J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Old School Kung Fu ’17: Yes, Madam

It was the start of something big, in many ways. It was Michelle Yeoh’s first film as a lead and Cynthia Rothrock’s very first acting gig. It was only the second feature directed by Corey Yuen and launched the loosely connected In the Line of Duty franchise. Some even credit it as the first of the so-called “girls with guns” action movie subgenre, but the basic elements in question seem like perennial fan favorites that have always been with us. Regardless, there is a special place in many fans’ hearts for Yuen’s Yes, Madam, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

When Senior Inspector Ng is your superior officer, you darn well better say “Yes, Madam.” To resolve any doubts, we will watch her handily handle a gang of armored car in the prologue. Unfortunately, Richard Nornen, a friend and colleague from Scotland Yard is murdered to recover a piece of microfilm (remember that Macguffin?) that could incriminate Hong Kong’s biggest Triad boss. Inadvertently, two of the city’s dimmest criminals take possession of it when they swipe the dead man’s passport for their forger crony, embroiling themselves in a world of trouble.

Inspector Carrie Morris arrives from England just in time to land a few blows on the unfortunate punk trying to leave HK using Nornen’s doctored passport. She is the rule-breaking Oscar Madison to Ng’s straight-laced Felix Unger, but they both have mad martial arts chops.

Yes, Madam is just awesomely eighties. Yeoh (than billed as Michelle Khan) looks totally fab in Miami Vice whites and pastels, while Rothrock rocks the Michael Jackson jacket. Technically, it harkens back to 1978, but the cues “borrowed” from Carpenter’s Halloween also reinforce the 80s nostalgia.

Frankly, the screenplay is nothing special, but the morally ambiguous ending still packs a kick. Regardless, the climatic fight sequence entirely justifies the price of admission on its own. Set in the villain’s luxury condo (which is decked out with an unusual amount of glass furnishings and partitions), it features Yeoh’s athleticism and Rothrock’s chops to dazzling, star-making effect.

As added bonuses for the faithful, there is a head-scratching cameo from producer Sammo Hung and a weirdly poignant turn from future action-auteur Tsui Hark as Panadol, the profoundly unlucky forger. Yeoh would come back for the sequel, before turning the franchise over to Cynthia Khan, whose name was deliberately chosen to echo the two Yes, Madam co-stars. Yes, the film certainly has women with guns, but it takes flight when they use their fists and feet. Affectionately recommended for Yeoh and Rothrock fans, Yes, Madam screens this Sunday evening (8/20), concluding the 2017 edition of Old School Kung Fu at the Metrograph.

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Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

It is not exactly Le Mans, but since it usually runs over four hours, the Coca-Cola 600 is easily the longest race of the NASCAR season. That’s a lot of time to spend money at the concessions. Hopefully, it will also give Jimmy Logan enough time to pull off an unlikely heist in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Logan thought he would claw his way out of border state poverty playing football, but when his knee blew out, he lost his scholarship. Work had been so scarce, he drove all the way into North Carolina for a construction gig, but he is fired by the cold-blooded HR department for not disclosing his limp. At least Logan got a good look around while he was on the job repairing sink-holes under Charlotte Motor Speedway. Turns out, there is a system of pneumatic tubes that takes money dropped at the registers directly into the vault. It is enough to give a fellow ideas.

If truth be told, the Logan family could use the money. According to his brother Clyde, there is a Logan family curse responsible for Jimmy’s knee and the hand he lost while serving in Iraq. So far, their sister Mellie has escaped the curse, but the beautician is hardly living on Easy Street. When his ex-wife serves notice of her intention to move further away with his beloved daughter Sadie, it creates a sense of urgency, so he hatches a scheme to knock over the Speedway. In additon to his siblings, Logan will also need the help of the only demolitions expert he knows. Unfortunately, bleach-blond Joe Bang is serving time in prison, with his parole imminently approaching, so the Logans will have to sneak him in and out of prison without anyone being the wiser.

Frankly, some of the cleverest parts of the scheme revolve around that secret prison break. Unlike most caper films since Rififi, Soderbergh and first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt do not immediately explain the full extent of their plan, opting instead to reveal it step-by-step, while the heist is already underway. Apparently, critics on both coasts are so obsessed with the Donald, nearly every review includes a condescending line to the effect of: “this is Trump country, but the Logans are surprisingly likable and dignified.” Conversely, no Western Virginian review of a Woody Allen movie would ever feel the need to observe: “when Upper-Eastsiders are not dining at Elaine’s, marrying their ex-wives’ adopted daughters, and hosting fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, they are just as insecure as the rest of us.”

Regardless who the Logans might have voted for, the suggestion Soderbergh treats them and their milieu with respect is indeed correct. Frankly, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver look more like real life siblings than any movie pairing since De Caprio and Carey Mulligan appeared as near-identical twins, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s accidentally taboo take on the Great Gatsby. As Jimmy and Clyde Logan, they convey a sense of years of shared history and the shorthand that comes with such familiarity. When Tatum rolls his eyes at Driver’s talk of the curse, we feel like they have replayed this scene thousands of times before.

Yet, the most important relationship in the film is that between Jimmy and Sadie Logan. We can believe he would indeed risk his fabulous bachelor lifestyle to maintain their connection and possibly scratch out better futures for them both. A good deal of pre-release publicity has understandably focused on Daniel Craig’s drolly eccentric and muscularly swaggering performance as Joe Bang, but Riley Keough stands a chance of breaking through to Tatum’s level of fame through her work as the sassy but grounded Mellie. As a bonus, Hillary Swank and Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair nicely uphold the Twin Peaks-X-Files tradition of eccentric FBI agents in near cameos as the investigating Feds.

