J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Sundance ’20: Impetigore

There is usually a reason why secluded villages are secluded. It might not be rational, strictly speaking, but it holds enough sway to prevent people from beating a path to town. Likewise, large empty houses are not left abandoned without some kind of rationale, especially in hardscrabble rural Indonesia. Unfortunately, a scuffling twenty-five-year-old will go out of her way, putting herself in harm’s way, in hopes of securing an inheritance in Joko Anwar’s Impetigore, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Frankly, Anwar is criminally under-heralded as a modern master of the horror genre. In the future, film schools could very well show Impetigore’s opening sequence in horror directing classes, as a crackerjack example of immediate white-knuckle tension that could serve as a compartmentalized prologue, but steadily takes on greater significance as the film develops. Maya is a frustrated toll-collector who survives a harrowing attack from a passing motorist. Weirdly, he seems to know her, even calling her by a name she vaguely remembers from her early childhood.

The ordeal spurs Maya to examine her hazy memories of life with her late parents in the countryside, before the orphaned girl relocated to the city with the woman she always knew as an aunt. All that remains is a photo of little Maya (as she is now known) standing with her parents, in front of a large and presumably valuable house. Accompanied by her encouraging friend Dini, Maya treks out to the too-small-to-be-on-the-map village, hoping to claim title to the property. However, they find the village odd. The people are standoffish and there are absolutely no children to be seen—except for the three spectral girls Maya thought she saw standing by the road, during the overnight bus ride.

The evil vibe Anwar establishes right from the start only deepens as he reveals the details regarding the curse plaguing the town. Karma kills and tragedy compounds—brutally. Arguably, Anwar’s storyline is not blow-you-away original, but his execution is so skillful, he keeps the audience on pins-and-needles throughout every second and every frame. Like his previous horror film, the remake of Satan’s Slaves, Impetigore is straight-up terrifying.

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Slamdance ’20: 1986

Thanks to Russia and Putin’s expansionist ambitions, this is an interesting year to be Belarusian. 1986 was also an interesting year to be Belarusian, thanks to the Soviets and the radiation wafting from their Chernobyl meltdown. As a Belarusian today, Elena doesn’t think she has much to lose, so instead of looking for opportunities in her own nation, she seeks them in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She might just find her destiny there, for better or worse, in Lothar Herzog’s 1986, which had its American premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

These days, time spent in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is no longer necessarily fatal—just ask the wolves. However, you are still warned not to ingest anything originating there. Elena will do so anyway, because she is a millennial. However, she has a right to be bitter. Despite the phony Lukashenko propaganda her economics professor spouts in class, the economy is stagnant. Elena would like to pay-off her father’s tax-debt to get him out of jail, but $30,000 is a prohibitive sum to raise.

Her only chance is by taking over his former gig smuggling salvaged scrap metal out of the Exclusion Zone. Frankly, she rather likes it there, because she can visit her grandmother’s house. It also forces her to take a break from her unhealthy relationship with her unfaithful boyfriend Viktor.

The stakes are serious for Elena, but plot is not the film’s top priority. Rather, Herzog is more concerned with conveying a sense of place (that being the Exclusion Zone) and exploring the national Belarusian malaise. Although he wisely does not overplay the metaphor, we can pick up on Herzog’s analogy comparing the corruption permeating contemporary Belarusian society to the radiation that devastated Chernobyl.

Herzog and cinematographer Philipp Baben der Erde frame some vividly striking imagery. As a result, Elena’s trips into the Zone are often hypnotic, creating an almost immersive cinematic experience. This is one of the few examples of slow-ish cinema that might have gained something from 3D. Still, its ambiguous nature will certainly limit its popular audience.
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Slamdance ’20: Ask No Questions

The world should be horrified by the evidence of genocide emerging from East Turkestan, but we shouldn’t be so surprised. To a large extent, the Chinese Communist Party is merely repeating the game-plan they used to launch their wholesale crackdown on Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong). Today, Party propaganda tells the world they are simply rotting out terrorists. In the case, of Falun Gong, it was religious extremism. Filmmakers Jason Loftus & Eric Pedicelli ask the hard questions about the incident used to justify the anti-Falun Gong campaign that the Western media should have in the riveting expose documentary, Ask No Questions, which premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival, in Park City.

Falun Dafa is a spiritual practice combining Buddhism and Taoism that is not inherently political, but its rapid growth spooked the Communism Party, so true to form, they prohibited it. Those who still practiced, were subjected to physical and mental torture in re-education camps. Whoever refused to recant became slave laborers in work camps (much like what is happening in East Turkestan).

For a while, the world expressed concern over this naked repression of Falun Gong, but the release of video tape supposedly documenting practitioners self-immolating on Tiananmen Square largely defused the issue. (In fact, the IOC rewarded the CCP for their brutality by approving China’s bid for the 2008 Olympics.) Ever since, the incident has made practitioners like Loftus defensive. Yet, when he took a hard look at the tape, he noticed some suspicious inconsistencies. CNN reporter Lisa Weaver (who happened to be on the Square at that very moment) had questions about the official story, but she was not allowed to follow-up, because CNN wanted to protect its Beijing bureau.

Throughout Ask No Questions, Loftus points out the strange circumstances surrounding the incident, starting with the fact the self-immolators had no known history of practicing Falun Dafa. He also interviews at length Chen Ruichang, a former state television official and Falun Dafa practitioner, who refused to recant despite the brutal torture he endured in a prison camp.
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Slamdance ’20: Sanzaru

An estimated 10% of the Philippines’ population works outside of the nation. Many such domestic and home-care workers have found themselves in exploitative situations. In Evelyn’s case, her employers’ treat her pretty fairly and respectfully. However, their karma is truly terrifying. Past anguish and lingering guilt metastasize to an uncanny extent in Xia Magnus’s Sanzaru, which premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Home-bound Dena Regan and her grown son Clem, a discharged veteran, live in the middle of East Nowhere, Texas, literally a world away from the Philippines. Yet, it is a decent paying gig for Evelyn, especially since they also allowed her to bring over her son Amos when he got into trouble at school. Technically, he has always known as his aunt, even though he has long suspected the truth.

