J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Potrykus’s Relaxer

In 1999, New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. (a Queens Democrat) appointed Republican Andrew Eristoff to lead the council’s Y2K task force, because he just didn’t have anyone in his conference he confidently entrust with the job. That is how seriously we took potential Y2K glitches at the time. You might think everything worked out fine in hindsight, but don’t be so sure about it.  Regardless, Abner “Abbie” Harmeyer is not thinking about anything that responsible. He will spend the time leading up to the turn of the millennium (and potential catastrophe) trying to master the infamous level 256 in the old school Pac-Man game. The slacker lifestyle goes from drearily depressing to downright apocalyptic in Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Harmeyer is a reluctant accomplice in his abrasive brother Cam’s bullying, because he obediently accepts every asinine challenge the blowhard serves up. That makes Abbie the bigger dummy. The latest is particularly pointless, futile, and potentially self-destructive. Poor Abbie cannot get up from his couch until he masters the infamously glitchy level 256 in the old school Pac-Man video game. Of course, he has a deadline: Y2K. To perform at his best, Harmeyer will need fuel, so he will try to convince Dallas, a lowlife buddy, to bring over a Chuck E. Cheese pizza and some cherry soda, but alas, his credit is not very good.

If you can find a film with characters that are more irritating than those in Relaxer, then you have our sincerest sympathies. Watching this film will make you understand the compulsion animals have to chew off their own legs when they are caught in a trap. Potrykus definitely has a low-fi, grungy aesthetic, but he still managed to craft a distinctive mood piece in The Alchemist Cookbook. In contrast, the only tension produced in Relaxer is that experienced by viewers eager to escape this slacker purgatory.

It is a shame, because Potrykus’s old school analog elements (level 256, video game champion Billy Mitchell’s challenge, retro Y2K fears) have potential. Frankly, this kind of material should be like a hanging meatball in Potrykus’s power-zone, but Relaxer completely whiffs the nostalgia. Instead, the film is all about how low and cringy can Harmeyer get.

Joshua Burge goes all in as Harmeyer. His commitment is impressive, but hard to watch. Consider this fair warning: the sight of the clammy, shirtless Burge is probably something most rational people would prefer to spare themselves. Yet, as Cam and Dallas, David Dastmalchian and Andre Hyland appear to be locked in a death struggle to prove which can be the most annoying.

Relaxer takes a weird left turn late in the game that ought to be a mind-blower, but really just feels like a cheat, because Potrykus never lays an adequate foundation for it. Not recommended, Relaxer opens this Friday (3/22) in Grand Rapids at the Urban institute for Contemporary Arts and next Friday (3/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Hotel Mumbai: Facing the New Template of Terror

Deadlier and more destructive acts of terrorism have been committed in recent years, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks were probably the most successful at instilling sheer terror. Part of the horror was the vicious simplicity of it all: teams of armed gunmen shooting civilians indiscriminately. The coordinated attacks paralyzed the city, culminating in the siege of the venerable Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The tragedies and atrocities of those dark days are vividly recreated in Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai, which opens this Friday in New York.

This is not an action movie, but there is a weird parallel with Die Hard when Arjun starts his day having footwear issues. The hard-working Sikh is already expecting his second child, so he could not afford to miss a shift. Initially, the head chef Oberoi dismisses him for the day, but he relents, allowing him to borrow a pair of his ill-fitting shoes instead, thereby establishing him as both a stern taskmaster and a figure of compassion. Together, Arjun, Oberoi, and the rest of the Taj staff will do their best to save their guests when the terrorists start executing everyone, floor by floor.

Of course, there is a rather diverse clientele in the hotel that day. We soon meet the well-heeled Muslim Zahra and her Yankee newlywed David, who have a newborn baby and a British nanny up in their suite. Russian oligarch Vasili has two escorts waiting in his room, but the terrorists will get to them first. When news of the attacks first reaches the Taj they will admit a group of survivors, including Australian tourists Bree and Eddie. Unfortunately, the first pair of backpack-wearing gunmen also gain entrance with the group of refuge-seekers.

Hotel Mumbai is a harrowing film that will make many viewers uncomfortable (in ways that they should be discomfited). It is much like One Less God (a.k.a. House of War), another Australian film dramatizing the attacks in the Taj Mahal, but Maras and co-screenwriter takes it further and deeper. To their credit, they never obscure the Islamist ideology of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists committing the mass murders, with logistical support from elements within the Pakistani intelligence service. Chillingly, we hear a steady stream of the brainwashing encouragement from their Svengali, “Brother Bull,” which sounds like hate-speech seasoned with socialist class warfare.

Maras also strikes a good balance in terms of the violence presented on screen. A great many innocent hotel worker are executed at point-blank range, right before our eyes, but probably just as many are shot off-screen. As result, the film should not be accused of white-washing anything, but neither is it an endless cycle of death and sadism.

Dev Patel probably does his best work since Slumdog as Arjun. We can feel in our own guts the profound degree of his fear, which makes it so compelling each time he knuckles down and torques up his courage. Yet, if anyone emerges as an awards contender from Hotel Mumbai (an unlikely prospect, given the subject matter), it would be Anupam Kher, who radiates gravitas and gruff humanism as Oberoi. He practically becomes the personification of the stately hotel’s soul.

As the four primary on-camera terrorists, Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, and Gaurav Paswala are terrifyingly young-looking and chillingly blood thirsty. Jason Isaacs chews up the scenery and everything else that isn’t nailed down as the lecherous Russian, but he still bears watching. Nazanin Boniadi and Tilda Cobham-Hervey have some quite poignant moments (distressing, even) as Zahra and Sally, the nanny, but Armie Hammer is blandly vanilla playing her blow-dried American husband.

