J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Slamdance 18: Fish Bones

Hana has Jekyll and Hyde part-time college jobs. She puts in hours at her family’s Korean restaurant and she does a little fashion modelling on the side (she is played by super-model Joony Kim, so we can buy into it). These two radically dissimilar gigs represent her internal clash of cultures. However, Hana really gets confused when she starts exploring a romantic relationship with a more worldly and confident Latina hipster in Joanne Mony Park’s Fish Bones (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

This is an uncertain time for Hana. She has come home from college to help her brother Peter care for their ailing mother and hold together the family restaurant. Initially, she was just staying during break, but now she is not sure when she will return to campus. Nico’s energy has been refreshing and her attention has been flattering. In fact, they have many common interests, particularly music. Yet, it is hard to tell if they really have a future together. After all, Hana has kept her modeling a secret from her family, so we can only assume how they might react to a lesbian relationship.

It turns out Kim is one of those models who really can act. She and Cris Gris (a.k.a. Cristina Tamez-Rodriguez) are terrific as the tentative couple. There is real chemistry between them—halting, but palpable. Frustratingly, Park’s self-consciously oblique approach often undercuts their efforts. She seems to have a pronounced Bruce Weber influence going on, which is way too on the nose for a film about a model (full-time or part-time).

Regardless, Sheldon Chau’s black-and-white cinematography is lovely to look at. There are also some rather distinctive and milieu-appropriate indie-alt tunes on the soundtrack. If ever a film had a Slamdance vibe, it would be this one. However, Park is a bit too coy when it comes to narrative gamesmanship and conversely a bit too manipulative when it comes to Hana’s sexuality. The film would have been more potent and intriguing if we weren’t really sure where her orientation truly falls. Instead, we are hemmed into another morality tale of potential closeted sacrifice, for the sake of familial acceptance.

Nevertheless, Kim and Cris Gris are quite good together. Altogether, it is rather middling, but it is sure to pop up at many subsequent Asian and LGBT festivals. Not very memorable or significant to any great extent, Fish Bones premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

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Scorched Earth: Gina Carano, Bounty Hunter


In the post-apocalyptic future, the West will be Old again. Bounty-hunter Attica Gage rides out of New Montana, tracking down outlaws for money and silver, the key ingredient for life-preserving air filters. Gage goes undercover in Elijah Jackson’s decency-defying enclave of outlaws for the sake of bounties, but she will stay to extract some old school vengeance in Peter Howitt’s Scorched Earth (trailer here), which releases in select theaters and on iTunes this Friday.

In the future, water and silver are the most precious commodities on Earth, whereas oil is not in such demand anymore ever since motor vehicles were banned to prevent any further warming emissions. There are still idiots driving around out there, like the first loser-bounty we see Gage collar. Her second will be much tougher prey. Initially, she is disappointed she had to kill the notorious Chavo, resulting in an automatic halving of the bounty, but since they are roughly the same build, it allows her to “safely” assume the outlaw’s identity to infiltrate Jackson’s bandit town. Okay, so it really isn’t such a safe scheme. Her mentor, Doc, a former bounty hunter slowed by age and injury, is dead set against, but she goes in anyway.

Scorched Earth serves up a fair amount of B-movie fun, but it never fully capitalizes on Gina Carano’s muay thai and mixed martial arts chops. Currently, she is perched somewhere between an “A” and “B” list action star, because she has the skills and the presence, but she has yet to truly score a breakout role. This isn’t it either, but it is still amusing to see her riffing on Spaghetti Western tropes (she even drags a coffin behind her horse during the opening sequences).

Weirdly, Carano’s best fight scene comes early on, when she faces off against Luvia Petersen’s Chavo. Frankly, as villains go, Jackson and his chief henchman Leer are pretty blah (whereas Chavo had some flair). However, one of the most appealing aspects of the film is the platonic teacher-protégé relationship shared by Gage and Doc. John Hannah (from Four Weddings and a Funeral) is drily sardonic and pleasantly understated as the gun-slinging sawbones (“doctor” would be too strong a word for him).

Howitt previously directed Hannah in Sliding Doors, the re-conception of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, which in terms of time and tone seems so long ago and so far away from Scorched. However, we have to give him credit for staging a nifty climatic shootout.

For Carano fans and connoisseurs of day-and-date action movie releases, Scorched Earth is likely to become a familiar guilty pleasure. It is far from transcendent, but it delivers what it promises and should wear well over time. Recommended as a VOD indulgence, Scorched Earth hits theaters and iTunes this Friday (2/2).