Dena’s relationship with Clem is probably even more awkward, because of the family’s mysterious history. He still suffers from some serious service-related PSTD, but he is probably even more haunted by whatever it is they never talk about. The name “Sanzaru,” the Japanese word for the see-hear-and-speak-no-evil monkeys, ominously looms over the house. In fact, Evelyn can often hear a spectral entity whispering that name.

Sanzaru easily fits within the new “elevated horror” rubric. There are absolutely no cheap jump-scares, but the atmosphere of decay is almost stifling. To be honest, the limited woo-woo special effects look like they were rendered in the 1980s—the early 1980s, but they are not the point. Instead, Magnus unflinchingly depicts the consequences of trauma on individuals, families, and even the outsiders who enter their orbits.

Shrewd viewers will probably easily guess the family’s hidden shame, because it is usually the big secret in films like this. Nevertheless, it explores its themes with unusual humanism, especially for a genre(-ish) film. This is most notably true with the character of Clem Regan, who demonstrates how the demarcation between victim and villain is sometimes quite blurry. In fact, his Job-like suffering ultimately makes him an acutely sympathetic figure—no doubt Justin Arnold’s remarkably sensitive performance is a tremendous help in this respect.
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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sundance ’20: Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness

In Iran, reality TV is a matter of life and death. The traditions of “blood money” and legal retaliation have given rise to real-life shows in which convicts seek pardons from those they have wronged. Young Maryam is one such “contestant,” but her TV appearance will take some unusually dramatic turns in screenwriter-director Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It is Yalda, the traditional Zoroastrian feast night, when Iranians celebrate Persian culture. It is not the ideal date for Maryam to beg for forgiveness, but with her execution fast approaching, time is of the essence. Technically, she was only Nasser’s “temporary wife,” a longstanding Iranian relationship that is exactly what it sounds like. Temporary wives have virtually no long-term spousal rights, but legal offspring have inheritance rights, if they are male.

Regardless, Maryam apparently allowed Nasser to die through sins of inaction following an accident. As a result, she was convicted of murder and faces the death penalty, under Iran’s “eye for an eye” criminal justice system. Her only hope is for Nasser’s daughter Mona to pardon her in exchange for blood money. Ayat produces a TV program that facilitates such pardons. There are only two problems: Mona is no mood to forgive and Maryam is not inclined to ask for forgiveness.

Although in her early twenties, the shockingly young-looking Maryam could pass for a girl in her early teens. Regardless, there is clearly something amiss with a society that so readily accepted Nasser’s marriage to a teenaged girl (at the time), especially in an exploitative temporary arrangement. Indeed, much of Yalda’s drama is rooted in the gender and class-based inequalities of Iranian society.

There is no shortage of social criticism in Yalda, but viewers might not notice while watching, because it is so viscerally intense. It follows squarely in the tradition of emotionally-draining, uncompromisingly naturalistic dramas best represented by films like Farhadi’s A Separation. Frankly, Iranian films as a class might just inspire more confidence than any other national cinema, but they are so exhausting, it is difficult to binge on very many in quick succession.

Bakhshi masterfully cranks up the tension and dexterously springs several crises that upend everything in fascinating ways. Yalda is an eye-opening look at contemporary Iran, but it also offers quite a wild ride, by depicting a live TV broadcast completely running off the rails. He creates such a distinctive sense of place, audiences will feel like they know every inch of the TV studio after watching the film. Altogether, it is quite a work of bravura filmmaking.
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Sundance ’20: The Go-Go’s

Their admirers make much of their status as the only all-women band that played their own instruments and wrote their own songs to have their debut album reach #1 on the charts.  Yet, that still understates their significance. You could easily argue the Go-Go’s were the most commercially successful band to emerge out of the American punk scene. Yes, they evolved into a pop group, leading to conflict within the band. Of course, drama is always inevitable for any band that has that much success and does that much drugs. The original band-members take stock of their music and legacy in Alison Eastwood’s The Go-Go’s, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

They really were punk kids, who decided to form a band, even though they couldn’t play very well, because that is so punk. However, they actually developed skills while playing rough & tumble punk venues. They caught on slowly with the legit punk scene, even managing to tour the UK, where they recorded a single for Stiff Records titled “We Got the Beat.”

Obviously, that tune caught on. It was such a perfect rock anthem, it almost sounds like a cliché now. Yet, they would also chart with hits like “My Lips are Sealed” and “Vacation,” which immediately summon sense memories of the early 1980s. Those were definitely pop songs, reflecting a change in the band’s direction and the departure (firing really) of the founding bassist.

With success came all kinds of partying, as well as tremendous pressure to keep producing. All of the Go-Go’s avoid talking about their private relationships, but they are quite forthcoming on the subjects of drugs, alcohol, and depression. They also candidly address issues of unequal compensation within the band and the ill-advised decision to dump their original manager in favor of corporate suits.
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Slamdance ’20: The Penny Black

Brace yourself for some extreme philately. Anyone who has seen Charade knows there are stamps out there that are valuable enough for people to kill for. That is why his under-achieving neighbor is rather confused when a sketchy Russian asks him to “hold on” to his rare stamp collection for an indefinite period. Confusion and moral dilemmas abound in William J. Saunders’ documentary The Penny Black, which premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, in Park City.

Will used to smoke with Roman on the sidewalk outside their Los Angeles apartments. He never really knew what the Russian did for a living precisely, but he definitely seemed to be a tough guy. Regardless, he had no idea why Roman asked him to hold onto a large collection of stamps. He even pointed out a few that had recently sold at auction for tens of thousands of Dollars. Shortly thereafter, Roman vanished from the neighborhood. A few weeks later, Will also moved out of his apartment, taking the stamp collection with him, because he did not know what else to do with it.

