J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Perfection: Hell’s Cellos

Jazz is superior to classical music, because it values individuality of sound over note-for-note precision. That might be a bold statement, but Charlotte Willmore is probably ready to buy into it. She was once the brightest star at the world’s most prestigious academy for cellists, but not anymore. It is safe to say she had a bad experience there. When an opportunity arises, she will act on her pent-up frustrations in Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, which starts streaming today on Netflix.

Willmore was top of the heap at the academy, but she was forced to leave when her mother has a debilitating stroke. When the infirm woman finally dies years later, Willmore tentatively reaches out to Anton, her old headmaster. At his invitation, she appears at an academy event, where she meets their current reining star, Elizabeth Wells. A fast friendship with romantic overtones quickly develops between them. Willmore even agrees to accompany Wells on her vacation through China. At first, they have a great time together, but then things take a shockingly dark turn. Several more of those will follow.

Perfection is one of those films that requires a lot of cautious tap-dancing to avoid giving away spoilers in the review. The twists are definitely the thing, as we can tell from the way Shepard literally rewinds the film to show each how each surprise shoe really dropped. Unfortunately, the last big twist is so obvious, you can see it coming down Broadway, proceeded by a marching band. Honestly, it is annoying to twist yourself into a pretzel to avoid revealing plot turns that Shepard and co-screenwriters Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder give away through sheer lack of subtlety. On the other hand, the first act shocker that seems to bother people makes perfect sense within the context of the film.

Be that as it may, Allison Williams and Logan Browning both have gloriously unhinged moments as Willmore and Wells, respectively. It is not just them. Almost everyone seen on-screen eventually has their go-for-broke scenes. That is especially true of Steven Weber, who chews the scenery without guilt or restraint. We know he is a clay-footed hypocrite, because: #1: he is an authority figure, #2: he represents the elitist refinement of Western Culture, and #3: he is a man.

While the maniacal Bette Davis-Joan Crawford claw-fighting is jolly fun, the real guts of the film is pretty darned exploitative. Obviously, it is inspired by news stories like the U.S. Gymnastics scandal, but the vibe is shamelessly lurid. There is a fine line demarcating forthright topicality from crass cash-ins, but The Perfection swerves back-and-forth across it, like a drunk driver barreling down an empty country highway.

Thanks to the impressive commitment of Williams, Browning, and Weber, The Perfection starts off the rails and careens further into bedlam with each scene. You have to enjoy the madness, like a marginally more grounded Suspiria (the new one), but it doesn’t have the depth or wider cultural significance it thinks it does (but who wants those things in a horror movie or a psycho-thriller anyway?). Recommended as a fasten-your-seat-belts-its-going-to-be-a-bumpy-night kind of stream, The Perfection premieres today on Netflix.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Graf at Anthology: The Cat

They are stealing Deutschmarks not Euros, using walkies instead of cellphones. This is the late 1980s, but most of the bank heist business still holds up pretty well. One thing remains a metaphysical certainty, weaponized marital resentment can be deadly and unpredictable. Bank robbers make strange bedfellows in Dominik Graf’s The Cat, which screens as part of the Graf retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

Jutta Ehser is the inside person, who will help the mysterious Probek rob her husband’s bank. It is safe to say their marriage has been strained lately. Probek is the eye in the sky, who will keep the two gunmen in the bank informed of the police activity outside from his vantage point in a luxury high-rise hotel. Junghein and Britz are the two suckers he recruited to take the bank employees hostage. Voss is the coolly cerebral cop in charge of the standoff. He and Probek are evenly matched, but Junghein and Britz are in serious trouble.

Of course, Frau Ehser is not just collaborating Probek to hurt her husband. She is also carrying on a steamy affair with the criminal mastermind, as the opening scene so vividly establishes. Frankly, The Cat is like the Body Heat of heist movies—rather surprisingly, since it is German.

It is also super-sleek and lethally effective. Graf makes hay with the claustrophobic settings, while screenwriter Christoph Fromm’s adaptation of Uwe Erichsen’s novel keeps the betrayals and reversals of fortune coming at a healthy gallop. Frankly, it is easy to see why The Cat was a box office hit in Germany. Its canny use of Eric Burdon & the Animals’ “Good Times” also propelled the single back up the German charts.

Götz George is as slick as the film is as the delightfully cold and manipulative Probek. He is a villain worthy of great era of high-concept Eighties cinema. Gudrun Landgrede matches him step for step as Ehser, the femme fatale. Joachim Kemmer is perfectly world-weary and hard-bitten as Voss, while Ulrich Gebauer really provides the secret ingredient, pulling off several surprises in a surprisingly smart and nuanced performance as Herr Ehser.

