Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Wreck, on Hulu

Remember how those Alaskan cannery boats used to recruit college students to come work during semester break? That wasn’t such a bad deal. You maybe smelled like fish for three months, but the pay was good and everyone came home safe and sound. This luxury cruise liner cannot make the same claim. Jamie Walsh’s sister Pippa disappeared aboard its last cruise, so he signs up under an assumed identity to sleuth out what happened to her in creator Ryan J. Brown’s six-episode Wreck, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

We have a pretty good idea of Pippa’s fate from the prologue, when she was forced over the side by a killer wearing the ship’s duck mascot costume. There is no question Quackie is the most distinctive element of
Wreck. Now, Walsh is looking for answers, but he will have to do so with even more door-slamming chaos, because his friend Cormac Kelly, whose slot on the ship’s roster Walsh purchased, stowed away with him, to keep an eye on his ex-girlfriend.

Initially, Walsh suspects one of the bullying ship’s officers, but than his prime suspect falls into the fool with several suspicious puncture wounds to his torso. As usual, the company sweeps the incident under the rug, because the ship is registered in Panama. That means an easily corrupted Panamanian cop only has twenty-four hours to conduct an investigation. (If you book a cruise, check to see what nation your ship is registered—and what civil liberties protections exist under their jurisdictions.)

Walsh and his new friends, such as runaway Vivian Lim, basically enjoy zero workplace protections. The martinet-like Officer Karen MacIntrye (whose name cannot be a coincidence, given how on-the-nose Brown wrote the series) works the service-help like dogs, cuts their hot water, and then plies them with cheap booze.

Wreck starts out as a promising slasher horror (thanks to good old Quackie), but craters into a risible class-warfare parable. Then it sinks even further when we learn the big secret of the ship, which is absolutely ridiculous and also a tired and predictable cliché. About 75% of the characters are LGBTQ, which is an unrealistic over-representation, even among Millennials and Gen Z, but fine, whatever.

The thing that is offensive about the series is its relentlessly nasty portrayal of veterans. The entire officer ranks are made up of military veterans and they are all violent, duplicitous sociopaths—but surely Brown thanks all the veterans out there for their service. Indeed, there is not one single sympathetic veteran character in
Wreck, which is truly shameful.

Brown’s biases are unfortunate, because series director Chris Baugh (who also helmed
Boys from County Hell and Bad Day for the Cut) stages some nifty slasher sequences, especially in the first episode. If it were more like Terror Train (either of them) and less determined to vilify veterans, Wreck might have been a successful guilty pleasure.

The Exile, Graphic Novel

Vikings were known to drink out of skulls, so they were not very progressive, but they still lived by a code. Consequently, Western genre conventions transfer pretty easily to a Norse setting. Hallstein Thordsson made some terrible mistakes, but the prodigal Viking has returned to reclaim his father’s legacy in Erik Kriek’s graphic novel, The Exile, which releases today.

Thordsson’s stepmother Solveig Kjetilsdottir is sort of the Norse Susan McSween, but for timber rather than cattle. Unfortunately, her own brothers have been collaborating with her unwelcome suitor, Einar Ragnarsson, to plunder her timber. Thordsson has returned just in time—and he brought his comrade-in-arms, Bjarki “Baldpate” Leifsson, who will be eager to help Solveig—really, really eager.

It is all quite a complicated situation, because Ragnarsson has long nursed a grudge against Thordsson, with fair cause. After Ragnarsson’s father refused Thordsson his daughter’s hand in marriage, the future exile forced himself on the fair Vigdis and killed Ragnarsson’s older brother when he came looking for payback. Admittedly, that is all pretty bad. In fact, it has weighed on Thordsson’s conscience, while he was off pillaging England and Ireland.

Thordsson is a difficult character to embrace, but Kriek successfully invites sympathy for Team Hallstein, particularly Solveig and Leifsson. Team Einar’s underhanded duplicity also contributes to the counter-intuitive alignment of rooting interests. It is all a fraught tangle of family melodrama that frequently culminates in hack-and-slash hand-to-hand combat.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Scare BNB: The Hosts

Seriously, Hollywood and indie content makers just seem to hate people making an extra buck. If you doubt it, when was the last time you saw a positive portrayal of online BNB host or a ride-share driver in film or television? It is pretty clear these hosts are little weird too, but in this case they have an excuse. They market their cottage as haunted, so they reasonably assume their latest guests want the usual “treatment” in Scare BNB: The Hosts, the first two-episode arc of the new anthology series premiering tomorrow on DIVABoxOffice.tv.

June, Layla, Ellie, and Gemma are all old friends, who have come to Nashville for their favorite annual music festival. June and Layla are already a couple, whereas Ellie and Gemma are slowly taking their friendship in that direction, after the latter’s recent breakup. To their credit, Mitchell and Deede, their online BNB hosts, do not seem to care about that. Their brand of creepiness is something else entirely.

Initially, the retired couple tries to treat the women to some jump scares, but when they learn their guests are not into it, they assure them the cottage is not really haunted. It is just their marketing gimmick to stand out. However, Layla, who has a history of sleep paralysis (during which she regularly sees demonic figures), has a particularly disturbing episode. The most distressing part being June can see it to.

The two thirty-minute-plus episodes of
The Hosts story arc constitute a pretty clever and economically constructed anthology story. The sleep paralysis angle really distinguishes it from all the previous BNB horror already out there. DIVABoxOffice.tv is dedicated to “queer” programming, but both episodes of The Hosts are quite accessible to viewers outside their target community. (Sure, there is some hooking-up going on, but it is healthier and less in viewers faces than Hulu’s upcoming Wreck.)

Quantum Leap: Family Style

Usually, it takes Dr. Ben Song a few beats to figure out the relationship dynamics of a new leap, but he catches on almost immediately when he finds himself amid an immigrant Indian restaurant-owning family. His host’s mother reminds him a lot of his own late mother, so he is determined to prevent their restaurant from burning down in “Family Style,” tonight’s episode of Quantum Leap.

