Friday, May 31, 2024

Jim Henson Idea Man, in Cinema Daily US

Everyone will feel nostalgic while watching JIM HENSON IDEA MAN, because everyone has nostalgia for the Muppets and his other creations. Fortunately, Ron Howard does his subject justice in this entertaining documentary. CINEMA DAILY US review up here.

Robot Dreams, the Animated Oscar Nominee

This alternate 1980s New York is populated by animals and a few robots. It must be during the animal-Koch years rather than the animal-Dinkins years, because “Dog V.” is relatively unconcerned about crime. He is just lonely. That is why he orders a mechanical companion in Pablo Berger’s Oscar-nominated animated feature Robot Dreams, adapted from Sara Varon’s graphic novel, which opens today in New York.

Instead of Ginsu knives, Dog orders a robot from a late-night TV commercial. Once he struggles through the assembly, they get on famously. They are in-synch roller-skating in Central Park like kids from
Fame. It is the same at the beach, at least until Robot starts malfunctioning. It is late in the day, so scrawny Dog is forced to leave him on the beach. The next day, the city has chained off the beach for the off-season. Repeatedly, the City Parks Department refuses his access requests, leaving Robot marooned with his increasingly fanciful thoughts.

It is rather ambiguous whether Dog and Robot’s relationship is one of friendship or animal-robotic love, but whatever it is, it was cruelly severed by the New York municipal government. New York’s bureaucratic incompetence and indifference is an eternal constant, but the early 1980s vibe is surprisingly wistful. Berger shows viewers the Twin Towers early and often. The attention to detail is impressive, including real life local landmarks like the El Quijote in Chelsea.

Admittedly, this is an animated fable, but Dog’s passivity is excruciatingly annoying. Would you let a chain-link fence stand between you and the special someone you love (or whatever), especially when New York has plenty of piers, where boats are kept?

Invaders from Proxima B, on Fandango at Home

"Chuck" is a lot like Alf, but he can also body-switch. He is a gruff little troublemaker, but a Hollywood musician and his family decide to help anyway in director-screenwriter-lead actor Ward Roberts’ Invaders from Proxima B, which premieres today on Fandango at Home.

Fleeing his not very-Roddenberry-esque alien planet in a stolen flying saucer, Chuck crash-lands in Howie Jankins’ backyard. Of course, his wife Jane did not see anything, but he is sure there is something out there, so the next morning he calls Nathan Droogal, the world’s most annoying fire-and-brimstone exterminator. While Droogal hunts demonic vermin, Chuck reveals himself to Jankins, claiming to be on a mission to save planet Earth. Reluctantly, Jankins agrees to let Chuck temporarily switch bodies with him. Maybe he was a bit gullible, but coming face-to-face with a furry space puppet is bound to be convincing.

Nevertheless, things get a bit sticky when Wily and Marvin Felson start poking around. The father and son agents of a secret alien-liaison organization have been ordered to facilitate Chuck’s extradition. They also hope to get a kickback for their efforts. As the chaos mounts, Jankins accidentally uses Chuck’s body-switching powers on his wife, creating a real mess.

Viewers might initially fear Roberts’ extreme DIY aesthetic will lead to deliberately cheesy low-brow humor. However,
Proxima is surprisingly inventive. Most of the special effects involve a puppet who looks like Oscar the Grouch’s cousin. Yet, it also boasts some reasonably slick-looking animated segments depicting Chuck’s flashbacks.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Haikyu!! The Dumpster Battle, in Cinema Daily US

HAIKYU!! THE DUMPSTER BATTLE is the kind of shonen anime that teaches teamwork and good sportsmanship. The franchise's first theatrical feature is also a good dealof fun.  CINEMA DAILY US review up herehere.

Open Roads ’24: The War Machine

It is a shame Lt. Commander Salvatore Todaro did not live to see Italy switch sides in WWII, because he probably could have worked well with the Allies. Todaro might be the only Axis officer who is remembered for saving lives and this is the most notable example. Todaro and his crew truly deliver full service when they first sink the Kabalo, a Belgian freighter, and then rescue all 26 survivors in Edoardo De Angelis’s The War Machine (a.k.a. Comandante), which screens as the opening night selection of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

As the film opens, Todaro’s damaged body raises questions whether he can continue to serve. Frankly, his wife would not mind caring for him for the rest of their lives, but he just cinches himself up and heads out on another tour aboard the submarine, the Comandante Cappelli.

Todaro’s practice of yoga and meditation are obviously quite unusual for an Italian Naval officer in 1940, but it helps explain his free-thinking humanism. He is also one of the best skippers in the Italian navy. When his crew detects the Belgian-flagged Kabalo, Todaro methodically hunts it down. Technically, Belgium was a neutral country, but the cargo ship was indeed carrying arms to England. How it managed to even get that far must have been a minor miracle, considering Belgium was occupied by Germany on May 28, 1940.

Of course, Todaro’s standing orders were to disregard survivors and get right back to the hunt. Instead, the Comandante gave all 26 Belgians shelter inside the Comandante Cappelli, agreeing to ferry them to safe international shipping lanes, even though that exposed his boat to considerable danger.

Todaro’s “good fascist” credentials can be debated till the swallows fly home, but the “separate peace” aspects of the Kabalo story (which largely happened the way De Angelis and co-screenwriter Sandro Veronesi suggest) ought to resonate with pacifists and conflict resolution workshop hucksters. It is a heck of a story that challenges our preconceived notions of mercy, gratitude, and loyalty. De Angelis clearly wants viewers to ask themselves how they would act were they members of either the Italian or Belgian crews.

