Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sniper: The White Raven

Ukrainian Mykola Voronin went on the same journey as Ron Kovic, but in the reverse direction. He started out as a hippy, dovish ecology professor, before the brutality of the invading Russians turned him into the Ukrainian Sniper. Sadly, his pacificist principles did not deter Putin’s war criminals from their scorched earth tactics. Channeling his rage, Voronin reinvents himself into a warrior in Marian Bushan’s Sniper: The White Raven, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Voronin is a real-life figure and the events in this film are as real as it gets. Before the invasion, he and his wife moved to the Donbas region to live in the windmill-powered sustainable cottage he devised, where they also intended to raise their unborn baby. Then the Russians came. Only Voronin survived.

Given his bike-to-class lifestyle, Voronin was already reasonably fit, but he was completely untrained in modern war-fighting. However, his desire for revenge motivates him to learn quickly. Eventually, he volunteers for sniper training, developing a talent for it, but he still needs to work on the required patience.

After all the flag-waving Russian propaganda movies set during WWII several genre distributors embarrassingly proceeded to release during the early days Putin’s full-scale invasion, it is nice to see the Ukrainian perspective finally get some representation. (Make no mistake, Russians believe with a religious fervor that their victory in Great Patriotic War gives them the right to control and dictate life in Eastern Europe.) Yet, the psychological complexity of Pavlo Aldoshyn’s portrayal of Voronin will still appeal to New Yorkers who are put off by the faintest whiff of “jingoism,” (which only seems to apply to Western democracies).

In fact, everything about
White Raven is scrupulously realistic, especially the scenes of combat. They should look credible, because the large-scale sequences often feature active-duty Ukrainian military personnel as extras. Presumably, this is a story they could all relate to. Again, that makes sense, since Bushan co-wrote the screenplay with Voronin himself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Rubikon: A Science Fiction Lifeboat Film

When the world ends, it is apparently due to vaguely defined environmental causes, but our overreliance on artificial intelligence did not help. Consequently, three survivors in orbit must deal with some deadly serious issues of “life” and “choice” in Magdalena Lauritsch’s Rubikon, which opens Friday in New York.

Hannah Wagner is a soldier in one of the private corporate armies (this being a dystopian future) who has come to the Rubikon space station to appraise the progress of Dr. Dimitri Krylow’s experimental algae-based self-sustaining life support system and hopefully shuttle it back to Earth. Then, the big catastrophic event happens. At least the algae works as promised. It will do its job, keeping alive Krylow, Wagner, and Gavin Abbott, the entitled environmental-activist son of a high-ranking executive. However, Krylow’s system was optimized for six crew members and requires at least three to function, so they are all in this together.

Through fate and happenstance, this happens to be a very interesting film to see at this particular time. Choices the suicidal Abbott (temporarily banished to Rubikon) might make could directly impact Wagner and Krylow. Likewise, when they contact a pocket of survivors on Earth, it prompts another round of life-and-death decisions. It also forces viewers to confront class-based prejudices from both sides of the divide.

Frankly, the lifeboat-ethics presented in
Rubikon are so complex and intriguing, there is no way the children throwing tantrums on Twitter can deal with it. Throughout the film, it is clear characters’ choice involve severe externalities. It also dramatically depicts the law of unintended consequences. Thematically, it is a bit like George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, but it is exponentially smarter. Lauritsch’s story is not heavily-dependent on special effects, but the Space Station quarters and the shrouded Earth below look pretty credible.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone

Usually, you have to be born into a family of superheroes, like the Incredibles. Charlie Clark was unofficially adopted. They wanted to keep the superpower stuff away from the gringo, because he is a bit of a screw-up, but somehow it rubs off anyway. Now, they’ll have to work together to save their Nana, the world, and pretty much everything in Michael D. Olmos’s Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone, which releases today on VOD.

Eons ago, there were aliens, stargates, stones of power, and whatever. Cut to the chase, Nana is a keeper of the power stone and she invested her grandchildren Marco and Karina with its power. When Clark was a boy, Nana took him in, because his own family was a mess. Then one night, Nana protected him from her rogue sister, the Sauron figure after the stone. He assumed it was all a dream, but obviously it wasn’t.

He was also touched in the process. To save Nana, Marco and Karina need grown Clark to awaken his qi and join it with theirs, but he will need a lot of quick training from the “Masters.” Even though Clark has served for years as cage-fighting Marco’s masked luchador-ish sidekick, the “Green Ghost” (not “gringo”), he still hasn’t picked up many skills.

It is easy to see
Green Ghost was an ultra-microbudget DIY affair, but its energy level is infectious. You can practically envision co-screenwriter Clark, who plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself (in terms adoptive family relationships) yelling out: “you guys, lets make this movie ourselves.” The thing is, they did and the generous helpings of martial arts action are not half-bad. In fact, they somehow recruited Chilean martial arts star Marko Zorar to play Drake, the champion warrior of the forces of darkness (and to sign-on as a producer).

Disciples, from Screenwriters David Birke & Nicholas McCarthy

Gyms and the Book-of-the-Month Club have to envy cults’ member-retention rates. Obviously, its really simple for them. Whenever one leaves, they catch them and bring them back. For the so-called “California Cult,” Clara Holmwood was the one who got away, but she is still haunted by her ordeal decades later in screenwriters David Birke & Nicholas McCarthy’s Disciples, illustrated by Benjamin Marra, which is now on-sale wherever graphic novels are sold.

In 1978 Marin County, Holmwood’s high school bestie Wendy fell under the spell of the Charles Manson-like Billy Joe. He even used his self-produced folk-rock music to seduce new female members. Five months after meeting Wendy’s new friends, Holmwood crawled to safety somewhere in the Mojave Desert. Since then, she changed her name to Lucy and tried to keep a low profile.