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Sundance ’18: Hedgehog’s Home (short)

Branko Ćopić was one of the few Yugoslavian children’s book writers who could live entirely off his royalties, despite his often-pointed criticism of the Communist Party and its corruption. Of course, that willingness to speak truth to power only increased his popularity. Yet, his books were then and still remain popular in the former Yugoslav states and throughout Europe. For thematic reasons, this one in particular took on additional meaning for refugees during the Balkan War. Previously adapted for Croatian TV as an animated special, Ćopić’s ode to one’s abode gets a richly detailed stop-motion animation treatment in Eva Cvijanovic’s Canadian National Film Board-supported short film, Hedgehog’s Home (trailer here), which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

It is a deceptively simple story. After enjoying a glutinous lunch with the Fox, the stuffed Hedgehog makes his way make to his tree stomp home. Not understanding his attachment to his nest, the not so stealthily Fox follows Hedgy, picking up several gawking predators (Wolf, Bear, Boar) along the way, who all expect to sneer at his titular home. However, old Hedge will give them a real dressing down before things really get ironic.

Stylistically, Hedgehog looks like a cousin of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has a very tactile vibe, with all kinds of hair and fiber plainly visible. Yet, it is also gently sly film that must have been an enjoyable added bonus for all the Sundance patrons who saw it playing before White Fang (a rather shrewdly programmed pairing).

Cvijanovic is an enormously talented animator, who deserved an Oscar nomination for Hedgehog. It is much better than many of the animated short contenders, especially Dear Basketball, Kobe Bryant’s problematic tribute to himself (so much for all those hashtags). Still, you can’t say Hedgehog has been ignored, considering it played at last year’s New York Film Festival, prior to this year’s Sundance. Highly recommended for animation fans and family audiences, Hedgehog’s Home should continue to rack up festival selections following its screenings at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

FGBFF ’18: Lyle

You probably always suspected Brooklyn hipsters were evil. This film proves it. Unfortunately for Leah, it will do so by placing her and her unborn daughter in dire jeopardy—assuming she isn’t actually going crazy instead in Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 Final Girls Berlin Film Festival.

Despite some reservations, Leah agreed to move into Brooklyn with her wife June and their toddler daughter Lyle. Obviously, that was her first mistake. For some reason, she is never comfortable in the BKLN brownstone. She assumes it is the creepy property manager, who seems to have some kind of unhealthy Munchausen pregnancy thing going on. Of course, her unease gets even worse after tragedy strikes. Rather conveniently, she is already pregnant with a spare, but she becomes even more alarmed when she learns the macabre history of the building.

Thorndike (she played one of the models in Eyes Wide Shut) takes mucho inspiration from a classic horror movie that shall remain nameless, but she gives the common premise several original twists. Reportedly, during production, Lyle nearly became a web-series before switching back to a feature. The indecision was probably due to the betwixt-and-between running time of just over one hour. However, it is nice to see a filmmaker create something so potent within such a manageable time-frame. It is also quite remarkable how she maintains a consistent tone and a steadily building sense of dread. Polanski is referenced six ways from Sunday, yet somehow the end product is very much itself and rather terrifying.

It seems like Gaby Hoffman has made a specialty of annoying hipster characters designed to alienated well-adjusted viewers, so the visceral power of her work here will surprise many. She falls apart spectacularly, in what might be her best screen performance to date. Ingrid Jungermann and Kim Allen nicely establish the two extreme poles in her imploding world: her increasingly distant partner June and her concerned supermodel neighbor Taylor (only in Brooklyn).

Lyle is much scarier than you will anticipate, especially since experienced horror fans will assume they know exactly where it is going. Credit is due to Thorndike, who already displays a skillful command of horror movie mechanics. Highly recommended, Lyle screens with the short Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix at this year’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, showcasing horror hand-crafted by women filmmakers.

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Lost Solace: Canadian Sociopath


Spence Cutler has his faults, but at least he will never condescendingly tell you he feels your pain. He doesn’t feel it and he couldn’t give a toss whether you know it or not. He is a pure sociopath with no empathy whatsoever. However, a designer drug that stimulates emotions is about to rock his world in Chris Scheuerman’s Lost Solace (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Cutler makes his living seducing women and then robbing them blind. After he cleans out their homes and garages, he never looks back, because he feels absolutely nothing for them. Or so that is how he used to roll. While clubbing, Cutler ingests some sort of super-charged MDMA that heightens his previously dormant emotions. Its not like he suddenly becomes Alan Alda, but whenever he is about to act like a grade-A cad, he suddenly has a panic attack.

Azaria was supposed to be his latest victim, but her churlish teen brother Jory complicates matters. He recognizes a soulless clinical psychotic when he sees one. Unfortunately, he knows he is not one himself, so he offers Cutler a multi-million-dollar deal to kill their bullying father. Of course, that triggers his chemical Jiminy Cricket, but on the other hand, maybe that would actually be doing Azaria a good turn.

