Sunday, April 30, 2023

Rialto at MoMA: It Always Rains on Sunday

These Eastenders lived gritty working-class lives not unlike those of the long-running British soap opera, but their story is much more noir. Ealing Studios put themselves on the map with this slice-of-life story that explored the aspirations and regrets of a wide circle of characters, tangentially related to an escaped prison inmate currently at-large. Post-war life is hard, even for the criminals in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, which screens as part of MoMA’s Rialto at 25 film series.

Tommy Swann once swept Rose Sandigate off her feet, but went he was sentenced to prison, she settled down with her current husband George Sandigate—with the emphasis on “settle.” Her relationship with her step-daughters is strained, to put it mildly. To the annoyance of Vi and Doris Sandigate, their good-natured father largely defers to his second wife. He knows she used to run with a fast crowd, but news of Swann’s escape means nothing to him.

Inevitably, Swann will approach his old flame for help, which she cannot deny him. Initially, she hides him in their old air raid shelter, as she waits for the rest of the family to leave for their Sunday recreation. Meanwhile, the police launch a citywide dragnet, while also searching for a gang of three burglars, who are desperately trying to fence the shipment of roller-skates they mistakenly boosted.

In some ways,
Sunday is Robert Altman-esque film, introducing viewers to a large cast of characters, revealing the unexpected ways they are interconnected. Yet, it also has some gorgeously moody noir sequences (shot by legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe) that would not look out of place in classic Carol Reed film noirs, like Odd Man Out or The Third Man.

Indeed, the last thirty minutes are as good as noir gets. Hamer definitely down-shifts into the third act, but the way the everyday desperations of the first hour builds into the life-and-death conflict of the finale makes perfect emotional and dramatic sense.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Inside the Red Brick Wall & Taking Back the Legislature, in the Epoch Times

INSIDE THE RED BRICK WALL and the shorter companion documentary TAKING BACK THE LEGISLATURE are valuable primary sources documenting the Hong Kong democracy protests. They are inconvenient for the CCP, so everybody should watch them. Combined EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Tom Jones, on PBS

His name should ring a bell and not for singing the theme song to Thunderball. Unfortunately, a lot of English majors can graduate without reading Fielding these days and the 1963 adaptation has steadily lost its critical cachet since winning the Best Picture Oscar. Frankly, the story of the roguish foundling will probably be new to a lot of viewers, but they might not necessarily be watching PBS’s Masterpiece. However, older fans of costume dramas will be interested to see how Gwyneth Hughes’ four-part adaption departs from the novel and Albert Finney film when Tom Jones premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Squire Allworthy was a decent widower, who raised Tom Jones as his own, when he discovered the foundling mysteriously left in his chambers. Frankly, he might be a little too upright, but Jones always appreciated his kindness. In contrast, Jones’ legitimate cousin, William Blifil, and the heir to the estate always hated him, with visceral intensity. That is partly is so determined to be matched with Sophia Western, with whom Jones is clearly smitten. It is quite mutual, but Squire Western is not about to marry her off to a man of Jones’ dubious lineage.

In this adaptation, Miss Sophie is the Squire’s granddaughter. Her father recently passed away on the family’s Jamaican plantation and her mother, a slave, died in childbirth. That was not in the original Fielding. Sophie Wilde (who previously played another Sophie namesake in
The Portable Door) is one of the brightest, most watchable members of this ensemble, but her character’s acutely tragic backstory conflicts with Fielding’s original bawdy mock-epic tone, which Hughes still tries to preserve.

Hughes also largely dispenses with the ironic narrator, which was the whole point of Fielding’s novel (and a major reason why post-structuralist literary critics are drawn to Eighteenth Century literature). There are brief voice-overs, recorded by Wilde, at the start and close of each episode, presumably conceived as a means for Sophie Western to “reclaim the narrative,” but they have little wit.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Citadel, on Prime

Citadel is a lot like U.N.C.L.E., but it is not an acronym, at least not as far as we know yet. The super-secret, trans-national spy agency’s backstory is getting filled in as the series goes along. The problem is, there are not a lot of people left who would know. Nadia Sinh and Mason Kane are two of the handful of agents who survived their enemies’ lethal purge, but their memories were wiped clean, as per agency protocols. With or without their memories, Kane and Sinh will reteam to save the world and themselves in the first season of showrunner David Weil’s Citadel executive produced by the Russo Brothers, which premieres today on Prime Video.

There was definitely some awkward but potently charged history between Sinh and Kane when they found themselves on the same assignment that fateful day. Unfortunately, they were being set up, like every other Citadel agent, as part of a worldwide gambit launched by Manticore, a more buttoned-down corporate cousin of SPECTRE and THRUSH, fronted by the ruthless Dahlia Archer.

Kane basically started over when he woke up in an Italian hospital with no memory of his previous life. In the eight years that followed, he married and had a daughter, but occasionally he has visions of Sinh. The feeling of incompleteness spurs him to launch a highly advanced DNA search, which alerts his old boss, Bernard Orlick—and their old foes at Manticore.

To protect his family, Kane agrees to help Orlick recover Citadel’s global nuclear code skeleton key, before Manticore figures out how to use it. Kane still has no memory of his past, but he can get by on his reflexes and muscle memories. However, when things really get bad, he will need to find Sinh.

is a lot like a lot of other shows and movies (call it The Bourne Citadel), but it is way more expensive (reportedly the second costliest series ever). At least it is much more watchable than the tedious, de-Tolkien-ized The Rings of Power (assumed to be the #1 most expensive). There are non-stop stunts, punctuated by a bunch of explosions, set-off against a rapidly changing panorama of exotic backdrops. There is even a flashback to a mission targeting the Iranian regime, which earns Weil and company credit for actually taking on a real-life bad guy who is really bad.

