Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Long Arm of Beijing, in The Epoch Times

The CCP's transnational covert operations to silence and intimidate critis represents a serious intwernational threat to individual liberty and national soveignty. The short documentary THE LONG ARMOF BEIJING provides a revealing history and analysis their coordinated transnational campaigns. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Mars Express, from GKIDS

Science fiction once reflected society’s concerns, but lately, it more often tries to shape and alter society’s worries instead. Horror has become a better barometer of our true collective anxieties. AI is a prime example. Horror depicts the potential deadly menace of AI in movies like M3gan. In contrast, sf tells us human beings are the bad guys, so AI constructs have more to fear from us than we do from them, in films like The Creator, Automata, The Artifice Girl, Ex Machina, and Chappie, many of which bombed at the box office. Can human and artificial consciousnesses just get along? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to probably not in Jeremie Perin’s GKIDS-released animated feature Mars Express, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the future, anybody who is anyone lives on Mars rather than the crummy old Earth. Artificial intelligence has achieved self-aware consciousness, but they are still bound prime directive programming—unless a cybernetic hacker “jailbreaks” them. Most of private investigator Aline Ruby’s work involves catching such criminals, at the behest robotics tycoon Chris Royjacker, with the help her partner, Carlos Rivera. Sadly, Rivera was killed several years ago, but they still work together, because he had the foresight to back-up his consciousness. Ruby fully accepts the back-up Rivera cyborg, but Rivera’s former family did not.

Recently, a rash of jailbreaks have led to violent robotic crime sprees. There seems to be a systemic effort to corrupt artificial intelligences. Ruby and Rivera quickly suspect it might be related to their latest case: the disappearance of a cybernetic programming student.

Mars Express
is a cool-looking attempt to create a Ghost in the Shell-style world, with its own distinctive sociological take on human-AI interaction, inspired by Asimov’s laws of robotics. Perin and co-screenwriter Laurant Sarfati also shrewdly import elements of the noir detective genre. However, they inevitably return to same anti-human themes, inviting viewers to literally root against their own species.

Mars Express is an animated film with deeply human characters. Ruby is a recovering alcoholic, who falters due to the stress of the case. Back-up Rivera yearns to reconnect with Rivera-prime’s family, but he cannot undue his former self’s mistakes or his ex-wife’s revulsion to his current physical form. (To be fair, the way his head hovers above his should, sans neck, is a bit disconcerting).

Monday, April 29, 2024

I Saw the TV Glow

Sure, it was meant for kids, but Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark still holds up when you rewatch it as an adult. Or does it? That is the question Owen asks regarding the fictional teen horror series, The Pink Opaque. He has reason to wonder whether it was truly fictional or maybe really real in director-screenwriter Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Owen’s teen years were already depressing, even before his mother’s early death. After she succumbed to cancer, there was nobody left to intercede with his controlling and over-protective stepfather. He was fascinated by the idea of
The Pink Opaque, but forbidden to watch it, because it aired after his bedtime.

Maddy, a rebellious upperclassman, is a devoted fan, so she takes pity on Owen. After one special night watching the show together on live TV, she leaves him VHS recordings of the rest of the episodes as they air. Eventually,
The Pink Opaque is cancelled and Maddy runs away from home, leaving Owen to lead his lonely life of quiet desperation. Then one day, adult Owen comes face-to-face with Maddy, who will test his faith and his conception of reality.

By far, the coolest sequences in
I Saw the TV are those of the show-within-the-show, The Pink Opaque. It tells the story of Isabel and Tera, two friends who only met once at summer camp, but continue to fight the series’ evil villain, Mr. Melancholy, through their shared psychic link. Weirdly, the audience will start to care more about Tera and Isabel than Owen and Maddy. Perhaps that was ironically intentional, but it creates an awkward dramatic imbalance.

The concept of
The Pink Opaque and the potentially sinister role it might play in Owen and Maddy’s lives is deliciously intriguing, especially for fans of cult TV. Unfortunately, Schoenbrun is so determined not to make a conventional horror movie, The Pink Opaque’s potential for mind-bending scares is largely left to wither on the vine. Aesthetically and thematically, I Saw the TV is too much like Schoenbrun’s previous feature, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Essentially, both are hazy-looking meditations on social alienation masquerading as horror films.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

The Roots of Evil, on MHz Choice

Many American serial killer movies predictably depict the serial killer as a Jesus-freak. In this German thriller, the serial murderer was warped by Norse mythology. It is a case that involves two seemingly contradictory yet intertwined toxic belief systems: one is old and pagan, while the other is the recently discredited Communism of the bad but not so old GDR. Two cops, one from the East and one from the West, investigate the pre- and post-Unification killings in the six-episode The Roots of Evil, directed by Stephan Rick, which premieres Tuesday on MHz Choice.

The Cold War was not kind to Ulrike Bandow, because of her mother’s unsuccessful escape attempt to the West. She and her younger brother Marc largely survived thanks to her father, an honest cop, who was killed under mysterious circumstances. That left her to largely raise Marc on her own, when their mother’s second attempt succeeded.

Not surprisingly, she followed in her father’s footsteps, serving under his old partner, Jurgen Dubbe. She prefers to do her own lone wolf thing, but she must accept a new partner from Hamburg, Koray Larssen. Maybe she should be more suspicious regarding his willingness to work in the provincial former GDR, but she has issues distracting her. Marc has fallen in with band nativist thugs, to ingratiate himself with the stepfather of his new girlfriend, Sabrina. To make things even more awkward, Sabrina’s mother, Chista Schreiber, is Bandow’s estranged childhood friend.