Shame on everyone who was scouting for the major studios in 1988, because The Cat would have been a perfect property for a Hollywood remake. Maybe it still is. It certainly hooks viewers quickly and leaves quite an impression. Highly recommended for fans of 80s heist-thrillers, The Cat screens this Saturday (5/25), at Anthology Film Archives.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Graf at Anthology: Tatort—The Red Shadow

Decades after their demise, the German Red Army Faction is still generating bad karma—and crime scenes. Of course, the later is the name of the game for the long-running German police procedural television show Tatort (translation: “crime scene”). It is such an institution it periodically produces stand-alone TV movies that often tackle more ambitious subject matter. In this case, the RAF conspiracy theories garnered unusual fest play for Tatort: The Red Shadow, which screens during Anthology Film Archives’ retrospective of leading German film and TV director Dominik Graf.

For Detective Chief Superintendent Thorsten Lannert, this case will hit close to home, because he was once a terrorist-sympathizing leftist himself. It starts out like a tabloid story when Christoph Heider is arrested for trying to smuggle his ex-wife’s body to France for an autopsy. He is convinced her current lover, Wilhelm Jordan murdered her. After some cursory investigation, Lannert and his junior partner Sebastian Bootz start to suspect there might be something to Heider’s suspicions.

Jordan is definitely a creep, but he seems to be protected by a high-ranking state prosecutor and the Witness Protection service. They soon more-or-less confirm Jordan served as an informer on RAF activities. Suddenly, questions about the Baader-Meinhof gang start percolating when Jordan’s old lover, Astrid Fruhwein returns to her violent, gun-toting criminal ways. Lannert will even start to doubt the official version of the suicide of the Baader suicides.

There is a lot of conspiratorial smoke-and-mirrors in Red Shadow, which kicked up quite a fuss in German, but does not amount to much for viewers not steeped in the extremism of the “German Autumn.” Even if the FRG went a bit extracurricular on the RAF, it is hard to have sympathy for them. Just ask the families of Dr. Heinz Hillegaart, Andreas von Mirbach, Fritz Sippel (age 22), Jürgen Ponto, Dionysius de Jong (age 19), Johannes Goemanns and the dozens of other policemen, diplomats, customs officers, and U.S. servicemen the RAF murdered.

In fact, the murkiness of the conspiratorial speculation turns into a big “eh.” What works best in Red Shadow is the Law & Order-style chemistry shared by Richy Muller and Felix Klare, as Lannert and Bootz, respectively. Muller is especially watchable as the crusty Lannert. Hannes Jaenicke is also thoroughly loathsome and intensely creepy as Jordan. Regardless of your ideological convictions, he is definitely a very bad guy.

Graf conveys a sense of the overheated vibe of the German Autumn and how it continues to exert a corrosive influence several decades later. He helms with a surprising degree of flair and maintains a brisk pace throughout. It is a solid procedural outing for the warhorse franchise, but it just doesn’t add up to as much as it thinks it does. Recommended for procedural fans and conspiracy nuts, Tatort: The Red Shadow screens this Friday (5/24) and June 1st, during the Graf retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

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The Spy Behind Home Plate: How Moe Berg Back-Stopped the Free World

Catchers are considered the quarterbacks of baseball. They are the brains running the game on the field. That is why catchers have been more successful transitioning to managers than other position players or pitchers. It turns out catchers also made good secret agents. Granted, we only have a sample of one, but he was significant. Morris “Moe” Berg’s sporting and clandestine careers are chronicled in Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate, which opens this Friday in DC.

Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants, but he was as assimilated as he could be. He was an athlete and a scholar, who graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law at a time when the Ivy League was a bastion of WASPiness. His father was less than thrilled with his choice of a career in the Major Leagues, but Berg developed some interesting sidelines, such as appearing on the quiz show Information Please and spying for the OSS, the WWII-era predecessor of the CIA.

Berg’s work with “Wild Bill” Donovan at the OSS was covered quite well in Ben Lewin’s narrative drama, The Catcher was a Spy. However, Kempner and company offer up a fuller life portrait, including the intriguing tidbit regarding his field work in Latin America on behalf of Nelson Rockefeller’s Good Neighbor initiative, which could be a promising premise for a TV show, even though it would have to be largely fictionalized (truth is for documentarians).

Of course, centerpiece of any film about Moe Berg will be his work investigating Werner Heisenberg and the German atomic bomb project. Kempner confirms the third act of Lewin’s film to the letter, while bringing in Copenhagen playwright Michael Frayn for some classy commentary. Refreshingly, the documentary gives all due credit to Donovan and the men and women of the OSS for their patriotism and sacrifice (but not William Casey, in a conspicuous oversight). Regardless, it is nice to see the film explore the trust that developed between FDR and Donovan, an outspoken Republican critic of the New Deal.

