J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

MFF ’18: Love Education

When it comes to marriage, it isn’t the love or the memories that really matter. It’s the paperwork. Alas, Qui Huiying’s father was not particularly diligent at documenting his two marriages, but those were chaotic times in the Mainland provinces. As a result, Qui and her father’s first wife find themselves in a standoff throughout Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (fortunately also starring Chang herself), which screens during the 2018 Miami Film Festival.

After the death of her mother, Qui decides her parents should be buried together, even though that would mean exhuming him from the grave “Nanna” tends every day. In fact, the soon-to-retire teacher is convinced this was her mother’s dying request, even though her husband Yin Xiaoping and daughter Weiwei totally missed it. Determining legal standing in this case will be a tricky business. Grandpa and Nanna were joined in an arranged marriage, but he left their famine-wracked village a few months later hoping to find opportunity in the big city. There he met Qui’s mother, whom he married according to more modern and legal conventions. However, neither has the right kind of official court marriage license to prove their rightful custodianship of his grave.

Meanwhile, Weiwei was falling for Da, a brooding hipster bar singer, at least until his ex and her young son showed up on his doorstep. Their relationship might sound like it will parallel that of Qui’s parents, but Chang is too sophisticated a filmmaker for such simplistic one-to-one gimmicks. Indeed, it soon becomes clear their halting romance is very much their own.

Granted, Love Education is messy in both smart ways that are true to life and in less fortunate reflections of a somewhat untidy screenplay. However, it is enormously refreshing to see an emotionally mature relationship-driven film that features intelligently drawn, fully dimensional female and male characters. Clearly, Chang has a special knack for this kind of drama, having also helmed the exquisitely delicate Murmur of the Hearts.

Of course, she is also one of our greatest living actresses. Critics love to laud Dame Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon as more mature actresses who are still glamorous, but that should apply one hundred-fold to Chang (just check out her recent work in Office and Mountains May Depart). This time around, she still somehow manages to sneak up on us, charging ahead as the dutiful-daughter-tiger-mother in the first two acts—and then suddenly lowering the boom on us in key scenes down the stretch.

Likewise, the formerly banned filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhaung gives a lowkey performance as Yin, until he suddenly just pulls the rug out from under us. Lang Yueting nicely portrays Weiwei’s process of maturing and coming into herself, while Geng Le adds some intriguing flair as the actor-parent of one of Qui’s problem students.

Love Education is an intimate film that makes you fee like you are practically a member of Qui’s family. Yet, buried within, there is some thinly veiled critiques of China’s longstanding record of polygamous practices in rural areas, as well as the chaotic mid-20th Century ideological movements that left so many government records offices in a state of utter shambles. First and foremost, there is really terrific work from Sylvia Chang on both sides of the camera. Highly recommended for readers authors like Gail Tsukiyama and Lisa See, as well as Chang’s many fans, Love Education screens tomorrow (3/18), as part of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Journey’s End: R.C. Sherriff’s Classic Drama, Back on the Big Screen

R.C. Sherriff’s classic stage play was such a definitive depiction of WWI, Heinz Paul opted to maintain the characters’ Britishness for his 1931 German language film production. Ironically, it would be Aces High, a 1976 Franco-British co-pro that took the most liberties, shifting the drama from the trenches to a fighter squadron. This time around, director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade closely follow the original text with their faithful yet still powerful adaptation of Journey’s End (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Hopelessly naïve with respect to the war, 2nd Lt. Raleigh manages to get himself assigned to the infantry company of Captain Stanhope, his senior at school and his sister’s romantic interest. Unfortunately, the war has taken a drastic emotional toll on Stanhope, who now regularly self-medicates with whiskey. Nevertheless, his is still the best trench-level officer in the British Army.

With the launch of what would be known as the Spring Offensive imminent, Raleigh’s timing is downright perverse. In fact, Stanhope bitterly resents his presence, fearing Raleigh will inform his sister of his post-traumatic condition and that Raleigh’s blind hero-worship will lead to his death. The latter concern becomes especially pressing when Stanhope’s superiors order him to dispatch Raleigh and the beloved second-in-command, Lt. “Uncle” Osborne on a dubious daytime raid.

Dibb opens up the drama just a bit, giving viewers a sense of the intricacies of the trenches, but he retains the feeling of airless claustrophobia. Just being there looks like a miserable experience, so it is easy to see how the added tension of the anticipated German attack would try men’s souls. The film itself feels more than sufficiently realistic, but Dibb is also clearly attuned to the institutionalized class differences between officers and the enlisted.

Sam Claflin is terrific and almost terrifyingly intense as Stanhope. It is an achingly brittle performance that actually pairs up nicely with his work in Their Finest, which is tonally quite different, yet shares some overlapping themes. Likewise, Paul Bettany really gives the film depth and soul with his humanistic portrayal of Osborne. Much like he did in Zoo, Toby Jones finds his opportunities to inject pathos and dignity into Mason the cook, who might otherwise be a stock character cliché in someone else’s hands. Frankly, the maturation and disillusionment of Asa Butterfield’s Raleigh seems a bit slow, but his character is really just there to serve as a foil and mirror to Stanhope.

It is nice to see Dibb finally get another film released in American theaters after the Weinsteins dithered away his quality adaptation of Suite Française. This is an even better film that captures the horrifying futility of war without indulging in graphic gore. Highly recommended, Journey’s End opens today (3/16) in New York, at the Landmark 57.

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Demon House: Paranormal TV Host Makes the Documentary Leap

If poverty and crime are a magnet for the sinister supernatural than Gary, Indiana should be Demon City, USA. It was there that Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans bought a notoriously haunted house sight-unseen and got far more than he bargained for. At least that is the story he tells in his documentary (sure, go ahead and scoff) Demon House (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Whatever went down in the house before Bagans took possession, it was freaky enough to make veteran police officers and child protective services case workers vow to never step foot in it again. Bad things happened to those who had been inside, including several near fatal accidents. The previous tenants had actually had an exorcism performed by Father Mike Maginot, a major supporting character in the film. They now refuse to have any dealings with Bagans, because they are afraid he could re-infect them with the demons or whatever it might be.

