Friday, December 31, 2021

Schwochow’s Munich: The Edge of War

If we let the CCP blatantly violate the Sino-British Joint Declaration, openly turn Hong Kong into a police state, and engage in hostile militarism throughout the South China Sea, maybe they will be satisfied and start acting nice. After all, appeasement was a smashing success when Hitler was given the Sudetenland, right? Actually, it was Neville Chamberlain’s agreement that gave appeasement the bad name it deserves. Young British foreign office bureaucrat Hugh Legat sees that infamous history unfold as an aide to Chamberlain in Christian Schwochow’s Munich: The Edge of War, based on Robert Harris’s novel, which opens today in New York, in advance of its January 21st premiere on Netflix.

Initially, Legat is more concerned with helping Chamberlain prevent a European war than resolving the Cold War brewing between him and his wife. It is really bad timing when he is attached to the Prime Minister’s Munich delegation and also quite a surprise. It turns out Paul von Hartman, a German government interpreter, pulled some strings with his military contacts to request Legat’s presence. They were friends at Oxford, but had a falling out over Hitler. At the time, von Hartman was an enthusiastic supporter, but now that he knows the Fuhrer’s true intentions, he is profoundly alarmed.

Von Hartman believes elements in the military will turn against Hitler Valkyrie-style if the British hold firm on their commitments to Czechoslovakia. He also has a damning document that spells out Hitler’s expansionist military plans in detail. He needs Legat to help him convince Chamberlain, but even if his old friend agrees to help, it is highly questionable whether the war-averse PM will listen.

Ben Powers’ adaptation of Harris is a really smart thriller of espionage, politics, and bureaucratic in-fighting. However, some of its implications are highly debatable.
Mild Spoiler: Edge ultimately presents an extremely revisionist defense of Chamberlain, arguing he bought time with his non-agreement for England to rebuild its military. Yet, on the other hand, it also posits a potential resistance to Hitler that was undercut by Chamberlain’s appeasement and obliquely implies Hitler’s also needed time to steel the resolve of the German people.

In any event, Schwochow (who has previously helmed sensitive historical dramas, like
The German Lesson, West, and The Tower) mines a good deal of suspense from the brainy material and maintains even more tension regarding the fates of Legat and von Hartman. George Mackay and Jannis Niewohner nicely humanize the cerebral main characters and portray their complicated friendship with surprising poignancy down the stretch.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song—Free Denise Ho!

Wednesday morning, Hong Kong Cantopop star, democracy activist, and LGBTQ advocate Denise Ho was arrested, along with five independent journalists with Stand News, where she was once a board member. Her standing as one of Hong Kong’s most prominent out-and-proud celebrities was not an unfortunate drawback for the CCP’s quislings. It was a bonus. All human rights, press advocacy, and LGBTQ organizations must speak out against her unjust arrest and that of the five Stand News journalists. It is also worth noting the CCP did this just over a month before hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. The timing shows total, contemptuous disrespect for the IOC, but the CCP obviously considers them bought and paid for—and no doubt they are right about that. In light of Ho’s arrest, here is a repost of her documentary profile from last year:

It is hard to hold back the tears watching Cantopop idol Denise Ho and her fellow democracy activists in this film. Not just because they are inspiring—although that is certainly true—but because the sense of hope it documents was dealt such a harsh setback yesterday. As of today, 7.4 million Hong Kongers are no longer free and we let it happen, because we were more preoccupied with Trump’s tweets and our own grievances. Democracy died not in darkness, but the plain daylight of our disinterest. Viewers get a sense of the Hong Kong that was potentially lost in Sue Williams’
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song.

Denise Ho is everything the media usually celebrates. She is an immigrant, who moved to Canada with her family in the late 1980s, only to return to Hong Kong, to pursue a career in music. She was the protégé of Anita Mui, who was widely dubbed the HK Madonna for her sexually empowering stage persona. Ho also became the second notable Cantopop celebrity to come out of the closet, following the example of her close friend, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming. So, what was it about the Lesbian artist that was so incompatible with the values of Western corporations like Lancome that they dropped their sponsorship deals? She joined the 2014 Umbrella protests for greater democratic governance in Hong Kong.

Filming in the wake of the 2019 Extradition protests, Williams follows Ho as she takes a more DIY approach to touring. The star who used to perform in stadiums across Mainland China now books smaller, more intimate clubs in Hong Kong and around the world, for the HK diaspora. Of course, for Ho the money is not important. If anything, she has forged a closer connection with her fans.

The Simpsons: The HK Censored Episode, Goo Goo Gai Pan

If an episode of South Park that satirizes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was conspicuously excluded from an American streamer’s Hong Kong site, Trey Parker and Matt Stone would skewer them for it. However, Disney+ did exactly that when it censored the episode of The Simpsons wherein Homer Simpson visited Beijing for its HK customers. According to google, there has been no response from Matt Groening yet. If you live in Hong Kong, you can’t watch “Goo Goo Gai Pan” (S16 E12), but the rest of us still can, for now.

Homer has an awkward relationship with his sister-in-law Selma Bouvier, but when she enters menopause, he agrees to pretend to be her husband, to facilitate her Chinese adoption. Naturally, their romantic chemistry is a bit dubious, attracting the suspicions of Madame Wu, the chief adoption bureaucrat (played by Lucy Liu).

This being
The Simpsons, there are plenty of slams on America (mostly easy groaners). However, writer Dana Gould also aimed a number of clever barbs at the CCP. The one most likely to offend the CCP would be the briefly seen Tiananmen Square Monument reading: “on this site, in 1989, nothing happened.” So, Disney+ is literally self-censoring a joke about the Communist Party censoring history. How sad is that? Especially since it shortly preceded the removal of Tiananmen Square memorials across Hong Kong, including the notorious dismantling of the Pillar of Shame statue at the University of Hong Kong.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


His X-Men/Tomorrow People superpowers are in Andrew Cooper’s DNA. Apparently, so is stupidity. When Cooper submits his DNA test to the government, he inadvertently alerts a super-secret agency to his existence. Supposedly, they want to train him, but we know what that really means in Martin Grof’s Sensation, which releases Friday on VOD.