Indeed, the agents of the OSS were heroes, most definitely including Berg. Frankly, the learned player is worthy of emulation in many respects. Apparently, he was also a bit eccentric. In a nice balancing act, Kempner establishes his social awkwardness, without belaboring the point. Altogether, it is a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary life. Highly recommended, The Spy Behind Home Plate opens this Friday (5/24) in DC, at the Avalon and next Friday (5/31) in New York, at the Quad.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Avengement: Scott Adkins is Miffed

They are the low-rent British Michael and Fredo Corleone, but they are considerably more deadly. Cain Burgess (dig the subtlety of his name) blames his older brother Lincoln for his incarceration and the 20,000 Pound prison bounty on his head, so when he escapes from custody, he is eager for a family reunion. However, he was bones to pick (break) with some other acquaintances as well, so the younger Burgess Brother will have to be quite the busy beaver in Jesse V. Johnson’s face-stomping Avengement, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Lincoln Burgess is a slimy gangster, who preys on the financially desperate through his predatory loan enterprise. Cain Burgess was not a bad bloke really, before he got nicked. Old Cain was supposed to take a dive in the ring for Lincoln’s outfit, but he knocked the other guy out instead. To make amends, he was supposed to pull a snatch-and-dash job targeting one of Lincoln’s “clients,” but things go tragically wrong. Condemned to the harshest prison in England, Cain essentially has to fight every second he is not in solitary. It makes him hard and scary looking. It also makes him rather disappointed in his brother Lincoln when he finally learns why everyone is out to get him.

Alas, Burgess and his police escort do not reach the hospital in time while his beloved mother is on her death bed. However, the field trip offers an opportunity for escape. Soon, Burgess finds his way to his older brother’s social cub, where he takes the low life thugs present hostage, if such a term can even be applied to such seedy rabble. As he waits for Lincoln to arrive, Cain catches everyone up on his activities through a series of flashbacks.

Wow, Avengement is about as brutal as an action movie can get while still being entertaining. Martial arts star Scott Adkins and director Johnson have worked together on a number of solid B-movies, but they really kick it up several notches here. Frankly, you really have to give Adkins credit for taking on this role. Technically, Cain is the good guy, but he is also an absolutely ferocious animal, who will be on both ends of some spectacularly bloody beatdowns. Of course, Adkins has the chops, but Johnson never whitewashes the reality of prison combat. Guys like Schwarzenegger and Seagal would never have the guts to play such a feral, blood-soaked part.

Adkins’ physical commitment is impressive. Consequently, just about everyone else withers under his glare, but at least Craig Fairbrass is more than convincingly thuggish as Lincoln. Unfortunately, Louis Mandylor, who was such a kick working with Adkins and Johnson in Debt Collector, is totally wasted as the honest Det. O’Hara.

Avengement definitely represents Johnson’s best stint as a director and some of Adkins’ best acting work, so far. Regardless, the fights are what are most important—and they are bracingly intense. This is definitely a film that will scare punky kids straight. Highly recommended for action fans, Avengement opens this Friday (5/24) in LA, at the Monica Film Center.

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Monday, May 20, 2019

American Pavilion ’19: Empty Skies (short)

When it comes to illustrating the principle of unintended consequences, the “Great Sparrow Campaign” launched during the Great Leap Forward is tragically apt. Mao’s idea was to increase crop yields by exterminating sparrows, because they were “seed thieves.” Of course, most school children could have told you what else sparrows eat. A young boy and girl hope to capture the last surviving sparrow seen around their rural community, but they will receive a bitter lesson in Maoist theory and practice for their efforts in Wenting Deng Fisher & Luke Charles Fisher’s short film Empty Skies, which screens tomorrow as part of the programming of the American Pavilion at Cannes.

Li already understands life can be hard. After the death of his father, a rather bourgeoisie painter, he is now in the care of his loving grandmother. Alas, he is deeply concerned about the elderly woman’s, especially given their regular diet of tree bark soup. On the other hand, Hong’s parents are presumably privileged cadres, because she sees no irony in the slogans she recites. When Li meets the young girl, she is chasing after the last sparrow reportedly seen in their vicinity, for the sake of Maoist glory. That is not very motivating to Li, but the promise of extra rations convinces him to help Hong hunt her prey. However, killing a sparrow is a much different proposition than more legitimate pests, like rats or roaches.

