J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Guangzhou Ballet: Goddess of the Luo River & Carmina Burana

You could say the Guangzhou Ballet’s very existence is a case of East meets West. For the program of Western-style ballet presented by the Chinese company this weekend at the David H Koch Theater, it was a case of West meets East and East meets West yet again. Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s adaptation of Chinese composer Du Mingxin’s violin concerto Goddess of Luo River and Chinese-American choreographer Jiang Qi’s transformation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was based on the bawdy song of poems of medieval monks) into something contemporary and Chinese proves the universality of music and dance. They also provided quite a striking program that showcased the artistry and athleticism of the Guangzhou Ballet of China in their New York City debut, made possible by the China Arts and Entertainment Group.

The original Goddess of Luo River written by poet Cao Zhi chronicled the tragic romance between said goddess and a mortal man. However, Quanz and the Guangzhou company reinterpret it as a much more upbeat affair. Of course, there is still plenty of dramatic pairings of the prima and secondary leads. In fact, even the small “chorus” section gets plenty of impressive choreography to show off their chops, which is true of Burana as well.

Thoughout Goddess, the leads practically seem to bounce off the stage, almost like they have springs in the soles of their feet. That high energy level definitely makes it an attention-grabbing ice-breaker. Plus, Anne Armit’s striking backdrop, evoking the look and texture of Chinese scroll painting, provides the sort of class and sophistication you would hope for from an afternoon at the ballet.

While Goddess ran for about a concerto-long half-hour, the three-part Carmina Burana lasts well over an hour. Based on the secular songs composed by 11th and 12th Century Bavarian monks on subjects they should not have known very much about, including boozing, carousing, love-making, and war-fighting, Carmina Barana inspired Orff’s cantata. You might not know it by title, but you will recognize the “O Fortuna” intro and reprise, which is often used in films whenever they need a really thunderous piece of music

The Guangzhou company and Jiang use the star-crossed romance of Helena and Bolanzifaluo as a through-line, but it is not really a narrative-driven piece. Instead, it is more a collection of impressionistic vignettes that illustrate love, loss, and the power of nature. Indeed, there is a good deal of striking moon and sun imagery.

Just as in Goddess, the Guangzhou company dazzles. Arguably, Carmina Burana is a better vehicle for traditional ballet grace, rather than the demanding physicality of Goddess. Regardless, everyone on stage gets their share of lifts and releases, so it is fair to say the entire company distinguish themselves with their individual talents. Yet, it is arguably the second lead (in the floral tunic) who most wows and charms the audience.

The choreography is dramatic, the production is classically handsome, and the dancers are like finely tuned instruments. It is everything people go to the ballet for, yet it is also a refreshingly different program than the five or six old standards that get re-staged season after season after season. The Guangzhou company and their choreographers, Quanz and Jiang, deserve credit for giving patrons something new, but in a way that feels both exotic and welcoming. The Guangzhou Ballet’s production of Goddess of Luo River and Carmina Burana is highly recommended for refined and adventurous patrons as their tour continues, following their NYC debut engagement, at the David H Koch Theater, on the Lincoln Center Plaza.

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Scary Movies XII: Black Circle

By now, the booming market for audiophile vinyl should have everyone convinced of the LP’s superior sound quality. That is great when you are listening to vintage Blue Note jazz, but not so hot in the case of a creepy 1970s self-help album with the dangerous power to mesmerize listeners. At first, two sisters feel empowered by the record, but the experience takes a dark turn in Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s Black Circle, which screens during Scary Movies XII.

You could think of the Stockholm Center for Magnetic Research as the Swedish equivalent of Tony Robbin and other such self-help gurus, who initially seem beneficial, but soon drag the unwary into a state of abject horror. To be fair, the now-defunct Institute tried to recall their LP, but somehow Isa found one among the possessions of a distant relative who recently passed away. After experiencing sudden success at work after listening, she passes it on to her slacker grad student sister Celeste.

After duly spinning the B-side before falling asleep, she is suddenly able to whip out her thesis. However, her second listening is interrupted by a stoned friend. As a result, Celeste sees something pretty disturbing that scares off spinning the record any further. Unfortunately, the dark, otherworldly process unleashed by the record has progressed much further in Isa’s case. To save her sanity and possibly her life, the sisters seek help from the people who created it, Lena Carlsson, a “master magnetizer” and daughter of the institute’s founder and Mårten, her late father’s surviving right-hand man. Of course, the process will be fraught with peril, but two young psychics happen to show up just in time to help, as if they were compelled to be there.

Black Circle is a triumph of genre art direction, cinematography, and mise-en-scene that brilliantly recreates the look and tone of 1970s Euro-horror movies. Every detail is perfectly rendered. Yet, the narrative is still wholly original and completely engrossing. Frankly, this is the best horror or horror-ish film to play with doppelganger themes since maybe the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, far-eclipsing Jordan Peele’s Us (which was admittedly pretty good).

Without question, Circle’s MVP is Christina Lindberg, the Swedish 1970s exploitation star, who plays Carlsson like the daughter of Peter Cushing and Lin Shaye. She basically magnetizes viewers with her commanding presence. Hans Sandqvist is also appropriately Nordic and reserved as old Mårten, while Erica and Hanna Midfjäll really keep the audience off balance, as Isa and her double.

Spanish-born Bogliano has steadily built an international reputation as a horror master, but his best films, the English language Night of the Wolf (a.k.a. Late Phases) and now the Swedish-set Circle, have been produced outside the Iberian sphere of influence. In terms of the constituent elements, Circle is almost as much science fiction as horror, but Bogliano creates an unsettling sense of foreboding and cranks up the tension to wickedly high levels. This is definitely auteurist genre filmmaking. Very enthusiastically recommended, Black Circle screens Monday (8/19), as part of Scary Movies XII.

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Driven: The Latest DeLorean Movie

For years, various prospective John DeLorean movies languished in development Hell, but the DeLorean car achieved lasting big-screen immortality in Back to the Future. Its designer was well pleased. As cinematic legacies go, it is tough to beat Robert Zemeckis’s time travel classic, but it is still entertaining to revisit the happier, more prosperous Reagan years when Nick Hamm’s Driven opens today in New York.