Actually, Cooper only thinks it was the DNA test, but we know from the makes-no-sense prologue creepy Dr. Daniel Marinus was on to him from the start. Regardless, Cooper is whisked off to a Hogwarts from Hell to be trained to use his psychic powers. Something is really wrong about the place. They also claim to be holding his mother at an undisclosed location, for her own safety, of course. However, whenever he manages to reach her on the phone, she warns him to get the heck out.

Grof and co-screenwriter Magdalena Drahovska try to combine parts of
Inception and parts of The X-Men, but only the worst parts. Frankly, this is the kind of film that looks like a major cast-member died during the production and had to be edited out as best as possible. As a result, none of the head-tripping spectacle makes any sense without a coherent sense of logic to underpin it all.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Slugfest, on Roku Channel

It was a powerful comic book tag-teaming, but it was completely uncoordinated. In 1940, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America (first comic book appearance March 1941) to fight Nazis. That same year, DC produced a special issue of Look Magazine, featuring Superman beating the heck out of Hitler. Those were the days. In many ways, it was the big comic publishers’ finest hour and a good example of their “friendly rivalry.” Directors Don Argott & Sheena M. Joyce chronicle the competition and occasional cooperation between Marvel and DC in the 10-mini-episode Slugfest, produced by the Russo Brothers, which is now streaming on Roku Channel.

, based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Reed Tucker (who also appears as a talking head) was greenlighted for Quibi, but the bite-sized streaming service folded before it could premiere, so here it is now. The six-to-eight-minute installments are punchy, but together they do not tell a cohesive narrative.

Regardless, the first installment, “Nazis are Bad,” is easily the best. You have to give Simon and Kirby credit for taking on Hitler and the National Socialists. Cap was a hit, but he was not universally popular. In fact, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia dispatched police guards to protect Timely Comics (as Marvel was then known) from violent Bund protesters. What would Kirby and Simon think to see the current management of their old company desperately currying favor with a CCP regime currently conducting a campaign of genocide in Xinjiang, just to get Chinese release dates for their movies.

In contrast, “Halloween Hero” is a fun footnote explaining how the first unofficial Marvel-DC crossover story was hatched by a group of writers and artists for both companies. Throughout the series, Argott and Joyce stage the sort of quirky reenactments they used in
Framing John DeLorean. The most colorful is Ray Wise, slyly chomping on his cigar as the older Jack Kirby in “Funky Flashman, which chronicles the artist’s departure from Marvel to DC, where he infamously mocked his old boss Stan Lee.

“Reverend Billingsley” plays up the 1970s trippiness of Doctor Strange, which does not have much to do with DC (and the whole Age of Aquarius vibe of the mini-sode gets tiresome). “Superman vs. Spiderman” is a cool look at the crossover fans always wanted, but the two companies never thought they could pull off (with an appearance from Ron Perlman, as a bonus). Likewise, “Cancelled Cavalcade” is a fascinating chronicle of the dramatic 1978 “DC Explosion” of titles and the sharp contraction that soon followed.

“Kill Robin” and “A World without Superman” both present solidly entertaining (and weirdly nostalgic) pop culture histories of the murder of the second Robin and the hyped-up “death of Superman,” which of course, it wasn’t. “Send in the Clones” tries to do the same for Spiderman clone storyline, but it won’t have as much traction for casual comics fans. However, the series ends with what could be its second-best episode, “Just Imagine,” a tribute to Stan Lee, with an emphasis on his once in a lifetime stint at DC, reimagining their signature characters, the Stan Lee way.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Poupelle of Chimney Town

Our juvenile hero is a chimney sweep, but this is not a cute, upbeat musical, like Mary Poppins. It is dystopian anime. Apparently, Chimney Town was conceived as a utopia, but it turned into a dystopia, as utopias necessarily always do. Yet, earnest young Lubicchi just might save his society from its fears and ignorance in Yusuke Hirota’s Poupelle of Chimney Town, produced by Studio 4ºC, which opens in limited release this Thursday, for Oscar qualification.

Poor Lubicchi must constantly sweep the smokestacks belching smoke over his steampunky city, because he is the sole support of his wheelchair-bound mother, since the death of his beloved father. When he was alive, Bruno used to tell stories about stars in the sky and other lands beyond the sea, but everyone assumed they were fairy tales—except Lubicchi. He is still bullied over his father’s stories, but Lubicchi could potentially face harsher repercussions from Chimney Town’s inquisition, which does not take kindly to such heresy.

One magical Halloween, a mysterious, cosmic heart lands in a landfill, where it assembles and animates a literal “junk man.” Naturally, the fearful and provincial townspeople shun him, but he finds a friend in Lubicchi, who dubs him “Poupelle.” Of course, the Inquisition wants to capture the “man of junk,” but they evade the theocratic enforcers, with the help of Scoop, a thrill-seeking Libertarian tunnel pirate. Together, they might even prove the existence of stars.

In fact, the film, based on a children’s book written by Japanese comedian Akihiro Noshino, is fairly Libertarian, even though it is based on an economic fallacy. Supposedly, Chimney Town was created by a cult devoted to an economist, who invented money that decays for the sake of economic equality. Of course, our money also gets rotten over time. It is called inflation and lately the rate of decay has been blisteringly fast—and it has been working families like Lubicchi’s that are hurt most.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Clerk: The Kevin Smith Documentary

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, “Independent Film” was a “thing.” Today, the Independent Spirit Award nominations are nearly indistinguishable from the Oscars. Probably a good third of the films at Sundance already have distribution and nearly all of them have their own publicists. However, back then there was the quaint idea that indie filmmakers could finally make very personal statements. In fact, that was maybe the whole point. Kevin Smith’s Clerks was a big part of the romantic vision of indie filmmaking. His career has had its ups and downs, but Malcolm Ingram essentially serves up an infomercial for the Smith’s brand with Clerk, which releases this Tuesday on DVD.