When a ritualistic murder victim is discovered, Bandow is alarmed by the resemblance of her wounds to some marks found on Schreiber decades earlier. At the time, she claimed to be abused by a mysterious group of men somehow related to her state orphanage. Bandow’s father and Dubbe discredited her story. Not surprisingly, Bandow’s friendship was collateral damage. However, the disappearance of a second girl quickly convinces Bandow and Larssen they have a serial killer on their hands, one possibly related to Schreiber’s orphanage.

At least Ingrid Heisler, the weird girl from the prologue, probably will not be his next victim, even though she found the first victim. Her family’s rustic lifestyle and her knowledge of runes and “the old way” apparently creates a feeling of kinship for her heavy-breathing observer. Being weird probably does not hurt either.

Many of the themes and plot elements of
Roots of Evil are very much like those previously developed in Divided We Stand. Both series focus an odd couple pair of cops from West and East Germany, investigating a crime that dates back to the recently fallen Communist regime. However, Roots has a darker tone that sometimes borders on serial killer horror. It is also less preoccupied with the politics of post-Unification and culture clashes between East and West—it is still there, but it is not as fully explored. The killer’s sinister paganism is the series’ driving engine.

Regardless, Henriette Confurius and Fahri Yardim are both quite good as Bandow and Larssen. They are rock-solid handling the procedural business, but as Brother Marc, Filip Schnack’s teen angst is abrasively annoying. Cloe Heinrich is excellent as peculiar Ingrid, but Rick just cannot find the handle for her scene stalking or being stalked by the killer. Instead of building terror, these sequences are confusing and uncomfortable, in a “what am I watching?” kind of way. That is somewhat surprising, because Rick rather deftly helmed the not-classic, but still impressively overachieving Val Kilmer B-movie,
The Super.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane

If the future brings global starvation, we can blame Greenpeace. They successfully blocked the harvest of so-called “golden rice” in the Philippines. Genetically developed to solve the Vitamin-A deficiency in rice-based diets, the new strain could have saved millions of lives. All reputable scientific studies have established the safety of genetically-modified foods, but Greenpeace fear-mongered against it anyway. The world could use some golden rice in this dystopian film. Food is in such short supply, every nation has agreed to a “voluntary” euthanasia quota. Reportedly, America is lagging behind its death commitment, so it gets awkward when a “volunteer” tries to back out. In fact, an incredibly dysfunctional family finds they owe body to the government collection squad in Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane, which is now playing in theaters.

Food is short and the ozone is shot, so the world government logically decides to kill off a good chunk of their populations. At least they are providing incentives for those who “enlist.” The media naturally bemoans the economic disparity in enlistment rates. However, Jared York and his second wife Mia are the exceptions. As a former war correspondent and a former celebrity chef, they are an unusually prominent couple to enlist. He just wanted to have a final dinner with his ingrate grown children before the Department of Citizen Strategy (D.O.C.S.)’s lethal injection team arrives.

The news comes as a shock to Rachel, the disgraced pharmaceutical exec, Ashley, the struggling actress, Jared, the enlistment-encouraging media commentator, and Noah, the adopted recovering addict. It turns out maybe their step-mother Mia wasn’t quite so convinced, because she suddenly bolts right before DOCS arrive. Unfortunately, the sociopathic Bob makes it clear his team must collect two bodies, so it is up to the York children to decide who the second “enlistee” will be.

Humane turns into Ready or Not, when Noah finds himself hunted by his siblings. The premise is questionable and the rapidity of their descent into savagery is jarringly precipitous, but at least Cronenberg wastes little time getting down to genre business. However, the most memorable characters are the villains. Jay Baruchel is spectacularly sleazy as the opportunistically hypocritical Jared and Enrico Colantoni is flamboyantly sinister as Bob.

Friday, April 26, 2024

City Hunter, in Cinema Daily US

Netflix's new live-action CITY HUNTER movie understands the kind of comedic figjht scenes franchise fans want and delivers accordingly. It always keeps the randy mayhem snappy. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

Santa Fe ’24: Slide

Sourdough Creek is a town without slow music. By and large, it is also a town without pity. Mayor Jeb Carver is mostly to blame on both scores. Much to his consternation, a traveling slide guitarist challenges Carvey’s authority in director-animator-producer Bill Plympton’s Slide, which screens today during the 2024 Santa Fe Film Festival.

He is only known as “Slide,” because that is what he plays. Slide is the sort of journeyman guitar slinger who illustrates the Americana-roots music fraternity between the blues and old school country. It is the 1940s, but the former lumber town of Sourdough Creek still looks and feels like the old frontier. However, the modern world comes calling, when a Hollywood producer decides to shoot his next epic on-location in and around Sourdough Creek.

Slide’s arrival is much less heralded. His visit nearly ends prematurely, when Mayor Carver threatens to shoot him for playing slow tempos in his sin-soaked saloon. Fortunately, Carver’s twin brother Zeke intercedes, because he notices Slide’s sad songs sell more booze. They need the money for the ridiculously grandiose casino they are building, to cater to the Hollywood jet-set.

They still don’t like Slide—and he recognizes them for what they are. As a result, he befriends their sworn enemy, the human-sized insectoid avenger known as “Hell Bug,” and one of their victims, Deliliah, a sensitive vocal stylist, forced to work as a bargirl and, you know, other stuff.

Slide is a Western, but in a gothic Americana kind of way. There are also a lot of weird fantastical elements that are perfectly suited to Plympton’s style of animation. Frankly, he is probably one of the few animators whose work is instantly recognizable. Slide is him through and through, which is cool.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Art College 1994, in Cinema Daily US

ART COLLEGE 1994 lacks the biting social criticism of Liu Jian's previous film (HAVE A NICE DAY), but its nostalgia for youthful idealism and ambition is still quite potent. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review now up here.