Even before he started his own eponymous motor company, John DeLorean was one of the few auto executives average people like Jim Hoffman had heard of. Hoffman was basically a likable lowlife, who wriggled out of a narcotics bust by agreeing to work as a paid informant for the FBI. As fate would have it, Hoffman and his family moved into the more modest ranch house across the street from DeLorean’s luxurious McMansion. They didn’t exactly become friends, but they started hanging, sensing they could each benefit from the other.

Of course, Hoffman would eventually drop a dime on his neighbor, as we can tell from the in media res on-the-witness-stand framing structure. The question is—was DeLorean really and truly set-up (“entrapped,” according to his legal defense) or did he have it coming? If anyone ought to know, it should be Hoffman, but he sounds pretty confused under cross-examination.

Although Hamm and screenwriter Colin Bateman clearly suggest DeLorean made some grave errors in judgement, they let him off pretty easy. In contrast, Sheena M. Joyce & Don Argott’s hybrid doc Framing John DeLorean essentially gives him a pass on the coke charges, but nails him to the wall for the subsequent embezzlement case.

Regardless, Hamm undeniably has the better DeLorean in his star, Lee Pace, who wildly outshines the shticky Alec Baldwin as the disgraced would be auto magnate. Commanding and mercurial, we can easily see why his workers are always wiling follow his unsteady lead.

Jason Sudeikis is surprisingly but convincingly schlubby as Hoffman. It would be quite the stretch to call him an everyman, unless you know plenty of part-time drug mules eager for a promotion. Plus, Judy Greer impressively over-achieves (again), turning the thankless looking role of Ellen Hoffman into one of the smarter and sexier characters in the film.

The DeLorean presented by Hamm and Bateman is arrogant and yes, “driven,” but he is also the son of a problematic father. Arguably, he is somewhat akin to an Ayn Rand hero—the kind that take pride in the companies they built, so they aren’t about to let anyone take it away. Pace’s DeLorean also seems genuinely concerned about the workers in his Northern Ireland factory. It is all quite diverting, even for those who know the DeLorean story, chapter and verse. If you are in the mood for a breezy true crime melodrama then definitely check out the low-stress Driven when it opens today (8/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, from GKIDS

Luis Buñuel is easily the most important surrealist in cinema history. You could also say he was one of the early pioneers of the true-in-spirit hybrid-documentary. Just like his previous films, the 27-minute Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan or Land Without Bread immediately stirred controversy and was duly banned for years. Truth and artistic license jostle each other while witnessing the depths of Spanish poverty in Salvador Simo Busom’s animated making-of feature, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which opens today in New York, courtesy of GKIDS.

When Buñuel started developing the documentary that would become Land Without Bread, his reputation as a filmmaker essentially rested on two films, Un Chien Andalou, the short film that commenced his collaboration with Salvador Dali and L’Age d’Or, the hour-long satire that pointedly ended it. Both works generated explosive outrage as well as reverence within avant-garde circles. There are frequent references to Buñuel’s frosty relationship with Dali throughout the film, but the psychological influence of his distant and domineering father will be more significant.

Despite his baggage, Buñuel can be charming, at least at this early stage of his career, but also maddening. Just ask his anarchist friend, Ramón Acín Aquilué, who jokingly promised to fund Buñuel’s proposed documentary exposing the desperate living conditions in the Las Hurdes region—and kept his word when it came to pass. However, Acín was most definitely not made of money, which inevitably led to conflict with the not-so practical auteur.

Although most of the film is animated, Simo periodically inserts archival footage from Land Without Bread, cutting back and forth to show us what was happening on both sides of the camera. The way he and editor Jose Manuel Jimenez marry the two styles of footage together is enormously clever and visually striking.

Clearly, Simo has a great deal of sympathy for Buñuel, but the film is not a starry-eyed exercise in hagiography. Instead, he provides a complete portrait of the artist, including his tendencies to be a bit of a user and a flake. Even though Simo takes us pretty extensively into Buñuel’s head, it is still hard to decide what to make of him. Look, geniuses are complicated.

Regardless, Labyrinth of the Turtles (a reference to Las Hurdes’ tortoise shell-like roofs) is an entertaining and erudite primer on Buñuel’s early development as an artist. Simo’s animation is quite elegant, in a style befitting the 1930s, but he mixes in some wild, Freudian flights of fancy that are quite in keeping with the Buñuelian spirit.

In fact, Simo and co-screenwriter Eligio R. Montero will probably motivate a lot of intrigued viewers to take a deep dive into the Buñuel filmography. Yet, they avoid getting bogged down in problematic politics of the era. Altogether, it is probably the most fitting big-screen treatment of the larger-than-life auteur you could ever hope for. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated animation, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles opens today (8/16) in New York, at the Quad.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Two Sentence Horror Stories: “Legacy” & “Hide”

There is a reason why horror has been such an effective genre for social commentary. That is because fans have long acknowledged the dark side of human nature. It certainly looks like Vera Miao is charting a course for Two Sentence Horror Stories that follows in the George Romero-Rod Serling socially conscious tradition when the second two stories (or four sentences), “Legacy” and “Hide” premiere tonight on the CW.

Miao’s “Legacy,” written by Pornsak Pichetshote directly addresses the awkward subject of domestic abuse, which sounds like a heck of a lot of fun, right? Yet, it is easily the best of the series (including the online first season), so far. While he was alive, Angela’s recently deceased husband Jin drank to excess and frequently beat her physically. Horrifyingly, he continues his pattern of abuse as an angry spirit. However, there is much more to this story.

In just a whisker over twenty minutes, Miao pulls off some shocking revelations and stages a dramatic exorcism session with fresh wrinkles worthy of the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. She steadily builds tension and stage manages the escalating bedlam quite masterfully, while cinematographer Paul Yee gives it all a suitably dark and creepy look.

