of its Tuesday VOD release.

All the unnamed woman remembers of the man who abused her mother and abandoned them years ago are his axe-throwing lessons. That will come in handy. In fact, she even travels with a hatchet and intends to use. However, she is very put-out to learn someone has already killed her Pa, before she could. Perversely, she then sets out to find his murderer, but it would be safe to say the Sheriff is not much help—nor is his creepy brother, who calls himself “Charmer.”

In many ways,
Girl could be considered the grittiest, least glamorous western ever filmed. That grunginess is what makes it so distinctive. The nameless town feels palpably real—and really inhospitable. Faust’s surprises are not super-shocking, but they make for a dark, hyper-tense ride.

Bella Thorne drives it all, every step of the way, with what might be the best performance of her career. She is ferocious yet acutely vulnerable, but in a quiet, understated way. She is not superhuman, but she is a force to contend with. Mickey Rourke might be the grossest and most thuggish he has ever looked on camera, which suits the sheriff to a T. (It’s getting harder and harder to believe he is the same person who starred in
9½ Weeks.)

Run, on Hulu

It seems wheelchair using characters are more commonly found in thriller and horror movies, because the sense of confinement creates tension (some examples being The Bone Collector, Monkey Shines, Silver Bullet, and sort of Rear Window). That doesn’t mean those genre filmmakers are bad. Arguably, they deserve credit for seeing the empowering resilience of such figures. However, director-co-screenwriter Aneesh Chaganty went a step further, casting a wheelchair using thesp as a wheelchair using character (for the first time in a major production since The Sign of the Ram in 1948, but thanks for your wokeness, Hollywood). It was intended for theaters, but because this is 2020, Chaganty’s Run debuts today on Hulu instead.

Chloe Sherman lives with asthma, skin sensitivity issues, lower-body paralysis, and an excruciatingly protective mother, Diane Sherman. By applying to college after years of home-schooling, she hopes to get a little distance from Mommie Dearest. Unfortunately, she has yet to hear from any of her potential schools, which instantly makes us suspicious as viewers. Her mother’s squirrely behavior regarding her surprise new proscription also arouses Chloe’s suspicions too. She tries to do a little sleuthing around the house, but it is much more complicated for a young woman who requires a wheelchair and an inhaler.

As Chaganty’s follow-up to
Searching (a.k.a. Search, at Sundance), Run proves he has knack for helming thrillers built around rigid constraints that his protags must devise clever ways to circumvent. (He also shows an affinity for one-word titles.) Regardless, this is probably one of the most carefully blocked-out film without a lot of martial art fight scenes, which pays dividends.

Kiera Allen is getting a great deal of justifiable and deserved attention as Chloe. It isn’t just a matter of accuracy in casting. She covers a considerable emotional gamut, but always comes across as grounded and credible. It is also an impressively physical performance.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Last Vermeer: Guy Pearce is Han Van Meegeren

Joseph (Joop) Piller was a hero of the Dutch resistance, who would eventually be awarded America’s WWII-era Medal of Freedom. Han Van Meegeren (HVM) was not. Ironically, the failed artist-turned dealer of ill-repute would have to prove a lesser guilt when accused of collaboration. To do so, he needed the help of Piller, the investigator who initially pursues him in Dan Friedkin’s historically-based The Last Vermeer, which opens tomorrow nationwide.

The war has been over long enough for most of the Dutch to feel it is time to resume “normal” life. Piller still works for the provisional Allied command rather than the Dutch government, but the writing is on the wall. HVM will likely be his final case. The artist-dealer admits he joined the National Socialist Party for business purposes, but denies selling any of the Netherlands’ national treasures to the enemy. Unfortunately, the bill of sale for a hitherto unknown Vermeer suggests otherwise.

As he digs into the case, Piller struggles with the legacy of the war. His relationship with his wife is decidedly strained. Being Jewish, Piller had to go underground, while his wife survived doing clerical work for the occupying Germans, quickly becoming the boss’s mistress. She also became Piller’s best source, so he knew all about it.