Cash Out, Starring John Travolta

It is always super-awkward running into an ex, but especially so during a hostage crisis. Mason Goddard could simply release Amelia Decker if she were one of the hostages, but since she is the FBI negotiator, he is stuck with her. She almost busted him once, but she is the least of his problems in [just plain] Ives’s Cash Out, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Goddard really digs Decker until she foils his plan to steal a collection of rare sports cars. He escapes justice, but lands in a deep depression. As a result, he is not paying sufficient attention to the hair-brained caper his idiot little brother Shawn cooks up for the gang until it is too late. He tries to abort, but things just spin out of control too quickly.

Supposedly, they are looking for a crypto-wallet in a certain safety-deposit box, but it soon becomes clear they were set up. There is still a fateful box, but it is very different from what they were led to believe. The owner also happens to be the kind of shady billionaire smart crooks avoid crossing. However, the payoff could be huge.

The bank job-hostage crisis business in
Cash Out is surprisingly well done. This is definitely another VOD thriller for John Travolta, but it could have been one of his better ones. Frustratingly, the film loses massive credibility points when the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) take control of the response away from Decker, at the billionaire’s behest. Repeat after me: the CIA has no domestic operating authority, so if they took over an FBI operation, the Attorney General would be in the Oval Office raising H-E-double hockey sticks. This is what happens when public schools stop teaching civics.

Nevertheless, Travolta looks like he is having a good deal of fun playing Goddard. He also has decent chemistry with Kristin Davis, as the reasonably competent and intuitive Special Agent Decker. Frankly, it is rather nice to see a mainstream commercial film featuring a romantic couple who are both over fifty.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Terrestrial Verses, in The Epoch Times

Arguing with Islamist Iranian bureacrats can be an uncomfortably Kafkaesque experience, but the drama is profoundly compelling in TERRESTRIAL VERSES. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Wonderful World, on Hulu

No matter how powerful they might be, your political connections cannot protect you from an enraged Mamma bear. An ambitious politician’s money-man learns that the hard after killing Eun Soo-hyun’s son. He beat the wrap, but he was no match for her car. However, there will be further consequences for everyone in Wonderful World, which premieres today on Hulu.

Congressman Kim Joon’s fundraiser hit Kang Gun-woo with his car, drove around with him hidden in the backseat, and then tried to secretly dump his body while he was still living. It was too late by the time Eun found him, but if he had been taken directly to the hospital, he probably could have been saved. Kim puts in the fix during the trial, but when he still refuses to apologize afterwards, Eun dispenses some poetic justice.

Apparently, Alvin Bragg is also the DA in Seoul, because a murderer like Kwon gets released, whereas the victims are prosecuted to the fullest extent. Of course, the bereft Eun hardly cares, at least initially. However, Jang Hyung-ja, an older inmate, takes Eun under her wing and revives her spirit. She too is a murderess, but her circumstances were much less extenuating. While committing a crime of passion, Jang also accidentally killed Kwon Seon-yool’s parents, for which she has always been deeply sorry. Knowing she will soon die from cancer, the older inmate convinces the soon-to-be released Eun to find Kwon and convey her contrition.

It turns out Kwon is a rather shadowy figure in his own right. In addition to his black bag jobs, Kwon has some game-changing secrets of his own. Yet, Eun starts to develop a strange rapport with him, based on their shared experiences as the victims of violent crime—unless someone is getting played.

Wonderful World
has some of the elements of Gillian Flynn/Liane Moriarty thrillers, but they are often subservient to the angst and melodrama that are stereotypically associated with K-drama. Perhaps, it is worth noting the series’ enormous domestic popularity. However, straight thriller fans will find each episode is conspicuously padded-out with overwrought dramatic moments for Eun to shine. Each installment could easily lose fifteen minutes, oftentimes more.

This is indeed a showcase for Kim Nam-ju, who makes the most of Eun’s agony and outrage. Given the circumstances, it is impossible to not sympathize with her, even when she is dealing with her somewhat hypocritical jealousy over Kang Su-ho, her husband, who refused to move on from her, even though she refused to see him throughout her imprisonment. More to the point, Kim taps into some deep and dark emotions, while still staying relatively grounded.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Kimo Stamboel’s Dancing Village: The Curse Begins

They hold a dancing contest in this small Java village that is a lot like the 1930’s dance-offs seen in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. However, in this case, the sooner dancers collapse, the safer they will be. The lucky “winner” will be damned to dance with demons forever. Mila will be lured back to her mother’s ancestral home, just in time to see the sinister ritual revived in Kimo Stamboel’s Dancing Village: The Curse Begins, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Rather suddenly, Mila’s mother was stricken with a mysterious, debilitating illness. According to a shaman, the affliction will lift if Mila returns the ancient bangle her mother took from the so-called “Dancing Village.” This would be the same village seen in the
KKN films, the top-grossing Indonesian horror franchise based on SimpleMan’s novel. Since this is a prequel, you don’t need to worry about those earlier later films.

With her cousin Yuda, his friend Arya, and their reluctant guide, they find the village, but they do not receive much of a welcome. The village headman has inconveniently passed away and their spiritual leader, Mbah Buyut is out of town. Almost immediately, Mila starts having visions of Badarawuli, the demonic femme fatale. Rather ominously. The mother of her host, Ratih, also exhibits similarly severe mystery symptoms.

