Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Phantom of the Open, a Different Kind of Cinderella Story

Maurice Flitcroft wanted to be the real-life version of Kevin Costner’s “Tin Cup,” but he just never played the game very well. Nevertheless, his record-setting high-score at the 1976 British Open made him something of a cult hero to frustrated duffers everywhere. After that, the British Open was very much done with Flitcroft, but Flitcroft was not done with them. His unlikely career gets the underdog movie treatment in Craig Roberts’ The Phantom of the Open, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Having always provided for his wife Jean, their twin sons Gene and James, and his older step-son Michael, Maurice is not sure what he wants to do with himself as retirement approaches for the working-class crane operator. Somehow, he gets it into his head golf will be his thing. He has the ugly clothes, but his swing is even uglier.

Naturally, he figures he will enter the British Open, because it looks like a nice tournament on the telly and because he can. That is why it is called an “Open.” It turns out there is a lot less paperwork to enter as a professional rather than an amateur, so that is what he does. Stodgy Keith Mackenzie of the R&A is scandalized by Flitcroft record high score, so he bans him from future tournaments. However, loyal Jean encourages Flitcroft to persevere, so he starts devising ways to enter subsequent Opens under assumed names.

Without question,
Phantom is most entertaining when it revels in the subversive farce of Flitcroft’s Open capers. His disguise as French golfer “Gerald Hoppy” is a sequence worthy of Peter Sellars. (It even comes with a Clouseau moustache.) However, Roberts somewhat loses his way, indulging in some painfully maudlin family melodrama during the third act. Flitcroft was born to burst pretensions, rather than be elevated to some kind of tragic hero.

Monday, May 30, 2022

RRR, The Telugu Smash is Back

It is one of the highest grossing Indian films of all-time and it was partly shot in Ukraine, but apparently that didn’t mean much to the government of the “world’s largest democracy” when Putin invaded. After all, shooting had already wrapped, on a picture that ironically protests the brutality of British imperialism. In this action epic, the British probably lose more soldiers than they did at Bunker Hill. Such an incident would have surely led to a parliamentary inquiry, especially since a regional governor precipitated the whole mess by abducting a young girl. That just isn’t cricket, you know? Two legendary early Twentieth Century revolutionaries form a fictional friendship and team-up against the British in S.S. Rajaouli’s RRR (a.k.a. Rise Roar Revolt), which has a special one-day return to American theaters this Wednesday.

Governor Scott Buxton and his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Catherine happened to hear a young Gond singer during their trip to Telangana, so they just figured they’d take her with them as a souvenir. As the “shepherd” of the tribe, it is Komaram Bheem’s sworn duty to find her and safely bring her back. To do so, he naturally falls in with Delhi’s revolutionary circles. Unfortunately, his brother comes to the attention of A. Rama Raju (better known as Alluri Sitarama Raju), who was then a hard-charging Indian officer, but secretly harbored revolutionary ambitions.

While chasing Bheem’s brother, Raju stops to rescue an endangered street urchin, with the oblivious help of Bheem himself. Being men of action, a fast-friendship blossoms between them, but when Bheem launches his rescue operation, it forces Raju to make a series of soul-searching decisions.

Despite the patriotic themes (critics would call
RRR jingoistic if it were made in America), the reason it traveled so well outside of the subcontinent is the off-the-wall action. The sequences involving CGI-animals might even be a little too off-the-wall, but perhaps they look better on a more spacious big screen. Still, our introduction to Raju is quite a barn-burner and incidentally also a good lesson in crowd control. Arguably, the whole thing morphs into a super-hero movie during the climax, when they become invested with the powers of Lord Rama, but it certainly makes for some wild spectacle.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Julia (Child) on CNN

You have to appreciate a celebrity chef who acknowledges the five-second rule. Julia Child wasn’t above brushing off a little dirt from kitchen mishaps, which was one of the reasons she was so fun to watch. For years, she was also the original and only really notable TV chef. If she were alive today, she would probably have her own streaming channel, but the magnitude of her success in her time was still no can of corn. Julie Cohen & Betsy West chronicle Child’s life and career in the documentary Julia, which airs tomorrow on CNN.

Before she served dinner, Child served her country as a staffer for the OSS, Wild Bill Donovan’s forerunner agency to the CIA. Her family insists she never did any spycraft, but that still seems like a good idea for a fictional thriller. Regardless, she met her future husband, Paul Cushing Child, when they were both posted to Ceylon. Eventually, his career in the Foreign Service brought them to France, where she met Simone Beck and started collaborating on
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, an unusually detailed cookbook, intended for American readers.

Public television was pretty grim in the early 1960s, but WGBH viewers appreciated how she livened up a book review program, by demonstrating the proper technique for making an omelet. As a result, they took a chance on a show of her own,
The French Chef. The best part of the doc gives a behind-the-scenes view of its early, by-the-seat-of-its pants years. The production process might have been an adventure, but the show was an immediate hit.

Everyone gives Child credit for making PBS watchable, yet Public Broadcasting thought it was time to put her out to pasture in the early 1980s, so she signed with
Good Morning America instead. It is clear throughout Julia that Child was a shrewd capitalist. However, Cohen & West (whose RBG celebrated Justice Ginsburg for having a kneejerk political record on the bench, rather than a coherent judicial philosophy) do their best to transform Child into a divisive figure, by celebrating her liberal activism.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Tormented Souls

This provincial Austro-Hungarian-era Czech town could relate to a lot of college campuses today. Anti-Semitism is rife, often manifesting in “blood libels.” Consequentially, when a bullying officer is murdered, the local authorities are only too eager to arrest a Jewish man for the crime. However, Superintendent Albert Mondl from Vienna is more concerned with evidence in Jiri Svoboda’s Czech TV-produced Tormented Souls (a.k.a. A Soul to Redeem), which airs on the Euro Channel.