If you paid any attention to the “golden age” of indie film, you probably remember how fresh and honest
Clerks felt when it first released. Then he experienced the sophomore jinx with Mall Rats, but as someone who worked in a 7-11 and then a mall bookstore, both films felt pretty darned on target. Nevertheless, Smith is relatively forthright addressing the critical drubbing of his second film and the challenges it posed to his career. Frankly, this is might be the best part of Ingram’s doc, because the rest largely celebrates his hits (Chasing Amy) or excuses away his bombs (Jersey Girl, Cop Out).

might technically be Ingram’s film, but it is clearly Smith’s show. It is interesting to hear a filmmaker talk at length about his work, especially one who is also a personable performer (in podcasts and one-man shows) like Smith. However, Clerk would have benefited as a film if Ingram had included dissenting critical voices to argue he is just an overrated mediocrity, or whatever. To his credit, Smith addresses the Harvey Weinstein issue head-on (Miramax distributed most of his early films), but Ingram never challenges him when he claims he never knew about the film mogul’s predatory behavior (it seems like a lot of people in the business did).

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Best of 2021

For a year like 2021, eligibility for “best of lists” is a bit of a tricky issue, so this top 10 is for any film that had any meaningful theatrical or premiere consumer distribution, more or less. Thanks again for Covid Xi Jinping.

Revolution of Our Times: I’ve seen a lot of Hong Kong Umbrella documentaries, but I was still shocked by the police brutality it documents and moved by the commitment of the democracy protesters.

Beijing Spring: Informative and surprisingly visually dynamic documentary on art, freedom, and oppression in early Deng-era China.

Bob Spit: Punk gets super-meta, but stays super-rude. Plus, its Brazilian.

Wife of a Spy: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first real stab at legit Hitchcockian noir knocks it out of the park.

There is No Evil: Mohammad Rasoulof quietly but devastatingly indicts the Iranian [in]justice system.

PIG: Nic Cage gives understatement a try and lo & behold, it works.

Undine: Christian Petzold’s latest is mysterious and haunting in every sense of the words.

To What Remains: A moving tribute to the ultimate sacrifice of veterans and the continuing sacrifices their families keep making.

Boss Level: Total meathead entertainment, but also constantly inventive.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Twilight Zone: The Changing of the Guard

Fictional Rock Spring School has quite a rigorous academic calendar, considering its classes remain in schedule through Christmas Eve. Sadly, Prof. Ellis Fowler last class of the term might be his last day ever, or perhaps not. When it comes to Christmas episodes of uncanny anthology series, everyone usually focuses on The Twilight Zone’s “Night of the Meek,” because of the Santa suit, but for pure seasonal sentiment it is tough to beat “The Changing of the Guard,” another foray into the Zone written by the great Rod Serling himself.

Fowler presents himself like a Prof. Kingsfield, but deep down, he is a real softy. That is why his students really love him, even though they jokingly refer to him as “Weird Beard.” Unfortunately, the prep school administration does not appreciate him as much. Since he has long declined to retire, despite having well passed the qualifying age, they have decided to make the decision for him. After all, he insists on teaching dead white male writers like John Donne and A.E. Housman. Now they can finally bring in a Third World Studies specialist to replace him (at least that is what would happen if the episode were set in contemporary times).

Believing himself a failure, the despondent Fowler returns to campus intending to commit suicide in his classroom. However, is shocked to find there an assembly of his former students, who died young in service to their country. What starts as
Goodbye Mr. Chips turns into It’s a Wonderful Life, ironically just when Fowler takes his detour into The Twilight Zone.

This episode offers up all kinds of heartstring tugging and moral uplift, but it also should be conclusively cement Donald Pleasence’s standing as a genre legend. Years after his death, his forceful performance as Dr. Sam Loomis continues to loom over and drive the
Halloween franchise. He was a Bond villain and appeared with Peter Cushing in films like the The Devil’s Men and From Beyond the Grave, yet he is often unfairly overlooked for his significant Twilight Zone appearance that is much more akin to his classic supporting performance in The Great Escape.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Vigil, on Peacock

This BBC-produced miniseries might have been set in the state of Georgia rather than Scotland. Had the Scottish independence referendum passed, the Atlantic Fleet’s King’s Bay submarine base was one of the proposed contingency homes for the United Kingdom’s Vanguard subs (being a NATO port). Apparently, nationalist politicians are still determined to evict the UK’s nuclear subs and they are willing to capitalize on a murder committed on-board to do so. Initially, a civilian DCI finds herself investigating the suspicious death, but she is soon pulled into a web of sabotage, espionage, and politics in Tom Edge’s Vigil, which premieres today on Peacock.

The Royal Navy surely has its equivalents to MPs and the NCIS so the idea DCI Amy Silva would be dropped from a helicopter into HMS Vigil’s hatch is a bit far-fetched. In the US Navy, sub crew are thoroughly vetted both physically and emotionally, to ensure they can withstand the demands of submerged service. Presumably, the Royal Navy does likewise, so it is unlikely a malcontent like the late Craig Burke and his thuggish nemesis Gary Walsh would be assigned such duty. Of course, you could never find submarine passages wide enough for sailors to walk side-by-side, but hey, dramatic license.

Regardless, if you can get past the dubiousness of
Vigil’s premise, its sub-bound dramatic dynamics, and the unrealistic representation of its setting, it is actually a surprisingly suspenseful thriller. As Silva investigates the crime scene, her colleague (and ex-lover) DS Kirsten Longacre dives into Burke’s history, including his romantic involvement with a woman active in the Scottish anti-nuclear movement.

Of course, much like the “three-hour cruise” of
Gilligan’s Island, Silva’s three-day embedment with Vigil is soon extended, due to grave mechanical problems and ominous Russian submarine activity. Supposedly, the coxswain, Warrant Officer Elliot Glover will be facilitating her inquiries, but nobody wants to talk to her. Inevitably though, the Vigil’s captain, Commander Neil Newsome starts to begrudgingly respect her, as she uncovers information on the secret sabotage campaign, mostly likely related to Burke’s murder.