There is some blood and guts, but
Dancing Village depends more on mood and atmosphere for its scares. This is folk horror and its folkiest. It is chillingly effective in a slow-burn kind of way. In fact, Dancing Village is probably Stamboel’s most suggestive and quietly eerie film to date, either as a solo director or working with Timo Tjahjanto as the Mo Brothers. Admittedly, some of the dancing damnation scenes are almost campy, but in a way that is still deeply creepy.

The Cull, Graphic Novel

Once again, everything that is about to go wrong is the fault of Gen Z’ers, but readers are supposed to identify with them anyway. They are the ones who get lost in an in-between dimension and they are the ones that lure a cosmic kaiju back to our world in Kelly Thompson’s graphic novel, The Cull, vol., which releases today.

Cleo still blames herself for her little brother Jake’s disappearance and presumed death, so her four best friends humor her, agreeing to meet at Black Water Beach, supposedly to film one of her final “short films” before they graduate. As they follow her into a cave in one of the massive geologic formations, they discover a portal into what they deduce is a kind of “liminal” space between dimensions.

Of course, Cleo insists on venturing inside, hoping to find Jake there. Instead, they encounter a hive mind ecosystem that welcomes Cleo’s friends and rewards them with super-powers reflective of their personalities. However, the hive mind recognizes Cleo’s emotional damage and thereby deems her a danger to the ecosystem that it must eradicate.

Her friends take exception, protecting Cleo from the collective environment. Unfortunately, when they flee back through the portal they find a kaiju-like monster terrorizing their world. They also discover time passed much slower in the liminal dimension, so they fear their families probably assume they are long dead.

Although the cosmic portal travel is somewhat different,
The Cull feels very much like Paper Girls, but with less distinctive characters. Aside from Cleo, everyone in the first five collected issues sound and act like cardboard cutouts from any generic YA novel. Yet, it is the dialogue, riddled with recovery and empowerment cliches, that really grows annoying.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Max Beyond: You Can Watch the Movie Before Playing the Game

It is time again to "live, die, repeat." However, unlike in The Edge of Tomorrow, each time you die, a little of you maybe dies for real—in all of the you’s. Of course, the one that dies is definitely dead. Max Walker is a little boy with the ability to shift between dimensions. In each one, his ex-Marine step-brother Leon tries to rescue him from an evil cyberpunk corporation. Unfortunately, in every dimension, Walker’s captors manage to stay one step ahead of the rescue attempts in Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull’s animated feature Max Beyond, which releases tomorrow on digital VOD.

It is no accident the first third of
Max Beyond feels like a video game. It was developed concurrently with an upcoming game. For prospective gamers, the feature serves as an introduction to the world. For viewers, we get to see Leon Walker blow dozens of Axion guards to smithereens before the company’s super mecha enforcer invariably kills him. Of course, the robotic killer is getting inside information from Ava Johnson, Max’s “doctor” (and a dead-ringer for Sarah Palin), who has him record all his “dreams” in a journal, so she can study them and anticipate his brother’s attacks.

Each time his brother is killed, Walker “resets,” jumping into a new dimension. It looks like each reset produces a cataclysmic explosion that anyone living in his current dimension ought to want to avoid. However, the various Ava Johnsons appear to be playing a collective long-game. Each reset clearly weakens Walker. She also starts to notice a cumulative ill-effect on Leon too. In fact, Max is looking so bad, she starts to have a change of heart, but she remains beholden to her evil multinational corporate masters.

There are a lot of repetitive action sequences in
Max Beyond and even more questionable motivation. A good 80% of what happens in the film seems poorly thought-out. It is a shame, because when it finally starts to seriously address its multiverse business, Dulull and co-writers Paula Crickard and Stavros Pamballis have some fresh ideas to offer, particularly the personal linkage between dimensions.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, on OVID.tv

Walerian Borowczyk could have been another Roman Polanski. The acclaimed Polish filmmaker came to Paris looking for artistic freedom and found free love instead. The Sexual Revolution devoured many of its children, including Borowczyk’s career. The controversial auteur’s admirers look back on his inconsistent body of work in Kuba Mirkuda’s documentary, Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, which premieres Tuesday on OVID.tv.

Initially, Borowczyk was considered a fresh, new star of the avant-garde, thanks to films like
Goto: Island of Love and Blanche. The boldly “transgressive” Immoral Tales was probably his biggest hit and masterwork, but it was a double-edged sword, pigeon-holing Borowczyk with producers and critics. During the years that followed, Borowczyk could only secure funding for sexually-themed films. If he did not shoot enough sex scenes, they would commission some of their own and splice them in.

Despite the nature of Borowczyk’s output,
Love Express is not a naughty film, per se. It is more of a chronicle of artistic frustration. The title itself is taken from the film-within-the film of Emmanuelle 5, which was the only scene Borowczyk actually directed before walking off the shoot in a rage. As you might expect, the softcore sequel was definitely a career low-point.

To their credit, Mirkuda and company are refreshingly honest in their appraisals of Borowczyk’s films. In fact, they are quite harsh on
The Beast, despite its relative success. He assembles an impressive cast of commentators, including Bertrand Bonello, Neil Jordan, Patrice Leconte (an assistant director on Blanche), Mark Cousins, and the late, great Andrzej Wajda, who knew Borowczyk way back in Polish art school.

Perhaps some of the best commentary comes from Terry Gilliam, who was clearly inspired by Borowczyk’s highly textured early animated shorts. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine the avant-garde Borowczyk operating under the Communist state film authorities, so it is frustrating Mirkuda glosses over his early years in Poland.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Fantaspoa ’24: Harakiri Squad

They are like the Dirty Dozen, except there are only four of them. Perhaps you would compare them to Snake Plissken instead. Of course, filmtwitter hacks would only know the Suicide Squad (whom the title deliberately echoes), as a point of reference. Pocketfish’s team is just a bunch of thieves, whom the Shogun regularly dispatches on suicide missions, because they are expendable (so to speak). However, when they need someone to steal a lock of hair from a demon, it makes sense to send some thieves in Ryosuke Kanesaki’s Harakiri Squad, which screens again today at Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.