Fortunately, Song has watched enough cooking shows to avoid embarrassing himself in Sonali Prasad’s kitchen. However, he knows the matriarch will potentially die from a heart attack in a few weeks, after the loss of the family restaurant. It is not hard to identify potential causes, starting with their landlady, Kathy Tanner, whose thugs pull a gun on Song, demanding their back rent with interest.

This is probably Song’s most recent year yet, going all the back to the distant year of 2009. Way back then, Song hatches a plan to generate business and buzz using Groupon. Wow, remember them? At least there is some high stakes tension supplied by Tanner’s thugs. However, like the previous episode, “Family Style” leans heavily into dysfunctional family drama.

This episode is still a vast improvement over the previous installment, because it forgoes the preachy messaging. However, the writers’ room would be well advised to add in more genre elements going forward, be they science fiction, capers, or general criminal shenanigans of some sort. Frankly, time travel fans deserve another “Leap, Die, Repeat” or “Salvation or Bust,” which really explored the sub-genre’s potential.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Slava: After the Fall—Graphic Novel

Russians have had to hustle to survive for over a century now. The grizzled old miner Volodya will be the first to admit it. However, doing black market business was never considered anything to admire. The two slicksters who come to town looking for a big score have different, Yeltsin-era values. However, the miners hope to use the sleazy Lavrin and his somewhat naïve protégé in Pierre-Henry Gomont’s French graphic novel Slava: After the Fall, which is now available in ebook formats.

Lavrin thinks he a real mover-and-shaker, but most of the deals he pulls off involve scavenged fixtures from grand old Soviet palaces of Communism. That is why he dragged Slava out to the remote Russian Caucasian mining town. However, the weather is rougher than they anticipated, as are the thugs who have the jump on them.

If it weren’t for Nina and her grandfather, Volodya, this would have been the end for them. For his part, Slava is stupid-staggered by his crush on Nina, but Lavrin does not do gratitude well. He still wants those fixtures and he does not even bother hiding his admiration for the oligarch planning to buy and plunder the town’s mine. However, Nina and Volodya have a different plan. Before the mine is auctioned, they want Lavrin and Slava to sell the mine’s newest equipment on the black market, so they can outbid the oligarch and keep the miners employed using the older, still serviceable machinery.

It is indeed a clever plan. If more communities had been as adaptable, Russia’s post-Communism history might have been very different. Of course, there are complications, mostly involving flaky Lavrin. Despite their cynical attitude towards Yeltsin’s privatizations, Gomont’s characters have little nostalgia for Communism, except maybe Nina, who grew up listening to the miners’ propaganda songs.

Regardless, Morkhov, the fictional rival oligarch, is cut from the same cloth as “Putin’s wallets.” The kind of travesty Nina and Volodya are trying to avoid happened quite a bit and paved the way for Putin’s anti-American regime and its war crimes in Ukraine. Clearly, current events have added extra bite to Gomont’s wistfully ironic tale.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Son of the Stars, More Animated Romanian Science Fiction

In a galaxy far, far away, the principles of time and engineering are warped. It is known as the Van Kleef Belt and it is sort of like the deep space version of the Sargasso Sea. Ships that fly into never leave—and their crews cannot properly die. Dan’s parents mistakenly ventured inside and now they are lost in space. Their son must grow up on an alien world, where he finds his destiny in Calin Cazan & Mircea Toia’s The Son of the Stars, now available in a limited edition BluRay.

Back in the 1980s, Cazan and Toia took a shot at building Romania into a sci-fi animation powerhouse. They did not conquer the world, but their films are now attracting a cult following.
 Son of the Stars is their follow-up to Delta Space Mission and maybe a sequel, but it is hard to find a lot of connecting tissue. Whereas DSM was Star Wars crossed with 2001, Son of the Stars is Star Wars crossed with Tarzan. Our young Skywalker is a precocious little boy traveling through space with his interstellar explorer parents, Roxanna and Alex, until they pick up a distress call from Andra O’Neil, who is sort of a space-faring Amelia Earhart, who famously disappeared centuries ago.

Owing it to history and science to investigate, they follow her signal into the Van Kleef Belt, where their craft, the Argos, is damaged. Both parents manage to repair the engine, but their service module is lost, leaving Dan in the care of Bob, the ship’s AI. He lands on the planet Doreea, under the influence of the Van Kleef distortion, where Dan is raised by an alien race that look like Shmoos. They teach him to communicate telepathically and develop telekinetic powers (kind of like the Force).

It turns out they are not indigenous to Doreea either. They too were shipwrecked on the planet. Some of the aliens believe Dan has the potential to liberate them from the Van Kleef, which is not just a radioactive zone. It is a massively powerful evil cosmic entity.

As is the case with
DSM, it is hard to read a great deal of politics or ideology into The Son of the Stars. Maybe the regime was happy with a story in which a mortal rises up against a god-like figure. However, maybe you can discern echoes of a certain someone in Dan, the mortal yet something more, who is also destined to redeem humanity.

Son of the Stars is appealingly funky, rendered in a style that looks like equal parts Fantastic Planet and Jonny Quest. The alien environments are trippy and exotic looking, whereas the figures are not very life-like, but they have their throwback charm. With his medallion and shoulder-length blond hair, Dan could pass for a 1970s California lifeguard or yoga instructor, but that’s not all bad.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Liaison, in The Epoch Times

The high stakes intrigue, scummy French villains, and acerbic Peter Mullan keep viewers hooked, compensating for the dubious central relationship of Apple TV+'s LIAISON. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

The Consultant, on Prime

Much to their surprise, the employees of this mobile gaming company will have to return to the office, whether they like it or not. Regus Patoff, the corporate consultant now calling the shots is not exactly old school, but he certainly does not care what people think of him. He might even pull their accounts back into the black, but it could cost more than their corporate culture in creator Tony Basgallop’s eight episode The Consultant, adapted from Bentley Little’s novel, which premieres today on Prime.

