Tuesday, March 05, 2024

The Piper, with Julian Sands

It is hard to figure what the cheapskate Hamelin villagers were thinking. Maybe targeting their kids was a bit unexpected, but obviously he could always just drive another swarm of rats back into town. They were tragically penny-wise-pound-foolish, which understandably angered the Piper. It sounds crazy, but a musician suspects he is still ticked off in director-screenwriter Erlingur Thoroddsen’s The Piper, which releases this Friday in theaters and on digital.

Renowned composer Katharine Fleischer is in a rather agitated state, trying to burn the last surviving copy of her infamous first concerto, but she immolates herself instead. It had not been performed since its infamous premiere, which caused fatal rioting within the concert hall. This was bad news for Melanie Walker, because Fleischer was her patron at the orchestra. As a single-mother, she needs her chair for the insurance, to cover her young daughter Zoe’s treatment for her hearing impairment.

Gustafson, the pretentious maestro wants to perform Fleischer’s “Children’s Concerto” as a tribute, even though the composer always refused his requests while she was alive. Walker was supposed to use her connection to the family to secure the manuscript, but she resorts to pilfering it from Fleischer’s attic. Unfortunately, Fleischer managed to burn several pages, including the third movement, so Walker must channel her mentor to reconstruct the lost passages. While working on the score, she experiences lost time and weird visions. Strange things also start happening around her, including the disappearance of her colleague’s son Colin, who usually spent rehearsals with Zoe, whether they wanted to or not.

Fleischer’s concerto is sort of like the musical equivalent of the forbidden films that lead to madness in
Fury of the Demon and the “Cigarette Burns” episode of Masters of Horror. There are similar examples of evil, overpowering records, like Black Circle and Dead Wax, but Thoroddsen still offers some reasonably distinctive variations on the theme.

The late, great Julian Sands also brings a lot to the party, preening and chewing the scenery as the arrogant Gustafson. Sands really was an underappreciated horror master, who will be missed. Charlotte Hope is a decent horror heroine, but Alexis Rodney is more memorable as her brainy ethnomusicologist platonic friend, Philip, who helps provide a framework for understanding the uncanny power of the Piper’s music.

Monday, March 04, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: The Book of Solutions

Where is that “toxic masculinity” when we need it? You will ask too, after spending time with Marc Becker, an overly sensitive man-child, whose self-centered artistic pretentions will cause more angst and frustration for those around him than any macho swaggering ever could. Becker has a twee artistic vision for his work-in-progress film, but he appears psychologically incapable of finishing it, despite the labors of his inexplicably loyal enablers in Michel Gondry’s The Book of Solutions, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

The indie production company bankrolling Becker’s debut film just got a look at his incomprehensible four-hours-plus cut and understandably decided to re-edit it themselves, to hopefully salvage something. Instead, Becker, Charlotte, his faithful editor, and Sylvia, the producer he treats like an assistant, go rogue, bundling up all the hard drives, so they can finish the film guerilla style in the country home owned by Becker’s Aunt Denise.

Lovely Aunt Denise immediately sympathizes with the other two women, because she has been putting up with Becker’s delusional self-indulgence for years. Unfortunately, returning to her welcoming farmhouse exposes Becker to a host of fresh distractions, like his old “Book of Solutions” an amateurish collection of aphorisms intended to serve as a blueprint for life, but in fact, consists of a laundry list of counterproductive instructions, like “always drive in second gear.”

This “love-letter” to cinema desperately needed a sternly worded studio memo.
Book of Solutions is so quirky and precious, it will make you retch your guts out. Apparently, the running time is only 103 minutes, but it feels like it drags on for four or five hours. This is not what love for cinema should look like. In contrast, Kim Jee-won also follows a difficult filmmaker struggling to realize an idiosyncratic vision in Cobweb, which considerably bolder, smarter, edgier, and more visually striking (as well as infinitely more watchable).

Sunday, March 03, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: The Temple Woods Gang

If a Saudi prince is willing to (allegedly?) assassinate a prominent journalist like Jamal Khashoggi, what do think the royal family might do to punish a working-class gang from a French housing complex? The poor knuckleheads do not realize the implications of stealing from the royal family until it is too late in director-screenwriter Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s The Temple Woods Gang, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Bebe’s gang are small-time criminals, but they are not such bad guys. In fact, Monsieur Pons rather likes his lunkheaded fellow residents of the Temple Woods project. They were always polite to his recently deceased mother and despite some good-natured ribbing, always show respect to the veteran. Yes, Pons served in Africa, as a sniper—a fact that might be significant later.

While Pons mourns his mother, Bebe’s crew plans and successfully executes a hold-up of the prince’s courier. They were interested in the suitcases full of cash, but the prince is more worried about the cache of sensitive documents. In fact, he is so offended by their disrespect, he has his fixer call in Jim, the family enforcer, to teach them a lesson. Frankly, the blokes do not even notice the papers until things get ugly and brutal. (If there is one lesson to draw from
Temple Woods it is if you ever find yourself unexpectedly holding secret Saudi documents, head directly to the Israeli embassy, which these guys never think to do.)

Temple Woods
is not really a heist or a payback movie. Instead, it is an extremely moody exploration of urban angst and violence. Ameur-Zaimeche de-emphasizes action, quickly staging the carjacking, but devoting considerably more time to two musically-focused scenes. There is method to the madness, because real-life vocalist Annkrist’s rendition of her song “La beaute du jour” during the funeral for Mother Pons is arrestingly beautiful.  Watching the prince get down to an Algerian Rai DJ is far less potent.

