Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Argylle: Cats and Spies

You would think an espionage novelist like Elly Conway would be a dog person, rather than a cat lady. She leads a shier, quieter life than Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone, even though she is so tuned into geopolitical realities, her novels have been described as prophetic, much like the techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy and David Hagberg. In fact, she her books have become a little too predictive for a shadowy SPECTRE-like organization in Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle, which opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

Conway does not get out much, but when she leaves home for a meeting (like this fateful day), she always brings her fat cat Alfie. She has a tailor-made argyle-print carrier for him, probably because Petco doesn’t have anything big enough for his plump rump. She will cling to his case for dear life while the mysterious Aidan rescues her from a train full of assassins. The shaggy stranger is nothing like suave fictional Agent Argylle, whom we see in action during fantasy segments and book-readings, as well as when he reassures the neurotic Conway, in her mind’s eye.

At least Aidan claims to be a fan—and a real spy. According to him, an international spy outfit (much like 
Citadel) just turned to the dark side, exactly like the plot twist of her latest novel. Unfortunately, she ended it with a cliffhanger, which nobody likes, especially not KAOS or THRUSH. He needs her to come up with a real ending to foil the bad guys, but it will not be that simple.

Weirdly, there are a lot of similarities between
Argylle and Citadel, but it would be spoilery for both to explain how. Regardless, they are worlds apart in terms of tone. Argylle always goes for laughs and it is not afraid to lean in slapstick. To their credit, some of Aidan’s early fight scenes are impressively choreographed, but they grow increasingly outlandish and silly.

Screenwriter Jason Fuchs throws one crazy plot twist after another at the audience, but the head-spinning revelations are all part of the winking fun. This movie can be a lot, but it knows and appreciates the genre it is spoofing. Plus, it has Alfie, who gets a lot of laughs, even though Chip (the cat who plays him) gives the film’s most deadpan performance.

One of the film’s pleasant surprises is the facility for broad, physical comedy Sam Rockwell shows as Aidan. Fans know he can be sarcastic, but here he gets to act loopy and rubber-boned—and it largely suits him. Bryce Dallas Howard cannot really match his energy as Conway. However, the film as a wealth colorful supporting players, like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara, who chew the scenery like a Five Guys Burger, as the villainous Ritter and Conway’s overbearing mother.

Son of a Critch: Reach for the Top

As a proud geek, Mark Critch has a passion for Star Trek and trivia. He is also interested in two girls who actually talk to him. They all collide when he and his sort-of-ex Fox compete against his current flirt-more-than-girlfriend on a TV quiz show in “Reach for the Top,” the next episode of Son of a Critch, which airs tomorrow on CW.

Critch and Fox are in a just-friends phase, which is still a real step up from when she used to bully him. Somehow, he convinced her to be a member of his trivia team when they represent St. Bridget’s on
Reach for the Top, a TV quiz show for kids. Of course, Critch is a know-it-all, but his pseudo-girlfriend Cara, who captains the team from their Protestant rivals is better at handling pressure. She might also have a talent for mind-games.

As Critch crumbles under the studio lights, he imagines what Kirk would do, in a fantasy sequence set on the Enterprise bridge, with him in the captain’s conn. It looks quite true to the original
Trek, as Paramount required, when they granted their permission. Conveniently, the production designer for this episode, Mark Steel, has worked as the art or production designer on six Star Trek: Discovery installments.

Frankly, some fans will be disappointed the fantasy segment wraps up so quickly, because of Steel’s eye for authenticity. Young Mark Critch also definitely has an affinity for Shatner-esque histrionics. Captain Benjamin Sisko is a strong runner-up, but in
Star Trek, “Captain” means “Kirk” first and foremost.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Dario Argento Panico, on Shudder

Until the 1990s indie boom personified by Tarantino, Dario Argento might have been the most recognizable director (first-and-foremost working behind the camera), since Alfred Hitchcock. That makes a good deal of sense, considering how he used Hitch as a career role-model, even helming and presenting his own anthology series. Even though his output since the late 1990s has been somewhat hit-or-miss, he is still the grandmaster of all horror filmmakers. Director Simone Scafidi gets the genre legend to sit down and take stock of his career in the documentary, Dario Argento Panico, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

Arguably, Argento was born to be a filmmaker, as the son of a fashion photographer and an Italian film studio executive. Obviously, his daughter Asia, who discusses her father at great length, was similarly born into the family business. In fact, most of the Argentos are present and accounted for, including his ex-wife Marisa Casale.

Scafidi takes a largely conventional approach, chronologically working through the major films of Argento’s oeuvre, eliciting commentary from the master and his friends and family along the way. Scafidi hints at a meta-concept, capturing Argento’s curmudgeonly grumbling in the swanky hotel his assistant checked him into, ostensibly to finish writing a screenplay. However, Argento quickly gives into the luxury and settles into Scafidi’s interviews.

Of course, that is all perfectly fine for Argento fans. Naturally, the film spends a good deal of time on the early Giallos,
Deep Red, Suspiria, and Inferno. Opera is singled out as probably his last great masterwork, but The Stendahl Syndrome gets credit as his first and probably best collaboration with his daughter Asia.

There is a lot of glossing over his later films, but it fittingly features several clips from
Do You Like Hitchcock, which is underrated and obviously reflects his Hitchcockian influences. We also see quite a bit of his The Phantom of the Opera, to illustrate the awkwardness of father directing daughter in some sexually charged scenes.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Quantum Leap: Off the Cuff

It is hard to believe Dr. Ben Song has leaped into 1970 to save a slimy lawyer like Kevin Zatt. Even Zatt describes himself as immoral pond scum. At least, as lawyers go, he is an honest one—except maybe when he embezzled from his clients, including a powerful arms dealer. Fortunately, Song had previously leaped into another bounty hunter, so he is somewhat prepared for “Off the Cuff,” the latest episode of Quantum Leap, which premieres tomorrow night on NBC.

Zatt is a fast-talker, who never stops talking. Song’s new bounty hunter host was not a talkative sort, but, of course, Song engages more. However, he is still not very trusting, having learned from “A Decent Proposal.” Nevertheless, as the bad guys keep ambushing them, Song and Zatt form an alliance on their
Midnight Run-like trek across Jersey.