The small ensemble is also uniformly terrific. Kim Wong and Wai Ching Ho keep the human element—the fear and the pain—compellingly front-and-center as Angela and her mother-in-law. Benjamin Ye is also a smart and convincing standout as Harold, the mild-mannered exorcist. It would be interesting to see his character reappear in another story somehow. Regardless, this is one of the scariest works of network programming since the 70s glory years of made-for-TV horror movies.

For the most part, Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia’s “Hide,” is nearly as frightening, which is quite a surprise, given the vastly different tone of their best-known directorial collaboration, H. (our review might have used words like “ambiguous” and “pretentious”). The horror business of “Hide” revolve around a brutally violent home invasion. It is Araceli’s bad luck to be working for her wealthy employers on this fateful night, but she will do whatever she can to protect their autistic daughter Gracie from “Yellow” and “Red,” the two sadistic teen girls out to commit slasher-style murders for sport.

The problem with “Hide” is the denouement, which goes eye-rollingly political. Yes, it is a bit of a cliché already, but more importantly in this context, it has nothing to do with the second sentence whatsoever. Nevertheless, Greta Quispe is impressively intense as Araceli, making her a refreshingly mature and working-class alternative to the airheaded teen “final girl” babysitters so familiar from most every other slasher that came before. Conversely, Sarah Irwin and Kyli Zion are wildly creepy and unsettling as Yellow and Red.

Even though “Hide” fails to stick the dismount, its pairing with “Legacy” represents an unusually tense and suspenseful night of network horror. Highly recommended for fans of genre anthologies and short films, the second two tales of Two Sentence Horror Stories premiere tonight (8/15), on the CW.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Divine Fury: The Priest and the MMA Fighter

No matter how lapsed they think they are, lapsed Catholics are still Catholics. MMA champion Park Yong-hu denies it, but he is a perfect case in point. For years, he claimed he did not believe in God, but he was really just angry over his father’s death. He would still seem like an unlikely candidate to carry the stigmata, but there it is anyway. Despite his skepticism, Park gets pulled into an epic battle of G vs. E in Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury, the closing film of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Park’s father was a devout policeman, who was killed by a demonically possessed motorist during a routine traffic stop. Alas, Park’s prayers were not enough to save him. Subsequently, Park turned against God and allowed his heart to harden against the rest of humanity. Then one day, his palm starts bleeding from a wound that refuses to close. Starting with doctors and proceeding to shamans, Park is mysteriously directed to Father Ahn, a grizzled Vatican exorcist.

The good Father has returned to Korea to hunt for the Dark Bishop, a powerful servant of demonic powers. He has been responsible for a wave of frighteningly severe possessions, like the one Park walks in on, saving Father Ahn with the power of his stigmata. Much to his surprise, he does not dislike Father Ahn. In fact, he almost feels compelled to help him, but the forces of evil, led by Ji-sin, the Dark Bishop himself, will be relentless and vicious.

Relentless is indeed the word. Divine Fury has some of the most intense and exhausting exorcism scenes since the mother of all exorcism films, Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Arguably, Jang Jae-hyun’s The Priests is even more frightening, because it leans into the Catholic imagery and demonic archetypes to a greater extent, but Divine is still all kinds of scary and intense.

There is no question veteran thesp Ahn Sung-ki is the rock on which Divine Fury is built. He is absolutely terrific as the weary Father Ahn. We are used to seeing movie exorcists who are either blind believers or mired in a crisis of faith, but Father Ahn is particularly compelling, because he has faith as well as self-doubts, making him acutely human. For the better part of the film, Park Seo-joon is rather standoffish as Park Yong-hu, but he humanizes the fighter when the film really needs him to. In contrast, Woo Do-hwan is never less than coldly, clammily sinister as the Dark Bishop.

This is scary stuff, but the best news is Kim avoids nearly all the clichés we usually get from horror movie conclusions. However, the film flat out promises a spin-off sequel featuring a minor supporting character. Based on the quality of everything proceeding it, that qualifies as good news. Indeed, Divine Fury is definitely A-list K-horror, along with The Priests and The Wailing. Very highly recommended for fans of demonic horror, The Divine Fury opens this Friday (8/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Osten & Rai’s Shiraz: A Romance of India

When it comes to tragic epics, this one has all the elements. You have a foundling, a noble woman raised as a commoner, and most importantly, a love triangle. However, this is not Shakespeare. It is one of the three great Indian silent films produced by the collaboration of actor-producer Himansu Rai and expatriate German director Franz Osten. Restored to its full striking glory by the BFI, Osten’s Shiraz: A Romance of India is a visual feast for cineastes when it releases today on DVD/BluRay.

Selima was born a princess, but when the caravan taking her family north is ambushed by raiders, the abandoned girl is lucky to be adopted by a common tradesman. Initially, their son Shiraz considers her a sister, but overtime he develops an all-encompassing love for her. Unfortunately, just as Shiraz starts to get serious, Selima is kidnapped by slave traders. Shiraz follows them tenaciously, but he is powerless to intervene when she is auctioned at the slave market.

All is lost for Shiraz, but perhaps not Selima, since she is purchased by an agent of the Moghal court. In fact, Selima and Prince Khurram start to take a shine to each other, but he cannot pursue his feelings for her, because of class restrictions. Of course, that does not stop Dalia, an ambitious social-climbing noble, from growing increasingly jealous of Selima. When she notices Shiraz moping outside the palace, she starts scheming.

There is no question Shiraz is pure 100% melodrama, but it is epic in scale. The sets are big, the locations are sweepingly cinematic, and the cast of extras are worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. The clarity of the restoration makes the film really pop off the screen. Yet, what makes this edition of Shiraz so accessible is the propulsively rhythmic original score composed by Anoushka Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s daughter and Norah Jones’ half-sister).

It is amazing how a contemporary soundtrack can “open up” a classic silent film. Although Shankar is working within a classical Indian framework, her music still has a very modern sensibility. In fact, some sections are quite jazzy and it all has a killer groove. Shankar’s sitar is hypnotic, but contributions from jazz-world hybrid artists like Idris Raham on clarinet and Danny Keane on piano and cello really give the music a lush, full bodied sound.