Accused of collaboration by the Dutch authorities, HVM offers a novel defense and it will be Piller (now a private citizen) who argues the case on his behalf. This wild tale of art and deception, adapted from Jonathan Lopez’s nonfiction
The Man Who Made Vermeers, might sound familiar to some, especially if they saw Austin Pendleton portray HVM Off-Broadway in Another Vermeer. Yet, the film and the play offer radically different takes on the artistic rogue, while generally agreeing he was a morally ambiguous and bitterly resented the proper art world’s snobby rejection of his talents.

Guy Pearce is grandly arrogant and flamboyant as HVM. His petty, prickly flaws are manifest, but he is never boring. It is hard to love him, but you can easily see why he was invited to parties. On the other hand, Claes Bang broods with unusual charisma as Piller, quietly expressing a sense of how deeply conflicted and tortured the war left him. Bang offers a rare example of a sensitive yet decidedly strong and masculine performance (like vintage Harrison Ford).

DOC NYC ’20: Do Not Split (short)

Are you healthy enough to live in Hong Kong? That was a painfully legitimate question to ask before the advent of the CCP-Covid virus. When 80% of the populace is exposed to military-grade tear gas, it is certainly no city for asthma sufferers. You also better be strong enough to take a beating from the cops, should you be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can see a lot of these things happening in Anders Hammer’s short documentary, Do Not Split, which received the Special Jury Recognition for Courage Under Fire during the 2020 DOC NYC.

Do Not Split
premiered at this year’s Sundance, but it has clearly been revised and updated to address the CCP-Covid outbreak (which conveniently halted protests) and the draconian national security law that effectively criminalizes any deviation from Beijing’s line. It is sort of a chronicle of the movement and the violent police response, touching on big events, like the siege of HK Polytechnic University and the Legco elections that represented an overwhelming rebuke of the CCP and its puppet government. Yet, the reason to really watch DNS is some of the most viscerally intense footage of the protests and the police brutality collected in any documentary thus far.

It is also nice to see student democracy activist Joey Siu get screen time and recognition for her dedication and courage—or at least in would be in civilized world, where she would not have to worry about reprisals. Like most of the young protest leaders, she is very composed on camera. However, another thing that distinguishes
DNS is the level of profoundly felt anger that is expressed toward China and the CCP. Judging from Hammer’s reportage, Hong Kongers are clearly bitter, in a way that cannot be alleviated simply through time and material comfort. These wounds run deep.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: A La Calle

Oil and gold-rich Venezuela's dire poverty should prove once and for all that natural resources are almost inconsequential when it comes to average people’s standard of living. Far more important are the rule of law, transparent governance, and a market economy. None of these things exist in the Venezuela of Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez. Filmmakers Maxx Caicedo & Venezuelan Nelson G. Navarrete chronicle the grassroots resistance to the oppression and privation of the Chavist regime in A La Calle, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC--now screening through the 11/20-
11/29 encore.

Filmed surreptitiously on the streets of Venezuela, from 2014 to 2019,
A La Calle chronicles the rise of the regime, starting with its glory years under Chavez to its current state of international disrepute. Navarrete & Caicedo largely follow events from three perspectives: formerly imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, street-level activist Nixon Leal, and Randal Blanco, an average citizen struggling to get by (with Juan Guaido, the interim President recognized by nearly every real democracy, playing an important role in the third act).

For those unfamiliar with the ongoing Venezuelan tragedy,
A La Calle documents step-by-step how Chavez and Maduro eroded constitutional checks-and-balances, criminalized the opposition, and rigged the electoral system in their favor. For a while, they were able to placate the populace with massive, irresponsible public spending binges, but when petroleum prices started falling, the stagnant economy completely cratered. Soon, all the people had left was a dictator who jealousy clings to power.

It is hard to imagine a socialist declining free stuff, but Maduro did exactly that when he perversely refused to allow emergency relief supplies to enter Venezuela, despite the critical shortage of food and medicine. As a result, Venezuelans have launched what one of the film’s experts calls the largest ever collective exodus from a country not currently waging war.