Lucky has a pleasantly genial vibe, but the stakes for the Logans are much higher than in Soderbergh’s Ocean films, which diegetic news reports slyly name-drop. There are definitely some clever bits, but more importantly, the film has real heart. Recommended for fans of caper movies and NASCAR, Logan Lucky opens today (8/18) across the country, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

New Filipino Cinema ’17: Lily

This shape-shifting witch has become a popular Cebuano urban legend, but it should not surprise anyone to there is a man to blame for all her horrors. He did her wrong, but she would not be ignored. Her story will be told in a fractured, narrative-scrambling manner in Keith Deligero’s Lily (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

While hunting with a dubious friend, Mario Ungo nearly bagged a mythical sigbin, but one false step nearly did him in instead. Fortunately (or so it seems at the time), the titular Lily finds him. Hiding him in her room in a remote convent, where she seems to be a prospective novice, she nurses him back to health. Given all the time they spend together, it is not so surprising when Lily becomes pregnant with his son. Soon, they become a common law family unit, but Ungo is clearly uncomfortable and restless. Eventually, he leaves to find work in Manila, where he repeats the pattern with Jane, a stripper. Resenting his deceit and abandonment, Lily will come looking for him—and she is far more dangerous than he ever realized.

Or something like that. Deligero puts the film through a stylistic blender of jump cuts, flashbacks and flashforwards, lurid subliminal imagery, and poverty porn. To get an idea of the vibe, imagine if Khavn had remade Cat People as a hardcore music video. It definitely shares a kinship with aesthetically severe, experimental horror films, such as Khavn’s work and Dodo Dayao’s Violator, particularly with respects to the graphic visuals found in the former.

TV idol and rom-com movie star Shaina Magdayao certainly deserves credit for taking a chance on such an out-of-left-field departure. She is undeniably intense as the vengeful supernatural being, but she also connects with her tragic core. Rocky Salumbides is thoroughly despicable as Ungo, but in a believable way that helps the film get to where it needs to go. Natlileigh Sitoy also covers a lot of ground as the sultry but vulnerable Jane. Frankly, it is pretty impressive the cast registers at all, given the film’s jittery style and mondo extreme elements.

The regional mythos that inspired Lily is compelling stuff, but Deligero compulsively takes us out of the film by rubbing our noses in his experimental and bodily excesses. A small circle will be knocked out by his boldness, but for most viewers, less would have been more. Indeed, the sum of its more striking moments is greater than its whole. Recommended for those with adventurous tastes, Lily screens this Sunday (8/20) and Friday, September 1st, as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

It’s time for 50 shades of the Shaw Brothers. It might seem pretty tame to us now, but in its day, this 1972 film was billed as the first Shaw sex movie. When a resilient peasant girl is abducted and sold into a brothel, she quickly becomes the star attraction. Bare breasts, floggings, and lesbian make-out sessions soon follow. She can fight too, but so can her mistress in Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

Maybe you could argue Madam Madame Chun Yi is so adept at catering to her pervy old clients, because she shares their tastes. That is particularly true of her latest acquisition, Ai Nu, but the trafficked woman is having none of it. She even tries to commit suicide, but she is saved by “the Mute,” a former bandit now forced by injuries to toil as a lowly servant. When he is killed during their escape attempt, she swears to avenge him (and get some payback for herself), but in the meantime, she pretends to make nice with Madame Chun.

In fact, she up-manages Chun so well, the Madam will even run interference for her when she starts killing her creepy regulars. Of course, none of that sits well with Chun’s partner, who has long carried a torch for her—obviously to no avail. The honest new sheriff in town also feels duty bound to prevent murders, but he does not yet understand the full context of her vendetta.

Even without the steaminess, Intimate Confessions is a bit of a mind blower. Frankly, it is about as risqué as Ingrid Pitt’s lesbian-themed Hammer vampire films from the same period, but Hong Kong was a much different market in 1972 than America or the UK. This is truly feminism at its most lurid: men are dogs, who deserve to die—and to prove the point, here’s some skin to ogle. Plus, it has to be conceded: the big climatic fight sequence is a barn-burner.

Regular Shaw Brothers leading lady Lily Ho took her career to the next level portraying Ai Nu a stone-cold force to be reckoned with. However, Betty Pei Ti steals the show outright as the flamboyantly villainous and recklessly lusty Madame Chun. She clearly evokes a sense of classical tragedy, but she could also hold her own against Sybil Danning’s prison wardens.

Intimate Confessions definitely stands apart in the Shaw Brothers filmography, but the wuxia production elements are all first-class. Fu Liang Chou’s score also has some funky seasonings that might be anachronistic, but work well in context. Its excesses are rather stylistically distinctive as well as indulgent. Highly recommended for all Shaw Brothers fans, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan screens this Saturday (8/19), as part of Old School Kung Fu 2017 at the Metrograph.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

6 Days: The Other Iranian Hostage Crisis

It was the other Iranian Hostage Crisis. While the prolonged captivity of American embassy personnel in Tehran made Jimmy Carter look weak and incompetent, the siege of the Iranian embassy in South Kensington, London made it clear to the world Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a strong leader, who was not to be trifled with. However, the SAS (Special Air Service) commandos did not storm the embassy immediately. For five days, DCI Max Vernon did his best to keep the terrorists talking. The British response to the hostage-taking is dramatized day-by-day in Toa Fraser’s 6 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To this day, Western authorities are still rather baffled why Arabic-speaking Khuzestan separatists launched their operation on British soil. Although they maintained diplomatic relations, the UK and Iran were not on friendly terms. Yet, Arabistan Liberation gunmen expected the Brits to convince Iran to release their imprisoned comrades. They also demanded safe passage, which the Thatcher government refused to grant. That did not leave DCI Vernon much room to negotiate. However, he maintained a dialogue with his terrorist counterpart and even managed to secure a handful of hostage releases, as a sign of “good faith.”

While Vernon was talking, Rusty Firmin and the SAS were formulating attack plans. Glenn Standring’s screenplay does its best to suggest Thatcher placed undue restrictions on the operation, out of concern for how it would play in the media. However, it is hard to argue with the results. Despite some strongly worded statements, Thatcher’s decisiveness clearly made an impression on Iran.

The South Kensington hostage rescue is a fascinating and highly instructive episode in fairly recent history, whose significance has never really been fully appreciated on our shores. Fraser effectively shows the action from the perspectives of both the cops and the SAS, but attempts to include the standpoints of the media are far less compelling. After all, they are just along for the ride. 6 Days is a radical departure from Fraser’s last film, the very cool Maori martial arts fantasy, The Dead Lands, but his execution is lean and pacey. Throughout the film, he concretely establishes the military, political, and humanitarian stakes at play in the stand-off.