Freaks vs. the Reich

The National Socialists had two weird obsessions: purity and the occult. It therefore rather follows that a group of super-heroic circus freaks would be their nemeses. Yet, an increasingly unhinged Nazi pianist has a mad dream of harnessing their powers to save the regime. That sounds like an unlikely Hail Mary scheme, but he knows Germany’s defeat is likely from his drug-induced visions of the future in Gabriele Mainetti’s dark superhero fantasy Freaks vs. the Reich (a.k.a. Freaks Out), which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

Fulvio is the wolfman, Mario is the magnetic clown, Cencio is an albino with an Aquaman-like power over bugs, and Matilde harnesses the power of electricity. She is the real deal, not like Rooney Mara in the inferior
Nightmare Alley remake. In fact, all their powers are real, but hers are potentially the most powerful. However, she has issues when it comes to using them to their fullest extent. Her conductivity also somewhat alienates her from humanity, since her touch is potentially fatal. Nevertheless, Cencio still carries a torch for her, which is also creepy, given their apparent age differences.

Nevertheless, the four circus freaks regularly dazzle audiences for old Israel’s traveling sideshow, until the war intervenes. The Germans have invaded their former Italian allies, but at this point of the war, it is not going well for either nation. Franz desperately wants to turn it around for the Reich, but he is probably lucky to be alive, considering he has six fingers on either hand, making him a freak himself. Through liberal ether-huffing, Franz has seen images of the future. As a result, he is convinced only Matilde’s powers can save the Reich.

This is probably the weirdest circus film since Alex de la Iglesia’s
The Last Circus (a.k.a. A Sad Trumpet Ballad), which Freaks also resembles in tone. It is far more macabre than most superhero movies, but that is its strength, whereas its weakness is Mainetti’s inclination to excess, especially the two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time.

Be that as it may, Mainetti and co-screenwriter Nicola Guaglianone earn a lot of points for originality, particularly for their distinctive villain, Franz. He is a sinister psychopath, but it is easy to understand how living with his conspicuous “deformity” in German society helped warp him into the monster we see in the film. Those predisposed to object the film uses him to represent the physically different should keep in mind there is also a band of war-amputee partisans in the woods, waging guerilla attacks against the Germans.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Clock, on Hulu

Lately, streaming services really seem to be out to discredit fertility doctors, like Rachel Wiesz’s disturbed twins in Prime’s Dead Ringers and Pierce Brosnan’s creepy villain in Hulu’s False Positive. Hulu has another one to add to the list. Technically, Dr. Elizabeth Simmons is not administering fertility treatments. She will try to fix Ella Patel’s “biological clock,” so her maternal instincts will finally kick in. Unfortunately, she might rewire her patient so much, she loses her mind in screenwriter-director Alexis Jacknow’s Clock, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

Even though all the Patels’ friends are having rugrats, she remains obstinately opposed to parenthood. Sensing her attitude is starting to be an issue with her husband, Patel considers her new doctor’s referral to Dr. Simmons’ cutting-edge clinic. Her problem might be physical, but not one of low potency. If she can reset her body’s internal clock, she might suddenly want som dirty, smelly children of her own.

Basically, Jacknow invites us to buy into the notion Patel would voluntarily agree to be gaslit into wanting children and then feel surprised when she gets driven all the way out to crazy town. Of course, kneejerk critics will defend the film as a critique of the way medicine disempowers women, but it isn’t their place to convince us. Jacknow needs to do that on the screen, but it never happens.

What Patel’s body goes through at Simmons’ clinic is absolutely horrendous, in a David Cronenberg kind of way. Ill-advisedly, Jacknow somewhat lessens the impact of the body horror with some is-she-nuts-or-not gamesmanship that weirdly undermines what was presumably the whole point of the film. The subplot involving her aging father, the son of Holocaust survivors, also pushes the bounds of exploitation, using his survivors’ guilt to fuel her neurotic perspective on pregnancy.

Sophie Fiennes’ Ralph Fiennes’ T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

Ezra Pound is probably the most advanced American modernist poet ever, but he was not just canceled for his ideology. He was committed to an insane asylum. Critics keep trying to cancel his onetime protégé T.S. Eliot for his conservatism as well, but his comparative accessibility and even greater cultural significance have helped his literary reputation withstand their efforts. In fact, Ralph Fiennes adapted Eliot’s Four Quartets for the stage, which in turn, his filmmaker sibling has transferred to the screen in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, opening tomorrow in New York.

The Hollow Men
and Prufrock probably have a reputation for being somewhat less dense, but it is surprising how contemporary Eliot’s Quartets sound. The opening words of Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future” represent a meditation on the ways humanity relates to time that could easily fit within a post-modernist reading list. However, Eliot later tries to illuminate a path out of the post-structuralist morass, through his high Anglican faith. Indeed, Fiennes recites lines from Little Gidding, like “You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid” with the reverent gravity they deserve.

It is just Fiennes on-stage, barefoot in a rumpled sportscoat, looking very much like a homeless English professor. Yet, his expressive performance and command of Eliot’s language holds up against the stark, surreally minimalist backdrop. This is definitely a spartan production, but it suits Eliot’s aesthetics.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Black Demon

It's a shark, it’s a megalodon, it’s an Aztec god—and a structural engineering inspector. It’s the god, Tlaloc and he is really ticked off. Fortunately, he mostly swims around a soon-to-be decommissioned petroleum platform, which should be easy to avoid, but that is exactly where Paul Sturges and his family go in Adrian Grunberg’s The Black Demon, opening this Friday, only in theaters.

Sturges always enjoyed inspecting this platform, because the town that services it is so quaint and welcoming. He doesn’t even bother making a reservation at his hotel, because planning ahead is for squares. Much to his surprise, he finds the town practically shuttered. The locals who remain are creepy bad-touching rustics. One of them even starts pawing his wife, Ines, who coldcocks him in response. That is why she commandeers a boat to follow her negligent husband out to the oil platform.