It would seem Bagans’ investigation extended the house’s tragic history by delivering up new victims, such as his home-inspector, who is reportedly diagnosed with cancer shortly after finishing his appraisal. Things really get ugly when a family of former tenants pays a spontaneous visit. Yes, we should all be skeptical, but at least in some cases, such as the murder of a psychic Bagans frequently worked with, the details can be quickly verified with a google search, which is sort of unsettling.

Retired Gary PD Captain Charles Austin also appears to be totally legit and not the least bit inclined to hysterics. Even for us rational positivists, he and Maginot lend the film a lot of credibility.

So, was the now demolished house really haunted? Of course not. Don’t be stupid. However, we can believe that Bagans and his crew really believed. Who knows what that can make possible when combined with some really terrible Feng shui. Frankly, Bagans over-relies on the sensationalistic tactics of his Travel Channel show. His constant teases and recaps always sound like they should end with “after these commercial messages.” Nevertheless, the demonic business is genuinely scary at times and often quite convincingly filmed/staged/produced/documented—whichever, take your pick.

It is inevitable that Demon House will be described as a feature-length episode of Ghost Adventures, but it is also an unusually effective one. We prefer to think of it as a found footage horror film that recruited talent connected to the real-life house that inspired the film. In any event, it is a creepy film that will not do the Gary Chamber of Commerce any favors. Recommended for fans of ghost-chasing TV and found footage horror movies, Demon House opens today (3/16) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset.

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Rendez-Vous ’18: Before Summer Ends

Ah, home sweet oppressive regime. Iranian expatriates like these three grad students have a complicated relationship with their homeland. As one puts it, he feels more at home in Iran, but he is more like the person he wants to be in France. When one of the trio decides to return home, his two mates convince him to take one last (or rather first) road trip together in Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Arash is a big fellow, who was apparently spoiled by his family in Iran. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ashkan and Hossein adapted better to life in Paris, especially the latter, who married a French woman. When Arash announces his plan to return, his friends try to talk him out of it, yet they obviously understand his decision. Nevertheless, they will have one last hurrah of easily accessible beer and wine, while camping out and carousing along the French Riviera.

Reportedly, Goormaghtigh originally intended to make a documentary about the refugee experience (because there are hardly any of those already), but the three expat friends just captured her filmmaking enthusiasm. Indeed, it is quietly compelling to watch them navigate their in-between expatriate existences: not citizens, not asylum-seekers, not illegal aliens, nor stateless fugitives.

Although filmed direct-documentary-style, Before often has the feel of a chatty Richard Linklater indie-road-comedy, especially when two French indie-rockers start tagging along. However, serious issues are always percolating right below the surface. In fact, we eventually learn Arash is not the only one who will have to make hard-and-fast residency decision.

The trio, simply credited as Arash, Ashkan, and Hossein (which is telling in itself), crack their share of scatological jokes, but they also have some shrewd insights to offer. Perhaps the resemblance between the geography of the south of France and the north of Iran put them in a conducive head-space. In any event, we certainly feel like we know them when the film finally runs its course.

Before Summer Ends is a small film, but it has some wry nuggets of wisdom to offer. Considering how much they enjoy their potent potables, it is hard to imagine the three amigos could re-acclimate to life in contemporary Medieval Iran, but they themselves suggest they are very different people in their native country. Recommended for those in the mood for a lowkey film that still has substance, Before Summer Ends screens tomorrow afternoon (3/17), as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

NYICFF ’18: Zombillenium

Hector is becoming more human. He was a workplace safety inspector and now he is a zombie. It’s definitely an improvement. After years of bullying companies, he now finds himself at the bottom of the monster pecking order. However, Hector might just finally organize the passive walking dead in Arthur de Pins & Alexis Ducord’s Zombillenium (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

As a widowed single father, Hector has not been doing right by his daughter Lucie. After promising to take her to the all-too-real monster-themed amusement park Zombillenium, he tries to wriggle out of it by shutting it down with workplace safety citations. However, the park’s general manager, Francis Von Bloodt will not stand for that, so he kills Hector and remands him into Zombillenium service as a zombie.

Oddly enough, it turns out Hector makes a good zombie. Thanks to his contributions, the zombie attractions start to gain popularity at the vampires’ expense. With the exception of the sympathetic Von Bloodt, this new turn of events does not sit well with the blood-suckers, so they start plotting, because they are monsters after all. Meanwhile, Gretchen the Nine Inch Nails-listening intern-witch (whose father is rumored to be quite an infernal one) will try to facilitate a reunion between the embattled Hector and his grieving daughter.

De Pins and Ducord cast the zombies-versus-vampires struggle in unsubtle class warfare terms, yet the militant labor rights messaging rather clashes with wonton abuse of government regulatory power displayed by Hector while still in human form. At least nobody sings “The Internationale,” but the filmmaker clearly would not mind if little ones in the audience jumped up to yell “¡no psaran!,” while pumping their fist. It’s a shame, because it drags down the fun quotient of an otherwise charming animated film.

If you can overlook the forays into propaganda, Zombillenium is an entertaining monster movie that tweaks the traditional legends and movie conventions in clever ways. The father-daughter relationship is rather sweet and touching, while the ambiguous chemistry that develops between Hector and Gretchen pays off nicely.

As a side note, Zombillenium had its only 3D screening at the festival last Sunday. Ordinarily, we consider 3D an underwhelming cash-grab, but in this case, it works unusually well. A good deal of the story involves the park rollercoaster and Gretchen’s witchboard, so there is all kinds of swooping and swooshing, which makes for a richer, fuller 3D experience than someone pointing a sharp stick at the camera.