Her daughter Wren knows at least the broad strokes of her mother’s history. Even though she is a teenager, she understands how heavy it is. Perhaps surprisingly, they have a reasonably functional relationship, even though they have the added family drama that comes from living with Wren’s unmarried cousin Phoebe and her infant son Silas. Unfortunately, they will all be in jeopardy when the California Cult comes to reclaim Clara/Lucy.

Screenwriters Birke (
13 Sins) and McCarthy (The Pact and At the Devil’s Door) do a nice job evoking all the creepy Manson-esque hippy-cult vibes of the 1970s and give it a fan-pleasing twist you might not immediately expect. Marra’s black-and-white noirish art stylishly reflects the sinister nature of the narrative. However, readers should understand there is an unsettling sexual component that is so very provocative on the page that it might need to be toned down for any possible screen adaptation.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Attack on Finland: Super Timely Nordic Action

Pretty soon, this attack on our Scandinavian friends could legally be an attack on us as well. That is because Finland has made an official bid to join NATO. As it presciently happens, preventing such a bid is part of the motivation behind the terrorist plot in Aku Louhimies’s Attack on Finland (a.k.a. Omerta 6/12), which opens this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

Finnish secret agent Max Tanner and Swedish agent Sylvia Madsen were working an op together that turned out very, very badly. However, Tanner still thinks they work well together. You know, really well. Therefore, he is happy to see Madsen coming to Finland as the “bodyguard” of Jean Morel, a French EU official attending their 12/6 Independence Day celebration. In reality, she is also investigating Morel for potential corruption and security breaches, but she will have to concentrate on the protective part of her assignment when Russian-backed terrorists take the entire presidential palace hostage.

While Madsen and Morel are held at gunpoint inside, Tanner serves as the official “negotiator” on the outside. Unfortunately, the FSB-controlled terrorists intend to demoralize the Finnish people, whether their demands are met or not. The Finnish security service can count on help from their Swedish and Estonian colleagues, but Madsen’s boss at the EU is not so reliable.

Based on Ikka Remes’ novel,
Attack on Finland could not possibly be more zeitgeisty. It is also a lot like the 24 series in that a lot of “unthinkable” national tragedies will actually happen. Perhaps most importantly, Louhimies and company show the action film can be a viable vehicle to address serious geopolitical and national security issues.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick, Reviewed by the Son of a Naval Aviator

I am not an aviation authority by any standard, but as the son of a late Naval aviator, I am only one degree removed from the cockpit of an A6 Intruder. I’ve heard stories and met people, so I feel like some kind of expert on military culture. As a result, Top Gun: Maverick rings pretty true to my ears, so it is cool to see a relatively accurate and sympathetic depiction of the American military crushing it at the box office.

Maverick opens, Captain Pete Mitchell is posted to a Naval Air Station in the Mojave Desert. Presumably, this is China Lake NAS, where I was born, because it’s the only Naval Air Station in the Mojave that I know of. Maverick is testing an experimental hyper-sonic aircraft, in a scene that compares to Chuck Yeager’s final flight in The Right Stuff film. China Lake would be the perfect place to do so—because it is in the Mojave.

Maverick thought his defiant final flight would be the end of his checkered career, but his old
Top Gun rival-turned-buddy, Admiral Tom “Ice Man” Kazansky saves his butt one last time, transferring him back to Top Gun, for a final mission—a training mission.

Maybe the most unrealistic aspect of the original film were the cool sounding call signs. These handles are not chosen, they are bestowed on pilots. Typically, they refer to an incident or hang-up that will keep the aviator humble. In
Top Gun 1, “Goose” was probably the most true-to-life call sign, so in addition to its symmetry, “Rooster” is also a believable call sign for his son, Lt. Bradley Bradshaw. “Hangman” might sound cool for Lt. Jake Seresin, but it is actually an unflattering reference to his showboating. In practice, the call sign “Bob” wouldn’t work, because it could confusingly apply to other pilots, but it seems to fit the apparent blandness of nebbish Lt. Robert Floyd.

dialogue is not bad, but it can’t match the spot-on perfection of the first film. Original screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr just nailed Naval Aviator attitude and humor with gems like: “Whose butt did you kiss to get in here?/The list is long but distinguished” and “The plaque for alternates is down in the ladies’ room.” If that offends you, I don’t care, because it captures the swagger you need to dogfight with enemy planes in a multi-million-dollar piece of hardware that experiences mechanical failures far more often than it should.

Perhaps even more than the original film,
Maverick does a nice job fleshing out the other pilots at Top Gun. Bashir Salahuddin is a notable standout playing “Hondo,” Maverick’s non-commissioned sidekick. I’ll defer to other experts, but to my untrained eye, Kosinski does a great job recreating the sensation of pulling multiple G’s. The dog-fighting sequences maintain the high standards of the first film. Admittedly, Maverick and Rooster’s adventures behind enemy lines are a bit far-fetched, but they are fun to watch.

is also one of the best decades-later sequels (2010 and Psycho II are also surprisingly successful examples) because it explains how Maverick got to where he is in ways that stay true to original character. Despite countless commendations for combat bravery, he just kept sabotaging his career, simply by being Maverick. Admittedly, his bad blood with Rooster is a bit contrived. However, the way the tactically conservative Rooster’s rivalry with the hot-dogging Hangman echoes Maverick and Iceman in the original Top Gun adds a lot of fan resonance to the new film. Some might miss Kelly McGillis, but do you really think it would have worked out between those two? If you rewatch the original, Penny Benjamin is indeed mentioned by name and Jennifer Connelly appeals to 1980s/1990s fan nostalgia (thanks to classics like Labyrinth and Rocketeer).