Unfortunately, as Sturges already discovered, she finds the platform under siege from a massive prehistoric shark. She and the kids barely make it on to the platform. To get back to the mainland, they need a bigger, more shark-proof boat. Unfortunately, coms are out and even if they weren’t, the villagers are so disgusted with the environmental damage wrought by the platform, they wouldn’t be much inclined to help. In fact, that is why the rag-tag platform survivors believe Tlaloc is terrorizing them. He has judged the rig’s environmental controls and found them lacking.

Maybe when the development process started on
Black Demon the oil rig setting looked like a fresh hook for a shark attack movie. However, in the last sixteen months, Prime’s The Rig, Globo’s Ilha de Ferro, and The Burning Sea have made petroleum platforms a whole lot more familiar. Screenwriters Carlos Cisco and Boise Esquerra also try to introduce elements of New Agey Aztec spirituality, but their corniness is embarrassing.

Sam—a Saxon, on Hulu

The racism Sam Meffire faced in his own native country was so bad, he joined the riot police, for the protection conferred by their reputation. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Yes, he was an East German, but he wasn’t always treated like one. Things were even more complicated after Reunification. Meffire’s story is told, with a don’t-take-it-as-gospel disclaimer in creators Jorg Winger, Christoph Silber, and Tyron Ricketts’ seven-part Sam—a Saxon, which premieres today on Hulu.

For Meffire (the son of a Marxist Cameroonian exchange student, who died under mysterious circumstances), the GDR could be a pretty racist place. His wife Antje and her democracy activist friends understood that, but their first priorities were democratic reforms, like free speech. Consequently, they are shocked when Meffire enrolls in the riot police’s exam, having been inspired by a chance encounter with Major Shreier. As an athlete, Meffire easily passes the physical requirements and Shreier is honest enough to recognize his qualifications.

Of course, the Wall will soon fall, which will force Meffire to start over, but without his estranged wife and their young son. He gets another shot at a law enforcement career with the Dresden police, but it all seems futile when his corrupt superiors keep him sidelined with clerical tasks. However, everything changes with the rise of racist extremism in the former GDR. First, Meffire achieves some personal notoriety as the literal face of an ad campaign for racial tolerance in Saxony. Then he is tapped by the state’s justice minister to put together a task-force targeting the growing National Socialist revival.

Based (somewhat loosely, according to the opening credits) on Meffire’s memoir,
Sam, a Saxon tells a tragic rise-and-fall story. Technically, Meffire is usually right on the issues, but his intransigence and his temper inevitably cause his downfall. In fact, he becomes a violent outlaw, not unlike the criminals he was trying to arrest. Yet, Winger, Silnber, and Ricketts never fully delve into the he-who-fights-monsters-becomes-a-monster irony of his story. Not surprisingly, identity (of the racial, national, East vs. West regional, and social-tribal varieties) overshadows everything.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of historical ironies in
Sam, a Saxon, as when Meffire gets jumped by Nazi-identified thugs in the Workers’ Paradise or when former riot police recruits convert to far-right enforcers. This is an epic story, but the flow is a little clunky. The start of each episode tends to skip ahead a few months (or years), with little transitionary exposition, to explain how Meffire got there. It also shows him making the same mistakes over and over. Every episode we see Meffire alienate someone important in his life, because he is so consumed with his work. That might be true to how people are in real life, but the repetitiveness is a problem on-screen.

Regardless, Malick Bauer is terrific as Meffire. He nearly spontaneously combusts from his nuclear brooding, while his charisma truly pops out of the screen. It is easy to understand why he was chosen to be the face of the “I am a Saxon” campaign.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Sisu: It’s Finnish for “Don’t Mess with Him”

Thanks to Putin, Finland is bringing some sisu to NATO. That is a hard to precisely translate Finnish word that roughly encompasses gritty determination and sheer, defiant guts. Aatami Korpi has it in abundance. His sisu became legendary during the Winter War against the Soviets, but so far, he has taken a pass on the Lapland War against the National Socialists. Unfortunately, a retreating German commander decides to declare war on him, which is a very bad decision in Jalmari Helander’s Sisu, opening Friday in theaters.

The Soviets took everything from Korpi, killing his family and burning his home—and then he totally lost it. His superior officers couldn’t control him anymore, so they just turned Korpi loose to kill Soviets, which he did, in legendary numbers. Now, he is a grizzled old prospector, who wants the world to leave him alone. Like Tom Waits in
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Korpi proceeds from a few specks of gold dust in his pan to a considerable vein in remarkably short order.

Also, like Waits, Korpi will have to defend his diggings, but instead of claim-jumpers, he will be hunted by the retreating German SS company he encounters on the road to Helsinki. Officer Bruno Helldorf has been conducting a scorched earth campaign, but he is savvy enough to understand the war is lost. Looking to the future, he figures Korpi’s gold can set him up for whatever comes next, so he is willing to disregard orders to get his hands on it.

Frankly, Helander’s two prior features,
Big Game and Rare Exports, sounded cool, but failed to live up to their high concept promise. However, Sisu is far and away his most successful film to-date, thanks to its archetypal simplicity. Much like Korpi’s superiors in the Winter War, Helander just winds him up and sends off into big action set pieces to kill Germans. It isn’t complicated, but its brutally, cathartically entertaining, especially if you have reached an age where at you really enjoy watching old guys kick butt.

Sacred Lamb, Graphic Novel

It isn't just a “final girl” support group. It is a whole community. Instead of witness protection, they have all been relocated to this top-secret, maximum-security community, for the sake of those around them, who might be collateral damage of their would-be slashers’ copycats and other selves. That doesn’t mean they are happy about it (they would also probably object to the term “final girl”) in Tim Seeley’s graphic novel Sacred Lamb, with art by Jelena Dordevic, which goes on-sale digitally today (with a tradepaper edition coming 7/25).