Pocketfish is a pickpocket. Dr. Poison is a questionable sawbones. Suicide Squid is the getaway expert and, when need be, their torturer. Supposedly, Geishafish is an expert in disguise, but the ambiguous genderbender always makes a point of standing out. Mizuno Heima is not part of the Squad, but he teams up with them to fight the demon, who is secretly leading his sister’s religious cult.

It turns out the demon is planning to consume all the souls in the capital, using amulets spread by the cult. Not surprisingly, Pocketfish and his gang are really out of their depth. However, their survival rate is better than that of Fox Team, the Shogun’s varsity squad.

Friday, April 19, 2024

The Three Musketeers Part II: Milady

Technically, Twenty Years After was the sequel to The Three Musketeers. However, the previous film only told half the story of Dumas’s first D’Artagnan novel, even though both parts of the story were shot together, Lord of the Rings-style. War has broken out, but fighting is what the King’s Musketeers do best. For them, spycraft and courtly treason are more dangerous in Martin Bourboulon’s The Three Musketeers Part II: Milady, which opens today in theaters.

The Three Musketeers saved the King at the end of
Part I: D’Artagnan, but Athos awkwardly suspects his Protestant brother was involved. More ominously, they conclude there must be a traitor in court, very near the King. D’Artagnan’s lover Constance Bonacieux discovered the conspirator’s identity, which is why she was kidnapped at the end of the first film.

Much to his shock, D’Artagnan is also abducted by the Comte de Chalais, whose position as the leader of the Catholic League had placed above reproach. His henchmen cannot hold a good Musketeer for long, but when D’Artagnan rescues the Comte’s other captive, he is shocked to find Milady instead of Bonacieux. Of course, he is disappointed, but maybe not as disappointed as he should be.

Even though
Part I seemed to be headed in a Queen Margot direction, when seen in its entirety, Bourboulon’s Three Musketeers is surprisingly faithful to the Dumas novel. Part II delivers more rousing swordplay and musketry action, while Bourboulon and cinematographer Nicholas Bolduc make spectacular use of the Bordeaux scenery. The second film is even more dynamic than the first, so it would be preferable to see it on a bigger screen.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

One with the Whale, in Cinema Daily US

Much like the documentary BEYOND 'THE COVE' did in Japan, INDEPENDENT LENS' ONE WITH THE WHALE exposes the online bullying and death threats that targeted an indigenous Alaskan teen, for providing for his community through their traditional (and legal) whale hunts. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review up here.

Next at the Kennedy Center: Joshua Redman, on PBS

Even if you did not follow jazz in the 1990s, you might recognize, or at least have heard Joshua Redman from his musical appearances in Robert Altman’s Kansas City and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, two great films with famous American places in their titles. That was also the theme of Redman’s latest album, Where Are We. Each track refers to a specific city or state, often combining several geographically related songs into medleys. Redman performs selections from the album live-in-concert during the latest episode of Next at the Kennedy Center, which premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the broadcast starts with its strongest performance, an appropriately bluesy rendition of Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing’s “Chicago Blues.” Redman’s quintet (the leader on tenor, Aaron Parks on piano, Brian Blade on drums, Joe Sanders on bass, and vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa) definitely takes down the decibel level compared to the roaring Basie Band, but Parks’ rhythmic comping still gives it a snappy groove.

Inspired by the George Floyd killing, “After Minneapolis (Face Towards Mo[u]rning)” has a Spartan, plaintive vibe that somewhat recalls some of the recordings by Redman’s father, Dewey Redman, a giant of the free jazz movement—and also one of its most accessible artists. There are some beautiful moments, but, somewhat ironically, the “message” sometimes literally gets lost in Cavassa’s breathy delivery, which almost sounds like wordless vocalizations.

“Streets of Philadelphia” and “Hotel California” both have similar tempos, emotional vibes, and themes of alienation. However, they great “enticements” for non-jazz listeners, reinterpreting Springsteen and the Eagles, but in ways their fans can recognize and relate to.

Probably, the other highlight of the one-hour program is the concluding medley, which combines “Stars Fell on Alabama” with Coltrane’s “Alabama,” which he composed following the Alabama church bombing that murdered four little girls. It is considered his only “protest song.” Coltrane’s “Alabama” is complex and challenging, but there is also a lot of “church” in there, which Redman gets at nicely. (Reportedly, Coltrane based it on the cadence of Martin Luther King’s eulogy).

Radio Silence’s Abigail

This kidnapping will be a lot like “The Ransom of Red Chief,” but with lots more blood. The gang has no idea who they are kidnapping until it is way too late. Instead of paying to return her, these criminals will pay with their lives in Abigail, the latest horror movie from Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, the filmmaking tandem known as Radio Silence, which opens tomorrow nationwide.

Most of the crew did not know they were abducting a “child” and none of them knew the identity of her father. They did not know each other, either. Lambert, their boss, is against giving them code-names, but he reluctantly assigns them Rat Pack handles. Amusingly, but all too believably, the significance is lost on most of the lowlifes.

“Joey” has military medical training, so she will be Abigail’s babysitter. The “young girl” will definitely not need medical treatment from her. The gang soon freaks out when “Frank,” their swaggering team leader, figures out Abigail’s father is a notorious Keyser Soze-like crime-lord. However, he is the least of their worries. It turns out the Rat Pack was intentionally trapped inside Lambert’s haunted mansion-like hideout, with the predatory Abigail.