Cryo, a Rude Awakening

Awakening from suspended animation is supposed to introduce you to a brave new world, like it did for Rip Van Winkle, Buck Rodgers, and the main character of Looking Backward (which ironically inspired a lot of backward thinking). Instead, these five experiment subjects are about to be reanimated in a dystopian environment. At least it sure appears to be so. It is a little hard for them to judge, because they all wake experiencing amnesia in Barrett Burgin’s Cryo, which is now playing in Los Angeles.

Nobody knows their names, so they initially call each other by their numbers, 01-05. Then they generally use their apparent functions: “Engineer,” “Doctor,” “Biochemist,” “Soldier” and comms specialist, and “Psychologist.” The Engineer also seems to think there was an “Inventor” involved in the project somehow. Their muscle memory and specialized knowledge kicks in, but they still have no clue who they are or what the general plan might be. However, everyone is suspicious that Soldier’s number was cut from his jump suit.

There also might be someone else running around the underground compound. Nevertheless, they remain below, because they fear the outside air is lethally contaminated—despite Soldier’s lingering doubts.

has the vibe of a lot of post-apocalyptic bunker movies, but in its defense, it has a pretty good twist at the end. Rather, it isn’t so much the twist as insight on human nature that it offers. Unfortunately, it takes forever to get there, especially slogging through the lifeless first act. The whole film should have been snappier and shorter. Clocking in at almost two hours is really pushing it for a film like this.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Argento at Lincoln Center: Do You Like Hitchcock?

Dario Argento is considered a Giallo master, but has also taken on classic staples of horror, including Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Poe, and to some extent the terrors of wax museums. It totally makes sense he would also try to channel Alfred Hitchcock, who basically started the whole slasher tradition. You can also see some precursor Giallo elements in Dial M for Murder, especially those gloves. The homages are pretty clever in Do You Like Hitchcock, which screens as part of the ongoing Beware of Dario Argento retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center.

Giulio is your stereotypical film geek, who often observes his sexy neighbors
Rear Window-style, especially Sasha Zerboni. As a result, he can’t help noticing Zerboni and another attractive woman bonding in the video store over Strangers on a Train. When Zerboni’s wealthy but controlling mother is subsequently murdered, at a time when her daughter was conveniently alibied, Giulio immediately suspects they arranged to “switch murders.”

Of course, his girlfriend Arianna (who really ought to be out of his league) thinks he is a nut. However, when an unseen stranger breaks into his apartment, Giulio realizes he might be on to something, so he starts obsessively snooping around both women.

The stripped-down simplicity of
DYLH really serves it well. Compared to Argento’s previous films, there is considerably less blood and gore in this made-for-Italian-TV production, but there are still all the hallmarks of Argento’s hallmark Giallo style (like the close-ups on gloved hands and tumblers turning in locks). Perhaps most importantly, Argento really gives us a full sense of the Torino neighborhood, very much like Hitchcock did for the building facing Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Chloe, on Prime Video

What you see on social media isn’t necessarily real. Everyone should know that by now, but this new series acts like it is a major discovery. In this case, Becky Green always thought her former pre-teen best friend Chloe Fairbourne had a perfect life while following her from a far, via Insta-whatever. She is therefore shocked by her suicide, as were her closest friends. However, when Green insinuates herself into Fairbourne’s circle, she starts to suspect her perfect life was not everything it was cracked up to be in creator Alice Seabright’s six-episode Chloe, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Evidently, Green and Fairbourne had a falling out as teens and never talked since then. The full details will not be revealed until late in the series. In the intervening years, Chloe married a wealthy local politician, whereas Green has worked depressing temp jobs, while caring for her increasingly dementia-plagued mother. Green wanted Fairbourne’s life and weirdly she might just get it.

Under the assumed name of “Sasha Miles,” Green befriends Chloe’s bestie, Livia Fulton. She manages to pass herself off as a gallery marketer, freshly returned from Tokyo, largely relying on the skills she developed as a party-crasher and what she gleans from social media. Soon, she is working with Fulton’s event-marketing firm and sleeping with Elliot Fairbourne, the grieving husband. Rather inconveniently, Josh Stanfield, a one-night-stand from a previously crashed reception, recognizes Green, but he will not blow her cover, as long as he is amused by her masquerade and their periodic hook-ups.

The start-and-stop
Chloe just cannot seem to decide whether it is a thriller or not. At times, it promises to turn into a Brat Farrar-style imposter suspenser and other times it threatens to veer into Sleeping with the Enemy territory, but always returns to mushy melodrama. It is frustrating, because there are times it really appears to be building steam (especially around the second half of episode four), only to deflate sometime thereafter.

Erin Doherty is all kinds of nervous and squirrely as Green/Miles, which certainly fits the character, but makes you wonder why everyone isn’t more suspicious of her. Poppy Gilbert has more screentime than you would expect as the dead title character, but it mostly comes in Instagram posts that morph into fantasies or dream sequences.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Olga, a Ukrainian Story from Switzerland

After the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, we almost forget the thuggishness of Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president, who aspired to be Putin’s puppet. However, this young gymnast will not forget it anytime soon. Following the attempted assassination of her journalist-mother, she will be forced into exile, for her own protection, in Elie Grappe’s Olga, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Olga’s late father was Swiss, so Olga’s rattled mother arranges for her temporary residence in the neutral nation. Olga also happens to be a very talented gymnast, so the coach of the Swiss junior team is happy to have her. Initially, she is a bit rusty, but she quickly rises to the top of the team. However, she will be distracted by news from Ukraine.

Before she left, her mother complained about the Ukrainian public’s apathy. Then, the Maidan demonstrations start. At first, they give Olga hope, but when Yanukovych unleashes his violent Berkut shock troops, Olga fears for her mother and her friends, who are often present at the protests. She believes she should be there, especially as some of her friends start to resent her absence.