No Man’s Land, on Hulu

This is a good series, but we would have survived without it. Unfortunately, in our haste to withdraw from Iraq, we created a vacuum ISIS/Daesh was delighted to fill. From there, they advanced into Syria. However, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (the YPJ, previously documented by Bernard-Henri Levy) shocked Daesh and the world with their tenacious resistance. They are particularly feared by Daesh, because death at the hands of a woman does not entail martyr status—hence no paradise and no virgins. Average Frenchman Antoine Habert suspects his estranged sister Anna has joined the YPJ, so he ill-advisedly travels to Syria to find her in co-creator-writers Amit Cohen, Ron Lesham, Eitan Mansuri & Maria Feldman’s 8-episode No Man’s Land, which premieres today on Hulu.

Habert kept trying to reach out to his sister after she fell out with the family, until she was killed in a random terrorist attack in Cairo. He always had his suspicions about the official story, but Habert still went on with his life. Then he happened to see some footage of YPJ soldiers in Syria. Something about the body language of a western volunteer reminded him of his sister, even though her face was not visible. He becomes so obsessed, he crosses over the Turkish border into Syria, making him a target for Daesh and opportunists who would sell him out.

Meanwhile, three British Daesh recruits, Nasser Al-Shammri, Iyad Bel Tagi, and convert Paul Wilkins are steadily building their reputations within the terror group’s ranks. The latter two are blind believers, but Al-Shammri is more skeptical of their brutal excesses. Yet, as British military veteran, his skills are more valuable to the organization. Further complicating the unstable mix, “Stanley,” a suavely British secret agent with clandestine ties to several players, is also operating in the region.

The deeper Al-Shammri penetrates into the heart of Daesh’s so-called caliphate, the scarier it looks. Cohen and company do not sugarcoat the horrific implications ISIS-occupied territory.
No Man’s depiction of Islamist terror is not as viscerally intense as Sissako’s Timbuktu, but the series is intended as an entertaining thriller (and it is rather grabby).

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Asylum: Twisted Horror and Fantasy Tales

You have to give Nicolas Onetti (one half of the Onetti Brothers) and his producing partners credit for being good delegators (somewhat unusually in genre cinema). As they did with A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio, they took another batch of short films that already had festival cred and shoehorned them into an anthology. There is no real theme encompassing their latest feature collection either, which is why the subtitle is even broader. However, you can still be assured there will be plenty of nightmarish mayhem in Asylum: Twisted Horror and Fantasy Tales, which releases today on VOD.

Brandon will be our evil clown stand-up-comic-from-Hell master of ceremonies for this evening’s entertainment, from an asylum where the inmates are apparently in charge and putting on a show. Supposedly, each tale relates somehow to his slowly revealed backstory, but do not beat yourself up if you can’t see the connections.

It is a bit ironic the “tales” kick off with Damien LeVeck’s
The Cleansing Hour, since it has already been fixed-up to a full feature in its own right. Regardless, even though the concept of a phony exorcism web-series that suddenly finds itself dealing with a genuine demonic possession might not be so original anymore, LeVeck’s execution is tight and brisk, while his game cast keeps things snappy and sharp. It is followed by Kheireddine El-Helou’s slasher short, Drudge, which is certainly intense, but never offers any new twists or spins on the familiar material.

Mat Johns’
Father’s Day is a somewhat revisionist and sometimes poignant zombie story that would probably pay-off on a deeper level, if we witnessed the characters during the “before times.” Still, the implied suggestion these zombies still have a glimmer of their memories and feelings could easily support further exploration.

Without a doubt, Caye Casas & Alberto Albert Pinto’s
RIP is definitely the high point of Asylum. The macabre tale of a nebbish sad sack miraculously resurrected just before his funeral recalls vintage Nacho Vigalondo, even more so for its subversive humor than the fact it is a Spanish language production. The practical effects are just a delightful bloody mess.

Ale Damiani’s dystopian anti-Trump screed
M.A.M.O.N. just seems hopelessly dated now, unless you secretly believe the current Prez’s election challenges might have merit (you don’t, do you?). At least its short.

The second highpoint comes with the charmingly dark animated fable,
The Death, Dad and Son, directed by Walgenwitz & Winschluss (a.k.a. Denis Walgenwitz and Persepolis co-director Vincent Paronnaud). The titular Grim Reaping personification of death happens to have a bratty son at home, who creates all kinds of supernatural havoc when he intervenes with the natural order of things. Their animation is wonderfully twisted, as is their idea of a happy, lessons-learned ending. Good stuff.