As for the on-screen business, Rai is a woefully sad-eyed as the tragic title character, but his performance still holds up pretty well by modern standards. Charu Roy certainly looks like a dashing prince, but for contemporary viewers, it is hard to understand why he is so popular with the people when he buys slaves who were kidnapped from their homes and has people executed via elephant trampling. Regardless, Enakshi Rama Rau is appropriately delicate and sensitive, like greenhouse orchid, as Selima.

Spoiler alert: Selima will eventually be known as Mumtaz Mahal, which means the film will take an architectural turn down the stretch—as in that Mahal. Cinematographers Emil Schunemann and Henry Harris really made the Taj and the Moghul palace sparkle. Thanks to the restoration and new score, it all looks great and sounds terrific. Very highly recommended for fans of silent cinema and contemporary classical-crossover Indian music, Shiraz: A Romance of India releases today (8/13) in a DVD/BluRay combo pack.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy

You could say the Line Walker feature films are to deep cover operations what the Overheard films are to surveillance details. They do not share the same characters or a continuing narrative, but they address similar themes and feature the same actors. However, in this case, it is the bad guys who have gone deep undercover in Jazz Boon’s Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy, which opens this Friday in New York.

A shadowy international criminal organization is kidnapping children in the Philippines to be groomed and programmed to act as moles in police forces around the world. Apparently, the Hong Kong police force has been compromised, making it rather difficult to solve the mystery of a rash of suicide attacks plaguing the city. However, there might be a big break in the case when Inspector Ching To saves the wary freelance journalist-hacker Yiu Ho-yee from an assassin. Yet, just as he wins her trust, Cheng Chun-yin from the Security Wing sweeps in, claiming jurisdiction over the case and his witness.

Apparently, Yiu’s partner in Burma downloaded a hard drive full of sensitive intel from the conspiratorial organization, so a team will be dispatched to retrieve it. Rather awkwardly, both Cheng and Ching will be under the operational command of Superintendent Yip Kwok-fan, Ching’s current boss and Cheng’s former mentor. Unfortunately, the mission will go down spectacularly badly, in a way that will cast suspicions on both Ching and Cheng, but in very different ways.

Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, and Francis Ng are all back from the original Line Walker film, even though not all of their characters made it through the first feature alive. Although the first feature maintained some tenuous connections to the Line Walker television series, Boon basically shakes the Etch-a-Sketch clear for the sequel. What he keeps, besides the all-star trio, is an abiding interest in the psychological ramifications of operating undercover with an assumed identity. He also continues to stage some adrenaline-charged action sequences, but this time he goes bigger—way bigger. An unforgettable case in point is the final extended smash-up sequence, involving the running of the bulls in Spain, which Boon and action director Chin Ka-lok make the absolute most of.

Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise is Louis Koo. He has certainly played his share of steely gangsters before, notably in Johnnie To films like Election and Drug War, but as Cheng, he projects existential anguish and inner turmoil truly impressive range. Of course, Cheung continues to be one of the hardest hard-nosed action leads in the business, so Inspector Ching To is totally in his wheelhouse. Ng is also perfectly cast as the upright and conscientious Yip, while Zhang Yichi makes quite a creepy (and athletic) heavy as “Demon,” the henchman who becomes the primary antagonist down the stretch.

Admittedly, some of the over-the-top action will have the audience guffawing in disbelief, but you have to give Boon and company credit for their determination to entertain. In fact, the climatic sequences in Spain even rival the noise and fury of Hobbs & Shaw. Recommended for fans of HK action and the three big name stars, Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy opens this Friday (8/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Chain ’19: Motherland (short doc)

The Soviet state was determined to prevent the existence of this film (and many others like it). When disaster struck the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the primary goal of the socialist regime—led by Mikhail Gorbachev—was to contain the truth, rather than the damage. They did neither. Several survivors of various ages attest to this fact in Colby Blackwill’s short documentary, Motherland, which screens tomorrow during the 2019 Chain Film Festival.

As one survivor explains, her brother-in-law happened to be fishing when the explosions rocked Chernobyl, so he rushed home to evacuate their family. Fortunately, he had a good idea of what trouble at the plant meant and how the Party would respond. They were probably one of the last cars out, before the Soviets blocked the roads, trapping the rest of the city of Pripyat within reach of Chernobyl’s deadly radiation.

Eventually, some of the elderly citizens were allowed to return to their homes in the surrounding Exclusion Zone, despite the lack of electricity, running water, or basic services of any kind. Frankly, it was probably considered a means of “disposing” some of the refuges who became a troubling embarrassment to the Soviets. Yet, they continue to live on defiantly. In what might be the most poignant moment of the film, one such octogenarian “babushka” ruefully laments the likelihood she will outlive her grown children in their early 50s, because they have long exhibited signs of radiation-related sicknesses.

Motherland is not the definitive document on Chernobyl, but it collects some valuable oral history. Blackwill presents it with great sensitivity and takes the ribbing of one of the babushkas with good humor. There is plenty of truth to be found within, despite the Communist Party’s best efforts. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Chernobyl after the terrific HBO miniseries, Motherland screens tomorrow (8/12), as part of a program of short documentaries at this year’s Chain Film Festival.

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Baba Babee Skazala

Other nations have a nasty habit of negotiating Ukraine’s fate without their consent. It happened at the onset of WWII with the German-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and it happened after the War with Operation Keelhaul. At least the Allies halted the latter when they discovered the brutal reception that awaited forcibly repatriated Ukrainian “Displaced Persons” and POWs. Yet, throughout it all, Ukrainians preserved their culture and national identity. Matej Silecky collects the oral history of Ukrainians who immigrated to the West in their teens and twenties in Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother, which screens today during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC.

By the time Poland was invaded from both sides, the Soviets had already committed large scale genocide in Ukraine through the collectivization and deliberate starvation campaign now known as the Holodomor. Basically, they continued the policy in what is now western Ukraine. First Poles and Jews were rounded up. Then the Soviets came for Ukrainians. Tragically, this is why many Ukrainians mistakenly welcomed the Germans as liberators.