Much like the Latvian film
January, Olga incorporates real footage from Maidan Square, alongside the dramatic scenes featuring the titular Ukrainian. For additional authenticity, Olga and her main teammates, both in Ukraine and Switzerland, are portrayed by real-life gymnasts. They have the athletic chops, but they are also pretty good thesps, especially Anastasia Budiashkina, who does excellent work conveying the guilt and confusion of simultaneously dealing with the pressure of competition, teen angst, and national trauma.

Tribeca ’22: The Black Phone

You can still find out-of-service pay phones left installed in the walls of old school diners, decrepit bus stations, and past-their-prime school buildings that seem to offer the promise of ghostly communication they cannot possibly fulfill. This serial killer assumes the disconnected phone in his basement dungeon is just like that, but his latest abductee will receive supernatural calls on it from previous victims in Scott Derrickson’s Blumhouse-produced The Black Phone, which opens tomorrow nationwide, after screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

He is called the Grabber for obvious reasons. He uses balloons and magic tricks to lure kids off the street, but even after grabbing them, he never lets them see his face unmasked. Unfortunately, Finney Shaw will be his next victim, following his friend Robin Arellano and his friendly softball rival, Bruce Yamada. Arellano was more formidable taking on bullies at school, but Shaw is the first to draw the Grabber’s blood during the abduction.

Thanks to the ghostly calls he receives on the supposedly kaput phone in the Grabber’s sound-proofed basement, Shaw also avoids all the mistakes his past victims made. They also offer advice regarding potential avenues for escape, but he will have to work quickly. So far, Shaw’s kidnapping has been so unsatisfying for the Grabber, he is starting to lose patience with his latest victim. Of course, the clueless cops are looking for him, but so is his younger sister Gwen. She has a bit of the shine, but she can’t necessarily summon it whenever she wants. Instead, it comes irregularly in dreams.

Based on the Joe Hill short story,
Black Phone features an abusive father, similar to the many examples found in the works of his own dad, Stephen King. Critics of the psychoanalytic school can make of that what they will, if they dare. At least Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s adapted screenplay explains the Shaw siblings’ father acts they way he does, because their late mother was driven crazy by her clairvoyant gift/curse.

Black Phone is insidiously effective (if you will) because the young cast is so compelling. Yes, the always reliable Ethan Hawke is all kinds of creepy as the Grabber, but the sinister masks are also a big part of his screen presence. However, Mason Thames really holds the audience’s attention and sympathy as the somewhat nebbish Shaw. When he is not on-screen, Madeleine McGraw steals numerous scenes and scores the film’s only laughs as his sister Gwen. You do not often see such an endearing and cooperative young brother-sister relationship in films—but it is done really well in Black Phone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, on HBO Max

Technically, these tapes weren’t lost, they were suppressed. The Soviet Union wanted to document their nuclear industry’s “finest hour” in the face of crisis, like NASA’s response to Apollo 13. However, when it became glaringly clear how ineffective, dishonest and counter-productive their crisis management was, to the powers-that-were (ultimately, that was Gorbachev), the Party reverted to censorship and propaganda to bury the truth. James Jones assembled the newly recovered footage into a vivid step-by-step chronicle of the nuclear disaster, as it really happened, in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, which premieres tonight on HBO.

Right from the start, the authorities’ disregard for human life is shocking apparent. We watch unprotected families allowed to visit playgrounds the day after the core melt-down and massive release of radiation. Several times, Jones contrasts footage of the oblivious citizenry with the desperate crisis management underway at the reactor.

This pattern would continue after the incident, when the Communist Party basically declared an end to Chernobyl-related illness by fiat, mandating all physicians diagnose resulting radiation sickness as “Radiophobia.” Jones also discovered damning footage of the under-equipped reclamation teams, who were dispatched to clean and close-down the V.I. Lenin Power Station with insufficient warning of the risks they were running. Viewers can make that judgement, because we literally see their superiors sending them out with a few sheets of lead strapped to their torsos (like “cannon-fodder,” as one survivor puts it).

If anyone truly emerges as a villain in
Lost Tapes, it would be Gorbachev, who lied to the world and to his people about the severity of the disaster, at great cost to Russian and Ukrainian lives. Far from the Soviet Nuclear bureaucracy’s “finest hour,” the incident almost blew up into a global catastrophe. Instead of slowing the reaction, an ill-conceived plan to drop sand on top of the reactor nearly caused it to collapse into earth beneath. There is a reason why the former General Secretary consistently polls so low in Russia.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

You don't have to get every reference to Euro cult cinema to pick up on this film’s vibes, but why wouldn’t you? Regardless, this horror movie wears its influences on its sleeve. That’s just part of its style, which is heavy and often effective. Atmosphere is everything in Kevin Kopacka’s Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, which releases Friday on VOD.

A bickering couple are visiting the decrepit family manor house she inherited, despite the lateness of the hour. It is all because of Dieter’s obnoxious attitude. He refused to stop at a hotel to make some kind of point. Critics will probably try to hang the “toxic masculinity” label on him, but there is nothing manly about him. That will not stop him from trying to compensate, as when he becomes fascinated by a whip he finds in a trunk.

And then everything changes, in a big, landscape-altering
 kind of way, but without the gentle humor of an obvious but spoilery comparison. Also, maybe not everything changes. There is still something very wrong about the German chateau.