However, this is definitely not the second coming of Neo-Realism. Frankly, the early scene of Todaro and his crew singing a sailors’ hymn in unison as the march to their sub, while the “independent contractors” working the docks wish their clients well, runs a real risk of glorifying fascism. Still, it is good cinema.

The Famous Five, on Hulu

Enid Blyton was a veritable one-woman Stratemeyer Syndicate. She single-handedly wrote many long-running British children’s mystery series. Blyton produced multiple volumes in her “Secret Seven,” “Barney Mysteries,” and “Five Find-Outers” franchises, but her “The Famous Five” series was her arguably her most popular. One of the five is a smart dog named Timmy, which surely helps explain their success. They are supposed to be old-fashioned and skew towards a youthful audience, so who better to shepherd their return to television than Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the Pusher trilogy and Only God Forgives? Parents will be relieved to hear he adapted his style to suit the material rather than vice versa, so the kids can safely watch the six-episode The Famous Five when it premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

Supposedly, George [not Georgina] Kirrin is the only person who visits her family’s reputedly haunted Kirrin Island, so she is surprised to find Timmy wagging his tail there, When she returns later with her three visiting cousins, Julian, Anne, and Dick Barnard, they assume his owner was the dead man in the diving suit sprawled on the beach. In a Refn film, Timmy would similarly wind up leaving with the assassin who massacres the four children during the climax, but that won’t happen here. If the cousins get killed, Timmy will stay loyal to them.

Initially, George resents their presence, fancying herself a lone wolf. However, she needs their help investigating the strange happenings afoot on Kirrin Island. Apparently, Thomas Wentworth, the creepy local blue blood, seeks a mythical Templar treasure, but George intends to beat him to it. The trail will take them to London and then back to Kirrin Island again. Of course, Timmy sticks with them every step of the way.

In the UK,
The Famous Five aired in three feature-length installments, but Hulu repackaged the first season into six episodes (three two-parters). Presumably, they wanted to encourage impulse streaming, since the Famous Five are not as famous in the U.S. The second two-fer, “Peril on the Night Train,” features pre-WWII German agents as the villains, perhaps to appeal to Indiana Jones fans.

Anne Barnard thinks Kirrin Cottage is haunted, but the mystery figure is in fact a spy out to steal Uncle (or father) Quentin’s newest invention. With war looming, his Enigma Machine-like “Algebra Box” has huge national security applications. Mr. Roland, an undercover British agent, will escort the Kirrin family to a secret military facility in Scotland, even though the overnight train is a perfect setting for the foreign operatives to strike again.

Much to her own surprise, George is sorry her cousins must soon leave in “The Eye of the Sunrise,” but she quickly meets a new friend. Unfortunately, she loses “The Great Supremo” just as quickly. For their last hurrah, the Barnard cousins agree to help rescue the circus hypnotist from the sinister mental hospital holding him prisoner.

The Famous Five
is clearly produced for younger viewers, but smarter kids should dig its caperiness. The pre-War intrigue of “Night Train” and “Eye of the Sunrise” should at least moderately engage mature adults as well. However, the bossy George and goody-two-shoes Julian both get to be rather tiresome. Counterintuitively, the two youngest cousins, Dick and Anne, hold up the best over the course of the six (or three) episodes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Flipside: A Documentary About Many Things, Including Herman Leonard

Chris Wilcha set out to make a documentary about the great jazz photographer Herman Leonard, but, sadly, he ran out of time. Technically, it was the ailing Leonard who ran out of time. Despite having some nice footage of the photographer, Wilcha never found a use for it, until he devised a way to wrap up a bunch of unfinished documentary business in an untidy package. Sort of at the center of it all is the grubby New Jersey record store where he worked as a teenager. His old boss is the same and so is the dingy carpet, but times have changed for Flipside Records & Tapes, as Wilcha discovers in Flipside, which opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Leonard is a true giant of jazz in his own right, so frankly, it is a bit annoying Wilcha passively sat on this footage for so long. At one time, Wilcha looked poised for a career somewhat like that of the recently depart Morgan Spurlock. However, he now admits he is essentially a commercial director. While longtime associations with Ira Glass and Judd Apatow (who serves an executive producer) might have been personally rewarding, perhaps they distracted him.

It is not that he didn’t try to launch his own projects. In addition to the incomplete Leonard film, Wilcha also started documenting a persistently blocked writer struggling with her long-delayed manuscript. As of the time of the filming of
Flipside, both the book and documentary remain unfinished. Glass also hired Wilcha to film his unlikely dance tour, but then lost interest in the project. True-to-form, Wilcha was similarly excited to document Flipside Records, and hopefully revitalize owner Dan Dondiego’s business, only to be sidetracked by life, yet again. Consequently, when Wilcha finally resurfaces, Dondiego is understandably skeptical of his commitment.

Perhaps Wilcha was partly inspired by
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, in which Errol Morris drew poetic parallels between an animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat researcher, and a robotics engineer, who are otherwise unrelated. In the case of Flipside, Wilcha himself is the common link—and boy, is there ever a lot of him in this movie.

Yet, many of his scenes are weirdly resonant. Arguably, Leonard pursued his career with a passion similar to that of TV writer-producer David Milch, whom Wilcha starts filming at Apatow’s behest. There is some symmetry there, since it was Milch who hired him to document Leonard. Arguably, “Uncle Floyd” Vivino matched Milch’s workaholic drive, out of necessity, as a locally legendary late-night TV fixture, whose show Children’s television spoof predated Pee-wee Herman’s career by a decade. A regular customer at Flipside Records, Uncle Floyd and his show were immortalized in David Bowie’s song “Slip Away,” but he still must eke a living doing party and banquet gigs.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Cam Cole in American Mileage

Cam Cole is a hard rocking one-man-band, but he is hip enough to understand anyone jamming on a guitar owes their career to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and all the other old school Bluesmen who came before. Fittingly, for his first U.S. tour, he takes long detours through the South, to drink deeply of its musical roots. Of course, there was a documentary crew along for the ride. Director Tim Hardiman’s resulting American Mileage releases today on VOD.