Trying to get a handle on the situation, Will makes halting attempts to appraise the collection, which includes the Penny Black, the world’s first stick-on stamp, issued by the UK in 1840. The value of the collection and Roman’s mysterious disappearance represent potential temptation for Will, who rather awkwardly finds himself revisiting his painful relationship with his father, a convicted con artist.
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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Sundance ’20: Luxor

The stately Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor is due for a renovation, but the old carpeting and décor have a lot of character. It would almost be a shame to modernize it, like the old Plaza in New York, especially when so many of its guests are visiting to experience some kind of connection with Egypt’s ancient past. Hana once shared their interest, but she has returned hoping to forget her recent history in screenwriter-director Zeina Durra’s Luxor, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Hana is a doctor working for a “Physicians sans frontiers” style NGO. She is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress from her last posting near the Syrian border, but she has chosen not to deal with it. Instead, she quietly takes a few archaeological tours on her own, until she perchance happens to cross paths with her former lover, Sultan. Currently, he is working on a nearby dig with several mutual friends. Although romance is the last thing on her mind, their mutual attraction is undeniable.

Luxor unfolds slowly and obliquely, but there are violent emotions buried below its surfaces. It is an affecting love story, precisely because Durra’s characters are so deeply flawed and world weary. The film could definitely be compared to Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, but there is less romance and more existential angst. Throughout it all, the grand old Winter Palace provides a richly evocative setting.
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Sundance ’20: Ironbark

His father was an officer in the White Army, but Oleg Penkovsky’s military service during the Winter War and WWII earned him the trust and confidence of the Communist Party, allowing him to rise high in the ranks of the GRU (military intelligence). His decision to supply sensitive information about Khrushchev’s plan to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba is considered a crucial turning point in the Cold War. (Plus, in Tom Clancy’s novels, he is also responsible for recruiting the titular double-agent in The Cardinal of the Kremlin.) Ppenkovsky played a risky game, but his partner was an amateur, Greville Wynne, recruited precisely because he would not act like a spy. Their cloak-and-dagger relationship is the focus of Dominic Cooke’s historical espionage thriller, Ironbark, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

In 1960, Col. Penkovsky (codename: “Ironbark”) was technically the chair of the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research, but his real duties were with the GRU. He was therefore privy to military secrets and present for many of Khrushchev’s bellicose tirades. The combination of the two convinced him the First Secretary’s policies represented a grave danger to the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, so he found a very clever method to reach out to the Yanks. Unfortunately, the CIA was particularly weak in Moscow after the detection and execution of their prime source, Major Pyotr Semyonovich Popov. That means CIA Agent Emily Donovan must work with MI6, who rather cleverly recruit businessman Greville Wynne, a sort of small-time Armand Hammer, who had already done deals in captive Warsaw Pact nations.

Since trade and technology fell under Penkovsky’s purview, it does not raise any red flags (so to speak) when Wynne makes contact through official channels. For his own protection, he knows nothing about the intelligence he carries from the GRU officer to Donovan and her MI6 colleagues. Of course, he develops a pretty good guess when the Cuban Missile Crisis ignites. He might not be a spy, but he’s not an idiot either. As suspicion starts to fall on Penkovsky, Wynne agrees to return again, at the risk of his life and freedom, even though his wife suspects him of having another affair.

Ironbark is the best real-life Cold War thriller since Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies—and it just might be even better. It is a highly compelling portrait of friendship and an absolutely chilling depiction of how the Soviet system oppressed and terrorized its people. We see the insides of KGB prisons as well as their ruthless interrogation techniques, all of which are horrifying to witness.

Most importantly, Ironbark still functions as a tense, intrigue-drenched thriller that takes on grandly tragic dimensions during the third act. This is a painstakingly crafted period production, with every little detail reflecting the early 1960s time period (for appropriately depressing effect). Likewise, the cast uniformly look their parts.

As Wynne, Benedict Cumberbatch runs quite a spectrum, from the shallow but likable twit MI6 recruits to the resolute man of conscience risking everything for Penkovsky. Frankly, it looks like he did a De Niro crash diet to look properly malnourished in later scenes. Yet, the Oscar-worthy standout, knockout performance comes from Merab Ninidze (who also co-starred in Bridge of Spies and the once-censored Stalinist allegory, Repentance) quietly commanding the screen as Penkovsky. It is a smart, deeply humanistic portrait that brings all of the Colonel’s inner conflicts to the fore.
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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Turning: Sort of Adapting Henry James

In gothic literature, serving as a governess is a more dangerous occupation than working as a coal-miner or a test pilot. Earnest young Kate would probably call herself a tutor, but close enough. Her new charges are quite a handful, as her predecessor could tell her, even though she’s dead. That should sound a lot like Turn of the Screw, but don’t blame Henry James for the weird deviations in Floria Sigismondi’s mid-1990s-set adaptation-in-spirit titled The Turning, which opens today nationwide.

Kate thinks she will be tutoring Flora, a six-year-old or so poor little rich orphan. So, she is surprised when she suddenly also has her entitled older brother Miles on her hands, after he is mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. The arrogant Miles ill-conceals his hostility for Kate. Flora maintains a sweet and cheerful façade, but there is still something a little off about her too. The ancient housekeeper Mrs. Grose is no help to her either. Nobody tells Kate much of anything, but she still discovers the previous tutor/nanny, Mrs. Jessel, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, most likely involving Peter Quint, a thuggish former servant, who is now also rather ominously deceased.

Right, that’s all very Turn of the Screw, until we reach the messiness of the third act. Screenwriters Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes do not just depart from the original James. They truly waste our time with one of the most annoying gimmicks they could dredge up.

On the plus side, Killruddery House is a wonderfully cinematic location doubling for Bly House. Sigimondi (an unlikely choice for Turning, given she is best known for directing music videos and The Runaways) has a keen eye for visuals and cinematographer David Ungaro (who has a good feel for the gothic, having also lensed Mary Shelley and Compulsion) gives it an appropriately atmospheric look.
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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Dead Lands, on Shudder

It wasn’t a virus that created these zombies. It was spiritual and cosmic, like a manifestation of Pre-Columbian malaise. Something is blocking the dead’s passage from the earthly Maori world (pre-Western contact), to the realm of the hereafter. That forces all the angry new spirits back into their decaying bodies. The notorious warrior Waka Nuku Rau also came back from the dead, but he is a special case. His ancestors won’t take him until he atones for his barbaric sins. It will take something big, but if he can reopen the passage between worlds of the living and the dead, bringing balance back to the universe, he could possibly restore his lost honor in The Dead Lands the series, which premieres today on Shudder.