In fact, Annkrist might just qualify as the star of
Temple Woods, but Regis Laroche is memorably both humane and steely as the sad, middle-aged Pons. Although played by thesps with widely varying degrees of professional experience, the Temple Woods guys all look and sound like real knock-around street toughs.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: Just the Two of Us

Blanche Renard’s husband is so controlling, you have to wonder how he keeps his job. The constant calls and surprise visits must take time away from his banker work. Regardless, he definitely keeps her under his thumb, steadily depleting her resolve to resist. Of course, he was initially all charm as viewers see in Valerie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Blanche’s identical twin Rose was a little skeptical when Gregoire Lamoureux swept her sister off her feet, but she mostly kept her doubts to herself. Of course, the courtship was appropriately romantic, but soon after their marriage, he relocates them to a northern provincial town, blaming an unwelcome transfer. The arrival of their young daughter distracts Renard, but around young Stella’s fifth birthday, she decides it is time to go back to work. Clearly, Lamoureux does not approve, but she still has enough will of her own to apply for and accept and teaching position.

From then on, things are different. Lamoureux obsesses over every perceived flaw and guilt trips her relentlessly. He calls her at work relentlessly (to such an extent her co-workers really should be suspecting something). The controlling and emotional abuse grows so severe, Blanche secretly arranges a date with a stranger via an app, as a desperate act of defiance and a reality check. Indeed, she confirms not all men are like Lamoureux. Unfortunately, Jerome Vierson is such a decent guy and attentive lover, Renard gives herself away.

Just the Two of Us
(no connection to Grover Washington Jr.) sounds like a conventional kitchen sink drama, but stylistically, it feels very different. Labeling it an “erotic thriller” is wildly misleading. However, cinematographer Laurent Tangy’s extremely intimate framing and washed-out color palette gives the present-day film a 1970s vibe. At times it almost resembles found footage. It is distracting for five minutes or so, but over time, the claustrophobic atmosphere creates a feeling of entrapped solidarity with Renard. Frankly, it is difficult to breathe during the stressful third act.

Frankly, Donzelli engages in some shameless manipulation, but she maintains such an elevated level of tension, she gets away with it. The celebrated cast also completely shed their famous images and submerge themselves into the domestic pressure cooker. Virginie Efira creates two very distinct personas as the Renard sisters. Rose is refreshingly forceful, whereas Blanche desperate descent is absolutely harrowing to witness.

NYICFF ’24: Magic Candies (short)

These candies are actually good for you. We do not know whether they are sugar-free, but they do wonders for the heart. It turns out they are the perfect pick-me-up for a sad little boy in Japanese anime filmmaker Daisuke Nishio’s animated short film adaptation of Heena Baek’s Korean children’s book, Magic Candies, which screens today as part of the 2024 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Dong-dong is too shy to make any new friends on his own, so he tries to convince himself he is happy playing by himself. A wise old shopkeeper knows better, so he sells the young boy a bag of magic candies. Dong-dong has no idea what to expect, but when he starts munching on them, he discovers each has an unexpected power. Soon he has a conversation with his beloved pet dog, listens to his over-worked single-father’s thoughts, and receives a much-needed message from his dearly departed grandmother.

Somehow, the candies give him exactly what he needs. It is all really quite beautiful. Baek’s book may have been written for a kindergarten audience, but its deceptively simple and deeply wise story could make it a popular children’s-book-for-adults. Nishio renders it into 3D animation with warmth and grace, retaining the spirit of its fantasy and the look of the original illustrations.

Friday, March 01, 2024

The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, on Apple

Historians are convinced the legend of highwayman Dick Turpin was significantly enhanced by sensationalistic writers (including Daniel Dafoe). He wasn’t even considered a Robin Hood-figure until his image was tweaked again for a late-1970s TV series. Arguably, that makes him fair game for any new revision, reboot, or re-conception that comes along. A new Turpin should still at least make sense or get laughs. The first does not apply to this spoof, but, unfortunately, the humor is often rather iffy in creators Claire Downes, Ian Jarvis, and Stuart Lane’s six-episode The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Turpin is still the son of a village butcher, but instead of a life of crime, he aspires to be an artist or a designer. However, when the ruthless leader of the Essex Gang essentially kills himself through freak misadventure, Turpin gets the credit and thereby inherits leadership of the gang. The burly Little John-ish Moose Pleck immediately takes to Turpin, identifying a kindred metrosexual soul. The frustrated poet Honesty Barebone also immediately accepts Turpin, because he is an idiot. However, the most competent member of the gang, Nell Brazier resents Turpin for taking the leadership role she deserves—while simultaneously hating herself for being attracted to him.

Naturally, the Essex Gang quickly falls in the official Highwaymen standings, even though (or maybe because) they have an aspiring pamphlet scribe documenting their misadventures. Turpin also alienates Jonathan Wilde, the corrupt Thief-Taking General, by refusing to pay his hefty kickbacks. Instead of feeding them tips, Wilde is now determined to apprehend the Essex Gang. Left to his own devices, Turpin has a knack for picking the worst possible targets, like the “Unrobbable Coach,” a riff on England’s phantom coach lore, in episode two.

Episode four, “Curse of the Reddlehag,” also has a supernatural theme, in which Turpin unleashes chaos after he unwittingly releases a witch from her prison coach. Arguably, this is the funniest episode. Perhaps not coincidentally, Turpin gets the least screentime in this installment, thanks to the spell that turns him into a chicken.

Hugh Bonneville is aptly pompous as Wilde, but Tamsin Greig is even more fabulously villainous chewing the scenery as Lady Helen Gwinear, the leader of Wilde’s secret criminal society. Throughout the series, Ellie White probably gets the most laughs as Brazier, because she is the only one who regularly undercuts Turpin’s impractical dandy stylings and his complete lack of common sense. Everyone should be ripping on Turpin, but usually it is just her.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Murder is Easy, in The Epoch Times


BritBox's new adaptation of Agatha Christie's MURDER IS EASY features a winning ensemble, but the changes made for "modern sensibilities" sometimes detract from the sly sophistication Dame Agatha baked intto all her classic mysteries. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

French Rendez-Vous ’24: Auction

Obviously, Egon Schiele is not creating anymore paintings. In 2010, the contested ownership of the Nazi-looted “Portrait of Wally” resulted in a $19 million settlement to heirs of the rightful owners. It is therefore easy to understand why a hotshot art specialist would be excited by the prospect of finding a presumed lost Schiele painting. Finding it is one thing. Successfully auctioning it will prove to be another thing entirely in director-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer’s Auction, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vouswith French Cinema.