Zombillenium is definitely a film for older kids, because there are some intense scenes, including the downtrodden zombies laboring like Sisyphus on the Conan wheel in H-E-double hockey-sticks. However, fans who know their Famous Monsters of Filmland and Drak Pack will get a kick out of seeing the classic monster archetypes updated for the postmodern era. Recommended despite its didactic excesses, Zombillenium screens again in 2D this Saturday (3/17), as part of the 2018 NYICFF.

Patrons of French cinema might also be interested in Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Romain Segaud’s Two Snails Set Off, a three-minute animated adaptation of the Jacques Prévert poem. It is more about creepy-crawly critters than creatures, but it displays the same Baroque-level of detail seen in Jeunet’s features, such as Delicatessen. It also features the voice talent of a platoon of famous French screen thesps, including Audrey Tatou and Irène Jacob. Brief but still recommended for the auteur’s fans, Two Snails screens as part of the Heebie Jeebies short block this Sunday (3/18).

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Mantra: Sounds into Silence—at the Rubin Museum of Art

Kirtan music—it’s not just for yoga anymore. Many new listeners still come through the doorway of Bhakti yoga, but the audience for the call-and-response chanting has grown into something bigger and more broadly based. Both listeners and musicians explain what the music means to them in Georgia Wyss’s Mantra: Sounds into Silence (trailer here), co-directed by Wari Om, which has several upcoming screenings at the Rubin Museum of Art, featuring special live kirtan performances.

For most avid listeners, kirtan music helps take them out of themselves and immerses them in a collective music-making experience. For the most part, they identify with the Vedic and Sikh traditions, but Buddhists are also represented. In fact, the most intriguing sequences feature the Venerable Lama Gyurme, the preeminent Tibetan Buddhist teacher in France, as he is accompanied by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, a French jazz musician who has lately adapted himself to world music contexts.

Frankly, we would have preferred to see more forms of experimental cross-pollenated kirtan, such as the hip-hop fusions of MC Yogi and the C.C. White’s aptly named Soulkirtan conception, which is indeed powerfully soulful. The music just seems more alive when it evolves and travels, at least according to our jazz ethos.

Nevertheless, the music is often striking and the scenery is quite picturesque. Yet, one of the most compelling performances is Jai Uttal’s San Quentin concert arranged by the prison’s Buddhist priest, Susan Shannon. Clearly, the music affects the audience deeply, which is all to the good, considering if there is a list of places that could use a greater sense of transcendent peace, San Quentin would surely rank towards the top. You also have to give Uttal (who has worked with Don Cherry and Bill Laswell) credit for tearing up his set, like he was playing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.

We would have enjoyed hearing a little more about the musicians’ influences and creative processes, but we go in for that kind of musical inside-baseball stuff. Regardless, the film is lovely to look at and listen to, while always making an effort to be accessible to a wide spectrum of viewers. Recommended for world music listeners and students of Eastern religion, Mantra: Sounds into Silence screens at the Rubin Museum on 3/16, 3/17, 3/18, 3/21, 3/22, twice on 3/24, and twice on 3/25.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Cold Hell

According to this religiously motivated serial killer, Islam’s Zamhari Hell is so cold, it burns. In that case, it would not mean much if Hell froze over. Regardless, Hell may very well have frozen over judging from the surprises this Austrian thriller has in-store for viewers. In addition to being relentlessly tense, it also stays true to current realities, in ways that would be spoilery to explain. It also happens to be the work of an Academy Award winner, Stefan Ruzowitzky (for The Counterfeiters). Hitchcockian elements get a very-of-right-now spin in Ruzowitzky’s Cold Hell (trailer here), a Shudder exclusive, which premiere tomorrow on the horror streaming platform.

Özge Dogruol has a right to be bent out of shape. She constantly endures hostile sexism, especially from her Muslim Turkish family. She is closest with her cousin Ranya, whose husband employs Dogruol as a cab driver. She even faces condescending chauvinism at her Muay Thai gym, but fighters quickly change their tune after going a few rounds with her. She is a tough customer, but she is still alarmed to see a shadowy psycho torturing a prostitute to death through a courtyard window, especially when she realizes he noticed her watching.

Initially, the Archie Bunkerish Det. Christian Steiner dismisses her fears. He still isn’t very compassionate when Rayna is murdered wearing her jacket. However, he finally admits she might be in peril when the killer tries to murder her in her own cab, causing a series of spectacular accidents as a result. In addition to playing the killer’s cat-and-mouse game, Dogruol is determined to protect Rayna’s toddler daughter Ada from her pederast father. It is a lot of pressure, but at least she somehow forges an unlikely alliance with Steiner.

Cold Hell played a number of horror-specialty festivals, but it is really a dark thriller in the tradition of Se7en, but considerably superior. This is a lean, mean psycho-suspense machine. It all starts with Violetta Schurawlow blowing the doors off the joint as Dogruol. If it were not for Kim Ok-vin’s action lead for the ages in The Villainess, Schurawlow’s Dogruol would probably rate as the best action heroine since Angela Mao retired. She is intense, vulnerable, and completely credible when administering a beatdown.

Schurawlow is also terrific playing off and with Tobias Moretti’s Steiner. Although unlikely, their sharp-edged chemistry is so potent, it just carries us along, sweeping us past any credibility objections. On the other side of the ledger, Sammy Sheik is relentlessly sinister as a character who turns out to be rather malevolent.

If a Social Justice Warrior ever watched Cold Hell, they would probably start protesting. Fortunately, they really do not pay attention to indie and international genre films, because this is an absolutely dynamite thriller. Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels makes it all look ultra-stylish, in the De Palma-esque tradition of being Hitchcockian. Ruzowitzky keeps it hurtling along like a runaway train, while eliciting gritty but sensitive work from his ensemble. It is easily one of Shudder’s best exclusive acquisitions. Very highly recommended, it starts streaming on the horror service tomorrow (3/15).