Eventually, the odd couple take shelter with Zatt’s grown foster-brother, who made-good, becoming a doctor. Meanwhile, back at Quantum Leap HQ, the team ponders the discovery of a piece of potentially game-changing but-not-ready-for-primetime code from a mysterious DARPA project. The hanging question is where is Hannah Carson, the woman Song is apparently “entangled with,” through love (or something like it)?

“Off the Cuff” is a solidly entertaining bickering buddy episode in the Stephen J. Cannel tradition (as if Song were Rockford and Zatt was Angel). It moves along nicely and also advances the overall storyline more than just a bit (of course, the big secret news drops right at the end, because that is how it always works).

Skin Deep: Modern German Body-Swapping

This is the mysterious island of body-swapping, but the transfers are not funny, like in Vice Versa and Big, or scary like it Freaky or Suitable Flesh, except maybe in an emotional way. A woman with undefined troubles is convinced seeing life through a different body will cure what ails her in Alex Schaad’s Skin Deep, which opens Friday in theaters.

Leyla’s friend Stella has run the weird body-swapping island resort with her father, until he died from an aneurism in her brain, during their switch. Now, she carries on, in his body. Leyla’s boyfriend Tristan was skeptical, but he agreed to try it with her, for her sake. However, his reluctance is vindicated when Mo, his body-swapper, tries to sexual assault him, while in his own body. Yet,
Skin Deep helps perpetuate the stigma many male victims of sexual assault feel, by making light of his trauma. Poor Tristan even laughs along with Leyla over the incident, when he tells her about it.

Not surprisingly, Tristan wants out, but Leyla still feels compelled to inhabit another body. Even they were forced to relinquish their swap-couples’ bodies, Roman, the handyman (and the much younger lover of Stella’s late dad) agrees to swap with her, because he is miserable in any body. Of course, she is frisky in Roman’s muscular frame, but Tristan is not so sure how he feels about that, which offends Leyla, who takes it as a personal rejection.

Yes, there is “gender-bending.” Fine, whatever. The thing that is troubling about
Skin Deep is the way it suggests your sense of self is defined by your physical body. You have to wonder what the disabled community would make of this film. Would they be welcomed to swap at Stella’s island? That is a question the Schaads (director Alex and his co-screenwriter Dimitrij)  have no interest in answering. Regardless, it is pretty clear Leyla and Roman would laugh at the cliched notion that “its what’s inside that counts.”

The Irrational: Scorched Earth

Many hospitals simply are not equipped with full state-of-the art burn units. That is one of the important take-aways from the documentary, To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story, wherein the horror icon frankly discusses his recover from severe burn injuries. Dr. Alec Mercer, the behavioral psychologist, can relate. He has returned to the unit that treated him to counsel a new burn patient. While talking to her, he concludes she was a victim of arson in “Scorched Earth,” the mid-season return of The Irrational, which premieres tonight on NBC.

Unfortunately, Mercer understands fire only too well. Even though the teen blames herself for partying in an abandoned house (with candles—always a bad idea kids), he knows the flame spread is all wrong. Once he prods the out-of-his-depth deputy fire investigator to take another look, arson is confirmed. Obviously, that prompts the question: who is the guilty culprit?

Mercer, his unpaid teaching assistants, and ex-girlfriend FBI Agent Marissa Clark duly work their way through the procedural stuff. By now, investigating with Clark is not so awkward because Mercer has a new love-interest (traveling abroad for this episode). Most viewers will start rolling their eyes when they hear a local church was interested in the torched property, but
The Irrational seems to have a knack for using annoying cliches as red herrings.

In fact, this episode teases a potential plot twist that could be incredibly gutsy—and downright shocking for network television. Most critics will despise, but its inherent logic (in accordance with Mercer’s theories) is what makes it such potentially compelling drama.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Claremont Murders, on Acorn TV

Australia seems so fun-loving to Americans, but it was home to the murderers that inspired the Wolf Creek franchise as well as the serial killer who stalked the nightclubs of Perth’s swanky Claremont suburb. Catching that killer required a long, drawn-out investigation—a full twenty-five years. Mistakes were definitely made, but that is where much of the drama comes from in the two-part The Claremont Murders, which premieres tomorrow on Acorn TV.

The case started with the disappearance of Sarah Spiers and intensified with the disappearance of Jane Rimmer. It became a three-alarm media fire when Ciara Glennon was also killed. The bodies of Rimmer and Glennon were soon discovered, but, tragically, Spiers’ has yet to be recovered. However, Don and Carol Spiers savvily channeled their grief and desperation into media outreach, especially with Alison Fan, an anchor for Australia’s Channel 7, who maybe not coincidentally produced
The Claremont Murders.

It was all hand on deck for the Western Australia Police, so Det. Gavin Wyatt and Det. Bobbi McAllister were temporarily assigned to the investigation. McAllister rightly suspects a cold rape case might be a precursor crime, but the senior officers are skeptical (and dismissive). Instead, they focus on Lance Williams, a socially awkward man with a record of mental health issues, who was in the habit of cruising or “patrolling” the Claremont area. Ironically, McAllister helps bring Williams in as part of an undercover sting operation, but even after a solid decade of surveillance, no evidence connects Williams to the murders.

Roughly twenty years later, McAllister has moved on and left the force, but Wyatt remains haunted by the Claremont killings. In fact, he talks his way onto a small team trying to reopen the old case. Unlike the previous investigation, his new colleagues are well-versed in forensic science. Although he has trouble letting go of Williams as their prime suspect, they soon convince him to focus on a new suspect, who previously avoided attention through a combination of bad luck and bureaucratic incompetence.

Screenwriters Justin Monjo and Michaeley O’Brien take a just-the-facts approach, mostly focusing on the step-by-step progress of the investigation, relegating the detectives’ private lives to the far margins. Most of the personal drama is reserved for the grieving Spiers, portrayed with dignity and restraint by Erik Thomson and Kate Ritchie. It is impossible to not feel for them, acutely.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Animation First ’24: When Adam Changes

Poor Adam seems to have a mutant case of puberty. Whenever he finds himself in a socially awkward situation, his body visibly alters, especially his “long torso.” Unfortunately, that means his lower belly is hanging out there pretty much throughout Joel Vaudreuil’s animated feature, When Adam Changes, which screens today as part of this year’s Animation First.