There is no question the Mumbai attacks established a template that has already been applied in an organized manner in Paris and by at least one unsponsored wildcat zealot in New York, but the original 2008 events still remain largely under-reported and under-analyzed in the Western media. That makes Hotel Mumbai rather timely and pressing cinema. It also happens to be an engrossing (and emotionally draining) human drama. Highly recommended for anyone interested in serious movies for grown-ups, Hotel Mumbai opens this Friday (3/22) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book of Monsters: BFFs vs. Occult Creatures

Literacy is power in horror movies—evil, demonic power. This is a volume in the tradition of the Necronomicon and [Todd and] The Book of Pure Evil. However, it holds the secrets of defeating the supernatural creatures as well as the rites for raising them. Yet, Sophie simply knew it as an heirloom of her late mother’s. Its full significance will be revealed on her 18th birthday in Stewart Sparke’s Book of Monsters, which releases today on VOD.

Sophie is a shy, barely in the closet lesbian. Her bestie is Mona is the exact opposite. She and their friend Beth think a wild birthday party is just the thing to help Sophie finally score with her crush Jess. However, things really careen out of control when a shapeshifting demon crashes the party and uses her mother’s evil book to summon five nasty monsters by sacrificing a virgin. So, yes, it will be that kind of shindig. At least Jess’s obnoxious, bullying friends will provide some meat for the grinder.

Honestly, the entire film is pretty meat-headed. If we’re going to be pedantic, it really doesn’t make much sense that Sophie and her ineffectual father would have such a sinister relic used laying about the house. Yet, the film’s upbeat energy and goofy humor just carry us along anyway. It is impossible to resist laughing at the over-the-top lunacy Sparke and screenwriter Paul Butler unleash, especially when the young ladies gear-up like Ash in Army of Darkness.

It might be Sophie’s party and she can cry if she wants to, but Michaela Longen upstages everyone as Mona, the trampy troublemaker. However, Daniel Thrace probably scores the most laughs as the nebbish torch-carrying Gary, while Anna Dawson camps and vamps it up something fierce, as Sophie’s mean girl nemesis.

Book of Monsters has plenty of dead teenagers, but its empowering portrayal of girl power friendships is what really distinguishes it. It is sort of like Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, with more comedic gore and raging power tools. So, what’s not to like?

In a weird way, it is refreshing to see a movie about teens where social media is the least of their worries. Obviously, Book of Monsters was conceived as the launch of a franchise—and we’re not opposed. Recommended for fans of gleefully unruly horror-comedies, Book of Monsters releases today (3/19) on VOD.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Out of Blue: Sort of Based on Martin Amis

As a police detective, Mike Hoolihan does not know much about Schrödinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but she has an intuitive understanding of how the act of observing holds consequences (yes, she is a she). Her investigation into the death of a popular astronomy professor will involve a piecemeal education in quantum mechanic during Carol Morley’s Out of Blue, which opens this Friday in New York.

Hoolihan has lived hard and copped hard. She is a case-closing machine, but she refuses to investigate the memory holes shrouding her own early years. The shooting of Jennifer Rockwell would just be another workaday case for her, except the deceased was the daughter of powerful city councilman Col. Tom Rockwell. Early suspects include the victim’s colleagues, Prof. Ian Strammi and Duncan Reynolds, who both keep prattling on about Schrödinger’s Cat. Of course, Hoolihan is more interested in the case’s similarities with a notorious serial killer, who terrorized New Orleans decades prior.

Out of Blue (deliberately missing the article) is probably the haziest, most narratively diffuse police procedural this side of the postmodern novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Unfortunately, most of the references to astronomy and quantum mechanics feel like a pompous, scientistic overlay, instead of an organic function of the narrative.

Frankly, just about every aspect of the film feels like it is trying too hard, except Patricia Clarkson, who is just effortlessly hardboiled and broken down. She could pass for the more mature version of Nicole Kidman’s Erin Bell, fifteen or so years after the events in Destroyer.

Even though the cosmic mumbo jumbo really doesn’t work, Johnathan Majors still does a nice job of selling them as Reynolds (the real fault lays with Morley, who never lays the proper foundation or establishes sufficient context). James Caan is clearly on familiar ground as Col. Rockwell, but he is still highly functional in the part, even if he never pushes himself. However, Jacki Weaver brings some impressive nuttiness (even by her past standards), as the bereaved mother, Miriam Rockwell.

Page to screen adaptations do not get much looser than Morley’s treatment of Martin Amis’s short novel Night Train, but as a one-two punch with London Fields, it should pretty much dissuade any cinematic takes on the sly writer’s work, for at least the next ten years. As of now, he is looking pretty unadaptable. However, Morley made several inexplicable choices, including replacing the title instrumental blues song with Brenda Lee’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is a little too on the nose, lyrically. On the other hand, the use of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” over the closing credits is downright inspired.

Admittedly, cosmic dimensions of Out of Blue sound cool and distinctive, but the execution doesn’t come together. Morley (best known for the massively depressing hybrid documentary, Dreams of a Life) never exhibits full command of her material, but Clarkson is right on the money, proving she is still one of the best in the business (even in flawed vehicles). It just really ought to be better. Anyone intrigued by its ambitions should wait until it pops up on free streaming platforms, which should be sometime soon after it opens this Friday (3/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Badla: The Hindi Invisible Guest

This Hindi remake is fifteen minutes longer than the original Spanish film, yet it doesn’t even have musical numbers. It is structural faithful to its source, but nobody rushes the great Amitabh Bachchan—nobody. The legendary Bollywood actor plays a legendary jury consultant, who will come out of retirement to crack a particularly sensational case in Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla, the Hindi version of The Invisible Guest, which is now showing in New York.

The narrative is basically the same, but many of the genders are flipped in Ghosh’s adaptation. Naina Sethi is the tech entrepreneur who is embroiled in an adultery-murder media feeding frenzy, but she has excellent legal representation. In addition to her high-priced attorney, she will have a session with Badal Gupta, who is considered the best witness prepper ever. Yet, he requires the whole truth to do his job properly—all of it. However, pulling it out of Sethi will be a struggle.

Thus, begins a verbal game of cat-and-mouse. Frankly, the circumstantial evidence against Sethi is pretty damning. She woke up in a locked room, next to the murdered body of the lover, Arjun Joseph, who threatened to expose her in a text. Of course, wily old Gupta can tell there is more to the story. He forces Sethi to rewind a few months earlier, when she and Joseph killed a young college student in an auto accident. Instead of doing the right thing, she dumped the body in the swamp, while he was rather awkwardly bluffing his way through an encounter with the victim’s parents. To make matters worse, a blackmailer subsequently lured them to the hotel, where Joseph was murdered and Sethi was knocked unconscious.

