Wednesday, December 07, 2022

#FLOAT

You could easily fill half a dozen cemeteries with the YouTubers and influencers who get their shallow selves killed in horror movies. That’s why we know what to expect when Kali Fyre vlogs her friends’ annual boozy river frolics, even if they don’t. The yokel sounds crazy when he warns them the river is in a nasty mood this year, but he is not wrong in Zac Locke’s #FLOAT, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Frye’s boyfriend Jackson isn’t supportive of her vlogging, because he doesn’t consider it a real job. She is just short of 2,000 followers, but her friend Dee still can’t be bothered to follow her. Only her friend Madison really offers her any encouragement. Zola and her baby-daddy ex-Blake (whom Dee inexplicably has a thing for), can’t even support their daughter Thea, whom they have irresponsibly brought on the friends’ traditional debauched outing.

It would be different this year anyway, since this it is their first time back since their late pal Chuy drowned in a drunken, drugged-out stupor. They still feel guilty about that, but they refuse to listen to the Cassandra-like redneck, who keeps warning them “the river took him.”

Locke tries to maintain a sense of ambiguity whether
#FLOAT is a slasher or a supernatural horror movie, but it is obvious to everyone except the empty-headed Millennials the ginger-bearded mountain man is a harmless red herring. Unfortunately, Locke is so determined to maintain the uncertainty of what is afoot, the pacing suffers badly as a result. This is a weirdly languid horror film. The title is rather ironically appropriate—but “#DRIFT” would be even more accurate.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Bed Rest, on Tubi

Julie Rivers is supposed to stay in bed and avoid stress, but she has a cat. Have you ever lived with one of those? They’re always stepping on you, in uncomfortable places. She also lives with some kind of angry ghost, but nobody believes her, because of her mental history. As a result, she must face it without the help of her condescending husband in director-screenwriter Lori Evans Taylor’s Bed Rest, which premieres tomorrow on Tubi.

Julie and Daniel Rivers lost their first baby a few years ago. Since then, he has been compulsively moving on, whereas she still feels the loss keenly. Since she is mega-preggers, they logically just moved into huge fixer-upper in the middle of nowhere. One fateful night, they get a scare on the staircase, but her doctor assures them all will be fine if Rivers confines herself to bed for the duration of her pregnancy.

If only it were that easy. First, she hears intruders in the lower floors. Before long, she is visited by a very strange little boy, whom she takes to be the spirit of her late, stillborn son. Of course, her husband and their visiting nurse Delmy (who is prone to oversharing) just assume she is having manic episodes, like before. However, we can tell there must be something to it, or the film would really be wasting our time (it happens, but mercifully not in this case).

Nonetheless,
Bed Rest feels very familiar. A lot of the film is devoted to Rivers’ husband and Delmy basically trying to gaslight her back to normal. Obviously, it doesn’t work, but the film spends a heck of a lot of time spinning its wheels with these scenes.

On the plus side, Taylor creates some nicely moody atmosphere. The shadowy figures are skillfully framed, to build tension without revealing too much. Technically, it is well executed, but Taylor’s narrative will totally unremarkable to any horror fan.

Doctor Who: The Abominable Snowmen

This would be the second invasion underway in 20th Century Tibet. The first came when the Communist-dominated PRC occupied and annexed the sovereign nation in 1951. The second is the alien intelligence exerting a sinister influence over a remote Himalayan monastery. One of its tools happen to be hairy snow beasts. Fortunately, the Tardis finds its way there in “The Abominable Snowmen,” a formerly lost six-episode Doctor Who story-arc, recreated with animation and the original audio track, which releases today on BluRay.

Initially, the Second (Patrick Troughton) Doctor is thrilled to back in Tibet. He was there several hundred years prior, when he accepted one of the Detsen Monastery’s holy relics for safe keeping, during times of turmoil. The Doctor now hopes to return it, not knowing these too are times of trial for Detsen, but not because of the PLA invasion, which goes unmentioned during “Abominable Snowmen,” even though it was originally produced in 1967.

Unfortunately, the Doctor receives a rather rude welcome, thanks to English explorer Edward Travers, who stokes the suspicions of Khrisong, the Tibetan warrior protecting Detsen, against the Time Lord. Travers, who would return in a later mostly-lost
Doctor Who adventure, mistakenly assumes the Doctor is a reporter or a rival hoping to exploit or sabotage his search for the Yeti.

Amazingly, Padmasambhava, the high lama of the monastery remembers the Doctor from his previous visit. However, the ancient monk is not himself. Something latched onto Padmasambhava during his astral wanderings and now holds the very senior monk in thrall. Its chief pawns happen to be the hirsute robotic creatures Travers reasonably took for Yetis. Whatever they are, they trap the Doctor’s bickering companions, Jamie and Victoria, in a cave at the end of the first episode.

The BBC’s penny-wise-pound-foolish tape-wiping practices in the 1960s and 1970s almost makes a nerd’s head explode. How much revenue have they missed out on by reusing recycling the tapes of old
Doctor Who episodes or their production of Asimov’s Caves of Steel, starring Peter Cushing? In some cases, where the audio tracks still exist, they have resurrected missing Doctor Who episodes through original animation, as they have done for “Abominable Snowmen.” The original video survives for the second episode, which is included in the BluRay set, along with black-and-white and color animated recreations of all six installments. Arguably, the best way to experience the authentic viewing experience is by selection the black-and-white animation for episodes one and three through six and the surviving second live-action episode.

Regardless, it is nice to have a “new” vintage
Doctor Who episode back in circulation, especially since it holds special behind-the-scenes significance, co-starring Jack Watling, who played Travers in multiple adventures, with his daughter, Victoria Watling, who portrayed the Doctor’s companion, Victoria Wakefield. The spartan Tibetan setting looks good both in the surviving episode and the black-and-white episodes. Admittedly, the big furry Yeti robots look weirdly cute instead of scary, but they are definitely in keeping with the low-budget aesthetic of vintage Doctor Who fans know and love.