In 1990s Quebec, Adam gets bullied a lot for his stooped shoulders, pudgy midrift, and that darned torso (which keeps growing with each callous remark), particularly by his “beloved” grandmother, Ange. Her death hits his mother hard, but it leaves him confused about how he should feel and react. Adam is not a bad guy, so his older sister really ought to have his back more. Unfortunately, she is distracted by her toxic relationship with her unfaithful boyfriend.

Adam obviously carries a torch for a pretty girl, who maybe recognizes he is smarter than most of their classmates, but whenever he tries to engage with her, she always seems to disappoint him. It also seems like he is the only teen in the entire school who must work over the summer. Much to his chagrin, his father committed him for two jobs. One is a house-sitting gig that isn’t bad. However, mowing the lawn of a crazy grass-obsessed neighbor is a miserable experience.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Masters of the Air, in The Epoch Times

Apple TV+'s MASTERS OF THE AIR has some of the best aerial combat scenes ever produced for television, but it also accurately and compellingly depicts the service and sacrifice of American B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber crews during WWII. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Animation First ’24: The Siren

By 1980, many (if not most) Iranians realized the Islamic Revolution was a national catastrophe. Unfortunately, the Iran-Iraq War had the unintended consequence of strengthening the Ayatollah’s hand, because when Iraq attacked, patriotic Iranians like Omid’s brother rallied to their country’s defense. The young (barely) teenager wants to serve, but instead he stays to care for his elderly grandfather in Sepideh Farsi’s The Siren, which screens as the closing night selection of this year’s Animation First.

Omid’s brother Amed has volunteered to defend their strategic (and oil-rich) port city of Abadan, like most young men his age. Their mother whisks their younger siblings off to safer territory, reluctantly leaving Omid in charge of crotchety grandpa. Omid hoped to join Amed on the frontlines, but he changes his tune when blunders into a full-scale fire-fight.

Unfortunately, the front constantly finds Abadan thanks to Saddam’s rocket attacks. Replacing Farshid, a surrogate big brother injured by shell fragments, on his food delivery route, Omed meets a colorful cross-section of Abadan’s remaining residents. There is an eccentric engineer, two Armenian priests safeguarding their church’s icon, and Elaheh, a former star vocalist, who has been living in quiet seclusion since the Revolutionary regime banned music.

Omid is even more interested in Elaheh’s pretty young daughter, Pari, who is also incredibly brave. Pari helped save Farshid’s life after the shelling, by using her headscarf as a torniquet—in what might be one of the most important scenes in you will see in an animated film this year. Learning the Iraqis are expected to soon overrun Abadan, Omid hatches an evacuation plan inspired by his father, a sea captain who went down with his wooden lenj.

The Siren
is part magical realism and partly a brutally honest and unvarnished record of life under the Islamist regime’s Khomeini years. Screenwriter Javad Djavahery’s narrative is loaded with historical and social significance, but it also tells a highly relatable coming of age story. Of course, Omid faces vastly more peril than the kid on Boyhood.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

State Organs, in the Epoch Times

It is not just the stuff of urban lengends and VOD movies. In China, organ-trafficking is a CCP State-spoonsored industry. The must-see documentary assembles and shocking and thorough indictment of the systematic mass murder and harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here,

The Peasants, A Nobel Prize-Winner Animated

Most of these peasants are poor, but some are wealthy. In a few years, their many of their ilk would be dubbed “Kulaks” (with fatal results). Regardless, this early Nineteenth Century Polish village hangs together as a community, except when it turns on one of its own. Jagna Paczesiowna is too independently inclined to conform to the Lipce villagers’ prejudices in DK & Hugh Welchman’s extraordinary animated film, The Peasants, adapted from Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Every single man in Lipce wants to “send vodka” to Jagna’s widowed mother Dominikowa, but she has no desire to surrender herself to a husband. Unfortunately, there is no refusing Marciej Boryna, a wealthy farmer, whose wife recently died. Their marriage is especially awkward for Jagna, because she was having an affair with Boryna’s married son and farm manager, Antek.

Of course, they continue carrying after the marriage—often a little too openly for her husband’s liking. This tension leads to greater feuds between father and son, resulting in the expulsion of Antek, his wife Hanka, and their children from the Boryna holdings. However, the old man is not unsympathetic towards Hanka and his grandchildren. In fact, he will make his daughter-in-law the new manager when tragedy the family.

Lipce might be a village Polish village just after the turn of the century, but the dynamics are the same as Peyton Place, accept maybe darker. This is Poland, so the arrival of Cossacks (at the behest of absentee landowners) is definitely bad news. The locals’ hidebound traditional ways can also manifest in harsh, almost pagan scapegoating rituals.

Yet, the film is absolutely gorgeous, visually. As with their previous feature,
Loving Vincent, the Welchmans employ era-appropriate paintings as the basis for their animation, but they draw on multiple artists. Again, they also incorporate live-action performances, rendering them into animation, in what might be the classiest rotoscoping ever.

The tribulations rained down on Jagna can be a bit grim, but the film still offers much beauty. Frankly, the poetic transitions between seasons are works of art in and of themselves. The Welchmans’ adaptation also really stretches to end on a somewhat remotely positive note. They sort of pull it off, relying a great deal of ambiguity.

Rampart: Fractured Memories of Belgrade

Everyone who still has their VCR tapes from the 1980s and 1990s is probably holding a real time capsule of the era (the fashions, the hairstyles, the commercials). That was true of filmmaker Marko Grba Singh, who grew up in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. Returning to his family’s former apartment, he found a box of tapes that he transformed into the experimental documentary Rampart, which screens tomorrow and Saturday in New York.