Andre Masson is ruthlessly ambitious and sometimes kind of slimy, but in his way, he is always honest (often brutally so, in fact). In contrast, his new intern Aurore seems to be a compulsive liar, but she is smart, so Masson is not quite prepared to cut her loose yet. When a lawyer in provincial Mulhouse contacts him, requesting the authentication of an apparent Schiele in the possession of her client, a young manual laborer, he assumes it must be a hoax. Nevertheless, he and his ex, Bettina (who is now essentially his best friend), make a road trip to appraise it out of courtesy. To their shock and delight, they find a genuine Schiele considered lost since WWII.

It turns out, the young factory worker and his widowed mother bought their modest house from the estate of an old Vichy-era collaborator. Rather fatefully, all the junky contents of the storage shed came with it, including the painting that Masson believes should go for well over ten million Euros if his auction house can secure the sale. To seal the deal, Masson must also negotiate with the American heirs of the original gallerist owners, who have much stronger legal standing than the mother and son in Mulhouse.

Auction
is a remarkably assured and accomplished film that could very well turn out to be one of the best of the year. It is built around a richly complex character study of Masson, who quickly proves to be a much more compelling and weirdly sympathetic figure than his initial appearance suggests. Yet, Bonitzer’s screenplay is also very definitely about something. There is real suspense in this tale of auction house intrigue, as well as a genuinely idealistic love for great art. Frankly, Auction is one of those rare films that you walk out of marveling at the sharpness of the writing.

Red Queen, on Prime

Antonia Scott is literally too smart for her own good. She is not merely a socially awkward detective, like Sherlock or Monk. When she starts thinking too rapidly, her brain essentially overheats, causing weird hallucinations. It is all the fault of a shadowy crime-fighting organization, whose initial training turned out to be somewhat overzealous. Not surprisingly, she is always reluctant to accept a new case from “Mentor,” the mastermind who recruited her, but she can be begged and cajoled into investigating particularly urgent and awful crimes. A recent string of high-profile abductions (and likely murders) will qualify in creator Amaya Muruzabal’s Spanish series Red Queen (a.k.a. Reina Roja), which premieres today on Prime Video.

As the series opens, the unstable Scott is considering multiple suicide options. She has had a rough go of it. In addition to her visions of angry monkeys, her husband lies comatose in the hospital, with zero prognosis for recovery. It will be the hulking, wheezing Det. Jon Guttierez’s job to convince her to venture out into the field again. As a devout, gay Catholic Basque who snitched on corrupt fellow cops back in Bilbao, Guttierez was never really accepted by the Madrid force. However, his outsider status will give some credit with Scott. That still doesn’t mean she will be friendly. She is the organization’s designated “Red Queen” for Spain, after all.

One business titan’s grown offspring was brutally murdered and another mogul’s privileged daughter has been kidnapped. Madrid’s conventional cops are investigating like it is a conventional case, but Mentor knows it requires Scott’s “out-of-the-box” thinking. It will be Guttierez’s job to drive her, run interference, and generally keep her alive, all of which get trickier when the sinister “Ezequiel” realizes they are on his trail.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: The Animal Kingdom

Fantasy often tells us mankind is the most dangerous animal. If you think that changes when a mysterious phenomenon starts mutating the afflicted into physically powerful human-animal hybrids, you could not be more wrong. Homo-sapiens are still the most dangerous creatures, due to our aggression, fear, and prejudice, a point that is repeatedly emphasized in Thomas Cailley’s The Animal Kingdom, the opening night film of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, in New York.

As the film opens, Emile Marindaze is distressed by the sight of a bird-man struggling with paramedics amid cars stuck in traffic. His alarm seems natural, but viewers soon learn his reaction is more personal and visceral. It turns out his mother has also been stricken with the strange animal mutating disease, which carries a severe stigma among the uninfected.

His father François has arranged for them to temporarily relocate to a resort village, so they can be close to her in the newly constructed high-security treatment center. Of course, they want to keep her condition on the down-low, so they pretend they are simply in town for dad’s new job as a chef at a waterfront bistro. It becomes harder when the initial shipment of patient/inmates (including Madame Marindaze) escapes in a traffic accident. Emile regularly drags Emile out to the forest to search for his mother, while the surly teen is trying to hide his own early onset of animal mutation symptoms.

So, deep down, we’re all animals. The end. There is a legit point in there, which someone like Rod Serling could have made brilliantly in just under thirty minutes. In contrast, Cailley drags out this morality play—but to his credit, he reportedly cut an epilogue after
Animal Kingdom premiered at Cannes.

That is the storytelling. On the other hand, the filmmaking that went into
Animal Kingdom is often pretty impressive. Cailley’s brand of contemporary fantasy is eerily realistic looking. In some ways, Animal Kingdom almost functions as Cronenbergian body-horror, but the mutations are vividly lifelike and painful looking.

NYICFF ’24: Tabby McTat (short)

Everyone knows the bond between dogs and humans can transcend miles and even lifetimes (as in A Dog’s Purpose). In contrast, cats can largely take us or leave us. Still, a busker’s former cat remembers him well and even misses the street musician enough to search for him on the streets of London in Jac Hamman & Sarah Scrimgeour’s half-hour short Tabby McTat, the latest Magic Lantern & BBC-produced animated adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s children’s books, which screens during the 2024 New York International Children’sFilm Festival.