Monday, December 05, 2022

The Scottish Play

Is Shakespeare's Macbeth cursed? Ask Kelsey Grammer. According to legend, a coven of witches enraged by Shakespeare including their genuine rituals in his text placed a curse on the play that endures to this day. Sydney can ask the Bard himself, when he appears to her while she is rehearsing a production of you-know-what in screenwriter-director Keith Boynton’s The Scottish Play, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

You could maybe compare Sydney to Laura Linney. She is no longer a starlet, but she has a big name and a reputation for classy work, so it is a coup for Adam, an up-and-coming theater director, when she agrees to star as Lady Macbeth in his production of “The Scottish Play,” opening a Massachusetts Shakespeare festival. She wanted to get away from the movie business for a while, but they also just seem like they are on the same wave-length.

On the first day of production, Adam gives a nice curse-schmurse speech, after which weird things start to happen. The weirdest has to be William Shakespeare visiting Sydney in ghostly form. He rather empathizes with Adam’s struggles staging
Macbeth, so he promises his help to Sydney. However, the “help” he offers up will be rather difficult to explain.

Honestly, I am totally shocked how good
The Scottish Play is, given how little fanfare has surrounded it. Basically, the entire industry and the media covering it has been sleeping on this film. Boynton has a nice ear for the iambic pentameter Shakespeare speaks in. Granted, I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, but I reviewed Macbeth twice on-stage and four times on film. At least for non-professional ears it sounds legit. Yes, people did not speak that way during everyday Elizabethan times, but now that he is dead, Shakespeare can indulge himself—or so he explains.

Renegades, Co-Starring Lee Majors and Patsy Kensit

These retired mercs fancy themselves the old-timer version of “The Wild Geese,” which is saying something, considering how haggard the hard-living Richard Burton and Richard Harris looked in that 1978 movie. The crusty old Londoners are probably twenty years older, but they look healthier. That is fortunate, because they will have some work cut out for them in Daniel Zirilli’s Renegades, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Maj. Carver just moved his former subordinate Burton off the streets and into his home, because the veteran officer never leaves one of his men behind. Carver is pretty American-sounding, but his daughter is all British. Judy Carver was even elected a local councilor. In representing her district, she made trouble with the cops for Anthony Goram’ criminal outfit. Carver intended to warn off the interloping foreign (from parts undefined) gangster, but his thugs killed the Major instead.

Obviously, Burton and Carver’s old comrades (and fellow support group members) Peck, Woody, and Harris do not take kindly to that, so they round up all the weapons they can scrounge (including a crossbow) to take the fight to Goram. They do a pretty good job of it, especially since Inspector Moore (who is investigating their mayhem) has to call in favors from her CIA contact (a cameo appearance for Michael Pare) to figure out what is going on.

That is pretty much all there is to
Renegades, which wouldn’t be so bad, if Zirilli’s direction were smoother. His strictly dramatic scenes have an awkwardness that must embarrass his experienced cast, especially the great Lee Majors, who brings a gravitas to the film that it doesn’t deserve, as the Major. As Judy Carver, Patsy Kensit (from Lethal Weapon 2 and Angels and Insects) is stuck in several dull scenes opposite Nick Moran’s impassive Burton that must have been a chore for them to plod through.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Operation Seawolf, Starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Grillo

By Presidential order, there were two U.S. Navy ships with majority African American crews during WWII, so the submarine chaser depicted in this film is not the total historical gaffe you might assume. The mission it is trying to foil is completely fictional, but not because the German U-boat corps would have had any issues targeting civilians. They just never made it this far in real-life. Time is running out for the Axis, but a strike on New York City could turn the tide of the war in Steven Luke’s Operation Seawolf, which releases Tuesday on DVD.

Captain Hans Kessler is a disillusioned old school officer, but even with his heavy drinking, he is the best man available for the last-ditch mission. However, it is hard for his new first officer to see it that way. Lt. Reinhart was demoted, to make way for Kessler. He is supposed to lead a wolfpack of U-boats close enough to the City to launch a V2 rocket attack from their decks, once they surface.

Fortunately, Commander Race Ingram knows their coming, so he will deploy the Tenth Fleet to stop them. For the first time ever, Capt. Samuel Gravely’s ship, based on the USS Mason (DE-529) will be part of the hunt. Luke fudges the historical record a little with that last part, but plenty of WWII films have taken greater dramatic license.

Dolph Lundgren gets to show more dramatic range than usual as Kessler. Indeed, he is perfectly cast as the commanding but world-weary (and super-blond) officer. On the other hand, Frank Grillo is grossly underutilized as Ingram, who basically spends the entire film in the war room, reading coded messages and barking orders. It wouldn’t really make sense for his character to come face-to-face with Kessler, but it is still disappointing Grillo and Lundgren appear in the same film, but never share a scene together.

Hiram A. Murray is similarly confined to the bridge of his ship playing Capt. Gravely. He also carries himself with a convincing military bearing, which rather makes sense, since he is a Marine Corp veteran. However, the sequences aboard Gravely’s Destroyer do not look as realistic as those within Kessler’s U-boat, which were shot inside the decommissioned and preserved USS Cod.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

George & Tammy, on Showtime

George Jones and Tammy Wynette had a relationship that was sort of like A Star is Born, but slightly less tragic, which is sort of ironic, since they are the country version. They had some huge hits together, but they couldn’t stay married. Yet, that old spark never totally went away, musically or romantically. Even if you are not fans, you will recognize their drama and some of their songs in Abe Sylvia’s six-episode George & Tammy, directed by John Hillcoat, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

George Jones was already the biggest act in country music and prone to self-destructive behavior when hired Tammy Wynette to open for him. He was starting to slip on the charts, but she was still crazy about his music. She also fell for him, even though she was still married to her manager, songwriter, and general coattail-rider Don Chapel. Nevertheless, Jones whisked her off her feet and literally carried her out of the house she bought for Chapel.