Elaine Hayman assumed her boss’s unexpected death would also mean the demise of CompWare, but then Patoff shows up a few days later with a contract signed by the late Sang Woo, giving him complete operating authority. At his first company meeting, everyone logging-in remotely is given one hour to come into the office or they are fired. Patoff also threatens to pink-slip any employee he deems foul-smelling. He never appears to leave the office, where he constantly demands Hayman meet him at unprofessionally early hours. Yet, he always seems fresh and immaculately dressed.

The clever thing about the early episodes is the ambiguity surrounding Patoff. His name is revealed to be an alias right from the start, but his strategies are not always utterly irredeemable. In fact, the Mephistophelean consultant is open to new game pitches from frustrated staffers like Craig Horne, Hayman’s former office hook-up whom she still keeps flirting with, despite his engagement to the decidedly Catholic and un-slackerly Patti. However, as Patoff pushes the company to launch Horne’s unlikely game concept, he forces everyone around him to make Faustian bargains, especially Hayman.

The Consultant cannot really be called a “workplace” comedy or drama, because CompWare is not a proper workplace, at least not until Patoff shows up. Unfortunately, Patoff’s potential for creative destruction eventually dissolves into predictably sinister and not particularly logical villainy in the later episodes.

Frankly, it is like Basgallop’s adaptation just implodes. For a while, Hayman and Horne sleuth out bizarre hints to Patoff’s backstory, but none of that intriguingly weird material pays off at the end. Even more troublingly, there are times when the character of Patti seems to be targeted for manipulation out of a desire to see a Roman Catholic corrupted, which constitutes religious bigotry (for instance, she has fantasy-delusions involving the confessional booth).

It is a shame that such a strong start eventually runs off course and crashes. The episodes, around thirty-five minutes each, are initially highly bingeable and promise mystery and intrigue at an unusually weird level. Christoph is perfectly cast as Patoff, delivering each verbal barb with gleefully sly understatement. He might be a monster to work for (literally), but it sure looks like he enjoys his job.

12 Desperate Hours, on Lifetime

Ann Rule fans might not recognize this title. It is drawn from her true crime collection Last Dance, Last Chance, but it is not the novella about the nefarious plastic surgeon that had the lion share of the page-count. Instead, it is one of two shorter pieces chronicling the crimes of parolees, who in retrospect, never should have been released. Denny Tuohmy definitely poses a danger to Val Jane and her two young sons when he takes them hostage in Gina Gershon’s 12 Desperate Hours, which premieres tomorrow night on Lifetime.

Val and Mark Jane have a nice suburban home, but money has been tight and their marriage is maybe getting a little stale. Then one morning, after he already left for work, she answers the door to find a sawed-off shotgun pointed in her face. At first, Tuohmy wants to wait for Jane to come home, so he can carjack him, but the worried mother convinces him to take her and her mom-SUV instead.

With Mother Jane as his chauffeur, hostage, and reluctant accomplice, Tuohmy sets out looking for the ex-girlfriend he is convinced still loves him. Their first fateful stop will be her mother’s house, who tells Tuohmy exactly what she thinks of him, in brutally honest terms. This could be a mistake.

Despite the Ann Rule brand,
12 Desperate Hours is pretty standard TV-movie stuff, starting with the flat, pedestrian direction from Gershon, the Showgirls thesp. However, she has a bit of a fresh take on the familiar hostage scenario. While Val never develops a full case of Stockholm syndrome, she had some sympathy for her captor—enough to try to broker a peaceful solution to their drama.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Doc Fortnight ’23: A Long Journey Home

They were never really given a choice in the deal, but the Chinese people were promised prosperity, stability, and happiness, if they gave up a little freedom. That is the “Chinese Dream,” but it isn’t working, at least not for Wenqian Zhang’s family. They are all totally miserable and she has the video that proves it in A Long Journey Home, which screens during MoMA’s 2023 Documentary Fortnight.

Zhang has just moved back home after studying abroad and it is super-awkward. Her mother constantly reminds her filmmaker daughter how much the family spent on her education, when she is not belittling her father. As we glean from Zhang’s conversations with him, he made a play to become a tycoon in the mid-1990s, but failed due to a combination of bad luck, corruption, and/or insufficient insider contacts. Nevertheless, she seems to have the greatest rapport with him out of all her immediate family.

Long Journey Home
is just over two hours, but not a lot of earth-shattering events happens, except an awful lot of arguing about money. Technically, it does not address the annual mass-migration of migrant Chinese workers to their countryside homes for Chinese New Year documented in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, but the echoes are likely intentional. We definitely get the sense Zhang has traveled from an even greater distance mentally for her somewhat strained homecoming.

Longstreet: The Way of the intercepting Fist

When you are blind and have a dangerous job, like insurance investigator, Zatoichi is a worthy role model. Who better to train Mike Longstreet in martial arts than the greatest ever? Not this week’s GOAT or last week’s GOAT, but the greatest, period. That would be Bruce Lee, whose guest-starring appearance on Longstreet grew into a four-episode recurring role. After thugs jump him on the waterfront, Longstreet asks Li Tsung to train his body, but he trains the detective’s mind instead in “The Way of the Intercepting Fist,” which screens Saturday at UCLA (along with Enter the Dragon).

The bomb that killed Longstreet’s wife in the pilot TV-movie also left him blind, but hardly defeated. He is working more cases than ever, but when he noses around a port-based cargo-theft operation, three longshoreman goons rough him up. Fortunately, Li comes along in time to return the favor. Suddenly feeling rather vulnerable, Longstreet asks the martial artist to help train him, which he does.

