J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Send Me to the Clouds, with Yao Chen


Sheng Nan does not have an easy road to travel. She is a free-thinking, muckraking journalist and one of the so-called “leftover women,” unmarried women over the age of twenty-six. Both together account for about two thousand strikes against her in Mainland China. Sheng Nan is not inclined to change, despite the social pressures exerted on her. However, her independence comes at a high price when she is diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds, which opens today in Los Angeles and next Friday in New York.

Sheng Nan was only diagnosed because a crazy arsonist attacked her while she was investigating a suspicious factory fire along the banks of the Yangtze. Naturally, her insurance will not cover the entire operation necessary to prolong her life, so she is forced to accept a rather problematic assignment ghost-writing the autobiography of father of the nouveau riche oligarch she just exposed in her photo-essay. Yet, even if the operation is successful, there is a high likelihood the procedure will permanently impair her capacity for sexual relations. Regardless, she sets off for Jiangxi to fulfill the unpleasant gig and hopefully to enjoy a last hurrah on the side.

The good news is old Mr. Li is much wiser and more compassionate than his sleazebag son. The bad news is Sheng Nan’s self-absorbed mother Meizhi invites herself along on the trip. At least she meets a man during their journey, who appears to be quite cerebral and generous, but Liu Gangming might not be as “sponge-worthy” as she assumes.

During the One Child era, “Sheng Nan” became a popular name for girls that means “Surpass Men.” It is also close in pronunciation to “Sheng Nv,” the insensitive term meaning “leftover women” the government coined for supposed old maids over twenty-six years of age. It is indeed a moniker rich in significance.

Viewers should keep that all in mind as they watch Clouds, but even if they forget it, they will perfectly understand Sheng Nan’s predicament thanks to Yao Chen’s acutely powerful performance. It is a little off-putting at first to hear everyone describe her as a Plain Jane (in real life, Yao has been dubbed the “Chinese Angelina Jolie”), but she plays it like it is a totally real fact of life that she has long resigned herself to.

Similarly, Yang Xingming is quietly but forcefully engaging as the humanistic Li. He also forges some resonantly human chemistry with both Yao and Wu Yufang, portraying her mother. There is a lot of emotional messiness in Clouds, but it looks quite elegant and feels rather reserved.

Jong Lin’s cinematography is visually striking, but some of Teng’s symbolism is a tad bit heavy-handed. Yet, even though it probably sounds ridiculously over the top on paper, the scenes of an errant coffin lost in transit slowly drifting down the river are surprisingly effective. Occasionally the drama veers into over-the-top melodrama, but it is mostly quite poignant and grounded in the all-too-real realities of contemporary China. Recommended for fans of Yao and anyone fascinated by the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern Mainland society and culture, Send Me to the Clouds opens today (9/20) in LA, at the Downtown Independent and next Friday (9/27) here in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tazza: One Eyed Jack


Gamblers who rely on luck are just plain gamblers. Gamblers who employ “skill” consider themselves “swindlers.” Somewhere in between, you will find “Tazzas,” the legendary gamblers of Korea’s underworld. A poker-playing college student gets burned by a notorious Tazza, but a less frightening Tazza will recruit him for a potentially lucrative caper—and perhaps a chance for pay back in Kwon Oh-kwang’s Tazza: One Eyed Jack, which opens today in New York.

Do Il-chool is more comfortable at a card table reading people and calculating odds than taking notes in a lecture hall. Unfortunately, his luck runs out when he meets a femme fatale known as Madonna. It turns out she is the deceitful accomplice of the infamous Tazza known as “Demon,” or “Ma-gwi.” She throws Do so far off his game, he winds up deeply indebted to loan sharks.

Fortuitously, the Zen-like Tazza, “One Eyed Jack,” comes along at an opportune moment, to pay off his debts and enlist his services for a big-time swindle. The mark will be Mool Young-gam, an arrogant real estate mogul involved in some seriously shady dealings. Mool also can’t resist a not so friendly game of cards. Do and “Director Kwon” will worm their way into his confidence posing as his poker mercenaries, while Kkachi the swindler and Young-mi, the “actress,” will bait him masquerading as an obnoxious nouveau riche couple in the market for a weekend home, with One Eyed Jack pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Based on the third volume of the Tazza graphic novel series, One Eyed Jacks is considerably darker and more violent than the previous Tazza film, The Hidden Card. However, it is still fully stocked with twisty-turvy Runyonesque deceptions and betrayals. The con is most definitely on and on and on.

Park Jung-min is certainly adequate enough taking over for T.O.P. as the latest young new cardsharp in town. In fact, he is considerably steelier, which is a good thing. However, films like this never belong to the leading man. Instead, it is the colorful supporting casts that make or break them.

In this case, Ryoo Seung-bum radiates coolness and rock-solidly anchors the film as One Eyed Jack. Lim Ji-yeon and Lee Kwang-soo definitely lay it on pretty thickly, but they are still amusing as the bickering scammer tandem, Young-mi and Kkachi. Yoon Je-moon chews the scenery quite devilishly as Demon, but Woo Hyeon out-chews him as the slimy, rat-like Mool. However, Choi Yu-hwa is problematically passive and weirdly distant as Madonna. There is not much narrative connection to the previous Tazza films, but Joo Jin-mo technically returns in the tough luck prologue, briefly reprising the role of Jjakgwi.

Tazza: One Eyed runs well over two hours, but it never feels that long. Kwon keeps the fat out and maintain a high-octane speed. It is tougher than the previous film, but it is still fun. The tone is not unlike Rounders, but it deals out far more criminal-thriller business. Recommended for fans of gambling and caper movies, Tazza: One Eyed Jack opens today (9/20) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tony Leung’s Midnight Diner


This chef has had almost as many media lives as the heroine of the often-remade Miss Granny. He debuted in Yaro Abe’s manga and has subsequently come to life in multiple Japanese TV series and movies, as well as Korean and Chinese television series. His work is tasty, his wisdom is sage, and his late-night hours are convenient for his restless clientele. This time, “Big Tony” Leung Ka Fai takes his turn behind the grill as “The Master” (or “The Chef,” translations vary) and behind the camera as the director of Midnight Diner, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Originally, the Master’s cozy eatery was nestled away in a Shinjuku back alley, but Leung moves it to Shanghai. The hours are still the same: midnight to 7:00 AM, or whenever the Master feels like opening up for customers who look like they are in need of comfort food. He has several regulars, including his Alon, his adopted brother with anger management issues, and his old crony, Uncle Zhong. Plus, three scatterbrained millennials nearly always stop by.