Before too long, we see Jones’ drinking problem and the violent anger it brought out in him. Soon thereafter, Wynette develops her own addictions issues with pills, following a botched operation. However, there are also good times. Unlike, bio-films like
What’s Love Got to Do with It, we totally see why Jones and Wynette fell for each other and why they kept getting back together, albeit in more limited ways, after their divorce.

George & Tammy
follows a similar arc as so many previous music biographies (from Eastwood’s Bird to Luhrmann’s Elvis), but that really isn’t Sylvia’s fault. The facts are the facts. Blame the music industry and maybe to some extent the media. In this case, he manages to humanize his subjects to a remarkable extent. Partly, this is because his primary source was the book written by Georgette Jones, the power couple’s daughter.

It is also impossible to overstate the importance of the two leads, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, who bear a decent visual resemblance to the performers and have surprisingly strong singing voices. They really land those tunes, which often serve as a dramatic climax to each episode. (Weirdly, Shannon also made a compellingly off-kilter Elvis Presley in
Elvis & Nixon.)

Frankly, Chastain and Shannon shine so bright, everyone else gets lost, including Walton Goggins as Peanut, Jones’ former bandmember, who becomes a sympathetic Baptist preacher, and Steve Zahn, portraying Wynette’s sleazy fifth husband (Jones was the third and Sylvia skips over the brief fourth). Frankly, the only thesp that makes any sort of impression, whose name isn’t Shannon or Chastain, would be Pat Healy, playing Wynette’s sleazy second husband, Chapel.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Alex van Warmerdam’s Nr. 10

Imagine a stage production as strained with petty jealousies as Noises Off, but without the comedy. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, because Alex van Warmerdam provided it, but when things get ugly on-stage, it is all according to the Church’s plans. That would be the Roman Catholic Church. This must mean Pope Francis is in on the conspiracy too. Frankly, it all becomes a bit of a muddle in van Warmerdam’s Nr. 10, which opens today in New York.

Gunter is having an affair with his co-star Isabel, who is married to the director of the play they are rehearsing. Unfortunately, he discovers their betrayal, thanks to Marius, a co-star who resents the abuse Gunter’s character heaps on his own. Things really escalate during the premiere—so much so Gunter will have to take some time off.

So far, everything has gone according to the shadowy monsignor’s plan. He knows the truth about Gunter, including why the actor only has one lung. He only just learned, because he has never been sick a single day in his life, but his grown daughter Lizzy discovered she had the same anatomical irregularity during a check-up—her first ever.

A lot of critics are calling
Nr. 10 “mind-blowing,” but it really isn’t. They are just offering clapter for the film’s slams on the Catholic Church. Fine, lets see van Warmerdam give similar treatment to Shia Islam, a religious doctrine that is currently killing young people on the streets of Tehran.

Violent Night, It’s Definitely a Christmas Movie

There is a long-standing debate whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. This one definitely is—and it consciously riffs on the Bruce Willis franchise. You could say it is Die Hard at family Christmas gathering, with Santa Claus playing the John McClane role. Regardless, it will not be a silent or holy night during Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night, which opens nationwide today in theaters.

Santa is pretty burned out, because most people are naughty and even the nice kids only want video games or cash. Frankly, he probably would not even be stopping at Gertrude Lighthouse’s stately manor if her extremely nice granddaughter Trudy were not staying the night. Except for her father Jason, maybe, the rest of the Lightstones are a nasty venal lot. Of course, her mother Linda does not count, at least according to her grandmother. However, the Lightstones will not be the naughtiest ones in the house when “Scrooge’s” band of armed robbers take them hostage.

As luck would have it, they start shooting while Santa is still enjoying Trudy’s cookies and Gertrude’s brandy. Claus has gotten a little cynical, but he can’t help worrying about Trudy. He also still remembers his mortal life as Norse warrior, before he assumed the jolly mantel, presumably through some means not unlike that of
The Santa Clause.

There is no question this is a Christmas movie, because it has Santa. It also slyly riffs on Christmas favorites, like
Home Alone and Die Hard 1 & 2 in knowing and spectacularly violent ways. For instance, somebody gets it with an icicle. However, Wirkola and co-screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller probably outdo the body counts of the individual Die Hards, if not the entire series. Honestly, it is way more satisfying to watch Santa wield a war-hammer than anything the emasculated Thor did in the last few MCU releases.

Admittedly, the middle is a little draggy, but the fight scenes in the first and third acts are as beautifully choreographed as a top-notch performance of
The Nutcracker. David Barbour (who co-starred in Sleepless, the American remake of the French Die Hard-in-a-nightclub, Sleepless Night) is wonderfully grizzled and world-weary as Santa. Weirdly, this is one of the least caricatured portrayals of Kris Kringle.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Hunt, in The Epoch Times


The Korean spy thriller Hunt has a wealth of twists, secret agendas, and a secret DPRK warmongering plot that is truly terrifying if it is even remotely based on historical reality. Epoch Times exclusive review up here.

Dave Stevens: Drawn to Perfection

Cliff Secorod, the Rocketeer was the sort of Red-Blooded American comic book hero we need more of from the comic duopolies. He was a would-be operator out for a buck, who ended up fighting criminals and Nazis, while lusting after lusting after his girlfriend, transparently based on pin-up model Bettie Page. The late Dave Stevens created and drew the popular indie comic hero. The artist’s friends and colleagues pay tribute to Stevens and his legacy in Kelvin Mao’s documentary, Dave Stevens: Drawn to Perfection, which releases Friday on VOD.

Fortunately, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was little barrier to entry for an aspiring professional artist like Stevens, who amassed some pretty amazing credits drawing layouts for Hanna-Barbera and storyboards for
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Comics were where he belonged, but his big chance came when Pacific Comics had to fill six pages in one of their issues. Unlike the two majors, Pacific allowed creators like Stevens to retain ownership of their characters, which would be significant in the case of the Rocketeer.