However, Li first must strip away Longstreet’s false preconceptions. Although this episode is credited to series creator Sterling Silliphant, it was written with extensive input from Lee (who previously worked with the writer on
Marlowe). He consciously took advantage of the opportunity to spread his philosophy and conception of Jeet Kune Do. At one point, Li tells Longstreet to “Be Water,” so, mic-drop.

You can also see Lee’s influence in the way Longstreet’s big showdown with his knuckle-dragging assailant, Jim Bolte, shakes out. Frankly, Li is against it, because vengeance is not a worthy goal for a true martial artist. Anyone deeply steeped in the martial arts has the discipline and wisdom to prefer the path of peace. Then, when it finally comes, it is realistically messy, rather than a one-sided beat-down ballet.

Obviously, Lee has the moves and he is charismatic delivering the wisdom Longstreet does not always want to hear. It is easy to see why Silliphant found a way to bring him back three more times. As for the regulars, James Franciscus looks pretty blow-dried as Longstreet, but he takes a credible beating. Frankly, Quinn-Martin regular Peter Mark Richman was probably miscast as his colleague Duke Paige, because he looks and sounds like a TV corporate villain (at least in this episode). As a bonus, Louis Gossett Jr. also guest-stars as Sgt. Cory, the cops’ undercover eyes and ears on the docks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Bunker: More WWI Horror

Private Segura is probably a lot like my great-grandfather, who served in WWI as a member of the New Mexico National Guard, even though it had only been a state since 1912. However, Segura encounters something supernaturally evil in a German bunker that Great-grandfather never had to worry about—presumably, since you are reading this review. The Germans suddenly don’t look so bad in Adrian Langley’s Bunker, which opens Friday in theaters.

Lucky Segura is a medic, who is part of the paltry reinforcements Captain Hall delivers to Lt. Turner. His primarily British contingent has been locked in a stalemate that appears set in concrete. Yet, rather inexplicably, it appears the Germans have completely abandoned their positions, so Turner mobilizes his battered remnants to capture that ground. What they find in the bunker is a German, strung up crucifixion-style.

Turner has Segura tend to the POW, in hopes of eliciting answers. However, they are interrupted when the Germans start shelling their own abandoned bunker, cutting off the rag-tag Allies from the above-ground. Then people start acting a little twitchy—and then more than a little crazy.

For obvious reasons,
Bunker is very similar in tone to Trench 11, but the horror element is supernatural rather than monstrous. In some ways, it almost feels like a dark parable, but there is an evil entity that eventually reveals himself—and the creature design work bringing it to life is pretty cool.

Eddie Ramos is also rock-solid anchoring the film as Segura. His tough street smarts contrast well with the Brits, especially Patrick Moltane as the martinet Turner. Think of him as Benedict Cumberbatch’s
1917 officer magically inserted into a horror film. Indeed, Moltane goes nuts pretty spectacularly. Luke Baines is also enormously creepy as the mysterious POW.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Linoleum: Rocket Science in Suburbia

As a scientist, Cameron Edwin could explain the physics behind his mid-life crisis, but it really isn’t hard to get. His wife is divorcing him, he is getting forced out of his job, and his father is suffering from increasingly pronounced dementia. However, instead of buying a flashy car, he decides to build an interstellar rocket. Plus, stuff keeps dropping out of the clear blue sky in Colin West’s hard to classify Linoleum, which opens Friday in New York.

One day, a sports car fell from the sky before Edwin’s very eyes. His kids are interested in the story, but his wife Erin is not so impressed. Of course, she is divorcing him. Weirdly, the man he helped crawl out of the vehicle looks a lot like him—and also a lot like the jerk replacing him on his
Mr. Wizard-like show. He is sort of like Bill Nye, the Science Guy, but Edwin actually has advanced degrees in science.

The next day, a rocket falls into their backyard. The FAA cordons off their home and then disappears, allowing Edwin to start fitting together the crash debris. Rather awkwardly, his younger doppelganger-replacement Kent Armstrong, moved in across the street, but Armstrong’s son Marc is not a bad guy. Edwin’s teen daughter Nora also kind of likes him to, but not in romantic way, because he isn’t her
type—or so she keeps insisting.

In terms of tone,
Linoleum is sort of like the sf geek’s version of American Beauty, but without the pretentious excesses. Frankly, it might be easier to guess what is going on in Linoleum from reading about it than trying to guess its big twist as a viewer coming in cold.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Draw Me Saint-Exupery, on OVID.tv

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupery crashed planes on multiple continents. He led a dashing life and saw one of his adult books adapted as a Clark Gable film, even though he did not exactly look like a matinee idol himself. Yet, he is almost entirely remembered as a children’s book author. Andres Jarach profiles the man who wrote The Little Prince in Draw Me Saint Exupery, which premieres Thursday on OVID.tv.

If you are looking for a deep dive into
The Little Prince, Jarach is likely to disappoint. He largely assumes you already know about the Price, the Aviator, and the Flower. Instead, he focuses on the rest of Saint-Exupery’s life. He was a WWI veteran, but to a large degree, his public image and world view were shaped by his time with. Aeropostale.

Through vintage interview and aerial footage, Jarach conveys the romanticism of Aeropostale pilots at their peak, as well as the vital role they played connecting France to North Africa and Latin America. You could directly compare them to the Pony Express, but with greater refinement. Having a bit of a reputation for recklessness, Saint-Exupery was eventually promoted from pilot to a kind of trouble-shooter, who often arranged the release of pilots taken hostage by North African warlords.

There really isn’t much of the Prince, but viewers still get a lot of the book’s vibe, because Jarach often overlays his archival footage with animated accents and flourishes, done in the style of Saint-Exupery’s
Little Prince illustrations. It is all quite elegant looking and somewhat whimsical, even though the tenor of the author’s lifetime was anything but.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

American Experience: Ruthless—Monopoly’s Secret History

It originated as a device to promote Henry George’s economic philosophy that was popularized by Quakers, but it is now a shining symbol of capitalism. The ironic history of the best-selling Parker Brothers board game is very incompletely told in writer-producer-director Stephen Ives’ Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS, as part of the current season of American Experience.