However, most of the drama focuses customers, who are irregular regulars, like the dopey boxer, who only comes to the diner to retrieve his mischievous mother (and partake of the stir-fry clams). With the help of the Master and his mother (which he never requested), the big lug might have a puncher’s chance romancing the pretty single-mother nurse living in the neighborhood with her wheelchair-bound daughter.

We also meet a lovelorn brand marketing specialist, and a poor, scuffling singer-songwriter, whose stories have varying degrees of bittersweet tragedy. Yet, the tale of two country naïfs, whose bumpy romance cracks under the pressure of mega-urban life is probably the centerpiece of the film.

It is all very nice, but the concept probably works better as a series, allowing characters to more easily enter, exit, and intermingle without the pressure of reaching a quick resolution. Nevertheless, the good-looking cast is certainly pleasant to spend time with. The diner itself is also quite a warm and inviting setting (it still looks very Japanese, but whatever).

Unfortunately, the film has been clouded by controversy completely outside its scope. Reportedly, Leung’s Diner has been on the shelf for two years awaiting the go-ahead for release on the Mainland, which was suspiciously granted shortly after the actor appeared at a rally for the Hong Kong police—even though they have been recorded on video violently attacking pro-democracy protestors, with absolutely no provocation or justification. Sure, Midnight Diner is an agreeable film, but it is not worth selling one’s soul over. (Coincidentally, the film depicts Alon as a cop, whose rage drives him to physically abuse innocent citizens.)

Big Tony, you’re breaking our hearts, especially since you seem so warm and down-to-earth as the Master. It is a side of Leung we rarely see on-screen, while Zhang Li lends the film surprising grit and human frailty as the disturbed Alon. Jiao Junyan is also quite poignant as Snow, the ill-fated singer. Zhang Yishang and Vision Wei are both quite charismatic as the young provincial couple, but their tale of underdog love rent asunder by life is pretty familiar stuff.

As a work of cinema considered with strict critical formalism, Leung’s Midnight Diner constitutes a number of engaging performances (particularly Leung’s own) and some lushly shot cooking scenes. That can be enough for an enjoyable night at the movies, but Eric Khoo’s similarly themed Ramen Shop is a deeper, richer film. However, those who are closely following the Hong Kong protests will probably prefer to get their Midnight Diner fixes from the Japanese series (one of which is available on Netflix and another is on Prime). Recommended for loyal Leung fans, Midnight Diner opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Bloodline—A Family Film

Eventually, Evan’s son will need the sort of counseling he provides for troubled high school students. That is because the devoted father is both a social worker and a serial killer. He is not exactly the second coming of Dexter Morgan, but he tries to direct his homicidal impulses towards abusive adults who have it coming. Of course, his activities are bound to get messy in Henry Jacobson’s Bloodline, a Blumhouse production, which opens this Friday in New York.

Evan is very definitely the product of an abusive father. Yet, he is still quite the family man. His son was born several months premature, so he and his wife Lauren are under a great deal of stress. His mother is there for them, but she is often more of an annoyance than a help. As a result, Lauren understands why he sometimes needs to take a break to unwind, but she doesn’t know he is killing the problematic parents of his high school clients during his alone time.

Of course, the ER doctor who is murdered during the prologue will take some explaining, but there is definitely a reason for it. In the meantime, horror fans will enjoy the scene as an homage to vintage 1980s slasher movies—yes, it happens to transpire in the shower room.

Forget about his initial big break as Stifler in the American Pie movies. Based on his work as the likable lunkhead Doug Glatt in the Goon movies and his portrayal of Evan here, it is probably safe to say Seann William Scott is one of the most versatile and underappreciated actors working today. His slow burns ferociously as Evan, yet he also humanizes the homicidal social worker.

Dale Dickey is similarly great fun to watch chewing the scenery and stirring up chaos as dear old grandma. Kevin Carroll also stands out, for his smart, understated portrayal of Overstreet, the suspicious cop. Even though her screen time is limited, Christie Herring makes quite a memorable victim as the ill-fated doctor. On the other hand, poor Mariela Garriga has to do a lot of on-screen hand-wringing as Lauren, so she is largely overshadowed by Scott and Dickey for most of the film.

On paper, Bloodline does not sound like anything particularly new and Earth-shaking, but Jacobson’s execution is first-rate. He steadily builds the tension and manages to spring several surprises on viewers. Yet, what most distinguishes the film is the mordantly dry humor Jacobson and his colorful cast mine from the domestic horror story. Highly recommended for genre fans, Bloodline opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Running with the Devil—and Nic Cage

If you have ever wondered about the mark-up on premium cocaine, this film explains it all. A lot of people in the smuggling chain touch each shipment, so that necessarily escalates the price. It also means a lot of low-level drug-runners have an opportunity to cut and siphon off the product. “The Boss’s” semi-retired lieutenant, known simply as “The Cook,” gets pulled back into service to investigate their network in screenwriter-director Jason Cabell’s Running with the Devil, which opens this Friday in New York.

The Boss is not pleased about the adulterated junk his outfit has inadvertently put on the street, but his minimal concern comes too late for “The Agent in Charge,” whose sister and brother-in-law overdose from its toxicity. It will be personal for her as she pursues the far-flung drug operation, but it is just another day at the office for the Cook when he arrives in Colombia, even though he was hoping to mostly handle his work via telecommuting.

Starting with “The Farmer,” the Cook and his colleague, “The Executioner” (his role is pretty clear), follow and test the shipment as it makes its way from “The Farmer” up through Mexico. However, it turns out the creep lethally cutting the cocaine is the Cook’s old crony in the States, known only as “The Man” (but he really isn’t).