That would be the Gothic Herrenhaus Vogelsang, which is definitely a creepy setting. Indeed, everything about the look and design of
Dawn is quite masterful. Many are making the obvious comparison to Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s Giallo pastiches, like Amer and The Strange Color of Your Bodys' Tears, but Kopacka’s screenplay is much more narrative driven. Initially, that makes it more accessible, but it also causes greater frustration when it takes an arty detour into oblivion.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Ip Man: The Awakening

Back when Hong Kong was a British colony … wait, Hong Kong was a British colony? Of course, it was, but the United Nations refuses to recognize it as a former European colony, because of the CCP’s influence. In fact, the Chinese Communist regime is in gross violation of the 1997 handover agreement (“One China Two Systems” is now as dead as a doornail). If ever Hong Kong needed a hero like Ip Man, it would be now. Instead, the villains in his latest highly fictionalized movie are all British, but at least viewers should be reminded of some awkward HK history when watching Li Xi Jie & Zhang Zhu Lin’s Ip Man: The Awakening, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

It will be Wing Chun versus Baritsu, the British martial art cobbled together from other styles that apparently impressed Arthur Conan Doyle, because it is mostly know remembered from
Sherlock Holmes references. The baristas are in for some hurting.

This time around, Ip Man is freshly arrived in Hong Kong from Foshan. Almost immediately, he befriends Buefeng, a fellow Wing Chun practitioner, but not like Ip Man, obviously. Buefeng advises him to keep his head down and not get involved, but when Ip Man witnesses an English-backed gang of white-slavers abducting women, he naturally rescues them. Inevitably, that leads to conflict with the British boss, Mr. Starke (played by the ever so British Sergio De Ieso).

Awakening’s screenplay is a predictable, bare-bones string of cliches, even more so than the last Ip Man movie (Ip Man: Kung Fu Master). At times, it does not even make sense, as when Buefeng feels compelled to drug Ip Man before his big public bout with one of the chief Baritsu henchmen, even though he has already seen his friend thoroughly kick the butt of his partner. Seriously, why would he lose confidence when Ip Man was facing the smaller dude?

Monday, June 20, 2022

Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity

Technically, charging interest is forbidden under Islam, but Islamic nations have developed workarounds, because no country can function without a working banking system. Those workarounds are definitely working against the upright Reza. However, the struggling fish farmer really resents the many bribes and kickbacks he refuses to pay. As a result, his family is on the brink of financial ruin in Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, which opens Friday in LA (and is now showing in NY).

Reza never graduated from college, because he took a futile stand on principles. Instead, he moved to the provinces, but he found society just as corrupt there. A large company is trying to force him off his land. They act with impunity, even poisoning the water feeding into his fish pond, because they have bribed the local police and regulators. Reza might have bought more time to pay off his foreclosing mortgage, but, of course, he refused to grease the necessary palms.

His wife finds him almost perversely rigid, but he is not a moralizing Islamist. In fact, he secretly ferments his own home brew, which he successfully hides from the morals police (instead they confiscate his riffle, which is telling, isn’t it?). The truth is, Reza is right on every point, so when he finally gets pushed to far, things will really get ugly.

It is easy to see why this film launched Rasoulof’s prolonged legal difficulties with the Iranian authorities (it first screened internationally in 2017, but it is only now getting an American theatrical release), which are still not resolved. He has yet to serve the prison sentence that was imposed just before Covid hit. Yet, from the regime’s perspective, Reza’s battles with corruption might be embarrassing, but the real arsenic in
Integrity are probably the storylines involving his wife Hadis’s work as the headmistress of a girl’s school.

There we see her comply with the mandated expulsion of a student, because her family was exposed as non-Muslims. We also learn just how disposable girls are in Iranian society, when she tries to use the daughter of Reza’s main nemesis (without her husband’s prior knowledge or approval) to put pressure on her father.

is a powerful film, but it can be difficult to watch, because Reza’s endures almost as much woe as Job himself. Yet, it steadily builds to a bitterly ironic payoff. It might seem like the way Rasoulof piles on the humiliations approaches overkill, but each one is intertwined with the others and they all play a role in his caustic climax.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Argento at Lincoln Center: Dracula 3D

The Dracula story involved fangs, crosses, wooden stakes, and swarms of bats, so it provides plenty of stuff to jut out or fly into the camera. That all could make it appealing for 3D, but it was horror master Dario Argento who finally went there. The results are certainly mixed, but he still takes care of the essential vampire business in Dracula 3D, which screens as part of the ongoing Beware of Dario Argento retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center.

Tania agrees to meet her lover after dark, despite the town’s constant curfew. This is a mistake, but removing the cross her caddish lover gave her will be even costlier. Before you can say “prologue,” she has been bitten, killed, turned, exhumed, and living at Dracula Castle. Of course, that is where Jonathan Harker is headed. Instead of a real estate agent, he is now a librarian hired to catalog the Count’s holdings. Dracula actually wants that work done, so he halfway tries to protect him from the newly fierce Tania.

Harker’s fiancée Mina has followed after him. She will stay with her old friend Lucy Kisslinger, who is looking a little peaked herself. When she also “dies,” Mina turns to visiting scholar Abraham Van Helsing for help.

The screenplay credited to Argento and three other screenwriters could have been generated from of randomizer of old Hammer Dracula scripts, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Carpathian village feels artificial rather than lived-in, but somehow, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli makes it look like it radiates sinister energy. It also features some of the most impressively brutal killing scenes of any
Dracula adaptation.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Tribeca ’22: A Rising Fury

Biden tells us Zelenskyy refused to believe him when he warned the Ukrainian President of Putin’s full-scale invasion, but that seems unlikely. After all, the Ukrainian military volunteers interviewed for this documentary back in 2014 and 2015 all predicted it, sooner rather than later. Some of them have very personal experiences with Russia’s attempts to undermine their nation, as they explain in Lesya Kalynska & Ruslan Batytskyi’s documentary, A Rising Fury, which screens as an “At Home” selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Pavlo Pavliv and Svitlana Karabut are trying to maintain a relationship, but the war in the Donbass region makes it difficult. His activism started while maintaining the protective barricades at Maidan, but his military training began earlier, when an older man named Igor, call-sign: “Berkut (Hawk),” took him under his wing and recruited him for his Airsoft team.