Inspired by 1940s serials and vintage pin-up art,
The Rocketeer became one of the biggest breakout indie hits of the early-to-mid-80s. There was indeed a Disney movie, which everyone in the film agrees was not quite great but still very good. Indeed, there is a lot of interesting commentary from the director, Joe Johnston, who went on to helm Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Captain American: The First Avenger. Sadly, Stevens’ life after the film’s release is largely a story of professional frustration and the cancer he eventually succumbed to.

Drawn
is a straightforward but heartfelt doc that would nicely supplement Mark Mori’s Bettie Page Reveals All, which chronicled the life of the model Stevens helped re-popularize and befriended late in both of their lives. Stevens’ clean, splashy, and sometimes busty art looks great on-screen. It is also nice to see Pacific Comics get some overdue credit (they were also the original home of Groo the Wanderer and Somerset Holmes).

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Three Pines, on Prime

The married, middle-aged Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is sort of like a French Canadian Maigret. However, he also has some the erudition and emotional baggage of Adam Dalgliesh. Obviously, it would be folly to deceive the good Inspector, yet people keeping trying, with often woeful results. Despite the community’s lack of cooperation, Gamache keeps solving murders in titular Quebec village throughout the eight-episode Three Pines, adapted from Louise Penny’s novels by Emilia di Girolamo, which premieres tomorrow on Prime Video.

Gamache is so competent and well-respected, he won’t be fired when he shows up his snotty boss, Superintendent Francoeur, but he will be assigned to investigate a freak death way out in Three Pines. Apparently, the town’s least favorite self-help guru was electrocuted in her chair while watching a curling match. Yes, this show is definitely set in Canada. Nobody liked the deceased very much, but they don’t have much to say to Gamache’s team: moody Jean-Guy Beavoir, First Nations single-mom Isabelle Lacoste, and the annoying local cop Yvette Nichol. You’d almost think they were all trying to cover for the killer.

Somewhat like
Hjerson, Three Pines adapts several Penny novels in two-episode arcs, but it also maintains a series-long investigation into the presumed death of a missing indigenous teen, Blue Two Feathers. Gamache’s pal Pierre Arnot originally investigated her disappearance, but the trail has gone stone-cold, partly because Francoeur never allocates resources to such cases.

Tragedy begets tragedy when Gamache is next dispatched to Three Pines. The previous victim’s abandoned house, a former indigenous conversion school, has become the scene of a fresh crime. Bad karma seems to pile up in Three Pines, but it is not supernatural, in the
Twin Peaks tradition, which the title inevitably evokes—except maybe the spooky dreams related to the Two Feathers case that plague Gamache’s sleep.

Even when Gamache checks into a luxury hotel outside of Three Pines for his anniversary, Three Pines still finds him. In this case, the estranged sister of one of the villagers turns up dead, after inheriting the family fortune, much to everyone’s surprise. The final arc is roughly drawn from Penny’s novel
The Brutal Telling, in which a stranger is found dead after he inexplicably burst into the café to tell everyone they would get what’s coming to them, because he knew all their dirty secrets. It turns out that is not advisable in Three Pines. However, the case of “Arthur Ellis” gets squeezed to the margins, to make way for the resolution of the Two Feathers case.

The mysteries of
Three Pines are just okay, at least as adapted by di Girolamo, but Alfred Molina still makes the series worth watching. He is terrific as the kindly but disillusioned Gamache. He also has great workplace chemistry with Rossif Sutherland and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Beauvoir and Lacoste. However, Sarah Booth’s bumbling shtick as Nichol clashes with the tenor of the series.

Frankly, the “secret” bad guy stands out like a sore thumb right from the start. It is like di Girolamo didn’t even bother to attempt any misdirection. That might be fine for an episode of
Cannon or Columbo, but it will irk fans of Penny’s novels—and there are a lot of them, which is presumably why the series was produced in the first place.

A Wounded Fawn, on Shudder

You would think a serial killer like Bruce Ernst would have more affinity for Pluto than the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies), the Greek deities of vengeance. However, he cannot resist taking a statuette as a valuable souvenir from his most recent victim. The next kill will be much more difficult for him in Travis Stevens’ A Wounded Fawn, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Apparently, Ernst is an art dealer who represents clients at auctions, which is a very un-serial killer thing to do. In addition to killing the winning bidder of the Erinyes, he has also murdered the owner of a rather stylish and conveniently remote cabin, where he has arranged to spend the weekend with Meredith Tanning, his new girlfriend and next anticipated victim. She is also connected to the art world. In fact, she helped authenticate the Erinyes, which really suggests he should be casting a wider net for his prey.

Of course, she is surprised to see it on his living room table, but she still settles down to a nice dinner with Ernst, even though she hears disembodied voices warning her to leave. Somehow, she doesn’t get alarmed until she sees weird shadowy figures moving outside the cabin.

Initially, the first fortysome minutes of
Fawn is a highly promising serial killer film with supernatural overtones. Unfortunately, the sinister cat-and-mouse game we’re anticipating never materializes. Instead, the film turns into a trippy but predictable fever dream fueled by the Greek mythology symbolism introduced in the auction-prologue.

Frankly, most horror fans have plumbed the depths of more than enough serial killers already, so taking a deep dive into Ernst’s subconscious is trip we don’t need to take. Sadly, when the Erinyes assume the forms of Ernst’s victims to torment him, it is not even cathartic payback, because they are perversely lectury. Granted, it is certainly punishing to listen to their gender studies buzz words, but we the audience have to sit through it too.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, on OVID.tv

Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, whereas New Jersey is New Jersey. Yet, apparently, the Garden State is still a preferable place to practice neurosurgery, because of the superior equipment and working conditions. Nevertheless, Dr. Marta Vizy moves back to her native Hungary, to pursue a relationship with her lover, fellow neurosurgeon Janos Drexler. However, Dr. Drexler claims to have no memory of Vizy in Lili Horvat’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, which premieres tomorrow on OVID.tv.