Despite the oppression Ukrainians suffered at the hands of both the Soviet Socialists and the National Socialists, they maintained a sense of who they were as a people. Many of the survivors Silecky interviews credit their experiences in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps established by the Americans and British for allowing them to unify as a people again. Unfortunately, they also started to force them out of the DPs, because everyone wanted to assume the best with respects to “Uncle Joe.” That did not work out so well.

As a work of cinema, Baba is pretty straight forward, but represents some genuinely significant historical testimony. Frankly, both the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Operation Keelhaul are largely ignored in the media and school curricula today, so there will probably be a great deal of new material here for a lot of viewers. The contributions of Prof. Alexander Motyl as both an advisor and an on-camera commentator are particularly valuable. The tone is sensitive and respectful throughout, so the often-horrific incidents Silecky and his subjects chronicle mostly lead to humanistic, life-affirming take-aways.

Even though most of the participants’ recollections are confined to the 1940s, seventy-some years ago, it is still relevant and illuminating for our current age, when Ukraine once again finds itself threatened by a belligerent Russia that is determined to re-conquer its neighbors. More generally, it vividly illustrates the dangers of collective ideologies and unchecked government power. It just runs over an hour (69 minutes), but there is a lot of important stuff in it. Very highly recommended, Baba Babee Skazala screens this afternoon (8/10), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.

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Friday, August 09, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Ghost in the Graveyard

Basically, it is just another name for “Hide and Seek.” Whoever is “It,” is called the “ghost.” Sometimes, it really is played in a graveyard, but that sounds like a tremendously dangerous idea, whether or not you believe in the supernatural. Of course, spirits are decidedly real and apparently somewhat angry in Charlie Comparetto’s Ghost in the Graveyard, which screens tonight during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC (formerly the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema).

Sally Sullivan was not away at the loony bin for the last several months, but that does not stop the mean girls at her high school from circulating ugly rumors. Their malicious scandal mongering is able to take hold, because everyone knows how young Sullivan was present when her classmate Martha died accidentally, amid a game of ghost in the graveyard, in the graveyard. There might even be a kernel of truth in what they say, considering Sullivan regularly sees Martha’s ghost.

Rather awkwardly, Sullivan is not so eager to set the record straight, even though she loves her little girl and her father and big bro are totally supportive. As for her mom, she vanished years ago, quite mysteriously. The same happened to the father of her chief maligner, Zoe, who also happens to be her main rival for the romantic attention of long-haired, stoner-ish Reed. Maybe that will be the basis of an understanding between them, or maybe not. Regardless, Sullivan will need allies when she learns the full extent of the forces at darkness at work in the quaint town of Mt. Moriah (fyi, named after the presumed location of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac).

Ghost starts out as a micro tale of juvenile haunting, but quickly segues into a full-scale satanic conspiracy thriller that is surprisingly intriguing. The problem is Comparetto does not have the Kevin Williamson knack for writing teen characters and dialogue. As a result, a good deal of the first half sounds flat and phony. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for going all in when it comes to the archetypal good versus evil stuff.

Kelli Berglund gets by okay as Sullivan, but Olivia Larsen is much more fun as the catty Zoe. The other teens mostly just melt into the background, but the adults are more colorful. Jake Busey is surprisingly poignant as Sullivan’s father Charlie, who knows considerably more than he lets on. Maria Olsen bolsters the film’s genre cred with her creepy appearances as Zoe’s mother. However, it is Royce Johnson, as the Sheriff, who really puts a stamp on the film when he gets Medieval on the forces of darkness. Seriously, he is more than enough to compensate for any of Graveyard’s shortcomings.

Even William Peter Blatty probably would have approved of the way Comparetto presents the eternal struggle between goodness, virtue and light against darkness, fear, and bad vibes. Genre fans need to give it a little time, but its merits emerge down the stretch. Somewhat recommended for fans of the Omen franchise and its like, Ghost in the Graveyard screens tonight (8/9), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.

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ECCO: The Latest Assassin Anti-Hero

Michael is a lot like Jason Bourne, but at least he does not have any commitment issues. He would be perfectly happy to settle down and start a family, but his shadowy past will not let him in director-screenwriter Ben Medina’s ECCO, which opens today in Jersey.

Michael never told his wife Abby about his shadowy past, partly because he is not one hundred percent sure of it himself. Now gainfully employed on a fishing boat, we can assume his history involves the contract killing that opened the film, or else why would Medina show it to us? Presumably the sailor who is lucky at cards was once the assassin who pulls off a spectacular hit on a private plane and then goes home to Aubrey, his fashion photographer girlfriend.

As viewers might expect, bad guys will be stalking the silent, brooding anti-hero in both timelines—and they will come loaded for bear. Frankly, the details regarding the shadowy group Michael was formerly associated with remain sketchy throughout the film. In fact, Medina seems to rely on audience familiarity with previous covert conspiracy capers to fill in the blanks on their own.

That is certainly problematic, but the greater concern is Medina’s sluggish pacing. This film takes an awfully long time just to get out of the blocks. Partly, that is due to the stylized, vintage 1970’s paranoid thriller vibe he is going for. A little of that is cool, especially given Duncan Cole strikingly stylish noir cinematography, but after a while it impedes the suspense and dampens the energy level. Plus, the hazy villain walks with a limp—a rather unfortunate bit of stereotyping, but one that rarely ever gets called out.

Still, Lathrop Walker is quite good as Michael and Helen Grace Donald is notably both seductive and ultimately quite haunting as Aubrey. In fact, the ensemble is quite good, but they have their work cut out for them, due to what is on the page. Basically, the dialogue is over-written and the narrative is under-written. Yet, it still clocks in with a running time just over two hours.

It is tricky to write about ECCO, because there are obviously a lot of twists that should be not be spoiled, even though most astute viewers will be way ahead of the film. It also boasts some slickly executed action scenes, but there is too much slack in between. We respect the look and feel of ECCO, but still can’t recommend it when it opens today (8/9) in Jersey, at the AMC Jersey Gardens and the AMC Palisades.


Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Roache-Turners’ Nekrotronic

It turns out those mind-numbing internet games are powered by the pentagram rather than Pentium. For millennia, necromancers have battled demons, tooth and nail, but the forces of darkness have really upped their game during the internet age. It is up to a formerly oblivious necromancer and his rag-tag band of allies to foil a web-based scheme for total planetary domination in Kiah & Tristan Roache-Turner’s Nekrotronic, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

The latest internet game craze is devilishly addictive—and just plain devilish. People think it is cool to be able to view the wraiths and ghosts around them, but they do not realize they are really real. The app also opens up a backdoor through which the demons can suck out users’ souls. Unfortunately, Rangi, Howie North’s mate and partner in the garbage collection trade perishes from his use of the demon app, but he comes back to haunt (or hang with) him as a wraith. It certainly freaks North out, but he will soon have wilder revelations to process.

Basically, as the orphaned son of two esteemed necromancers, he is the prophesized prodigy of all prodigies. Unfortunately, his mother Finnegan succumbed to the dark side and killed his father, right after he managed to arrange magical protections for North. That is all gone now, but at least he gets a crash course in necromancy from three who have survived Finnegan’s relentless war on necromancers—grizzled Luther and his two grown daughters, Molly and Torquel. Oops, make that two surviving necromancers.

Nekrotronic is even more unruly and chaotic than the Roache-Turner Brothers’ Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. With all its flashing lights and over-the-top carnage, Nekrotronic is tailor-made for an ADD-addled generation raised on Candy Crush. That sounds cynical, but its eagerness to please is quite impressive. Frankly, there are a lot of clever elements the Roache-Turners do not fully capitalize on, because they are already moving on to something new and different.

Of course, it helps enormously having Monica Bellucci vamping it up something infernal as Finnegan. It is like she is getting revenge for all the films that roughly abused her characters, most notably Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. She definitely seems to enjoy being evil, especially when belittling blokes like North.

Ben O’Toole certainly brings out North’s blokiness, but that is appropriate, since he is a rather passive fellow, who just gets caught up in the maelstrom. Bob Epine Savea has plenty of shticky goofball moments as Rangi, but he wears well over time, becoming something of a trusted companion for characters and audience alike. Caroline Ford and Tess Haubrich both step up nicely, assuming the action responsibilities as hard-charging sisters, but the latter really shines as the take-no-prisoners Torquel.

Nekrotronic is quite a bit of fun, but definitely in a meathead kind of way. Yet, that makes it rather refreshing. Recommended for fans of kitchen sink sf-horror hybrids, Nekrotronic opens tomorrow (8/9) in LA, at the Arena.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Every Time I Die

You would hope a paramedic would respond quicker during times of crisis, but poor Sam is apparently not so nimble. It will even get him killed—more than once. Yet, much to his surprise, his spirit keeps taking over the bodies of his friends (or the closest acquaintances he has) in Robi Michael’s Every Time I Die, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Between the married woman he is obsessed with and his repressed memories of his sister’s death during their childhood, Sam has all kinds of issues he isn’t dealing with. Nevertheless, his partner Jay, now chipper and philosophical after surviving a breakdown, still sufficiently values his company to invite him along for a weekend by the lake. It should be cozy sitting around the fireplace with Jay, his girlfriend Poppy, her sister Mia (whom Sam has been sleeping with), and her violent-tempered husband Tyler, who just returned from a tour of duty with the U.S. Army. Sounds like fun, right?

Of course, Tyler turns out to be a rage-fueled psychopath, who kills Sam in a fit of jealousy, launching his body-jumping. So much for thanking veterans for their service and sacrifice. For Michael, they are apparently just creepy stalkers—perfect fodder to demonize on film. It is a shame, because it significantly detracts from a clever concept.

Michael’s overwrought style does not help either. There are way too many woo-woo interludes and symbolism-laden deep dives into Sam’s subconscious. As a result, most viewers will start to feel detached from the narrative and the fantastical Macguffin driving it. Frankly, this is probably a case where less would have been more. The leaner, grittier Lifechanger is a prime example, especially since it also features a protagonist whose consciousness jumps from body to body.

Drew Fonteiro’s repressed-to-the-point-of-lifelessness portrayal of Sam does not help the film much during the first half hour either. Even though Tyler is a problematic heavy, Tyler Dash White’s performance somewhat humanizes him, which is something. Michelle and Melissa Macedo definitely look like sisters (with good reason), but they are also pretty compelling and believable dealing with Sam, in his various erratic acting hosts.

The final implied twist is a good one, but it takes far too long for Sam to start his body-hopping. The fact that Michael manages to pull viewers back in is impressive, but audience engagement should not ebb and flow to such an extent in the first place. Still, there would probably be enough interesting elements to recommend Every Time I Die, were it not for the problematic stereotyping of veterans. Enormously frustrating, it opens this Friday (8/9) in LA, at the Arena.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Two Sentence Horror Stories, now on CW

The verbose Stephen King remains the top horror dog of our era, but brevity made a comeback via the backdoor of the internet. Think of these creepy couplets as the cat videos of horror. As the phenomenon took hold, it inspired Vera Maio’s anthology horror series, which makes the jump from internet distribution to legit network broadcast when the second season of Two Sentence Horror Stories premieres this Thursday on the CW.

So-called “Two Sentence Horror Stories” generally follow the same formula: the first phrase sets the macabre mood and the second delivers the ironic punch. Miao stays true to the format, starting each installment story with the first sentence and then closing with the kicker. Season one was stronger and more consistent than most anthologies, so it is rather nice to see it get the major league call-up.

However, the first two stories (or first four sentences) supplied to the media are already more of a hit-or-miss proposition than the entire first season. The opener, “Gentleman” directed by Natalia Iyudin, is disappointingly conventional. Great efforts are made to exploit themes of motherhood for the sake of provocation, but the big twist is conspicuously obvious from early on. Nevertheless, Nicole Kang is so compelling as Hana, she almost sells it anyway.