You might have actually seen Cole save the day for Hannah Waddingham on
Ted Lasso. He never intended to be a one-man-band. It just sort of happened and went viral. With two records under his belt, produced by his manager Markus Stretz, who also produced this film, Cole finally sent out on his American tour. Of course, he did it his way, traveling cross-country in an old camper-top.

Cole hits all the usual pilgrimage spots: Stovall Farm (where Muddy Waters first performed), Tupelo (where Elvis bought his first guitar), both Mussel Shoals studios, Nashville, Beale Street, New Orleans, and North Mississippi Hill country, as well as numerous jukes along the way. He talks and jams with a number of real deal blues musicians, the most famous probably being the great Bobby Rush. Rush has already appeared in numerous docs, notably including
I am the Blues, but someone really ought to dramatize his life story.

You might not have heard of Chloe Lavender, but she can play. It is nice to hear from surviving “Swampers” bassist and Mussel Shoals Sound Studio co-founder David Hood, if only in discussion with Cole. He has a good old time laughing, playing, and possibly eating roadkill at a barbeque with the great R.L. Boyce.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Viggo Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt

There was no shortage of violence in the Old West, but there was also a lot of quiet loneliness. There are plenty of both in Viggo Mortensen’s new revisionist western, but the lonely moments are safer. No matter how revisionist it might be, revenge still needs to be taken in director-screenwriter-composer-co-star Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt, which opens this Friday in theaters.

The title has a spaghetti western ring to it, but the vibe is more
Heaven’s Gate. Just about every man Vivienne Le Coudy meets is an exploiter, except Holger Olsen. That is why she ran off with him so quickly. Unfortunately, we know it will end tragically, because the film starts with Olsen mourning Le Coudy at her death bed. The ensuing flashbacks explain why Olsen will be gunning for Weston Jeffries, the violently entitled son of wealthy Alfred Jeffries, who runs the nearest town with the brazenly corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller.

As a veteran in his native Denmark, Olsen believed he could enlist for the $100 bonus, fight for his new country, and return home after a relatively short time. Le Coudy is rightly skeptical, but she lets him go anyway. Unfortunately, that leaves her to fend for herself in the lawless town. Of course, the years drag by, until Olsen finally returns to meet Vincent, the son he never knew he “had.” Despite the circumstances, Olsen and the little boy quickly develop a rapport, so the soldier-turned-sheriff will always protect his son, even after the sins done to Le Coudy cause further physical decline and death.

Dead Don’t Hurt
is about as slow as a western can get and still be a western. It still has all the elements, particularly the striking landscape—mostly shot on-location in Durango, Mexico. Mortensen can definitely play the strong silent type, so he perfectly cast himself as Olsen. As usual, he slow-burns like nobody’s business.

Yet, Vicky Krieps is the true lead as Le Coudy. She brings a lot of strength and sensitivity to the part. Watching her work in
The Dead Don’t Hurt gives real sense of the dangers women faced on the frontier. However, it is worth remembering conditions for women weren’t much better in the Old World—and often they were worse. Ask the women of the shtetls about the Cossacks. Wherever you were, life in the late 19th Century was just brutish and short.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Zombie Fest: Diary of the Dead

If there was a zombie apocalypse, would you believe the information provided by the government? Would you have answered differently before the Covid pandemic? In many ways, the fifth of George A. Romero’s six Living Dead films screens differently now than when it first released. However, the laws of zombiedom remain the same. You still must aim for the head in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which screens tomorrow as part of the Mahoning Drive-In’s Zombie Fest.

The zombie outbreak just started and boy, is the local Pittsburgh media ever surprised. They broadcast some of the only video showing a zombie coming back to life (and biting the reporter). Soon, censorship becomes widespread, but the truth constantly leaks out on social media. That is why film student Jason Creed is so determined to document everything with the cameras he was using for his student film.

Yes, this was George Romero doing found footage, but it is professional looking found footage. We understand from the start this film was edited together by Debra Moynihan, Creed’s girlfriend. She admits she was less than thrilled with Creed filming everything at the time, but she now agrees it was necessary.

Creed might have been a jerk, but at least he went back to the dorms for her. He and the rest of the crew also agree to drive to Scranton, so she can check on her parents. Along the way, they have several fraught encounters with zombies and heavily armed survivors that reflect Romero’s political perspective.

Right from the start, Romero’s screenplay blasts government censorship, dismissing self-serving excuses, like preventing panic is in the public interest, or whatever. When
Diary was produced, the obvious point of reference for disasters was Hurricane Katrina, while most handwringing regarding government disclosures would have focused on the War on Terror. In the era of social media companies censoring and deplatforming people at the government’s behest, you have to wonder if Diary could even get produced as Romero original wrote it, in the current media climate.

Frankly, in many ways it seems prescient. Beyond censorship/mis/disinformation issues, when Creed’s film professor, Dr. Andrew Maxwell adopts a bow and arrows as his weapon of choice, he predates Norman Reedus’s crossbow on
The Walking Dead, by about three years.