It is hard to believe Mao’s war on sparrows really happened, but it did, despite the Communist Party’s subsequent efforts to erase it from the history books. The Fishers’ film is a timely reminder of how command-and-control fiats can have disastrous consequences, especially when they are primarily based on ideology. Yet, what makes Empty Skies so effective is the very personal scale of the narrative and the innocence of its main characters.

Arthur Welch is quite extraordinary as Li, who undergoes a hard coming-of-age experience during the course of the eighteen-minute film. ViviAnn Yee is similarly compelling as Hong, especially when she is suddenly forced to confront the truth of the regime, whose slogans she had taken on faith. The young co-leads are completely natural and completely without affectation on screen, but character actor Shu Lan Tuan truly anchors the film with humanistic gravitas as Li’s grandmother.

Empty Skies is a remarkably assured film that really ought to be widely screened. It powerfully depicts the human (and ornithological) cost of ideological excess, but also shows a keen understanding of children’s mindsets. Although it was shot in California, it definitely passes for rural China of the Great Leap Forward era. Very highly recommended, Empty Skies screens tomorrow (5/21), under the auspices of the American Pavilion in Cannes.

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Tribeca '19: Georgetown--At Criminal Element

Christoph Waltz brings up the rear of our exclusive Tribeca coverage at Criminal Element with Georgetown now live here.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Tribeca ’19: The Hot Zone

Maybe there’s something in the air. Thanks to zombies, viral outbreak movies never went away, but straight-forward pandemic productions appear to be seriously flaring up again. There were several doomsday virus projects at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, but by far, the most eagerly anticipated was the premiere of Nat Geo’s The Hot Zone, which screened the first two episodes of the limited series at this year’s festival.

For years, producer Lynda Obst has tried to bring Richard Preston’s reads-like-a-novel nonfiction book to the big screen, but after long periods of dormancy, it finally took hold at National Geographic TV. It is still rather distressing to think a mysterious strain of ebolavirus broke out in Reston, Virginia a mere thirty years ago. Of course, I’m sure we’re totally more prepared for something like this now, aren’t you?

In fact, there were a few people who were pretty well prepared for this in 1989. Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax was one of them. The veterinary pathologist was comfortable working in Fort Detrick’s ultra-secure bio-lab, but a freak (but non-lethal) mishap will throw her off her stride during the early hours of the outbreak. Jaax was probably Fort Detrick’s leading expert on all things Ebola and Marburg related, but her semi-disgraced mentor, Wade Carter, had more real world experience responding to viral outbreaks than any of else on staff. Unfortunately, his wild man prophecies of doom led to his ouster (for the sake of morale and decorum).

Jaax’s commanding officer is not happy about it, but he agrees to bring Carter back temporarily, due to the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, Jaax’s arrogant and recklessly irresponsible civilian colleague realizes he might have exposed himself and another researcher to ebola, but he does not immediately come clean. (Is it unfair to point out he spends most of the first episode wearing a Dukakis-Bentsen t-shirt?) Regardless, if someone in an infectious disease lab asks you to smell something, just say no.

There were some interesting points raised at Tribeca’s post-screening discussion panel (featuring Preston, Obst, and co-stars Julianna Margulies and Noah Emmerich and showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson), but most of the audience probably would have preferred to watch more episodes. The first two (out of six) are highly bingeable. The science and the stakes involved are presented in a clear and understandable manner. Considerable time is devoted in the first episode to the detailed safety measures required to enter the “Hot Zone” lab, but it completely riveting rather than tedious.

Margulies and Emmerich also have quite the compelling on-screen rapport together as the Jaax and her husband, Dr. Jerry Jaax, an Army veterinarian also assigned to Fort Detrick. They are totally convincing as a couple with years of history together that are also keenly aware of the risks of her particular specialty. They also sound credible talking science. Naturally, the great Liam Cunningham steals plenty of scenes as crusty old Carter, who plays him like the kind of jaundiced but decisive maverick you would want to have on the ground during a crisis. The consistently strong ensemble includes Robert Sean Leonard as the slimy director of the infected primate lad and Topher Grace as Jaax’s arrogant and contemptibly contemptuous civilian foil.

Based on the Tribeca panel, it seems like Preston and the scientific community are behind the mini-series, which definitely good to know, but more importantly it is quality television. It is also pretty scary. While imperfect (there are some clumsily didactic attempts to draw parallels with the early days of AIDS public health challenge), it is definitely addictive. In fact, the TV track accounted for some of the best programming at this year’s Tribeca, thanks to the premieres of The Hot Zone, Chernobyl, and I Want My MTV. Highly recommended based on the first two episodes (out of six), The Hot Zone airs May 27th, 28th and 29th, on Nat Geo.