Four years ago, the “heroic” colonel nearly ran over Kacov’s son. When the accused protested, the drunken officer gave him a lashing that left visible scars. Inconveniently, Kacov’s happens to be a kosher butcher, so when someone slashes the Colonel’s throat, the local police automatically arrest Kacov.

Of course, as soon as Mondl arrives, he can tell they have no case. The killer made a messy job of it, unlike a professional butcher’s work. Nobody likes it, but Mondl releases Kacov and proceeds to run a real investigation. However, his attention is diverted by Lea Stein, a gifted violinist, who remains deeply traumatized by her mother’s supposed suicide.

is an effective portrayal of early Twentieth Century anti-Semitism and an intriguing character study of the principled Mondl. However, screenwriter Vladimir Korner fails to develop the potentially creepy revelation that all three victims were involved in an ambiguously satanic secret society. Instead, it rushes to a forced and unsatisfying conclusion.

Friday, May 27, 2022

There are No Saints, Written by Paul Schrader

The Jesuits aren’t what they used to be. These days, they are largely aligned with Liberation Theology. Neto Niente’s nickname “The Jesuit” refers to their hard-charging Seventeenth Century glory years. The gang enforcer could definitely get Medieval on his targets, but he has been cooling his heels in prison for years. When he finally gets released, there’s sure to be Hell to pay in Alfonso Pined Ulloa’s There are No Saints, written by Paul Schrader, which opens today in New York.

Ironically, Niente did not commit the murder he was convicted of, so when the cop who planted the evidence recanted on his deathbed, his lawyer, Carl Abrahams had him released, free and clear. Of course, there are plenty of angry cops who still want a piece of him. Niente would clear out, but he is worried about his son, Julio. His wife Nadia has since married gun-running gangster Vincent Rice, to help provide him a respectable cover. Even though it is not a real marriage, Rice is still abusive—and lethally jealous when Nadia and the Jesuit have an assignation for old times’ sake.

After Rice murders Nadia, abducts Julio, and tries to kill Niente, but the Jesuit is more resourceful than he anticipates. As we fully expect, Niente will chase Rice down into Mexico, leaving a trail of dead associates in his wake. However, Schrader’s grungy payback script is darker than you would expect. Arguably, this is a familiar template for him. Basically, he does for the border town milieu what
Hardcore did for the underground LA porn scene and The Yakuza did for the Japanese underworld. Yet, it still works okay, in an unfussy, down-and-dirty kind of way.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Theodore Roosevelt, in the Epoch Times

History Channel's THEODORE ROOSEVELT is largely even-handed in its appraisal of the man and his domestic policy, but it largely ignores foreign policy. Isn't that just like the media? EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Stealing Rodin, on OVID.tv

It wasn't exactly a caper that would impress Raffles. In 2005, a thief basically walked out of Santiago’s Palace of Fine Arts with a Rodin sculpture on loan from Paris. It was a crime of opportunity and according to the perpetrator, a work of performance art. Somehow, almost all the talking heads sort of buy that in Cristobal Valenzuela Berrios’s documentary, Stealing Rodin, which premieres Friday on OVID.tv.

Luis Emilio Onfray Fabres just happened to walk out of the museum with Rodin’s
Torso of Adele, during a reception, because nobody stopped him. To be fair, he returned it in less than a day. Apparently, he was quite taken aback by the resulting media furor and the potentially dire consequences for Chile’s standing with major international art museums. The whole point was to get people to appreciate it, in-a-heart-grows-fonder kind of way. Indeed, several commentators compare his Rodin theft to that of the Mona Lisa, which made the Da Vinci painting’s legend.

It is true attendance for the Rodin exhibit subsequently sky-rocketed. However, the film focuses solely on “L.E.O.F.’s” justifications. Nobody bothers to ask if any museum guards were fired as a result of the theft or how much the Museum’s insurance premiums were increased. The heart definitely grows fonder for lost jobs and operating revenue.

Granted, art thieves have developed a bit of a romantic reputation in films and novels, but taking great works of art out of museums, where the public can see them, is not progressive. In many ways,
Stealing Rodin reflects what is wrong with contemporary documentaries and journalism in general. It focuses on its chosen “narrative” and never tracks the unintended consequences. (Honestly, we need more economists making docs.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Murder in the Cathedral, on OVID.tv

Here is an odd-sounding couple: T.S. Eliot, the unofficial poet laureate of conservatism and Father John Groser, a leader in the Anglican socialist movement. Yet, somehow, they came together to bring to the screen Eliot’s passion-like verse play depicting Archbishop Thomas Becket’s final days. It is not for mass-market tastes, but there are great insights to be found when George Hoellering’s long unavailable Murder in the Cathedral starts streaming this Thursday on OVID.tv.

Essentially, Becket’s dispute with Henry II boiled down to how much the Church could render unto Caesar while still maintaining its institutional integrity. Frankly, this is not an academic debate. One could argue the current Pope has conceded far more authority to the CCP in China than Becket could ever accept. He routinely pledged his loyalty to his King and country, but he steadfastly insisted nothing could supersede his vows to his God and Church.

Essentially, the film consists of Henry’s inquisition, Backet’s departure and return from exile, and his murder by four knights loyal to the King. That last part should not be a spoiler. Even if you do not know the history, you should know how the Peter O’Toole-Richard Burton film
Becket ended. (If you don’t, it’s a minor miracle you got past “Eliot’s verse play.”)

Hoellering’s approach to Eliot’s play is uncompromisingly faithful and rigorously Spartan, with extensive passages for choruses, either speaking in turn or in unison. Canterbury Cathedral looks cold and drafty, but also hallowed and holy. Arguably, this might be the most authentically medieval-looking film that does not wallow in the muck, mire, and pestilence.

In fact, the austerity of Hoellering’s vision is partly why it is so arresting. Indeed, the film reminds us that some of the most visually arresting films have had religious themes. In terms of look and tone,
Cathedral can easily sit next to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. The three films would make an inspired but exhausting triple feature.