For the pre-teen Singh, his family’s apartment was like a fortress (hence the title). As the fighting intensified, the extended clan clearly came together, with the intention of shielding the children as best they could. In fact, the camcorder footage, mostly shot by Singh’s grandfather, often has the vibe of a family reunion or a sleepover.

However, it is clear everyone is trying to herd the kids (and the pets) towards the interior of the flat. Obviously, this was a time to stay in-doors, which gives
Rampart additional resonance in the days after the Wuhan-inspired Covid lockdowns. Yet, the Belgrade stores were still open and buying advertising time, as some of the commercials Signh incorporates will duly attest.

Regardless, we know what it is like to be stuck inside. They had better reason in 1999 Belgrade. However, they still were not in the sort of peril Sarajevo experienced, when it was terrorized by Bosnian-Serb separatist snipers, as Sejla Kameric dramatized in the experimental
1395 Days Without Red (because color would draw the shooters’ attention). Ironically, both films would pair well together, due to their roughly one hour running times and avant-garde sensibilities.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, on

t was promoted as a ballet celebration of youth, but it was set to a style of jazz, Third Stream, that was considered old and staid by most hipsters, even when it was new. Yet, much of it still swung, albeit in a more polite and respectable kind of way. That was certainly true of Robert Prince’s score for Jerome Robbins’ classic choreography. Decades later, it is still recognized as one of his greatest works. Filmmakers Henry Joost & Jody Lee Lipes moved the ballet from the stage to ultra-New York locations in N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, which premieres tomorrow on

The dancers are indeed young. They look like they could be the 2010’s version of the “kids from
Fame,” as we watch them move and kvetsch through the city, on their way to each dance segment. They certainly have talent. Each number has all the grace and energy that made N.Y. Export an international sensation when Robbins toured it for the U.S. State Department. Joost and Lipes shrewdly frame each dance with their roving cameras in ways that emphasize the dancers’ long limbs and fluidly funky movement. Featured soloists like Adam Hendrickson and Georgina Pazcoguin are physically poised and dynamic, but they also have screen presences that further elevate their performances.

N.Y. Export
represented Robbins’ next logical step after his chorography for West Side Story. Some of the distressed urban locations chosen for the film clearly evoke that “Sharks vs. Jets” vibe. The film was produced during the late Bloomberg era, when this New York grit held nostalgic charm. Unfortunately, these “reclaimed” abandoned spaces have lost their novelty in 2024.

Regardless, the film still looks and sounds great. Frankly, Robert Prince’s music is due for a re-discovery. The big finale, “Theme, Variations, and Fugue” even has a little old school New Orleans in it. The original LP release of
N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz was on Warner Brothers, a major label, but not one with a storied jazz history. Frustratingly, there were no credits for the musicians who actually played the music, which always aggravates us jazz fans.

That is why it is so annoying that the film commits the exact same sin. However, it identifies Eddie Barbasch and Jesse Scheinin as the street saxophonists in the opening non-dancing sequence. The supplemental 15-minute documentary “A Ballet in Sneakers: Jerome Robbins and Opus Jazz” packaged after the closing titles also credits its musicians, including Jay Hassler on clarinet and musical director Conor Meehan on drums. (With the doc included, the entire
N.Y. Export presentation barely runs past sixty minutes.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths—Part One, on BluRay

It was the multiverse story to end all multiverse stories, but it was written before the multiverse was the thing to obsess over. For comic readers in the 1980s, it looked like DC’s attempt to copy the success of Marvel’s Secret Wars, but it promised to simplify their numerous universes. Since then, it has become a significant part of the DC universe lore. It was even adapted in multiple Arrowverse episodes. It now joins the DC Animated Tomorrowverse, when Jeff Wamester’s Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths – Part One [out of three] releases today on BluRay.

The Barry Allen edition of The Flash has become unstuck in time, super-charged on cosmic speed force. As he shifts between the various Earths, The Flash notices an ominous looking wave of anti-matter bearing down on each alternate planet. The ancient Monitor notices it too. Although he has vowed to never interfere in the human matters he scrupulously observes (sort of like
Marvel What If’s The Watcher), the Monitor has made an exception, gathering the greatest heroes and scientists from multiple Earths to hatch a plan to stop the anti-matter wave.

Although The Question is skeptical, The Flash can confirm the Monitor’s story, because he has seen it for himself. He has also had to navigate multiple realities, including his wedding on one Earth and the belated formation of the Justice League on another. However, he is not prepared for the shock of the dystopian Earth-3, ruled by a gang of supervillains headed by the evil Superman analog Ultraman (not the Japanese Kyodai hero). It is quite telling how much this Ultraman looks, acts, and sounds like
The Boys’ Homelander, but the DC character predates the caped psycho played by Anthony Starr, by about forty years.

DC Animated has regularly been producing better superhero movies than anything Marvel or DC has done recently in live-action.
Crisis Part One is not as inventive as Superman: Red Sun or Batman Ninja, but it is still smartly executed film. In fact, the multiverse story is probably particularly suited to animation, because it can more easily depict The Flash careening between worlds.

One of the charms of the original comic was the assembly of so many heroes, both the iconic and the somewhat obscure. James Krieg’s adaptation of the Marv Wolfman/George Perez limited series still does that too, but it is definitely Flash-forward, so to speak. Matt Bomer’s voice-over performance as the Flash is far superior to Ezra Miller’s disastrous film turn. Likewise, Darren Criss and Jensen Ackles nicely differentiate the personalities of the various Supermen and Batmen (but they only voice the “good ones”).

Monday, January 22, 2024

Alienoid: Return to the Future

That phrase "return to the future” sure sounds like you could build a successful science fiction franchise around it, right? In fact, the first Alienoid was an entertainingly wild ride, incorporating superheroes, magic, time travel, and alien invasions. Like any aspiring franchise, it ended with a major cliffhanger, but nobody minded, because everything that led up to it was so cool. We will pick back up with Earth’s ragtag but superpowered defenders in 14th Century Korea, where they must obtain the “Divine Sword” to save the present-day Earth in Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid: Return to the Future, which opens this Friday in theaters.