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Keeper, in The Epoch Times

As a society, we need to think more about our veterans, to do right by them. That is why Sgt. George Eshleman helped bring his story to the big-screen. He hiked the entire Appalachian Trail carrying the names of 363 fallen veterans. He hoped his journey would spread awareness of the urgent veteran suicide crisis, but he also found healing, It is a deeply moving human drama, executed with sensitivity and professionalism, despite its extremely indie resources. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

The Cold Blue, on TCM

The Memphis Belle is one of the most famous planes in both American and movie history, right up there with the Spirit of St. Louis and Air Force One. William Wyer captured the B-17’s flight crew in action in his classic The Memphis Belle documentary, which has since been preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. However, Wyler and his cameraman shot a lot more footage of B-17s than he included in his 45-minute doc. Fortunately, those outtakes survived in the National Archives, waiting to be rediscovered, restored, and incorporated into Erik Nelson’s The Cold Blue, which airs Sunday on TCM.

Frankly, there might be more interest for
The Cold Blue now, thanks to the success of Masters of the Air and its companion doc, The Bloody Hundredth, than when it first released. The title is no joke. Both the sky and the sea in Wyler’s previously unseen footage appear eerily blue. This color film has that vintage 1940s look, much like that of the Oscar-winning Marines at Tarawa. The Flying Fortress could also be a brutally cold, sub-zero ride. In fact, several of the surviving vets providing context for Wyler’s film clips have stories of crewmates who lost hands or fingers to frostbite.

Even if the commercial timing was not ideal. It is a good thing Nelson made this film when he did, because the Army Air Force veterans were not getting any younger. Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Paul Haedike, one of Nelson’s funniest and most colorful commentators just passed away this March. His contributions are priceless.

Thanks to him and the rest of the Airmen, viewers really get a sense of what it was like to serve on the Flying Fortress. The iconic plane emerges as a bit of a contradiction. In many ways, it was a death-trap, particularly with respects to the freezing temperatures crew experienced and the thin aluminum fuselage that offered no meaningful protection from enemy fire. Yet, they also praised the B-17 for being a tough old bird that could withstand tremendous damage and keep on flying.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Garfield Movie, in The Epoch Times

There is more plot than you might expect, but Garfield is the same endearingly lazy fat cat you remember and the visual gags are consistently funny in THE GARFIELD MOVIE. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Sight, in Ciinema US Daily

Inspirational but never simplistic, SIGHT chronicles the life of leading eye surgeon and Chinese Cultural Revolutiion survivor Dr. Ming Wang. It is also another timely reminder of how the Maoist Red Guards literally waged war against knowledge and traditional Chinese culture. CINEMA DAILY US review up herehere.

The Great War, on History Channel

World War One led to the rise of some of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th Century, including the Bolsheviks in Russia and the National Socialists in Germany. Yet, it also established America as a global super-power and the leader of the free world, a role we have maintained to this day, despite the growing chorus of isolationist voices. Essentially rebuilding the American military from scratch was no easy task, which is why Gen. John J. Pershing emerges as such a significant and underappreciated figure in American history throughout The Great War, the two-part chronicle of American involvement in WWI, airing this coming Monday and Tuesday on History Channel.

There is some discussion of the causes and consequences of WWI, but director Mandla Dube and the expert commentators mostly concentrate on profiling American soldiers and explaining how the tides of war shifted. Like the Doris Kearns Godwin portraits of presidents in crisis (including
FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) The Great War incorporates dramatic re-enactments with traditional talking head analysis. It also includes a lot of coverage of the Harlem Hellfighters, which is only fitting—and maybe convenient, since Dube probably already had a lot of good material, having also directed History Channel’s Harlem Hellfighters documentary special.

Archduke Ferdinand does not even get a shout-out and everyone lets Wilson off easy for campaigning on a promise to keep America out of the war and then changing his mind (and his virulent racism). However, they make a convincing case his appointment of Gen. Pershing was his best decision as president.

There is very little discussion of the War before America joined the fight, but it is made clear the Allies were on the ropes. England and France desperately wanted American reinforcements, but to his credit, Pershing refused to sacrifice his ill-trained men as mere cannon fodder. It is shocking how few American soldiers were serving in uniform at the time war was declared. That is why so many National Guardsman (like my great-grandfather) were deployed for overseas combat.

In the re-enactment sequences, Langley Kirkwood perfectly captures Pershing’s commanding presence and nicely conveys his empathy for his soldiers. The details of the General’s tragic personal life will probably be new information for many viewers. Gabriel Miya also cuts an impressive figure as artist and Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin. However, some of the battlefield re-enactments, including those of the all-white 1
st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) seem less grounded in history than those in History’s presidential predecessors. At times, the tone feels similar to Steven Luke’s fictionalized war movie also titled The Great War.

However, there are some top-notch experts providing insight and context, starting with General David Petraeus. There are further illuminating contributions from Col. Douglas Douds of the U.S. Army War College, Prof. Richard S. Faulkner of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and Col. Robert J. Dalessandro of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Chief Detective 1958, on Hulu

Lee Je-hoon’s unit is like the “Untouchables” of post-Korean War Seoul. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jongnam station is very touchable. Awkwardly, the station captain is probably the most corrupt of the whole crooked Jongnam lot. To fight crime and serve the common good, Lee and his teammates must frequently work around their colleagues and superiors in creator Park Jae-beom’s Chief Detective 1958, which starts streaming today on Hulu.

Eventually, Lee becomes the revered central character in the vintage early 1970s K-drama
Chief Inspector, to which Chief Detective 1958 serves as a prequel. However, when the new standalone series opens, Lee is new in town, having just transferred from Hwangchun, where he set the national record for arresting cow thieves. He figures he should keep arresting criminals in Seoul, but the blatantly corrupt Choi Dal-sik keeps releasing them and forcing him to apologize.