As Vernon, Mark Strong is as intense as always. Likewise, Jamie Bell looks young, but he has an appropriately steely presence as Firmin. Abbie Cornish doesn’t really bring much to the party, but to be fair, she is only playing journalist Kate Adie. One could also argue Tim Pigott-Smith is excessively pompous and high-handed as Home Secretary William Whitelaw, who was an unusually sure-footed politician throughout his long career in public service.

Any victory over terrorism is worth revisiting on film, for numerous reasons. Fraser breaks down the South Kensington rescue operation quite well, fully capitalizing on all the inherent drama and action. Recommended for fans of Argo and The Delta Force franchise, 6 Days opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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New Filipino Cinema ’17: Bliss

Reportedly, film production in the Philippines is much more regulated now than during the glory days of Roger Corman’s jungle prison movies. However, Jane Ciego might have her doubts. She was badly injured on the set of her latest picture—a horror movie about a famous actress abused by her caretakers after she is badly injured on the set of her latest movie. You might have a general idea of the meta-ness afoot, but there are still plenty of twisted turns to Jerrold Tarog’s Bliss (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Ciego has been a star since she was a child, but this film was supposed to be her breakout as a serious actress. Ditto for Abigail, the character she was playing. She has been successful enough to produce her ambitious art house horror film and continue to be a meal ticket for her ineffectual husband Carlo and her greedy stage mother, Jillian. Again, the same is true for her character, except her husband in the film-within-the-film is maybe slightly less contemptible. Regardless, this is hardly the sort of film you would want to “lose” yourself in, if that is indeed what happened to Ciego, or Abigail.

Things get even more sinister when Tarog gives us reason to suspect Ciego’s openly hostile private nurse Lilibeth is actually Rose, who is wanted by the police for sexually molesting young patients. As Ciego and Abigail’s realities conflict and intrude upon each other, Tarog keeps doubling back and folding the narrative over, to spring darkly clever revelations.

Iza Cazaldo has a Kate Beckinsale vibe working that is absolutely perfect for Ciego/Abigail. She establishes a strong persona as Ciego, which makes it so compelling to then watch her tear it apart at the seams. Evidently, there was a lot of buzz about her topless scene in the film, but it is nothing like what her fans probably assumed. Adrienne Vergara is also creepy as heck as Lilibeth/Rose and Shamaine Buencamino is spectacularly bad news as Mama Jillian. However, Audie Gemora often upstages everyone as her wildly flamboyant director, Lexter Palao.

Serving as his own editor, Tarog rather brilliantly cuts together all the reality problematizing and timeframe shifts. Mackie Galvez’s mysteriously murky cinematography further causes us to lose sight of ostensive in-film reality. It all adds up to a head-trip you can never take for granted. Highly recommended for fans of horror movies and Lynchian cinema, Bliss screens this Saturday (8/19) and next Thursday (8/24) as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: My Young Auntie

Martial arts talent definitely runs in this family. Cheng Tai-nun married into it, but she has as much chops as anyone. She is also surprisingly young and pretty, but she is the still the elder in Lau Kar-leung’s My Young Auntie, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

To prevent his wastrel criminal brother Yu Yung-sheng from inheriting his estate, a childless landowner marries Cheng, a trusted servant and martial arts champion, to insure his nephew Yu Ching-chuen becomes his rightfully beneficiary. Immediately after his death, she quickly brings him the will and deeds for safe keeping. Of course, the genial, older middle-aged Yu is not expecting an auntie like her, so miscommunication and misunderstandings inevitably ensue. It is even more so the case with Yu’s son Charlie, a westernized college student.

He definitely thinks she is hot, but hopelessly square in her traditional ways, so he and his jerky pals try to teach her a lesson in Hong Kong hipness. Unfortunately, while they having their fun, Yung-sheng’s colorful cast of henchmen steal the estate documents. Naturally, that means Cheng and Charlie will have to take them back, but they might need an assist from his father (her nephew) and his skilled brothers.

Auntie is definitely a comedy with the emphasis on physicality. Frankly, some of the jokes will strike contemporary viewers as rather boorish. However, there is no denying Kara Hui’s chops and presence as the titular Auntie. Trained as a professional dancer, she was clearly blessed with tremendous grace and flexibility. You can definitely see how her experience with one sort of choreography laid her in good stead for another.

There is a lot of “Tiger Claw” kind of Kung Fu going on that looks absolutely insane, but Lau totally sells it as director, fight choreographer, and co-star, playing Old Nephew Yu. In fact, he takes over the big climatic match-up with Yu Yung-sheng, which is likely to produce mixed emotions in fans. As much as we want to see Kara Hui settle accounts, there is something satisfying about watching the grey-haired veteran throw down with authority.

Within the Shaw Brothers filmography, Auntie is also notable for addressing issues of evolving gender roles and the culture clash between modernized and westernized Hong Kongers and traditional country residents. It has all kinds of energy but the gags tend towards the shticky side of the spectrum (Gordon Liu wearing a blond Musketeer wig? Yes, it’s in there). My Young Auntie is definitely recommended for Kara Hui and Shaw Brothers fans, but King Hu’s Shaw-produced Come Drink with Me is even more entertaining and visually impressive. For your Shaw Brothers fix, My Young Auntie screens this Saturday (8/19) and Come Drink with Me screens Sunday (8/20), as part of Old School Kung Fu 2017 at the Metrograph.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Adventurers: Andy Lau Steals His Way Across Europe

Evidently, French prisons are so hot at rehabilitation either. To be fair, this Hong Kong jewel thief was primed for recidivism. He was caught stealing part of the priceless “Gaia” three-piece necklace set. To find the villain who betrayed him, he will need the other two pieces. He will also commit crimes against the English language, but his French copper nemesis sounds nearly as awkward in Stephen Fung’s breezy The Adventurers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dan Zhang is an old school Thomas Crowne kind of jewel thief, who was planning on going straight after the big score that sent him up the river. With a few loyal accomplices and “Red” Ye, a hotshot new recruit, Zhang plans to take the other two pieces of Gaia. The first outstanding component-piece has been put up for charity auction in Paris by Tingting, a Chinese celebrity animal lover. Ironically, Red will whip up the animal rights protestors against her, over her alleged fur wardrobe, to cover-up the caper unfolding.