It is demanding material, but it is never dry, thanks in large measure to Groser’s riveting performance. He carries the weight of the world with equal parts compassion and conviction. He certainly looks more like a saint in the making than Burton ever did. Eliot himself is perfectly cast as the voice the unseen fourth “Tempter,” who tries to appeal to Becket’s vanity with the glory of martyrdom. (Viewers should also be on the lookout for Leo McKern, the future Rumpole, who plays the Third murderous Knight.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ti West’s X, on DVD

This is one of the few horror movies that makes Airbnb look like a good idea, because it leaves behind a digital paper-trail, should guests disappear. It also makes a good case for voting Libertarian, so a libertine, aspiring dirty-movie king like Wayne Gilroy wouldn’t have to shoot his skin flick in East Jesus, Texas, for reasons of economics and regulations. Alas, his hosts will be keenly interested in what he and his cast get up to in Ti West’s X, which releases today on DVD.

Maxine Minx is convinced she is a star and Gilroy’s
Farmer’s Daughter will be the vehicle to launch her career. They will be filming in Howard and Pearl's rustic guest house, because it is so out-of-the-way. The script is exactly what you think it is, but Gilroy hired director-cameraman RJ Nichols to make it look better than the competition. Inevitably, there will be dissension in the group, making them easy pickings for Pearl, a horny old prune, who resents the casts youthfulness and erotic gratification. Alas, her loyal husband Howard can no longer satisfy her, but he can her dump bodies in the pond, for the alligator to feast on.

Yes, Ti West goes there, over and over. Obviously, there is a fair amount of sex, but it really portrays sex-addiction and -obsession as lethally destructive forces. The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence is hard to miss, but the addition of the alligator leads to some of the film’s best scenes. West uses some striking overhead shots to tease viewers with its potential menace.

Despite the televangelist who appears to preach non-stop on local television 24-7-365,
X does not play the card demonizing fundamentalist Christianity the way viewers might expect, at least not yet (the promised prequel could be a different story). Frankly, the first half is surprisingly restrained, but West skillfully builds the tension.

West is the sort of filmmaker who seems to run hot (
In the Valley of Violence, The Sacrament, The Innkeepers) and cold (House of the Devil, The ABC’s of Death). Somehow, X manages to be half-and-half. Its richly textured 1970s tackiness nicely celebrates the history and style of early slashers. However, the smarminess of Pearl’s sexual jealousy gets tiresome. It is the kind of thing that gets a ruckus response at a midnight screening, but quickly loses its novelty during the course of a home viewing.

Still, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi have the right genre-appropriate attitude and energy, as Minx’s co-stars, Bobby-Lynne and Jackson Hole. James Gaylyn is also all kinds of cool as the Sheriff stepping through the gore during the in media res opening. However, the detachment of Mia Goth’s Minx (partly drug-induced) makes her a hard presumed “final girl” to root for.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Don Lee in The Roundup

A cop like Ma Seok-do does not need to carry a gun, because just look at him. It is just as well, since he is not supposed to pack any heat while in Vietnam. According to local law, he is not supposed to be chasing any criminals there either, but the “Beast Cop” from The Outlaws is always going to do what he does best. A ruthless band of kidnappers preying on Korean tourists is about to feel some pain in Lee Sang-yong’s The Roundup (a.k.a. The Outlaws 2), which is now playing in New York.

While technically a sequel,
Roundup easily stands on its own. For fans of the previous film, it looks like Ma’s knees are holding up better now, but he is still just as huge. After taking down the Garibong-dong street gang, he has earned a bit of slack, even when his beat-downs make frontpage news. However, it might be convenient for the top brass to send him to Vietnam to escort a criminal who turned himself in at the consulate, while the controversy blows over.

Of course, Ma has to wonder why a crook would voluntarily surrender himself in a country without extradition. Fortunately, Ma has a knack for asking questions. It turns out the thug is hiding from Kang Hae-sang, the leader of a vicious abduction ring, who always killed his victims after receiving their ransom. His latest abductee was the son of a mobbed-up, usurious finance chairman, who did not take kindly to Kang’s methods. To find Kang, Ma can simply follow the dead bodies of mercs hired to kill him.

Once again, Don Lee (also billed as Ma Dong-seok) demonstrates massive screen charisma as Det. Ma. He is big, but he has a charming facility for humor—honestly, even more so than Schwarzenegger in his prime. Several times, Ma literally punches bad guys through walls and it always looks totally believable.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Dhaakad: a Hindi La Femme Nikita

Every few years, Hollywood gets proud of itself for releasing a woman-driven action movie like Atomic Blonde, pretending they just invented something revolutionary. Of course, it is nothing new or original to those of us who have been digging Michelle Yeoh and Angela Mao films for years. With this action heroine, maybe we can give Bollywood a few points for originality, but they still have to get the job done. Agent Agni always completes her mission, but the ride is a little rough in Razneesh Ghai’s Dhaakad, which is now playing in New York.

As a young girl, Agni’s parents were mysteriously assassinated, so she was adopted by her future handler in the super-secret, off-the-books Indian intelligence agency she now serves. Agni has been hot on the trail of a human trafficking ring led by Rudraveer, who rose up from the coal fields of Bhopal through a maybe not-so weird combination of class-warfare trade unionism, a cult of personality, and brute force. He also had the brains of Rohini, a madam turned master money-launderer.

Just when Agni though she had them cornered, her operation turns to coal dust (that’s a frequent metaphor in the film). As a result, she starts to suspect there is probably a mole informing Rudraveer. Yet, despite of her standoffish nature, Agni starts trusting her nebbish local contact, Fazal, and his wide-eyed little daughter Zaira. Of course, that gives Rudraveer a weakness to exploit.