Yu Dae-cheon, the honest leader of Investigative Unit #1, counsels patience, but Lee is spoiling for a fight. He finds a natural ally in Kim Sang-sun, the hard-charging
Lethal Weapon-like detective nicknamed “Mad Dog” because of his habit of biting suspects. They soon recruit Jo Gyeong-hwan, a burly laborer, who is tired of seeing average folk getting pushed around. They also poach the college-educated Seo Ho-jeong from Unit #2, because Lee understands they can use someone like Charles Martin Smith’s forensic accountant in de Palma’s The Untouchables.

Unit #1 will definitely fight corruption in the Jongnam station over the course of the series, but they also work separate, discrete cases each episode. Out of the first four episodes, their plan to catch a band of armed bank robbers in episode three, “Highwaymen,” is the best written and directed. We have all seen thousands of bank heists on TV, but Park and writer Kim Young-shim come up with some wild new wrinkles.

The case of infants murdered by an evil orphanage in episode four, “Yellow Turtle,” is so grim, it out SVUs
Law & Order SVU. To its credit, it also challenges attitudes towards disability. Unfortunately, many of the American servicemen depicted in episode two, “The Headstrong Unit of Jongnam,” are just villainous caricatures. No matter how virulent racist attitudes were in the 1950s, there is no way a white 2nd Lieutenant would dare strike a Korean American First Lieutenant and expect to get away with it. The American military has had a few issues in the past, but chain of command is absolutely sacrosanct.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Darkness of Man, Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

There was a time when Interpol was a law enforcement agency, but not the badge-carrying kind. Their red notices facilitated the extradition of international criminals. Sadly, Interpol today is practically a criminal organization that harasses human rights activists at the behest of member states like Russia and China. The romantic image of Interpol agents is woefully out of date, but it is a convenient role for Jean-Claude Van Damme and his Belgian accent to assume. A few years prior, Russell Hatch investigated drug trafficking by Korean and Russian gangs with his DEA counterpart, but he became tragically personally involved in the case. Now, his sole remaining purpose in life is protecting the son of his late lover and key informant in James Cullen Bressack’s Darkness of Man, which releases today on VOD.

Frankly, Hatch should have left the country long ago, but he still mopes around Koreatown, while looking out for Jayden. His mother’s brother and father were high-ranking members of the Korean mob, but she wanted a different life for him. That made her a valuable source for Hatch, who contrary to protocol, fell in love with her. Unfortunately, her family fed her bad information luring Hatch into an ambush and faking her overdose death.

Of course, Hatch survives, but he is merely a hard-drinking shell of his former self, moping around Ktown. However, when Russian enforcers threaten the proprietor of his favorite bodega, Hatch springs into action. Hatch quickly finds himself at war with the Russian mob, even though he understands that suits the Korean mob only too well.

In general, Van Damme’s VOD action movies are a cut above the industry standard. He has also kept in decent shape, so Van Damme’s movies look especially good when compared to the bargain basement vanity projects tubby Steven Seagal has been inflicting on the world. To his credit, Van Damme is also acting his age. Like his character in
The Bouncer, Hatch is an aging, world-weary hardnose. He gets his butt kicked pretty hard sometimes, because he is human—with some mileage.

In fact, Van Damme delivers a rock-solid noir performance throughout
Darkness of Man. Peter Jae is suitably unhinged as Dae Hyun, Jayden’s gangster uncle. Ji Yong Lee plays a crucial but hard to spell-out role as Mr. Kim, the bodega owner. Kristanna Loken also does some of her best VOD work in several years as Hatch’s vet and potential love interest, Dr. Claire.

Monday, May 20, 2024

The 1% Club, on Prime and Later Fox

After Who Wants to Be a Millionaire the set design for gameshows has gotten fancier and flashier, but the questions have gotten steadily dumber. Take for instance The Wheel, if it still streams on Peacock after NBC canceled it. This one has all the sweeping spotlights, but the questions are a little different. An ability to recognize patterns will help you quite a bit if you are a contestant on the new American adaptation of creators Andy Auerbach & Dean Nabarro’s The 1% Club, which premieres Thursday on Prime Video, before later airing on Fox, starting June 3rd.

Charles Van Doren had his issues, but he was a learned man, so it would be interesting to see him compete on a show like this. The set-up ought to outrage all those critics of
The Bell Curve, because it presupposes a distribution of intelligence, but, of course, it makes no demographic assumptions therein. 100 contestants are given $1,000 to risk on a series of questions. According to statistical surveys, 90% of Americans answer the first question correctly. The next question should have an 80% success rate, steadily diminishing down to the titular 1%, for a share of a pot that could potentially be as large as $100,000.

These are not trivia questions or applied mathematics. There might be a bit of reading comprehension involved in early questions, but most depend on logic and the analysis of sequences. You could well be smarter than the participants, but you really have to watch. If you merely half-listen while multi-tasking, you will not see the sequences or spatial relationships the problems refer to.

This is somewhat different concept for a gameshow that clearly worked quite well in the UK, where the franchise originated, before spawning international editions in Australia, Israel, Germany, France, and now the USA (with future editions coming soon to Ukraine and several other nations). Evidently, there is an app that will allow viewers to play along. Yet, it doesn’t seem like it would be as fun to watch with others as Fox’s
The Floor, which probably had most of its viewers blurting out answers as soon the images flashed across the screen.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Despaired, on BET+

When it comes to reliability, Japanese demons put the U.S. Postal Service to shame. When you mail something, there is maybe a 50% chance it will reach its destination (at least judging by recent experience). However, a grieving letter-carrier Jill Hill keeps receiving an ominous supernatural letter, over and over again, until she finally succumbs to temptation in Jean-Pierre Chapoteau’s The Despaired, which is now streaming on BET Plus.