The series incarnation of Dead Lands is more or less set in the same Maori universe as the 2014 film of the same name and their share similar themes and creator/screenwriter Glenn Standring, but the narratives discretely stand alone. Te Kohe Tuhaka also stars in both, first playing the menacing villain Wirepa and the film and now portraying Waka, the anti-hero—with an emphasis on “anti.”

Having killed, maimed, and pillaged with reckless abandon, Waka is a little short on good karma when his enemies finally get the drop on him. Essentially, the guardians of the afterlife send him right back where he came from, but being heroic does not come naturally to him. It takes a while for Waka to realize he was probably meant to help Mehe rescue her father, the chief of her tribe, from a subterranean horde of zombies (technically, they don’t call them zombies, because the Maori do not yet have Walking Dead comics or Living Dead movies, but it is the same difference).

Waka and Mehe bicker like cats and dogs, but when push comes to shove, he has her back—or at least he does throughout the first three episodes made available to the media. You have to give him credit for that, because the spirit of his not-so-dearly departed mother is constantly pushing him to sacrifice Mehe to the spirits. She is quite a piece of work, like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate crossed with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. It is easy to understand how he grew up to be so angry.

Dead or not, Waka still sure can fight. Good thing too, because he will have plenty of opportunities. Rather reluctantly, Waka will find himself embroiled in a power struggle within Mehe’s tribe and a mission to rescue a young man who knows who broke the world from a trio of witches, but he is always comfortable hacking away at zombies with his paddle-shaped patus.

The Dead Lands film deliberately set out to showcase the Maori martial arts of Mau Rakau. The series does not skimp on action either, but it also balances it with supernatural elements. Fans of the Joseon zombie movie Rampant should definitely dig this series too.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew

This is Shanghai, but not the glass and steel megapolis Chinese state media tries to project. It is a city of strife and toil—and immigrants from throughout the assorted Chinas. Independent Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke creates a multi-faceted portrait of the Mainland’s go-go financial capital that is part city-symphony and part oral history. Ten years after its initial screenings, Jia’s thoughtful ode to Shanghai finally gets a proper American release when I Wish I Knew opens this Friday in New York, at the Metrograph.

Technically, I Wish I Knew was commissioned to commemorate the Shanghai World Expo, but you can tell Jia will not be towing a party line when his first interview subject’s reminiscences primarily focus on juvenile street gangs and the hardships his family endured during the Cultural Revolution. He will return to the Gang of Four’s institutionalized madness later in the film, at even greater length.

Indeed, Jia is drawn to somewhat marginalized figures, like the daughter of one of Shanghai’s most notorious gangsters. Besides the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese occupation and Taiwan’s White Terror also loom large in the film. Although this is technically a film about Shanghai, there is clearly a sense the mega-city is intrinsically linked to Hong Kong and Taipei, which explains why Beijing is cracking down so hard on Hong Kong and why the Taiwan’s recent independence-affirming election induced a panic attack.

In between interview segments, Jia follows his wife and muse Zhao Tao as she strolls through the city, but instead of the glitzy shopping district, their perambulations mostly take us through docks, bridges, and post-industrial districts. You can tell the disparities of Shanghai just from Jia’s exterior shots.
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Quezon’s Game: Righteous in the Philippines

Probably only former First Lady and Chair of the Philippine Red Cross Aurora Quezon is more revered in Filipino history than her husband, President Manuel Quezon, the man responsible for negotiating his nation’s independence. Her countrymen were horrified when she was assassinated by the Communist Hukbalahap terrorists (quick, let’s elect a president who shares their ideology)—and with good reason. She reportedly endured her husband infidelities in order to encourage his humane policies, including an unlikely scheme to provide transit and sanctuary for European Jewry fleeing National Socialist death camps. The President’s righteous campaign gets the big-screen treatment in director-cinematographer Matthew Rosen’s Quezon’s Game, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the late 1930s, Pres. Quezon was riding high in polls. Although he had already accepted a party of refugees from Shanghai, his greatest concern is lowering American tariffs. Ominously, an SS officer has been assigned to the German embassy, but Quezon and the Philippines remain squarely aligned with the U.S. In fact, his informal kitchen cabinet includes U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt and the American military attaché, an Army Colonel on the fast-track, by the name of Dwight David Eisenhower. Nevertheless, as word reaches the Philippines of the National Socialist oppression and murder of the Jews, Quezon is stirred to action (an impulse supported by the First Lady).

Inconveniently, since the Philippines was not yet independent, its immigration policies were still controlled by Washington DC, where Roosevelt was to wary of riling up the opposition of segregationist Congressmen and the State Department was rife with anti-Semites (probably the ambassador to the UK was the most notorious). Of course, getting exit visas and transit permits from Germany was no small order either. However, they had no trouble getting names of potential emigres, thanks to the small but organized local Jewish community.

Quezon’s Game suffers from many of the problems that commonly afflict high-minded historicals, starting with the portrayal of its protagonist, which is more akin to a Quezon passion play than a flesh-and-blood drama. However, it also has many of the hoped-for merits.

Both Raymond Bagatsing and Rachel Alejandro act like they are perched on pedestals as the Quezons (and understandably enough). On the other hand, David Bianco is terrific as Ike (shockingly so). He looks the part and has the proper military bearing. James Paoleli also convincingly humanizes McNutt (and Americans).
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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bonello’s Zombi Child

Thanks to France’s lingering colonialist mindset, it considers everything in the Francophone world essentially French. Apparently, that includes Haitian voodoo—and why not? They are the ones who created the circumstances it developed out of. An entitled French school girl will be tempted to dabble in the mysterious arts, which inevitably leads to dire consequences in Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which opens this Friday in New York.

Melissa was orphaned by the Haitian earthquake, but she still has her loving Aunt Katy, a tutor and voodoo-practicing “Mambo” in France. Since her late mother was a recipient of the Legion of Honor, the French government will cover her room and board at an exclusive boarding school, founded by Napoleon himself for the daughters of recipients of France’s highest honors. She is a little out of place, but she still falls in with a group of four other friends, who are basically shallow, self-absorbed teenagers—except pasty-white Fanny, who is especially shallow and self-absorbed.