That will be the easy heist, even though it is in Bissette’s backyard. The hard one will be the third piece of Gaia, nestled in a vault within a castle outside Prague, owned by a nouveau riche Chinese oligarch. His security is state-of-tomorrow’s-art, but Zhang has Red. However, Bissette also has his own surprise ally, Amber Li, the art expert who authenticated the original fateful piece of Gaia, who happened to be engaged to Zhang at the time. Unaware of his true profession, she also felt slightly betrayed by the events that transpired.

Despite the fractured syntax, The Adventurers is cheerful throwback to old fashioned caper movies. Yes, there are all kinds of double- and triple-crosses going on, but it is still a genuinely low stress affair. It is all about exotic locales (Paris, Prague, Kiev), cat burglar stunts and gizmos, and a ridiculously attractive cast (Andy Lau, Shu Qi, Zhang Jingchu, You Tianyi, and probably Tony Yo-ning Yang counts too), plus bonus character actors Jean Reno and Eric Tsang.

If you enjoy watching Raffles-like characters shimmying across ledges and illuminating motion sensor-lasers, then The Adventurers is your cup of General Foods International Coffee. As Zhang, Lau has his on-screen charm cranked up to eleven. Shu Qi enjoys playing against type as the mercenary femme fatale Red, but Zhang Jingchu might actually outshine everyone as the sensitive but cerebral Li. Of course, Reno and Tsang do their thing as Det. Bissette and Zhang’s “uncle” fence, King Kong.

The Adventurers probably will not make it onto very many awards ballots, but it will be fifty times more entertaining to re-watch than Crash, American Beauty, or Titanic. It is a fun, sparkly film that goes down easy and leaves you with a desire to visit Prague with Shu Qi or Andy Lau. Recommended as pleasant “Summer Friday” matinee, The Adventurers opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Guarding Samuel L. Jackson

Alexander Lukashenko must be bent out of shape. Hollywood makes a movie about a Belarusian dictator trying to escape prosecution for crimes against humanity, but they can’t be bothered to call him out by name? Instead, it is one Vladislav Dukhovich who has put a price on the only international assassin crazy enough to testify against him. All the other potentially damaging witnesses have been killed, but Darius Kincaid is bizarrely hard to kill. He will also have old nemesis, personal security specialist Michael Bryce watching his back, whether he likes it or not, in Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Several years ago, a Japanese arms dealer under Bryce’s protection was drilled between the eyes, dragging Bryce’s business down with him. It was Kincaid who made the shot. In the small world department, Bryce’s ex, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel is in charge of Kincaid’s security. Captured through a fluke, Kincaid cut a deal to testify against Dukhovich in exchange for his wife’s freedom. Unfortunately, his lack of faith in Interpol’s security protocols will be vindicated when Dukhovich’s mercenaries ambush their motorcade. Suspecting a mole in the agency, Roussel contracts Bryce to safely transport Kincaid to The Hague, despite their bitter history as rivals. Much Odd Couple-style humor ensues, as the body count escalates.

In between car chases and gun fights, Kincaid and Bryce will bicker and banter—and in the case of the former, drop MF bombs like there is no tomorrow. Yep, he would be the one played by Samuel L. Jackson. Frankly, this is the sort of loopy action comedy that were a staple of 1980s second run dollar theaters. It is therefore rather fitting Richard E. Grant has a cameo in the prologue as Bryce’s latest sleazy client.

It should be readily stipulated Jackson and Ryan Reynolds develop an amusing comedic chemistry together. They settle into a nice rhythm playing off each other and neither is too shy to mug a little for the camera. Jackson is basically recycling his Pulp Fiction persona yet again, but it still hasn’t gotten old yet, so it’s tough to blame him. Reynolds is well cast as the armed-and-dangerous Felix Unger. It is also nice to see Elodie Yung get to participate in the action as Roussel, while Gary Oldman (a reliable villain if ever there was one) chews the scenery as an entitled dictator would. However, Salma Hayek is under-employed as Kincaid’s borderline psychotic wife Sonia.

Bodyguard has plenty of action, exotic locales (getting riddled with bullet holes, but whatever), and some classic blues and R&B tunes licensed for the soundtrack. That doesn’t exactly add up to a masterpiece, but it is fun in a goofy, meathead kind of way. Thanks to the gung-ho commitment of Jackson and Reynolds, it all works on a basic laughter-and-mayhem level. Recommended for fans of Jackson and old school action-comedies, The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens this Friday (8/18) throughout the City, including the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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AOF ’17: Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon (short)

It is always nice when animated films can teach us a lesson in comparative religion. Take for instance, Fugen Bosatsu, a Bodhisattva (an enlightened one, who defers Nirvana to help point us crass mortals in the right direction) and one of the eight Buddhist zodiac guardians. He will play a significant role in Siddharth Ahluwalia’s animated short film Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon, which screens during this year’s Action on Film Festival.

The Chinese zodiac is represented by twelve animals, but there are only eight guardians, so some will have to double up. Fugen Bosatsu has responsibility for Snake and Dragon. As it happens, Jake was born in the Year of the Dragon, so his connection to the Dragon Guardian makes some kind of sense. Under Fugen Bosatsu’s guidance, he is pursuing a quest through what looks like a Southeast Asian pyramid.

Bosatsu essentially plays like a proof-of-concept superhero origins story, but with considerably more spiritual significance. There is no question Ahluwalia’s concept could be expanded to support a feature or series treatment. With a visual style clearly inspired by anime, it should be quite accessible to genre fans, even if they are completely ignorant of Buddhism.

Maddeningly, Osamu Tezuka’s second film in his anime adaptation of Kozo Morishita’s manga life of Buddha has yet to screen in North America—at least not to any extent that we might notice, so Bosatsu is a nice bite-sized consolation while we continue to wait. It is fun, stylish, and well-versed in Buddhist teachings. Highly recommended, Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon screens this Friday (8/18), as part of the 2017 Action on Film Festival.