Even if it does not pass muster with
Jane’s Defense Weekly readers, Vigil’s procedural mystery and submarine techno-thriller elements are totally grabby and addictively compelling. On the other hand, the flashbacks to Silva’s backstory, including guilt over the death of her pseudo-fiancé, her relationship with her presumptive step-daughter, and her aborted romance with Longacre, are whiny, overwrought, and gratingly distracting from everything that actually works in Vigil. If we could cut out all that cringy melodrama, it would probably be a much tighter and tonally consistent five episodes, versus six with the bloated soap opera interludes.

That said, Suranne Jones and Rose Leslie are both very good when they get to play competent, intuitive cops, rather than wounded lovers. Paterson Joseph plays Commander Newsome with a 100% credible military bearing, but also with an appropriate edge, given his somewhat tense relationship with his overbearing, politically connected executive officer Lt. Commander Mark Prentice. Initially, Prentice is positioned as a cliched martinet, but Adam James nicely fleshes him out, as he becomes more complicated in later episodes. Shaun Evans also solidly portrays Glover’s intriguing ambiguity and Stephen Dillane is all business as Admiral Shaw, the serious-as-a-heart-attack commander of the Valiant fleet.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Dead Man’s Switch, on Discovery+

Crypto has come a long way baby, but it is still valid to ask whether it is truly money, by the classical economic definition. It can certainly function as a store of value, although it did not turn out that way for customers of QuadrigaCX. However, its lofty but fluctuating exchange rate does not make it practical as a medium of exchange or a measure of value. Prices that go on for eight or nine decimal places simply are not efficient. Yet, only Paul Krugman would argue crypto has no value (for the record, I’m suggesting it is too valuable to serve as currency). As a result, many people were ruined by the mysterious disappearance of their QuadrigaCX holdings. The murky circumstances surrounding the death of the exchange’s co-founder and the subsequent exchange lock-out are chronicled in Sheona McDonald’s Dead Man’s Switch, which premieres tomorrow on Discovery+.

There was a time when QuadrigaCX was Canada’s largest exchange. Founders Gerald Cotten and Michael Patryn came around at the right time and they shrewdly courted the Vancouver crypto community. Cotten was the Zuckerbergish public face of the company, so when he had a falling out with Patryn, he became the only one with access to Quadriga’s off-line “cold wallets.” That meant when he died while visiting India (for rather uncharacteristic reasons) nobody could access the bulk of the crypto investments parked in the exchange.

Millions of dollars-Canadian were lost, spurring fruitless audits and litigation. Not surprisingly, many of Quadriga’s creditors started to suspect Cotten faked his death and absconded with their Coins when the founders’ scandalous background came to light. McDonald does a great job handling this line of inquiry. She never indulges in fanciful speculation, but what she uncovers in India is definitely grounds for suspicion. In fact, it is utterly bizarre and undeniably fishy.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Gustav Stickley, American Craftsman, on

Even a master craftsman like Gustav Stickley could be undone by the fatal combination of high inflation and high interest rates. For a while, he was a leading furniture manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, as well as a pioneering design publisher, but he was undone by soaring consumer prices and a credit crunch. Although largely forgotten by the 1920’s, he would be rediscovered posthumously in the 1960’s (thereabouts). Director Herb Stratford and his co-writer-co-producer, Stickley biographer David Cathers chronicle the designer’s life and legacy in Gustav Stickley, which premieres today on

After a downturn in his family’s fortunes, the young Stickley found unexpected satisfaction working in his uncle’s furniture factory. Before long, he and two brothers had their own furniture manufacturing company. Most of their output was conventional and their partnership would not last long. However, “Gus” stayed in the business, perfecting his own style.

Directly influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris (the essayist-textile artist, not the talent agent), Stickley developed furniture that rejected the faux-Euro-Chippendale ornamentation that was then commonplace in the American market. His pieces embraced the grain and weightiness of the wood and emphasized the pegs, joints, and fasteners holding them together. They were rugged, but not crude. With the arrival of designer-architect Harvey Ellis, Stickley’s furniture line somewhat moved away from its Spartan austerity, adding decorative wood inlays.

To untrained eyes, vintage Stickley appears like it would be extremely compatible with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie period, especially pieces with the Ellis inlays. Although it was decades before Stickley was reappraised by critics and collectors, his work also looks like it could have been an early, subconscious influence for some of the WPA furniture craftsmen. If you appreciate one, there is a high degree of likelihood you would also appreciate the other.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness (Anime Series)

Whether it came from a lab leak or a wet market, there is no serious debate that the CCP regime in China covered up the Covid outbreak we are all still enjoying two years later. However, the folks managing the Resident Evil franchise apparently did not notice. In their new anime series, it is the American government that covered-up the zombie viral outbreak in Raccoon City and now the corrupt Defense Secretary hopes to provoke a war with China to distract the President. Fan favorite characters Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield must save the day in the anime series Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, directed by Eiichiro Hasumi, which releases tomorrow on DVD and BluRay.

Something bad happened in Penamstan six years ago. It started out like
Black Hawk Down, but then the zombies showed up. The leader of the “Mad Dogs” unit barely survived. Now, he is known as the “Hero of Penamstan,” but he is uncomfortable with that title. Likewise, Kennedy would be uncomfortable to be called the “Hero of Raccoon City,” but it gave him enough credibility for the President to ask for him by name.

He and the Mad Dog commando will be investigating Sec. Wilson’s suspicions that China was behind the Penamstan incident, along with Shen May, a Chinese American officer, who still has highly-connected family in Shanghai. Meanwhile, Redfield turns up evidence of a suspicious biological agent is still infecting residents of Penamstan, but there are people in the administration who want to keep a lid on her allegations.