Several years have passed since Hill’s husband Wayne was fatally shot, but rather than recovering, she steadily sinks further into despair. Frankly, her now-teenaged son struggles to engage with her. Of course, this makes her a prime target for the ancient Japanese entity repeatedly sending her an evil “to the Despaired” form letter.

Inside, are instructions for bringing someone back from the dead. Naturally, Hill was not paying very close attention to the fine print, so her newly returned husband explains she will need to deliver four souls quickly, or he will go back downstairs to his eternal torment. This might sound like a demon impersonating Hill, but it turns out her husband was no boy scout. Perhaps his murder was not so random either. Regardless, Hill tries to comply, searching for the “marked” souls, who are destined for the same place her husband just left.

The Despaired is a low-budget b-grade horror movie, but the way it addresses big archetypal themes, like bereavement, temptation, and damnation, still resonates to a surprising extent. Both the “human” and demonic elements are rather unsettling. However, the subplot supposedly explaining the mysterious Coco’s involvement with the Hill murder comes off like a forced afterthought.

The Despaired
also makes a career in the Postal Service look profoundly dismal. In fact, the entire setting looks economically depressed and relentlessly gloomy. This is a very fatalistic film, but in a way that distinguishes it from a lot of other mindlessly nihilistic horror flicks.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Big Cigar, in Cinema Daily US

THE BIG CIGAR has a fantastic soundtrack, but it lacks both historical perspective and a sense of irony. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review up here.

Hong Sang-soo’s In Our Day

Even though Hong Sang-soo is a film director, he seems to believe actors are the dullest people in the world. Once again, he apparently sets out to prove it with his latest film. Supposedly, this is a film about coincidence, but the not so ironic happenstances are weak and tangential in Hong’s In Our Day, which is now playing in New York.

Sang-won is an actress, who is crashing with her friend Jung-soo and Jung-soo’s cat Us, now that she has returned to Korea after a long absence. Hong Uiju is a poet who lives alone, since the death of his cat. That is really a shame for the poet and the audience, because Us is probably the most interesting character in the film.

Today, both will be visited by aspiring thesps, who supposedly want to ask them big meaningful questions. However, when Ji-soo and Jae-won try to get out the words, they sound pretentious and inarticulate. Sang-won and Uiju also eat ramen with red chili paste. Yes, that is a big deal in this film. Perhaps you can understand why Us eventually runs away from home.

Maybe Hong was trying to recapture the inspiration of his best films,
Hill of Freedom, Yourself and Yours, and Right Now, Wrong Then, which slyly riffed on doubling motifs, while employing hip bifurcated structures. If so, he was really forcing it. Unfortunately, his shallow and annoying characters need even more work than the skeletal narrative.

In Our Day feels more like an improv workshop than a proper film. Perhaps the only memorable dialogue comes when Sang-won explains to her cousin Ji-soo how she never felt she ever gave an honest performance, because she knew her directors always wanted a predictably safe canned response. Kim Min-hee (often referred to as Hong’s “muse”) delivers this pseudo-monologue with such earnestness, perhaps it should tell the director something.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Taking Venice, in The Epoch Times

TAKING VENICE chronicles some fascinating Cold War history, but it doesn't do the now-defunct USIA agency justice. Ironically, the doc shows how the USIA could promote American values through art and culture, when it recruited the right people. Frankly, we need an agency like the USIA leveraging "soft power" today, as we face militaery-geopolitical threats from China and Russia. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

You Can’t Run Forever, Starring J.K. Simmons

A sheriff must be pretty bad if his electorate votes to recall him mid-term. In this case, it left two very junior deputies responding to calls on their own. Maybe that would not be so bad on average days, but Miranda is definitely not having a A psycho is chasing her through the woods, killing anyone who crosses his path in Michelle Schumacher’s You Can’t Run Forever, which opens today in New York.

Viewers will get more details later, but Wade Bennett was always pretty jerky, so when he gets triggered, he sets off on a killing spree—and he hasn’t stopped yet. He follows Miranda and her stepdad Eddie from a rest-stop, killing him and chasing her into the forest.

To make matters worse, Miranda was already fragile. She never really recovered from finding her father’s body, after he committed suicide. However, she harbors no anger towards Eddie or her half sister Emily. They were both trying help her heel, but they are understandably distracted by her mother Jenny’s pregnancy. Eventually, Miranda manages to get a message to her mother, but it is all too clear Deputy Morgan and Deputy Dwyer are out of their depths, especially the latter. To be fair, they are also quite busy dealing with all the dead bodies Bennett leaves in his wake.

It should be noted Bennett did not intend to hunt Miranda for sport. He simply wants to kill her, even after she runs into the woods. This is not yet another
Most Dangerous Game. Instead, it is another stalker movie, very much in the tradition of Paronnaud’s Hunted.

There are a lot of contrivances in
Run Forever and some serious credibility issues. Bennett is older than I am, but somehow, he can cover vast distances in the blink of an eye. Admittedly, he is considerably more onery too. Yet, the film works to a surprising extent, because we genuinely care about the family in jeopardy. Schumacher and co-screenwriter Carolyn Carpenter exercise good judgment and wise restraint by not introducing an exploitative abuse subplot. To the contrary, Eddie is a good stepfather, who dies trying to protect Miranda. Consequently, his death has tragic resonance that makes viewers care, perhaps even in spite of themselves.

Schumacher also has J.K. Simmons growling and swaggering his way through the picture as Bennett. He still isn’t as scary as he was in
Whiplash, but he is still seriously sinister. In fact, Schumacher has Simmons in real-life too, since they are married.