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Future Imperfect: Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence

These cops freely quote Descartes, Confucius, and Milton. It is impressive, but their cybernetic implants probably help. Batou has been augmented to such an extent, he has become a full-fledged cyborg, but he is still more corporeally human than his commanding officer, Major Motoko Kusanagi. She took what was left of her consciousness that she could claim for herself and disappeared into the network. However, she still has his back in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

Batou’s new partner Togusa has very few implants. He also has a family, so he is not thrilled about the hard-charging Batou’s tactics. The days following the Major’s disappearance have been uncertain for the Men in Black-ish Section 9, but they are still working cases, like the one just assigned to Batou and Togusa. A new model of specially modified gynoids (female androids) have run amok, killing their owners and then self-destructing. Both acts clearly violate the Asimovian principles of android programming that still apply in this world.

Evidently, these gynoids in question have been specially designed for adult entertainment purposes. That explains why the victims have kept things so hush-hush. The possible involvement of the yakuza also logically follows, but a shadowy off-shore company is the real brain behind the gynoids’ design. With the help of the ghostly Major and his reluctant partner, Batou will try to connect the dots, while also fending off a brain hack and caring for his beloved basset hound, Gabu (or Gabriel, depending on subtitles).

At the time of its production, Innocence was one of the most expensive anime films ever, forcing Production I.G to co-produce with Studio Ghibli. Over a dozen years after its theatrical release, it still looks terrific. The world-building is richly detailed and often awe-inspiring in scope. However, what remains most striking about the film is the intriguing relationship that continues between Batou and the unseen (but perhaps ever-present) Major. It is surely the reason for Innocence selection for Future Imperfect.

Not only does the film directly address what it means to be human, it also includes plenty of fan-pleasing action and a loyal, slobbering basset hound (a recurring motif in Oshii’s films). It also stands alone relatively easily. If you happened to be one of the few people who accidentally saw the live-action Hollywood version, try to forget it entirely, if you haven’t already—and start fresh with Innocence. Highly recommended, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence screens this Friday (8/18) and Saturday (8/19) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

What Happened to Monday?: Multiple Noomi Rapaces on Netflix

In the medium-future, the Euro-dystopia has adopted China’s family planning policies. One-child allotments are rigorously enforced by the jackbooted Child Allocation Bureau (CAB). Extra siblings are humanely put into cryogenic sleep to await a better, more sustainable world. Yeah, sure there are. In any event, cranky inventor Terrence Settman was not about to let his orphaned septuplet granddaughters get whisked away to a bureaucratic fate worse than death. Instead, he secretly raised them to live as the tag-team Karen Settman persona. However, when the first Karen Settman of the week fails to come home, her grown twins must track her whereabouts without revealing their secret in Tommy Wirkola’s What Happened to Monday? (trailer here), a Netflix original film, which starts streaming this Friday.

Old Man Settman, seen in formative flashbacks, assigned each twin a day of the week to leave the apartment, which became their informal names among themselves. At the end of each day, the siblings would have a group review, so they could fake their way through their respective days. Since they each have their respective talents (Friday is a numbers cruncher, Thursday can drink all night with clients), they have risen up the corporate finance ladder quite quickly. However, on the day Karen Settman receives the big promotion they had been working towards, Monday disappears.

Obviously, if anyone on the outside sees two Karen Settmans, it would be curtains for at least six of them. Nevertheless, Tuesday will have to venture out to determine the fate of Monday. Despite some tiresome smoke-blowing from a work rival, it quickly becomes apparent the dastardly Nicolette Cayman is involved. Not only is she the architect of the draconian One Child policies and the director of the CAB, she is also a candidate for parliament, so she is not eager for news of septuplets surviving undiscovered well into adulthood to leak to the press.

Sometime in the 1970s, the apocalyptic left recognized Marx’s failures and adopted an 18th Century British country curate as the guiding philosophical star. Thomas Malthus’s dire forecasts of exploding population and dwindling resources could be used to justify no end of governmental controls. Formerly a liberating force, the masses became the rapacious instrument of their own destruction. Happily, Malthusian analysis was thoroughly debunked by Julian Simon, but screenwriters Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson obviously did not get the memo. People are still little more than a drag on resources in Monday’s world. It is just a little tacky to kill them outright, like Cayman does.

Obviously, there are echoes of Orphan Black to be heard in Monday. It also bears some similarities to Ben Bova’s entertaining 1980s novel Multiple Man, in which a series of clones managed to get elected President of the United States and then somehow lose their “Monday.” Bova’s novel would probably require a lot of updating, but its political intrigue would still be more fun than Wirkola’s derivative dystopia.

Most problematically, Noomi Rapace does not distinctly delineate her various Karen Settmans, forcing us to rely on superficials, like wardrobe and hairstyle to tell them apart. Glen Close has chewed plenty of scenery as various villainesses, but she phones it in as Cayman. However, Willem Dafoe’s Grandpa Settman is appropriately intense and (justly) paranoid, while Marwan Kenzari charismatically upstages his love interest[s] as Adrian Knowles, the CAB officer who has been secretly carrying on an affair with Monday.

Dystopia is getting old. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back towards Heinleinesque and Roddenberryesque science fiction optimism. Monday is a case in point. It all just feels like familiar ground. Okay as a time-wasting stream, but instantly forgettable, What Happened to Monday? launches this Friday (8/18) on Netflix.

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Sidemen: The Long Road to Glory

Just imagine how awesome the original Blues Brothers movie soundtrack would have been if it also included Muddy Waters. That had been the intention, but the ailing Muddy was not able to make the shoot with John Lee Hooker on Maxwell Street. However, Muddy’s longtime sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith can be seen backing Hooker on “Boom Boom.” Still, only hardcore blues fans recognized them. They played on legendary recordings, but Perkins, Smith, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin received their overdue ovations very late in their lives and careers. Scott D. Rosenbaum profiles the three late great blues masters amid their eleventh-hour renaissances in Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Let’s make it clear, without Muddy and Wolf, there would be no Rolling Stones, no Eric Clapton, no Jimi Hendrix, and not much rock & roll to speak of. Without Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin, Muddy and Wolf would not have had the same potent groove. The musicians and listeners who really dove deeply into the blues understood their significance, but not casual listeners. As a result, all three found themselves scuffling when their bread-and-butter employers died in the early 1980s. Since Sumlin had always considered Wolf a surrogate father-figure, his death hit the guitarist even harder.