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Our Blood is Wine: Reviving a Tradition in Georgia

The Soviets did the near impossible. They turned the richly diverse wines of Georgia into undrinkable swill. Under the occupation, all the distinctive regional strains of grapes went into the same vat, producing muddy grape juice. Gone were the varietals and varied local traditions. That is exactly what collectivization means. Happily, many Georgians are rekindling the ancient qvevri winemaking process. Filmmaker Emily Railsback and sommelier Jeremy Quinn introduce viewers to many of the new generation of traditional Georgian vintners in Our Blood is Wine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Chicago.

Georgian wine has a well-deserved reputation for being special, but few outside the sovereign nation have tasted the real deal. Often it is more acidic but less alcoholic than other wines, but it truly spans the gamut of body and taste. When Quinn wanted to connect with the essence of what wine should be, he came to Georgia.

Although the local crops and qvevri techniques (huge clay pots that ferment underground) atrophied during the Captive Nation years, they persisted household to household, bottle to bottle, like winemaking samizdat. With a resurgence of interest in Georgian culture underway, many micro-wineries are now producing for an export market (largely Japan, where they know fine wine). Ironically, the boom in international interest really exploded when Russia placed an embargo on Georgian wine.

OBIW is a very casual film that was literally shot on an iPhone, but its lowkey nature suits its subject and participants. Although there is a very serious side to this story, Railsback focuses on the positive. There is a real camaraderie shared by the vintners and Quinn, as well as a spirit of joie de vivre when it is time to imbibe (and sing). There is also a palpable sense of excitement when long dormant regional wines are successfully revived—in one case after an estimated hiatus of three hundred years.

We also share a justified feeling of optimism that this qvevri renaissance can help fuel an economic revival. After all, their wines are organic and exclusive—perfect for the export market. It is just a breezy, down-to-earth viewing experience, like sharing a fine bottle of wine with new friends, amid a gorgeous scenic backdrop. Highly recommended for wine connoisseurs and those interested in post-Soviet economic and cultural developments, Our Blood is Wine opens this Friday (3/16) at the Village East in New York and the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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SXSW ’18: Milford Graves Full Mantis

You could say Milford Graves is an experimental jazz musician. He is the co-holder of a medical patent and often records the human heart as part of a long-term holistic musical project. Graves is also generally considered part of the free jazz school, but as is often the case, that label is not sufficient for his music. Graves’ former student Jake Meginsky and co-director Neil Young document the percussionist’s music and ideas in Milford Graves Full Mantis (trailer here), which screens at this year’s SXSW.

Graves has played with some of the greatest names in free jazz. In fact, we hear him playing with a decidedly free group early in the documentary. However, whenever Grave’s percussion is front and center, it is totally accessible. We can hear African and Asian influences in there, but we are always talking about rhythm—sometimes boisterous and sometimes hypnotic, but always propulsive.

To approximate the experience of their lessons, Meginsky prompts Graves to speak his peace during Full Mantis—and he has a lot to say. Some of his ideas are a bit out there, but they are the eccentricities of a survivor. He has lived quite a life, having worked as a trained physician’s assistant (making us wonder if he ever played with Eddie Henderson, the jazz M.D.) and made it through the tumult of the 1960s in relatively intact.

He generally seems philosophically and empathically inclined, particularly during a concert in Japan at a school for autistic children. For most musicians, that would have been a tough gig, but he and dancer Min Tanaka use rhythm to reach the student on a profound level. Nor do they let it ruffle their feathers when some of the kids encroach on the performance space and in some cases start playing along. Fortunately, somebody captured it on a video camera, because it is an absolutely extraordinary performance that is quite moving, both emotionally and physically, in a toe-tapping kind of way.

The Japanese concert is such a crescendo, it probably should have concluded the film, but there is at least one more sequence that will stick with viewers for a long time to come. Graves relates a harrowing 1960s encounter with street crime and racism that sort of cuts both ways from the perspective of current gun and law enforcement controversies.

Full Mantis ranges freely across topics that interest Graves, including martial arts (that is where the mantis reference comes in), medicine, and of course music. His fans would not want it any other way. Meginsky and Young might just win over some new ones for him with their meditative yet surprisingly zesty treatment. Highly recommended anyone who enjoys feeling some rhythm, Milford Graves Full Mantis screens again tomorrow (3/15) and Friday (3/16), as part of the 2018 SXSW.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Assistant: Nathalie Baye Will Permanently File You

Temp workers just don’t work out in the movies. Remember Lara Flynn Boyle in The Temp or Ali Larter in Obsessed? Don’t feel bad if the answer is “no.” This is sort of the classy version of those films, except sixty-something Marie-France Ducret is more interested in inappropriately grandmothering her boss’s young son than any sort of romantic relationship in Christophe Ali & Nicolas Bonilauri’s The Assistant (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

While rushing his pregnant wife Audrey to the hospital, Thomas Lemans accidentally mowed down Ducret’s twentysomething son. Nine years later, she still holds a grudge. The accident took a toll on the separated Lemanses’ marriage, but he clearly wriggled out of a prosecution. In the meantime, Ducret built up a resume of short-term work at architecture firms, making her the perfect temp candidate when Lemans’ assistant has her own accident. Actually, he uses the term “secretary,” because he is an entitled jerk.

Naturally, Ducret starts worming her way into Lemans’ life, proving just how helpful she can be, especially when it comes to whiny nine-year-old Leo. She sets off all Audrey (still Lemans)’s alarm bells, but frankly Thomas could use the help. He is prepared to deal with her indefinitely when she eventually marries his father Eric, but she will be an unhealthy influence on the whole family.

You could think of The Assistant as the mirror image of Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka, in which Nathalie Baye played the suspected hit-and-run driver stalked by Emmanuelle Devos’s avenging mother. This time she is the aggrieved hunter, but both films clearly share a Hitchcockian influence. You can also see a touch of an influence of Fatal Attraction and other 1980s and ‘90s dark relationship thrillers.

Baye is terrific as Ducret. As ruthless and cold-blooded as she gets, she still maintains a degree of audience sympathy. All things considered, Malik Zidi keeps up with her quite well, even though poor Lemans is decidedly slow on the uptake. Seriously, if you plow down an innocent pedestrian, at least have the decency to learn his name. Plus, seasoned vet Johan Leysen really helps hold it all together as Lemans’ craggy but sensitive father.