Monday, November 16, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Some Way Out of Here (short)

In all fairness, the American media has done a decent job of covering events in Hong Kong—when they have bothered. Unfortunately, they have been more interested in reporting on Teddy Roosevelt statue controversies than seven million people losing their freedom. It is the exact opposite for the Mainland Chinese state-controlled media’s constant, heavily biased, widely inaccurate coverage. The exception would be Boning Li, a Chinese NYU film student, who did a terrific job documenting the protests in the short film, Some Way Out of Here, which screens as part of the 2020 (online) DOC NYC’s NYU short doc block.

Li was already sufficiently cognizant of CCP propaganda, to understand how heavily subjects like the Tiananmen Square Massacre were censored in his homeland. As a result, he could “get” Sanmu Chan’s Tiananmen-themed protest art. He was struck by the power of his work, as well as the artist’s grizzled charisma, so he started recording his activities as the leader of a drum band attending the protests.

Chan’s gallery Green Wave Art, was a hub for dissident art, a safe haven for protesters fleeing abusive cops, and the headquarters of a volunteer first-aid team, but its days were numbered. For blatantly political reasons, the local puppet government suddenly informed him his gallery required an “entertainment license.” As Li captures the gallery’s final days, he concurrently records the increasing tensions on the street and the escalating violence from the HK cops and their allies, the white-shirted Triad-affiliated thugs, who perpetrated the now infamous Yuen Long train station attack, while the police stood idly by.

American journalists could learn a lot from Li’s film. He does not simply ask Chan softball questions. He challenges him with the conduct of some protesters. Yet, he follows the story where it takes him: squarely in the line of fire, choking on tear gas that cops deliberately directed towards reporters.

DOC NYC ’20: Nasrin

This is a film that will put to shame the spate of recent legal documentaries to shame glorifying groups that have narrowed the definition of free speech and broadening the grounds to restrict it (looking at you, ACLU). In contrast, Iranian attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh represented women, censored artists, and the most vulnerable defendants facing the death penalty in Iran. For her efforts, she has been imprisoned twice and awarded the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Human Thought. Filmmaker Jeff Kaufman follows the busy Sotoudeh as she navigates Iran’s kangaroo courts on behalf of her clients and documents her second arrest and imprisonment in Nasrin, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Who are Sotoudeh’s clients? They are the Baha’i, who are denied all legal rights in Iran due to their faith. They are minors facing execution after the police tortured murder confessions out of them. They are the desperate mothers of children that are being sexually abused by their fathers, whom have all custody rights under Iran’s Islamist law. Increasingly, they are also women, like Sotoudeh herself, who have defied Iran’s headscarf laws. In her case, Sotoudeh did so while serving time in political wing of Evin Prison, where she refused to wear the institutional chador.

Sotoudeh never did it alone. She was always part of a network of human rights activists (we hesitate to use the term “human rights,” since the regime has done its best to demonize it as a Western, anti-Islamic construct). Yet, she is always the first to credit her husband Reza Khandan for his support and commitment to a freer society. Her supporters also include the great, state-blacklisted filmmaker Jafar Panahi (who probably understands what she has endured better than anyone). He even gave her a part in his charming guerilla film,

So, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Recently, well after Kaufman locked
Nasrin, Sotoudeh was provisionally released from prison. Unfortunately, she subsequently tested positive for Covid, which isn’t surprising. The Iranian government was warned their prison were a perfect incubator for Covid, but they obviously did not care. Regardless, Sotoudeh is still hardly free now. As she herself says in a speech following her first release, she went from “the small prison to the big prison.”

Vanguard, Starring Jackie Chan

China must be feeling the heat from their genocidal (so-called de-radicalization) policies in Xinjiang, because their loyal cheerleader, Jackie Chan is now fighting Islamist terrorists. In this case, it is the super-Middle Eastern-sounding terror group, the Arctic Wolves. They are really more of mercenary gang, but at least they operate from a subjugated ancient walled city inspired by Timbuktu. Fortunately, Tang Huating heads a London-based Treadstone-like security firm that can take them down in Stanley Tong’s Vanguard, which opens this Friday in actual theaters.