To save Earth in the future, the AI “Thunder” must regroup with little Ean in the past. It is sort of like “going home” for the girl, because Thunder and his humanoid counterpart “Guard” found her orphaned there some 600 years ago, while they were chasing a renegade time-traveling alien criminal.

You might want to revisit the review for the first film, other reviews, its wiki page, and any other resource you can think of, because there was a lot going on. Long story short, alien criminals have been imprisoned inside Earthlings. Ususually, neither the host or the captive are aware of the situation, but when the alien “wakens,” oh boy, is there ever trouble.

Back in our time, there is a full-scale alien uprising going on. They plan to takeover Earth by poisoning our atmosphere. The only off-switch is the Divine Sword that Ean is looking for in the past. She has grown up to be the mysterious “Girl Who Shoots Thunder,” who made such an impression on Murak, a clumsy but powerful Taoist Dosa magician.

In the first film, the modern-day scenes worked a lot better than those in the past, largely because of the dopiness of Murak and the shtickiness of Heug-seol and Cheong-woon, a couple of mage-grifters, who start out as Murak’s rivals, but become his allies. Fortunately, they will find two new allies, the Satoichi-like swordsman Nong-pa in the past, and his future descendant, Min Gae-in, a customs service investigator, who can bust the aliens for not paying their tariffs.

The first
Alienoid was probably the best superhero movie of the last five-years, because it was a fresh and original alternative to the stale Marvel and DC worlds. Return to the Future is still fun, but it often feels like a Marvel movie, because it mostly consists of costumed characters fighting each other in a one crazy, confusing set piece after another.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Slamdance ‘24: On the Way Home

As late as 2023, the United Nations formally recognized the rights of ethnic Georgians to return to their homes in Abkhazia. Yet, nobody is out in the streets protesting on their behalf, because they were expelled by Russian-backed separatists. For years, they lived in large abandoned Soviet-era spa resorts, as viewers can see in Georgi Kvelidze’s shrewdly observant documentary, On the Way Home, which screens at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival.

It is a strange place to grow up, especially for “Haiko,” a young boy living with his grandmother. His father died in the war, while his rarely-seen mother works in the big city to support her family. To her credit, she tries to call regularly, but for Haiko and his grandmother are mostly on their own, like most Abkhazian refugees.

The once-grand buildings of Tskaltubo have fallen into disrepair, but as we can see from archival footage, they were once grandly luxurious. Kvelidze cleverly emphasizes the point with superimposed “then-and-now” split-screens. These sequences also help differentiate the film from other socially conscious fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

The refugees have lived in Tskaltubo for years (officially, they are not squatters), but the beleaguered Georgian state is preparing to move them to permanent new homes. Of course, that sort of implies giving up any hope of returning to their Abkhazia homes.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Short Film Shortlist: The Shepherd

Ever since The Christmas Box released in the mid-1990’s, publishers have been chasing its success with gift-sized Christmas novellas. Yet, thriller writer Frederick Forsyth had the idea twenty years earlier. For years, his story of a fateful Christmas Eve flight has been a radio tradition. Now, Iain Softley’s dramatic adaption of The Shepherd is on the Academy Award shortlist for live-action short.

The United Kingdom is at-peace in the 1950’s, but the ghosts of WWII remain. Freddie Hook has followed in the footsteps of his father, an RAF Airman fatally shot down by the Germans. He was not expecting this solo flight, but he volunteered to take the injured pilot’s place at the last moment. His take-off will be the tower’s last business before closing for the holiday, which will be unfortunate, since all his instruments, gages, and communications cut-out once he reaches cruising altitude.

Hook (unnamed in the original novella) is literally flying blind, when he is suddenly shrouded in freak cloud cover. He falls back on his training, but he will need a miracle, like a so-called “shepherd” pilot to help guide him in. There might just be one, but why would Johnny Cavanaugh be in the skies in a WWII-era Mosquito on a Christmas Eve night?

Although it is under forty minutes,
The Shepherd is the best film Disney released in all of 2023. It is based on a Novella, but it probably requires studio resources to properly produce a period aviation drama. A name like Alfonso Cuaron on-board as producer probably helps too.

The flight sequences look great and 1950s costumes and trappings all look authentic. Softley dexterously hits the right nostalgic and uplifting notes. It is sentimental, but not schmaltzy. Tonally, it is a lot like the feel-good episodes of
The Twilight Zone, such as “The Changing of the Guard.” In fact, that episode would pair up nicely with The Shepherd.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Even though it is stuck with a Communist regime, Vietnam also represents the fifth largest Catholic nation in Asia (by population) and maintains unofficial but not horrible relations with the Vatican. Thien’s sister-in-law is a Vietnamese Catholic, or at least she was. Her untimely death forces him to take temporary responsibility for his nephew and launches him on his own search for some kind of higher sense of things in director-screenwriter Pham Thien An’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, which opens today in New York.

Compared to his two drinking buddies, Thien is clearly the most materialistic, but none of them pays much attention to the fatal motor-scooter accident that happens right in front of their beer-garden. Later, Thien learns that his sister-in-law Teresa perished in the collision, so he must escort his nephew Dao back to her home village. He is the little boy’s only family left in Saigon, since his father (Thien’s brother) Tam apparently vanished several years ago.

Caring for Dao somewhat reawakens Thien’s familial instincts. Participating in Teresa’s Catholic service also makes him mindful of certain ironies. Originally, Tam studied for the priesthood, but he was advised to marry instead. In contrast, Thien still carries a torch for his old flame, Thao, who has moved on, taking nun’s orders and teaching at the nearest Catholic school. Perhaps resolving to finally become his brother’s keeper, Thien sets out to find the long-lost Tam, as an act of atonement or familial duty.

It is hard to target an audience to recommend
Yellow Cocoon to, because its long-take, Slow Cinema pacing will be challenging for many folks and especially for those who might otherwise appreciate its themes of faith and family. Yet, the film’s Catholic sensibilities might make fans of Slow Cinema itchy and uncomfortable.