You can sort of think of this film as
Once for cats. Old Fred can busk up a storm, but he relies on Tabby McTat to chase off the pigeons and pull in the tipping audience. One fateful day, Fred is hospitalized, after he is separated from McTat while chasing the thief who made off with hat full of tips. Freezing on the streets, an elegant house feline convinces McTat to accept shelter with her cat-lady owners. Soon, McTat becomes part of the family, especially when their first litter of kittens arrives, but he remains haunted by memories of Fred.

Tabby McTat
is a bit of a departure from previous Donaldson films like Zog, Room on the Broom, and The Smed and the Smoos, because it is essentially set in the world that we know. Yet, that is partly why it is also one of the most endearing Magic Lantern adaptations to date.

Amelia’s Children: uma familia malvada em Portugal

It would be fitting if Edward’s girlfriend bought him a DNA/ancestry test kit from the same company that the orphaned protagonist in The Invitation used. They must offer a discount for supernatural weirdos. In this case, Edward is not related to vampires, but he was definitely better off not knowing his family roots in Gabriel Abrantes’ Amelia’s Children, which opens Friday in New York.

For years, Edward yearned to reconnect with his biological family, but there were no leads in his adoption file. For his birthday, his girlfriend Riley gives him a DNA testing kit and a few days later he is getting messages from his brother Manuel. Make that his twin brother Manuel, as Edward and Riley are rather surprised to learn when they visit the family castelo in northern Portugal.

Edward also finally meets his mother Amelia, who is old and infirm, yet still strangely vain and coquettish. She and Manuel clearly have a close relationship—perhaps to a disturbing extent. However, he is so delighted to finally have a mother, he ignores the glaring warning signs that alarm Riley. For instance, she wonders why nobody ever speaks of Edward’s father?

Amelia’s Children
has a lurid throwback Euro-horror vibe that is rather entertaining in a trashy and nostalgic kind of way. This is definitely a hot-blooded film that winkingly implies shocking transgressions, but keeps things mainly within traditional horror movie bounds. The gothic trappings add a lot and the Portuguese sounds correctly translated.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Ken Jacobs: From Orchard Street to the Museum of Modern Art

Ken Jacobs rarely (but occasionally) features linear narratives in his films. This is one of the exceptions. Technically, it is Fred Riedel’s documentary, but it is all about Jacobs. The experimental filmmaker takes stock of his life and career in Riedel’s Ken Jacobs: From Orchard Street to the Museum of Modern Art, which screens this weekend at Anthology Film Archive.

Jacobs’ first film,
Orchard Street, captured the comings and goings along the Lower Eastside commercial strip. Last year, MoMA acquired his prolific film collection. In between, he created 200-some films, including many non-narrative, abstract short films.

Jacobs has long been one of the best-known avant-garde filmmakers. Quite logically, he drops the names of experimental colleagues like Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas (who was particularly supportive at critical junctures of his life). Throughout most of the film, his wife Flo is by his side, filling in gaps in his memory. Their son Azazel is also seen helping his father render his latest project.

In many respects, Riedel takes a conventional approach, even though the generous sample of images from Jacobs’ films are anything but. It is rather sweet to observe the Jacobs’ comfortable chemistry together. However, Riedel’s doc is unlikely to win any converts for its subject. Indeed,
From Orchard is conspicuously missing a sort of aesthetic statement from Jacobs, or any in-depth explanation of what excites him in cinema. For those unfamiliar with experimental filmmaking in general, it would have helped them relate better to the film clips Riedel shows.

Tolkien: Lighting Up the Darkness, Graphic Novel

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was the J.K. Rowling of his era—and his Lord of the Rings fantasy novels remain just as popular today. They are the gold standard by which all other epic fantasies are measured. His fantastical world was inspired by his scholarship of Old English and ancient Nordic languages and legends, but Christianity was also subtly baked into its DNA. Yet, his entire vision was colored by his military service during World War I. Writer Willy Duraffourg and artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo chronicle the beloved writer’s formative years at Oxford and in the trenches along the frontline in the graphic novel Tolkien: Lighting Up the Darkness, which goes on-sale today.

Due to his father’s early demise and his mother’s conversion to Roman Catholicism (which neither side of his family much approved of), Tolkien's childhood was quite difficult. Her own premature death left Tolkien and his brother Hilary in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who secured his studies in Oxford, where Tolkien really came into his own.

Duraffourg devotes a fair amount of time to the “T.C.B.S.,” or “Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” an informal debating club, poetry circle, and secret society that somewhat prefigured “The Inklings,” which is not mentioned at all, even though it included C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Aside from a brief epilogue,
Lighting Up the Darkness focuses exclusively on Tolkien-pre-fame years, culminating with the initial publication of The Hobbit. Yet, the most significant passages cover the horrors and tragedies of WWI.

There are several cool splash pages that represent the fantastical visions of Tolkien’s imagination and the ancient lore he studied. However, most of the panels have a very nostalgic vibe that pleasantly evokes memories of vintage “illustrated-classic” comics that not inappropriate for the subject matter.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Mario Van Peebles’ Outlaw Posse

There is a relatively new trope in revisionist Westerns, in which a grizzled gunslinger blows into a town founded by freedmen that exudes contemporary values of tolerance and diversity. Of course, he comes to respect their ways, even though he must revert to his bad old habits to defend their dreams. You definitely find this template in the Django series, the Refuge graphic novel, and now again in this film. At least the hard-bitten “Chief” will do his best to keep his shootouts out-of-town in Mario Van Peebles’ Outlaw Posse, which opens in select theaters this Friday.