In contrast, “Squirm” written and directed by Miao is seriously unsettling. It also addresses issues of workplace harassment (technically, something far worse happens in this case) in a bold, unflinching way that could make it a trending topic, much like the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone. It begins during an office holiday party in full swing, but when Kiesha wakes up the next morning, the horror hits her with full force.

Tara Pacheco makes Keisha’s descent into paranoia and body horror completely believable and deeply distressing to watch. However, the rest of the supporting ensemble is equally important keeping us off-balance and distrusting nearly all her colleagues. Plus, Paul Yee (who lensed The Fits) vividly reflects Keisha’s agitated perspective with his darkly disorienting cinematography.

It is not often genre fans can follow a project from pilot at Tribeca to an online success, culminating in a broadcast pick-up, so you have to give Miao credit for perseverance. “Squirm” and four out of the five first season stories are also really good television, so hopefully it will stick around for a while. Recommended for genre fans, Two Sentence Horror Stories premieres this Thursday (8/8) on the CW.

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Festival of Cinema ’19: Swindler

Our willingness to believe makes us vulnerable to conmen like the charlatan passing himself off as Father Kim, an exorcist for hire. He isn’t cheap, but anyone who thinks they need an exorcist will be desperate enough to pay—if they can. Unfortunately, Evangelical Christians are particularly willing to believe, according to screenwriter-director Yi Dong-hwan’s gritty con artist film Swindler, which screens during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC (formerly the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema).

He only turned up at his adopted mother’s funeral because he was hoping to get his hands on her bank book. When his adopted brother Namsik informs him she donated all her money to the church, he quickly loses interest. Constantly dodging debt collectors, he latches on to the phony exorcism scam and immediately starts earning big money. Business is good, so he takes on an assistant (or a deacon when he is in character), hiring an African migrant worker.

At first, the play-acting is fun, but the immigrant is quickly disillusioned. He is not reassured by their policy of only scamming the rich. In fact, it starts to look like they are deliberately turning their backs on the poor and less fortunate. Tragically, Park Yoon-hee will be the exception. In lieu of payment, “Father Kim” accepted “in kind” contributions—and you know what that means.

Although billed as a comedy, Swindler is a thoroughly depressing film. In many ways, it compares very directly with Koichiro Oyama’s His Bad Blood. Both films follow the exploits of an amoral grifter, neither of whom receives their traditional movie comeuppance. Yet, nobody in their right minds would want to live their solitary, irredeemable lives. These are highly moral films, but in unconventional ways. However, Swindler cannot match the heft and depth of Bad Blood.

Still, Yoo Hyeong-jun slow burns with Millennial entitlement as the predatory faker. He looks like a lamb, but he periodically bares the fangs of a wolf. Song Yeong-chang is probably the most recognizable cast-member, portraying the hypocritical pastor of a Prosperity Gospel-style church looking to recruit “Father Kim.” However, it is Lee Gyu-jeong who really haunts viewers as the wronged Park.

Swindler is intelligently written and features some laudable performances, but it is not a lot of fun to watch. Such a scathing view of human nature is only really compatible with real deal Puritanism. Recommended (with caveats) for fans of dark, religiously themed con artists films, like Leap of Faith, Swindler screens tonight (8/6), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.

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The Night Sitter: Old School Horror Comedy

Starting in the 1980s, most horror movies have been set in suburbia (or remote summer camps). That is because if you want to scare people, you have to go where they live. This is not Amber’s neighborhood, but she inadvertently put herself in the profoundly wrong place at the wrong time, when she accepted a baby-sitting gig for larcenous reasons. Much to her own surprise, she will do her best to protect her young charge in Abiel Bruhn & John Rocco’s The Night Sitter, which releases today on VOD.

Ted Hooper is a wealthy collector of occult relics, so you know he has more money than sense. Amber and her accomplices are sure they can plunder plenty from his spacious suburban home, while he is on his date. Heck, they are not even dead set on opening the conspicuously locked trophy room. On the other hand, Ronnie, the obnoxious son of Hooper’s girlfriend (also sleeping over) is curious enough for the entire group. Things will get tough for Ronnie, but it will actually be Hooper’s sensitive son Kevin who gets the fateful papercut on the pages of an infernal book of witches.

The situation soon gets downright Suspirious when the witches known as “The Three Mothers” start terrorizing the occupants of the Hooper house. Amber’s cronies are not much help, but at least Vincent, the Jack Black-like dude living across the street, has some insight into weird supernatural mumbo jumbo. Frankly, they are all pretty easy pickings for the witches, except for the resourceful Amber. Having bonded with Kevin before all the toil and trouble broke out, Amber scrambles to defend him from the literal forces of darkness.

For fans of vintage horror movies, Night Sitter is nostalgic in all the right ways. It mostly keeps its tongue planted in its cheek, but it still serves up plenty of mayhem and a fair amount of gore. Amber would not be out of place in the Scream franchise, but the rest of the characters would be more compatible with Dan O’Bannon’s classic Return of the Living Dead, which is quite august company, among horror comedies.

Elyse Dufour is terrific as Amber, making her the snarkiest, most confident potential final girl in recent memory. She also develops some nice on-screen chemistry with both Jack Champion and Ben Barlow, as Kevin and Vincent, respectively. However, Jermaine Rivers and Amber Neukum steal scene after scene as Rod, Amber’s horndog accomplice and Lindsey, his ditzy, soon-to-be-possessed girlfriend.

Bruhn & Rocco certainly do not reinvent the wheel, but they keep things zippy. Sitter is not as funny as Better Watch Out, an obvious comparison film, but its horror elements are arguably scarier. Regardless, it is all quite a bit of fun. Recommended for old school horror fans, The Night Sitter is now available on VOD platforms.

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Monday, August 05, 2019

Fantasia 2019: A Sombra do Pai (In Brazilian Portuguese)

(Since Fantasia is a truly international festival, we're proud to present a Portuguese translation of the J.B. Spins review of the Brazilian film The Father's Shadow, courtesy of Angelica Sakurada. For Brazilian readers, anything that sounds weird below came from the original review, not the translation.)