If you enjoy being played, Badla and The Invisible Guest before it are your kind of films. There are two or three big game-changing twists that are wonderfully over-the-top, totally unlikely, and gleefully entertaining. That is particularly true of Ghosh’s take, which relishes the melodramatic luridness of the scandal and mayhem.

Amitabh Bachchan plays Gupta—case closed. Watching him charm, cajole, and interrogate Sethi is more fun than any single film requires. In fact, Ghosh rather sensibly shifts the film’s center of gravity from the flashbacks to the interview sessions, because Bachchan is definitely his ace in the hole.

As Sethi, Taapsee Pannu hangs right there in the pocket with Bachchan. In fact, she is wickedly effective at turning each new revelation. Similarly, Tony Luke constantly upends our assumptions as the ill-fated Joseph. Unfortunately, Denzil Smith and his Morgan Freeman-voice are under-utilized as the investigating cop. However, Amrita Singh and Tanveer Ghani provide a moral core to the film as the victim’s parents.

Consider yourself warned: Badla will manipulate you and use your assumptions against you, jujitsu-like. It also follows Invisible Guest beat-for-beat, so viewers who have seen the Spanish film will find no surprises here. On the other hand, the tone of Ghosh’s film is not as dark, probably because the ensemble chews the scenery with relish that is utterly infectious. Needless to say, it starts with the great Bachchan. Recommended for fans of Bollywood and twisty thrillers, Badla is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

CPH: DOX ‘19/Sundance ’19: Sea of Shadows

Recently, Mexican drug cartels have developed an interest in fishing—the totoaba to be precise. That is bad news for the endangered fish, but even worse for the nearly extinct vaquita, a super-rare species of porpoise that has been devastated by totoaba nets, and not so great for biodiversity in general. There are thought to be less than one hundred still swimming the once species-rich Gulf of California (a.k.a. Sea of Cortez)—most likely far less than fifty. Tragically, their numbers will continue to diminish during the course Richard Ladkani’s documentary Sea of Shadows, which screens at the 2019 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH: DOX), after winning the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Blame China, where there is high demand for totoaba fish bladders, because of a decidedly unscientific belief in their supposed healing powers. It was a lucrative export item for local fishermen, but the impact on the vaquita specifically and the Sea of Cortez’s greater ecosystem (Jacques Cousteau’s quote calling it “the aquarium of the planet” gets a lot of play during the doc) spurred the Mexican government to prohibit totoaba fishing. This is an enlightened policy, but the enforcement has been an iffy proposition.

To capitalize on the six-figure black market price for fish bladders, the cartels stepped in, allying themselves with the extremely resentful local fishermen, for whom the government never really offered any alternate sources of employment. The result is the Mexican troops assigned to the anti-poaching task force are usually out-numbered and always out-gunned.

It is pretty shocking when a nature conservation documentary could pass for a sequel to Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land (which premiered at Sundance four years ago). Ladkani captures some tense, chaotic boots-on-the-ground action, but in this case, the bad guys always seem to win. Seriously, this would not be a fun ride-along. Yet, the bitterest, most-heart-rending moments come when Ladkani shifts his focus to VaquitaCPR, a Mexican government-sponsored initiative to preserve the remaining vaquita in captivity. Not to be spoilery, but these scenes get awfully hard to watch.

The only arena where vaquita advocates notch any victories is in the media, where powerful Televisa journalist Carlos Loret de Mora crusades against the cartels and poachers. He also broadcasts a hidden camera expose of the Chinese smuggling network. However, the vaquita also need a high-profile Chinese social media champion, like Hong Kong megastar Angelababy, whose campaign to protect the pangolin (which faces extinction for similar reasons) was featured during an episode of PBS’s Nature last year.

Frankly, the lawlessness and utter contempt for law enforcement documented in Sea of Shadows is absolutely shocking and deeply disturbing. It is all rather unnerving that this is all going on within easy driving distance from San Diego. Ladkani’s film is an urgent wake-up call, both regarding the potential extinction of the vaquita (and totoaba), but also the rising power of the cartels in Mexico—but it may have come too late.

Ladkani focuses entirely on the players directly involved in the efforts to save the vaquita, eschewing talking heads offering commentary from the sidelines, but Leonardo DiCaprio lends the film his name and star-power as an executive producer. It is also worth noting the controversial activist organization Sea Shepherd somewhat redeems itself for their thuggish bullying tactics and arrogant disdain for traditional Japanese culture documented in Megumi  Sasaki’s A Whale of a Tale, by sailing into harm’s way to protect the vaquita from cartel poachers. Recommended for viewers of nature and true crime documentaries, Sea of Shadows screens Friday (3/22), Monday (3/25), Wednesday (3/27), and Thursday (3/28) during CPH: DOX, following its screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mission of Honor: The Story of the RAF’s Polish Fighter Pilots

They survived the Battle of Britain, only to be killed during the so-called peace. Like so many of their Home Army comrades, a high percentage Polish RAF volunteers were purged and executed after returning to a Communist dominated Poland, despite their critical contributions to the victory over fascism. Their history of fighting for freedom made them a potential threat to the new socialist regime, whereas former Nazi collaborators could be trusted to have the right attitude towards power. That fact (forthrightly acknowledged) makes the heroics of the Polish fighter pilots ironically poignant in David Blair’s Mission of Honor (a.k.a. Hurricane), which is now showing in select cities.

Even though he is part Swiss, Jan Zumbach opts to continue fighting the National Socialists occupying his country as an RAF pilot. Like his commanding officer Witold Urbanowicz, he too fears for the safety of the woman he left behind in Poland. Unfortunately, they will not rejoin the fray as soon as they would prefer. Frankly, the RAF chain of command is not sure what to make of their Polish volunteers. With the exceptions of Zumbach and Urbanowicz, the Poles’ fluency in English is iffy at best. However, the Germans have been shooting down RAF pilots at an alarming rate, so they need reinforcements badly.