Eventually, Pavliv and Karabut deduce Igor is actually an undercover Russian operative deliberately targeting marginalized young Ukrainian men, to turn them against their country. It is chilling example of organized subversion that ought to make all viewers take note, especially considering how successful Igor was.

In fact, it is probably the most newsworthy element of the film, because even though Kalynska & Batytskyi’s coverage of Maidan and Donbass includes some dramatic footage, it is not radically unlike other Ukrainian documentaries. However, when taken together with its insights into Russia’s long-game psy-ops, as represented by Igor, it is quite valuable indeed.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Guidance: The Destructive Impact of AI, from China

A Chinese inventor’s new AI implant is a lot like socialism and every other utopian scheme. The pitch might sound appealing, but as soon as you experience it first-hand, you realize it is a nightmare. Two lovers are manipulated into taking the nano-operating system that detects lies, but the reality of its usage is predictably more likely to split them apart rather than bond them together in Neysan Sobhani’s Guidance, which releases today on VOD.

Ten years before the start of the film, there was a catastrophic war that left Han Maio deeply scarred emotionally. Before the war, she was ambiguously involved with her childhood sweetheart, Su Jie, the heir to a big tech empire. Now, she is in a relationship with Mai Zi Xuan, whom she suspects has been unfaithful. He also has reason to suspect her.

Rather fatefully, she happened to visit Su Jie the very day Luddite terrorists launched an attack on his company. Consequently, she spent six hours alone with him in a safe room. Of course, Mai understands that gave them more than enough time to revisit old times. As a parting gift, Su Jie gave her two pre-release doses of NIS, for her and Mai, so they can get a jump on the Brave New World before everyone else. They literally get red-pilled together, during a romantic getaway that gets much less romantic once the new computer voices in their heads call them out each time they bend the truth and point out signs of deception in their partner.

As a Chinese language film,
Guidance is particularly interesting (and timely), given it presents a cautionary tale of artificial intelligence over-reach, at a time when AI surveillance software is identifying Uyghurs to be rounded-up and incarcerated. Arguably, what the CCP is doing now in Xinjiang and Tibet is even more dystopian than anything portrayed in the film.

Nevertheless, Sobhani and co-screenwriters Anders R. Fransson and Daniel Wang vividly illustrate the perils of the utopian temptation and its unintended consequences. This is largely character and idea-driven sf, but Sobhani still offers up an intriguing looking future world.

Penance, on

Asako Adachi is a mother worthy of Greek tragedy. When her daughter is murdered, she offers a grim choice to the girl’s four friends who saw, but could not identify her killer. Either spend their lives hunting for the murderer, or eventually accept a karmic retribution that she approves of. That is pretty heavy for elementary school students, so it is hardly shocking they all turn out to be emotionally damaged fifteen years later in Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s five-episode Penance, which premieres today on

For some reason, the killer deliberately chose Emili from her group of friends, when he approached them on a pretext. They all had a perfect view of him, yet they all insist they cannot remember his face. Fifteen years later, their bill of penance starts to come due, but it is not necessarily Adachi who will collect. Somehow fate, karma, circumstances, and their own bad choices and character flaws will precipitate crises for all four survivors. Although they each have very different personalities and perspectives on that fateful day, they all contact Adachi as they find themselves facing personal disaster.

In some ways, shy Sae Kikuchi never fully matured, so she married a profoundly flawed control-freak husband. Maki Shinohara became a strict martinet high school teacher, who feels compelled to enforce rules without exception. Akiko Takano is a borderline hikikomori with family issues that are about to get much worse. Likewise, Yuka Ogawa has an extreme case of sibling rivalry, as well as a weird cop fetish, born out of that horrific experience.

What really makes
Penance so intriguing is Kyoko Koizumi’s haunting performance as Adachi. Instead of a ruthless Medea-like vengeful mother, she is not without sympathy for the four young women. In fact, she even offers them help, at times. Yet, her eyes are always obsessively on the prize of just payback. As a result, Koizumi’s work as Adachi is cool and detached, but weirdly easy to identify with and root for.

Yu Aoi, Eiko Koike, Sakura Ando and Chizuru Ikewaki all create radically different personas as the four grown women, but they are all fully developed, with no shortage of flaws and weaknesses. Together, they demonstrate the perverse and lingering effects of trauma. Shinohara’s story is possibly the richest, because it clearly offers extensive commentaries on the compulsive face-saving and CYA-ing of the Japanese educational system, which in turn is a proxy for society at large. Takano’s is probably the weakest, because it is pretty easy to predict where it goes.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Giallo and Chinese Phantoms of the Opera, at Nightfire

Everybody digs the Phantom of the Opera, right? Especially Italian and Chinese genre filmmakers. I dive into the Giallo and Chinese adaptations of and riffs on the Phantom at Nightfire here.

Tribeca ’22: McEnroe

If you were around in the early 1980s, you might remember how John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal were like J-Lo and A-Rod, but with exponentially more paparazzi interest. Their marriage didn’t last, but he always maintained a relationship with tennis. The notoriously outspoken athlete is profiled in Barney Douglas’s documentary McEnroe, which screens during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Yep, McEnroe used to argue calls on the court from time to time. He addresses his famous outbursts quite frankly in the doc. He is not proud of them, but he explains the issues he was experiencing at the time. He also rarely let them influence the next point.

McEnroe reminds us just how long he has been in the public eye. Children of the 1980s who only vaguely remember the media circus surrounding his marriage to O’Neal will find Douglas’s coverage eye-opening. Fortunately, he also handles the tennis stuff well too. Even if you followed his career at the time, or if you’ve seen Janus Metz’s thoroughly entertaining Borg vs.McEnroe, you will probably get caught up in the drama of McEnroe’s Wimbledon battles with Bjorn Borg.