Admittedly, the rest of the Lemans family are more like awkward props than full-fledged characters, but Ducret’s manipulations are insidiously compelling to watch. It is a slick and stylish cat-and-mouse game, but with a darkly ambiguous heart. Recommended for fans of French thrillers, The Assistant is now available on DVD From Distrib Film/Icarus Films.

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Children of the Corn: Runaway

In addition to their well-publicized sins, you can also accuse the Weinsteins of being poor stewards of 1980s horror franchises. Amityville: The Awakening had some merit and a name director, but they turned it into a punchline by streaming it for free on google. Likewise, Hellraiser: Judgement might have been something, but it was under-funded and ultimately copped out at the very last minute. In this case, we’re just talking about a bad movie. You can hear the sound of a franchise expiring during John Gulager’s Children of the Corn: Runaway (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

We’re getting pretty far afield of Stephen King’s original short story, but Runaway still invokes his name. Its rather surprising how much children and corn has already passed under the bridge. The story was first the inspiration for one of the earliest “Dollar Babies,” “Disciples of the Crow,” which managed to get some distribution by being in the right place at the right time. There was the proper 1984 Hollywood adaptation that many fans have a nostalgic affection for, probably because they remember seeing it in drive-ins or second-run theaters that no longer exist. There were seven subsequent sequels and a Syfy Channel reboot, which this film follows chronologically, so yes, this is a straight-to-DVD sequel to a Syfy original movie. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Ruth, formerly known as Sandy, has been on the run with her newborn son, since she left the cult and set fire to the cornfields in Children 2009. Aaron is now a surly pre-teen, who doesn’t understand why his mom is so paranoid. Like it or not, they will have to spend time in a dusty Oklahoma burg, so Ruth finally considers putting down some roots. She even gets a mechanic job with Carl, the gruff but charitable filling station owner. Unfortunately, there is an angelic little cult-member girl who occasionally kills adults when the movie really starts to drag.

And does it ever. This is one of the dullest horror movies you could ever hope to see. It devotes an unfathomable amount of time to Ruth and Aaron ordering food at the local diner. Seriously, there are time when it feels like we are watching corn grow. Yet, whenever the ever so petite “Pretty Girl” carves up another victim, it just looks utterly ridiculous on-screen.

Frustratingly, both Marci Miller and Lynn Andrews III have talent and they spark off each other quite well in their scenes together as Ruth and Carl, but they really don’t have anyone or anything else to work with here. The story makes little sense and the supposed twist is glaringly obvious. However, Gulager has a couple of big aerial shots, so there’s that.

Somehow, Gulager convinced his character actor father Clu to make a cameo appearance, playing a cranky diner customer honest-to-gosh named “Crusty.” It is probably best forgotten, like the rest of the film. It is really all just a bore. Not recommended, Children of the Corn: Runaway is now available on DVD and BluRay.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Rendez-Vous ’18: Waiting for the Barbarians

Surrender your electronic devices. That is the first thing the aesthetically singular Eugène Green would have us do to escape the influence of the barbarian hordes. It is probably good advice. Although a prolific filmmaker, his heart famously remains in the Baroque era. However, he conflates both Medieval times and our current era in Waiting for the Barbarians (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Green just isn’t working towards the same goals of other filmmakers. Influenced by the Baroque dramatic tradition, Green’s films embrace and amplify the artificial nature of the theater (and cinema) rather than attempt to create an illusion of verisimilitude. When they work, they still create a rapturously beautiful canvas upon which his narratives play out—La Sapience and The Portuguese Nun being prime examples, whereas The Son of Joseph was a weirdly smarmy misfire we shall henceforth pretend never happened. Barbarians is something of a return to Spartan form for Green, even though it may very well be his most demanding film yet.

Produced as part of a workshop, Barbarians is experimental in its ethos. Six modern-dress refugees fleeing unseen barbarians hordes take refuge with a Medieval Mage and his wife, the Magess. However, right from the start, it appears doubtful the barbarians really exist. They are just projections of our modern anxieties. Perhaps the six asylum-seekers will come to understand this when they finally start talking honestly among themselves. They will also have help from the ghost of the Mage’s daughter, who died tragically young, as well as the Arthurian parable their hosts stage as a play for their guests’ edification.

Obviously, this will appeal to a very narrow stratum of cineastes, but for the open-minded, the hushed, airless vibe is quite arresting. Despite the minimalist production, Green’s faithful cinematographer, Raphaël O’Byrne gives it an evocative glow. The cast also adapts to Green’s rigorous style quite well. Indeed, he demands a deceptive deadpan that is outwardly stoic, yet suggests the speaker is connected to things much deeper and mysterious than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Green is not exactly inclined to hand the audience his takeaways on a silver platter. Yet, this film seems like a subtle rebuke to those who would live in perpetual fear and outrage focused on the Trumps and Le Pens of the world. Clearly, the Mages suggest the best way to counter barbarism is to live a rich, productive, and cultured life, but that means we must refocus from without to within. Or perhaps not. Implying meaning on Barbarians could be an endless parlor game for an intrepid few. Recommended as a rebound for Green’s elite followers, Waiting for the Barbarians screens tomorrow (3/13) and Friday (3/16), as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.

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SXSW ’18: Ruben Blades is Not My Name

It is tough to get discovered working in a record label’s mailroom, but it sure helps if producer-recording artist Larry Harlow has the office next door. Ruben Blades also had some catchy songs he worked on during his lunch breaks—as well as a law degree from Harvard. For some, Blades was the last great Fania superstar, who helped the Salsa company breakout internationally with his politicized lyrics. To others, he is a recognizable actor from Hollywood films like The Two Jakes and Mo’ Better Blues. Supposedly winding down his musical career with a farewell tour, Blades welcomed filmmaker Abner Benaim’s camera to help explicitly define his legacy in Ruben Blades is Not My Name (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s SXSW.