Fanny is the sort of crush-blinded schoolgirl who sends long, dramatic letters to her long-distance lover Pablo. The kind that are guaranteed to spook a player like him into dumping her. She is the first to ask cultural insensitive questions of Melissa, but then she will turn around and attempt a massive act of cultural appropriation, for her own self-interest.

Fifty-five years prior, Melissa’s grandfather Clairvius Narcisse meets an untimely death via voodoo, but that is not the end of his story. The unfortunate man is partially revived to serve as a “zombi” slave laborer (they leave the last “e” off for cultural sensitivity).

Eventually, both narrative strands crescendo in parallel, with Fanny pestering Aunt Katy to cast a spell on Pablo, just when she should be preparing for a special ceremony in honor of her father, Narcisse. Frankly, the pieces do not exactly fit together perfectly, but the big picture is compelling. It isn’t horror or “elevated horror,” but it still steadily builds in intensity and foreboding.
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space

Like it or not, you will see a lot of this movie in the future. The GIF appeal of Nic Cage covered in blood yelling crazy things like “could I get a little cooperation here” is just too meme-perfect. People will inevitably lose sight of the original context, but it was all done in service of a pretty good H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. It also represents Richard Stanley’s first full-length narrative feature directorial job since the Island of Dr. Moreau debacle in 1996. Stanley and his star Nicolas Cage capture the madness and dread of Lovecraft’s source material in Color Out of Space, a SpectreVision production, which opens this Friday in New York.

While Ward Phillips is out conducting a survey of the water table outside Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, he happens across Lavinia Gardner conducting a wiccan ritual. He is quite struck by her, so is keen to see again when the municipal government calls him to inspect a meteor that landed on the Gardener farm (they raise alpacas, which sounds very Nic Cage). Weirdly, the meteor disappears by the time the media arrives.

The Gardners (and the alpacas) also start acting strangely, presumably under the meteor’s evil influence. Lavinia’s little brother Jack Gardner is more distracted and absent minded than ever. Her mother Theresa gets so spacey, she accidentally chops off her own fingers. Her father Nathan freaks out spectacularly, screaming and raging against everything he resents in life. (Yes, he is played by Nic Cage). Only she and her middle brother Benny seem relatively unaffected, at least for now.

Initially, Color feels a lot like the original Invaders from Mars in terms of its almost pastoral tone, but it slowly evolves into Mandy on PCP. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how smoothly and steadily Stanley manages the descent into utter bedlam. Of course, Nathan Gardner is the sort of role Cage was born to play. He dives in with both feet, but in this case, his acting methods perfectly suit the film. In fact, this is the best case of Cage being Cage since Mandy and Mom and Dad.
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Ashfall: Don Lee Predicts Disaster

South Korea really shouldn’t send mixed messages to a psychopath like Kim Jong-un. After years of wishing his nuclear program would just go away, here comes a movie that suggests his nukes could be put to positive use. Admittedly, it also portrays the DPRK as basically a collapsed wasteland. The imploding North is giving up their nukes, but the South wants to commandeer them in a desperate bid to end a seismic and volcanic disaster in Lee Hae-jun & Kim Byung-seo’s Ashfall, which is now playing in New York.

For years, Korean-American scientist Robert Kang Bong-rae warned the government of a potential catastrophe, but they ignored him until it is now almost too late. He still has a plan, but it only has slightly over 3% chance of success. The beleaguered president and his first secretary Jeon Yoo-kyung still believe that is better than nothing, so they dispatch two commando teams to take possession of the DPRK nukes, while Kang runs simulations to increase the odds.

Fortunately, the warheads will be easy to collect, because the North just packaged them up for collection as part of their de-nuclearization agreement with the U.S. Yes, things have gotten that bad in the Workers’ Paradise. Jo In-chang was supposed to retire today, but instead he must lead the B-team backing-up the primary squad. Tragically, they must take the lead when the A-team’s plane crashes. Ironically, the North Koreans are almost passive spectators in all this, but China was deeply unhappy about peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, so they recruit Lee Joon-Pyeong, a North Korean double- or triple- or quadruple-agent to redirect the Nukes across the Chinese border.

Frankly, Ashfall is probably must notable for starring Don Lee/Ma Dong-seok in a non-action role, in an action movie. He is actually quite convincing as Kang, talking science instead of trash. His screen charisma still comes through. In fact, it shines brighter than Ha Jung-woo as Jo, the weirdly nebbish commando.

On the other hand, Lee Byung-hun goes convincingly dark and brooding as the profoundly disillusioned Lee. It is hard to believe Ha’s Jo can keep up with him. They just seem so mismatched, in every way. Most of the rest of the strike force are just stock characters (at best), but Jeon Hye-jin’s portrayal of Jeon, the political fixer, is intriguingly subtle. To her credit, former K-pop star Bae Su-zy brings more to the table than you might expect as Jo’s mega-pregnant wife, Ji-young.
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Sunday, January 19, 2020

SBIFF ’20: The Night

Airbnb horror is a relatively new phenomenon, but it follows squarely in the tradition of hotel horror. Some of the genre’s best have been set in hotels and motels, like The Shining, the Psycho franchise, and Horror Hotel, starring the great Sir Christopher Lee. Maybe we our just intuitively unsettled by the experience of temporarily making your home in a strange room, knowing full well people you’ve never met also have the key. Try to sleep tight. An expat Iranian couple definitely won’t when they check into a hotel with a 100% vacancy rate and a check-out time of maybe never in Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Babak and Neda’s marriage suffered while they were apart, but they have tried to make up for lost time after she joined him in America. They both take pride and delight in their baby, but there is still tension between them that always gets aggravated when Babak drinks. This is one of those nights (boy, is it ever). He is too proud to crash with their friends after the dinner party winds down, but Babak agrees to stop at a hotel when he gets a little too woozy during the drive back. Unfortunately, fate directs them to the wrong hotel.

It certainly is quiet, but that is because they are the only ones staying there. Yet, they are plagued by a mysterious prankster pounding on their door and crashing sounds coming from above the ceiling. Then weird time and spatial things start happening. They soon try to leave, but the hotel won’t let them.