Despite what we have been conditioned to expect, Running is far more ambitious than most Nic Cage VOD movies-of-the-week (unlike 211 or Looking Glass). Presumably, that is why he signed on, even though he does not have much opportunities for his patented raging and roaring. The Cook is calm and reserved. That is why he is effective. Instead, it is Laurence Fishburne who gets to careen from meltdown to meltdown as the Man. He is a complete bug-eyed, profusely sweating, out-of-control mess as the Man. This could very well be his most in-your-face, let-it-all-hang-out performance since What’s Love Got to Do with It. Awkwardly, he is also involved in all the film’s dirty parts, some of which are pretty gross.

Believe it or not, Cage does world-weary resignation pretty well as the Cook. Barry Pepper and Cole Hauser both project menacing professionalism in spades, as the Boss and the Executioner. However, Adam Goldberg’s “Snitch” is a little too schticky to be credible.

Initially, Running feels like Cabell is stringing together random scenes and hoping a narrative will emerge, but it should be readily conceded, he really does tie everything together. So, if you start the film, stick with it. It lacks the bluesy tragedy of Eastwood’s The Mule, but it is cold, bracing corrective to the cartel-porn Netflix produces. It has merit, but anyone intrigued can safely wait until it streams for free on Netflix or Prime. In the very short term, Running with the Devil opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Promare, from GKIDS and Studio Trigger

Evidently, the futuristic megalopolis known as Promepolis is a lot like today’s California. Fires can break out anywhere without warning and the agencies responsible for fighting them are more apt to fight among themselves. Fortunately, stout-hearted Galo Thymos never flags in his duties as a member of the elite Burning Rescue unit. Unfortunately, he is dumb as a post, but he is still the best hope for saving the Earth in Hiroyuki Imaishi’s Promare, produced by Studio Trigger, which opens this Friday in New York, following special nationwide Fathom Events screenings tonight and Thursday.

Initially, the catastrophic fires were the result of spontaneous combustion brought on by society’s collective rage. Three decades later, humanity has cooled off considerably, but we are still plagued by incidents of terrorist-arson deliberately caused by the fire-wielding “Mad Burnish” mutants. They are convinced the fire speaks to them and it wants them to unleash it. The thing is, that turns out to be largely true. In fact, there is much more to the Mad Burnish outlaws than government propaganda suggests, as Thymos learns when he is forced to team up with their youthful leader, Lio Fortia, naturally to save the world. This is an anime film, after all.

Promare has a lot of splashy colors and some hard-charging mecha action, but the characters are mostly broad stock-figures, including Thymos and Fortia. Frankly, there really isn’t a Burning Rescue team-member or Mad Burnish rebel who you would really want to spend time with in the real world—and Thymos is probably the only one most viewers will remember after screening Promare.

One the other hand, Imaishi does some nifty world-building and he drops some genuinely game-changing revelations on multiple occasions. This is definitely a film for fans of mecha-hardware fighting and crashing. Stuff definitely goes boom in this film—often. Still, it inevitably calls up comparisons to established mecha franchises, like Evangelion and Mazinger Z, which is probably to be expected, since character designer Shigeto Koyama is a veteran of the former.

Imaishi never lets up on the action and his animation is appealingly bright and bold. Promare will never bore anyone, but it lacks the sophistication of other science fiction anime released by GKIDS, such as Patema Inverted and Napping Princess (a.k.a. Ancien and the Magic Tablet). It is fun, but light-weight. Recommended for serious anime fans, Promare opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the Metrograph and screens nationwide via Fathom Events tonight (9/17) and Thursday (9/19).

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Indie-AniFest ’19: Another (short)


At least this nebbish Korean teen doesn’t have to worry about social media yet. He only has to contend with a ghostly doppelganger, as well as all the other pressures of academics and extra-curriculars. Coming of age is no easy business in screenwriter-director Park Yeon’s animated short, Another, which screens during Indie-AniFest 2019, the Korean Independent Animation Film Festival.

“Live Kid” is busier than most over-worked salarymen. By the time he returns home on the bus, he hardly has a chance to speak to his parents at all. As a result, when a strange entity starts haunting him, he must face it on his own. It is not just his imagination. The ghost is real and it has a secret to tell: they were once fraternal twins, but only “Live Kid” survived the pregnancy.

Another is a wonderfully stylish film that will delight horror fans. It starts out as a genuinely spooky ghost story, but takes a major twist during its all too brief eight-minute running time. It is sort of like contemporary K-horror, mixed with R.L. Stine and O. Henry. Plus, it also serves up some sly social commentary down the stretch.

There is something refreshingly enjoyable about a gore-free, lightning-crashing, creeping-shadows ghost yarn, which Park totally nails. Based on Another, we would love to see him do a full anthology film, somewhat in the spirit of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but naturally animated. Very highly recommended, Another screens Saturday (9/21) and Monday (9/23), as part of the First Flight 1 program, at this year’s Indie-AniFest.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos [The Bad Guys: the Movie]


This elite squad is a lot like the Dirty Dozen, but there are only four of them. Fortunately, Don Lee counts for at least eight guys—eight really big guys. The old team of convicts is reconstituted to capture several far worse criminals in Son Yong-ho’s The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos, the feature sequel to the hit Korean TV show, which opens this Friday in New York.

Big bad Park Woong-cheol has been given a two-day furlough to mourn the death of his best friend, one of the last old school, socially responsible clan bosses. As luck would have it, he will be available to return to the crooks-catching-crooks task force that has been called back into service to catch the high-profile criminals who just escaped in the Fugitive-style opening action sequence.

Sadly, Lt. Yoo Mi-young, one of their badge-holding comrades from the TV series, was badly injured in the attack, so it is personal for Park. At least their old commander, Captain Oh Goo-tak is back in charge, but the ailing copper is not long for this world. Naturally, there will be some tensions with the new recruits: Ko Yoo-sung, an overzealous cop and “Jessica” Kwak No-soon, a confidence trickster. However, they will all be on the same page when they realize one of their targets is the serial killer who seduced and murdered Kwak’s sister. Yet, there is probably even more pressure to re-capture No Sang-sik, a high-ranking mob boss, who had promised to reveal his secrets to Lt. Yoo.