Rosenbaum includes long excerpts of the three legendary sidemen jamming together and with their admirers. He also interviewed each of them at length, so this film has obviously been a long time coming, considering all three men passed way in 2011, within an eight-month span. The film also features appreciations from Johnny Winter and Gregg Allman, both of whom subsequently played their final bars, as well. However, the film gives off positive vibes, rather than wallowing in elegiac melancholy. Nevertheless, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which Sumlin felt had unjustly overlooked him) comes off looking like a bunch of jerks for not inducting Sumlin while he was still alive.

Their music pretty much speaks for itself—and Rosenbaum showcases it to maximum effect. Still, we also hear from some pretty talented colleagues and admirers, including Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bobby Rush, Elvin Bishop, and Shemekia Copeland, who are all, happily, very much alive and well, who say whatever is left to be said.

If you don’t get Sumlin, Perkins, and Smith (as well as Muddy and Wolf), by the time the too-short Sidemen finishes, you probably never will. You’re also most likely tone-deaf and generally beyond hope as a person. In fact, Rosenbaum has managed to craft a loving tribute that never feels indulgently fannish. He does right by the men who were true to the music for so many years. Very highly recommended, Sidemen opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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New Filipino Cinema ’17: Seklusyon

The training for these post-war Filipino priests is almost like a spiritual Fear Factor. For seven days, they will be sequestered in a remote villa to confront their inner and outer demons. The latter are very real to these novices. As if the sink-or-swim practice were not problematic enough, a young girl considered either a healer or a false prophet has been remanded to the manse for her protection. Unfortunately, nobody can protect the novices from the temptation and torment that follows in Erik Matti’s Seklusyon (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Miguel is a deacon about to start the seven days of isolated contemplation that will proceed his ordination. He still feels guilty over something from his previous life, but he will not reveal it to his confessor. All four novices harbor secret sins that the evil agency in question will exploit.

Meanwhile, Padre Ricardo has been dispatched to investigate the young Anghela Sta. Ana, whom many revere as a living saint. Her healing powers sure look genuine, but something about her arouses the suspicions of the jaded war veteran. When Sta. Ana’s parents are violently murdered (odd that she couldn’t heal them, right?), the good Father will have to shift his focus to Sister Cecilia, her mysterious protector. In what seems like a spectacularly bad decision, regardless of what you might believe, the Bishop sends Sta. Ana and Sister Cecilia to the seclusion villa for safe keeping.  Needless to say, their presence is quite the distraction.

While it is initially unclear whether Sta. Ana is a savior or demon, the novices are still in for it either way, because this is a horror movie. Even though it is set in the post-war Philippines, Nathaniel Hawthorne could have sniffed out the sulfuric evil one right away. Indeed, this slow-burning tale of guilt and sin shares a distant kinship with his more sinister tales, particularly “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the infernal masquerades as the innocent.

Matti skillfully creates a mood of mounting dread and masterfully sets the ominous mise-en-scene. However, the atmospheric moodiness can be too much of a good thing, enveloping the cast like a fog. Although they are played by some highly recognizable Philippine actors, it is a bit of a challenge to keep all four novices straight. In contrast, Padre Ricardo and Sister Cecilia are highly compelling characters, thanks to their intriguing backstories and the rigorously disciplined performances of Neil Ryan Sese and Phoebe Walker. Likewise, young Rhed Bustamante is pretty incredible as Anghela Sta. Ana, or whoever she might be.

When Seklusyon really gets deep into the brimstone, its unsettling imagery recalls The Omen franchise and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, which is high praise indeed. It is the sort of film whose ending makes everything that came before seem creepier in retrospect. (For those who see it, this Marist Brother’s insightful analysis will further your appreciation, but it is filled with spoilers.) Ultimately, it is quite refreshing to see a horror film that prioritizes symbolism over special effects. Recommended for fans of religious-themed supernatural horror, Seklusyon screens this Friday (8/18) and Thursday the 31st, as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA. Those in San Francisco might consider checking out the sunny but angsty Apocalypse Child this Friday, as well.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: Hapkido

Genuine trained martial artists always use diplomacy first, falling back on their fighting skills only as a last resort. Discipline and humility are always essential to the warrior’s code—and it is also better not to reveal your best moves too soon. Unfortunately, the Japanese occupiers of this provincial Chinese city are spoiling for a fight, so Yu Ying and her brothers will eventually have to give it to them in Feng Huang’s Hapkido, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

Yu Ying, Kao Chang, and Fan Wei are Chinese, but they have been faithfully studying hapkido in occupied Korea with their master. However, they will have to make a hasty return to China, after laying a beating on a group of Japanese thugs. They hope to open a Hapkido school in a provincial town that ought to be off the Imperial authorities’ radar, but the local Black Bear karate school is not exactly welcoming.

Members of the Black Bear School use their Japanese lineage to bully the rest of the town. Their master, Toyoda, refuses to allow the Hapkido School to open, out of malicious anti-Korean prejudice. Of course, every time his followers goad the Hapkido teachers into a fight, they get publicly humiliated. Usually, Yu Ying and her older brother make a valiant effort to practice the forbearance advised by their master, but not so much the hot-headed Fan Wei. Eventually, his fighting will get him killed, but at least he also catches the eye of the pretty Miss Sau before that.

Essentially, Hapkido argues forbearance is all very good up to a point, but eventually bad guys need to be put down. In terms of narrative, it is your basic, pan-Asian (Chinese and Korean) anti-Japanese score-settling. However, the fight scenes are some of the best of the era. Hapkido was one of Master Sammo Hung’s earliest films as both the fight choreographer and a featured player, charismatically portraying the rashly heroic Fan Wei.