It is easy to see why questions of legacy are top of mind, given how many of the Fania All-Stars are no longer with us (including Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoie, and Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez). On the other, many of the surviving Fania artists are conspicuously missing (particularly those involved in litigation), but at least the great Larry Harlow is present and accounted for. Regardless, the sequences directly pertaining to Fania are definitely the doc’s strongest, which is fortunate, because they are also what Blades fans probably most want to see. Alas, those hoping for the definitive “making of” history of Color of Night with Bruce Willis and Jane March will have to look elsewhere.

Conversely, the film is at its weakest when celebrating Blades’ political activism, possibly because his generally leftist worldview so closely aligns with that of Benaim’s. However, we have to give Blades, the one-time Panamanian presidential candidate, credit for expressing some criticism of the Chavez/Maduro regime, even though he is nowhere near as vociferous as he was speaking out against Reagan’s anti-communist policies in the 1980s. Nevertheless, he was largely on the sidelines when the Chavists and their allies used ostensibly democratic constituent assemblies to roll back democracy throughout Latin America—a fact a different, less radicalized filmmaker might have pressed him on.

In any event, Blades is clearly running this show, which will probably be fine with his fans. To his credit, he faces up to the illegitimate son he recognized relatively recently in 2015—and that is obviously a hard topic for Blades to discuss so openly. Altogether, it is decent portrait of an internationally influential artist. Recommended for fans of Blades and Fania, Ruben Blades is Not My Name screens again this Tuesday (3/13) and Wednesday (3/14), as part of the 2018 SXSW.

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

SXSW ’18: People’s Republic of Desire

Chinese live-streaming might not have the weird fetish appeal of the Japanese idol industry, but the fake egalitarianism and built-in exploitation make it even more perverse. Popular hosts and singers on the YY streaming platform can make tens of thousands of dollars per month, but the system is still stacked against them. Molecular biologist-turned documentarian Hao Wu dives deep into the YY ecosystem in People’s Republic of Desire (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s SXSW.

Shen Man is an up-and-coming YY host, who is the sole support of her unemployed father and step-mother. She will be a genuine contender during the annual YY competition, because she has a number of well-heeled patrons and a major YY talent agency backing her. If you read YY’s media kit, it probably makes the platform sound like an egalitarian place, where average folk determine who is successful with their votes and on-line buzz. In reality, they might be able to boost a host from obscurity to a modest following, but once big-dollar patrons start throwing online (but very real) money around the live-caster’s “showroom,” the serfs are effectively frozen out of the action.

Big Li is maybe the last exception. He is considered the “diaosi” (a hard to translate term for a homely underclass male) who made good. He is the last of the unagented hosts who will meaningfully compete in the YY contest. A win will bring online fame, as well as more sponsors and hopefully gifts, but it comes at a price. Agencies will spend hundreds of thousands ofreal dollars on online votes, which they charge back to clients, making second place an expensive disappointment.

Wu follows both hosts through two competitions and a very messy year of scandals and personal strife in between. Wu’s approach is primarily sociological, with a special focus on the disenfranchised diaosi, who become increasingly disconnected from the live-streamers they helped build. There is also a pronounced element of sexism in how female live-streamers are treated. Even top talent like Shen Man must regularly field vulgar comments and many of their patrons clearly expect sexual favors in exchange for financial support.

However, we see enough of the inner workings of YY and major agencies (many of whom seem to be bankrolled by sketchy underworld types) to know this racket is fishy. Frankly, someone should do a full-scale expose of the Chinese live-streaming industry, but there is not exactly a robust tradition of investigative journalism on the Mainland.

Desire manages to make Western social media look less corrosive and divisive, which is definitely quite an achievement. As director and editor, Wu shows a keen eye for human drama, but still gives viewers a good overview of the bigger picture. He vividly illustrates the disparity between migrant workers and the oligarchical patron class, without belaboring the point. Highly recommended as a snapshot of contemporary Mainland society, People’s Republic of Desire screens again this afternoon (3/11) and Wednesday (3/14) during SXSW ’18.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Rendez-Vous ’18: See You Up There

There is nothing fake about the WWI military service of Albert Maillard and Edouard Péricourt—they have the scars and disfigurement to prove it. However, the war memorials they peddle are as phony as a three-Franc note. As far as Péricourt, the disillusioned artist is concerned, it is exactly what the public deserves for their fake sympathy. Maillard is less convinced, but he will be passively carried along with the scheme in Albert Dupontel’s See You Up There (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

As Maillard explains to the interrogating Algerian police officer, nobody wanted to die when they knew armistice was imminent, but their commanding officer, Lt. Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle was a truly evil jerk, who had to get in one last battle, in blatant defiance of his orders. In fact, Maillard sees the incriminating evidence—two French scouts shot in the back—before d’Aulnay-Pradelle blew their bodies apart. Péricourt rescues Maillard from a premature burial, but loses the better part of his jaw for his efforts.

At Péricourt’s behest, Maillard switches his identity with that of a former ward of the state killed in action, sparing him a presumably painful reunion with his severely judgmental father. Péricourt remains in a morphine-laced depression, until a friendship with the neighboring orphan girl and his dodgy war memorial plan rejuvenate his spirits. As fate would have it, his father will unwittingly help fund the con and become its biggest sucker.

In terms of visual style, SYUT is so grandly baroque, it could pass for the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The narrative itself is a grubby tale of swindles and payback, but Dupontel gives it epic sweep. There are even gothic elements, such as the flamboyant masks Péricourt crafts for himself that evoke the Phantom of the Opera.

Dupontel is his own best collaborator, playing Maillard as a poignantly nebbish everyman. He is also rather touching when courting the Péricourt family’s maid, Pauline, who should be well out of his league, since she is played by Mélanie Thierry, but whatever. As the masked Péricourt, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart impressively expresses much through body language and his eyes. Niels Arestrup is as reliable as ever gruffly but sensitively portraying Old Man Péricourt, while Laurent Lafitte (of the Comédie Française) chews the scenery with relish as the irredeemable Lieutenant. Yet, the film wouldn’t be the same without André Marcon biding his time as the sly colonial gendarme.