Of course, the Polish RAF pilots exceeded expectations quite swimmingly. Yet, they remained keenly aware of their outsider status. Still, they had the support of their British flight commander, John Kent, as well as many of the women serving in non-combat capacities. In fact, screenwriters Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith do a nice job giving overdue credit to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), primarily represented by Phyllis Lambert, who rather catches the eye of Zumbach.

Iwan Rheon might be Welsh, but he does a credible Swiss-Polish accent as Zumbach. He portrays the Polish ace with an appropriately heroic bearing but also gives him a dark, intense edge. Rheon also develops some smart, mature chemistry with Stefanie Martini as the surprisingly sexually frank Lambert. Milo Gibson comes across reasonably authoritative and Canadian as Kent, making his evolution from skeptic to honorary Pole pretty believable. Frankly, Zumbach and Lambert are the sharpest drawn characters, while Rheon and Gibson disproportionately carry the dramatic load, but Marcin Dorocinski adds some authenticity as the steely Urbanowicz.

Granted, Mission cannot match the technical accomplishments of Dunkirk, but its flying sequences look considerably better than those in Air Strike. Indeed, it is superior to Xiao Feng’s clunky anti-Japanese propaganda piece in just about every way.

According the closing titles, 56% of UK public opinion supported repatriating exiled Poles, even though it meant certain oppression and likely death. They also turned Winston Churchill out of office, but at least they were able to correct that sad mistake in 1951. Frankly, you have to give the film credit for ending on such an honest and bittersweet note, because most of the guts of Mission are generally stirring stuff. Recommended for fans of stiff-upper-lip British war films, Mission of Honor is currently screening at the AMC Arizona Center in Phoenix and is also available via VOD.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

Iceman: Otzi from the Alps

The death of Ötzi the Iceman is not a complete mystery. The arrowhead that shattered his scapula definitely constitutes a clue. Since he clearly did not die of natural causes, it rather makes sense that rumors of a curse would surround his well-preserved 5,300-year-old corpse. Most mummies have them. The mysterious man from the Copper Age finally gets a fictionalized backstory in Felix Randau’s Iceman, which opens today in New York.

As a mummy, he was dubbed Ötzi, but to his people, he was a clan leader named Kelab. Iceman is sort of like a Mel Gibson movie, because Kelab and his contemporaries speak an early forerunner of the Rhaetic language, but nobody bothered to translate subtitles. It is assumed viewers can pick up everything they need from the dramatic context, as indeed they should.

Life is already hard for Kelab, especially after the small clan’s other woman dies in childbirth, but he and his mate are happy to adopt the surviving infant. Alas, things take a bitterly tragic turn when a rival tribe launches a sneak attack massacre, while Kelab is out hunting. Thanks to his biological son’s bravery, the newborn survives. Of course, Kelab will protect him at all costs, but he is even more interested in extracting some cold, snowy payback.

For the most part, there are two kinds of prehistoric narrative movies. More commonly, you get cheesy corn, like Raquel Welch and her pelt bikini in One Million Years B.C., but occasionally there is a serious, anthropologically ambitious film like Quest for Fire. Somehow, Iceman manages to chart its own middle course between the two poles. It is a moody, scrupulously researched and carefully realized story that is basically a revenge drama set in the year 3,300 BC—like Death Wish in the Ötzal Alps

As Kelab, Jürgen Vogel is a lean, wiry picture of survival. He is so tough and scrawny, even the saber-toothed tigers would not want to eat him. As usual, André Hennicke is cold and creepy as Krant, the leader of the raiding party. However, if you really want your mind blown, wait until Franco Nero pops up as a literal graybeard Kelab meets on the road, while tracking Krant and company.

Basically, Randau’s Iceman is considerably better than the disappointing Donnie Yen franchise opener, but not as good as Fred Schepsi’s 1984 drama, featuring John Lone, in his breakout performance. It always looks great, thanks in large part to cinematographer Jakub Bejnarowicz, who truly gives the film a massive sense of scale. Despite the stop-and-go action, Randau also really taps into some deep primordial archetypes. Recommended as a serious prehistoric revenge morality play, Iceman opens today (3/15) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


The Eyes of Orson Welles: Cousins on Welles

It wasn’t just his eyes. By all accounts, cinematographer Gregg Toland substantially contributed to the dazzling look of Citizen Kane. Yet, that was Welles’ only picture with Toland, but he continued to display a similarly dramatic visual sensibility in all his subsequent masterworks and masterpieces. Cinema docu-essayist Mark Cousins speculates it all started with the original American auteur’s pen, ink, and sketchbook in The Eyes of Orson Welles, which opens today in New York.

Cousins’ intention is never to compete with Chuck Workman’s competent documentary profile Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles or They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s fascinating chronicle of Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind. He sets out to make something more personal and impressionistic, but the discovery of a trove of the master’s sketches, drawings, and paintings gives Cousins a hook that will still pull in many skeptical Welles fans.

To his credit, Cousins also has a sharp eye for visuals. At times, he is like a human google image search, drawing connections between Welles’ iconic film scenes, his graphic work, and the sights, locations, and media he would have absorbed at various stages of his life. Most viewers will happily follow him that far, but he ventures out onto thinner ice when he starts offering more speculate psychoanalysis and even presumes to speak for Welles, via a fictional letter from the subject to his documentarian, during the final chapter.

Still, Welles loyalists and traditionalists cannot object too strenuously, since his youngest daughter Beatrice Welles makes supportive appearances throughout Eyes. She seems to have a good sense of humor, which probably helps when you are part of the Welles family.

Of course, it is always rewarding to go back to the Welles well, because his oeuvre, although frustratingly limited as a credited director, is still so rich and powerful. Arguably, Macbeth emerges as the surprise leader for screen time, whereas Magnificent Ambersons gets oddly cursory treatment (especially since Welles was so notoriously excluded from the final editing).