Shortly after the Civil War, Chief and Angel hijacked a shipment of gold intended to pay reparations to former slaves. They had the usual falling out, resulting in Angel losing both his share of the gold and one hand. Shrewdly, Chief stashed the loot on reservation land, where most white outlaws fear to tread. However, Angel remains determined to re-appropriate the gold and sever one of Chief’s mitts in retribution. For leverage, he abducts Malindy, the wife of Chief’s estranged son, Decker.

To save her, Decker must ingratiate himself into Chief’s gang, now consisting of the fatherly Carson, the young Southpaw (both of whom are white), the knife-wielding femme fatale Queeny, and the minstrel-performer, Spooky. Chief is due to reclaim the gold at the time he and the actual tribal chief agreed upon, but to get there, they must travel through the freedmen’s community led by his former riding mate, Horatio, who isn’t as dead as Chief had heard (that is a common phenomenon in
Outlaw Posse).

Weirdly, one of the most entertaining things about
Outlaw Posse is the wealth of colorful character actor cameos, like Neal McDonough and the truly great M. Emmett Walsh, who appear in the prologue (which could stand alone as separate short) and then only reappear briefly in a dream sequence. Regardless, they are both perfectly cast. There is also Edward James Olmos popping up as a general store proprietor and Joseph Culp (Corman’s Dr. Doom) as a crooked sheriff. Plus, Cedric the Entertainer plays it relatively straight as newly enlightened Horatio.

Outlaw Posse
does not appear to be linked to Van Peebles’ Posse from 1993, but he clearly remembered his way around horses and six-shooters. Frankly, there is no “posse” in Outlaw Posse, so the title seems deliberately misleading. Regardless, as Chief, he is definitely cool, in a steely, world weary kind of way. He can still carry a movie.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hundreds of Beavers

The fate of the Coyote vs. Acme looks increasingly uncertain but you can probably get a similar viewing experience from this eccentric work of cinematic slapstick from Wisconsin. However, Jean Kayak, the much-abused trapper, has more luck against his tormentors than Wile E. Coyote ever did with the Roadrunner. There is plenty of goofy, meat-headed humor, but the misadventures take a surreal turn in director-editor-co-screenwriter Mike Cheslik’s Hundreds of Beavers, which screens this Wednesday and Friday in New York, as part of its special national roadshow.

Cheslik and his co-writer, producer, and star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, are the same creative team responsible for the weird and wacky
Lake Michigan Monster, so if you saw that film, be forewarned, or totally psyched. This time around, they take their eccentric vision even further, yet somehow, it works better.

Kayak was once a hard cider brewer, but his business was ruined by hungry beavers. Frankly, he was too hammered to notice at the time. Nevertheless, he now must live off the land to survive, so that means trapping. At first, the rabbits and beavers (all of whom are played by “grown-up adults” wearing furry animal costumes) run circles around poor Kayak, until the “Master Fur Trapper” takes him under his wing. Eventually, Kayak will ask to marry the Furrier daughter of the trading post Merchant, but he demands delivery of “hundreds of beavers” before he will consent. Naturally, that means war.

It takes a while to get acclimated to the off-kilter style of
Beavers. It should also be noted that the gags get funnier as the film progresses. It is not for everyone’s tastes, but viewers should at least give it a solid twenty minutes before passing judgment, because Cheslik and Tews have a lot of clever stuff coming down the pike. In fact, it is often ridiculous in smart and inventive ways.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Witchcraft, on Eurochannel

The kind of antisemitic “blood libel” slander you can currently find on tiktok and social media comes straight out of the 13th Century, so why should we be surprised by modern day accusations of witchcraft? Such rumors dogged Hanna’s missing-and-presumed-dead mother when she lived in this rustic community in northern Germany, so they predictably fall on her too when she returns for a hot, uncomfortable summer in Esther Bialas’s Witchcraft (a.k.a. Hanna’s Homecoming), which premieres tomorrow on Eurochannel.

Hanna’s dad has a serious case of denial. He seems to think nothing will happen if Hanna keeps her head down, spending all her time working for the family’s farm and butcher shop. Yet, even the family employees start bullying her as soon as she arrives, especially the brutish Gunnar. It only gets worse when several of her tormentors (or their pets) experience painful misadventures. She only makes one friend, the mysterious Eva, who is also an outsider visiting family. However, she exerts a questionable influence over Hanna.

If you cannot figure out Eva’s deal after five minutes, you probably have not seen very many genre movies. Nevertheless, Bialas does a decent job maintaining the is-it-supernatural-or-is-it-Scooby-Doo-villainy ambiguity. She creates a creepy atmosphere, especially through the use of the
Blair Witch-y sigils that adorn the forest and out-buildings. Nevertheless, there is a simplicity to Lena Krumkamp’s screenplay that betrays Witchcraft’s made-for-German-TV origins.

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, on Prime Video

For years, the setting of James White’s Sector General novels was science fiction’s classic space hospital. It probably still should be. His long-standing series was known for its pacifism and tolerant depictions of alien species, yet compared to sex and identity politics that dominate recent “trendy” sf writing, White’s books probably seem rather old-fashioned to many editors (but not necessarily to readers). This space hospital clearly reflects current trends. Nevertheless, viewers can easily see how White’s concept might have been cannibalized in creator Cirocco Dunlap’s animated series The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Friends since med school, Dr. Klak and Dr. Sleech (try not to call her “Screech,” that’s another show) are hot-shot surgeons at a space hospital that takes all varieties of aliens, no matter how weird. Dr. Klak suffers from debilitating anxiety that her own mother fuels to generate fodder for her pop psychology books. Sleech is recklessly confident, both professionally and in her promiscuous hook-ups, but they are platonically devoted to each other, when they are not arguing like grumpy old men.

In episode one, Klak and Sleech discover a parasitic brain worm that eats anxiety. Unfortunately for Klak, if the worm grows too large, it can burst the host’s skull. Nevertheless, it seems like such a promising avenue of research, they keep it in containment, violating all kinds of laws and protocols. Their experiments will continue throughout the first eight-episode season, while they also navigate dysfunctional romantic relationships.