See You Up There is a richly realized period production, but it is also a wickedly effective anti-war movie. Hollow platitudes sound especially disingenuous in French. It is a bold film best seen on the big screen, but it certainly never romanticizes Jazz Age Paris. Very highly recommended, See You Up There screens this Tuesday (3/13) and the following Sunday (3/18) , as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

Gringo: South of the Border Farce, with a Body Count

Apparently, smoking marijuana takes too much effort for Millennials. If only they could just pop a pill and be done with it. As it just so happens, Harold Soyinka’s dodgy pharma company has developed exactly such a product in its ultra-sketch lab south of the border. A lot of tough customers would like to get their hands on a sample. As a result, this will be a very bad time to fake an abduction, but Soyinka always had bad timing. However, the drastic turn of events just might have a liberating effect on the trod-upon worker drone in Nash Edgerton’s Gringo (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Soyinka starts out as an early Walter Mitty, putting up with his exploitative boss, Richard Rusk, because he condescendingly pretends they are friends. Yet, Rusk has secretly seduced Soyinka’s grasping wife Bonnie, who is on the verge of leaving her sad sack husband. That does not sit well with Elaine Markinson, Rusk’s corporate co-president and possessive lover. Having gotten wind of an impending merger, Soyinka tries to fake his own abduction, but it will be more convenient for Rusk if his supposed pal is killed down there. That is really bad O. Henry-esque news for Soyinka, especially when he is kidnapped for real.

It is just one darned thing after another for Soyinka. Things will look up when he is ostensibly rescued by Rusk’s merc-turned-social worker brother Mitch, but he is still in more danger than he realizes. At least he rather enjoys crossing paths with Sunny, an American tourist who might be even more naïve than he is. However, her drug mule boyfriend Miles is up to his snide neck in a scheme to smuggle out some of Rusk’s pot pills.

Gringo is about a millimeter deep, but screenwriters Anthony Tambakis & Matthew Stone pack each second with a plot reversal or a violent bit of slapstick humor. Edgerton cranks the pace up to warp speed and the spritely upbeat soundtrack takes the rough edge off a lot of the cartel violence. At times, it comes perilously close to becoming a Ben Stiller parody of Sicario, but poor Soyinka’s peril is always quite real and pressing.

Indeed, Gringo showcases David Oyelowo as we have never seen him before—as a cringy doormat. Sometimes, he is just hard to take. On the other hand, it is jolly good fun to watch Charlize Theron vamp it up as the emasculating Markinson. Joel Edgerton also oozes slime as Rusk. Frankly, Sharlto Copley is almost too charismatic for the ethically ambiguous Mitch Rusk, albeit in a weird way, but Amanda Seyfried is appealingly sweet and earnest. In contrast, Harry Treadaway’s Miles is perhaps the most abrasive character in a film overflowing with duplicitous sociopaths.

Much has been made of Paris Jackson’s film debut in Gringo, but keep in mind she has maybe two minutes of screen time in what amounts to a cameo. Nevertheless, she shows some promising screen presence and on-the-beat comedic delivery. Viewers will laugh during the film and leave feeling satisfied with the pay-offs, but a year from now, probably the only thing most folks will remember would be Theron cranking up the femme fatale dials to eleven—but that is something. Recommended as a screwball diversion, Gringo opens today (3/9) in New York, at multiple theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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The Outsider: Jared Leto, Yakuza

Sorry, you can’t watch Kill Bill anymore. It is basically Lady Snowblood remade with the lily-white Uma Thurman, who kills a bunch of Asians in her quest for revenge against David Carradine, who made his career through racial appropriation on the Kung Fu TV series. Seriously, if this Jared Leto Yakuza film is as problematic as critics are making it out to be then Tarantino’s entire Weinstein-produced body of work should be absolutely radioactive. However, if you can think for yourself you will probably find the objections are dubious at best when Martin Zandvliet’s The Outsider (trailer here) premieres today on Netflix.

The film itself is pretty straight forward. Nick Lowell is a former American GI in post-war Japan, who saves the life of Kiyoshi, a Yakuza getting the snot beat out of him in a prison dominated by an antagonistic clan. When Lowell helps him reconnect with his clan, Kiyoshi returns the favor, arranging his early release. Suddenly, Lowell is on the Yakuza fast-track and finally starts to feel like he belongs to something, despite the constant “gaijin” taunts from their main rival.

Of course, as soon as Lowell meets Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu, we can see they will be trouble for each other. However, it is not Kiyoshi Lowell should worry about, but rather her abusive former lover, one of Lowell’s new Yakuza brothers, who has been acting a bit squirrely lately.

Essentially, The Outsider is a stylish exploitation film, much like many 100% racially-pure Japanese Yakuza films. They can’t all be masterpieces like Shinoda’s Pale Flower, but a lot of them happen to be good fun. In this case, cinematographer Camilla Hjelm gives the film an uber-Michael Mann sheen, while Zandvliet keeps it strutting along like an ultra-hip Yakuza slinking through the streets of Shinjuku.

The cast, which is nearly entirely Japanese, is also quite strong. As Lowell, Leto broods like nobody’s business. Tadanobu Asano super-cool but also grizzled and grounded as Kiyoshi, while Shioli Kutsuna’s portrayal of Miyu is surprisingly nuanced and psychologically complex. Plus, Kippei Shina chews all kinds of scenery as Lowell’s slimy, back-stabbing Yakuza brother.

To understand the critical group-think demonizing this film, you need to be familiar with the euphemistically titled “Own Voices” movement, which argues only members from within a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group can create credible characters with such an identity. For whites to try to write from the perspective of other ethnicities is in itself an act of cultural appropriation. Of course, if this movement is ultimately successful, it would racially segregate film and literature. Whites will write about whites, exclusively, and African Americans will write about African Americans—and never shall they co-mingle. This is the absolute antithesis of progressive culture, but it illustrates just how fascistic the Social Justice Warriors have become.