Since there have already been six
Resident Evil films in the Mila Jovovich continuity, a reboot, and three anime features, so practically no time is given developing Kennedy and Redfield. You either know them or you don’t. Jason “the Mad Dog” is not much more than a stock character either. Although Infinite Darkness is packaged as a series, there are only four twenty-four-minute episodes, so it is really more like another anime feature cut into quarters. There is plenty of action, but it often looks more like a video game on-screen, which sort of makes sense, given its source material. There is also a fair amount of halls-of-power intrigue, but it is largely derivative and entirely half-baked.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Holiday Gift Guide ’21: Heartworn Highways Revisited

Outlaws are cool, so there is always a younger generation eager to follow in their footsteps. The question is whether Millennials are equal to the task. It is always tough to compare the original generation with those who come after them, but the disparity is particularly glaring in the case of “Outlaw Country.” Nearly forty years after the late James Szalapski filmed his classic documentary, Heartworn Highways, Wayne Price applied his methods to a new generation of Nashville musicians in Heartworn Highways Revisited, which has now is available on DVD and BluRay from Kino Lorber.

Sadly, Towne Van Zandt died from his hardcore outlaw lifestyle in 1997, so he does not appear as an honored alumnus in
Revisited. Guy Clark and Steve Young are no longer with us either, but Price was able to film them before they passed. As you might expect, their scenes, along with those of David Allan Coe, are the best in the self-positioned sequel. However, the absence of the original doc’s biggest star, Charlie Daniels is quite glaring. Could it be the rightward turn his politics took after September 11?

In fact, there seems to be a rather perverse slant to the film, considering the general market for Country music (including the Outlaw variety), reflected for instance in Bobby Bare Jr’s joke about Republicans and Robert Ellis’s “Sing Along,” which describes the horrors of a fire-and-brimstone upbringing.

On the other hand, it is nice to hear some of the musicians incorporating jazz and blues influences. The acutely personal Outlaw singer-songwriter tradition is clearly still represented by the likes of Justin Towne Earle’s “Am I that Lonely Tonight” and Ellis’s “Tour Song.” However, there is no question the jaw-dropper highlight of the film is Guy Clark’s climatic performance of “L.A. Freeway,” with most of the younger musicians offering reverential support.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Holiday Gift Guide ’21: Heartworn Highways

It is the perfect DVD gift for all the tramps, ramblers, and hobos on your Christmas list. The artists it documents would probably be okay with that characterization. They were the performers associated with the early development of the “Outlaw Country” school of Country & Western music. The movement’s biggest stars (like Willie Nelson) eventually filed off their rough edges, but the many of the most talented outlaws achieved cult fandom and status as country musicians’ country musicians. Those were the sort of artists James Szalapski recorded in performance throughout his 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways, which has now been restored and is available on DVD and BluRay from Kino Lorber.

Technically, there are talking head segments in
Heartworn, but they feel more like chill hang-out sessions. People talk to each other rather than the camera. They drink too, which contributes to the idiosyncratic vibe. Szalapski also often marries up the music with impressionist footage of the highways and roadhouses that make up a traveling country artist’s world.

Frankly, those who have preconceived notions probably should not think of tunes like Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feelin,’” Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting’ Around to Die,” David Allan Coe’s “I Still Sing the Old Songs,” and Steve Young’s “Alabama Highway” as country songs at all. Consider them Americana roots music, because they tap into deep, archetypal sources. They are profoundly felt and cut to the bone.

In some ways, the film confirms a few Country cliches, in that many of these tunes very definitely address God, booze, patriotism, and prison. Yet, there is also Van Zandt serenading to tears his friend and neighbor, “Uncle” Seymour Washington, the so-called “Walking Blacksmith,” who was known for supporting both black and white musicians. The truth is, all those New York and Beltway writers who churned out think-pieces wondering “how can we ever understand those Red States” should listen to tunes like “I Still Sing the Old Songs.”

Szalapski’s film appreciated in reputation over time, because he had the good fortune to catch a number of artists on the way up. Even though Van Zandt was a supporting character in Ethan Hawke’s
Blaze, probably the biggest attraction, then and now, would be the Charlie Daniels Band. Yet, it is instructive to see how they were still operating outside the supposed mainstream. It looks like their concert performance takes place in a large school gymnasium, but the place is truly packed to the rafters.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Submitted by Latvia: The Pit

This adaptation of Jana Egle’s short stories is sort of like a Latvian Short Cuts. It is also a coming-of-age story—a really dark one. Markuss is a tough kid to love, but we come to understand just how unloved he feels in Dace Puce’s The Pit, Latvia’s official Oscar submission for best international feature, which releases today in theaters and exclusively on Film Movement Plus.

Markuss is in big trouble, because he lured Emilija, a snotty little princess in his new neighborhood, into a pit in the woods and left her there. He was already a pariah in this provincial town. Now he is considered a monster. His grandmother, who is reluctantly serving as his guardian, seems to openly resent his presence. The rest of his local kin treats him with cold disdain, but their dysfunctional and sometimes abusive behavior behind closed doors is not so very different. His only friend is Sailor, the town outcast, whom his grandmother helps to support, despite her obvious contempt.

Some of the revelations Puce and co-screenwriter Monta Gagane have in store for viewers are fairly logical (a nicer term than predictable, in this case), but the way they emerge organically as the film progresses is still quite potent. There are some flashbacks, but they are employed judiciously and cleanly. After ten minutes, viewers will despise Markuss, but after seventy minutes, hearts will ache for him. It is a drastic dramatic reversal, but it is well-earned.

It is also helps that young Damir Onackis’ lead performance is remarkably powerful. He is raw and honest—quiet, but violent. This could very well be the best youthful performance of the year. Dace Eversa surprises us down the stretch as Grandma Solveiga, while the acutely human sadness of Indra Burkovaska’s Sailor is the perfect counterpoint to Markuss’s rage and confusion.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Swan Song, on Apple TV+

If science fiction predicts something enough times, does that mean it will truly come to pass? Should that be so, the terminally ill will eventually be able to replace themselves with healthy clones that carry their memories. We have already seen dying fathers come to terms with their clone successors in Guy Moshe’s LX 2048 and the “Tom” episode of Solos, so we can anticipate the mixed emotions Cameron Turner feels in Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

So, Turner is doing poorly. His outlook is fatal, but he hasn’t told his wife Poppy or their son anything. It is better that way, if he goes through with the radical treatment proposed by Dr. Scott. She will clone him in every respect, except for that obvious congenital defect, including his memories. However, they will need his help to verify all his old recollections synchronized acutely. That trip down memory lane will be painful, especially since it requires spending time with “Jack,” his replacement.