For many Americans,
Yellow Cocoon will also subvert assumptions, as when Thien visits a Vietnam War veteran in Teresa’s village. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear the old man fought for the South against the Viet Cong, which makes sense, given the region’s predominant Catholicism.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Man from the South

With the success of Wonka, Roald Dahl’s kid’s books are selling like crazy, but for cool readers, his macabre stories are where it is at. Alfred Hitchcock was a fan. He “presented” six of Dahl’s stories on his famous anthology show. This one was later remade by the 1980s Alfred Hitchcock Presents reboot and the Dahl anthology series Tales of the Unexpected, but the first was the best. Fittingly, “Man from the South” screens tomorrow as a part of “Good Evening,” a program of Hitchcock’s TV work at UCLA.

When the young “Gambler” meets the young “Woman” in a casino café, sparks immediately fly, even though they are each recovering from a hard luck night. That is why he is initially annoyed when the mysterious Carlos invites himself to their table. However, his interest perks up when the rich weirdo offers him an unusual bet. If the Gambler can light his zippo ten times straight without fail, he wins Carlos’s convertible. However, if he misses just once, Carlos chops off the Gambler’s little finger.

This is a familiar story, because Tarantino spoofed it in his segment of the anthology film
Four Rooms, the only good “room.” Yet, the original Hitch Presents production is still surprisingly tense, because Norman Lloyd’s direction is so tight and focused. (Lloyd, the prolific character actor, also co-starred in Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Spellbound, and later produced a dozen episodes of Tales of the Unexpected, but not the “Man from the South” remake.)

Of course, the legendary cast is another big reason why this is absolutely classic television, starting with Peter Lorre’s massively creepy performance as Carlos. He looks like a man who really wants another finger. He took his share of corny gigs late in his career, but this is the vintage Lorre we know from
M, Mad Love, and, of course, the Hitchcock films Secret Agent and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Hazbin Hotel, on Prime

Apparently, even in Hell, nobody really believes in criminal rehabilitation. Charlie Morningstar is the exception. She can believe whatever she wants, because being Satan’s daughter technically makes her Princess of Hell. Unfortunately, nobody takes her earnest progressive reformist agenda seriously in Vivienne Medrano’s animated series Hazbin Hotel, which premieres tomorrow on Prime.

Every year, warring angels from Heaven sweep down on Hell to annihilate the (already dead) overflowing ranks of damned sinners and the demons who hold their souls in thrall. It is a horror show Morningside would like to avoid. Her vision is the “Happy Hotel,” where she will help rehab sinners, so they can climb that stairway back up to Heaven. Few believe it is possible and even fewer are willing to mend their wayward ways.

In addition to her girlfriend, Morningside has the “help” of Alastor, the “Radio Demon,” a powerful and mysterious overlord. The former 1920s radio star sounds somewhat like Rudy Vallee’s voice broadcast through his megaphone, which is a clever device. When he was mortal, Alastor was a New Orleans native, so he has good taste in music. Supposedly, he offered his services out of boredom, but it is pretty clear the demon has his own nefarious agenda.

One episode of
Hazbin Hotel can be funny in a naughty, snarky kind of way, but the dark attitude quickly becomes exhausting. The barrage of crude sexual comments and explicit cursing simply does not wear well over time. One of the hotel’s first reluctant residents is “Angel Dust,” a gay adult film star—and boy, do they go there, a lot.

also happens to be a musical, featuring a Broadway-style number in every episode. However, they cannot compete with Satan’s showstopper in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The animation is colorful and lively, but the personalities viewers must spend time with are abrasive and/or annoying, especially including Morningstar. It really is the characters, not the setting, considering the superior charm of the animated feature Hell and Back. By far, the best voice performance is that of the great Keith David (who can make anything sound interesting) as Husk, the hotel bartender.

I.S.S.: The Wrong Stuff

Gene Roddenberry would be very disappointed in the 21st Century. Political differences have not melted away in space, but it hardly matters, since as a nation, we have largely lost our drive for space exploration. To reach the International Space Station (ISS) we currently must hitch a ride with the Russians. Reportedly, Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has not yet affected relations on the station, but when a full-scale nuclear war breaks out below, all bets are off in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s I.S.S., which opens Friday in theaters.

Marine Corp officer and research scientist Dr. Kira Foster is starting her first rotation on the I.S.S., accompanying the returning Christian Campbell (Air Force). They are joining American Captain Gordon Barrett and Russians Weronika Vetrov, Alexey Pulov, and their captain Nicholai Pulov. It soon becomes apparent the international relations are exceptionally warm between Barrett and Petrov. Regardless, everyone assures her they check their politics at the station hatch.

Then both teams get stealth messages from Earth, instructing them their respective nations are at war and to take control of the I.S.S., by any means necessary. Unfortunately, while the Americans are still stuck in what-the-heck mode, Pulov launches into action. In retrospect, this would not be a good time for a solo American space-walk.

Regardless, the Americans find themselves a crewmember down. However, the resulting guilt and anger stokes dissension among the Russians. In fact, Foster is approached by one of them regarding a secret revelation.

I.S.S., the station environment looks convincingly realistic. The “Winds of Change” karaoke business is also a smart reference to the supposed Cold War’s peaceful resolution. Unfortunately, a pathetically weak lead undermines the film’s credibility.

Not for one second can we believe Ariana Debose’s Foster is a Marine, because she never acts like one. Perhaps the fault lies in Nick Shafir’s script, but a real Marine would never be so passive, reserved, deferential, or indecisive. Marines are drilled to take immediate action in times of crisis, even if it is the wrong action, because it is harder to hit a moving target. Yet, Foster just sits around, waiting for somebody to tell her what to do. Trust me, I’ve known some Marines, starting with my grandfather. Debose has the wrong stuff.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Cult Killer: Antonio Banderas Dies Early

Mikael Tallini is a detective with a Scandinavian sounding first-name and an Italian sounding surname, who is working in Ireland and is portrayed by a Spanish actor. He will also die early, but he frequently returns in flashbacks when his protégé draws on his sage advice in Jon Keeyes’s Cult Killer, which opens Friday in theaters.

Tallini regularly told his apprentice, employee, and AA sponsee Cassie Holt that their work as private detectives would almost always be boring. This case will be the exception. Local copper Rory McMahon hires Tallini to investigate a politically sensitive murder, hoping he can circumvent the obstacles erected by the powerful suspects. Shortly thereafter, Tallini is fatally stabbed by a mystery woman.