After the initial escape, Reign of Chaos gets a little bogged down in exposition, but then it cranks it up again and never slows down. Frankly, this is a perfect vehicle for Don Lee (a.k.a. Ma Dong-seok), who is quickly becoming the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the modern era. His imposing physique cannot be missed (even by a blind man on valium), but it is his earnestness and “aw shucks” charm that really pop off the screen. He performs feats of strength and bashes more bad dudes (we can’t call them “bad guys”) than viewers can easily count without a hand-clicker, always in a way that is upbeat and entertaining.

Kim Sang-joong is a perfect counter-balance, playing Cap. Oh with world-weary gravitas. Just one look at his wrinkled brow can cause sympathy headaches. Kim A-joong also has fun vamping it up opposite Lee’s burly but Boy Scout-ish Park. Park Won Sang also has some nice moments as the cynical but honest copper, Jo Dong-sul. They all form quite a colorful ensemble who rather overshadow Chang Ki-yong, who is quite competent as the hot-headed Ko, but he just can’t compete with Lee and company.

Son stages some bigtime explosive action scenes and fully capitalizes on Lee’s skills and larger-than-life presence. In the process, he and screenwriter Han Jung-hoon manage to tell a reasonably complex crime story with two or three dozen significantly developed characters, as a nice bonus. This is a prime example of why South Korea is starting to eclipse Hong Kong as the world capitol of action filmmaking (sad old Hollywood is hardly even a factor anymore). Highly recommended for action fans, The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Corporate Animals: Demi Moore is the Boss


Is there anything worse than team-building exercises? Sure, cannibalism and getting trapped in confined spaces are bad too, but faux empowerment really takes the cake. Unfortunately, the employees of Incredible Edibles will have to endure all these things, plus their boss’s usual bullying in Patrick Brice’s Corporate Animals, which opens this Friday in New York.

Lucy Vanderton’s mean streak is only surpassed by her vanity. She really believes all her dressing-down sessions are for her employees’ own good—not that she cares about them. Regrettably, her business acumen is not as considerable. With rumors of insolvency swirling around the company, she packs up her staff for a mandatory outward bound-style outing. It gives her the opportunity to preen and show off her calculated wokeness, but her survival skills are not that hot either.

Of course, Vanderton insists they all engage in some high-risk spelunking, but when their guide dies through misadventure, they are trapped without food—and nobody will come looking for them anytime soon. Things get ugly as workplace resentments boil over. Before long, they must resort to Donner Party tactics to survive.

There are no revelations in Corporate Animals, but Brice and screenwriter Sam Bain keep it consistently brisk and amusing. There is no doubt Demi Moore is the film’s no-to-secret weapon shamelessly chewing the scenery as Vanderton. It is a claws-out, all-in performance that has no use for subtlety, but it is very funny.

The supporting cast get their digs in as well, particularly Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Dan Bakkedahl as the kind of employees who just radiate discontent. Jessica Williams and Karan Soni develop some nice rapport as Jess and Freddie, the two supposed protégés, whom Vanderton has been playing-off against themselves. Jennifer Kim (so memorable in Female Pervert) again shows off her remarkable facility for dead-pan humor, but she really should have had more screen time. Likewise, Ed Helms’ necessarily brief appearance as Brandon, the ill-fated guide, was probably considered a gag in its own right.

The laughs in Corporate mostly constitute dark comedy, but the cannibalism business never approaches the in-your-face discomfort of Raw. It really functions better as a zeitgeisty Serial-style satire than a horror or midnight movie. In fact, a high percentage of the jokes lampooning self-helpy business-and-success double talk land on target (Jonathan Swift might approve). Recommended for rude laughs, Corporate Animals opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the Village East.

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

Tokyo Ghoul S: Sui Ishida’s Manga Ghouls Take Another Live-Action Bite


You can accuse ghoul of many things, but not cannibalism—because they eat people, not other ghouls. Yet, what about a half-ghoul, half-human, like Ken Kaneki? The notorious ghoul known as “The Gourmet” is convinced Kaneki is not just edible—he will be absolutely delicious. The man-eating ghouls of Sui Ishida’s manga are hungrier than ever in Takuya Kawasaki & Kazuhiko Hiramaki’s live-action sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S, which screens nationwide this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, courtesy of Funimation.

Thanks to an involuntary organ donation from his late ghoul friend, Kaneki became a human-ghoul hybrid in the first Tokyo Ghoul. He has yet to fully embrace his ghoulishness, especially the eating human flesh part, but he has found belonging in the Anteiki coffee shop that caters to ghouls (coffee being the only human food they can stomach, because it is rich and delicious).

Shu Tsukiyama is exactly the kind of ghoul they prefer not to serve. Viewers first meet him in the bloody prologue. Kaneki’s co-worker Toka Kirishima, a petulant high school student and lethal projectile-wielding ghoul, boots him out on his ear, but not before he gets a whiff of Kaneki. Convinced the human-hybrid will be a rare delicacy, Tsukiyama lays plans to ensnare and feast on him, starting with a charm offensive.

The first live-action Tokyo Ghoul was a lot like the X-Men, but with ghouls not-so secretly living among humans in place of mutants. However, “S” more fully lives up to the horror implications of ghouls eating people. Tsukiyama is a classic horror movie villain, played with scenery-chewing relish by Shota Matsuda. In contrast, one of Kaneki main adversaries from the first film returns in a sickly and more empathetic state this time around.

Masataka Kubota still plays Kaneki like a wide-eyed and largely freaked-out sad sack, but he laos nicely conveys signs the character is starting to mature and grow into his new life. Maika Yamamoto shows off all kinds of action chops as the hard-charging Kirishima. However, it is Shunya Shiraishi and Mai Kiryu who really give the film heart in their poignant scenes as the formerly sinister ghoul Nishiki Nishio and his human lover, Kimi Nishino. As a bonus for Japanese pop-culture junkies, Canadian-Japanese model Maggie appears in the prologue as the bi-racial model, “Margaret.”