Despite the basic science fiction premise,
Swan Song is more a film about death and letting go than the speculative implications of cloning. True, there are self-driving cars, but those are supposed to be coming right around the corner, finally. Fortunately, much of that drama is quite well done, especially the strange relationship that develops between Turner and his clone.

Mahershala Ali is very good in what is sort of, but not exactly a dual role, as Turner and his clone. Frankly, it is quite impressive how good he is playing opposite himself. He also has some nice sequences with Naomie Harris, as his wife Poppy, especially during memories of their first meetings. Harris does indeed have some effective moments, but her character’s complete lack of intuition somewhat strains credulity.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Close to Me, on Sundance Now

If Jo Harding had to lose a year to amnesia, her most recent would be the one to forget. Her dog died, she finally checked her dementia-plagued father into a care-home, and she bitterly quarreled with both her son and her best friend. It is unclear whether it is any consolation, but she also suspects she was having an affair. With whom, she has no idea. Bits and pieces will come back to her in Angela Pell’s six-part adaptation of Amanda Reynolds’ novel, Close to Me, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

Harding took a bad step on her staircase and suddenly one year was gone. (Honestly, the disorienting tile pattern of their foyer could make anyone swoon.) Or was she pushed? That is what she starts to suspect, even though the doctors warn her she will be a bit spacy and “disinhibited” for a while. Frankly, it seems like she was always a little blunt, at least judging from the confused flashbacks. Regardless, she will be a lot for her husband Rob to handle. He was the one who found her bleeding at the bottom of the staircase and he has been acting super-squirrely ever since she came to.

In terms of tone, Pell’s adaptation is like a more sexually frank Mary Higgins Clark thriller. It is very much a woman’s story and a domestic setting, but the relatively small circle of characters rather limits the potential field of suspects. Rather awkwardly, Jo Harding can really be a pill, both pre- and post-accident. After five and a half episodes with her, we were almost expecting a meta revelation, in which we learn it was a group of exasperated viewers who pushed her down the stairs. It is also unclear whether this was an intentional strategy to play up her status as an unreliable narrator or some dubious characterization choices.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Left Unfinished: The Forbidden Reel

Rather remarkably, the staff of Afghan Films already saved their film archive from the Taliban once. Sadly, they will probably have to do it again, because Joe Biden got bored with Afghanistan. Hopefully, Taliban enforcers have not seen this documentary, but wisely the employees of the state film agency was already racing to digitize their archive, in recognition of the nation’s continuing instability. Ariel Nasr documents the history of Afghan cinema and the efforts to save it in the NFB-produced documentary, The Forbidden Reel, which screens online as part of the Smithsonian’s Left Unfinished: Recent AfghanCinema series.

Not surprisingly, the series also features
What We Left Unfinished, the story of five incomplete, rediscovered Soviet Era films that offered in window into Afghan cinematic history. In fact, the director, Mariam Ghani (who also happened to be the daughter of former President Ashraf Ghani, now in exile in the UAE, for obvious reasons) appears throughout Reel, as one of Afghan Film’s chief supporters and consultants.

Not unexpectedly, the Taliban did indeed come to burn their country’s cinematic heritage. However, the forewarned Afghan Film employees were able to hide their true archive, by serving up their storeroom of international films instead. As of 2019, they were well into their digitization campaign, with Ghani’s assistance.

Initially, the Soviet-era was seen as a boon for filmmaking, but as the puppet government imprisoned and executed more and more Afghans, many of the directors attached to Afghan Films joined the Mujahideen, serving in the filmmaking unit attached to Ahmad Shah Massoud’s fighters. The moderate commander was one of the most effective at battling the Soviets, but he was tragically assassinated by his more extreme Taliban rivals, which directly led to an existential crisis for Afghan Films.

When watching
Forbidden Reel, it is clear Afghanistan does not have to be the way it is. Most Afghans want to work hard, take care of their families, and maybe take in a movie now and then. Yet, a lack of will on our part turned back the clock to 2001. Perhaps most chillingly, we understand many of the people interviewed by Nasr are now in grave danger, if they have not managed to secure safe passage out of their country. Obviously, they can’t expect much help from us. We still have Americans we have yet to evacuate, but the Biden administration is loudly patting itself on the back, because they believe the total number is “fewer than 12.” (We’re midway through December, by the way.)

Monday, December 13, 2021

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People

Punk is not dead and neither is Bob Spit (a.k.a. Bob Cuspe). Brazilian cartoonist Angeli thought he had killed off his creation in the pages of his underground comix Chiclete com Banana, but a punker like Spit is hard to kill. When word reaches him of his creator’s attempt to do him in, Spit sets off to give him a piece of his mind in Cesar Cabral’s ultra-meta and super-rude stop-motion animated feature, Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People, which opens this Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Spit is your basic hardnosed, unreconstructed punker. (He is also a bit phlegmy, hence his name.) Ever since Angeli thought he killed off his best-known creations, Bob Spit and feminist icon Re Bordosa (who maybe isn’t completely dead either), he has been somewhat blocked creatively. Maybe because everyone keeps talking about his iconic characters, including his closest colleague, transgender cartoonist Laerte, who is quite a fan of Bordosa.

Supposedly, Spit was killed by a horde of mutant Elton Johns, who symbolize the pestilence of pop music. However, the perennially angry punk seems to handle them just fine in the cartoon wasteland he stalks through. Inadvertently, he saves the goonish Kowalski Brothers, who have been piecing together “prophecies” regarding him from the pages of
Chiclete com Banana. When they show Spit the death Angeli wrote for him, it makes him mad, so he intends to teach the “old cartoonist” a lesson. Meanwhile, the animated Angeli has weird dreams and visions of Bordosa and Laerte, who appears to him as a Roma fortune-teller.