The fight choreography in
Dhaakad is often spectacular and frequently surprisingly brutal. In fact, it is almost shocking how hard-edged the film is, even by American standards (and especially for Bollywood). On top of that, Agni’s wardrobe is some of Indian cinema’s most fetish-satisfying leatherware, since Sunny Leone made her Bollywood debut.

Be that as it may, Kangana Ranaut clearly trained like a demon to play Agni. Even though she must have had lots of help from stunt performers, it is still a gruelingly physical performance. Arjun Rampal is also huge on the screen and massively sinister as Rudraveer. In terms of size, he seems to hulk up somewhere between Godzilla and Salman Khan. However, Saswata Chatterjee is just too sleazy-acting for figure like the handler.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

HRWFF ’22: Eternal Spring

State media only airs propaganda favorable to the regime in power, because that is its only reason for being. However, for one brief night in 2002, the local CCP-controlled TV station in Changchun broadcasted some contrary points of view. They had been hacked. As a result, comic artist Daxiong was forced to leave China, even though he was not involved. He was a Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa) practitioner, just like the signal hijackers, so he faced similarly harsh reprisals. Understandably, he had rather mixed feelings about the “hijacking,” but he came to respect the hijackers’ motivations and sacrifices while designing the animation of Jason Loftus’ documentary Eternal Spring, which screens as part of the 2022 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

If the opening round-up scene were a live-action tracking shot rather than animation, it would have film geeks screaming comparisons to Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. It still will knock viewers’ socks off. Yet, it also serves an important function, illustrating the ruthlessness of the police crackdown following the broadcast signal intrusion.

In more traditionally filmed scenes, Daxiong meets with a handful of survivors now living abroad, for feedback on his rendering of the characters and the city of Changchun at that time.
Eternal Spring has garnered comparisons to Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, but the animation Daxiong designs is much more stylish and the true story Loftus helps tell is far more tense and gripping. Flee looked perfectly fine, but clearly the animation began and ended in a computer, whereas viewers can easily tell Eternal Spring started with Daxiong’s pen and paper.

There are several contemporary scenes featuring Daxiong and the survivors, but the overwhelming majority of the documentary animates the planning, execution, and aftermath of the signal intrusion. We come to care about the figures involved, especially the working-class trucker appropriately dubbed “Big Truck,” even though we know they will face unjust fates. Tellingly, the one event the doc only mentions in passing is the trial itself, because why bother? It held no suspense or uncertainty.

Friday, May 20, 2022

HRWFF ’22: Midwives

It isn't just the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs that Iran and other Mid East regimes deliberately overlook to cozy up to Xi’s China. They also ignore the genocidal crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military junta, whom the CCP has embraced. Life is nearly impossible for the Rohingya in their own country, even for Nyo Nyo. She has an apprenticeship with the Buddhist Hla, but their relationship is often quite strained, as Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing documents in Midwives, which screens as part of the 2022 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Rakhine state in Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is a powder keg. Racist mobs (sadly including some Buddhist monks) regularly march through the district condemning Muslims and those who protect them. Arguably, Hla and her husband are running a grave risk by employing Nyo Nyo, but they to can be cruel and dismissive towards her. Yet, she plays an essential role translating for Rohingya women, who can only seek treatment at Hla’s clinic, due to ethnic-based travel restrictions.

Listening to the virulence of the propaganda spewing on television broadcasts and during street demonstrations is bracingly eye-opening. If this were regularly reported on American nightly news broadcasts, Myanmar would be sanctioned back to the stone age. It also should lead viewers to reserve judgement on Hla, even though her behavior is sometimes troubling. On the other hand, it is easy to respect Nyo Nyo, who becomes increasingly enterprising as the film progresses. In defiance of Muslim teachings regarding interest-charging, she starts a neighborhood saving-and-loan coop to empower her fellow Rohingya women. Capitalism and freedom always go and grow together.

Mostly Hnin Ei Hlaing maintains a micro focus on the two midwives, but macro events regularly intrude on their lives. The film starts before the military coup, when things were already bad, but continues afterward, with everyone fearing for the worst. Yet, the doc makes great efforts to find cause for optimism, no matter how modest.

Now & Then, on Apple TV+

If you're a character who gets a lot of flashbacks, chances are you did some bad stuff in the past. Miami is flashback city for these five former high school friends. The word “friend” is overstating matters, but they definitely have some scandalous shared history that gets them blackmailed at the start of Ramon Campos, Teresa Fernandez-Valdes, and Gema R. Neira’s Now & Then, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Twenty years ago, entitled Alejandro died under complicated circumstances that will take eight episodes of flashbacks to fully illuminate. An unrelated motorist also met her demise that night. Whatever happened, five former friends got away with it—then. Now, on the eve of their twenty-year reunion, an unknown blackmailer is demanding $1,000,000 each. Again, they think they get away with it when the blackmailer is murdered, even though the money is still missing, but the subsequent investigation turns into agonizing water torture.

As fate would have it, Sgt. Flora Neruda, the rookie detective on the case twenty years ago is now a veteran handling the contemporary investigation. Of course, she immediately links the two inquiries. She generates a lot of uncomfortable heat, especially for Pedro Cruz, who is the Democrat candidate for Miami Dade mayor, running on a platform of immigration liberalization (even though it is a federal issue). Inconveniently, he borrowed his share of the ransom from his campaign funds, which is highly illegal.

Sofia Mendieta also had trouble raising the funds, so she stole it from her criminal associate Bernie. To evade his thugs, she foists herself on her old flame, Marcos Herrero, whose wealthy but controlling father “fixed” everything twenty years ago. However, her presence is a little off-putting to his fiancée Isabel, but she tries to be cool, until their carrying-on just gets too blatant.

is all kinds of lurid and super-slick. In some ways, it is a throwback to the trashy miniseries of the 1980s. Apple is billing it as a “bilingual” series, but it is largely divorced from the culture and certainly the politics of Miami’s Cuban, Venezuelan, and Brazilian communities. However, there is sex and betrayal by the cigar-boat-load, so nobody is going to be bored by it.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Night Sky, in the Epoch Times

It is character-driven science fiction that jealously guards its secrets. The character-driven part is nicely done. Epoch Times exclusive review of NIGHT SKY up here.