Depending on one’s perspective, the idiosyncrasy of Cousins’ doc is either its greatest asset or detraction. He has clearly considered the Welles canon in holistic and cross-disciplinary ways, but he allows way too much of his personal subjectivity and bias into the film. That also rather needlessly drags things out. A tighter, more formalistic ninety-some-minute film would be much more effective than the current nearly two-hour cut, with its pointless “Citizen Trump” references. Sometime interesting and sometimes frustrating, Cousins’ Eyes of Orson Welles will be a decidedly mixed viewing experience for most classic movie buffs when it opens today (3/15) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Criminal Element: Nancy drew and the Hidden Staircase

Get psyched to feel empowered and nostalgic. Nancy Drew is back on the case. J.B.'s exclusive review of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is now up at Criminal Element here.


Finding Steve McQueen—Not Really About Steve McQueen

Harry Barber couldn’t drive like Lt. Frank Bullitt or steal like Thomas Crown, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The small-time crook who seriously hero-worshipped Steve McQueen somehow found himself in the middle of what many consider to be the biggest bank robbery score in U.S. history. Barber managed to elude capture for some time, but when the Feds start to close in, he will finally confess all to his shocked girlfriend in Mark Steven Johnson’s Finding Steve McQueen, which opens tomorrow in New Jersey.

Needless to say, Barber is a bit of a meathead, but not a bad guy. His uncle Enzo Rotella was a creep, but Barber still hoped to join his Youngstown based crew of thieves, because he really didn’t have anything else going on. Against his better judgement, Rotella takes on Barber and his PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran brother, for the bank job to end all bank jobs.

The gig came to Rotella indirectly, via Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa, who got wind Nixon kept his slush money cash in a safety deposit box unobtrusively located in the United California Bank of Laguna Niguel, an easy drive from San Clemente. As we can tell from the flashback structure, the initial Rififi-esque blasting and drilling went remarkably smoothly, but things went sour during the weeks that followed.

So, eh. There is some okay caper business that unfolds on the roof and inside the vault of the United California, but most of the characters are either wildly annoying or bland cardboard cut-outs. It gets especially tiresome listening to Rotella (based on the real-life Amil Dinsio) rage against Nixon. Seriously, that was over forty-five years ago and Watergate doesn’t even look so bad by today’s low standards.

Frankly, it would be understandable if the McQueen family sued the producers, because the legendary star’s connection to the events dramatized was less than tangential. It should go without saying, but Barber was no Steve McQueen, at least as he is portrayed by Travis Fimmel. Yet, he is still rather likable, in a lunkheaded way. Unfortunately, his chemistry with Rachael Taylor as the stunned Molly Murphy never feels remotely believable.

By far, the best thing about Finding is Forest Whitaker, who is terrific as the world-weary Special Agent Howard Lambert. It is a performance of dignity and pathos. He also nicely develops Lambert’s awkwardly platonic professional relationship with his junior colleague, Sharon Price, played with quiet subtlety by Lily Rabe. The great William Fichtner does his thing as Rotella, but he is stuck with way too many political diatribes. John Finn chews plenty of scenery as well, as Deputy Director W. Mark Felt—and we all know what makes his presence significant.

Screenwriters Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon (a reporter at the Orange County Register) intriguingly blend capery crime fiction with political history, but they frequently stipulate events and theories not entirely established by the historical record. Ultimately, it is just sort of okay, but nothing special. Maybe Whitaker fans will eventually find it worth streaming for free, but there is no pressing need to rush out to see it when Finding Steve McQueen opens tomorrow (3/15) in Jersey, at the AMC Cherry Hill.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White

Perhaps no filmmaker is as attuned to the passage of time as Jia Zhangke. In his latest film, Jia incorporated footage he shot around the turn of the millennium, as he did in his previous film, Mountains May Depart. However, this time round, he went to great expense and effort to recreate that bygone era. His protagonist, Zhao Qiao is also keenly aware of the changing times. The years gone by do not do her any favors in Jia’s Ash is Purest White, which opens this Friday in New York.

Guo Bin is a low level “Jianghu” gangster in provincial Datong, but he has ambitions. His lover Zhao sees herself as the Bonnie to his Clyde. For her, their relationship is not just about the money and benefits he can offer. Zhao genuinely loves him, so when Guo is nearly beaten to death in an ambush, she is willing to fire off an illegal handgun to save him—and then take the rap for the gun entirely on her own.

After serving a five-year prison sentence for him, Zhao expects to find Guo waiting at the prison gate, but he is nowhere to be found. Feeling rather disappointed, she follows his trail to the Three Gorges area. Zhao is not an idea. She fully recognizes what’s what. She just wants to make Guo cop to it in-person.

Although Jia is not trying to outdo Johnnie To by any stretch, Ash is still the closest he has (and probably ever will) come to a straight-up gangster movie. Honest-to-gosh, the big fight scene culminating with Zhao’s gunplay is a slamming beatdown that can compare to anything produced in Hong Kong or Hollywood over the last ten years.

Of course, it is still a Jia Zhangke film, so that means there is also a great deal of trenchant social observation. It also features another remarkably sensitive and complex performance from his wife and muse, Zhao Tao. She is definitely a woman scorned, but there is absolutely nothing cliched or rote about her performance as Zhao Qiao. We definitely feel her pain and frustration, even when she scares us a little (or maybe more than a little).

By a similar token, it is enormously compelling to watch Liao Fan’s portrayal of Guo Bin start with a confident swagger that slowly gives way to insecurity and selfishness. However, it is her scene with Xu Zheng (in an extended cameo as a traveling companion) that will really haunt viewers’ memories.