He also had some of the best movie martial artists to work with, starting first and foremost with the legendary Angela Mao Ying. Yu Ying is definitely the sort of role that was in her power zone and she duly knocks it out of the park. Reliable Carter Wong Ka-Tat is also totally solid as the dependable Kao Chang. Real life hapkido masters Hwang In-shik and Ji Han-jae add authenticity and spectacular chops as the siblings’ elder classmate and Hapkido master, respectively. If you look closely, you might see early appearances from Jackie Chan and Corey Yuen as Black Bear and Hapkido students. Plus, Nancy Sit adds further star power as the sweet but plucky Miss Sau.

You could uncharitable label Hapkido “formulaic,” but it is the sort of film that will totally quench your craving for martial arts action. Obviously, it would make a terrific double-feature with Feng Huang’s similarly Korean-themed When Taekwondo Strikes. Both films are great showcases for Mao that just deliver the good stuff over and over again. However, Sammo Hung fans will find Hapkido even more satisfying. Recommended with fannish affection, Hapkido kicks off Old School Kung Fu this Friday (8/18) at Metrograph. Mao fans should also check her out in King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan, which screens the next day.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hunting the KGB Killers: The Litvinenko Case on Acorn TV

He was a British subject, assassinated on British soil, by a foreign power, employing the most radioactive substance known to man. Wars have been started over lesser provocations. It is inconceivable an operation of that magnitude could be executed without the direct consent of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. The mere acquisition of Polonium 210 would require coordination at the highest levels of government. Yet, we can confidently ascribe responsibility to Putin and his henchmen, because Litvinenko himself worked with Scotland Yard to solve his own murder during his final hours. The high stakes investigation and Russian’s attempts to cover-up the truth are conclusively revealed in the documentary-special, Hunting the KGB Killers, directed by Chris Malone, which starts streaming on Acorn TV tomorrow.

Litvinenko has been closely linked with Chechen dissidents, but his real role in the FSB (the renamed KGB) is often conveniently overlooked. According to Litvinenko (whose credibility has been tragically established beyond reasonable doubt), he was promoted to a secret division of the FSB responsible for assassinating the Kremlin’s political and economic rivals. Obviously, it is still in business. Ill-advisedly, Litvinenko had called a meeting with the newly elected Putin, hoping the president would halt such abuses. Instead, he had to defect to the UK with his wife Marina and their son Anatoly, who address Litvinenko’s assassination on-camera for the first time in KGB Killers.

Lead investigator DI Brian Tarpey takes viewers through his inquiry, step-by-step, starting with a meeting with an unnamed MI5 agent, who turned out to be Litvinenko’s handler. With his identity confirmed, the dying Litvinenko willingly submitted to a “living autopsy” to determine the agent of his poisoning. When Polonium-210 was determined to be the cause of his impending death, it unleashed a hard target search through the London establishments he frequented, as well as a very real public health scare. Tarpey’s team even journeyed to Russia, where they were stonewalled and also poisoned with more benign gastrointestinal bacteria.

Although its running time clocks in just under an hour, KGB Killers is packed with stunning information. Frankly, it is an outrage that the world is not more outraged over this crime. Russian apologists and stooges have used a lot of disinformation and red herrings to distract the western media from the fundamental issues. This was a British subject, who was cooperating with western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to expose Russian crime syndicates linked to Putin and his oligarch cronies.

The respect Tarpey and his colleagues have for Litvinenko comes through loud and clear. The details on their dogged pursuit of the murderers, Anjdrey Lugovoy (now a member of Russia’s parliament and hence immune from prosecution) and Dmitri Kovtun, is also highly instructive. Although the iconic photo of the emaciated Litvinenko is often shown during KGB Killers, Malone also uses dramatic re-enactments of the whistle-blower’s final days. Documentary purists might have mixed feelings on such a strategy, but it must be conceded Andrew Byron (a bit-player in Wonder Woman) is an eerie dead-ringer for Litvinenko. Eddie Marsan’s narration is also totally professional and gives the film some name-recognition (if star-power is too strong a term).

KGB Killers is a seamless chronicle that will shock viewers with the full magnitude and viciousness of the FSB’s crimes under Putin. Yet, it also keeps the human element in perspective through the memories of the surviving Litvinenkos and the Scotland Yard investigators. It is a film all Americans should watch, starting with the president.

Let’s be honest, the West’s triumph over Communism during the Cold War was also the greatest political victory in the history of the right/left divide. Yet, Trump seems determined to retroactively sabotage that victory, by openly courting the Soviets’ successor in spirit and oppressive practice. He is not just compromising American national security. He is also jeopardizing the legacy of the American conservative movement. Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater must be weeping bitter tears in their graves.

To get a sense of who Putin really is, Hunting the KGB Killers is very highly recommended when it launches on Acorn TV tomorrow (8/14).

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Future Imperfect: The Year of the Plague

The doctor considers it a Crichton-esque super-virus. His musician-lover sees it more as the pent-up release of the masses’ accumulated physical and spiritual pestilence. Either way, it is a stretch to call this outbreak drama science fiction. Indeed, the impulse to sweep the mounting crisis under the rug is acutely human, in the worst way. The cover-up will be just as deadly as the disease in Felipe Cazals’ The Year of the Plague, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

It is odd Year of the Plague is not more frequently screened, because the screenplay was co-written by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez (with José Agustín and Juan Arturo Brennan). Supposedly, it is based on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but it bears more of a likeness to Camus’s The Plague. Dr. Genovés is a senior attending physician at a leading Mexican university hospitality, who has no trouble recognizing the early stages of a plague from the fifty-some suspicious cases he has seen so far. However, his superiors and the government easily bury the plague victims amid the thousands of other people who died during the same time period due to more pedestrian urban pathologies. As a consolation, Genovés will commence an affair with a much younger and prettier aspiring musician.

Literally mountains of corpses start to pile up, but they know how to take care of that down there. When a Norwegian cabinet minister also succumbs to the plague, the government will recklessly and unethically send his body home with a deceptive congestive heart failure diagnosis and no environmental safeguards. Of course, he is the exception. Most of the plague’s victims simply don’t count for much.