Shallow influencer Kellyn West just barely survived the stalker who was targeting her and her friends. Given the public notoriety surrounding the case, she is dispatched to Sacred Lamb, the ultimate “gated community,” for her own “protection.” Everyone there can identify with her recent ordeal, except the security personnel, who are weirdly judgy.

Sacred Lamb’s undisclosed location is supposed to be a secret, even from high-ranking law enforcement officials. Yet, soon after West’s arrival, one of her biggest unboxing fans is found brutally murdered. Suspicion sort of falls on the community’s most notorious and socially awkward survivor, but it is pretty obvious from the start who the surprise villain will be, at least for experienced horror fans.

Monday, April 24, 2023

The Artifice Girl, Co-Starring Lance Henriksen

Beyond the supposed jobs “Americans just won’t do” there are some jobs no human being should ever do. “Cherry” has one of those. She lures in and gathers evidence against pedophiles. Fortunately, she is not a real little girl. She is a groundbreaking artificial intelligence. Yet, as she smashes the Turing Test and skips across the Uncanny Valley, her growing self-awareness raises all sorts of ethical questions in screenwriter-director Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl, which releases Thursday on-demand and in theaters.

Initially, it looks like Gareth is big trouble with Deena Helms and Amos McCollough, two agents working for an investigative agency specializing in child exploitation. They have directly benefited from the information he and Cherry have gathered, but they still fear he is abusing a child, by forcing her to conduct undercover work in internet chatrooms. Reluctantly, he reveals the truth about her.

Technically, she has no feelings, but as she learns to simulate feelings based on outside stimuli, her synthesized emotions become more and more like the real thing. In fact, as Cherry’s behavior secretly grows more human-like, Agent McCollough experiences a crisis of conscience regarding the agency’s long-term plans for her in the film’s second act. Her development will continue, leading to all sorts of third act guilt for Gareth, as he faces up to his obligations to his creation, in the twilight of his life.

Artifice Girl
might be the best science fiction film since Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes and the best non-time-travel sf film since Little Joe. It is highly provocative on many levels, including its unique take, focusing on humanity’s responsibilities towards AI, rather than AI’s duties and dangers towards humanity.

Ritch takes a risky gambit by so forthrightly addressing issues of abuse. For long stretches of the film, the themes regarding the nature of awareness and the narrowing of the Uncanny Valley are much more prominent. However, the traumatic effects of past abuse are a critical factor, influencing everything that unfolds.

Stylistically, Ritch’s screenplay could have just as easily been produced as a stage play. That is a really a reflection of its intelligence, because it is all about characters and ideas rather than sound and fury. In fact, he and the small ensemble make viewers care for these characters, despite their extremes and the rapid passage of time (Cherry the AI most definitely included).

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Flash (CW): It’s My Party

Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, is literally much more mature and experienced than his age would suggest. In addition to getting trapped in the time loop that started the ninth and final season, he is also in the process of literally reliving several years of his life. It is therefore not a vain euphemism when he says he is celebrating his 30th birthday again. However, it is the first time for “Team Flash,” so they throw him a birthday party. Of course, a supervillain is bound to crash the bash in “It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want to,” which airs Wednesday on the CW.

Allen is still somewhat shaken by events of past seasons, so he really doesn’t feel like partying, but he tries to get into the spirit anyway, for his friends’ sake. He will have to quickly revert to designated driver-mode when Dr. Ramsey Rosso, the supervillain and aspiring collective hive mind, spikes the champagne and cider with his mind-consuming spores. Only Allen and his wife Iris West-Allen retain their free will, thanks to his speed healing ability, which is also partly present in their unborn baby.

Before things get better, they will get a whole lot worse—and also way more cosmic. When Rosso starts to threaten the stability of the multiverse, it frees the hand of the mysterious guardian now known as the Spectre to get involved. In doing so, he reminds viewers how the Flash is connected to the so-called “Arrowverse.”

Like the season nine premiere, “Wednesday Ever After,” “Its My Party” stands alone to some extent, while simultaneously addressing some big sf concepts. On the other hand, it is not as easy pick up all the references to intercharacter relationships and backstories on-the-fly, if, hypothetically speaking, you only watch
The Flash when select episodes are offered to the media for review.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Plan 75: A Culture of Death in Near-Future Japan

Kobe beef is expensive, so most Japanese mainly eat fish and vegetables instead. As a result, they live long lives—too long, according to their near-future government. To curtail the exploding costs of geriatric care, they pass a far-ranging euthanasia plan, encouraging everyone over seventy-five to just get on with it already. Sadly, lonely Michi Kakutani starts to believe she has no other options in Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, which is now playing in New York, at the IFC Center.

Kakutani has no family, so she must work as a hotel housekeeper to survive. Unfortunately, neither she nor her three friends are holding up well. In fact, at least one of them is already thinking about applying for Plan 75.

It is Hiromu Okabe’s job to close those deals. Ostensibly, he is customer service rep, but he is expected to sell euthanasia like a boiler-room penny-stockbroker. However, he starts rethinking his role in Plan 75 when his estranged uncle walks into the office. It appears euthanasia is a good business, because Maria, a Filipina migrant worker with daughter back home in need of surgery, finds a much better paying job at one of its process centers. However, the reality of her new work quickly takes a toll on her.

Frankly, whether intentional or not, the scenes Maria sorting and cataloging the effects of the newly deceased evokes some horrific historical memories. That said, Hayakawa achieves a remarkably restrained and mediative vibe, in all other respects. To a large extent, the macro tragedy has already happened. We are just watching the quiet ripples, as they apply to the characters.

We do not see a lot of actual death, as it occurs, in
Plan 75, but death is a constant, oppressive presence hanging over everyone and everything. It brings to mind Ramesh Ponnuru’s writings on a “culture of life” and a “culture of death.” The Japanese society depicted in Plan 75 is completely and inescapably a culture of death.