Of course, Holt inherits the case along with the business. Technically, she solves the murder almost immediately, but that only complicates matters. The killer is the unstable Jamie Douglas, an adult survivor of a nasty sex slavery club. They really are not a “cult” per se. In fact, the well-healed members are quite snobby. Obviously, that means they have clout, which is why Douglas has taken the law into her own hands.

Ordinarily, Holt would be rather ticked off at Douglas. Yet, as an abuse survivor herself, she somewhat emphasizes with her. Regardless, the sex ring, led by the vicious old Evans couple, is absolutely awful, so they need to be taken down.

As you might imagine, Holt’s alliance with Douglas presents a credibility challenge screenwriter Charles Burnley never manages to surmount. In fact, the nice master-and-student chemistry Antonio Banderas and Alice Eve share in flashbacks only accentuates the issue. They are quite good together and Eve also has some nice dramatic moments of her own, as Holt’s struggles with her own demons.

Sunrise: The Blood-Consuming “Red Coat”

It is tempting to think of the “Red Coat” as a vampire, especially (apparently) if you are writing copy for a film about it. Yet, even though the forest spirit of Northwest Native mythos feeds on blood, it shares little in common with traditional vampire lore. Whatever you call it, the Red Coat is still dangerous to provoke in Andrew Baird’s Sunrise, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

Reynolds runs this depressed town like an old school crime boss. Unfortunately, he is also a virulently racist boss, so he is not what you call welcoming to the Loi family (recently immigrated from China). If Mr. Loi had just signed over their farm, Reynolds might have let him live, but he killed him for refusing.

Since the body never surfaced, Yan Loi has been living in limbo, but her teen son has given up hope. He still has some fight left in him, despite the regular bullying, but his secret high school flirtation with a white girl could bring down a great deal of trouble on the family. Reynolds wants to run off the Loi’s for good anyway, but the mysterious Fallon interrupts the latest attempt. He used to be the law in these parts before the Loi’s arrived, but as far as they know, he is a sullen drifter with a bizarre appetite for blood—mostly animal, at least for now (and he can walk around in the daylight, despite the title).

Baird and screenwriter Ronan Blaney deserve credit for trying to do something new and different in the supernatural genre. However, the final film’s pacing is so deliberate and restrained, it is debatable whether
Sunrise can be properly categorized as horror. The burn is definitely slow in this one.

On the other hand, the atmosphere and grim sense of place is highly potent. Evil palpably hangs over this community, so viewers will emphatically root for some payback in the E.C. tradition. The cast is also quite impressive, particularly Alex Pettyfer, who plays Fallon with a quiet, seething intensity that is unusually disconcerting (especially for an ostensive “good guy”).

Guy Pearce also chews the scenery like nobody’s business as Reynolds. His is certainly a sinister villain, but much of his dialogue is over-written. His long racist diatribes sound like they were written for the audience’s benefit, to show us what troglodytes like Reynolds really think. However, in reality, guys like him are usually bluntly to the point.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Vishniac: The Man Who Documented Shtetls and the Jews Who Lived There

Before they fled National Socialist Berlin, Roman Vishniac took an eerie photo of his daughter Mara standing in front of a propaganda poster of Adolph Hitler that says: “Fight with us for peace and equality.” Does that sound familiar to any group staging large demonstrations today? Vishniac documented the lives of European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust, but lived to reinvent himself in America. Director Laura Bialis chronicles his life and legacy in the documentary, Vishniac, which opens Friday in New York.

Vishniac was born in Russia to a Jewish family, but the new Communist regime forced them to relocate—to Berlin. That was Weimar Berlin, Europe’s leading city for tolerance, sophistication, and culture. Vishniac thrived there personally, but he did not find his niche professionally, until the American Jewish Joint Relief Committee (JDC) commissioned him to document the lives of shtetl residents throughout Eastern Europe.

Conditions for European Jews were always difficult, but neither Vishniac or the JDC expected the horror of the Holocaust. Of course, that gave his photo studies incredible significance, since were the last (and in most case, only) images of people and a way of life that would soon disappear.

Today, the visual power of his photos, collected in books like
The Vanished World, remain hauntingly arresting. They are a remainder of why there will always be a real and pressing need for a Jewish homeland. Let’s not kid ourselves. The “anti-Zionists” really just want to leave the Jewish people vulnerable to more pogroms. If you can watch Vishniiac or look at his pictures and not own up to the Jew-hating reality of the pro-Hamas demonstrations, then you are a coward and you are kidding yourself.

Vishniac could not be timelier. Yet, Vishniac the man had a meaningful second act in life. Essentially, he developed a new career and identity for himself as a science photographer and filmmaker. His microscopic cellular photos appeared in Life magazine, when it was like the Instagram of its day. With his educational films and lecture series, he became sort of an early forerunner to Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye (the bachelor's degree guy).

Blue Lights, on BritBox

If it is this dangerous policing Belfast today, just imagine what it was like during the Troubles. Many days, the response officers working out of the fictional Blackthorn Station hardly know the difference. That is because James McIntyre, the head of Belfast’s biggest “paramilitary” gang, seamlessly segued out of IRA terrorism into the organized crime business. That makes Belfast a challenging place to work as a cop, but three rookies think they want to do it anyway (maybe) in writer-creators Declan Lawn & Adam Patterson’s six-part Blue Lights, which premieres tomorrow on BritBox.

Every morning probationary Constable Annie Conlon check under her car for explosive devices. Remember,
Blue Lights is set in the present day. Since she hails from a Catholic Republican family, her choice of work makes her a target for turncoat accusations (and reprisals). Unfortunately, her training officer, Constable Jen Robinson, is a terrible cop. She has been fast-tracked, since her mother is a high-ranking police official, but Robinson really cannot handle the job.

Rookie Tommy Foster is luckier. Not only is he fast-tracked himself, but he was also assigned to Constable Gerry Cliff, a crafty old veteran, who clearly sees himself as an Obiwan figure (not without good reason). Former social worker Grace Ellis also had good fortune with Constable Steve Neil. He is more reserved than she is accustomed to, but they slowly develop a good rapport. It might even be turning into something deeper for the widowed Neil.