Chernobyl: The Fall of Atomgrad, Graphic Novel

All the alleged sins of the capitalist system were committed by the socialist Soviets when they constructed the V. I. Lenin Power Station, a.k.a. Chernobyl. Cut-rate materials were used, because of budget cuts. They did not even bother building containment domes, because safety was a secondary concern (if that). As a result, the project came in under budget and ahead of schedule, so it looked like a “win,” at least for a while. Then when disaster literally struck, the government tried to cover it up, regardless of the danger to average citizens. Readers take a deep dive into the worst nuclear disaster of all-time in Matyas Namai’s graphic novel (or graphic history) Chernobyl: The Fall of Atomgrad, which is now on-sale.

Many people do not realize the Soviet Union also covered up what is now considered the third worst nuclear disaster ever at the Mayak Combine in 1957, but the rest of world did not hear about it until two decades later. Unlike other accounts of the mismanagement at Pripyak (dubbed “Atomgrad”), Namai spends a good deal of time on the construction, explaining how politics and propaganda demands trumped safety. In retrospect, having the same people responsible for agricultural collectives that produced famine shift to constructing nuclear power facilities sounds like a profoundly dangerous proposition.

Once again, nuclear scientist Valery Legasov and Party boss Boris Shcherbina play active roles in the response, but Namai casts them in a far less heroic light than the HBO miniseries. The cover-up is thoroughly documented, fully implicating Gorbachev himself. At every step, it was the average Ukrainians living in Pripyat and the surrounding areas who suffered the most.

Namai provides a detailed and methodical explanation of what happened at every step. It is a damning indictment of a government that valued ideology above all else. There can be no doubt after reading
The Fall of Atomgrad that socialism kills.

Even though many historical figures appear (almost always unflatteringly) in Namai’s narrative, they are rarely developed as characters per se. Namai’s
Chernobyl is text-heavy, but it does not read like a novel. Yet, it is still a gripping page-turner, in the grimmest way possible.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Faceless After Dark: Some Nasty Meta-ness for Terrifier Fans

What do you do if you survive a killer clown? Try to survive the sequel. Hopefully, that worked for Jenna Kanell, the star of Terrifier 1 and 2. However, her fictional alter-ego is not doing so well in this film. Bowie Davidson has a limited amount of [toxic] fandom from a cult clown-slasher, but she cannot figure out a second act until inspiration comes stalking her in Raymond Wood’s Faceless After Dark, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Lately, the only work Davidson gets are convention appearances, where she signs autographs for cretinous fans. (Kanell co-wrote the screenplay, so you should consider skipping her line at the next ComicCon.) Fortunately, she need not worry about making ends meet, thanks to her lover, Jessica, a vastly more popular thesp. In fact, Jessica just booked a superhero movie in Europe, leaving Davidson alone in their Hollywood Hills home. Like clockwork, an incel stalker fan wearing a clown mask invades their home, but Davidson is in better shape and she is more comfortable wielding her old horror props.

Her “friend” Ryan, who just let his financial backers drop Davidson from his long gestating film, advised her to work on her own thing and write what she knows—so she does exactly that. Essentially,
Faceless After Dark follows the template of Stacy Title’s The Last Supper, but without any of the wit or insight. Whereas the under-heralded 1995 film brilliantly depicted a group of left-wingers sliding down a slippery slope, with each of their murdered right-wingers becoming less defensible and more horrifying, Faceless is just Twitter-dopamine torture porn for the extreme left.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Nightwatch: Demons are Forever, on Shudder

Serial killers are beyond reform or redemption—but that’s a good thing for movie producers. When a serial killer film is successful, they can always make a sequel, even in Denmark. If you haven’t seen the original Nightwatch or the American remake (both helmed by Ole Bornedal), forget the name Peter Wormer. It seemed Martin Bork and Kalinka Martens survived the killer at the end of the 1994 film, but they never escaped the post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, Wormer also survived, so he most likely returns to his old ways in Bornedal’s Nightwatch: Demons are Forever, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

Despite the promise of a happy marriage, Martens was paranoid Wormer would return for her and Bork, she took her own life several years ago. Maybe in a future sequel, we will learn she was really murdered, but Bornedal does go there yet. Consequently, Bork has been a pill-popping shell of himself, who is largely dependent on his college student daughter Emma (played by the director’s daughter, Fanny Leander Bornedal), rather than vice versa.

Obviously, it is an extraordinarily bad idea, but Emma takes the same night watchman job at the morgue where her father worked in the first film. Her parents never told her about the incident with Wormer, so Emma hopes to learn more at the infamous site. However, her family investigation quickly leads her to the state mental hospital, where the blind and supposedly feeble Wormer remains in custody. Her inquiry takes on great urgency when a copycat killer starts gruesomely butchering Bork’s old friends, using Wormer’s old scalping M.O.

Fans of the original will be happy to see Bornedal got the old gang back together again—at least the characters who are still living, including Bork’s somewhat sleazy pal, Jens Arnkiel. The original
Nightwatch was a breakout film for both the director and lead actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, so it makes sense Bornedal’s screenplay explores the notion of legacy. Instead of just bringing back the old-timers for fan-mollifying cameos, Demons are Forever digs deeply into the long-term psychological distress experienced by the survivors and how it shaped their offspring—including Wormer’s (just who that might be would be telling, but it is easy to guess).

The Blue Angels, in IMAX

There is most assuredly a heated rivalry between Naval aviators and Air Force pilots, but when it comes to recognition and popularity, the Navy’s aerobatic flight squadron, the Blue Angels have the overwhelming advantage over their Air Force counterparts, the Thunderbirds. Those blue planes with the yellow trim are just so cool looking. Yet, their sporty paint jobs serve a practical purpose, because the yellow wing-tips should line-up when the Angels are flying in the classic diamond formation. Getting the squadron to that point takes a lot of work, as viewers see in Paul Crowder’s documentary, The Blue Angels, which opens this Friday on IMAX screens (before releasing on Prime Video the following Thursday).