Yet, somehow, as a film,
Plan 75 is unusually humanistic and forgiving. Chieko Baisho’s quiet performance as Kakutani is delicately expressive and exceptionally moving. Likewise, Hayato Isomura is quietly amazing as Okabe.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Dead Ringers, on Prime

Yes, it is another reboot gender-switcheroo, but in this case, Stewart and Cyril Marcus probably would not object, even if they could. They were the late identical twin gynecologists, whose mysterious deaths inspired the novel that was later adapted by David Cronenberg as Dead Ringers. Weirdly, this series remake-reboot-re-conception is more disturbingly graphic than Cronenberg’s film—way more. A lot is different, but at least they still have the crimson red surgical smocks in showrunner-writer Alice Birch’s six-part Dead Ringers, which premieres today on Prime.

Beverly and Elliot are still sort of strangely unisex names, since the latter has reportedly become more popular for girls in recent years. Regardless, the Mantle twins remain physically identical, but psychologically weird in very different ways. Beverly thinks she is the shy one, but her passive aggression is also quite manipulative. In contrast, Elliot’s foul-mouthed aggression comes right at people. She sees herself as Beverly’s protector and sometimes procurer, helping her shy sister lure lovers, with the understanding they will be quickly disposed of.

Much to Elliot’s surprise, Genevieve (presumably named as a hat-tip to Genevieve Bujold, who co-starred in Cronenberg’s film) is different. Once Elliot handles their first “date,” Beverly starts swooning for her new lover, even considering a long-term commitment with her. The resulting strain on their sibling relationship is exacerbated by the stress of opening their state-of-the-art birthing center, with capital supplied by Rebecca Parker, a truly toxic pharma heiress, who plays the part of philanthropist, but it really just working her own angles.

As issues arise at the new center, the shoot-from-the-hip Elliot grows increasingly unstable. Heck, maybe she even kills a homeless woman, but to be fair, she was even more obnoxious than Elliot. Regardless, Birch and the writers and directors play a lot of games with the twins’ perceptions of reality that undermine the main narrative rather than enhance it.

However, there is a good chance most viewers will not get that far. Frankly, the first episode almost entirely consists of harrowing birth complications and crude sexual conversations that make it an uncomfortably repetitive viewing experience to endure.

This should go without saying, but doctors should not sleep with their patients. Even if you gloss over the Beverly-Genevieve relationship, there is a lot of virtue signaling on behalf women’s health in Birch’s
Dead Ringers that basically deconstructs on closer viewing. The Mantles are constantly talking about making their birth center feel safe and welcoming to pregnant women, but every examination room and operating theater seems to have observation windows any passer-by can open. Seriously, what is that all about?

Yet, there are flashes of inspired writing in the series, particularly two scenes, in which a mystery woman and a disgraced journalist both strip off Elliot’s façade and utterly expose her tortured psyche. Unfortunately, that quality is fleeting. Soon, the series repeats the same melodrama, driven by Elliot’s potty mouth, Beverly’s neurotic twitching, and their test tube horror shows. This story would be better executed in feature length, as indeed it was, by Cronenberg.

Yes, Rachel Weisz is frighteningly committed in the dual role of the Mantles, creating two very distinct, deeply troubled personas. However, they are both so much, it is hard to believe either could function or be accepted professionally in the real world. (In contrast, Jeremy Irons’ before-Mantles at least projected the appearance of learned competence.) Jennifer Ehle’s ice-cold snark as Parker is highly amusing, but way too abrasive to be credible in a serious dramatic context.

Amityville: An Origin Story, on MGM+

The realtor did indeed disclose the brutal mass murder of the DeFeo family at 112 Ocean Avenue, but like all good New Yorkers, the Lutz Family bought it anyway, because it was a whole lot of house, for not a lot of money. It is hard to blame them—it had water access and a boathouse. Of course, their experiences there became the stuff of a best-selling book and a horror franchise. It even had its own episode of In Search Of…, which covered the case much more economically than the four-part documentary, Amityville: An Origin Story, directed by Jack Riccobono, but the first episode is still pretty creepy when it premieres Sunday on MGM+.

Several years ago, Daniel Lutz, the oldest son of Kathleen Lutz and stepfather George Lutz, told his story in
My Amityville Horror. This time around, their middle child, now known as Christopher Quarantino tells the tale from his perspective. The first episode does not even get into the notorious “Red Room,” but it touches the flies, the cold spots, the ill-fated attempts at blessings, and the previous DeFeo murders. Much of the notoriety surrounding the house overlooks the very real true crime tragedy that occurred there. Origin Story does not fully do it justice yet, at least not in the first installment.

It also rather unflatteringly portrays the parish priest, Father Pecoraro, blaming him for not being more proactive exorcising whatever demons haunted the property. As an interesting counterpoint, the
In Search Of episode somewhat defends Father Pecoraro (who appeared in silhouetted interview segments), suggesting supernatural forces prevented the Lutz family’s further attempts to communicate with him.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Next at the Kennedy Center: Jason Moran & Christian McBride

Following in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Billy Taylor is an intimidating proposition, but Jason Moran’s musical career has always been bold. Who else has set a Turkish stock report to music? Yet, he has always respected the musical elders who came before him. Now serving as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz (succeeding Dr. Taylor), Moran and prolifically-recorded bassist Christian McBride pay tribute to their mentors and inspirations in Continuum: Jason Moran & Christian McBride, the latest installment of Next at the Lincoln Center, premiering tomorrow night on PBS.

In between their duo performances, the jazz pianist and bassist talk about music and some of the greats who influenced them. It rather makes sense that Monk was one of the first jazz greats to really light Moran’s fire. Even today, it is nearly impossible to classify Monk’s distinctive rhythms and melodies. Labeling him “bebop” just does not do him justice. Likewise, Moran has existed in a space outside, but influenced by post-bop, the avant-garde, hip hop, and R&B. When he and McBride dig into “Blue Monk” it sounds very different than Monk’s recorded renditions, yet in a way, yet it is still completely Monk-like.