Rituais exotéricos são coisas que as crianças crescem convivendo? Não pergunte isso aos fãs de filmes de terror. De qualquer modo, a afinidade por magia que Dalva de nove anos possui e suas motivações para a prática não vão desaparecer tão cedo. Consertar sua família vai custar medidas extremas, mas ela está disposta a encarar o risco de abrir a caixa de pandora no filme A Sombra do Pai de Gabriela Amaral Almeida, que venceu o prêmio de melhor atriz e menção especial do júri do Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantasia 2019.

A jovem Dalva não está nem perto de ter superado a morte repentina de sua mãe, mas ainda assim ela está em melhor situação que seu pai Jorge. Ele basicamente se fechou emocionalmente, trabalhando mecanicamente em uma construção em São Paulo e quase sem motivação para fazer nada em casa. Ao contrário, Dalva se dedica às lições de magia branca de sua tia Cristina e as aplica para os seus colegas de escola. Talvez não tenha sido uma boa ideia, mas pelo menos ela pratica o social.

Infelizmente, quando Cristina finalmente tem seus sonhos realizados e fica noiva de um salafrário, ela deixa Dalva totalmente aos pobres cuidados do seu pai. Pior, seu pai desiste ainda mais de si mesmo quando seu melhor amigo de trabalho é demitido e logo em seguida morre em um acidente que pode muito bem ter sido suicídio. Jorge somente mostra alguma reação quando proíbe Dalva de praticar uma magia misteriosa, o que afasta ainda mais os dois.

A Sombra do Pai representa uma mudança radical de estilo após o sangrento primeiro filme de Gabriela Almeida, O Animal Cordial. Ainda há uma acentuada consciência social, mas isso é demostrado de modo radicalmente diferente. O ambiente em que Dalva vive é de uma extrema pobreza e seu pai é um mero trabalhador de baixa renda, mas essa é a única realidade que ela conhece e parece tão natural quanto o ar que ela respira.

Para os padrões cinematográficos, A Sombra do Pai tem um apelo sensorial fora do comum. Você pode praticamente sentir o calor do maçarico da construção e sentir o cheiro da terra quando a mãe de Dalva é exumada para que os ossos sejam guardados em uma gaveta (por falar em mau karma) no início do filme. Entretanto, muitos dos elementos de filme de terror não estão totalmente e consistentemente desenvolvidos, como o homem sombrio da fundição que assombra o Jorge, que por vezes parece ser uma personificação simbólica de sua culpa, mas que em outros momentos ele poderia ter saído de um filme antigo desses de psicopata.

Francamente, é difícil decidir o que achar de A Sombra do Pai, porque o filme sofre com a sua própria crise de identidade. Ainda assim, pode-se dizer que a jovem Nina Medeiros vai impressionar a todos como Dalva. Uma performance sinistra e ambígua, mas sua dor e vulnerabilidade são sempre fácil de sentir. Ninguém vai questionar o prêmio de melhor atriz que ela levou no Festival Fantasia deste ano, como a Anna Paquin do terror brasileiro.

Questionável, A Sombra do Pai mostra uma tendência de terror-arte no Brasil, do mesmo modo que As Boas Maneiras de Marco Dutra e Juliana Rojas, mas este filme anterior de lobisomen foi mais além e no final mais satisfatório em termos de terror. Ambas Nina Medeiros e Gabriela Amaral mostram uma facilidade em lidar com uma larga escala de emoções extremas, mas este filme será mais fácil de ser lembrado como uma etapa no desenvolvimento de suas carreiras do que um marco a ser relembrado de tempos em tempos. Então, parabéns a Nina Medeiros. Este é um filme a ser respeitado, mas Animal Cordial foi muito mais divertido. Recomendado para quem curte assistir terror com uma dose forte de realismo social, A Sombra do Pai ainda deverá ter um longo período de exibição após o lançamento no mercado norte-americano no Fantasia deste ano.

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Exit: An Urban Cliffhanger

It is a little scary for  country, bordering a criminally insane regime, like South Korea, but there is the advantage of the resulting wide distribution of gas masks throughout Seoul. They will come in handy when a mysterious poison gas starts enveloping the city, but they only last for a short period. It turns out mountain climbing will also be a surprisingly useful skill when reaching high ground is of paramount priority. Yong-nam and Eui-joo look like they should be in a rom-com together, but they will be climbing for their lives in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit, which opens this Friday in New York.

Poor Yong-nam assumed he would have secured an impressive corporate job by this point. That is why he insisted on booking the banquet hall where Eui-joo works for his mother’s 70th birthday bash. Instead, he is embarrassingly unemployed. Rather than showing off, he hopes to avoid the woman who responded to his overtures with the spirit-crushing “let’s just be friends.”

As fate would have it, Yong-nam met her at the local climbing club. That means they both have skills. When the gas starts rising, the Weinstein-ish hall manager naturally looses the key to the roof, thereby establishing the need for the first of many spectacularly dangerous climbs.

Exit is not exactly what you would call a subtle or complex film, but the effects and the height-scaling stunts are pretty impressive—to the point of inducing genuine vertigo. There is no question all the shimmying across ledges and leaping from rooftops is all very effective. Frankly, Exit probably has the best climbing scenes since Cliffhanger. Of course, the romantic subplot is totally formulaic, but Cho Jung-seok and Lim Yoon-A (a.k.a. Yoona of the K-pop band Girls Generation) make a disgustingly cute couple, so it still works anyway.

Yet, it turns out the family relationships are the most potent stuff in the film. Despite all the grief Yong-nam gets in the first act, he and his parents and siblings have genuine love and concern for each other. Honestly, if you want to see spectacular feats of daring committed on behalf of family loyalty, forget the Fast & Furious spin-off and check out Exit.

Granted, this film is not great art, but it has big heart. The two young leads also have massive charisma and they were well coached on the ropes, so to speak. Disaster movies are rarely this much “feel-good” fun, so fans of the genre should not miss it. Recommended for everyone who enjoys those hanging-from-your-fingertips scenes, Exit opens this Friday (8/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire and is already playing in Los Angeles, at the CGV Cinemas.

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