There have been Blue Angels films before (including one written by Frank Herbert), but this was the first time civilian camera planes were allowed inside their flight performance “box.” The aerial camera team previously shot
Top Gun: Maverick, so they had credibility. (Plus, Maverick co-star Glen Powell, who also appeared in Devotion, signed on as an executive producer.) The Blue Angels are even more selective than the Top Gun school at Miramar, but pilots only serve one three-year tour (although some have been brought back), so new team-members come into the squadron every year. As the documentary opens, Captain Brian Kesserling (“Boss”) and the rest of the Angels help train new right wingman Christopher Kapuschansky the formations and flight plans that make up the Blue Angels’ exhibition shows.

Crowder does a fantastic job explaining each pilots’ role in the formation. Kesserling (#1) and the second senior pilot, Major Frank Zastoupil (#4) fly in the front and back slots of the diamond, while #2 and #3 fly the wings. Meanwhile, #5 and #6 are considered “soloists,” but they also perform the spectacularly close passes, before joining with the diamond formation to form a delta.

You can get a decent layman’s understand of the Blue Angels’ routines, but the real attraction of the film are the gorgeous aerial shots. Aerial photography directors Lance Benson and Michael FitzMaurice did some amazing work. There is a reason why this film is on IMAX screens. Even when pilots are talking about their training, Crowder usually shows us cool shots of the jets in action. We also see some scenes of the pilots on the home front. These humanize the pilots, but they are not exactly revelatory.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

SIFF ’24: Scala!!!

When John Waters shows up in a documentary about a theater, you know some crazy films must have screened there. They programmed his movies, which definitely qualify. The theater was also known for showing horror, martial arts, art films, and sexploitation bordering on outright raunch. Of course, for regulars, its seediness was part of its charm. Staff, customers, and famous filmmakers remember the good times in Jane Giles &Ali Catterall’s documentary, Scala!!!, which screens again during the 2024 Seattle International Film Festival.

The Beatles filmed one of the concert scenes for
A Hard Day’s Night in the old Scala Theater. This is “new” Scala, but it has an apostolic link to the old theater, after the original location was demolished. Changing formats a few times, it eventually became the eccentric repertory cinema fans knew and loved, around the time it finally settled into its beloved sketchy King’s Cross neighborhood. Frankly, many talking heads make enthusiastic comparisons to grindhouse era Times Square, especially after the Scala started its tradition of all-night marathon screenings.

The programming was certainly eclectic, including high-end art-house films and sleazy exploitation fare. Of course, budding auteurs like Christiopher Nolan were regular patrons. Touring punk bands often crashed there, instead of renting hotel rooms. A lot of drugs were consumed on the premises and the restrooms were a veritable petri dishes overflowing with STDs. At least two people died there—that the staff are willing to cop to. So yeah, good times.

Admittedly, the wild anecdotes are often amusing. The Scala also screened some great stuff, including
Avengers episodes for the series’ fan society, as well as glorified porn. Just about all the talking heads agree the most representative Scala film would be Thundercrack!, a haunted house spoof with X-rated sex scenes, written by George Kuchar.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Nature: Saving the Animals of Ukraine, on PBS

Do you like dolphins? If so, you should despise Putin. Since the launch of his illegal invasion, the Ukrainian wildlife reserve on the Black Sea has found the corpses of at least 5,000 dolphins, but they estimate thousands more have died. Clearly, animals have suffered from Russia’s military aggression, just like the Ukrainian people. Yet, despite the chaos and danger, ordinary Ukrainians have risked their lives to rescue animals both wild and domestic. Viewers need to watch their brave efforts, which Anton Ptushkin documents in “Saving the Animals of Ukraine,” premiering this Wednesday on PBS, as part of the current season of Nature.

It sure is funny how everyone who was so concerned about the animals in the Baghdad Zoo have had so little to say about the animals of Ukraine. Regardless, the entire world saw images of desperate Ukrainian refugees carrying their beloved pet cats and dogs. As a result, at least one NGO talking head had to dramatically rethink they way he thought about refugees. Inevitably, many pets were still left behind, often not intentionally, but rather due to unexpected Russian bombardments. Zoopatrol was organized to save those animals, either by jail-breaking them outright, or noninvasively feeding them through front-door peep-holes (this mostly works for cats).

Perhaps their most famous rescue is Shafa, who was found by drones trapped on the exposed ledge of a completely bombed-out seventh-floor apartment, where she had been perched for sixty days, with minimal food or water. Despite her advanced age, they successfully nursed Shafa back to health. Since then, she has become an online sensation, symbolizing Ukrainian resilience in her own grumpy cat way.

Likewise, Patron the Jack Russell terrier has also become an international influencer, thanks to his work sniffing out landmines. Patron’s small size gives him an advantage over other ordinance-detecting dogs, because he is too light to set-off mines calibrated for human weight. That little guy is a charmer.

Unfortunately, many of the stories Ptushkin documents are profoundly sad, like the two animal shelters that took very different approaches when evacuating their human staffs. Tragically, both shelters were near Hostomel Airport, which Putin’s thugs and mercenaries bombed into rubble, greatly distressing the animals in the process. Clearly, several on-camera experts suggest one shelter handled the challenge in a much more humane manner, but the real villain is Putin, who put both shelters directly in harm’s way.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

East Bay, in Cinema Daily US

EAST BAY is an unusually grounded and everyday-looking film for science fiction, if it really is sf. However, the ultra-independent indie has a lot of heart and integrity. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive reivew up here. Happy Mother's Day!