It turns out Persian horror is a real thing and it is consistently good. Ana Lily Amanpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow are both superior films, but The Night can still hang in their company. Arguably, it could probably also be classified as “elevated horror” or “post-horror,” or whatever critics are trying to call films like Eggers’ The Witch these days, but Ahari’s slow build eventually reaches some pretty malevolent and surreal heights.
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Friday, January 17, 2020

SBIFF ’20: James vs. His Future Self

It is sort of like Looper, but the purpose of the time travel is love rather than contract killing. After years of research, James invented a process for time travel, but he had lost the love of his life long before that. Bitter over his life choices, the scruffy scientist uses his own method to try to convince his younger self to concentrate on the woman he loves instead in Jeremy LaLonde’s James vs. His Future Self, which screens during the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

James is intellectually brilliant, but an emotional idiot. Even though he is highly attracted to his co-worker friend Courtney, he is too consumed with his work to make any sort of advance. His older self will explain, in quite rough terms, what a mistake that is, but it is almost impossible to get through his younger self’s thick head. Nevertheless, the junior James agrees to finally act on his feelings, in order to make old bitter James (or “Uncle Jimmy” as he is forced to call him) go away. Initially, it all comes as a pleasant surprise to Courtney, who had largely given up on him. Unfortunately, the present-day James hasn’t really changed his obsessive, preoccupied ways yet.

LaLonde and co-screenwriter-co-star Jonas Chernick bring a fresh twist to time travel science fiction, even though they are not overly obsessed with the quantum mechanics of the space time continuum. Their focus is more on the personal, particularly James’ relationship with his older self. Most viewers would probably classify it as a time-travel rom-com, but it has a surprisingly bittersweet sensibility. It shares a kinship with The Wrong Todd (which could even be described as poignant at times), substituting time travel for parallel universes.
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Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different

Major record labels have made some baffling decisions. A case in point would be their refusal to sign funk firebrand Betty Davis to a long-term contract, because her performance persona was too overtly sexual. Seriously, they couldn’t figure out how to market sex? Her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna. Prince before Prince.” Yes, that Miles Davis. Her tenure in the public spotlight was limited, but she made quite an impression on listeners during that time. Phil Cox tries to track down the long-off-the-radar Davis in Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different, which releases today on DVD.

Betty Mabry came from Pittsburgh to New York hoping to forge a musical career, but she initially paid the bills as a model. It wasn’t such a bad day job, since it gave her access to the world of movers and shakers. She was not so much into jazz, but jazz trumpeters were another story. For a while she was romantically linked to Hugh Masekela (strangely overlooked in Cox’s film), who produced her Columbia 45 sessions, before her whirlwind romance and stormy marriage with Miles Davis.

Cox (with the help of experts like musician Greg Tate) fully explores her role as the inspiration and catalyst for Miles Davis’s turn towards electric fusion, but they do not let him overshadow her own music. It is definitely funky and highly sexualized, even by today’s standards. Frankly, it seems strange that she never developed a wider cult audience or became a significant source of memes. Her song “Nasty Gal” predated Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” by at least a decade and it was considerably nastier. Instead, her music is currently available on reissues from the specialized collectors’ label, A Light in the Attic.
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Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Wave: It’s a Trip

Should Frank have just said “no?” The consequences of the bean-counting attorney’s drug use are pretty dire. In fact, it might just cost him everything (really everything), but he just might reach the point where he can accept that in Gille Klabin’s down-the-rabbit-hole freak-out, The Wave, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Good old Frank is poised to finally win some positive attention from the firm’s senior partners when he spots a way to invalidate the hefty life insurance policy of a fire-fighter, who left behind a wife and kids (“they always do” is the cynical refrain of Frank’s colleagues). To celebrate his anticipated rising position in the firm (and for a respite from his not so passively aggressive wife), Frank joins his hard-partying colleague Jeff for celebratory drinks.

Jeff quickly gloms onto Nathalie and Theresa, the latter of whom really makes an impression on Frank. Consequently, he uncharacteristically joins them at an underground house party, where he and Theresa ill-advisedly partake of a mystery drug offered by mumbo-jumbo-spouting drug dealer (it will “hit you like a wave” he says). For a while, they gambol in some new age dreamscape, but when Frank wakes up, Theresa is gone, along with his wallet and all the available funds in his bank account.

Still tripping his lights out, Frank tries to make it through the most important business meeting of his career. Hoping to find something to take the edge off, he and Jeff set out in search of Theresa, only to discover she is missing in real life too. As Frank loses time and experiences waking visions, his grasp on reality weakens precipitously. Then things really go haywire for Frankie Boy.

There have been plenty of reality-problematizing movies before, but the way Klabin and screenwriter Carl W. Lucas manage to equally balance the humor and the disorientation is really something else. This is a wild ride, with some outrageous mayhem that does not always make total sense, but Klabin manages to fit the fractured pieces back together in clever ways.
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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Host: Next Time Book a Marriott

This film is so hostile to the Airbnb model, it could have been funded by the city of New York or the state of California. Still, it probably has a point when it suggests first-time mules should probably spring for a decent chain hotel when they are in Amsterdam to make a drop that will clear their gambling debts. Instead, Robert Atkinson opts for an over-booked hostel that refers him to a tony private home with rooms for rent, leading him straight into Hell in Andy Newbery’s The Host, which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

Admittedly, Atkinson faces an unusually dire situation, but it was his own spectacularly bad decisions that brought him so far astray. He was the one who decided to gamble with the cash left in his London bank’s short-term safety deposit and he is the one who lost it all and then some at a triad-controlled Casino. He doesn’t have much choice but to accept Lau Hoi Ho’s offer-he-can’t-refuse. He only has to schlep a locked briefcase to a prearranged exchange. Lau’s assistant Jun Hui and his enforcer Yong will accompany Atkinson to keep him out of trouble, but they do a terrible job of it.

First of all, they let DEA Agent Herbert Summers turn Atkinson during the flight. Actually, this is just fine with Jun, because she is a deep cover plant. However, letting him let a room at Vera Tribbe’s stately townhouse is a huge mistake. She is definitely a weird one—and dangerous. At least everyone will have a chance at a do-over when Atkinson’s responsible family man brother Steve comes looking for him.