The Ipcress File, on AMC+

Harry Palmer did not jump out of airplanes with a Union Jack parachute and a bottle of champagne. He was a grittier, grubbier kind of spy. Not much for grandstanding and skeptical of authority, Palmer was a workaday, working-class agent. The new dramatization of Len Deighton’s first novel initially remembers who Palmer was, but than it forgets it. Unfortunately, most of the updating and liberties taken are mistakes in John Hodges adaptation of The Ipcress File, which premieres today on AMC+.

Initially, Harry Palmer is more like Harry Lime, managing an ambitious black-market operation throughout divided Berlin as a mere Corporal. Next comes the brig, but Major Dalby from an off-the-books intelligence agency offers him a furlough in exchange for contacting a target code-named “Housemartin.” Palmer once did business with the mercenary-smuggler. However, Housemartin has advanced to some pretty serious business, including allegedly kidnapping Prof. Radcliffe, a missing atomic scientist. So far, so Deighton.

Unfortunately, things change when Palmer and fellow agent Jean Courtney are to dispatched to the South Pacific, to observe a nuclear test that might be related to Dawson’s research. Here the plot radically diverges from the novel and the classic Michael Caine film. For one thing, the ultimate villain is no longer the original villain. Instead, he is just be played by Col. Stok, who was something like Le Carre’s “Karla” in later Harry Palmer novels. The Soviets are not really the baddies anymore, just impish rivals. Who are the bad guys now? Us, of course—the Americans trying to win the Cold War. How dare us.

This isn’t a complaint based on wounded national pride. Hodge loses thread of what
Ipcress is, turning it into a half-baked JFK assassination conspiracy thriller, with Palmer being set up as an Oswald-style patsy. We have seen far too many of these exploitative yarns. It also diverges from the elegant simplicity and mordant humor of the classic ending. Palmer belongs in a dark and dingy warehouse, not a big macro-geopolitical thriller that could pass for a cross between Oliver Stone’s JFK and Day of the Jackal.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022


If there is one thing we get from movies, if we use them as our counselors and therapists, it is getting out of the apartment is always a healthy part of the recovery process. Unfortunately, Cordelia Russell apparently hasn’t watched a lot of films, even though she is an actress. (She certainly hasn’t seen Repulsion.) Nevertheless, an upstairs neighbor tries to reach out for her, but his motives are a big question mark in Adrian Shergold’s Cordelia, which releases Friday in theaters and on-demand.

The withdrawn Russell is still suffering from acute post-traumatic stress, but somehow, she can still perform in a stage production of
King Lear (as her namesake, ironically). Fortunately, she lives with her identical twin Caroline, who handles most of the practical business of life. Then one afternoon, Frank Ryan, the professional cellist renting the flat above her, approaches Russell at a coffee shop.

It turns out he is attracted to Russell, but it is really probably Caroline who he probably saw on the streets. Regardless, he does his best to charm her, even convincing Russell to accompany him on the Metro, which brings back painful memories for her. However, as he continues to court the twin, things start to get weird.

Eventually, Shergold and co-screenwriter Antonia Campbell-Hughes (who also stars as both Russell sisters) try to raise all sorts of is-she-or-isn’t-she and is-he-or-isn’t-he doubts about the main characters. It is a mixed bag in terms of its effectiveness playing minds games, but it is a bit troubling to learn Russell is a survivor of the 7/7 terrorist attack. Using a very real tragedy like 9/11 or 7/7 is a risky proposition that can easily descend into exploitation.
Cordelia is not sleazy in the way it addresses the attack, but it is a bit jarring nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Found Footage Phenomenon, on Shudder

History students should appreciate found footage horror, because it is told entirely through supposed primary sources—as primary (and often primal) as it gets. It feels real, because it looks like it was recorded as it happened. Of course, the better ones require extensive planning and preparation, while the worst give the subgenre a bad name. Some of the leading filmmakers associated with the grungy style reflect on its meaning and development in Sarah Appleton & Phillip Escott’s The Found Footage Phenomenon, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

To their credit, nobody interviewed in
Phenomenon suggests found footage horror started with Blair Witch. Instead, they point to the epistolary style of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and Orson Welles in/famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. It is so Wellesian that he innovated a super-cheap and convincing method of story-telling, but left it to others to exploit it commercially. Some also point to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, but the Blair Witch Project and Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust were really the first films that had marketing campaigns designed to convince people what transpires on-screen happened for real.

Of course, everyone more or less concedes all the found footage films that followed
Blair Witch represent a wildly mixed bag. To often, they feature disturbing levels of violence. Filmmakers can justify it any way they like, but it doesn’t make the ultra-realistic-appearing brutality any easier to watch. That is why clever and inventive found footage, like the Paz Brothers’ JeruZalem and What We Do in the Shadows (both of which get their due) are so fun and different.

Appleton & Escott talk to just about everyone they should, including Deodato, Eduardo Sanchez (co-director of
Blair Witch), Doron and Yoav Paz, Patrick Brice (director of Creep), Rob Savage (Host), Steven DeGennaro (Found Footage 3D), and Oren Peli (of the Paranormal Activity franchise, probably still the reigning champion of the found footage box-office).

Monday, May 16, 2022

Vendetta, on Redbox

It is not that this is a great movie, but its time is now. Violent crime is way up and progressive DA’s increasingly refuse to prosecute criminals. Inevitably, we are going to see a bounty of vigilante films to supply the need cathartic justice. William Duncan represents a lot of frustrated fathers and family members, when the cops and the system fail him in screenwriter-director Jared Cohn’s Vendetta, which releases tomorrow through Redbox.