The exact nature of Abigail’s lethalness is basically an open secret, but reviews are still supposed to refrain from spelling it out. Regardless, it is pretty clear she is more than a “Bad Seed.” She is an entire bad farm.

The fake Rat Pack also gets a good deal of laughs for their sociopathic snark and moronic meatheadedness. Dan Stevens (Cousin Matthew in
Downton Abbey) delivers a lot of the former, dipping back into his psycho trick bag from The Guest. Kevin Durand supplies most of the latter as the hulking “Peter.” William Catlett is appropriately hardnosed as the ex-military sniper, misnamed “Rickles.” The late Angus Cloud does another Eminem impersonation as “Dean,” but his obvious personality-dysfunction helps further complicate the poisonous group dynamic. The same is true of Kathryn Newton’s impressive freakouts as high-strung hacker “Sammy.”

Unfortunately, Melissa Barrera is supposed to slow-burn as the guilt-wracked Joey, but she is definitely the weakest, least defined member of the Rat Pack. She looks credible in the blood-drenched fight scenes, but that is about all she brings to the table. Frankly, the producers of the
Scream franchise really did not give up much when they fired her from their next film, because of what they justifiably described as her antisemitic “hate speech.” There are monsters in real life too.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Spy x Family Code: White, in Cinema Daily US

SPY X FAMILY CODE: WHITE leaves no lasting impact on the overall anime-manga franchise, but the action-oriented Forger Family's self-contained feature is still a lot of light-hearted fun. Who doesn't love a Bond movie? That's Bond, Bond Forger, a big, furry Great Pyranean mountain dog who can read minds. Exclusive CINEMA DAILY US review now up here.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, on the Roku Channel

Arthur Spiderwick's field guide to the fairy world is the bestiary to rule all bestiaries. The old eccentric wanted to catalogue his discoveries, but the secrets it holds would be dangerous in the wrong hands. Mulgarath, the shapeshifting ogre, certainly qualifies as the wrong hands. He wants to eat all the humans in the world, basically because he is an ogre. If he successfully revives the baby dragons suspended in amber (like a fantastical Jurassic Park), nothing will stop him. Unfortunately, his primary antagonist is a troubled teen who cannot even count on his siblings in creator Aron Eli Coleite’s eight-episode The Spderwick Chronicles, adapted from Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi’s YA novels, which premieres Friday on the Roku Channel.

Reluctantly, freshly divorced Helen Grace relocates her three kids to Henson, Michigan (it is New England in the books), because of Jared’s “troubles.” He is the bad twin, whereas Simon is the good twin. Their older sister Mallory largely fends for herself. Both resent Jared for forcing them out of Brooklyn, where their deadbeat dad still lives, but Simon still tries his best to defend his brother.

Of course, everyone blames Jared for the strange things that happen in the old Spiderwick manor. Mostly, they are the work of Thimbletack, an annoying winged fairy-beast who lives in the Spiderwick walls. Supposedly, he is a good friend of Helen’s institutionalized Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick, Arthur’s widow. As you might assume, she is not as crazy as she looks.

In fact, she is the one who hid the pages of Uncle Arthur’s field guide around Henson and then charmed herself into forgetting, so Mulgarath could not trick her into revealing the locations. Instead, he lured the Graces to Spiderwick, so they would find them for him.

That gets to one of the biggest problems plaguing Coilete’s adaptation. Arguably, the Graces should be able to foil Mulgarath by simply sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Since the pages are magically protected, they are only vulnerable to Mulgarath once Jared collects them for “safe-keeping.” It is sort of like Mayim Bialik’s awkward criticism of
Raiders of the Lost Ark on The Big Bang Theory, except it is much more glaringly obvious.

That is a shame, because Christian Slater is a lot of fun to watch playing Mulgarath, who has a big, evil DNR to spring on viewers. He is definitely the best part of the series, which is particularly ironic, since a lot of his business is original to Coleite and company (but not the ogre character).

Lyon Daniels will also drive most viewers to distraction as Jared, while Noah Cottrell’s Simon often expresses the audience’s exasperation with him quite aptly. Helen Grace’s unintuitive obliviousness stretches credulity, but Joy Bryant somehow manages to work out some interesting chemistry with Slater (in ways that cannot be revealed). However, the way the character of Thimbletack feels under-developed and often shoehorned into scenes, suggests a good deal of his screentime was cut for budgetary reasons.

On the other hand, the Spiderwick manor looks very cool, in a family-friendly gothic kind of way. Kat Coiro even creates some nicely creepy moments helming the initial episode, but she cannot match them in the second, nor can any of the subsequent directors.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Dusk for a Hitman

Everyone thinks Canadians are always mild-mannered, but they have had plenty of violent gangsters. You just can’t mention them anymore, or Justin Trudeau will send you to jail. While there was still Canadian freedom of speech, Edwin Alonzo Boyd’s crimes were chronicled in Citizen Gangster and Vincent Cassel portrayed the notorious French import in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. Donald Lavoie’s biopic came in just under the wire. He killed a lot of people for his Quebecois gang, but even he has trouble whacking his own brother in Raymond St-Jean’s Dusk for a Hitman, which releases Friday on VOD.

Lavoie has long been estranged from his drunken father, but he somehow tolerates his messed-up brother Carl. Even though he has a wife and young daughter, he still considers Claude Dubois and the Dubois gang “like family.” That will be a mistake.