The special effects, gory make-up, and whirling-and-swirling action direction are all first-rate. The main characters are wearing well too, which is fortunate, since the mid-credits stinger clearly implies there is more to come. S also draws delves more deeply iinto the particularities of its ghoul world. That should help differentiate it from other manga-to-film franchises, like Ajin: Demi-Human, which largely paralleled the first Toyko Ghoul throughout its opening installment. Recommended for fans of the manga series and dark fantastical action in general, Tokyo Ghoul S screens tomorrow (9/16), Wednesday (9/18), and Friday (9/20), in theaters across the country, including the Village East in New York (where it will actually screen 9/16, 9/18, and 9/19).

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Memo to the National Film Registry: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Public nominations for this year’s additions to the Library of Congress’s NationalFilm Registry close tomorrow, so anyone who wishes to second my nomination of Plan 9 from Outer Space should do so today. Here is my open letter to the National Film Preservation Board, making the case for Ed Wood’s affectionately notorious film:

Not every film on the National Film Registry is great, but they are all culturally significant. Surely, Ed Wood’s cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space qualifies as the latter. Yes, it has been widely derided as “the worst film of all time,” but that itself is some kind of distinction. Yet, movie fans keep watching it.

Arguably, no other film has played a greater role shaping the “so bad its good” aesthetic than Plan 9. Its ruckus late night screenings deserve a great deal of credit for the “midnight movie” tradition as we now know it. Plan 9 has burrowed into our cultural consciousness and reshaped our genre archetypes with the now iconic appearances of Bela Lugosi (in his final screen role), Tor Johnson, “Vampira,” and “The Amazing Criswell.” As a result, there are prominent references to Plan 9 scattered throughout the last fifty years of pop culture, including call-outs on Seinfeld and The X-Files.

Logically, the making of Plan 9 is the centerpiece of Ed Wood, which is arguably Tim Burton’s best live action feature to date. In fact, Burton’s film is significant in its own right, thanks to Martin Landau’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Lugosi, but it probably would not exist without Plan 9.

Over the years, Plan 9 has inspired stage musicals, comic books, video games, and a reconceived remake that is actually not half-bad (John Johnson’s Plan 9). For movie lovers, it has transcended Wood’s conspicuous limitations as a filmmaker to become a beloved work of Atomic-Age Americana. That is why preservation of Plan 9 from Outer Space fits so well with the National Film Registry’s mission and methodology. Plus, its induction would be a publicity boon for the Registry (seriously, those stories would just write themselves, wouldn’t they?). That is why Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space should be included in the Registry’s Class of 2019.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

American Dreamer: Tip Your Driver, So We Can Avoid All This


According to media analysis, a manageable one-dollar tip will greatly increase the profitability of most rides for Uber drives. Unfortunately, Cam has not been getting much in the way of tips, but that is hardly surprising, given his lack of charm. Technically, he works for the fictional “Hail,” but same difference. Anger and desperation will drive him to make some crazy rash decisions in Derrick Borte’s American Dreamer, which opens today in New York.

Cam was once respectable, but that was before he was down-sized out of his IT job and kicked to the curb by his ex-wife. He now lives hand-to-mouth as a ride-share driver and hardly ever sees his son. Life is humiliating especially when he is chauffeuring around Mazz, a regular client who sees the value in Cam’s nondescript, unimpressive wheels for his drug-dealing business.

He pays well, but Mazz clearly enjoys lording his power and money over Cam. Eventually, the driver reaches his breaking point. Fed up with all the sleights life offers him, Cam plans a spectacularly ill-advised caper. Somehow, it goes even worse than we expect. That leaves him in a super-awkward position the next time Mazz summons him.

Honestly, Dreamer is a veritable one-film festival of stunningly bad decision-making and general counter-productivity. Watching this film leads to one face-palm after another. Granted, Cam is most likely wrestling with clinical depression, but it is still hard to believe any mortal man can be so self-defeating and reckless. Yet, when it comes to going off half-cocked, Mazz is nearly as bad.

This could all still have the makings of a perversely entertaining one-darned-thing-after-another noir, were it not for a shocking development that comes along at the midway point and completely sucks the air out of the film. It is just impossible for anything following it to come across as remotely fun.

Nevertheless, Robbie Jones deserves all kinds of credit for his absolutely riveting performance as Mazz. There is something about him that is almost demonic. Jim Gaffigan convincingly slow burns against type as the sad sack Cam, vividly expressing all his pain and humiliation. Yet, Jones still owns the show.

Although the excesses and questionable motivations frequently pull us out of the film, Borte certainly keeps the tension uncomfortably high. It is dark and moody—and ultimately soulless. Regrettably, by over-indulging in heavy-handed social commentary, the film winds up sacrificing credibility. Not recommended, American Dreamer opens today (9/13) in New York, at Cinema Village.

Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple


Kasie looks fashionable in any clothes, even including traditional purple Korean garb. Unfortunately, abandonment issues have not worn so well on her. It is painfully obvious her mother’s desertion has made it acutely difficult for her to let go of her ailing father, but a potential reconciliation with her semi-estranged brother could help in Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple, which opens today in New York.

Sadly, Kasie’s essentially comatose father has no real quality of life left, but she still dutifully nurses him. To pay his medical bills, she works as a doumi hostess in a hedonistic Koreatown karaoke, where she is often forced to accept sex-work side gigs. When the visiting nurse abruptly quits, Kasie is forced to reach out to her brother Carey for help. Much to her surprise, he agrees.

As we see from flashbacks, Kasie was always her father’s favorite, which made their mother’s abandonment even more difficult for him. Yet, Carey tries to do right by his dying father. However, he will be even more concerned about the demeaning treatment Kasie receives, both at work and from her playboy lover, Tony.

Ms. Purple is certainly not a slam-bang kind of film. Far from plotty, it is a quiet, moody character study, with a vibe and sensibility not so very different from vintage Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo being a particularly apt comparison). Hou is quite the name to invoke, but Chon’s assured hand warrants the guarded comparison. However, Chon’s film has a much harder edge, especially when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of sex-related work.