Danny Fetter is about to be initiated into his father’s crime syndicate, based in small town Eatonton, Georgia, by gunning down the daughter of William Duncan. She was actually a bad random selection, because her father picked up a lot of skills in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DA is willing to let Fetter plead to a weapons charge and a parole violation, since Duncan did not actually see him pull the trigger. He just tackled Fetter trying to escape.

Instead, Duncan bludgeons the killer to death with a baseball bat. Old man Donnie Fetter and his junkie son Rory think they should be the only ones getting away with murder, so they come after Duncan and his wife. Meanwhile, the super-helpful Detective Chen keeps lecturing Duncan on the need to keep the peace.

There is a reason why the original
Dirty Harry became a sensation when it first released and the sociopolitical circumstances are similar today. However, Dirty Harry was also an excellent film, which Vendetta is not. Yet, it is zeitgeisty, probably more than Cohn intended or realized, because it taps into deep, widely-held anxieties and frustrations.

In light of recent news, it is sad to see Bruce Willis portraying Donnie Fetter. Honestly, this isn’t the role his fans would probably choose for him go out on. (Again,
American Siege was not a great film either, but there is a poignancy to Willis’s performance that arguably redeems it.)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Visions of Okinawa: Terror of Yakuza

Being in a Yakuza clan is sort of like the licensing business. Your territories are everything. Seigou Kunigami thought his gang had their Okinawa territories sown up when they made a pact with their main rival. However, after the handover of Okinawa back to Japan, the so-called “Yamato” gangs assume they can expand their business there. Inevitably, gang war breaks out in Sadao Nakajima’s Terror of Yakuza (a.k.a. Okinawa Yakuza War) which screens during the Japan Society’s Visions of Okinawa film series.

Hideo Nakazato went to prison for killing to secure the gang’s prominence. Now that he is out, he just wants to make some money. However, he finds his old comrade Kunigami, the clan leader in his absence, is spoiling for a fight, especially with the Japanese, but also with their more accommodating rivals. His temper is so violently unstable, the various clan leaders might be wiling to make Nakazato a deal. He also might have two new recruits, islanders like Nakazato, who would be perfect for the dirty work.

Nakajima shot
Terror on the streets of Okinawa City, at a time when much of the local industry either supported the U.S. military base or catered to their vices. It is easy to imagine Manila looked a lot like this during the early wild and wooly Marcos years. This distinctive backdrop adds something extra to the Yakuza beatdowns, but it still has the classic genre elements fans enjoy, like a massively funky soundtrack and Sonny Chiba at his most ferocious, as Kunigami.

Technically, the ultra-steely Hiroki Matsukata is the star, hard-staring his way through the picture as grizzled Nakazato. Yet, Chiba is so crazy jumping on tables and literally tearing up the town, he still imprints his brand all over
Terror—even though Matsuka is still really terrific, in the lead. This is definitely a testosterone-driven film, with men often behaving quite horribly, but Emi Shindo adds a note of tragic grace as Nakazato’s long-suffering wife, Terumi.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Sound of Freedom, Adapted from Skvorecky

In his youth, Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky was an ardent jazz musician, but playing music from America was a dangerous proposition. However, when bassist Herbert Ward temporarily defected, Skvorecky and his bandmates capitalized (so to speak) on Ward’s “anti-imperialist” credentials to openly play their music. James Bulwer is transparently based on Ward, but Danny Smiricky’s friends will not enjoy much protection from their association with him in Andrea Sedlackova’s The Sound of Freedom, based on Skvorecky’s “Little Mata Hari of Prague,” which airs on the Euro Channel.

Of his band, Smiricky was always the least interested in politics. Nevertheless, he always carried guilt over the misfortunes suffered by his bandmates and their social circle. Frankly, he never really understood why he was spared the worst of it, because guilt and innocence were meaningless under Communism. He might have an opportunity to discover why, when Kunovsky, a former secret policeman, offers to sell him his long-lost file.

Back then (predating the Prague Spring), Smiricky just wanted to play and maybe pursue a relationship with Geraldine Brandejsova. She would be bad news anyway, since her mother is British. To make matters worse, Brandejsova has a friend in the American embassy, for whom she acts as a go-between with an activist priest. Kunovsky and his slimy boss have been assigned to build a case against Smiricky’s band. Unfortunately, their vocalist Marcela Razumowska is the obvious weak point for them to pressure. She tries to protect her friends, even breaking up with Richard Kambala, the trombonist-leader, but the life of her imprisoned brother depends on her providing incriminating evidence.

Sound of Freedom was produced for Czech television, it is remarkably mature and achingly tragic. It also has a nice swing-era-appropriate soundtrack that includes a number of arrangements by the great Emil Viklicky. There is also a laughably strident propaganda blues for Bulwer, very much like those Ward warbled, while backed by Skvorecky.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

It is almost unfair. A lot of musicians who never play jazz (maybe because it is a demanding art form that never pays as well as pop), are keen to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, because it is a great time, with delicious food. Of course, NOLA is always welcoming, so consequently many of the biggest names in a wide array of musical styles have performed at the festival. Many of those appreciative artists pay tribute to the annual institution in Frank Marshall & Ryan Suffern’s documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Marshall & Suffern do not exactly present a history of the festival, because they only cover a handful of significant events from Jazz Fest’s past, logically starting with its creation. George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, was approached to start something similar in New Orleans, but he begged off until segregation officially ended in southern states. Logically, Louis Armstrong played the inaugural fest, but we see little footage of him at the Fest. Frustratingly, there is even less of the rest of NOLA’s Holy Trinity of musicians: Fats Domino and Al Hirt.

At least one undisputed New Orleans legend gets her just due from Marshall & Suffern. That would be Irma Thomas, who we hear rocking “Jock-o-mo.” (The credits misidentify it as “Iko Iko,” which is a sore point for the composer’s son, Davell Crawford, whom the audience also gets to hear from musically and more extensively in interview segments regarding Katrina.)