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story

When the airport is named after you, do you still have to take your belt and shoes off when going through security? Norman Mineta would know (as in the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport), but he is probably a TSA Known Traveler anyway. The former Congressman, San Jose Mayor, and five-year Transportation Secretary (still the longest serving) is also one of the last American politicians with a history of bipartisan outreach, so it is fitting both sides of the aisle are represented in Dianne Fukami’s Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, which airs this Monday on participating PBS stations across the country.

Mineta was second generation Nisei Japanese-American, born to the first generation Issei Japanese-Americans, who were legally denied citizenship most of their lives. Quite logically, the Japanese internment casts a long shadow over the film, first when chronicling his experiences in the Heart Mountain camp outside Cody, Wyoming and then reporting his successful efforts to pass legislation officially apologizing and redressing the systemic relocation mandated by Roosevelt.

Ironically, that is also where the film starts to get bipartisan, because a young Alan Simpson, the future Wyoming senator, was a member of the only local Boy Scout troop that attended events at the camp. A fast friendship developed between the two scouts, which they continued as pen pals until reuniting in congress. Naturally, Simpson shepherded Mineta’s House legislation through the Senate (after which, Pres. Reagan signed it into law). It is just nice to see Mineta and Simpson appear together in the film, still carrying on like the old pals that they are.

Yet, probably the one politician who gets the most time in Mineta’s doc besides Mineta himself is Pres. George W. Bush, who appointed him Secretary of Transportation, even though Mineta is a Democrat. We also hear from Clinton, who tapped him to fill a short vacancy at the Commerce Department, but Bush has much more interesting things to say (regarding September 11th and bipartisanship).

Legacy is a conventional, straight-over-the-plate documentary, but it has an inclusive spirit and significant talking heads. (Look for former Rep. Dan Lungren for further Republican interest.) Sadly, you will not find many members of Mineta’s party left in Congress who can have a civil conversation with Republicans (and vice versa).

Indeed, there is a lot to learn from Mineta. Rather tellingly, he does not simply frame the Japanese internment policy as a stain on the national character. He also points to it as a rare example when a country admitted its mistakes and sought to make amends. It’s a good point. Recommended as one of the increasingly rare political documentaries with a positive message, Norman Mineta and His Legacy screens this Monday (5/20) on PBS outlets, including WNET in the Tri-State Area, and Tuesday and Wednesday (5/21 & 5/22) on the World Channel.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Fighting Mad: Laurin

Even compared to John Hughes movies, the adults in this Gothic German film are a flawed lot. They are stern, judgmental, emotionally distant, and often just plain absent. Plus, one of them is a serial killer preying on children. Frankly, there is no guarantee the titular nine-year-old character will live to adulthood herself in Robert Sigl’s Laurin, which screens during Fighting Mad: German Genre Films from the Margins, co-programmed by Dominik Graf and presented at the Quad, in conjunction with the Graf retrospective coming soon to Anthology Film Archives.

This should be an idyllic time for Laurin Andersen, but she is haunted by the memory, or hallucination, of the killer’s latest victim knocking on her window for help on the night he was killed. As fate would have it, her mother Flora was also murdered that night, when she stumbled across the mystery maniac while disposing of his latest victim. Rather inconceivably, her beloved father Arne ships out as scheduled, shortly thereafter, leaving her in the care of her strict, alcoholic grandmother. It rather follows that Laurin now suspects the killer is now out to get her—and maybe he is.

The vibe of Laurin is hazily gothic, but the German language and the Teutonic characters give the film a harder edge. Her childhood is really shaping up to be pretty awful, but it is hard to judge with certainty what is real and what is illusion or delusion during the course of the film. There are not a lot of overt horror elements, but the film is absolutely drenched atmosphere and foreboding. In terms of the period look and trappings, it compares favorably with the best of Hammer Horror films.

Dora Szinetar has the perfect look for Laurin—hugely vulnerable but maybe not entirely innocent. She definitely keeps viewers guessing regarding her reliability as the central vantage point character. Karoly Eperjes also gives a subtle but decidedly genre-appropriate performance as Van Rees, the new school master, who is haunted by his similarly awful childhood. The two develop a weird rapport that really elevates the film.

Although it was released in 1989, Laurin is a perfect film to revisit/rediscover in light of the boom in interest for horror-not-horror films like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which, in fact, would be quite an apt comparison title. It is a slow, but creepy build that capitalizes on a lot of commonly held, archetypal childhood fears, buried deep within our collective subconscious. Highly recommended, Laurin screens this afternoon and this coming Tuesday (5/21), as part of the German genre series at the Quad.

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