Ives does not start at the beginning. Instead, he chronicles the research of Ralph Anspach, an economics professor, who fought the cease & desist litigation launched against his “Anti-Monopoly” spoof board game. Ives never mentions Anspach fought on behalf of Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and served in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Philippines, which would have made him a much more sympathetic figure for a lot of viewers.

To undercut the patent of the supposed “inventor,” Charles Darrow, who sold the game to Parker Brothers, Anspach uncovered the game’s folk origins. Probably, the first incarnation was created by Lizzie Magie, an ardent follower of Henry George.

The history of Monopoly is pretty interesting, but Ives’ scope is quite narrow. He never discusses the evolution of the so-called “Monopoly Man” into a recognizable character in his own right. Nor does he explore recent developments, like the popular McDonalds Monopoly game, which was embroiled in a scandal documented in HBO’s multi-part
McMillions. Frankly, this really isn’t the Monopoly story. It is the story of Anspach’s “Anti-Monopoly.”

That would be fine, as long as
American Experience announced it properly. The problem with Ruthless is the complete absence of diverse opinions. Every single one of Ives’ talking heads disparages the creative power of capitalism. Over and over again, we hear there is no such thing as an even starting line in America. That is their opinion—and when we hear as often as we do in Ruthless, it becomes dull and tedious.

Honestly, it is easy to defend Darrow. Nobody else was marketing Monopoly, so why shouldn’t he try? Darrow was unemployed during the Great Depression, with a special needs child. Initially, he took all the risks self-producing his own copies before selling the rights to Parker Brothers. He saved the company, its employees, and his family from ruin, so why does
Ruthless consider him a bad guy?

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Magnum P.I.: The Passenger & The Breaking Point

NBC just saved Hawaii’s state economy. Since Hawaii Five-0 ended, CBS’s surprise cancelation of the Magnum P.I. reboot came as a particularly hard blow to the local film industry. However, the ratings were good and the show definitely fits with NBC’s new strategy of mining 80’s gold, fitting in nicely with their new Night Court and Quantum Leap shows. Magnum works two new cases with some reluctant help from his friends in “The Passenger” and “The Breaking Point,” the first two episodes of NBC’s first new season of Magnum P.I., premiering tomorrow night.

As the opening narration makes clear, the “new” Rick and TC are basically the same as the old ones. The “new” Higgins is Juliet Higgins, a former MI6 agent, who was first Magnum’s Tracy-and-Hepburn-style foil on the Robin Masters estate, then his
Moonlighting-style partner in detective work, and as of the prior series finale, his Thin Man-esque romantic partner. They are trying to keep their new relationship on the downlow, but a good deal of “The Passenger” focuses on how they adjust professionally, or not, to their new personal arrangement.

The story itself, investigating a doctor’s suspicious accident is mostly routine, but instead of going in a cynical direction, the truth turns out to be rather edifying. It also teases a brief appearance from the great James Remar, as Magnum’s disgraced mentor, Captain Buck Greene, whose troubles appear likely to dominate the coming season.

One of the best aspects of the
Magnum reboot comes out clearly in “The Breaking Point.” Jay Fernandez might not have Tom Selleck’s megawatt screen presence, but the new show is still one of the more veteran-friendly series on television (along with Blue Bloods, as it happens). While Magnum and Higgins go undercover as lifeguards (which is always a solid option for a Hawaiian based TV-show), TC and his annoying small-time operator friend Jin Jeong win an auction for an abandoned storage locker holding a prolific but freshly incarcerated burglar’s stash. Among the loot is a Purple Heart that TC, the former Marine insists they return to its rightful owner.

Bobby Lee is like fingernails on a blackboard as Jeong, but this subplot pays off in a big way, connecting with some very important Hawaiian history. The camaraderie of Magnum and his friends is also rooted in their service, and it definitely elevates the show.

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Hidden Blade, Starring “Little” Tony Leung

You know this film must be propaganda, when it is the third installment of the so-called “China Victory Trilogy,” especially when the first two films magically transformed disasters into “victories.” In Chinese Doctors, the doctors of Wuhan bravely battle the spread of Covid-19, whereas in reality, the authorities did their best to cover it up. Then came The Battle of Lake Changsin, rewriting the history of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which 120,000 PLA troops surrounded 30,000 UN Forces, who managed to slip through their encirclement to fight another day. At least the Japanese really did lose WWII, but it is highly debatable how much Mao’s Communists contributed to their defeat. Of course, that is not how director-screenwriter Cheng Er tells it in The Hidden Blade, which opens today in New York.

The Japanese think Mr. He is the director of their Shanghai counter-intelligence operation, but he is actually a double agent truly loyal to the Communist Party’s Special Branch. One of his duties is eliminating traitors like Liang, whom he meets with in the prologue. Eventually, the film will catch back up to this scene, as it flashes backwards and forwards. It almost seems like Cheng deliberately fractured his narrative to obscure the film’s didactic implications.

Regardless, it seems only Mr. He’s chief enforcer, Mr. Ye ever starts to wonder about him, even though his behavior is highly suspicious. Mr. He certainly has his Japanese military boss Watanabe fooled. The stakes are certainly high for him, since He’s lover, Ms. Chen is active Communist agent.