It is quite impressive that Katrina did not derail Jazz Fest. In fact, it provides some of the documentary’s most uplifting moments. Yet, perhaps tellingly, Covid did—for two years. Throughout it all, Festival Director Quint Davis was there, so he provides plenty of commentary and reminiscences.

Marshall & Suffern keep the film moving along and well-stocked with famous names. Most viewers probably aren’t looking to a Jazz Fest doc to hear Pitbull or Jimmy Buffet, even though the latter’s long association with the festival and the city of New Orleans justifies his inclusion. Frankly, Marshall & Suffern’s a-little-of-this-a-little-of-that cafeteria approach works best when presenting fresh artists exploring under-represented genres, like the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers, who do just that, in an infectiously musical way.

The Essex Serpent, on Apple TV+

Cora Seabourne is finally acting on her ambition to become a renowned paleontologist, or maybe rather a cryptozoologist. Up until recently, she has only been a case study in the folly of the Victorian era’s restrictive gender roles and arranged marriages. However, she is about to celebrate her new-found freedom by investigating reports of a sea creature in Apple TV+’s six-episode The Essex Serpent, adapted by Anna Symon from Sarah Perry’s novel.

In addition to being an early feminist, Seabourne is also ahead of her time refusing extraordinary measures to save her dying husband. Frankly, in his case, she arguably rebuffed some rather ordinary measures as well. Regardless, she is now rich and single, which certainly interests her abusive late husband’s physician, Dr. Luke Garrett. In fact, he even follows her to Essex where Seabourne is holidaying, to investigate the local sea monster, blamed for a series of woes that have befallen the community.

Naturally, Seabourne hopes to discover some sort of cryptid. However, the local vicar, Will Ransome, assumes it is some form of mass hysteria, like the Salem witchcraft paranoia. It would indeed appear the vicar is the only voice of reason in town, but the other pastor, not so much. Inevitably, Seabourne’s insensitivity rubs the locals the wrong way. She also conveniently refuses to notice the torch-carrying of both Dr. Garrett and her Marxist maid, Martha. However, she is keenly aware of the scandalous romantic tension building between her and the married Ransome.

Symon’s adaptation is frustrating for many reasons. First and foremost, it isn’t even sufficiently interested in the titular Essex Serpent to treat it with any sort of suspenseful ambiguity. Instead, it is simply used as a crude, didactic metaphor. Even still, there is no real resolution regarding the villagers’ curse-like misfortunes they attribute to it.

Indeed, after spinning its wheels over several episodes worth of over-heated melodrama, the series just ends with a hum-drum thud. It doesn’t pay off and the trip getting there is not particularly interesting.

Yet, Tim Hiddleston is still quite compelling as the conflicted and guilt-wracked Ransome. Ironically, his performance probably still counts as one of the more sympathetic clergy characters recently seen in streaming series, sort of like a chaste version of Richard Chamberlain in
The Thorn Birds.

Firestarter, Remade by Blumhouse

Arguably, it is more of a thriller with sf elements than a horror story, but the premise is pretty horrifying for parents. Charlie McGee did not just inherit a resemblance to her parents. She also has their “shine.” That was the whole idea for the shadowy government contractor DSI (aren’t they always shadowy), when they experimented on Andy McGee and his wife Vicky Tomlinson-McGee. Little Charlie’s resulting powers are getting harder for her to keep in check at the start of Keith Thomas’s Blumhouse-produced remake of Firestarter, which opens today (and starts streaming on Peacock).

The McGees know their daughter could be so dangerously powerful, she could never have a normal life if DSI and the “deep state” ever got their hands on her. They live under assumed names and completely off the net, but bullied Charlie is starting to attract unwanted attention, especially when her temper ignites real fires.

Captain Hollister knows she is still out there and suspects the potential of her developing X-Men-like abilities. Hollister also has just the man to track down the McGees. John Rainbird understands them all too well. He too has the power to get inside people’s heads, perhaps even better than Tomlinson-McGee and can withstand McGee’s power to “push” mental images and suggestions, at least to an extent. Unfortunately, that “pushing” is starting to take a toll on McGee’s health.

Scott Teems’ screenplay adaptation of Stephen King’s novel very much follows the structure of the 1984 film, which was pretty faithful to the book. It definitely leans into the father-daughter relationship, because that is the whole point of the story (in all its incarnations). However, the family-versus-agents conflict is familiar, to the point of staleness. Horror fans might know John Carpenter was originally in-line to direct the ’84 film, but he lost the gig when
The Thing bombed (hard to believe, since it’s now regarded as a classic). Sadly, Blumhouse did not hire him to direct this time around, but he did contribute to the score. You can probably best hear his influence during the tense, confrontational third act.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Foxhole, 5 Soldiers, 3 Wars

The hardware and uniforms change, but the fog of war remains. This film also suggests the young people asks to fight wars are in many ways quite similar—identical in fact. The same cast plays out life-and-death encounters from the Civil War, WWI and Iraq Wars during Jack Fessenden’s Foxhole, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jackson is a Buffalo Soldier who basically crashed a small Union company’s foxhole, after a Confederate officer wounded him, perhaps mortally. Conrad and old grizzled Wilson believe some of the men should carry him to the distant field hospital, but Clark (presumably hailing from border state hill country) argues Jackson would probably die on the journey and the medics maybe wouldn’t take him anyway.

There is a similar ethical dilemma for the company when then film advances to WWI. They have captured a German soldier in their trench at an inconvenient time, so their sergeant wants to kill him and be done with it. Again, Wilson objects and so does Jackson, a soldier from a black regiment, who is somewhat more readily accepted by the white doughboys.

Easily, the best of the three stories is the conclusion in Iraq—but at least a country mile. By now, Jackson is the leader of the squad. There is no internal dissension within the group and they will face no ethical dilemmas. Instead, they will merely try to survive, without leaving any men behind (including Gale, a new addition to the platoon), when they are separated from their convoy and ambushed by insurgents with an RPG launcher.