As soon as she arrived, Vizy was supposed to meet Drexler at the Pest side of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, but he no-shows. Of course, they were too passionate to do anything mundane, like exchange numbers, but she quickly tracks him down at the university hospital. When he denies all memory of her, it cuts the ground out from under Vizy’s feet—almost literally. She nearly returns to America, but instead, she stays, joining the staff of the hospital, where Drexler now only occasionally consults. Not surprisingly, the Budapest neurosurgery community is rather small, so their paths soon cross professionally. At first, it is understandably awkward, but it becomes increasingly less so over time, in hard to define ways.

Some descriptions suggest
PTBTFAUPOT is some kind of noir thriller in the Cornell Woolrich tradition, but Horvat decidedly does not take the film in that direction. The periodic scenes of Vizy analyzing her situation during counseling sessions might suggest a Joanne Woodward-style mental heath awareness drama, but Horvat’s approach is too subtle and refined to serve as a mere PSA. Instead, she leans into ambiguity and takes inspiration from her characters’ vocation, inviting viewers to embrace our absolute inability to know another person’s mind.

That can be frustrating, but Horvat’s artistry is impressive. Robert Maly’s cinematographer is striking and the classical soundtrack gives the film a refined vibe, not unlike some of the finest films from Claude Sautet. Horvat often deliberately keeps viewers at arm’s length, but her style keeps us watching.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, on Topic

Sven Hjerson is to Agatha Christie’s novels what Beebo is to DC Comics. He is a fictional character within a fictional world. Several of Dame Agatha’s stories featured Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer not completely unlike herself, whose fictional detective was the fastidious Hjerson, who is not radically different from Hercule Poirot. Rather shrewdly, Swedish television capitalizes on the sleuth’s local potential in the eight-episode Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, which premieres Thursday on Topic.

Technically, the series should probably be called
Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver’s Hjerson, since it all presumably unfolds in the pages of her novels, but creator Patrik Gyllstrom (perhaps wisely) ignores the meta implications. It turns out Hjerson is actually Finnish, from the Swedish-speaking autonomous archipelago of Åland, but his professional career was spent solving crimes for the Swedish police, until his spectacular fall from grace.

However, his notoriety and brilliance are assets to freelance TV producer Klara Sandberg, who wants to escape her
MILF Hotel program, with a crime-solving show, starring Hjerson. Contacting the misanthropic recluse is tricky by design, but she knows she can corner him on an over-night ferry to Åland. There also happens to be a muck-raking journalist on-board, who meets an untimely death. Obviously, that will be their first case [sort of] together.

Each case lasts two episodes and they vary in degree of mysteriousness. The shipbound opener is about as twisty as a 1970s Quinn Martin two-parter. Fortunately, the subsequent mystery in Åland is considerably more involving. It starts with the strange disappearance of a man in chicken suit and features Bjorn Andresen (who played the teen Dirk Bogarde obsesses over in
Death in Venice) as Hjerson’s old crony Oscar (seeing the grey, wrinkly Andresen now should totally freak out anyone who saw Visconti’s film in theaters).

About the time Hjerson finally agrees to Sandberg’s proposal, at least in very general terms, they are approached by Ronda Svensson (a mystery novelist in the world created by mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, who was created by mystery novelist Agatha Christie) to investigate a murder that was committed in a manner precisely like one in her unpublished manuscript. Thematically, it is sort of like “Captive Audience,” the James Mason episode of
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but Gyllstrom and co-screenwriter Bjorn Paqualin take it in an interesting direction.

Impressively, Gyllstrom isn’t afraid to riff on Alec Baldwin’s negligent shooting incident (and make reference to it) in the concluding mystery-arc. However, in this instance, it is the jerky arrogant actor who gets shot. Obviously, this is a good case for the gossip-obsessed Hjerson, even though playing it coy with Sandberg. Again, this mystery isn’t bad, considering Gyllstrom has to wrap it up in ninety minutes, give or take.

Anastasia, on Paramount+

Putin's MO is to make the most vulnerable in his country suffer for the perceived slights of others. In retribution for the Magnitsky Act, Putin banned all American adoptions of Russian orphans, including those already in process, even though Russia has one of the world’s lowest adoption rates. Anastasia Shevchenko’s oldest daughter Alina was also a victim of Putin’s vengeful pettiness, because of her mother’s political activism (officially proclaimed “undesirable”). Shevchenko was sentenced to two years house arrest and strictly prevented from visiting the severely disabled Alina as her health declined in a Russian hospital. Finally at liberty, Shevchenko travels with her family to scatter Alina’s ashes in Sarah McCarthy’s short documentary, Anastasia, which premieres tomorrow on Paramount+.

Presumably, McCarthy would agree with the assertion Alina and the Russian orphans denied the opportunity of U.S. adoption are all innocent collateral victims of Putin’s wrath, since she also helmed
The Dark Matter of Love, which documented the plight of so-called “Pipeline Babies,” whose American adoptions were canceled, despite being well into the process. It is a subject you should raise with any ostensibly “pro-family” politician who voices support for Putin. In Shevchenko’s case, she dearly wished to visit Alina, but the government forbade it—and then pilloried her in the state media for choosing politics over her daughter.

After two years, Shevchenko, her young son Misha, teen daughter Vlada, and her own mother, can now travel to disburse Alina’s ashes. They cannot say so openly, but in addition to saying goodbye to Alina, they will also be saying goodbye to Russia. Post-McCarthy’s filming, Shevchenko is now living in Lithuania, having been branded a “fugitive from justice” by the Russian authorities.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

New Orleans is the perfect city for Mona “Lisa” Lee to escape to, because when you’re there, it is tricky answering a question like “have you seen anything unusual?” Her powers make her dangerous and her innocence makes her vulnerable to exploitation. Most of all, she is unpredictable, even if the film she appears in sort of is. Regardless, Lee will start to learn something about people in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, which releases Tuesday on BluRay.