Klak still carries a torch for the spider-like Dr. Azel, who is chief of surgeon at the number one hospital in the galaxy, thanks its highly compromising corporate sponsorship. Meanwhile, despite her aversion to commitment, Sleech can never quite disentangle herself from Dr. Plowp, a bird-like empath, who is feeling especially needy, because of his species’ late-adult puberty.

There is a lot of sexual content and slapstick fluid splattering, but it is not as exhaustingly and self-indulgently edgy as the aggressively abrasive
Hazbin Hotel. Frankly, most of the sex scenes in Second Best are visual gags built around bizarre alien anatomy. Like most successful sitcoms, just about all of the characters are unlikable and annoying, but that is what Dunlap and the writers derive humor from. We can laugh at all of Sleech’s humiliations, because she has them coming and we groan at Klak’s Charlie Brown self-sabotaging, because she just cannot help herself.

However, relentlessly sarcastic Nurse Tup gets the most laughs, by far, thanks equally to her mordantly observant dialogue and Natasha Lyonne’s sly voice-over performance. Kieran Culkin also outdoes the Crane Brothers expressing Plowp’s neuroses. However, the voices of Keke Palmer and Stephanie Hsu are not particularly memorable as Klak and Sleech.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Sarnet’s The Invisible Fight

Today the Axis of Authoritarians clearly includes Xi and Putin, but in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union and China had rather standoffish relations. (Actually, defector Anatoliy Golitsyn claimed that was just an act, but he was “controversial.”) Either way, the clueless Rafael’s outpost on the Soviet-Chinese border was a real hardship post, especially when a trio of Chinese Kung Fu bandits attack. He will be the sole survivor, because “God has other plans for him.” Those plans are weird and chaotic in Rainer Sarnet’s Kung Fu-Russian Orthodox mash-up The Invisible Fight, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Except for the anachronistic crosses, the trio that attacks Rafael’s base look like they could have walked out of a Shaw Brothers movie—and they fight like it too. The opening over-the-top martial arts sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. They kill everyone, except Rafael, whom they deliberately spare, even leaving a pair of nunchaku behind for him. As a result, he dives into Kung Fu when he returns home, often to sounds of his favorite death metal.

Somehow, Rafael is drawn to a sort of Shaolin-style Russian Orthodox monastery, where he is taken in as a novice (despite his obvious idiocy) when his prayers elicit tears of honey from the sacred Virgin Mary icon. The order’s spiritual leader, Nafanail, sees something in the moron that is lost on the other Brothers, especially his presumed protégé, Irinei, who has the day-to-day responsibility of training Rafael. With this set-up, Sarnet unleashes one crazy encounter after another, enlisting demon temptresses and arrogant KGB agents as potential foes.

Frankly,
Invisible Fight can be a little exhausting. The nearly two-hour running time is a bit much for a wild and larky movie like this. However, it truly sports some of the most inventive and comedic fight choreography since Stephen Chow’s early 2000’s peak.

As the wacky mayhem in
Invisible Fight escalates, its depiction of the Orthodox Brothers becomes increasingly “unorthodox,” almost to a disrespectful extent. (Of course, given the current Church’s collusion with Putin and the past allegations of high-level KGB collaboration, reputedly including Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, many Westerner viewers might not be inclined to object too strenuously.) Yet, eventually, the film delivers a surprisingly heartfelt expression of faith. If only the real-life Patriarch were as humble and true as these gravity-defying monks.

Stopmotion: Hybrid Animation-Horror

Will Vinton did some of his most memorable claymation for the California Rasin TV spots. Nevertheless, Ella Blake scorns commercial work with the disdain of a Millennial who has never finished a project of her own, which indeed she is. Instead, she works as the thankless hands of her ailing mother, a legendary model-animator hoping to finish what will must likely be her final film. When Blake finally discovers some inspiration of her own, it comes from a very dark place in Robert Morgan’s Stopmotion, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Blake’s mother Suzanne is a considered one of the greats, whereas most of the animators she went to school with just know her as Tom’s awkward girlfriend. He isn’t even a filmmaker, but his sister is moving up the ladder of a commercial animation studio. Suzanne is desperate to finish her tragic film about a cyclops facing mortality, so she is not very considerate when it comes to her daughter’s feelings.

When the inevitable happens, Blake initially intends to finish her mother’s film. To avoid the painful memories, Tom sets her up in an apartment in a building his company manages (remember, Blake feels resentful over her lack of support). She soon starts doing her own thing, but not very successfully, until a creepy little girl invites herself in and offers unsolicited suggestions that Blake feels compelled to follow. Soon, she creates a new character out of roadkill, named the Ash Man. Rather disturbingly, whenever Blake animates a scene of the Ash Man menacing his victim, she experiences it herself in trippy animated hallucinations.

Morgan had an entirely animated segment in
The ABC’s of Death 2 that was technically impressive, “but punishingly grotesque.” The human element of his hybrid canvas helps him tell a much fuller story. Stopmotion shares a kinship with Berberian Sound Studio, but unlike the disappointing Censor, it does not simply rip-off the premise, placing in a slightly different context. Instead, Morgan’s use of stop-motion animation as both a theme and a medium adds further layers of metaphorical significance as well as strange physical textures.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Constellation, in The Epoch Times


The sequences on the Internatioonal Space Station look great, but there are still too many cracks in the internal logic of Apple TV+'s CONSTELLATION. Thanks to a good cast and few inventively staged scenes, it is still better than the I.S.S. movie. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World

It is not often that political documentaries intersect with culinary docs. Unfortunately for Ukraine, that is the case with this film. You can blame Putin because it is entirely his fault. This Ukrainian restaurant is located in the East Village, but its heart is definitely with Ukraine as it fights for its survival. Director-editor-producer Michael Fiore shines a spotlight on the restaurant and the family that still operates it, in Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World, which opens this Friday in New York.