Like Hou had Shu Qi in Mambo, Chon has the advantage of a luminously expressive star turn from his lead, Tiffany Chu, who is utterly arresting and absolutely devastating. The quietly understated sibling rapport she and Teddy Lee forge together is also eerily potent. From time to time, Octavio Pizano provides some relief from the melancholy atmosphere with his memorably idiosyncratic portrayal of his name-sake Octavio, a smitten former co-worker, who would probably be good for Kasie.

Ms. Purple is smaller in scale than Chon’s electric directorial debut, Gook, but it is still a worthy follow-up. The themes are more universal this time around, but Chon and co-screenwriter Chris Dinh (Crush the Skull) squarely center them in the Korean American first- and second-generation experiences. In a departure from the black-and-white of Gook, cinematography Atne Cheng dramatically saturates the colors, but in ways that complement the lonely, after-hours ambiance. Highly recommended for those who can handle some raw, straight-no-chaser sibling drama, Ms. Purple opens today (9/13) in New York, at the Quad.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

MOTELX ’19: Jairo’s Revenge


Jairo Pinilla Tellez is a B-movie director, who has won the equivalent of Colombia’s Oscar for life achievement. That makes him sound like the Colombian Roger Corman, but Pinilla has been far less prolific. However, it wasn’t his fault. For years, Pinilla was essentially blackballed by the Colombian government’s film financing authority (FOCINE). That makes the production of a new Pinilla film quite an event. Simon Hernandez tries to capture the maestro at work in the documentary Jairo’s Revenge, which screens tomorrow as part of this year’s MOTELX, the Lisbon International Horror Film Festival.

Granted, Pinilla’s early films are somewhat rough around the edges, but they were big box office hits. Arguably, Pinilla was Colombia’s most successful native film director. Alas, he made a career-derailing mistake when he picked a fight with FOCINE. Not only did Pinilla find himself unable to work for years. He was also financially ruined and lost the rights to his own films.

Eventually, FOCINE was shut down and the Colombian cultural establishment started to recognize Pinilla as a trail-blazer. To complete his comeback, Pinilla sets out to make a new feature—his first in 3D and presumably his last, given his advancing years. Unfortunately, the genre auteur appears to be his worst enemy.

Initially, the behind-the-scenes drama Hernandez captures will not strike most viewers as being particularly earth-shaking. We get some entertainingly bonkers clips from his lurid filmography, but most of us would prefer a greatest hits package of wild film excerpts and off-the-wall anecdotes, in the tradition of Not Quite Hollywood or Corman’s World. Yet, things start to perk up dramatically after the first half hour, when Pinilla finds it impossible to keep a lead actress attached to the project, mostly because they are frustrated with him. Suddenly, Pinilla is arguing with everyone, especially Hernandez.

Pinilla’s production definitely runs way, way off the rails, which might sadden horror fans on an intellectual level, but there is no denying its entertainment value for voyeuristic gawking. Viewers will root for Pinilla, but we probably wouldn’t want to work with him.

After watching Jairo’s Revenge, the audience will have a greater appreciation for Pinilla’s grubby, underdog films. His career also tellingly illustrates the perils to free expression when the state plays a significant role funding arts and culture. Recommended for fans of idiosyncratic auteurist cult cinema, Jairo’s Revenge screens tomorrow (9/13), during MOTELX '19.

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Two Sentence Horror Stories: Little Monsters


Kids are more likely to survive horror movies, because they are more apt to believe in monsters and therefore take the necessary survival precautions. Three young residents of a blighted urban housing project are a perfect case in point. They know a shape-shifting demon is preying on children, because they see it with their own eyes in Little Monsters, the latest episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories, directed by Tayarisha Poe, which premieres tonight on the CW.

After her mother’s death, May and her widowed father move into the project, where the sheer volume of missing children flyers posted is distressingly suspicious. Khalil and Marcus quickly clue her in. They claim a demonic shape-shifter with a black tongue and talon-like nails regularly abducts local children, for its culinary pleasure. She is willing to believe, because she has already seen it herself.

Ordinarily, Khalil and Marcus just focus on survival, since all the adults around them lack the imagination and intuition to give credence to their claims. However, when one of the three is taken, the other two launch a rescue mission.

Horror fans could consider Little Monsters to be a strictly serious 2019 updating on The Monster Squad concept, completely drained of camp and nostalgia. The young trio is quite telegenic, but there is nothing precious, immature or cutesy about their work on-screen. In fact, their fear feels very real. Melinda Mo is especially impressive portraying May, a little girl who is still processing her grief while facing an uncanny peril. She is pretty devastating, but she also develops some plucky chemistry with Mikelle Wright-Matos, as Khalil.

Honestly, Little Monsters would possibly rank as the best episode of the entire season, were it not for some dubious special effects. In retrospect, the climax probably could and should have been tweaked a bit, without taking anything away from what creator-screenwriter Vera Miao was getting at.

Regardless, horror fans will appreciate the creepiness of the monster and the resourcefulness of the three monster-fighters. Yet, there is depth to this episode non-genre fans should also respect. Highly recommended, Little Monsters airs tonight (9/12) on the CW, as part of the current season of Two Sentence Horror Stories.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Freaks: Back to the Dystopian Near-Future


It should be reassuring to know the ice creams trucks are still working in the dystopian future. Then again, when was an ice cream man good news in genre cinema? Rather inconveniently, ice cream represents the freedom of outside life to a seven-year-old girl rebelling against the rigid control of her over-protective father. It also tastes delicious. Unfortunately, he has good reason to be concerned for her safety in Zach Lipovsky & Adam B. Stein’s Freaks, which opens this Friday in New York.

This Freaks is very different from Tod Browning’s Freaks. For one thing, they look just like everyone else—but they’re not. At first, it is not exactly clear what is going on in this not-so-very-near-future world. Chloe’s dad acts like the world outside is an apocalyptic wasteland and the news reports of massive terrorist attacks seem to support that impression. However, when Chloe disobediently ventures outside her boarded-up house, her neighborhood looks very much like our here-and-now.