Frankly, if it were not for Cheng’s narrative gamesmanship and obfuscations, the story here would be pretty straight forward. Naturally, it still slavishly follows the Party Line. Cheng is much more successful as a visual stylist than a burnisher of national myths, because the film has a strikingly noir look. It makes you think Shanghai during the war couldn’t have been so bad, judging from all the late night cafes that were operating.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Hello Tomorrow! in the Epoch Times

The retro-futuristic world of HELLO TOMORROW! looks cool and Billy Crudup really delivers as the traveling sales selling hope and Moon units. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Emily: The Middle Bronte Sister

Except for a few poems also published, Emily Bronte is basically a one-hit wonder, but as part of the Bronte Sisters, she doesn’t seem like one. Of course, the Brontes wouldn’t be the same Brontes without Wuthering Heights. Her short but appropriately melodramatic life is somewhat speculatively dramatized in director-screenwriter Frances O’Connor’s Emily, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Emily is always considered the flaky Bronte sister, especially her father, Patrick. The stern minister expected all his surviving daughters to be educated and find employment as teachers, but Emily fell apart whenever she left the Bronte ancestral home. If it was any consolation, her ne-er-do-well brother Branwell is an even greater disappointment, so naturally they bond over their love of poetry and mischievous pranks.

Initially, the middle Bronte sister think very little of the new curate, William Weightman, who shares her father’s faith-above-reason approach to theology. At first, she resents his moralizing, especially when tutoring her in French. However, their bickering eventually melts into an ill-fated romance.

Bronte’s relationship with Weightman is almost entirely fictionalized, as are some of the colorful gothic episodes O’Connor cooks up, but they all fit with the Bronte legend. In fact, there are some sequences with a creepy mask that are surprisingly cool and effective.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Red Rose, on Netflix

Gen. X has always been paranoid about online privacy—and constantly vindicated for it. You won’t find the Underrated Generation downloading the evil app of this new British series, but Gen Z reliably falls into its trap. Malware doesn’t get much nastier than the app driving the Clarkson (Michael & Paul) Twins’ eight-part Red Rose, which premieres today on Netflix.

Rochelle “Roch” Mason is smart and tough, but she is keenly aware of family’s lowly economic status. She is also still grieving, and embarrassed by, her mother’s suicide. That makes her a prime target for the predatory Red Rose, which presumably just drove the teenaged girl in the
Scream-like prologue to commit suicide. Initially, the app gives her life-coaching prompts that seem to improve her standing. However, it also cuts her off from contact with her tight-knit circle of friends. It even sends texts and social media posts guaranteed to isolate Mason from her support system. Finally, it apparently summons the voice of her mother, from beyond the grave, to torment her.

Not to be spoilery, but Wren Davies will have reason to suspect the Red Rose app had a sinister influence on her former friend, so she will download it too, to see for herself. Unlike Mason, Davies tries her best to experience Red Rose in the presence of her friends, so they can bear witness to its evil tricks. Of course, nobody will believe them, except Jaya Mahajan, a computer geek classmate with hipster-hacker connections, who becomes a post-graduation addition to their friend group.

Mahajan is a critical addition to the series as well, preventing it from becoming an eight-part rehash of
Unfriended: Dark Web. Thanks to her, they get proactive, instead of simply sitting around waiting to die (or hastening the process). Ashna Rabheru’s portrayal is convincingly intelligent, as well as charismatic. Frankly, the series probably should have focused on her from the start. She far outshines Amelia Clarkson and Isis Hainsworth, playing Davies and Mason. Plus, if there is ever a second season, she would have to be one of the central figures.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Refuge, Graphic Novel

The names of some places just promise too much, like Garden City. That is even more true of the town “Refuge.” It was founded as a community of freed slaves in the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma, but it was never a very safe place to be, even before the ominous preacher arrives in Bill Campbell’s graphic novel Refuge, illustrated by Louis Netter, which goes on-sale today.

Sheriff Desi Leans is sort of the leader of Refuge, but it is a very decentralized community. Nevertheless, he brokers a truce with the Testimony Gang, a band of former Buffalo Soldiers that had formerly waged war against the Native tribes. However, their real leader is the loftily-named Prester John, a fire-and-brimstone minister in the tradition of Charles Laughton's 
Night of the Hunter.

Like it or not, there will be a war-waged for the soul of Refuge. There are those who believe in the values the town was founded on, but the underlying tensions between the former slaves and the tribes of the territory are too easy to exploit.

Refuge is an ambiguously weird western and a massively revisionist one that empties both barrels into the Manifest Destiny mythology of the frontier. That is all fine, but the narrative unfolds rather slowly, in a strangely talky fashion. This is particularly frustrating given the frequent difficulty in reading the lettering (at least as reflected in the digital gallery). The characters are also too thinly drawn. Readers will have trouble recalling any personal details about Leans or his deputy, Gay Day, beyond their immediate functions.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul

Why is "globalization" such a dirty word, to both the far left and far right? Isn’t it nice to have a film directed by a French-Cambodian filmmaker, starring a French-Korean thesp, shot on-location in South Korea and Romania that was submitted for the International Oscar by Cambodia? Of course, it is, when it is a good film. Ironically, the French-Korean adoptee of Davy Chou’s film might be the most critical of international interconnectedness, even though she becomes quite adept at mediating between cultures and countries. Finding her roots and her identity is a fraught process in Chou’s Return to Seoul, which opens this Friday in New York.

Frederique “Freddie” Benoit was adopted by a loving French couple during the height of the Korean adoption boom. Many adoptees return in hopes of finding her birth family, but Benoit initially kids herself into thinking her trip was a spur of the moment lark. Therefore, she did no advance preparation, which could have facilitated the process.

Nevertheless, sufficient formalities are settled, allowing the adoption center to contact Benoit’s birthparents, by antiquated “telegram,” so as not to be intrusive. It will be their choice to contact her, which her guilt-wracked father does so, immediately. Having separated, he and her mother seem to be a very different minds, because Benoit waits in vain for the unknown woman to call.