Originally, Volodymyr Darmochwal founded Veselka (Ukrainian for “rainbow”) as a candy store, when the Second Avenue area below 14
th Street was considered “Little Ukraine.” His son-in-law Tom Birchard was not Ukrainian, but he started working at Veselka after college and somehow, he never left. Under his watch, it evolved into a diner and then expanded into a landmark restaurant. His son Jason (obviously half-Ukrainian) now runs Veselka and its related outreach efforts, but his father is never that far from the house floor.

Fiore provides a solid history of the restaurant, explaining how New York City’s financial collapse almost ruined Veselka too. Nevertheless, it survived, becoming a community institution that customers rallied around during freezing cold era of outdoor pandemic dining. Yet, quite appropriately, Fiore devotes the greatest screentime to Veselka’s role as a center of Ukrainian advocacy and fundraising, following Putin’s brutal invasion.

In fact,
Veselka is surprisingly revealing in the way it documents the change of attitude in the restaurant’s employees. At first, few of Veselka staff beyond the Birchards are willing to sit for interviews, but as Putin’s atrocities escalate, they feel compelled to tell their families’ stories on-camera. In fact, there are a lot of poignant moments in Veselka, because the drama is real and the potential for tragedy back home is a constant threat they must live with. Fiore really brings that reality home, while avoiding any sense of exploitation or manufactured melodrama.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Submitted by Vietnam: 578 Magnum

It is tough being a trucker in America, because you must deal with raising oil prices, spare parts inflation, and nuisance law suits. At least they usually do not have to contend with a brutal human trafficking gang, like Hung. His daughter was a victim of the creepy criminals, so he is out to deliver some street justice in Luong Dinh Dung’s 578 Magnum, Vietnam’s official internation Oscar submission, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Hung was once a member of Vietnam’s Special Forces, so the boss, Mr. Khang, admits in hindsight, his predatory son Thai should have avoided Hung’s young daughter, An. Still, as far he is concerned, what’s done is done. Frankly, it was probably a miracle one of his henchmen released the gravely ailing girl, out of concern for her health. She recovers physically, but the trauma continues to torment her.

Hung will pass along the pain to Khang’s gang, foiling their next abduction. Soon, Khang has small armies of thugs out looking for Hung. The angry father is not a superman. He takes a number of severe beatings, but he is incredibly hard to kill.

For those who want to see some massive martial arts beatdowns, this film is for you. If you have no patience for boring transitions or establishing shots, you are sure to appreciate Dung’s approach, because he often just jumps into fight scenes, without even a “how do you do?” It is probably just as well.
578 Magnum cuts directly to the chase, delivering exactly what it promises. Oscar experts might consider it a poor fit for Academy voters’ taste, but 578 Magnum secured distribution from the well-regarded Film Movement, so maybe the added attention paid dividends.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Marcus, on OVID.tv

Marcus Miller is probably the top electric bassist currently performing in jazz, funk, or soul. His closest competition would likely be Stanley Clarke, who performed with Miller in a bass trio (rounded out with Victor Wooten). Regardless, Miller has recorded (and often produced) some of the most popular jazz of his era, including some of the best regarded late-period Miles Davis. The bassist takes stock, while he keeps moving forward in Patrick Savey’s documentary Marcus, which premieres Thursday on OVID.tv.

Late in
Marcus, Miller describes his music as “funk on the bottom and jazz on top.” That is rather apt. Although he has played with “smooth” musicians like David Sanborn and Kirk Whalum (who duly appear in Marcus), he has also performed and recorded with legends like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (who are also celebrated alumni of Miles Davis’s bands). They two discuss Miller and Davis at length throughout Savey’s film. Yet, the first musician we see and hear in Marcus happens to be Ahmad Jamal, which is saying something.

Frankly, the music Davis recorded on Warner Brothers, after he left Columbia, is a bit hit-or-miss, but most critics and fans have a lot of respect for
Tutu, which Miller composed and largely structured in the studio in much the same way Two Macero did with Bitches Brew. Frankly, just hearing Miller discuss this process will be enough to satisfy most jazz fans. Then, listening to him revisit this music live, for the first time, with Christian Scott on trumpet, is quite a bonus.

Arguably, Miller has the chops and the depth to make fusion respectable for old school jazz fans, while his funk sensibility remains accessible to mainstream pop audiences. Nobody really says that outright in
Marcus, but the gist of it comes through loud and clear.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Prachya Pinkaew’s Elephant White

In Thailand, you might just find a monastery next to a sex club. That will be handy for Curtie Church, a former “Agency” assassin who has gone freelance. He basically lives like a monk and he has taken on one of Thailand’s nastiest human trafficking gangs as his latest target. It starts out as a job, but it quickly turns personal in Prachya Pinkaew’s Elephant White, which airs on Bounce TV.

A grieving father, whose daughter was abducted and ultimately killed by the Chang Cao gang has hired Church to kill some of the gang and frame their rival Jong Ang gang, in retribution. Church might not fully believe him, but the more he learns about both gangs, the more intent he is on destroying them. He also finds an unexpected source of intel when Mae follows him back to the monastery belltower, where he has been hiding out.

It turns out Mae was once one the women held in slavery by the Chang Cao. After somehow escaping their brothels, she has led a devout, Zen-like life, which gives her an affinity for Church’s hosts. Of course, she does not approve of his guns-blazing approach to problem-solving. Fortunately, Church also knows “Jimmy the Brit,” an old Agency colleagues who is now making a killing as an arms dealer. Jimmy is a sleazy horndog, but when push comes to shove, the crimes of the Chang Caos and Jong Angs do not sit well with him either (and Church will push and shove him plenty).