In the opener, family man Zhang Kaixuan and his fellow Vanguard agent Lei Zhenyu must leave their Chinese New Year banquet to save a kidnapped client. He happens to be the former business partner of the Arctic Wolves’ chief financial backer. He had a crisis of conscience, right before finalizing a significant arms deal. The wolves want that mega-weapon, so they need the funds he hid from them.

Saving the client is the easy part. They also need to secure his daughter Fareeda, who made plenty of enemies of her own exposing poachers in Africa. Conveniently, the Wolves will hire them as subcontractors. From there, the action shifts to the Middle East, where Vanguard must rescue one of their own, before traveling on to Dubai (where everyone is eager to tell Tang how great China is, even though he lives in England), for the final showdown.

So, there is a lot of globe-trotting in
Vanguard, as well as several elaborate action sequences. Wisely, Tong, the HK action veteran (who directed Chan in the Supercop I & II, Kung Fu Yoga, and several others) takes it easy on the Chinese propaganda this time around. Westerners are not the bad guys. Instead, it is the vaguely Arabic Wolves who are threatening world peace. However, there is one conspicuously unnecessary, momentum-killing scene, in which Zhang and his little boy talk about how vastly superior “Captain China” is to Captain America. Yeah, whatever.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Smog Town

Anyone skeptical of Biden advisors’ plan for a two-track relationship with China, one pushing back against human rights abuses, while the other seeks cooperation on climate change, should consider themselves largely vindicated by this documentary. The film quietly observes the work of the local regulatory authorities in Langfang, China’s smoggiest, most polluted city. It turns out environmental protection is a dirty business in HAN Meng’s Smog Town, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Although we are not trained in environmental science, we would guess the colossal industrial behemoths Han periodically shows belching emissions into the air could be a good place to cut Langfang’s air particulates. Instead, the local regulators raid a neighborhood garage that specializes in spray-painting cars. It is a highly telling incident, especially when the proprietor shows up at their offices, hoping he can save his business with the right permits, only to be bounced up and down the hall, in a truly Kafkaesque exercise in bureaucratic absurdity.

Supposedly, China’s big cities are under strict orders to clean up their act. In Langfang, Li Chunyuan (“Uncle Smog Buster”) is in charge of implementing the get-tough policies. He talks green in his public appearances and preachy books, but in meetings, he and his staff only care about their relative standing in the Party’s spreadsheets. They frequently raid poor neighborhoods cracking down on coal stoves, even though one inspector casually admits he uses one himself. The entire third act is dedicated to their emergency efforts to lift themselves from the bottom of the list, but it is all short-term gimmicks, like road blocks banning outside automobiles and nothing will really address systemic problems.

Remember what you see in
Smog Town next time you hear Xi or Mike Bloomberg touting China’s environmental progress. Yet, the doc is even more damning as an expose of how government regulators operate and the callous disregard they have for small businesses and mom & pop proprietorship. We see Li’s inspectors putting such establishments out of business, but it clearly does not help the quality of life in Langfang.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Ronnie’s

Howard Rumsey's old Lighthouse Café is still sort of around, but it is no longer a full-time jazz venue. It has had a good run, but most musician-owned and operated clubs are fondly remembered, because they were short-lived (like Shelly’s Manne-Hole). Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is the towering exception. They have regularly presented some of the biggest and most exciting jazz artists, from their 1959 founding to their recent post-Covid re-opening (they plan to reopen again 12/2, after the 2nd UK lockdown). Oliver Murray chronicles the history of the man and his club through the words of those who knew them best in Ronnie’s, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

The late, great Ronnie Scott came up playing in British swing bands, but he really wanted to play bop-style jazz in his own small groups, which usually included his future partner, Pete King. Together they launched Ronnie Scott’s, with Scott serving as the public face and master-of-ceremonies, while King assumed most of the back-office responsibilities. Somehow, the tenor player was able to charm London gangster Albert Dimes and AFM union boss James Petrillo, who agreed to the terms demanded by his British counterparts, allowing the club to book the top American talent they needed to draw patrons. (The film makes the important point British musicians were hurt the most by their union’s protectionism, because it denied them the opportunity to hear and learn from the Americans who were revolutionizing jazz.)