Indeed, very little of this first trip could be described as “storybook.” Instead of a tearful reunion, Benoit is put off by her birth-father’s awkward attempts to reconnect and his blubbering displays of emotion. As a French hipster, she has no intention of moving in with his family or letting him find her a husband. Frankly, she becomes rather dismissive, even though her new French-speaking Korean friend Tena somewhat softens her harsh words when translating for them.

Things change somewhat when she returns two years later. Instead of a French hipster, she assumes the role of a Korean hipster. Again, we meet a very different Benoit two years after that, when Benoit returns to Seoul once again, this time partly for business, now that she has one of the coolest jobs ever: international arms dealer. Don’t freak out. Benoit and her boss Andre only broker deals with governments that should have the latest advanced armaments, exactly like the Republic of Korea (ROK).

One thing is certain: Freddie Benoit is no cliché. Chou and visual artist-first-time-thesp Park Ji-min made great efforts to avoid most of the obvious sexualized or sentimentalized stereotypes. Frankly, Benoit can be exhausting to spend time with, but Park vividly projects a sense of the resentments and conflicting emotions bottled up inside her. It is an unusually complex and challenging performance.

The Other Fellow: The Men with a Spy’s Name

In 1966, a talented jazz and blues bassist recorded an album of Bond themes. He had more right than anyone to indulge in such a gimmick, because his name was Bond, Jimmy Bond. Sadly, he is not covered in this documentary about Bond namesakes.  As usual, jazz musicians get overlooked by the media. However, there are still some interesting stories in Matthew Bauer’s The Other Fellow, which releases this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

Most of Bauer’s interview subjects say their name can be both a curse and a blessing. For many, it is more of a curse. Yet, some at least one gent actually changed his name to “James Bond.” That would be the Swedish James Bond, whose Bond obsession was partly motivated by a resentment of the father who abandoned his family.

It turns out the James Bond name can be a real drag when you get pulled over by the cops. It is a real bummer when you are a “James Bond” wanted for murder in South Bend, Indiana—especially if you happen to be another James Bond living in South Bend, even more so when you work with a non-profit that helps disabled children experience hunting, with live firearms. It is definitely a name that stands out and amplifies unfortunate situations.

Yet, the most powerful sequences in
Other Fellow involve a battered mother, whose relation to the Bond name is not immediately evident. It is a harrowing story, but her resilience and cleverness is edifying. For the most part, Bauer focuses contemporary Bond namesakes, so there is no Jimmy Bond (even though he is quite notable, having recorded with Chet Baker, Nina Simone, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee).

Man from U.N.C.L.E.: See-Paris-and-Die Affair, Featuring Jimmy Bond

Believe it or not, James Bond appeared on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. twice—sort of. In the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., George Lazenby played an English super-spy simply referred to as “James,” so as not to risk violating any copyrights or trademarks. Before that, the real Bond appeared on the series at the height of their popularity. That would be Jimmy Bond, the jazz and blues bassist, who recorded a version of the shows theme with a group of session musicians billed as “The Gallants.” That made them the perfect combo to back-up an American jazz vocalist recruited to infiltrate ring of diamond thieves in the “See-Paris-and-Die Affair” episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was not cover in the upcoming James Bond namesake documentary, The Other Fellow.

The Van Schreeten cousins didn’t just steal diamonds from the syndicate. They stole so many, the cartel is forking out monthly payments to stop them from dumping them on the open market to crash prices. Understandably, this has attracted the attention of both U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush. The Van Schreetens think Corio is their henchmen, but he is actually an undercover Thrush agent. Solo and Kuryakin need their own insider, so they recruit Mary Pilgrim, an American jazz vocalist.

It turns out Pilgrim is now studying opera, but Max Van Shreeten does not know that. He has carried a torch for her since they dated in college. Now that he is flush with cash, he bought a Parisian club to win her back. That is a lot for Pilgrim to take in, but Solo will charm her into cooperating.

That is indeed the Gallants accompanying at Van Shreeten’s her on “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” It isn’t a great feature spot for Kathryn Hays portraying Pilgrim, but the Gallants (also including the great jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins) also contribute some jazzy instrumental themes. Hays hogged most of their screentime, but at least they are credited by name at the end. After all, they were appearing to promote their official
Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme recording.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Vampus Horror Tales

In anthology movies, the host is the most important part. In this case, Vampus is less macabre-looking than Tales from the Crypt’s Crypt Keeper (just barely), but the grave digger does similar work. Unlike most anthology framers, Vampus also ranks up a significant body-count of his own in Vampus Horror Tales, which releases Tuesday on VOD.

Vampus hates it when people call him Mr. Fettes, maybe because it is weird to be named after James Bond’s boarding school. Regardless, those like the obnoxious YouTuber touring his cemetery usually wind up dead. Vampus’s segments are the best parts of his film—by far—whereas the constituent tales are a rather mixed bag
 (but they all share consistently stylish black-and-white cinematography).

It starts with a pretty good one, “La Boda,” directed by Manuel Martinez Velasco, in which a bride and one of the groomsmen find themselves stuck in a nightmarish time-loop. It is still a horror story, rather than science fiction, as you can tell from the blood on their clothes.

Perhaps the best self-contained tale is Erika Elizalde’s “Cumpleanos,” essentially a mini slasher film evocatively set in a carnival funhouse, whose various attractions pay homage to classic horror films. Montse Pla and Dunia Rodriguez are surprisingly fierce as the two women on the not-so romantic ride.

“Segunda Cita” starts as a promising riff on
Wait Until Dark, wherein the blind Margot realizes her new boyfriend is a psycho, who isn’t wearing pants. Unwisely, she agreed to join him for a weekend at his remote summer house, where he intends to kill her. Director Isaac Berrocal sets it up nicely, but turns out disappointingly conventional.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Reading, on BET+

Most movie psychics are either scamming frauds or the tormented real deal. Sky Brown is the worst of both. She can genuinely connect with the dead, who then become very angry when they see Brown and their friends conning their loved ones out of money. It is getting harder to keep them at bay, so Brown wants out, but she agrees to one last high-paying job in Courtney Glaude’s The Reading, produced and “presented” by Lee Daniels, which is now streaming on BET+.