Cabral takes viewers on a bizarre post-modern animated ride that features the real voices of Angeli and Laerte, appearing as themselves. It is sort of like an animated cross between
The Young Ones and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but the feral Elton John mutants have no precedent. This is a crazy, self-referentially Borgesian film, but it stays true to the defiantly anarchic spirit of the original Bob Spit.

What unfolds is near-total bedlam, but the stop-motion animation is quite masterfully rendered. The movement and facial designs are reminiscent of Adam Elliot’s
Mary and Max, but thematically, the two films could not be more dissimilar. Bob Spit has no interest in personal growth or moral uplift, but he just might have some insights into the nature of art and the creative process.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Achoura, Horror from Morocco

It is hard to enjoy “La Nuit des Enfants,” Morocco’s annual children’s night festival, when you are a child bride married to a creepy sixty-year-old. The injustice of Bashira’s situation leaves her particularly vulnerable to a demon named Bougatate. Her flashback starts the story, but she certainly won’t be its last victim in Telal Selhami’s Achoura, which releases Tuesday on DVD and VOD.

has been likened to a Moroccan IT, but for a while, the multiple early flashbacks make it difficult to understand why. Years after Bashira’s fateful “Children’s Night,” a group of four friends barely survive an encounter with it, but frankly, Ali’s brother Samir draws a rather unfortunate fate.

That was twenty years ago. Despite a pledge to never forget what happened, Ali and his wife Nadia have largely repressed the incident. However, their estranged friend Stephane still recollects it vividly, as we can see from his morbid paintings and performance art. However, they must start remembering when Bougatate is inadvertently unleashed.

Yes, the kids who barely survived the monster must reunite to defeat it. Despite structural similarities to King’s novel (and a lot of tall grass),
Achoura is stylishly creepy. Selhami has a great eye for visuals and the folkloric elements add further layers of archetypal resonance. However, it really takes about half-hour for him to finally establish how the first six or seven scenes relate to each other.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Last and First Men: Adapting Olaf Stapledon

Many millennia from now, will human beings still be wearing cloth masks? The voice from the future never specifies, but apparently, we evolved to have telescopic eyeballs on the top of our heads. Mankind survived several extinction-level events, but fate will eventually catch up with us on the plains of Neptune in the late composer Johann Johannsson’s unlikely but spiritually-faithful adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, which is now screening at the Metrograph.

We are hearing a communication from the far, far future. They want something from us in the past, but it is not to recruit us to fight aliens, as in
The Tomorrow War. Unfortunately, it will be solar events and cosmic gaseous bodies that spell mankind’s demise, but they are resigned to it at this point. Their business is more philosophical.

This is why Stapledon was always considered so unadaptable. His best-known novels were not about ray-guns and rocket-ships, but rather the rise and fall of galactic civilizations and species. Although Johannsson and co-writer Jose Enrique Macain incorporate a mere fraction of his text into Tilda Swinton’s anesthetizing voice-overs, they faithfully convey the vibe and sweep of his work.

To accompany these grand and sometimes dire descriptions of future humanity, Johannsson films the imposing and often crumbling Brutalist monuments of the former Yugoslavia. These de-humanized vistas are lensed in starkly glorious black-and-white by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen. Some of them even look akin the statuary of Easter Island and the neo-primitivist masonry designed by Burle-Marx.

There is a narrative of sorts to
Last and First, but no characters per se. Yet, there is plenty to intrigue the curious mind, like the development of “navigators,” a “hardy” folk, who prefer to travel space beyond the range of future man’s hive-mind telepathy. So, there will still be Red-Staters thousands of millions of years from now.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Even Mice Belong in Heaven: An Animated Czech Fable

Heaven--its not just for dogs anymore. All animals go there, but this isn’t exactly a paradise with 72 virgins. It is more like an afterlife in the tradition of What Dreams May Come. It can actually be a pretty scary place, but Whizzy the mouse might have a friend to go through it with, if they can get past their earthly history as prey and predator in Jan Bubenicek & Denisa Grimmova’s Even Mice Belong in Heaven, which releases today on VOD.

Whizzy is a bit of a scaredy-cat, but she tries to over-compensate by bluffing and showing off. It is not her fault. She still has lingering trauma from her father’s death. Ironically, he became a hero to the mice, by saving her from a fox. She feels compelled to repeat his heroics, by picking a fight with Whitebelly, a shy, stuttering young fox. Unfortunately, when he gives chase, they both end up flattened by a car.

Right, this might not be such a good film for kids, since the cute, furry main characters literally die in the first ten minutes. It really is more of an adult beast-fable, sort of in the tradition of
Watership Down and Plague Dogs. However, the animation style definitely signals viewers to expect something cuter and lighter.

Regardless, the evolution of Whizzy’s post-mortem relationship with Whitebelly is quite touching. Whizzy can be more than a little annoying and self-centered, but death tends to be quite a learning experience. Whitebelly also has a dramatic arc in store for himself, but by accepting each other, they can overcome the hang-ups that held them back in life. At least that is what Heaven is trying to teach, if they would only pay attention.

The Last Son

Isaac Lemay has been cursed by a tribal elder, who has apparently read his Sophocles. The old man actually called it a prophecy, but the way Lemay lets it consume him definitely makes it a curse. Told he will one day be killed by one of his offspring, Lemay sets out to systematically kill his kin in Tim Sutton’s The Last Son, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

Killing is what Lemay does best. It is what earned him the “curse.” However, he still found time to visit many prostitutes. Anna is one of the last, whose sons are not yet accounted for. Lemay makes quick work of the one she acknowledged, but Cal, the one she gave up for adoption for his own protection, is a slippery outlaw. In fact, he is a lot like his old man.