This is a strange film, starting with Derek Jacobi’s initially baffling wrap-around cameo as the head-shrinking Dr. Hobson. However, judging from the third act revelations, one could guess it was intended as an homage to Simon Oakland’s brief but defining appearance in Psycho. The Host also takes its own radical turn, shifting from an in-over-his-head thriller to a veritable horror movie.

Newbery does not take us on the smoothest of rides, but he embraces each audacious plot point with relish. He also has the benefit of some colorful and distinctive character actors to help sell it, including Jacobi, Togo Igawa as Lau (a Japanese actor playing a Chinese gangster, but whatever), Tom Wu as the henchman Yong, and Nigel Barber radiating silver-haired authority as Agent Summers.
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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Bravest: Rewriting the History of the Xingang Oil Disaster

In today’s China, the bridges collapse, the mines cave-in, schools crumble if you lean against the walls, and nobody really knows what that mystery Wuhan virus is. The poor pigs had it even worse. At least there is no shortage of work for emergency responders. Several squads of grimly resolute fire-fighters grapple with a catastrophic blaze in Tony Chan’s The Bravest, which releases today on digital.

Bizarrely, this film is based on a real-life incident the Chinese Communist Party did its best to suppress, but the raging flames engulfing the Xingang oil refinery port were difficult to sweep under the rug. After censoring the news and strong-arming eye-witnesses into deleting their social media posts, the powers-that-be finally opted to turn the whole cluster-meltdown into a rah-rah propaganda film, which Sony has acquired for American distribution.

Jiang Liwei was the youngest squad commander in greater metro-“Bingang,” until his cockiness led to a death at a fire scene. Busted down in rank and transferred to the burbs, Jiang is a man in need of redemption. He will have a chance when the interconnected refinery tanks (and a couple of toxic chemical silos thrown in for good measure) erupt in flames, due to the negligence of a tanker captain. He would be the one listed in the credits as “Western Scapegoat.”

Suddenly, Jiang is battling the blaze, alongside Ma Weiguo, his former lieutenant and current chop-busting nemesis. Of course, the longer they hold the line together, the more they come to respect each other.

Honestly, Wang Chao’s screenplay is so manipulative, it is often embarrassing to watch. When we see Jiang’s disgrace has strained his relationship with his bratty son, we know with certainty he is a dead man walking. Likewise, when fire inspector Wang Lu continues to cold-shoulder her frogman fiancé Xu Xiaobin during the disaster, we can tell he is a talking corpse.
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Monday, January 13, 2020

Citizen K: The Khodorkovsky Epic

So far, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s life has been the stuff of a Russian epic. He went from being the archetypal oligarch to the archetypal prisoner of conscience. Naturally, Putin’s propaganda machine continues to do its best to slander him, so it is good to have a timely and up-to-date chronicle of his life and struggles thus far. Prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney never refrains from airing criticism of his subject, especially during his early 90’s “Wild West” years, but that strengthens his credibility when he turns his focus on the lawless and oppressive behavior of Russian President-for-life Vladimir Putin in Citizen K, which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Khodorkovsky admittedly pushed the envelop when he assumed control of the Russian oil company Yukos during the dodgy privatization process, but if he hadn’t taken over the state enterprise, another oligarch would have, resulting in even greater concentration of economic power. At least former state employees started getting paid again. In fact, it was the responsibility Khodorkovsky started feeling toward his employees that led to the awakening of his social conscience. First, he became a philanthropist and then he started campaigning for democracy and transparency, at which point he came into fateful conflict with Putin.

The trumped-up case against Khodorkovsky was well documented in Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky and Cathryn Collins’ Vlast (Power), but Gibney retells in compellingly, filling in some gaps and bringing it up to date. He asks some tough questions that Khodorkovsky answers quite forthrightly. Unlike, Aung San Suu Kyi, Khodorkovsky has maintained his claim to the moral high ground during the years after his release. Indeed, the Western media was shockingly negligent in its lack of coverage of Khodorkovsky’s trip to the Ukraine in support of the democracy movement in the days following the Kremlin-backed government’s siege of Maidan Square (but that was during the Obama administration, when they didn’t care about Russia).

Gibney’s regular doc audiences will probably be most interested in Russia in relation to its campaigns of disinformation and electoral interference. There are sequences in Citizen K that address such issues, but he always maintains a direct connection to his subject. Frankly, it is frightening to hear how many provincial Russians have bought Putin’s big lies (particularly Khodorkovsky’s alleged role in supposedly ordering the assassination of a Siberian mayor long assumed to be the work of Chechen gangsters, until Putin’s state media changed its story, on command).

Indeed, the most pressing take-away from Citizen K could very well be the implications of what the term “state media” means in practical applications. It is frightening how easily people can be deceived (of course, if you do not follow a few outlets that do not share your politics, you are essentially brainwashing yourself—Trump-lovers and Trump-haters alike).
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Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson: Brace Yourself, Because This Exists

The opening montage of this film reminds us what a crummy decade the 1990’s were. We see the LA Riots, Bill Clinton, and O.J. Simpson. It was especially disappointing because it followed the greatness of the 1980’s: the resurgence of the American economy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of acoustic post-bop jazz. Arguably, the brutal Simpson murders and the distasteful media storm that followed were the worst of what came to pass in that decade (but the blue dress certainly gave the bloody glove a run for its money). Daniel Farrands revisits the whole tragic business in the stunningly ill-conceived The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, which is now playing in LA.

Even though she has been divorced for two years, Nicole Brown is still constantly harassed by her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson. Ominously, she fears his hostility is escalating. That much is true—and probably only that much. Although living in fashionable Brentwood, she still struggles to raise her two young children as a single mom, getting little support from her family and nothing but stress from O.J. Her hot mess friend Faye Resnick is not much help either. Only her bestie Kris Jenner (formerly Kardashian) is reliably there for her.

Since Resnick flaked out halfway through redecorating Brown’s home, she hires the handyman working next door to finish painting the interiors. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Glen Rogers, a serial killer, whose victims were attributed to him as both the “Casanova Killer” and the “Cross Country Killer.” Brown happens to be exactly his type. In fact, he is the “real killer” (perhaps acting with O.J.’s passive encouragement).