There is a blood moon out tonight, making it a fitting time for Lee to escape from her high security mental hospital. Given her powers of mind control, it seems weird she hasn’t made a break for it sooner. After inducing a few relatively mild cases of self-harm, she makes her way to the Big Easy, but the grittier, less touristy part. After forcing Officer Harold to shoot himself in the leg, she saves Bonnie Hunt (a fictional stripper and not David Letterman’s crony) from a violent woman on a jealousy bender.

Seeing Lee’s powers at work, Hunt takes her home and starts hatching schemes to harness those uncanny abilities for her own benefit. After a few days of mind-controlling ATM-withdrawers and Hunt’s strip club customers, Lee starts to suspect Hunt is maybe doesn’t deserve her help, but the stripper’s shy son Charlie does.

Mona Lisa
is a dramatic improvement over Amirpour’s disappointing sophomore slump, The Bad Batch, but it will inevitably draw unfortunate comparisons with the Kimiko “The Girl” Miyashiro character in The Boys. Their powers are different but their personalities and demeanors are similar. Intriguingly, we are told in passing Lee’s family defected from North Korea, but Amirpour never develops this potentially significant tidbit into anything.

Nevertheless, Jeon Jong-seo is excellent as Lee, vividly expressing her innocence and her anger. Kate Hudson nicely plays against type as the convincingly trashy Hunt. However, Ed Skrein turns out to be the surprise scene-stealer as the not-as-sleazy as he looks “Fuzz” (don’t call him a drug-dealer).

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Raven: Poe’s Final Days

Unlike Universal's 1935 film and Roger Corman’s 1963 film, this Raven does not pretend to be an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It is not as much fun either, but how can you beat Lugosi, Karloff, Price, Lorre, Corman, or Hazel Court? You sure can’t do it with John Cusack. Still, if you crank down your expectations, the atmosphere is reasonably entertaining in John McTeigue’s The Raven, which airs on ThisTV.

These will be the last days of Poe’s life and true to form, they start with bar brawl. He hopes to marry his well-heeled secret lover, Emily Hamilton, but her father, Captain Charles isn’t having any of that. The serial killer terrorizing Baltimore will be a more serious obstacle when he kidnaps her.

As Baltimore Police Detective Fields sleuths out, each of his killings were inspired by Poe’s stories. In an early act of “toxic fandom,” the mystery man demands Poe write new stories inspired by his crime scenes, or else Hamilton dies.

The idea of Poe as a detective holds plenty of promise (it was gripping as heck in Marc Olden’s supernatural novel,
Poe Must Die). The problem is many of the killer’s Poe homages are awkwardly forced. In one case, Poe even says so himself. The locked-room crime scene makes sense as a “Rue Morgue” reference—so much so that Fields recognizes it as such—and the pendulum murder of Poe’s real-life nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold is possibly the film’s high point for Poe fans, but from there, screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston really start grasping at straws.

Weirdly, John Cusack turns out to be a decent fit for Poe, thanks to his whiny, snarky nebbishness. Viewing
The Raven in retrospect, we can also draw parallels between the disgraced and dissolute Poe and Cusack’s own career, which subsequently took a nose-dive into VOD purgatory. Regardless, Cusack plays up Poe’s jerkishness without alienating the audience.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Scream, Queen, on TCM

Obviously, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge did well at the box office, since there were six more films released in the original non-rebooted franchise (including Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Freddy vs. Jason), but it has always been the most contentious of the series. Some fans complained screenwriter David Chaskin’s veered too far from Freddy Kruger’s established nature and motivations. (Future films kept him strictly dream-bound.) However, the homoerotic subtext (or text, per many critics) originally earned the film troll-ish scorn, but it built a cult following for the sequel over time. Lead actor Mark Patton found himself in the center of the controversy. After dropping out of show business, Patton reflects on the sequel he learned to embrace in Roman Chimienti & Tyler Jensen’s Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which airs late-night tonight on TCM.

In some ways,
Nightmare 2 was a possession film, in which Kruger tries to use the body of Patton’s character, the shy high school student Jesse Walsh, as a portal into our world. Instead of a jock, Walsh was a bullied teen, whose screams would subsequently be derided for their “girlishness.” Rather awkwardly, Patton happened to be closeted at the time.

The sequel’s stock has risen in recent years, thanks to critics driven by identity politics, who see it as a pioneering gay horror film—and not without reason. Walsh did not exactly exemplify “toxic masculinity.” There were several scenes in the boys’ locker room and even one in a gay bar. Unfortunately, it all generated a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny for Patton, culminating in his retirement from the public eye.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Battle for Saipan

Five Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service at Saipan, all of them posthumously. A campaign was launched to upgrade Guy Gabaldon’s Navy Cross to the MOH, which still continues after his death. Such valor testifies to the battle’s high stakes and brutal conditions endured by tens of thousands of American soldiers, including my grandfather. The attack on an American field hospital in this film is fictional, but it is consistent with the Imperial army’s scorched earth “banzai” charge. A handful of soldiers and medical personnel must stand against several Japanese platoons in screenwriter-director Brandon Slagle’s Battle for Saipan, which opens tomorrow.

Like Gabaldon (who was raised in a Japanese-speaking family), Maj. William Porter speaks some of the local lingo, but it is never explained how he picked it up. Regardless, he overhears plans of an attack on the nearby U.S. Army field hospital while dodging a Japanese patrol. He finds a rag-tag facility lacking proper supplies for the many patients they have. Porter even brought another—the only other survivor of his scouting party. Vic, the lead surgeon, never expected to fight, but he completed basic like any other serviceman, so he and Porter will have to spearhead their defense.