Cal’s feelings towards his mother are a little confused (again, see the literary allusion above), but the man who makes her swoon is Solomon, a hardboiled cavalry officer. Having been raised by the Cheyenne as a foundling, Solomon always remains a bit of an outsider in white society. Nevertheless, he is determined to bring to justice the outlaws who stole a gatling gun and murdered a detachment of troops. Yes, that would be Cal and his associates.

This is a dramatic change of pace for Sutton, who was previously known for moody art-house fare like
Memphis. There is still a whole lot of brooding in Last Son, but everyone also takes care of Western genre business. As Westerns go, it is super-revisionist, but there is also a pinch of Weird West too, which makes things interesting.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne

Like a lot of people, Lucy had a Charlie Brown kind of New Year’s last year. This year, her Christmas is not panning out either. Lucy Van Pelt is not the sort of person you want to disappoint, so Linus and Charlie Brown agree to help make her New Year’s Eve party an unforgettable bash. Yet, her bossiness keeps getting in the way in Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne (directed by Clay Kaytis), the first new Peanuts holiday special in ten years, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

It is December, but we end up skipping over Christmas, after Grandma Van Pelt calls to say she can’t come this year. Linus is a little relieved, but Lucy is very disappointed. To cheer herself up, she decides to throw herself a New Year’s party. Naturally, she assigns everyone a job to do, but they wouldn’t mind, if she would just let them do things their ways.

Meanwhile, Snoopy’s entire litter is visiting for the holidays, including big lovable Olaf and his sister Belle. Crusty Spike wants to finally get a picture of them all together, but his efforts are constantly frustrated.

Evidently, Apple’s
Peanuts originals must all use Snoopy rather than Charlie Brown in the title. The “Snoopy Presents” makes him sound like a celebrity executive producer, but this is probably the best of the Apple-produced Peanuts programming to date. Kaytis and co-writers Alex Galatis and Scott Montgomery rekindle the spirit of the eternal Peanuts classics, even though they give Lucy some vulnerability and sentimentality that we have never seen from her before. (Seriously, she is the girl with the football, remember?)

The Real Charlie Chaplin, on Showtime

Enjoy this documentary while you can. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before Charlie Chaplin gets an Ansel Elgort-Woody Allen-style canceling. After all, he had a habit of marrying young women in their early teens. According to his second wife’s memoir, Chaplin was quite an abusive husband. He also financially supported his friend Fatty Arbuckle after the screen comedian was acquitted on notorious rape and murder charges. Of course, Chaplin’s stature as the first true mega-movie star and a genuine cinematic auteur should trump all that—but it doesn’t work that way under the current anti-cultural climate. Probably arriving just under the wire, Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s The Real Charlie Chaplin premieres this Saturday on Showtime.

Chaplin’s origins could be any humbler. After his father absconded and his mother was institutionalized, the young boy was literally consigned to a work-house. Eventually, he found success as a vaudeville performer in a particularly physical troupe. While on tour in America, he was signed to a film contract by Mack Sennett. Chaplin had a less than auspicious debut, but once he adopted his famous “tramp” persona, his career sky-rocketed.

By any measure, Chapin was the biggest, traffic-stopping star of the silent era. He was such a big star, he could still produce a silent classic like
Modern Times in 1936, well after the industry adopted sound as a standard. He eventually went talkie with his classic satire The Great Dictator, which skewered Adolph Hitler mercilessly. However, much of the pro-Soviet sounding rhetoric he engaged in during this time would come back to haunt him. Yet, arguably, Chaplin’s antagonism with the HUAC Committee has ironically helped insulate him from criticism of his personal life.

Indeed, that was certainly true of prior bio-docs, like partisan spin displayed in
Chaplin—Legendof the Century. Instead, The Real Charlie Chaplin does a decent job of presenting a comprehensive warts-and-all portrait of Chaplin that never whitewashes his problematic personal behavior. They still largely give him a pass on his political pronouncements, even though they happened at a time when the Moscow Show Trials were well in public record (but the Ukrainian Holodomor genocide story was still getting spiked in Western media outlets). Still, this is not hagiography, by any measure.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Revolution in Our Times: Hong Kong History as it Happened (Tragically)

7.4 million Hongkongers have lost their freedom and the younger generations that protested were beaten, battered, and arrested without just cause by the Hong Kong police. Yet, it has all been remarkably well documented, for those who have not chosen to turn a blind-eye. Recent documentaries like Days Before Dawn and We Have Boots have done excellent work recording the street protests and the violent tactics used to suppress them, but the shocking brutality exposed in this film surpasses them all. Your heart will ache and your jaw will drop after watching Kiwi Chow’s Revolution in Our Times, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Chow previously helmed “Self-Immolator,” an astonishingly bold contribution to the narrative anthology film
Ten Years. That was a biting critique of what was then the creeping specter of Mainland oppression. In Revolution, he took to the streets and the safe houses, shooting protesters guerilla-style, as they manned barricades and fled from raging police detachments. He provides plenty of context, but essentially picks up with the later “Extradition Bill” demonstrations rather than going back to the original 2014 Umbrella protests.

Most of the subjects he follows are young “Valliants,” the more confrontational protesters, rather than the self-described “Non-Violents” led by Benny Tai. Although their voices are distorted and their faces are pixelated, for their own protection, viewers will come to care about them very much, especially as they increasingly come under literal fire. Some of this footage is especially raw and shocking, but one of the biggest takeaways from Chow’s doc is the respect Tai expresses for the Valliants, acknowledging just how much they risked for freedom.

There are indeed some remarkable scenes, such as aerial footage of the “Be Water” styled protesters, seen from above as they retreat and disperse over a dozen or so city blocks, to keep ahead of advancing police shock troops. However, viewers should brace themselves for video of the vicious 721 Yuen Long train station attack, conducted by white-shirted (suspected Triad) gangs with the obvious collusion of the HK cops. Independent journalist Gwyneth Ho was there and reported on the carnage as it happened, getting severely beaten for her troubles. Fortunately, she survived to address on-camera the attack and the events that led up to it.