The honor roll of musicians who played Ronnie Scott’s is long and impressive. Just in Murray’s film alone, we see Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter), Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ben Webster, and Buddy Rich. Logically, we also hear quite a bit from Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, the first couple of British jazz. Occasionally, the club broke format, but when they did, they still kept things pretty bluesy, as we can hear from the bootleg tapes of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Eric Burdon and War at the club, the night before his death.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca

The late Manoel de Oliveira was the perfect filmmaker to adapt Augustina Bessa-Luis’s novel Fanny Owen, because he could probably remember the 19th Century scandal it was based on. Oliveira started his career acting in Portuguese silent films, but he had some of his most productive years as a director after his centennial. Back in 1981, his international stock shot up dramatically with the international release of his austere historical masterwork, Francisca, which releases virtually today in its freshly restored one-hundred-sixty-six-minute glory.

It will be a battle of the moustaches for the heart of Francisca “Franny” Owen, the daughter of an elite English officer now residing in Portugal. Self-consciously Byronesque
Jose Augusto Pinto de Magalhaes has the inside track in his rivalry with his ostensive friend Camilo Castelo Branco, the revered author of Mysteries of Lisbon. Unfortunately, Jose Augusto’s severe intimacy issues and innate misanthropy inevitably leads to a deeply dysfunctional, codependent relationship. Yet, despite Branco’s somewhat self-interested warnings, Owen willingly embraces Jose Augusto’s chaos, more or less realizing it will all end in tears—which it does.

Francisca, Oliveira is clearly working towards the deliberately mannered, post-modernist style that would reach its full flowering in his epic adaptation of Claude Claudel’s Satin Slipper. He still stages the drama with traditional period trappings, but strips down the sets and locations (which probably makes them more historically acutely than the typically lush costume romance). There is also an artificial theatricality that is maybe not as extreme as that seen in Slipper, but a lot of viewers will still need time to acclimate themselves to it, especially the way dialogue is often repeated for effect.

Indeed, it is easy to admire the auteurist vision of
Francisca, but it is not exactly a film you would want to curl up with on a cold winter’s night. Oliveira’s adaptation is certainly not plot heavy, but it steadily builds to a climax that rings with significance for viewers who have properly invested in the film. Instead of sweeping passions, Francisca is all about bitter ironies.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Universe

Those of us who discovered jazz in the 1990s remember Wallace Roney as the up-and-comer who graduated to being an in-demand leader. He was never part of the “Young Lions,” but came to prominence around the same time. Consequently, many fans always thought of him as “young,” so his death from Covid (at a mere 59 years of age) was deeply upsetting for the jazz world. Yet, before he left, Roney completed his most ambitious project. In a way, Roney brought his career full circle when he premiered a Wayne Shorter orchestral suite originally composed for his mentor, Miles Davis. Sam Osborn & Nick Capezerra documents Roney as he rehearses his band and takes stock of his career in Universe, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Wayne Shorter might be the only NEA Jazz Master who has also written a science fiction graphic novel. It rather follows that he drew on cosmic inspirations for
The Universe Compositions. Miles Davis intended to record them during the era of the “2nd Great Quintet,” but the band broke up and the icon moved onto other styles before the complicated sessions could be arranged. Somehow, the score was considered lost for years, until it was re-discovered in the Library of Congress. Shortly before his death, Davis encouraged Shorter to record the suite and recommended Roney for the trumpet chair.

Roney really was the only true protégé Davis ever took on. That association would be a double-edged sword for Roney. It brought him to the attention of record labels and clubs, but critics constantly compared him to the trumpet icon. Throughout
Universe, Roney wrestles with the implications of this legacy, while still paying tribute to Davis.

Osborn & Capezerra shot
Universe in a stark black-and-white that, in retrospect, gives the film an eerie, elegiac tone. Roney is very forthcoming on the subjects of music, Miles, and his career. However, he never addresses his late ex-wife, Geri Allen, who was a jazz musician of equal stature. In addition to Roney, we also logically hear a good deal from bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, who both performed extensively with Davis and Roney (including the approaching Universe concert).

Regardless, the rehearsal sequences are often brutally uncomfortable. Even the musically untrained can tell Shorter’s score is immensely challenging just by looking at it. Roney drives his musicians hard, because time is short before the premiere, so there is actually a fair degree of suspense, whether or not they will be ready.