Ash is maybe a tad inconsistent, but it boasts some of the finest crafted scenes of any of Jia’s films. It also probably ranks as Zhao Tao’s best performance since A Touch of Sin, which is saying something. Throughout it all, Jia takes stock of the evolving cultural norms and literally changing landscape of 21st Century Mainland China. It is also nice to see the cut Cohen Media is releasing restored director-thespian Feng Xiaogang’s brief appearances as a doctor, even though he was axed from the Chinese release, solely because his name was bandied about in conjunction with the Fan Bingbing tax scandal, so international jet-setters should definitely see it here—and not in China. Highly recommended, Ash is Purest White, opens this Friday (3/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

SXSW ’19: One Man Dies a Million Times

Ironically, celebrated dissident poet Anna Akhmatova came through the Battle of Leningrad relatively intact. It was the Stalinist Purges that killed her husband Nikolay Gumilev. Nevertheless, she captured the suffering of the blockade in her masterwork, Poem without a Hero, which she dedicated to the victims. Her verse is among the primary sources that director-screenwriter-producer-editor Jessica Oreck has adapted into a strange oral history-dystopian narrative hybrid. The writings document the dark days of 1941-1944, whereas the setting is sometime in the doomed near future, but don’t call Oreck’s One Man Dies a Million Times science fiction when it screens again during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

It sounds awkward, but it is eerie how easily the ghostly words from the Stalinist era fit a vaguely dystopian future time frame. It is also quite amazing how compatible vintage Soviet architecture is with a cautionary Orwellian setting. Much of Million Times was shot in and around the N.I. Vavilov Institute for Plant Genetic Resources, where botanists struggled to preserve the Institute’s large repository of seeds during the Siege, for the sake of humanity’s future—an apparently will do so again.

Alyssa and Maksim were friends and are now lovers, as well as colleagues in botany, but the stress and suffering of the Siege will take a toll on their relationship. Nevertheless, they remain steadfastly committed to protecting the seed bank and the wealth of bio-diversity it represents, especially Alyssa.

Visually, OMDAMT is often absolutely stunning. There is no question it represents some of the best work from indie cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Price Williams. The use of black-and-white with occasional flashes of color is as starkly dramatic as anything realized on-screen, maybe since Schindler’s List. In fact, there really is merit and substance to Oreck’s concept. She gets at something very specific of the time and era, yet it is also a distinctively individual vision. The drawback is diminishing marginal returns set-in pretty early during the third act for Oreck’s hybrid-hybrid.

As their namesakes, Alyssa Lozovskaya and Maksim Blinov look like they stepped out of a Pawel Pawlikowski film, which is not a bad thing. The latter broods like crazy, but it is the sensitivity of the former that will really haunt viewers. It is pretty compelling to watch them endure dire privations, as when they boil up soup with pieces of a leather belt.

Right, so it turns out Russia was (and will be) decidedly grim. OMDAMT transports viewers to another time and place, much in the manner of Aleksey German’s immersive masterworks, but Oreck’s exclusive reliance on primary civilian texts necessarily leads to a rather soft finish. Regardless, it is a rather fascinating and undeniably ambitious work of cinema, from a filmmaker previously known mostly for documentaries (including the absolutely charming Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo). Recommended for adventurous audiences, One Man Dies a Million Times screens again this Friday (3/15), during SXSW ’19.

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Unknown Soldier: The Finnish Red Badge of Courage

If Russian wants to claim the Crimea than it should relinquish its hold on the Republic of Karelia to be consistent—like that would ever happen. It inspired Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, so you can’t get much more Finnish than that. Finland had reclaimed the Finnish speaking area during the Continuation War, but alas, it ended in a less satisfying manner than the previous Winter War. The fog of that ill-fated follow-up war is vividly captured in Aku Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier, reportedly the most expensive Finnish film ever produced, which releases today on DVD.

Most of the soldiers we meet in the early days of the Continuation War are kids, but not Rokka, a crusty old veteran of the Winter War. The middle-aged farmer was less than thrilled to be drafted, but he will do his duty—just do not expect him to act like he is happy about it. Immediately, Rokka clashes with his officers, even the grounded Second Lieutenant Koskela. Nevertheless, he has a knack for killing Russians and keeping his comrades alive, particularly his crony, Susi.

Initially, the Finnish forces score several victories, but the tide will turn against them. Louihimies & Jari Olavi Rantala’s adaptation of Väinö Linna’s classic autobiographical novel unambiguously blames the Finnish officer class, with the sole exception of Koskela. Unfortunately, that necessarily includes the dashing young platoon commander Kariluoto. He does not have the gumption to challenge his superior officers, but he has the integrity to face every danger shoulder-to-shoulder with his men.

Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier is a three-hour epic (there were three prior adaptations), but the scenes of muddy, mucky warfighting definitely start to blend together. There are dozens of name characters jostling for the viewer’s attention, but only four really stand out: Rokka, Koskela, Kariluoto, and the doughy joker, Vanhala.

Nevertheless, nobody can deny Louhimies has staged some dashed dramatic battle sequences. He definitely conveys a visceral sense of the violent, confused, and random nature of war. Eero Aho and Jussi Vatanen effectively anchor the film, at opposite poles, as Rokka and Koskela, respectively.

Mika Orasmaa’s cinematography encompasses both the macro sweep and micro grit of war, while Lasse Enersen’s score has a vintage Maurice Jarre vibe. It is an impressive technical package, especially when it comes to the blood and guts and bullets whizzing and bombs exploding.

Apparently, Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier is considered somewhat revisionist in Finland, because it openly addresses the country’s alliance with National Socialist Germany. However, nobody in the film seems too happy about it. It is easy to criticize in retrospect, but when a small country like Finland is invaded by a large, rapacious nation like the Soviet Union, it is hard to blame the scrappy defenders for accepting whatever help they could get. In all honesty, the Continuation War was a war against fascist imperialism and the fascists won. As revisionist as the film may or may not be, it is always clear the Soviets were marauders, bent on conquest, who do indeed commit war crimes at one point—so the film is accurate in that respect.

Problematically impersonal at times, Unknown Soldier is still an impressively immersive work of war cinema. Recommended for the spectacle and scale of the action, Unknown Soldier releases today (3/12) on DVD and BluRay.

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Darkness Visible: Bad Karma in Kolkata

You have to be intrigued by a horror movie set in India that references John Milton. It might technically be a British production, but it is definitely still in tune with the setting and culture of Kolkata. Ronnie the lifelong Londoner never really knew the city of his birth, but he is about to get immersed in some local color, whether he likes it or not, in Neil Biswas’s Darkness Visible, which releases today on DVD, from Blue Fox Entertainment.