In a bit of a score, McEnroe’s great rival-turned-friend appears on camera to discuss their comradeship, despite largely retiring from the tennis world and public life. O’Neal is absent, but the rest of his family discusses McEnroe, with pretty much the same candor he brings to the film. (We even see his current wife, Patty Smythe performing on
American Bandstand, which is another blast from the 1980’s past.)

Tribeca ’22: Nicholas Brothers Stormy Weather (short)

Nobody could match the moves of Fayard and Harold Nicholas. This short documentary [inadvertently] proves it. Although their prime Hollywood musical numbers were often cut out to appease the segregationist South, they eventually received Kennedy Center Honors and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They appeared in the clip montage movies That’s Entertainment and That’s Dancing, but strangely, neither selected their most iconic performance. Contemporary dancers look back in awe at their leaping steps in Michael Shevloff & Paul Crowder’s Nicholas Brothers: Stormy Weather, which screens during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Stormy Weather
was a star vehicle for Lena Horne, so there would be no call for cutting out the Nicholas Brothers’ big number. Fittingly, they uncorked one of their greatest filmed performances, culminating with the brother leaping over each other, landing into splits, as they worked their way down a grand, Busby Berkeley-ish staircase. Backed by the Cab Calloway Orchestra, they nailed it in one take, with no rehearsals.

Dancers like Savion Glover give unnecessary explanations as to why their performance is so impressive. Frankly, you can totally get it just from watching them. However, the short film builds up to the contemporary dancers, Les Twins, choreographing and performing their own tribute to the Nicholas Brothers’
Stormy Weather performance—which will absolutely not be a recreation, an important distinction.

Tribeca ’22: Hargrove

Roy Hargrove was considered one of the “Young Lions” because he was anointed by Wynton Marsalis, but he was one of the first big jazz headliners to collaborate with hip hopers, at a time when Marsalis was especially critical of their aesthetic. Hargrove always stayed true to his own musical conceptions, like all true jazz artists, but he died too soon, again like far too many jazz greats. Eliane Henri followed the musician during his final international tour, documenting what would be his last days in Hargrove, which screens as part of Tribeca at Home.

Clearly, we see Hargrove is a bit tired from the road during the opening scene. Eventually, we also learn his health was also ailing. The musician had been on dialysis for years. His doctors wanted him to get a kidney transplant, but he was reluctant, for financial and professional reasons, to take the time off. These scenes in which Hargrove talks about his health problems are eerily powerful, like the posthumous anti-smoking PSA Yul Brynner recorded when he was dying of cancer.

Of course, Hargrove’s music is also virtuosic, especially the beautiful way he could caress a ballad. However, none of Hargrove’s originals can be heard throughout the documentary, because his manager, Larry Clothier (who remains in charge of his music company), would not approve their release. That leads to one of the great issues with Henri’s doc.

Henri makes it very clear she and Clothier often clashed during the making of the film. The way she put together the film, it certainly looks like Hargrove sided with her in most matters. Arguably, this reflects the concerns that preoccupied the musician in his final days, but it ends up injecting her into the film. It is a more than a minor subplot—it is a major part of the doc.

Is this really the best way to introduce Hargrove to viewers who might be checking out Hargrove because of the involvement of his friends Questlove and Erykah Badu? Admittedly, this is a tricky terrain to navigate, but perhaps removing all traces of his manager might have been a better option.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Brian and Charles: Welsh Robotics

After years of futility, Brian has finally invented something that works: an eco-friendly robot. It runs on cabbages (everyone knows electricity mostly comes from coal, right?). Somehow, he really cracked the artificial intelligence, because it largely taught itself to talk by reading the dictionary. The rest of the maturation process will take more time in Jim Archer’s Brian and Charles, which opens Friday in New York.

When we first meet Brian, he is an affable fellow, but he tries too hard to be chipper, to cover for his loneliness. We see several of his precious DIY inventions, none of which has any prayer of working. His eccentric-looking robot, Charles Petrescu, appears to be more of the same, but somehow, after a little rattling about, he comes alive, like Frosty after the first snow.

Of course, Brian is delighted to finally have company. However, he tries his best to keep Petrescu out of sight, because he justifiably fears the Welsh village’s bullying family of thugs will target his creation. Eventually, the equally shy Hazel meets Petrescu, who duly impresses her. That in turn builds Brian’s confidence, to the point he can actually pursue a relationship with her. However, Petrescu’s restlessness soon leads to rebelliousness.

Brian and Charles feels almost toxically cute and quirky, but it develops some substance and soul during its second half. Petrescu does a lot of goofy robot-shtick, but Brian’s growth is the arc that really lands. This is a story of empowerment, as well as the obvious surrogate parenting analog.

Mad God, on Shudder

Never stand in the way of a man in a gas mask, who is on a mission. In this case, the nature of his mission is somewhat open to interpretation, but his sense of purpose is admirable, as is true of his creator. After thirty years of intermittent production, special effects wizard (celebrated for his work on Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers) Phil Tippett’s truly long-awaited stop-motion animated feature Mad God premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

The “Assassin” travels via a diving bell down to a weird shadowy world that is beyond dystopian. His assignment is to leave a briefcase bomb within this enemy netherworld—and then just wait to die. Plenty have failed before him and he will probably fail too, judging from the pile of briefcases. Unfortunately, an ugly fate awaits the Assassin, if and when he is captured by the “Surgeon” (a.k.a. the “Torturer”).

Mad God is an amazing film. The design of the Assassin sort of recalls some of the militaristic animated sequences in The Wall, yet Tippett’s attention to hair and fiber is also somewhat akin to the style of This Magnificent Cake. Nevertheless, storytelling remains an aspect of filmmaking—and in this respect Mad God is a little weak. Things like causal effects, motivations, characterization, and inter-character relationships are only vaguely implied at best. Clearly, Mad God is intended first-and-foremost to be a spectacle, which indeed it is.