This is the current climate of intolerance The Outsider has been released into. It is not nearly as good as Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage and Outrage Beyond, but it is an entertaining crime film that hits a fair number of the Yakuza bases. Recommended for rational film viewers (if there are any left out there) who enjoy gangster skullduggery, The Outsider is now streaming on Netflix and it also opens theatrically today (3/9) at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Girls vs Gangsters: Bachelorette Party with Mike Tyson

This bachelorette party movie might not be funnier than Bridesmaids or Rough Night (although for all we know it is), but it can certainly kick those other movies’ butts. Largely, that is thanks to two co-stars with not insignificant screen time: the leather-clad henchwoman played by Elly Nguyen and Iron Mike Tyson. The bride-to-be and her two bickering besties are pretty clueless, but Tyson obviously had fun shooting his scenes with them in Barbara Wong Chun-chun’s Girls vs Gangsters (a.k.a. Girls 2, trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Xiwen was the sob sister of the quartet of friends introduced in the original Taipei-set Girls, so her engagement is a really big deal. Obviously, her friends have to celebrate with a destination bachelorette party in Vietnam, where Xiaomei will wangle them invites to swanky parties, but never actually spend time with them, because she is supposedly too busy shooting a movie, Of course, nobody gossips about her in her absence, because bridesmaids never do that sort of thing, right?

In this case, rivals Kimmy and Jialan are too busy clawing at each other. Initially, they both compete for the attentions of the mobbed-up funder of Xiaomei’s movie, but Jialan will be okay with losing that one. Long story short, Kimmy loses his heirloom ruby ring and beats a hasty retreat with Xiwen and Jialan. However, when they wake up the next morning, they find themselves naked on the beach, handcuffed to a mysterious briefcase—and Xiwen has a strange man’s face tattooed on the back of her neck.

Speaking of tattoos, the next person they meet is Dragon, a former boxing champ who now runs a beachfront lounge. Guess who plays him? He will help cloth the ladies and facilitate their getaway from the gangsters’ goons. From there, things really become random, as the film starts borrowing plot points from Brewster’s Millions: they must spend a briefcase full of gold bars in twenty-four hours, or else. At least, there are some comical moments involving the difficult disposal of unwieldy precious metal.

It is all pretty shticky, but the sight of Tyson bogeying down with his cute co-stars during the surreal end-credit montages, it is almost worth the price of admission. Believe it or not, he has okay chemistry with Janine Chang Chun-ning’s Jialan. Seriously, Tyson is around considerably longer than a mere cameo, but viewers will still wish the film gave him and Chang more time together. Ivy Chen pouts like nobody’s business, but she still manages to keep Xiwen relatively endearing, while Fiona Sit plays the tough-talking Kimmy to the hilt. Alas, Nguyen is an impressive presence, but she should have been given more action responsibilities.

Basically, Wong pitches the comedy at a level roughly equivalent to Xu Zheng’s Lost buddy movies, falling somewhat closer to the slapsticky Lost in Thailand than the more heartfelt Lost in Hong Kong. The female buddy film might still hold novelty on the Mainland, but the screechiness and cattiness will likely feel dated to Western audiences. Best left to expat bachelorette parties and self-conscious Mike Tyson fans, Girls vs Gangsters opens tomorrow (3/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Thoroughbreds: Featuring the Late Anton Yelchin

Most of us would consider a drug dealer to be bad news all around, especially one who pushes product in school yards. However, to Lily and her bestie Amanda, shaggy-haired Tim is still merely one of the help. He just happens to carry a gun, making him more useful to them. They expect to get what they want, because they are young, entitled, and sociopathic, so they don’t see why the murder of Lily’s step-father should be any different in Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Lily and Amanda were once close, grew apart, and have been forced back together recently. Socially, Amanda has become persona non-grata ever she one-upped Equus with her prized horse. Although Amanda claims she no longer feels emotions (basically bragging she is a full-stop sociopath), her mother is sufficiently concerned, she has actually hired her old BFF Lily to tutor her, as a means of providing some socialization. Unfortunately, bringing these two together could potentially be very dangerous, like the Key-Master and the Gate-Keeper.

Indeed, before long, Amanda has adopted Lily’s despised step-father Mark as her nemesis as well. Instead of passive aggressive tantrums, Amanda suggests more proactive steps—specifically murder. They will not do it themselves, of course. They will frame-up poor Tim and then extort him into murdering Tim for them. At least, that is the plan, but plans usually go awry in the film noir classics they constantly watch together.

It is a terrible shame this is one of the final screen appearances from the late Anton Yelchin, but Tim the reluctant killer was a perfect role for him. He has to be the most nebbish drug dealer ever seen on film, but there is still something dangerously unpredictable about him. There is nothing awkward about Thoroughbreds as a capstone to Yelchin’s career, but it leaves us wondering what could have been.

The film also advances Anya Taylor-Joy’s steady build to superstardom. Most encouragingly, genre roles seem to be her thing. She conveyed a profound sense of inner torment in The Witch and now she gives us frost-burn as Lily, a spectacularly icy femme fatale, if ever there was one. For most of the film, Olivia Cooke more or less hits the same note as the conscience-less Amanda, but it is quite a chilling note. Yet, she nicely sets us up for some surprises down the stretch. Paul Sparks also makes a perfect noir antagonist for them as the contemptuous step-father. We basically agree with his disdainful opinion of Lily, but viewers still will root to see him get his own comeuppance for his arrogance.

Thoroughbreds is relatively narrow in scope, but it is lethally effective. Finley, a playwright turned filmmaker, is definitely working in the tradition of classic stage thrillers: limited settings, a small cast of characters, and some deeply rooted resentments. It is the little film with a cold, cold heart. Recommended for fans of film noir and the late Yelchin, Thoroughbreds opens tomorrow (3/9) in New York at multiple theaters, including the Regal E-Walk.

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