Much to everyone’s frustration (except perhaps Robinson), Inspector David Johnston regularly declares certain neighborhoods “out-of-bounds,” or “double-O-B.” He has been deferring to a shadowy MI5 agent, who has been running McIntyre as an informant and subsequently protecting him, in a manner reminiscent of the Whitey Bulger debacle. However, the frequency and scope of the “OOB’s” arouse the suspicion of the maverick-inclined Cliff and the perceptive Sergeant Helen McNally, who can also tell Robinson is a shirker. Unfortunately, it is difficult for McNally to discipline the protected rookie, because Robinson has been exploiting her affair with the married Johnston for special treatment.

Blue Lights
will probably sound like a fairly standard cop show in most write-ups, but the actual viewing experience is something very different. It has a gritty intensity that feels fresh in the way NYPD Blue did back in the 1990’s. Every episode has several white-knuckle moments that will shock and exhaust viewers. Like NYPD Blue, the cops of Blue Lights are largely quite flawed, but you really must give them credit for putting themselves in harm’s way, over and over again.

Monday, January 15, 2024

One More Shot, Scott Adkins Comes Back for More

What did Jack Bauer do after each “day” of 24? Probably, sleep for a very long time. Fortunately, Jake Harris had a very long flight after exfiltrating terrorist financier and prime suspect Amin Mansur from a black site in Poland to the Baltimore airport. The operation cost him the rest of his SEAL team, but he survived—and boy is he angry. However, the same group that arranged the attack in Poland arranges a similar reception stateside in James Nunn’s One More Shot, which releases tomorrow on digital.

One Shot, One More is filmed to feel like one long extended take. Maybe Nunn cheated with some digital editing help, but it looks legit. It also amplifies the intensity of the action sequences even more this time around. An early scene in which Harris and the wounded Agent Hooper (played by Hannah Arterton, Gemma’s sister) is a terrific example.

Since this is the second time Harris walks into an ambush, there must be a mole feeding intel to the bad guys. CIA bigwig blowhard Mike Marshall’s access makes him an early suspect, but Mansur himself has another candidate in mind. Mansur will rely on Harris to keep him and his pregnant estranged wife Niesha safe, in return for information on the dirty bomb he shipped to the same airport.

One More Shot
is another disappointing example of a thriller that uses Islamist terrorists as a red herring, only to reveal that the “real” villains are in fact a cabal of greedy Americans executing a false flag operation. Perhaps Nunn and co-screenwriter James Russell might care to explain to the American and British sailors in the Gulf fending off Houthi missiles that they should really be concerned about a nasty corporation in Fairfax, Virginia?

However, there is no denying the action is first-class all the way. The second film surpasses the first in that respect, by a good measure. It also easily stands alone for those who start here. The airport setting (London’s Stansted) provides many opportunities for action set-pieces that Nunn and his experienced cast fully capitalize on.

Clearly, Adkins is at the absolute top of his game throughout
OMS. He has no time for jokey winking at the camera. He starts the film in a quiet fury and his rage and intensity grows steadily with each scene. Michael Jai White has an excellent third-act fight scene with Adkins, but Nunn’s holds him in reserve for most of the film, just teasing brief appearances of White barking orders into a walky.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Wild Cards, on CW

In It Takes a Thief, Robert Wagner was a cat-burglar hired by the U.S. government to fight crime. That show was from the 1960s, but the apparently the Vancouver police are just catching up with it. Frankly, they are not thrilled to take on con artist Max Mitchell as a “consultant,” but that’s politics. “Disgraced” former detective Cole Ellis is the one forced to partner up with her in creator Michael Konyves’s Wild Cards, which premieres Wednesday on CW.

Mitchell was impersonating the owner of a safety-deposit box when she was collared, but since the force was preoccupied with the “Infinity Thief,” Ellis, a demoted boat patrol officer, was called in to book her. While waiting to be processed, she overhears a briefing regarding the Infinity Burglar, who has been targeting the mayor’s biggest donors.

In the spirit of “it takes a thief,” Mitchell volunteers her services to catch the Infinity Thief, in exchange for her freedom. Of course, that is not happening, but the hapless Ellis still gets caught up in her amateur sleuthing. When they uncover the investigation’s first lead, the politically canny commissioner semi-officially assigns them to the case, with vague promises of reinstatement and leniency if they get further results.

Naturally, they have trust issues, but Ellis grudgingly admits Mitchell has insight into this crime. In fact, she knows the only fence who can handle the readily identifiable pieces they are looking for. Not surprisingly, he is “Caviar Stan,” a Russian with diplomatic immunity. Give Canadian television a point for being willing to cast regime-friendly Russians as bad guys. To get close to him, they will need an invite to his private poker game. Mitchell’s dad George Graham can arrange that, even though the legendary crook is currently behind bars. Clearly, he will regularly provide criminal insight for their investigations, but he also has his own agenda.

The first two episodes provided for review are competent light-comedy procedurals, like a somewhat less noir
Remington Steele. However, the brief lip-service to wokeness introduced in episode two, “Show Me the Murder,” by the unfairly arrested prime suspect, will alienate the show’s target demo. The regular viewers for Wild Cards will be older than me, so Mitchell’s praise for Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote is far more on target.

The pilot, “The Infinity Thief,’ is the better episode of the two, because the Russian angle provides a greater sense of danger and the murder involving twin art dealers taps into classic mystery archetypes. “Show Me the Money” follows a fairly routine investigation of a sports agent’s murder. Since this is Canada, presumably, most of his clients are hockey players and professional curlers, but an MMA star plays a pivotal role in the drama.

On the plus side, Vanessa Morgan and Giacomo Gianniotti already start to develop some decent bickering-bantering ambiguously romantic chemistry in the second episode. She plays up Mitchell’s flamboyance without getting annoying, while Gianniotti is so earnest as Ellis, viewers will respect his integrity, even though we can tell it will make him the butt of endless jokes in future episodes.