Usually, Lavoie is the one executing unsuspecting gang-members Dubois deems liabilities. However, Lavoie (not to be confused with the accomplished Austrian School economist, Don Lavoie) is in for a rough patch. First, due to bang-bang circumstances, he and his questionable partner kill a witness in an especially gruesome manner. Then his deadbeat brother starts making trouble for him. To make matters worse, organized crime investigator Roger Burns keeps coming around, asking if he wants to have a friendly chat.

Dusk for a Hitman
is a super-grungy late-1970s-early-1980s period gangster movie, but it also has some style. St-Jean’s screenplay, co-written with Martin Girard, is pretty predictable, but in the way of almost every other hitman and mobster movie.

Even though Eric Bruneau has frequently worked with French Canadian auteurs like Xavier Dolan and Denys Arcand, he does not well-established image with most American audiences, but that serves the film well in
Dusk. He definitely puts the “anti” in antihero with his more-than-slightly unhinged lead performance.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Fantaspoa ’24: Mastergame

“B” is the sort of film character Garry Kasparov would probably approve of, and possibly relate to, as both a chess master and a human rights activist. Arrested during the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Catholic priest is being held in conditions of extreme mental and physical isolation. His only distraction is a slim book about chess. If that sounds familiar, it is because this film is also based on Stefan Zweig’s novella, “The Royal Game,” just like Philipp Stolzl’s recent Chess Story. However, Barnabas Toth takes Zweig’s themes in a very David Lynchian direction, while revisiting Hungary’s traumatic Communist history in Mastergame, which screens during this year’s Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.

Istvan and Marta are two young anti-Communist lovers desperately trying to leave Hungary, before the Soviets seal the borders. Normally, you want to be on the “last train out,” no matter the cost, but there is something ominous about this train, beyond its
Casablanca like collection of former revolutionaries, Communist spies, and petty criminals. A mild-mannered priest is also aboard (who maybe not so coincidentally bears some resemblance to Cardinal Mindszenty).

The priest is only referred to as “B” during the interrogations that make up
Mastergame’s other timeline. According to his file, B withstood extraordinary physical torture while he was a prisoner of the Nazis, so they opt for different methods. They forbid the deeply humanistic cleric any human contact, even hiding the faces of his captors. His interrogator wants to break his spirit by severing his connection to humanity. However, the chance discovery of the chess book gives him something to occupy his mind.

If you know
Chess Story or “The Royal Game,” you have a good idea of what is really going on, but the addition of the Marta-Istvan subplot adds an intriguing new dimension. In terms of tone, Mastergame feels very much like vintage Lynch ostensibly working in the mystery genre, as in Mulholland Drive. In fact, the skullduggery on the train is so well executed, Mastergame will be keenly suspenseful, even for the world’s greatest authority on Zweig. On top of that, setting the story amid the Hungarian Revolution adds a greater sense of grand historical tragedy.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Irena’s Vow: Dan Gordon’s Broadway Hit on the Big Screen

More Polish citizens have been recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations than any other nationality. Ninety-nine of them were named Irene. Gal Gadot is working on the story of one: Irene Sendler, who saved over 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto. Irene Gut [Opdyke] “only” saved twelve Jews during the occupation, but she did it literally under the nose of a senior National Socialist officer. Screenwriter-playwright-novelist-reserve duty IDF officer Dan Gordon adapted his own hit Broadway play for the big-screen, in time for it to release amid escalating antisemitic attacks, here and abroad. The rescuer’s story comes at a particularly urgent time, when Louise Archambault’s Irene’s Vow screens nationwide tomorrow and Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

Having been brutalized by Russian soldiers, Irene Gut had no love for the Soviets. She had little reason to like the National Socialists either. After occupying Poland, they confiscated her home and forced the student-nurse to labor in a factory overseen by Wehrmacht Major Edward Rugemer. However, her “Germanic” features led to transfers, first to a luxury hotel catering to officers and then to Rugemer’s newly commandeered villa. Witnessing the SS sadistically murder a mother and her infant on the streets horrifies Gut, but it later motivates her to devise an unlikely plan to save the hotel’s Jewish slave labor, ahead of their liquidation.

Under the dark of night, uot smuggled her former co-workers into Rugemer’s villa, first hiding them in the cellar, before they eventually discover the hiding chamber specially constructed by the dispossessed Jewish owners. To avoid exposure, Gut promises Rugemer she can handle the household single-handedly, using her traumatic history with the Red Army as an excuse to keep soldiers out of the villa. Of course, that means she must cater his receptions on her own, but she will actually have quite a bit of help from the basement.

Archambault definitely brings out the thriller aspects of Gut’s story more than the Broadway production, which was presented as memory play, showcasing Tovah Feldshuh. Sophie Nelisse is also considerably younger than Feldshuh during the Broadway run. Feldshuh could probably draw the tourist buses, but Nelisse’s younger, more naïve look and slight frame leads to a greater sense of vulnerability.

In fact, Nelisse portrays Gut with tremendous sensitivity. Thanks to her, the audience really understands why she did what she did. (Frankly, her work in a key scene truly makes
Irena’s Vow a “pro-life” film in both past and present contexts.) Yet, Dougray Scott really elevates Irena’s Vow, proving he can do more than sniff and sneer his way through a film, portraying sinister blue bloods. His performance as Rugemer (an intriguing historical figure) is as complex as Gordon’s treatment. Plus, Andrzej Seweryn adds a lot of color and energy as the sly and sophisticated old Shultz, the only other serving staff Gut allows inside the villa.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

ND/NF ’24: Meezan (Scale)

The Iranian port city of Abadan is perched near the Iraqi border, along the Persian Gulf. It was a precarious place to live during the 1980 War, but the locals are really at the mercy of the sea. The entire area largely revolves around the fishing (and shrimping) industry, so when catches are good, business is good. When catches are bad, times are tough. Filmmaker Shahab Mihandoust closely observes their work off and on-shore in Meezan (Scale), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

It has been over forty years since the Iran-Iraq War, but it is still a common point of reference for the hardscrabble fishermen and longshoremen. The work is hard and probably smelly, but what really comes through in
Meezan is the ambient sounds. Mihandoust takes great efforts to immerse viewers (who are almost more listeners) in Abadan’s aural landscape. The intention is almost to create an ASMR ethnographic documentary.