There are a few reasonably colorful characters in the hospital, particularly, the demoted commanding officer, Gen. Jake Carroll, but the narrative still boils down to: the Japanese attack and the Americans defend. It is simple, unfussy, and pretty effective for what it is. This is hardly
Hell to Eternity (based on Gabaldon’s story), but lead thesp Casper Van Dien bears some resemblance to Jeffrey Hunter.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Echo 3, on Apple TV+

Every leftist guerilla organization always just turns out to be a drug-running terrorist group. It is hard to think otherwise, especially when you find yourself captured by one, like American research scientist Amber Chesborough. When a “new” revolutionary group takes her hostage in Colombia, they quickly put her to work in a drug lab owned and operated by the Venezuelan government. Ordinarily, her chances for release would be minimal, but her husband and brother are highly motivated special operators in creator Mark Boal’s Echo 3, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

The well-heeled Prince (indeed) and the white-trash Bambi just became brothers-in-law, but they still argue heatedly and increasingly bitterly. It will only get worse. Chesborough planned an expedition into the Colombian rain forest hoping to find natural compounds that could counteract the chemical effects of addiction. However, guerilla activity is the rise (real-life events have somewhat outstripped Boal’s series, considering the terrorists are now in power). It is a particularly fraught time for Chesborough to visit, since she may or may not have had freelance ties to the CIA that she tried to keep secret, even from her new husband. In retrospect, the military-grade tracking device he sewed into her pack was also a bad idea.

Graciela’s hipster terrorist gang is not about to release Chesborough anytime soon and the U.S. State Department is determined to avoid conflict, like always. However, the Colombian military is not wholly unsympathetic, even when Prince and Bambi start going rogue.

Echo 3
has a great premise (adapted from the Israeli series When Heroes Fly), executed with a very high degree of military, political, and cultural accuracy—at least based on the first five (out of ten) episodes provided for review. This series gives viewers an excellent sense of boots-on-the-ground realities in Venezuela and regions of Colombia. On the other hand, there are pacing issues, including an inconveniently slow opener (helmed by Pablo Trapero) and an entire episode devoted to one incident that easily could have been condensed to fifteen minutes or so.

Nevertheless,
Echo 3 has some nifty scenes of urban warfare and commando-style action. Boal, who wrote and produced Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has solid understanding of and affinity for characters like Bambi and Prince. Most of their scenes ring true, while most non-political government officials, like the Embassy Chief of Mission, are crisply professional rather than lazy caricatures. Just wait till all the professionally over-sensitive-and-easily offended, who were so unhinged over The Terminal List get a load of Echo 3.

The series also has great sympathy for the average Colombians and Venezuelans who are suffering under leftist terrorism, who are embodied by Violetta Cardiz, a dissident Venezuelan journalist working in Colombia, whom the terrorists also target. Portrayed with great subtlety by Martina Gusman, Cardiz’s perspective and traumatic background really adds a lot to the series.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

5-25-77: It was a Long Time Ago…

Forget about May the Fourth/Force. 5/25 is the real birthdate for Star Wars. If you grew up in the late 1970s or the 1980s, it completely changed how you related to movies. It certainly blew Patrick Read Johnson’s mind. He eventually went to Hollywood, caught on as a special effects guy and directed films like Spaced Invaders and Angus. Johnson revisits his pivotal introduction to Star Wars and the awkward high school moments before and after in 5-25-77, which releases today on DVD.

Initially, Douglas Trumbull was “Pat Johnson’s” idol and
2001 was his touchstone film. We see him laboring away at his backyard sequels to Jaws and The Planet of the Apes, but he never quite finishes anything. He is sure he has to leave Wadsworth, IL, so he can apprentice under Trumbull in Hollywood, but he has no idea how to get there. Then he meets Linda, an actual prospective girlfriend, who somewhat distracts him with other common high school concerns, but she can’t shake his filmmaking ambitions.

Thanks to Johnson’s indulgent mother, Johnson eventually makes it to Hollywood, but he is clueless when it comes to networking. However, he gets to see some early footage of
Star Wars thanks to Herb Lightman, the editor of American Cinematographer magazine. Johnson tries to become a prophet hailing the coming of Star Wars, but his classmates would rather act like they are characters in American Graffiti, or maybe a rowdier 1980s teen comedy.

5-25-77
is a love letter to Stars Wars (and Close Encounters, Silent Running, and 1970s science fiction in general), produced by Gary Kurtz (Star War, Empire Strikes Back, and Dark Crystal). It is achingly earnest, to the point of being overly self-serious. Johnson’s thinly fictionalized self is also a walking face-palm, who often makes the film an excruciating viewing experience. The ample examples of Johnson’s half-baked DIY filmmaking ingenuity also get to be a bit too cute.

Nanny, Produced by Blumhouse

Aisha is not like Alice in The Brady Bunch. She doesn’t feel like one of the family. However, Rose, her little charge, took to her immediately and her often-absent hipster father isn’t so bad either. Aisha can even handle Rose’s neurotic mom Amy. Instead, the real danger might be coming from her homeland in Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, produced by Blumhouse, which opens Wednesday in New York.

Aisha is an illegal immigrant, because of course she is. Modern filmmakers are conditioning audiences to automatically assume immigrants like Aisha must be here illegally. Supposedly, Rose is a fussy eater with behavioral issues, but she rarely gives Aisha trouble. Instead, Amy is a real pain, who often “forgets” to pay Aisha. Presumably, Adam “fetishizes” the Third World subjects he shoots as a photo-journalist, but he generally tries to be an “ally.”

Regardless, Aisha has bigger problems, like the son in Senegal she only sees over whatsapp. Initially, her guilt seems to be metastasizing into nightmares and brief hallucinations, but the dreams and visions are growing steadily more severe and macabre. Yet, Aisha just keeps shaking them off.

That gets to the real problem of
Nanny, which is billed as an elevated horror film. You can only watch so many nightmares that end when the dreamer wakes before an ostensive horror film becomes a drama about sleep disorder. There are some intriguing references to the traditional spirits of Senegal, but Jusu devotes far more time to the dysfunctional dynamics of Rose’s family—and we’ve seen that all before.