We also soon discover Chloe has some pretty serious powers. Her father insists she is a perfectly normal little girl, but the weird, looks-like-he-should-be-on-a-special-offenders-registry Mr. Snowcone (whose ice cream truck always appears at opportune moments) encourages her to develop her gifts. Sadly, the more her father tries to contain her, the more she resents it, becoming dangerously emotional.

To their credit, Lipovsky & Stein pull off some masterful misdirection in the first act that really keeps us guessing, but the film’s underlying conflict is really nothing new. Frankly, after decades of X-Men comic books and movies, it would be far more interesting to visit a genre world where the super-powered “others” secretly living among us really represent a deliberate and malicious threat to society that must be rooted out. That would also better reflect the perils we face in this day and age, considering the number of foreign agents believed to be operating on our soil as sleeper cells (at least that is what the opening of the sadly canceled The Enemy Within told us).

Young Lexy Kolker is a bit like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter, but scarier and more erratic. Regardless, Emile Hirsch provides the film’s true emotional center as the father who is absolutely desperate to save his daughter. On the other hand, Bruce Dern is way too creepy and sleazy looking for the character of Mr. Snowcone. Seriously, if you saw him loitering around a playground, you would call the cops. Speaking of the law, Grace Park provides a steady and authoritative presence as the moderate sounding Agent Ray, helping to further muddy viewers’ assumptions.

Lipovsky & Stein crank up the tension and the suspense quite adroitly. They succeed in pulling us in and keeping us on pins-and-needles, even though it is rather disappointing how familiar the story turns out to be. Of course, if originality were easy, everyone would do it. Recommended for the tight, tense execution rather than the stale dystopian elements, Freaks opens this Friday (9/13) in Brooklyn, at the Regal Sheepshead Bay.

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Haunt: This Isn’t Disney’s Haunted Mansion


Anyone working at a haunted house attraction must be a sadistic sicko. That is clearly what horror movies are telling us these days. Initially, the Houses October Built duology was the lone voice wailing in the darkness, but it was soon joined by Blood Fest and Hell Fest. Yet another extreme haunted house turns out to be more extreme than advertised in Scott Beck & Bryan Woods’ Haunt, which opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Harper is the nice girl, who makes excuses for her abusive boyfriend and lacks sufficient money (and fun) for a decent Halloween costume. She really ought to be with a nice guy like Nathan, a college baseball player with a spectacularly obnoxious buddy named Evan. Along with her bestie Bailey and two other prime victims, they decide to visit an extreme haunt for no good reason (aside from a Yelp review claiming all proceeds go to the Red Cross).

Of course, things get horrifically violent awfully quickly. Frankly, it is hard to believe a group of millennials would agree to surrender their smart phones at the door, because what is the point of facing extreme horrors, if you can’t take the selfies to prove it? Regardless, many of them will not live to regret that mistake.

Let’s not mince words. Initially, Haunt is largely derivative and the violence is often legitimately disturbing. However, you have to give Beck & Woods (best known for co-writing The Quiet Place with Krasinski) credit for a surprisingly strong ending that is massively cathartic. Most of the film is pretty standard stuff, but when they deviate from the established horror formula, it is always for the better.

Most viewers will want to kill the abrasive Evan themselves, but at least he stands out. The rest are a bland lot, with almost no personality to speak of. It is totally the material. Arguably, Will Brittain manages to be okay as Nathan, but he was terrific as the titular Neanderthal in Tim Disney’s William. As for the rest, you could sit next to one of them on the subway home from the theater and not recognize them.

Still, when you have seen as many horror movies as we, you have to appreciate the small favors. If Beck & Woods had embraced the themes of empowerment more, they really might have gotten someplace. We don’t hate it, but there is a good chance a lot of “casual” horror fans will. Haunt just isn’t worthy of a recommendation, but we’re curious to see what the filmmakers do next, for what that’s worth. For now, Haunt opens Friday (9/13) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Undone: Amazon Gets Rotoscoped


Rotoscoping must be the official animation style of Texas. After Richard Linklater used the technique of layering animation over live-action film cells for his Austin-set Walking Life, the team behind Bojack Horseman have employed it to tell a tale of [certain] depression, [likely] madness, and [possible] time travel in San Antonio. The result is Undone, the Amazon Empire’s first animated series for adults, which premieres this Friday.

Alma Winograd-Diaz’s family must have sky-high auto insurance rates. Roughly twenty years after her father Jacob Winograd perished in a car crash, Winograd-Diaz has a doozy of her own wreck. She wakes suffering from mild short-term amnesia, unaware she broke up with her loyal boyfriend Sam not long before. Determined to “be there for her,” Sam opts not to fill her in on this little detail.

Eventually, Sam’s white lie is bound to catch up with him, but it will take several twenty-some-minute episodes. In the short-term, Alma is quite distracted by her father, who has been appearing too her through some kind of astral woo-woo, pressuring her to help him solve his murder. Winograd is convinced he and his research assistant (whom he was absolutely not having an affair with) were bumped off because of his research into time travel. Having bobbed and weaved between life and death, Winograd-Diaz’s consciousness might be ready to embrace the non-linearity of time—or maybe she is losing her grasp on reality, like her schizophrenic grandmother.

You have to admire the ambition of creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Kate Purdy, who dive whole-heartedly into some heavy thematic material. Unfortunately, most of their character development work focused on Winograd-Diaz, a whiny, self-centered, self-defeating, self-loathing millennial, while most of the other characters are largely stock characters we can auto-fill on our own: bossy mother, princess-like younger sister, tolerant boss, doormat boyfriend. The notable exception is dear old dad, who is an intriguing cypher that slowly but surely takes on fuller dimensions.

Only the first five episodes (out of eight) have been supplied to reviewers, but thus far, the series errs on the side of family drama. Honestly, the only aspect of the Winograd-Diaz’s family most viewers will care about is the suspected murder of her father. It is too bad, because there is a lot of cool Inception kind of stuff going on. It potentially represents an intelligent return to the mind-over-matter school of time travel movies that goes back at least as far as Somewhere in Time, but has far richer theoretical underpinnings this time around.