Basically, this film is based on O.J. Simpson’s self-serving fantasies. Truly, the bad karma just oozes off the screen. Beyond the obvious problematic issue of denying reality, it also seems downright slanderous, especially with regards to its portrayal of Resnick as a drug-addled fair-weather friend, who bitterly resented Brown for not reciprocating her lesbian lust. However, the absolute nadir of the film is its graphic depiction of the murder of Ronald Goldman. We can only hope and pray the Goldman family never see this train-wreck.

As cinema, the structure of the film is inherently anti-climactic, because it steadily builds towards the titular murder (there were actually two of them) like a tawdry pop-culture passion play. Mena Suvari’s one-deer-in-the-headlights-look-for-every-scene approach to playing Brown does not exactly help either. She is not an effective mouthpiece to allow “the victim to tell her story,” but the film doesn’t try to do that anyway. Remember, Simpson was found civilly responsible for her murder. Probably the only people dumb enough to buy screenwriter Michael Arter’s alternate theory are the twelve idiots who served on Simpson’s 1994 jury. Make that theories. In one absolutely bizarre dream sequence, Brown is thrown about her home by an invisible entity, so maybe the “real killer” was Pazuzu.

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Friday, January 10, 2020

The Outsider: HBO Adapts Stephen King

DNA evidence has been widely hailed as a tool to exonerate the wrongly convicted. However, in Terry Maitland’s case, it falsely implicates him in a horrific child murder. He will need someone who can think way outside the box to prove his innocence. Holly Gibney from the Mr. Mercedes books and TV series is certainly an unconventional investigator. She sees things others miss, so she might be the perfect detective to stalk the real killer in The Outsider, Richard Price’s 10-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.

Terry Maitland is a well-liked teacher and coach in his quiet, working-class Oklahoma community, until Det. Ralph Anderson has him arrested and cuffed during one of his little league games for the murder of eleven-year-old Frank Peterson. There is ironclad DNA and eye-witness testimony linking Maitland to the crime scene, but his lawyer, Howie Gold, quickly uncovers physical evidence and video footage placing him in another city at the time of the murder.

It is all quite baffling to everyone, so Gold retains Gibney’s specialized services. Feeling guilty for turning the town against the Maitland family, Det. Anderson joins Gold’s investigation team while on leave from the department. He is not inclined to believe the fantastical, even when Gibney uncovers a string of similar child murders attributed to suspects still proclaiming their innocence, due to similarly conflicting DNA evidence and eye-witness statements. However, his wife Jeannie is more willing to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. She too joins Gold’s kitchen cabinet, after forging a sympathetic understanding with Maitland’s wife, Marcy.

Based on the first six episodes provided to the press (out of ten), it should be safe to say the serial killer at work boasts some sort of supernatural shape-and-DNA-shifting powers—and that shouldn’t be particularly spoilery, since it is a creation of Stephen King. However, the series unfolds with the style and drive of a procedural mystery. Indeed, comparisons to HBO’s True Detective are rather apt. Yet, Price fully capitalizes on the existential implications of a monster that (perhaps literally) feeds on human alienation and misery. These are especially damaged characters, even by the standards of King’s oeuvre.

Jason Bateman’s earnest everyman portrayal of Maitland easily convinces viewers to buy into the character’s predicament, sort of like Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man taking a detour through the X-Files. Yet, perhaps more importantly, he effectively sets the vibe of mounting dread as the director of the first two episodes. However, Ben Mendelsohn surpasses him when it comes to projecting world-weary angst as Det. Anderson, whose every decision is influenced by the prior death of his own young son.

The Outsider
also earns credit for featuring three women characters, who transcend stereotypes and become of equal or greater importance to the story than Maitland or even Anderson. Cynthia Erivo never resorts to cheap ticks or shtick in her endlessly intriguing portrayal of the on-the-spectrum Gibney (radically different from Justine Lupe’s depiction in the Mr. Mercedes series). It showcases her brilliance, a la Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but also emphasizes her acute vulnerability. Yet, Price also empowers her as a woman, who haltingly explores the possibility of romance with a former law enforcement contact, nicely played by Derek Cecil.

Likewise, Mare Winningham and Julianne Nicholson are consistently devastating as Jeannie Anderson and Marcy Maitland, respectively—two women ironically united in grief. Each woman displays unexpected agency, beyond merely standing by their men. In fact, Nicholson could arguably be considered the Outsider’s lead and central POV figure.
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Speed of Life: A Time Travel Ode to Bowie

He wrote “Space Oddity” and starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth. David Bowie brought science fiction into rock & roll better than anyone, so he probably would have been amused by the fanciful notion his death could so unbalance the universe, it tears a wormhole into the space-time continuum. That is exactly what happens in director-screenwriter Liz Manashil’s Speed of Life, which releases today on VOD platforms.

January 10, 2016 is a particularly fateful day for June Hoffman. First, her favorite recording artist, David Bowie, passes on to the great glitter club in the sky. Next, her boyfriend Edward Karp is ripped through the wormhole caused by his passing. Rather awkwardly, they were having a “we need to have a talk” sort of argument when he disappeared. For the next three decades, she lives in a state of limbo hoping he will re-materialize, as indeed he does, just when she is due to move into a dystopian state-mandated retirement home on her 60th birthday.

Karp has not aged a second, but society is now a watered-down version of Logan’s Run, requiring communal early bird dinners at sixty, rather than death at thirty. She had intended to run away with her torch-carrying friend Samuel, but Karp’s arrival complicates everything.

Speed of Life is a heartfelt film that features several nicely turned performances, so there is definitely stuff there to like. With that stipulation, it must be noted Manashil does not have a strong grasp on the mechanics of time-travel narratives. Ultimately, she sort of tries to have her temporal cake and eat it too, resulting in an ending that makes no sense whatsoever. She also seems to be uncomfortable handling dystopian themes, because the nearly sixty-year old Hoffman appears to live in a bizarrely sunny and laidback Brave New World. Frankly, it is never clear just how much urgency there is to the countdown to 60. On top of all that, the brief 75-minute feature feels conspicuously padded with a subplot involving Samuel’s daughter Laura and her new neighbor Phillip, which never pays off to any meaningful degree.
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