Moran and McBride later circle back to Monk with “Evidence,” in a dynamic arrangement that totally reflects Moran’s voice, but they start with Charles Mingus’s “Hobo Ho/Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” in acknowledgment of McBride’s influences. Again, there really wasn’t anyone else like Mingus.

Moran often draws inspiration from literature, as we can hear on “Toni Morrison Said Black is a Rainbow,” which has a subtle gospel flavor that gives space for McBride’s eloquent sermon-like feature spots. Quite surprisingly, their final performance (at least as edited for television) concludes with Bob Thiele’s “What a Wonderful World” (popularized by Louis Armstrong late in his career), but the stripped-down elegance of the arrangement and their heartfelt performance makes it feel fresh and vital.

Slip, on Roku

Mae Cannon is sort of like a Marvel or DC hero, because she travels through the parallel realities of the multiverse, but she does so with more sex and more Buddhism. On paper, that might sound like a more enjoyable way of doing it, but the experience quite confuses Cannon. The new lives that come with each reality are very different, but she assumes the similarities must mean something in creator-star Zoe Lister-Jones’ seven-part Slip, which premieres tomorrow on the Roku Channel.

Cannon always thought she had a cool job being an assistant museum curator, but she is starting to tire of her underachieving, somewhat boring husband Elijah. On the other hand, Eric, the hipster DJ she starts flirting with after her Buddhist-influenced, “Hungry Ghost” exhibition opening, is not boring at all. In fact, she goes home to his place. One thing leads to another—and suddenly, Cannon wakes up married to Eric, but they are both very different. He is now a bigger celebrity than Steve Aoki and she is tabloid fodder, who has been in and out of rehab.

Already reeling from her new reality, the stress of the paparazzi pushes the new Mae to her breaking point. However, she finds a safe harbor in the arms of Sandy, the owner of a lesbian bar, which leads to another reset, triggered by the consummation, so to speak. As the pattern repeats, each Mae always finds her best friend Gina. She also desperately seeks out Elijah, with varying degrees of success.

Slip is largely presented as a sitcom, the multiverse travels and the Buddhist references are surprisingly smart and intriguing. However, viewers should be warned there is more sex in the show than you would have seen in vintage late-1990s HBO programming. Just keep in mind, it is definitely not for kids.

In fact, maybe a little less sex and a little more Buddhism wouldn’t have been a bad call. Frankly, one of the best scenes of the entire inaugural season involves Mae seeking enlightenment from Monk Dawa, memorably played by Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, with understated intelligence.

Evil Dead Rise: The Deadites Return, but without Ash

The three lost Books of the Dead are a bit like the Rings of Power, but considering how rare they are, these evil volumes are perversely easy to stumble across. Usually, they turn up in cabins, where friends are trying to enjoy a weekend getaway, but this one is uncovered in the basement of a Los Angeles apartment building during an earthquake. At least the resulting carnage will not shock Angelinos. Considering how they voted in the last election, they must not mind seeing bodies piling up, which is exactly what happens in Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise, opening this Friday in theaters nationwide.

This is the first
Evil Dead film with no Ash whatsoever, but we still hear Bruce Campbell’s disembodied voice—this time portraying a misguided priest, who recorded his foolish experiment with one of the Books of the Dead on an old school vinyl record. (Campbell and Sam Raimi are also still on-board as executive producers.) That LP and the evil book itself, were locked away in an underground bank vault and then forgotten. After the bank shuttered, the building was converted into rental units, which have no seen better days.

Ellie and her kids still live in the condemned property, but they have until the end of the month to move out. In the meantime, Ellie’s irresponsible younger sister Beth visits, hoping for some sibling advice regarding her surprise pregnancy. Instead, she will spend the night fighting off the reanimated corpses of her loved ones and their neighbors.

When the earthquake hit, it opened a crevice exposing the vault beneath. Ellie’s idiot son Danny, who fancies himself a DJ, scooped up the Book of the Dead and the unmarked LPs, hoping for something valuable to sell and unusual to sample. Of course, when he plays the priest’s incantations, it raises the ancient soul-consuming demons. First, the Deadites possess Ellie and then they take control of everyone else they kill.

is not a reboot or a sequel. It is a stand-alone film set in the same Deadite universe. Compared to the original trilogy, Cronin’s film falls stylistically somewhere between the straight horror of the first film and the outrageously gruesome humor of Evil Dead II. In Rise, the Deadites are as mouthy and vulgar as ever, if not more so. They make Pazuzu’s taunts in The Exorcist sound look good-natured joshing.

Without a doubt, Cronin delivers gore by the bucket-load. Yes, there is a whole lot of blood, but it is generated in a series of wild sequences that steadily escalate in their degree of utter bonkersness. A chainsaw definitely gets into the mix, as well as some heavy industrial machinery. Again, Cronin’s lunacy really harkens back to
Evil Dead II, in ways fans will appreciate.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Civilization in the Danger Zone, in The Epoch Times

CIVILIZATION IN THE DANGER ZONE certainly has a point-of-view, but it makes its points in a reasonable, restrained manner. The fundamental question raised bears serious thought: how long can a nation survive when it holds its history and values in contempt? EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Damian Szifron’s To Catch a Killer

This mass murderer is madman rather than a terrorist. That is bad news for the FBI, because it makes the unknown suspect harder to predict. “Fortunately,” local cop Eleanor Falco has so much emotional baggage, she can kind of relate. That is a good thing, at least according to Special Agent Geoffrey Lammark, who makes her his liaison to the city police. He is not easy to work with, but the ruthless sniper gives them plenty of motivation in Damian Szifron’s To Catch a Killer, which opens Friday in New York.