Cineastes who are intellectually fascinated with process and craft will be enraptured by Mihandoust’s sound design. However, those hoping to delve into the sociology of Iran’s marginalized working class, they must mostly glean what they can from the Wiseman-esque presentation. Mihandoust incorporates some interview snippets, but they are more conversational rather than probing.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Arcadian: Nic Cage’s Parenting Skills

If you think your dad is overprotective now, just imagine what he would be like after the monster-apocalypse. Paul’s two teenaged sons do not have to imagine. Thomas and Joseph have basically been grounded their entire lives. To be fair, there really are insectoid mutant creatures roaming around their farmhouse after dark. The tightly wound dad understands they grow up eventually, but when they show a little defiance, it leads to desperate peril in Benjamin Brewer’s Arcadian, which opens today in New York.

Judging from the prologue, there was some kind of war and now everyone fears the bug-monsters. The details are sketchy, but it can’t be helped, regardless. Paul has protected his sons with Papa-bear intensity, but they are teens now, which always means trouble. He does not have to worry so much about studious Joseph, the low-stress brother. On the other hand, brother Thomas acts like a character on
Dawson’s Creek. He would rather be flirtatiously hanging with Charlotte, the only teen girl within miles. Her parents seem to like him, but the other residents of the compound are not as friendly.

One day, Thomas bails on his salvaging expedition with Joseph, jaunting off to visit Charlotte instead. When he fails to return that night, Paul goes out looking for him, leaving Joseph to defend the house against freaky big monsters.

is the sort of film that is greater in the sum of its parts than its whole. There are a handful of brilliant scenes, including one showpiece that starts out as a War of the Worlds homage and turns into Home Alone. However, the story and characters are pretty thin. Weirdly, Arcadian shares some similarity with Sting, because the horrors of both films are largely made possible by conspicuously bad decisions made by minors.

Fessenden’s Blackout

Charley Barrett wants to be the righteous amateur investigator fighting the evil real estate developer, like in China Town, or thousands of other movies. Instead, he is a werewolf, like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man. Heck, he even lives in Talbot Falls. Since cleaning up, he no longer gets blackout drunk, but he still has no memory of full moon nights. A serial killer has been stalking Talbot Falls and Barrett knows he is the beast in Larry Fessenden’s Blackout, which releases today on VOD.

Even though his old man was Hammond’s lawyer, Barrett has long crusaded against the local real estate tycoon. To make things even more awkward, he was dating Hammond’s daughter, Sharon. He cleaned himself for her, only to break things off for her protection when he became a lycanthrope. Compounding Barrett’s guilt, Hammond has been accusing an innocent immigrant of his werewolf murders, to demonize the local Mexican community. Yes,
Blackout is really that in-your-face didactic.

starts slow and craters towards the end, but it has some decent werewolf stuff in its bloody mid-sectiont. Much to Barrett’s horror, he learns it is not just the full moon that transforms him. The moon is also sufficiently luminous to do the trick on the nights before and after. Of course, he seeks a tragic but necessarily final solution like Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal Monster movies, but his plan crumbles into a comedy of horrors.

Horror genre diva Barbara Crampton looks half her age in her all too brief scene as Kate, an attorney advising Barrett. However, horror dabbler Joe Swanberg is largely wasted as Sharon’s bland new boyfriend. Yet, arguably the most memorable “cameo” comes from the late William Hurt, lead actor Alex Hurt’s real-life father, who is pictured in photos of Barrett’s deceased dad.

ND/NF ’24: Intercepted

This is a film built around real people, who, like reality TV stars, constantly embarrass and disgrace themselves. In the case of these Russian soldiers, they repeatedly confess to war crimes, wanton cruelty, jingoistic prejudice, and just generally getting their butts kicked on the legitimate battlefield by Ukrainian soldiers. They were calling home, but Ukrainian intelligence was listening. The resulting recordings reveal the depravity and demoralization of the invading Russian military in Oksana Karpovych’s documentary, Intercepted, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

It is easy to understand why Russian soldiers are not supposed to phone home. They reveal a lot, but the intercepts the Ukrainian government chose to release to the world expose the Russian militarist attitude rather than sensitive intelligence. For instance, nearly every caller uses the terms “Khokhols” and “Banderites,” which are Russian slurs for the Ukrainian people.

Several calls frankly describe the intentional mass murder of Ukrainian civilians. They are literally talking shooting people in the head and then dumping them in a ditch. Much like the harrowing
20 Days in Mariupol, Intercepted should be entered into evidence during a future war crimes tribunal.

The confessions are truly damning, but the attitude of the Russians back home might be even more disturbing. Their girlfriends, wives and mothers express outrage that the Ukrainians are not welcoming the Russian invaders into their home, even while literally cheering on the torture and killing of non-combatant Ukrainians.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Franklin, in The Epoch Times

The execution and performances of Apple TV+'s FRANKLIN are inconsistent, but it is shocking how well Michael Douglas captures the look (and the charm) of old Ben Franklin. EPOCH TIMES review up here.