Frankly, Ronnie did not even know he was born in Kolkata. His mum always told him he was born in London, shortly after she arrived, on her own. Supposedly, his father abandoned them, but he will soon have reason to doubt that too. Until now, he never had much interest in his Bengali heritage, because his mother completely turned her back on it, for as long as he can remember. That is why he is so stunned when she turns up in a coma in a Kolkata hospital bed, after mysteriously disappearing on his twentieth-eighth birthday. Of course, viewers can see she was obviously spooked by his latest graffiti painting of an ominous painting of a notorious Kolkata neighborhood.

Soon, Ronnie is meeting Kolkata relatives for the first time and falling under suspicion for a series of ritualistic murders. He is an easy scapegoat, but Asha, a police photographer, knows better. She identifies the commonalities with another series of occult murders that coincidentally happened twenty-eight years ago. Presumably Ronnie could not have committed those, but Rakhee, a notorious practitioner of black magic is clearly involved.

Darkness looks great and it definitely has its creepy moments, but Biswas’s pacing is a bit slack. Frankly, most viewers will realize around the forty-minute mark that this narrative really should be much further along by then. Darkness clocks in at one-hundred one minutes, but it honestly should have come in around the eighty-to-eighty-five range. Oh well, such is life.

Regardless, nobody can fault the film when it comes to atmosphere. Biswas and cinematographer fully capitalize on the noir ambiance of their Kolkata locations. The professional ensemble also keeps up their end, particularly Jaz Deol, who credibly portrays all sorts of physical and emotional extremes as Ronnie. Sayani Gupta and Neil Bhoopalam both counterbalance him quite effectively, as the smart, proactive Asha and Ronnie’s judgmental cousin AJ, respectively.

Given the volume of low-to-no budget horror movies released each week, Darkness certainly stands out as something rather distinctive, but it is still essentially a B-movie. It just does not have the depth or the archetypal heft of Tumbbad or Sunrise, yet it is still sufficiently different to pleasantly distract die-hard genre consumers. Recommended for fans of non-western horror movies, Darkness Visible releases today (3/12) on DVD.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Rezo: An Animated Portrait of the Georgian Artist

Rezo Gabriadze was an accomplished screenwriter, whose films included the international cult hit, Kin-Dza-Dza!, but he refocused his creative energies into marionette theater, because he experienced far less state interference there. The puppeteer-illustrator-filmmaker explains how the lean, difficult years of his youth shaped him as an artist and a human being, through his own words and images, in his son Leo Gabriadze’s animated documentary, Rezo, which opens this Wednesday in New York, at Film Forum.

As a young boy in Kutaisi, Gabriadze was so weak and scrawny, everyone picked on him. His only friend in town was Ippolit, a rat living in the library, with whom he shared the books. He read the pages and Ippolit chewed the covers—or so Gabriadze remembers. He is indeed just as apt to pass off his flights of fantasy as gospel events, but that is all part of the charm of the film and its subject.

Although Gabriadze was a city kid, his most formative memories are of his visit to his grandparents’ hardscrabble farms, during summers and whenever war started advancing too close to home. They were not talkative (especially not his gruff grandfather), but the animals and natural environment fired the lad’s imagination. He was also deeply affected by the friendship he found with a German POW who had been assigned to his grandparents as a free laborer. In fact, the nameless German (who clearly looks like one of the elite Junkers) emerges as one of the richest and most intriguing figures in Gabriadze’s tale (or in just about any recent animated film, for that matter).

Although Marc Chagall was fiftysome years older than Gabriadze (and Belarusian Jewish), Rezo is probably the closest thing to what Chagall might have done as an animator filmmaker, had he had the opportunity and inclination. We can definitely see Russian-Soviet militarism encroaching on the old traditional world—and yes, there are cows in Rezo. In what is probably the film’s trippiest sequence, Gabriadze conveys what it was like to grow up in the midst of the omnipresent Soviet propaganda.

This is also an absolutely charming film. The senior Gabriadze, who appears in live on-camera interludes, still has a twinkle in his eye. He is a marvelously engaging storyteller, even via subtitles. His sketches and paintings perfectly evoke a sense of how harsh those times could be, as well as nostalgia for their simplicity. Those who admire Gabriadze’s work might be surprised how little time is devoted to his professional career, but it might perfect sense from a psycho-analyst’s perspective.

Regardless, Rezo is a wonderfully sly and bittersweet oral history from a great Georgian artist. It also proves how animation can be the perfect vehicle for serious filmmaking. Frankly, this is probably the only way to do Gabriadze’s story justice, because he clearly remembers in very animated terms. Produced by epic filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Ben-Hur, Day Watch), Rezo happens to run a fleeting sixty-five-minutes, so Film Forum has paired it up with Yuri Norstein’s classic 1979 animated short Tale of Tales. Highly recommended, both for animation fans (of all but the youngest ages) and patrons of Russian and Caucasian culture, Rezo opens this Wednesday (3/13), at Film Forum.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

SXSW ’19: Tales from the Lodge

This weekend will sort of be like a British Big Chill, but with portents of more death to come. A group of old friends have assembled to mourn a friend who committed suicide, but instead of listening to moldy 1960s pop, they pass the time telling macabre stories. Actually, it is nothing like a British Big Chill, because it is really quite clever. Abigail Blackmore and her collaborating cast-members give the horror anthology a fresh spin in Tales from the Lodge, which premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

Jonesy offed himself by drowning, which was dashed awkward of him. Martha is also rather put out that Paul has brought his latest girlfriend to the ash-scattering weekend. Her name is Miki, but everyone keeps calling her Nikki, annoying her no end. Frankly, Emma and Russell are happy to have any excuse to be away from their kids, while Martha’s sickly husband Joe would be miserable wherever he was.

As the resentments start to build, the university friends distract themselves with stories that mix humor with horror. However, the format eventually starts to breakdown. Poor Joe doesn’t get to properly finish his tale, whereas Emma has more of a performance piece (as you might call it). Paul’s story of a sinister auto misadventure is probably the most akin to the sort of British tales of terror you used to see in Amicus anthology films or the Hammer House of Horror TV show, making it a fitting opener. Perhaps the best tale is Martha’s deliciously ironic spirit possession yarn, while Russell’s zombie fantasy is probably the most cinematic, starting out as a jokey lark, but taking a dark turn.