At the strike of New Year’s Day, a sniper blew away several dozen partiers. Somehow, the killer eluded the police, despite Falco’s heads-up policing of the crime scene, which does not go unnoticed by Lammark.

Frankly, most of the procedural stuff in
To Catch is very run-of-the-mill. The only thing that really distinguishes the script co-written by Szifron and Jonathan Wakeham is the time devoted to internal FBI infighting. Far too often, Lammark and Falco must waste time with bogus leads and dubious strategies mandated from above. If you were not already skeptical of Federal bureaucracy before, To Catch a Killer will help finish the job.

The actual identity of the killer is kept secret until the third act, so at least the film does not feel like a warmed-over Quinn Martin rerun. When he is finally revealed, it is an interesting-looking, quite imposing thesp playing the mystery killer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Andy Somebody

Even though they have been a winning team recently (having finally won the World Series again in 2016), the Chicago Cubs have such a glorious history of losing, it makes sense that a luckless schlub like Andy Fielder would be a fan. He has always been bullied by his boss, Dr. Peter Shifflett, a crooked plastic surgeon, running an illegal prescription drug operation on the side. However, Fielder’s dodgy bookkeeping for Shifflett means he can make a lot of trouble for his boss when he has finally had enough, like running away with all his money. It is not a well-thought-out plan, but it might still work with a little help from his new friends in Jesse David Ing’s Andy Somebody, which releases today on VOD.

Technically, the lazy cops staking out Shifflett were only interested in the bad doctor, so they ignored Fielder when he made a run for it. Shifflett and his enforcer Gene (as the cops say: “no last name, weird”) unreasonably demands he complete a series of complex financial transactions immediately if not sooner, so he cleared out the doctor’s accounts and his safe instead.

Gene tracks Fielder to LA and his friend Joy Lee by tracking the bookkeeper’s cell phone, but he starts getting smarter about evasive strategy once his old acquaintance starts advising him. He also makes a key ally (and new friend) in Andres, the very large Cuban working as a janitor in Fielder’s cut-rate Western-themed motel.

Ing and co-writer-lead Jeremy M. Evans mostly play the gangster business for laughs, but they never let the tone get too shticky. Nobody would call
Andy Somebody realistic, but it never gets too silly or too ridiculous. Compared to the embarrassing Mafia Mamma, Andy Somebody almost looks like the second coming of Pulp Fiction (it isn’t, not even close, but it benefits from releasing in such close proximity to that dire mafia “comedy”).

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Best Man, Starring Dolph Lundgren

What the Stanley Hotel is to horror, the Inn of the Mountain Gods now is to VOD action movies. The resort has spectacular views, an indoor pool, and a casino (since it is on Apache-governed land). It would be a great place for Brook and Cal’s wedding, if it were not for the armed, hostage-taking party-crashers in Shane Dax Taylor’s The Best Man, which releases this Friday on demand and in theaters.

Cal and Brook did not exactly meet-cute. He was part of the team of special operators hired to rescue her from terrorist kidnappers. They got her safely back home, but at the cost of several comrades. Cal had not seen Bradley or Anders since the team broke up, but they both come to show their support during the wedding. Bradley even agrees to be the best man. As a result, he finds himself paired up with Brook’s somewhat forward sister and maid-of-honor, Hailey, which he does not mind at all. That gives Bradley an extra added motivation to fight Axel’s gang of mercenaries, when they start rounding up the bride’s family.

So, yes, this is basically
Die Hard in a resort, during a wedding, but why shouldn’t it be? Especially since Dolph Lundgren plays Anders. It is a good setting, with at least a handful of interesting characters. Weirdly, that does not include any of the villains, who are all quite cardboard and forgettable.

However, Lundgren does a nice job as Anders, projecting a heaviness reflective of his character’s grizzled maturity and checkered history. Likewise, as Hailey, Scout Taylor-Compton injects more energy and attitude than viewers usually find in formulaic
Die Hard rip-offs. Luke Wilson largely squanders his “action debut” as Cal, which is a shame, since it is impossible to resist comparing The Best Man to his brother Owen’s comedy hit, Wedding Crashers. However, Chris Mullinax makes quite a memorably drunken mess as Chuck, the father of the bride.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Mirando al Cielo, More Faith from Fathom

Jose Sanchez del Rio is a saint for all Catholics. He was venerated by Pope John Paul II, beautified by Pope Benedict XVI, and canonized by Francis (presumably with the permission of his master, Xi Jinping). The fourteen-year-old saint would be the first to protest the current Pope’s subservient deal with the CCP, because he was martyred refusing to recant his faith under the Mexican Federales’ torture. Screenwriter-director Antonio Pelaez’s dramatically chronicles the short life and holy passion of Saint Jose in Mirando al Cielo, which has a special one-night screening this Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

Since the not-yet-Saint Jose’s two older brothers joined the Cristero Revolution for religious liberty, against the Calles regime, his parents were reluctant to let their youngest follow their example. However, the just-barely-teenager was determined to defend his faith—and thereby earn his place in heaven. In a twist worthy of classical tragedy, it was his “godfather,” Rafael Picazo Sanchez, the local Federal boss, who will send him there, as we see in flashbacks during corrupt official’s unlikely confession.

None of this is really spoilery, because
Pelaez clearly conceived Mirando al Cielo as a passion play. Different standards of narrative story-telling and characterization will apply, regardless if secular heathens like it or not. Yet, no amount dramatic realism will change the fact Saint Jose was tortured to death by the leftist Calles regime, because of his unwavering Catholic faith.