The whole point of
Mad God is to tour Tippett’s macabre world, much like Piotr Kamler’s largely narrative-free Chronopolis. Indeed, it truly looks amazing. Tippett also instills a sense of forward moment thet brings to mind Frank Vestiel’s underappreciated Eden Log, which also shared a similarly Boschian aesthetic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Hotel Portofino, in the Epoch Times

Hotel Portofino
looks lovely, but it is hindered by shallow characterization. Exclusive Epoch Times review up here.

Tribeca ’22: Music Pictures: New Orleans

Even though it scattered New Orleans musicians, Katrina never the silenced the music. Jazz Fest continued on-schedule and the Frenchmen and Bourbon Street clubs were undamaged and reopened for business. However, Covid closed everything and canceled all the gigs, including Jazz Fest. At least documentary filmmakers appreciated what we were missing, because there has been a recent boomlet of NOLA music docs released in theaters or screening at festivals. This one is a welcomed addition. Ben Chace profiles four stylistically different—but not too disparate—veteran New Orleans musicians in Music Pictures: New Orleans, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Part one focuses on Irma Thomas, “The Soul Queen,” a highly fitting and logical place to start. Unlike Martin Shore’s
Take Me to the River New Orleans, which felt compelled to team Thomas up with a younger artist, Ledisi, Chace finds her sufficiently interesting on her own, because she is. However, he also gives a bit of time to her sidemen, particularly drummer Johnny Vidacovich, whom Thomas is happy to share the spotlight with. Hearing them put together a smoldering and swinging “My Love Is” is a treat.

Likewise, hearing Thomas casually land an a cappella “Our Day Will Come” and then carefully caress it while recording a lush studio arrangement will give you good chills. Honestly, watching
Music Pictures will make NOLA music fans realize she is even cooler than they understood.

Benny Jones Sr. is now the leader of the Treme Brass Band (who were regularly seen in HBO’s
Treme), but he was also a founder of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who really deserve a documentary of their own, for re-popularizing a funkifying the NOLA brass band tradition. NOLA brass bands have an infectious rhythmic drive and as a bass and snare drummer, Jones is one of the best putting the beat on the street. Of course, the entire band makes their groove swing, but vocalist/alto-player John “Prince” Gilbert gets the time to tell some of the band’s reminiscences, like when they opened for the Grateful Dead, in Oakland, on New Year’s Eve.

Little Freddie King probably lived the blues as much as anyone, if not more so. Yet, he survived to find fame in Europe and play regular gigs in New Orleans. He probably has the film’s most colorful anecdotes, but the important thing is he can still play—and he is a heck of a snappy dresser. It is definitely King’s segment, but his drummer-manager “Wacko” Wade Wright gets credit for handling all the business, as well as a lot of King’s personal, medical logistics.

Music Pictures concludes with New Orleans’ first family of modern jazz, the Marsalises, whom Shore dubiously ignored. It was a wise choice, considering Ellis Marsalis, the NOLA jazz patriarch, passed away due to Covid complications in 2020. Chace focuses on Marsalis’s first and only album length collaboration with his son Jason (brother of Wynton and Branford) on vibes (whereas on their previous recordings together, Jason had played drums).

Monday, June 13, 2022

Premonitions, on MHz

You Know how Tolstoy wrote unhappy families are always unhappy in their own unique ways? Well, the Jacobs’ dysfunction is in a league of its own—of fantastical dimensions. The Jacobs all develop a “gift” that always manifests itself in a different way. Those powers can be dangerous, but the family would also be in great peril if they were ever discovered, as they very well might be in Patrick Lowell, Estelle Bouchard, and Charles-Olivier Michaud’s ten-part French-Canadian series Premonitions, which premieres tomorrow on MHz.

Clara Jacob is the matriarch of the Jacob family, but she is definitely a cool grandmother. She even wears a snappy fedora to prove it. Her power is the ability to see into the future of anyone she is not related to by blood. That comes in handy for her chosen line of work: professional gambler. She tends to know when hold them and when to fold them.

She has few qualms about wielding her powers, but her son Arnaud considers his “gift” an intrusive violation. He can read people’s minds and even get in there to erase memories. Having sworn off using them, he has been plagued by severe migraines. His sister Lilli on the other hand, constantly employs her powers to bewitch potential lovers. That seems like a bad idea, but viewers will halfway sympathize when they see the burn scars on her back.

As a teen, Lilli was thrown into a bonfire by a shadowy member of a witch-hunting cult dedicated to killing so-called “aberrations” like the Jacobs. Unfortunately, one of the last survviors of the brethren will try to use her latest “lover” to get to the Jacobs. Arnaud tried to wipe Pascal Derapse’s memories of Lilli, but being out of practice, he might have erased too much and maybe even left a mental connection to himself behind.

is an unusual and addictive take on the themes of superhero franchises like The X-Men and Heroes. Although we root for the Jacobs, the plain truth is Derapse is a victim of the family several times over. First Lilli’s enchantment drives him into a state of psychotic jealousy and then Arnaud really does a number on his head. Yet, when the vicious brotherhood enters the picture, Premonitions even takes on some elements of the horror genre (much more so than Firestarter).

Regardless, Pascale Bussieres is a terrific lead as the steely Clara. She also has some keenly compelling and deeply conflicted chemistry with her ex, Jules Samson, who remains a close friend of Arnaud’s. Nicely played by Benoit Gouin, Samson provides sympathetic human perspective on the chaos that unfolds.

Marc Messier is creepy as heck as William Putnam, the aberration-hunter, while Eric Bruneau is spectacularly unhinged as the brain-scrambled Derapse. Likewise, Mikhail Ahooja is impressively squirrely playing Arnaud, especially when under the influence of Derapse.