Yet, Lodge is that rare animal among horror anthologies, in that its connecting material is better (and ultimately creepier) than the constituent tales. These sequences are also considerably longer than typical anthology framing devices. In fact, the ill-fated reunion is clearly the whole point of the film instead of a mere afterthought.

The six principals are all cuttingly funny and they play of each other quite adroitly. Laura Fraser is probably the stand-out as the abrasively passive-aggressive Martha. Kelly Wenham also clearly enjoys getting to chew some serious scenery as Miki, but Mackenzie Crook, Dustin Demri-Burns, Sophie Thompson, and Johnny Vegas all take full advantage of their spots, as Joe, Paul, Emma, and Russell, respectively.

Fans of the British horror tradition will get a big kick out of Lodge. Blackmore’s screenplay is incisively droll, but also nostalgic in the right way. Apparently, it was an unusually successful group effort, with the six main thesps getting directing credits for their characters’ stories in the closing titles. Highly recommended for old school genre anthology movie fans, Tales from the Lodge screens again Monday (3/11) and Wednesday (3/13), as part of this year’s SXSW.

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Saturday, March 09, 2019

Starfish: The Apocalyptic Mixtapes

Soundwaves are a strange phenomenon. Even when they are pitched beyond our auditory range as humans, we are still affected by them. That is why the fuller spectrum of sound from vinyl records sounds so much better than CDs. It is also how we subliminally picked up on the news Paul McCartney died in 1966. More ominously, something embedded in a series of mixtapes might have triggered something apocalyptic in A.T. White’s moody and mysterious Starfish, which screens in Brooklyn next week, as part of its roadshow.

Aubrey Parker has come home for the funeral of her best friend, Grace, whose death is a source of tremendous guilt for her. Frankly, she harbors many, many regrets. To wallow in her misery, Parker breaks into Grace’s apartment, but her descent into depression is interrupted by something absolutely monstrous, in a genre kind of way.

It would be spoilery to get too specific about what happens in Starfish, even if we could explain it with confidence. The truth is, White deliberately maintains a great deal of uncertainty, which can be annoying, but works surprisingly well in this case. Regardless, it seems there is some kind of signal occurring, most likely originating from a source beyond our comprehension. However, that signal has been recorded and played back in a corrupted form, which has caused the current hideous state of things. Or so Grace hypothesized.

She was well versed in whatever theories regarding the signal. Apparently, she stashed recordings of it in seven locations that held tremendous personal significance for her and Parker. Collecting and compiling those mixtapes could be the key to everything, but the process will repeatedly send Parker down rabbit-holes of her memory and subconscious.

There have been a number of previous films that used uncanny signals as their Macguffins (several of them have been called The Signal, or a close derivation thereof), but White’s use of mixtapes gives Starfish (a rather misleading title) a distinctively low-fi analog vibe. He also adheres to the mixtape aesthetic stylistically, incorporating a wildly cool animated sequence and a sure-to-be-divisive self-referential scene that either makes or breaks the film for viewers who can make up their mind on it.

Yet, somehow, White keeps us disoriented, but completely locked in every step of the way. His command of mood and texture, as well as Alberto Bañares’ hazy, otherworldly cinematography are the real stars of the film, but Virginia Gardner deserves credit for hanging tough with them. As Parker, she convincingly alternates between states of general freaked-out-ness and grim resolution. Although Christina Masterson only appears briefly as Grace, her presence is also felt acutely throughout the film.

So much of Starfish involves intangibles, so it easily could have fallen flat, but White and his cast and crew pull it off. It is unusually melancholy for a film that straddles the science fiction and horror categories, but that is why it stands out, even for those of us who consume genre films and programming in bulk. Highly recommended for cult film fans, Starfish screens Wednesday (3/13), Friday (3/15) and Saturday (3/16) at the Nitehawk in Brooklyn and Friday (3/15) at the Yonkers Drafthouse.

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Friday, March 08, 2019

Jackie Chan in Police Story 2

This is a true sequel, with the same cast returning to play the same characters from the original film, but things would get much looser in future installments of the Police Story franchise. In New Police Story (#5), Jackie Chan plays Chan Kwok-ming and in Police Story: Lockdown he portrays Zhong Wen, who is a Mainland copper rather than a member of Hong Kong’s finest. Here he is still Chan Ka-kui of the most dedicated, but not necessarily smartest officers on the Royal HK force. A lot has changed since 1988, but the fight scenes will still fire up fans in Chan’s Police Story 2, which opens today in a spiffy 4K restoration at the NuArt in LA.

Chan is a dedicated cop, but his enthusiasm sometimes gets the best of him. That resulted in some spectacular property damage in the first film that temporarily has him busted down to traffic cop, even though he collared (and beat the heck out of) the bad guy, crime lord Chu Tao. Rather gallingly, Chu is granted early release on supposedly compassionate grounds. Not surprisingly, he frequently has his goons stalk our man Chan. He can generally handle them, but it will complicate his investigation into a gang of explosive extortionists. Their thuggish harassment of his girlfriend May will also tax their relationship beyond the breaking point.

Like Police Story Uno, the first sequel features some amazing fights. The playground jungle gym fight scene is absolutely vintage Jackie Chan, but the climatic beatdown (with fire-bombs) at the gang’s post-industrial hideout is a truly a dazzler. However, the second film also has much better straight police procedural material, including a nifty sequence in which Chan and the HKPD’s surveillance team shadow a suspect.

Chan is definitely Chan in PS2, as well as his character, Chan ka-kui. Arguably, the first three films in the Police Story franchise are probably most responsible for his international persona (along with Armour of God). He gives up his body for our entertainment, but he also gives as good as he takes in the classic action sequences. Yet, he also develops greater rapport with Maggie Cheung, who is so sweet and innocent as poor May. This time around, their chemistry together is genuinely endearing.

Of course, it still the spectacularly moves and unbelievable stunts that make Story 2 such an enduring fan favorite. At this point in his career, Chan would do anything to please—and the proof is in this film. Required viewing for any martial arts and HK action fan, Police Story 1 and 2 both open today (3/8) in LA, at the Landmark NuArt.

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