Of the three installments, the dialogue of the Iraq section sounds the most like the military talk I’ve heard (from family). It also forgoes the anti-war moralizing, instead portraying the courage and camaraderie of the U.S. military. It actually makes
Foxhole more effective as anti-war critique, because it shows two sides to the combat experience (and the dangers and difficulties they entail), while inviting sympathy for the men and women in uniform.

It is also the tensest and most skillfully executed. In this case, the definition of foxhole is expanded to include the Humvee the soldiers are dug into. Fessenden (son of Larry, on-board as a producer) uses the blinding sand to narrow the audience’s field of vision, creating an uneasy feeling that a fatal shot could come from anywhere, at any time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Monstrous, Starring Christina Ricci

Horror movies hate the 1950s. It was a time of stability and economic growth. What a nightmare. Thank goodness the last few years have been nothing like that. Unfortunately, that is the decade Laura Butler is living in, or at least a stylized version of it. The going was already tough for her, after she left her abusive husband, with their withdrawn son, Cody. Then she starts to suspect a mysterious supernatural something is out to get her son in Chris Sivertson’s Monstrous, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

It is supposed to be the 1950s, but there is something too conspicuously off for viewers to accept the world as it is presented. Butler’s sun dresses are a little too perfect and her forced cheer is a little too desperate. In the aftermath of her husband’s latest violent episode, Butler fled with Cody, starting over in a vaguely Southern small town. Somehow, she lined up a new job, new house, and a new school with remarkable efficiency. Their rental is even furnished, but one of the books on the shelf looks like
Inflation: A Worldwide Disaster, by Irving Friedman, published in the early 1970s. Don’t blame the art department for that. Blame Sivertson, who let my attention wander.

Initially, Cody was terrified of lady-creature in the nearby lake, but soon he is talking to her like an old imaginary friend.
 Logically, that starts to terrify Butler. As Cody becomes even more anti-social, she become increasingly distraught.

Honestly, it gets tiresome to always be so far ahead of a film.
Monstrous largely feels like parts of Miss Meadows re-edited into Jacob’s Ladder (and Miss Meadows wasn’t so great to begin with). These days it is streaming series like Severance and Shining Girls that deliver genuine surprises, while far too many films merely recycle elements.

Operation Mincemeat, on Netflix

Actor M.E. Clifton James helped pull off one of the most famous deceptions of WWII, by serving as Gen. Montgomery’s double. Glyndwr Michael was at the center of an even more audacious counter-intelligence operation, but he was already dead at the time. For the sake of all the young servicemen slated for the invasion of Sicily, the officers and staff at the British Admiralty’s intelligence division launch a desperate mission to convince German the landing will come in Greece. Their efforts are chronicled in John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, which premieres today on Netflix.

The film starts at zero-hour, when the Mincemeat staff can do nothing more but prey, which they solemnly do. It is actually one of the most effective and powerful in media res film openings in recent years. A few short months earlier, Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu and Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondely were assigned to Operation Mincemeat, designed to plant false intelligence to draw Hitler’s forces away from Sicily. Although their commanding officer, Rear Admiral John Godfrey was skeptical, they were convinced they needed to tie their fabricated intel to an actual body, for the Germans to ever believe it. Godfrey’s aide, Ian Fleming happened to agree with them and ultimately so did Churchill.

Although the historically-based characters are rarely directly in harm’s way from the Axis, there is the tension of a ticking clock driving the narrative. It is also surprisingly compelling to watch the two officers and their civilian assistants become emotionally involved in the fictitious lives they create for the invented “Maj. William Martin” and his faithful girlfriend, like authors developing feelings for their fictional characters.

Despite the cerebral nature of the story, Madden builds a good deal of suspense. Ironically, a lot of it
comes from the number of Spanish officials who tried to act in good conscience, in accordance with their ostensive neutrality. It took a lot of sly machinations on the part of the local British consul (nicely played by Alex Jennings) to appeal to their fascist inclinations.

On the other hand, there is a distracting minor subplot ginning up paranoia over suspicion Montagu’s brother Ivor was a Soviet spy, which he was indeed, but apparently only briefly and with little tangible results. The portrayal of Churchill is a bit of a caricature, but it also shows that he was nobody’s fool. However, the film does a great job conveying tactics, strategy, and the general wartime environment.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Taste of Blood, Based on Tolstoy’s Vourdalak

A.K. Tolstoy (second cousin of Leo) could have been one of the great horror writers of his era, but when The Vampire bombed, he held off publishing the next three supernatural stories he had lined up. Eventually, Family of the Vourdalak became a minor classic that horror fans well-remember as one of the tales adapted in Mario Bava’s anthology film, Black Sabbath. Now, the Eastern European vampire is transplanted to Argentina in Santiago Fernangez Calvete’s A Taste of Blood, which releases today on VOD.

Natalia always chafed under the controlling thumb of her father Aguirre, but she is about to discover why he is so strict. One night, she sneaks out to meet her boyfriend Alexis (who really isn’t such a bad chap), but instead, she encounters a stranger who claims to be a distant relative. Then he tries to kill her. Fortunately, Alexis safely sees her home, where her father finally levels with the entire family.

Aguirre was adopted into a wealthy Slovenian émigré family, who had long been plagued by Vourdalaks. Essentially, the Eastern European vampires are like undead family annihilators, who particularly crave the blood of relatives and loved ones. Aguirre decides to hunt down the latest Vourdalak, giving strict instructions not be let back into the house before sunrise, because Vourdalaks cannot endure sunrise. Yet, he turns up like clockwork, right before dawn, demanding they open the doors, so he can crash.

is a great looking horror film, thanks to cinematographer Manuel Rebella’s striking use of light and darkness, but it sounds awful, because of the almost random mixture of English dubbing with subtitled Spanish. Entire conversations alternate between the two languages, for no reason, as far as viewers can tell.