Given the rotoscope technique, we really can talk about full performances from the Undone cast, not just voice-over work. Although he is deceptively reserved, there is something about the scoped-over Bob Odenkirk as Winograd that holds viewers’ attention and imagination rapt. It is also worth noting emerging indie genre superstar Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) portrays his student-assistant, but most of her featured work presumably comes in episodes six to eight. As Winograd-Diaz, Rosa Salazar makes us want to bang our heads against a park bench, but that means she nails the character.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is still probably the greatest head-shrinking thriller of all time, thanks to the imagery he and Salvador Dali crafted. At its best, Undone presents psycho-razzle dazzle at a similar level. The problem is all the patience-sapping melodrama. Recommended for the expressionistic visuals to Prime members, who have already paid for it, Undone premieres this Friday (9/13) on Amazon.

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Schimberg’s Chained for Life


By definition, exploitation films tend to be exploitative. This is especially of the horror variety, where there is a notorious tradition of yes, exploiting so-called deformity or pronounced physical differences for shock and fear. Tod Browning’s Freaks is the most hotly debated example, but the case of Rondo Hatton (best known for playing “The Creeper”) is probably more on-point. That is the sort of film-within-the-film a rather Herzogian director is shooting, but the wider film that encompasses it is rather thoughtful and responsible. Viewers will have to take a long hard look at themselves as they gaze on the unconventional cast of Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Mabel will be playing Freda, a blind German lass, who falls in love with a fellow patient at a mildly mad doctor’s private sanitorium, but she spurns him when she regains her sight. The rejected lover will be played by Rosenthal, an occasional actor living with neurofibromatosis. Everyone thinks it is cool to take a photo with Rosenthal, but it is really the worst kind of patronizing, ego-stoking behavior. Mabel is the exception. She quite likes Rosenthal, perhaps even romantically, or maybe just as a method exercise.

The title is presumably a reference to the notorious 1952 exploitation movie Chained for Life, starring conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton (there are indeed conjoined twins in this Chained too). However, it is the references to Freaks that will really jump out at cult movie fans. “Herr Director” is making a movie of that ilk, but Schimberg did not. Nor did he merely serve up a lecture tisk-tisking us for our prurient gawking. Instead, gives us an unusually intriguing and strangely moving relationship, brought to life by the two terrific co-leads. It is hard to say whether Mabel and Rosenthal truly share a romance, but it is something.

Sadly, it would probably strike Hollywood as opportunism if the distributor launched an awards campaign for Adam Pearson, but his performance as Rosenthal is worthy of such attention. It is truly a charismatic and humane turn that never resorts to cheap sentimentality. Likewise, Jess Weixler is both mysterious and vulnerable as Mabel. It is also a bit mind-blowing to see Charlie Korsmo ham it up as Herr Director, his first screen appearance in twenty years. Fans might suspect this is a bit of an in-joke, since he is best known for playing “The Kid” in Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which featured plenty of the grotesque villains that the comic strip was famous for.

Schimberg garnered a fair amount of notice for his ultra-indie debut, Go Down Death, but the film itself didn’t land. However, he has clearly honed his skills over the intervening years. Chained is a remarkable auteurist work, that effortless segues from objective reality to the film-in-production to fantasies, stories, dreams, and reveries. Although he keeps viewers off-balancing and guessing, it is clear every disorienting step is intentional, carefully crafted, and weirdly effective. It is not a horror movie, but it offers a challenging perspective on the horror genre. Highly recommended, Chained for Life opens tomorrow (inexplicably on 9/11) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Monday, September 09, 2019

Another Day of Life, from GKIDS


In 1981, Ryszard Kapuscinski was fired for supporting Solidarity, but back in 1975, as a journalist in good standing from a Soviet satellite state, he was granted rock star access by the Marxist MPLA during the Angolan Civil War. He duly took their side, as is clearly depicted in Raul de la Fuente & Damain Nenow’s Another Day of Life, which opens this Friday in New York.

Unfortunately, Kapuscinski is no longer with us. If he were, he might have a few choice words to say about Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras, two journalists who successful defended themselves against criminal defamation charges after they dared to report on the attorney general’s corruption. Sadly, none of Kapuscinski’s surviving comrades who are seen during the film’s live action talking head sequences have anything to say about the lack of press freedoms during the MPLA’s uninterrupted single-party rule that they and Kapuscinski helped bring about. At least, Kapuscinski is seen struggling with the fundamental issue of how reporters change events just through their very presence.

Nevertheless, it is still pretty compelling to watch the stumble-faced Kapuscinski venture towards the southern front, in hopes of scoring an interview with Farrusco, a legendary Portuguese paratrooper who crossed over to the MPLA side. To get past the initial checkpoints, he enlists the help of Artur, a native Angolan journalist, but for the journey through the southern war zone, he convinces the MPLA to assign him Carlotta, the star soldier of MPLA’s propaganda campaign, as his escort (by promising her commander fawning press coverage).

You have to wonder if de la Fuente, Nenow, and their three co-screenwriters recognize the irony of the climax, involving Kapuscinski deliberate decision to exclude mention of the Cuban military’s armed intervention in the country, to prevent the American military from moving to counter them. It is indeed absolutely fair to ask about the implications of Kapuscinski’s decisions—in fact, it is conspicuously absent. Clearly something is profoundly amiss with the management of a nation with considerable diamond and petroleum reserves, but its per capita GDP is estimated below $4,000 US.

Frankly, it is surprising how biased Another Day is in favor of the oppressive MPLA, especially since it was co-helmed by Nenow, whose memorable short Paths of Hate depicts the dehumanization of war in a way that eschews ideology. Still, it certainly portrays Kapuscinski as a complex and conflicted character, rather than a standard-bearing revolutionary.

The animation of Another Day is quite similar in style to that of Paths of Hate. Both are quite stylish visually, so it is too bad GKIDS isn’t screening the 85-minute feature with the short, as they have sometimes done in the past. Regardless, the feature’s biases are so distractingly obvious and so many glaring questions are left dangling in the air (like what happened over the next forty-four years?), it greatly detracts from Kapuscinski’s character study. Not recommended, Another Day of Life opens this Friday (9/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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