Peste is an ultra-1970s-looking film, presented in a pseudo-documentary style, but with spare room here and there for dramatic character development. As a result, it is hard to forge an emotional connection with the film, even though it features several musical interludes. Yet, its retro-ness is also one of its greatest appeals. Frankly, watching polyester-wearing bureaucrats villainously scheme amid groovy office décor is always a cool nostalgia trip.

The docudrama approach necessarily hems in the cast, but Alejandro Parodi (bearing a vague resemblance to Mike “Touch” Connors) has the sort of presence you would want from your viral outbreak doctor. However, for Cazals and García Márquez, the real stars of the film are those dump trucks and mass graves overflowing with corpses.

Clearly, García Márquez was using the Plague as a metaphor for what he thought ailed society in the 1970s. It didn’t make much sense that his solution was to invest more power in centralized governments and further disenfranchise the individual as a political and economic free agent, but Latin American Leftism was never about logic. It was about faith in a secular god that failed. Year of the Plague is a strange time capsule from that overheated era, but its visuals and paranoid vibe still retain some potency for contemporary viewers. Worth checking out as a colorful product of its time, The Year of the Plague screens again tomorrow afternoon (8/13) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Bonello’s Nocturama

Tom Wolfe’s prophetic words: “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe” applies with double irony to the violent millennials who will unleash a day of terror on the city of Paris. They have embraced the very tactics of fascism they would ascribe to those they disagree with, while inspiring a ruthless police state response to their atrocities. Yet, whether Bertrand Bonello has admiration or contempt for them remains maddeningly ambiguous throughout Nocturama (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The first half-hour of Nocturama is an absolute master class in blocking and editing, as we watch about a dozen twentynothings crisscross their way through Paris. Although they seem to know each other, they only make oblique acknowledgements. They are clearly up to something sinister, but Bonello takes his time revealing the particulars.

Eventually, we learn the homegrown terrorists plan to plant bombs in the Interior Ministry, a colossal office building still under construction, and in cars parked along a major thoroughfare. Simultaneously, they also plot to assassinate the French head of the HSBC Bank and set fire to a statue of Jean d’Arc. Seriously, only French leftists could consider a revolutionary peasant girl to be a symbol of patriarchal imperialism, or whatever.

In many ways, Nocturama is a withering indictment of immature anti-capitalist rhetorical posturing, but it is unclear whether it was intended as such. Eventually, Bonello’s crew of radicals takes shelter in a high-end Harrods-like department store, where an accomplice has executed his fellow security guards. There, they enjoy all the fruits of the capitalist system they supposedly so despise, as they wait for the heat to blow over. At this point, Nocturama loses steam, down-shifting into a riff on Dawn of the Dead, but these terrorists are bigger monsters than any of Romero’s zombies.

Fittingly, the crew often engages in lip-synching to pass the time. Arguably, their politics is another form of lip-synching that regurgitates revolutionary platitudes but lacks an understanding of their context and full implications. Being “against globalization” is just the thing to be, like wearing designer urban couture. Still, we cannot help feel the tension as they get antsy, like rats in confined spaces.

Visually, Nocturama is a dazzling work of auteurism. Cinematographer Léo Hinstin keeps the look and vibe of film perched just on the cusp of the surreal, but never lets it teeter over the edge. It is bravura filmmaking, but Bonello’s coquettish refusal to make moral judgements has not aged well in light of the very real terrorist attacks that rocked France during the film’s post-production. We are left with an aesthetically impressive work that inhabits the same moral-ethical space as Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. Anyone who seriously studies or covers cinema will need to deal with it, but it will leave most viewers of good conscience deeply troubled by its extreme detachment from humanity. Ambiguously challenging in every aspect, Nocturama opens today (8/11) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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The Pilgrimage: Transporting The Rock

It wasn’t that long ago that the Irish saved civilization, but by 1209 they are apparently ready to go all in with the barbarians. Christianity has consolidated its hold on Europe, so woe unto those who are not down with Rome’s program. In this case, the Pope has decreed a relic held by a remote Irish monastery should be moved to the Vatican. The Brothers know this is a mistake, but they still faithfully comply.  A ragtag group of the faithful and the zealous will embark on a violent road trip in Brendan Muldowney’s The Pilgrimage (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Supposedly, The Rock of St. Matthias martyred the apostle who filled Judas’s vacancy, but it caused the hurler to immolate immediately thereafter. Since then, anyone of insufficient virtue who touches it, meets a similar fate. It might not look like much, but The Rock sure would be handy to have on a crusade.

Frankly, Brother Geraldus the Cistercian is more of an inquisition guy than a crusader, but he has embraced his assignment from the Pope with typical fervor. In exchange for safe passage, Geraldus has promised the aging Baron De Merville absolution, but his rebellious heir, Raymond De Merville has cut his own deal with the king. However, he did not bargain on the fierce fighting prowess of The Mute, a lay penitent, who has taken a vow of silence. The Mute is more concerned with protecting the young novice Brother Diarmuid than The Rock, but he is certainly no stranger to killing.

There are a few decent scenes of hack-and-slash action in Pilgrimage, but Heaven help us Brother, is it ever didactic. Geraldus is such a prissy, preening, unsubtly vile anti-Catholic caricature, he makes it difficult to get past his polemical howlers. At one point, when recalling how he killed his own father on the rack for so-called heresy, Geraldus hisses: “the problem wasn’t that he lost his faith in the Church, he’d lost his fear of it.” Ooooh, how cold.

If Muldowney had read a little Thomas Cahill and laid off the polemics, Pilgrimage could have been an agreeably muddy and gritty action historical. Cinematographer Tom Comerford makes it all look appropriately dark and dank. Most importantly, Jon Bernthal has the chops and the presence for the silently glowering Mute. On the other hand, Stanley Weber is a horror show of villainous tics and clichés as the mustache-twisting Geraldus. Tom Holland, the new Spiderman nobody asked for, is a vanilla wallflower non-entity as Diarmuid. However, John Lynch lends the film more dignity and gravitas than it deserves as the noble Brother Ciarán.

After watching Pilgrimage you will feel like you were hit over the head with a giant mace, just like De Merville’s foes. This is definitely a case where less could have been more. Not recommended, The Pilgrimage opens today (8/11) in New York, at the Village East.

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