Somehow,
Elephant White initially flew under the radar with fans, even though it was helmed by Pinkaew, the action auteur who helmed the first Ong Bak and The Protector films. It also features Kevin Bacon shamelessly chewing the scenery and doing the weirdest Scott Adkins accent. Yet, it all works perfectly, especially when he is paired up with the strong, silent, and physically imposing Djimon Housou as Hunter.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

James Brown: Say it Loud, on A&E


We constantly hear stories about some fading rocker demanding a Republican candidate stop using their music at rallies. We don’t they just play James Brown? He would certainly get everybody up on their feet and it would be hard for his heirs to object, considering how much heat he took for endorsing Richard Nixon. In fact, he still comes in for kneejerk criticism in the four-part James Brown: Say it Loud, which airs Monday and Tuesday on A&E.

Origins do not come much humbler than that of James Brown. Initially, it looked like he was stillborn, but there was still a little life left in him. He grew up amid grinding poverty in the segregated South Carolina, where he was sentenced to prison at the age of sixteen. After his release, he joined Bobby Byrd’s Famous Flames, where talent for vocals, dancing, and overall showmanship shined.

More than anyone else, James Brown developed funk out soul. He was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world, who became a mogul much in the same way Jay-Z is today. Indeed, Brown was explicitly a vocal advocate of “Black Capitalism,” which drew him to Richard Nixon. One talking head after another talks about Brown’s endorsement like it was an unforgivable sin (Nixon won with over 60% of the vote in 1972, so Brown was hardly the only one supporting him).

Yet, Brown’s message of economic self-reliance made the Godfather of Soul a natural conservative. Seriously, why aren’t GOP candidates grooving to Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s “I’m Payin’ Taxes, What Am I Buyin,’” which Brown produced on his own record label?” (It’s also a great name for a band, isn’t it?)

Regardless, director-co-writer Deborah Riley Draper and her interview subjects do a nice job thoroughly chronicling Brown’s music as well as the messy drama of his life (which nobody sugar-coats, including the domestic abuse and second prison stretch). Notable on-camera commentators include jazz musicians Christian McBride and Tia Fuller, as well as former J.B.’s Bootsy Collis and Hollie Farris. Plus, there is also Sir Mick Jagger, who also executive produced (after previously producing
Get On Up and Mr. Dynamite).

Friday, February 16, 2024

Snoopy Presents: Welcome Home, Franklin, on Apple TV+

Charles M. Schulz’s introduction of the black character Franklin in his beloved Peanuts comic strip eleven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King is widely considered an important statement on behalf of racial integration. Yet, Franklin was even more culturally significant, because he was the son of a Vietnam veteran (at least as I see it, as a fellow son of a Vietnam vet myself). Franklin’s arrival is adapted (and somewhat updated) in the latest Peanuts special, Snoopy Presents: Welcome Home, Franklin, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

To reflect current times, Franklin’s dad is still a vet, but the details of his service are kept vague. Of course, like most military brats, he has had to move constantly to each new duty station. This time, they have relocated to wherever Charlie Brown lives. Always a little shy, Franklin has a particularly hard time fitting in, because he is thrown by Lucy’s grouchiness and Linus’s weird “Great Pumpkin” babble.
 And then there’s Pigpen.

The only one who talks to him is the round-headed kid, Charlie Brown. Both could use a friend, so they enter the local soapbox derby together, but like in
Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, the dangerous competition puts them under stress, before bringing them back together.

Although Franklin never had a surname in the comic strip, Schulz dubbed him Franklin Armstrong in one of the specials, as a tribute to cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who co-wrote this special. In most respects, it stays faithful to Franklin’s debut in the strip. However, it follows a trend in some of the new Apple
Peanuts specials that moderates Charlie Brown’s born loser blockheadedness. Poor Charlie Brown just isn’t supposed to kick the football—ever.

Monolith: The Bricks are Out There

There is a tradition of “big dumb objects” in science fiction, best represented by the classic one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This time around, they are technically little dumb objects, but they hold great mystery nonetheless. Of course, in this kind of sf, the objects usually turn out to be anything but dumb. In fact, the “bricks” a disgraced journalist investigates seem to be decidedly dangerous in Matt Vesely’s Monolith, which releases today in theater and VOD.

She is credited simply as “The Interviewer,” but most viewers will refer to her as the Podcaster. She was a journalist, but she was forced to resign in disgrace after accusing a prominent businessman of crimes without adequate evidence. Of course, the film thinks this makes her the victim, because slander should be fine, as long as your heart is in the right place, or something like that. After getting doxed, she retreated to her parents’ incredible modernistic luxury home, where she half-heartedly looks for stories to cover for a George Noory-ish podcast, the only media outlet that would still hire her. Then an anonymous email grabs her attention.

Based on the tip, she calls a complete stranger to ask about a mysterious brick that just turned up in the woman’s possession. Apparently, the former domestic’s employer sold it against her will to Klaus, an eccentric German art dealer, who has a collection of such objects. He discovered his own brick, which he believed was the source of his strange and unnerving hallucinations. His experiences were not unique. In fact, many people who encountered bricks suffered severe ill-health shortly thereafter, leading many to assume a causal linkage.

Monolith
skillfully employs the isolated podcasting set-up to create claustrophobic tension in much the same way First Time Caller did, but Vesely’s film is more effective due to the superior sound design. As the Interviewer digs into the mystery, it evolves in many intriguing directions. It shares a possible plot twist with Bruce McDonald’s amazing Pontypool, which was also similarly constructed around an isolated radio studio, but admittedly, it has been a while since that film released.

Arguably, the way the story starts taking greater personal significance for the Interviewer is quite dramatic. However, it eventually goes in direction very much like Luke Sommer’s
Cellphone, but the recent horror film better executes its macabre climax.