The Golem of Venice Beach, Graphic Novel

Venice, CA has a huge homeless problem, even more so than the rest of Los Angeles, which is saying something. Not so surprisingly, it is partially its own fault, since local zoning and regulation has made it impossible to build a single new unit of housing since 2007. That means there are plenty of homeless camps where you might find strange and unsavory types. The Golem definitely counts as strange, but he does not look so glaringly out of place in the home of Muscle Beach. He now goes by the name “Adam” and his personality has evolved, but he is still a product of his Kabbalistic origins in Chanan Beizer’s graphic novel The Golem of Venice Beach, mostly illustrated by Vanessa Cardinali, which goes on-sale today.

Jake is descended from the line of the original Prague rabbi whose blood first animated Adam, so the Golem is sworn to protect him and his last living relative—a Holocaust survivor from the old country (in the 1950s, Venice was home to many survivors, because of their cheap rents). Adam already saved Jake once during childhood, but the moody slacker still carries guilt from the incident.

Adam is keenly aware of man’s inhumanity by now, so he only intends to act exclusively when the Rabbi’s bloodline is in jeopardy. That rather annoys Jake, who wants Adam to save his new girlfriend, who is forced to preside over Santa Muerte ceremonies to protect a brutal Venice drug gang. Frankly, she is one of the graphic novel’s most intriguing characters, because she is part damsel-in-distress and part femme fatale. The exact ration is yet to be determined in part one.

That means there is a part two yet to come. As a result, part one ends without a whole lot of resolution. There is a little, but not much. On the other hand, the mix of visuals styles is distinctive. Particularly notable is the renowned comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who contributed the cover and the Prague-set prologue. Cardinali handles most of the contemporary story, in a slightly cartoony style, but evokes the funkiness of Venice.

Monday, November 21, 2022

MEAD, on DVD

MEAD is a lot like HAL 9000, but cuter and with a conscience. That is a strange thing to say about a character who originated in underground comix, but Kitchen Sink Press actually published a lot interesting titles (including Xenozoic Tales and Will Eisner’s The Spirit). Regardless, his reluctance to kill people is what forces him to turn renegade in J. Allen Williams’ MEAD, which releases tomorrow on DVD/BluRay.

At this point, it is just MEAD and Friz, his human operator/companion, at-large in the universe. They had his creator Tam in common, but when they had to make a break for it, the evil Admiral Gillette killed her during their escape attempt. After that, Friz became a pirate, navigating the toy-looking starship MEAD is paired to. However, they really need to find some dark matter to properly power-up. Instead, they rescue Phoebe from the bounty hunters that came looking for them.

AIs like MEAD have the extraordinarily dangerous ability to create illusions in the minds of the crews pursuing them. Inconveniently, Gillette has the prototype helmet that counteracts MEAD’s illusions. However, his leadership skills under combat conditions are rather lacking. Bellowing threats at people is not very effective when they see a gigantic version of the beloved robot toy Timmy the Wonderbot lumbering towards them, like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

If
MEAD had been released in its current version thirty years ago, it would have been hailed as a game-changing integration of live-action with CGI animation. Today, it is just sort of interesting looking. The story is just okay too, even though it was adapted by Jan Strnad from his original story, “To Meet the Faces You Meet,” which was published in the Kitchen Sink anthology Fever Dreams.

The Bermuda Triangle, on History Channel: The Challenger Discovery


When genre fans hear “Bermuda triangle,” we want to think ghost pirates. However, you have to treat the wrecks within that treacherous area of water with respect, because people died there, including U.S. military service personnel. The crew of History Channel’s new Bermuda Triangle expedition series made news before it aired with their discovery of a significant section of the Challenger space shuttle, the largest recovered since the mid-1990s. Logically, The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters starts with that news-making find, when the first episode premieres tomorrow.

In terms of tone,
Into Cursed Waters is less like In Search of… and more akin to the excellent documentary To What Remains. At the beginning of the episode, the team led by Mike Barnette is actually looking for the U.S. Navy’s Martin PBM Mariner rescue plane, which was lost on December 5, 1945, somewhere in the Bermuda triangle. Ironically, the Martin Mariner was searching for the five planes of “Flight 19,” a training mission that was also lost after flying in the Bermuda Triangle that fateful day.

Barnette’s investigators identify two potential sites for the team to dive. Technically, one is a bit outside the Triangle area. It turns out what they found there did not look like a traditional aircraft. Eventually, they take their findings directly to NASA, who immediately recognize the wreck for what it is.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, on PBS

Maybe Cousin Matthew’s untimely death was part of King Tut’s curse. Remember, Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl of Carnarvon, the fifth Earl being the one who funded Howard Carter’s search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He almost pulled the plug, but Carter convinced him to bankroll one more fateful season. Of course, Egyptian Egyptologists Dr. Yasmin El Shazly and Mahmoud Rashad are way too responsible to talk about curses. (That’s my job.) However, they are fascinated by the young pharaoh’s death and the suspects who might have done him in throughout the two-part Tutankhamun: Allies & Enemies, which premiere back-to-back Wednesday night on PBS.

It is the 100
th anniversary of Carter’s discovery, so there will be a good deal of books and programming coming to mark the occasion this month. Everyone knows the boy king died young, but El Shazly and Rashad do a nice job explaining his place in his era. Even though Tut had little time to do anything important himself, his reign was still crucially important, because it represented a transition from his father Akhenaten’s monotheistic embrace of the god Aten to his grandfather-successor Ay’s restoration of the polytheism advocated by Egypt’s powerful priest class.

Throughout the program, Ay and his successor, the powerful general Horemheb (sort of like Tut’s Gurney Halleck), are identified as the two prime suspects in the boy pharaoh’s convenient death. El Shazly and Rashad talk to numerous colleagues on all sides of the issue. Ironically, this might be the most “fair and balanced” exploration of a historical controversy you will see on PBS all year. Eventually, the hosts try to come to some sort of conclusion, but they are not dogmatic in their arguments.