So, this film is a cinematic passion play, but it is also a high-quality period production. Pelaez and cinematographer Wolf Parra take full advantage of some striking locations and they get the most out of their “heavenly” lighting techniques.
Mirando al Cielo translates to “Looking at Heaven,” which clearly inspired their visual approach.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Elizabeth Montgomery: A Bewitched Life, on Reelz

It is a little odd that nobody ever thought of Elizabeth Montgomery as a genre star, even though she is best known for playing a witch and an axe-murderer. She also guest-starred in four of the five greatest genre anthologies: The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff). They only talk about the Zone is this nostalgia-baiting profile, but obviously, there is a long discussion of Bewitched in Elizabeth Montgomery: A Bewitched Life, which premieres tomorrow on Reelz.

Sadly, Montgomery died far too young in 1995, so a lot media consumers probably have not thought about her much in recent years, even though her titular sitcom has constantly remained in reruns. She was the daughter of Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery, but their relationship was always fraught with issues, including political disagreements. They never worked together on-screen, even though she invited him to play her dad on
Bewitched, of which he did not approve. However, The Legend of Lizzie Borden really scandalized him.

Of course, the greatest amount of time is devoted to
Bewitched, the beloved sitcom about Samantha Stephens, a witch who is married to the mortal Darren. Naturally, the whole “Two Darrins” phenomenon is covered at length, but when you understand how much pain Dick York (Darrin #1) was in during his final days on the show, it now longer seems so funny.

In fact, you could consider it one of those “cursed” projects, along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Twilight Zone Movie,” because the first day of rehearsals started under the shadow of the Kennedy Assassination. Plus, Montgomery and her then husband, the show’s producer and frequent director, William Asher, both had affairs with people associated with the series, which led to their ultimate divorce.

Still, it was always a family show. In fact, Erin Murphy, who played young Tabitha on the original series (but not the teenaged Tabitha in the short-lived spinoff) narrates the profile and serves as one of the primary talking heads.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Waco: The Aftermath, on Showtime

This new limited series is sort of like The Path to 9/11, but for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Like the controversial mini-series that only aired once and was then buried in the vault, this fact-based drama blames many of the same powerful people for stoking social division and then ignoring the warning signs of a violent reaction. Fortunately, viewers should have more then one chance to see co-creators-co-writers Drew and John Erick Dowdle’s five-part Waco: The Aftermath, which premieres today on the Showtime app (and starts airing Sunday).

Technically, this is a sequel, with Michael Shannon reprising his original role in the Dowdles’ 2018
Waco, as FBI negotiator Special Agent Gary Noesner, who secured the evacuation of 35 followers of David Koresh at Mount Carmel, before the FBI and Janet Reno lost patience and sent in the tanks. The Aftermath picks up in 1995, but Noesner has not moved on from the tragedy. He remains haunted by the deaths of 76 people and his internal criticism of the FBI’s “official story” has hurt his career. Yet, he is one of the only agents starting to link the suspicion and resentment generated by the incendiary raid to increasingly coordinated militia activity.

Meanwhile, Dan Cogdell is preparing to defend a former follower, facing multiple charges. His client is one of four co-defendants, each with their own counsel, but Cogdell is by far the most formidable (at least according to the Dowdles). For full context (presumably, so viewers do not feel too sympathetic towards the former “Branch Davidians,” a term they reject),
Aftermath also constantly rewinds to formative events in the history of Mount Carmel, invariably showing Koresh growing steadily creepier and more extreme.

Of the three intertwined narrative strains, the Waco trial and Noesner’s militia investigation are by far the most compelling. In contrast, the Mount Carmel flashbacks are underwhelming, largely because Keean Johnson (succeeding Taylor Kitsch in the first mini-series) simply is not sufficiently scary or unhinged. He is even a little boring.

In contrast, Michael Shannon perfectly personifies
Aftermath’s internal contradiction as Noesnar, viscerally expressing angst and guilt over the FBI’s tactical overkill, while fretting Cassandra-like over the agency’s refusal to face the growing militia danger. One look at his worried face will make you need to pop an aspirin. Shannon is one of the best brooders in the business—and this is one of his most brooding performances yet.

Renfield, Co-Starring Nic Cage & Shohreh Aghdashloo

You can't say Dracula’s familiar never got any recognition, because Alice Cooper wrote a ballad to Dwight Fry, who played the nervous bug-eater in the classic Bela Lugosi film. However, this will be the first time he carried his own film. Of course, the master does not take kindly to his attempts to assert his independence in Chris McKay’s Renfield, which opens today nationwide.

Having just survived another encounter with vampire hunters, Dracula is looking more like his old Max Schreck self, but worse. They have found a new lair in New Orleans, where Robert Montague Renfield is supposed to nurse him back to his full power, once again. However, he goes a bit off-script when he stumbles across a support group for people trapped in toxic co-dependent relationships. Renfield can definitely relate, so he starts preying on their manipulative narcissistic tormentors, instead of the innocents his master craves.

Renfield really goes rogue when he crosses paths with Rebecca Quincy, one of the few honest cops in New Orleans. Using the super strength and agility he gains from eating bugs (one of the few benefits of being a familiar) saves Quincy from a hit squad dispatched by the Lobo crime family. At first, she considers Renfield a hero, but then she connects him to Dracula’s victims. Despite her reservations, Renfield and Quincy will have to work together when Dracula forges a self-serving alliance with the Lobos.

Despite a considerable amount of gore,
Renfield is definitely played for laughs, but its blood spurting gags are usually pretty funny. Yet, McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley (working off Robert Kirkman’s concept) show a lot of affinity and affection for the classic Universal Dracula films. The early flashbacks superimpose Nic Cage’s Dracula and Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield over scenes from the 1931 Lugosi classic. The score also incorporates excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, just like Tod Browning’s film. Plus, what look like snippets of deleted scenes are recycled and given an early silent cinema look for Renfield’s closing credits.

Surely, Cage appreciated those touches. According to
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is his favorite film—and everyone that meta-comedy is more truth than fiction. Renfield is also set in his hometown of New Orleans, but viewers should understand they cannot just assume there will be open tables at Café du Monde, like Quincy does.