Emma Leeden just barely survived the violent home invasion that left her husband, teen daughter, and young son brutally murdered. She is truly a survivor, who is currently promoting her empowering memoir. To spur sales, Leeden’s publicist hires Brown’s crew to stage a reading with her. Gregory, the ringleader of their scam knows Brown is having a spiritual crisis of sorts, but he high-pressures her to agree anyway.

Of course, Leeden and her publicist assume Brown is a fraud, so they are pretty surprised when she starts telling Leeden things they did not previously leak to her. Then all heck breaks lose and Brown finds herself trapped with friends in Leeden’s smartly-secured, bullet-proofed McMansion.

The Reading
has a big twist that is surprisingly effective if you do not see it coming—so this should be the only review you read. It turns into a very different kind of horror movie, but the ending implies a promise of a sequel that might be more in line with what Glaude initially presents The Reading to be. Regardless, he nimbly helms the film, pulling off the big shockeroni and then directing all the traffic of the resulting chaos.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Consecration, Starring Danny Huston

This troubled convent sits amid the only independent land in Scotland—because it is owned by the Vatican. However, being reasonable people, the Church still allows the local police to investigate a brutal murder-suicide committed there. They even open their doors to Grace O’Rourke, whose brother allegedly killed a priest, before taking his own life. Skeptical of their story, she is determined to uncover the truth in Christopher Smith’s Consecration, which opens today in New York.

O’Rourke and her brother Michael endured a harrowing childhood, but they went their separate ways in adulthood. She is an outspoken atheist optometrist, while he was involved with rigorously devout Catholic sect. She therefore refuses to believe Michael killed himself. Sure enough, she uncovers inconsistencies in the handing of his body that lead directly back to the severe Mother Superior.

That does not sit well with Father Romero, who is visiting from the Vatican to re-consecrate the chapel. He is not amused with the Mother Superior’s questionable initiative, but he also seems to have his own agenda. Nevertheless, he encourages O’Rourke to keep digging, including research into the convent’s colorful crusader-era history.

Smith clearly took a great deal of inspiration from films like
Mother Joan of the Angels, because he revels in similar imagery of prostrate nuns. As Kawalerowicz, Smith and co-screenwriter Laurie Cook convincingly suggest the distinction between devotion and madness is sometimes difficulty to draw. However, like any halfway effective demonic thriller, Consecration leaves us with the unsettling understanding that evil, as understood in Biblical terms, is something that is tangibly real.

Nevertheless, Smith is no William Peter Blatty, either in his capacity to get under viewers’ skin or his faith in the Church to combat the forces of darkness. Frankly,
Consecration is about as anti-Church as a religious horror film can get and still function to any degree.

Daughter, Starring Casper Van Dien

Four years ago, the menacing unnamed “Father,” who refuses to allow his family outside their modest country home, would have been considered abusive and borderline psychotic. Then, for two and a half years, the media would have considered him a model parent. Now, hopefully he is back to being a sinister creep. Regardless, kidnaping his improvised family would have always been illegal, but it is questionable whether he would be prosecuted in the current Bragg-Gascon-Boudin era. Indeed, his latest abductee is pretty much on her own in Corey Deshon’s Daughter, which releases today in theaters and on VOD.

We see what happened to “Sister’s” predecessor when she tried to run away. It isn’t pretty. Of course, Father guilt trips “Mother” for not preventing it, because he is a stone-cold manipulator. To replace her, he abducts the a new “Daughter,” to act as the “Sister” to “Brother,” whose well-being seems to be Father’s motivation for everything.

Apparently, the sickly Brother has been brainwashed into believing some kind of disaster has rendered the outside atmosphere unbreathable. For some reason, Father is raising Brother to believe he is the only hope for saving the world. However, he is sickly and therefore requires the sheltering attention new Sister will help provide. Brother is a little off too, but not in a menacing way. He is not likely to deliberately betray her, but Daughter just cannot trust Mother, a long-term captive resigned to her circumstances, despite their shared heritage and Vietnamese fluency.

Thursday, February 09, 2023


Nobody ever made much money from a bookstore, especially one with a literary bent. It is therefore a little confusing when a film about con artists and grifters initially spends so much time with Tom, a mild-mannered bookstore owner. However, we eventually learn he has a complicated backstory. So does everyone else in Benjamin Caron’s Sharper, which opens in theaters tomorrow, before hitting Apple TV+ a week later.

Tom was leading a quiet life until Sandra came into his store, looking for a suitable copy of Zora Neale Hurston. As their relationship progresses, they seem perfect together—maybe a little too perfect. Eventually, we will flashback to Max, a grifter (or sharper) preparing for a big score. He often works with his somewhat older lover Madeline, but in the scam we see unfolding, he pretends to be her son. That definitely gives the film a similar vibe to Stephen Frears’
The Grifters, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing.

It is hard to reveal much more than that without getting spoilery. As fans of films in the tradition of
The Sting would hope and expect, there are a lot of cons within cons going on. Frankly, it is pretty easy to guess the final third act twist, but it provides the payback viewers will be hoping for, so it is still fun to see how it is accomplished.

Julianne Moore is terrific as Madeline. She is some kind of femme fatale. According to press reports,
Sharper also represents the first time in fifteen years she has held a firearm on-screen, so lets all welcome her back to the entertainment industry. Opposite her, Sebastian Stan does some of his best work yet as the spectacularly snake-like Max. Justice Smith provides a grounded counterpoint as the naive and impractical Tom, while the great John Lithgow is as compulsively watchable as ever, playing billionaire Richard Hobbes (obviously, he must be one of the marks, since he is a billionaire).