Scheuerman’s screenplay is surprisingly provocative, because it starts with a highly determinant concept of psychology and then starts to challenge it. In fact, it is built on a rather original Macguffin, the red pill that cures evil bastardness. Admittedly, Scheuerman couldn’t figure out how to end the film, but he sustains the inside-out psycho-stalker premise for a good two acts.

Andrew Jenkins gets terrifically weird and freaky as Cutler. He definitely has a live-wire unpredictability that is essential to the film. Likewise, Charlie Kerr is almost, but not quite, excessively over-the-top twitchy as Jory. There is a bit of a disconnect between the super-model looking Melissa Roxburgh and the shy wall-flower character of Azaria, but she plays the part with enough vulnerable naivete to sell it.

As a psychological thriller with light science fiction elements, Solace avoids or inverts a lot of genre clichés. Even when the third act starts to founder, you have to give Scheuerman and Jenkins credit for trying something different. Recommended as an above-average VOD movie from Canada, Lost Solace releases today on digital platforms.

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It Takes from Within: The Horror of Experimental Film


If your life turned into a horror movie, it would probably be fun for a while to find yourself amid a group of super-fit teenagers getting hammered and frisky. On the other hand, it would be horrifying to wake up in an experimental film. Suddenly, the world would be a grainy black-and-white place, where dour looking Seventh Seal-style figures in black would ominously hard-stare at you across forlorn vistas. In some ways, we will take an excursion into that nether-zone where the two genres intersect, but filmmaker Lee Eubanks always favors the obscurely symbolic avant-garde tradition in It Takes from Within (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, from First Run Features.

We meet a man and a woman bickering in a hideaway motel on the day of a funeral of someone well known to him. Perhaps they are also the older couple seen in the prologue, but it is hard to say, since nobody has names in this shadowy world. Regardless, the man and woman played by Kristin Duarte and James Feagin are clearly a long way down the Lynchian Lost Highway.

Eubanks regularly plays with the motif of couples in various states of discord or distress. Their relationship to each other and their partners is always kept ambiguous. Frankly, there are any number of sinister encounters and evil imagery that would be perfectly compatible with an old school horror movie, but Eubanks refuses to invest them with the context and meaning to make them scary. By comparison, Nikolas List’s Tombville shares a somewhat similar experimental aesthetic (minimalist sets, existential characters and settings), but because it is at least 25% more grounded in narrative, it is exponentially more frightening—and more effective—and more memorable.

Yet, ITFW exists on a plane unto itself, which for all practical purposes makes it immune to any criticism that might be leveled at it. Eubanks is obviously deeply steeped in critical theory and postmodernism. He also composes some striking tableaux, which look starkly beautiful though the lens of cinematographer Jason Crow, but that is about all we have to work with.

If you want a film that invites you to impose all the meaning unilaterally than this is your catnip. On the other hand, if you prefer a film at least meets you half way than you’re just hopelessly bourgeoise. It is what it is and you already know if its your thing, so if it is, have at it, when It Takes from Within releases today (1/30) on DVD.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Bucky and the Squirrels


Alvin and the Chipmunks have posted three #1 hits, placed fourteen songs on the charts, and won six Grammys, so far. In contrast, Bucky and the Squirrels were one-hit wonders. To be fair, the flesh-and-blood Appleton, Wisconsin garage band that made good never had a chance to follow-up “Do the Squirrel,” because their tour plane was lost over the Alps—until now. The fictional cult favorites will be thawed out like Austin Powers in Allan Katz’s Bucky and the Squirrels (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the Squirrels, much like the rest of 1960s. They had one hit and it sounded a lot like any number of tunes from that era. Nevertheless, they had their fans, so there is intense media interest when the Squirrels are discovered frozen in time. To prevent shock, the Squirrels will be defrosted in an Appleton clinic, where Dr. Adams, the staff psychologist will ease them into 21st Century life.

So, if the Mike Meyers comedies were too intense for you, The Squirrels might be just your speed. Katz (a veteran sitcom writer and producer, who served long stints on shows like MASH, Rhoda, and Laugh-In) seems to be going more for happy sighs than belly laughs, but he understands how to mine the nostalgia of his material. He also scores several big names cameos. Some are pretty painful, including appearances by Mike Farrell and Jason Alexander, but Richard Lewis is pretty hilarious.

As experienced improv performers, Josh Duvendeck, Kyle S. More, Matt Cook, and Matt Shively dive into the goofiness of the revived Squirrels’ new infantile period. Katz himself also scratches out a fair number of laughs as their old manager, Mort Fishbeck. However, the real surprise is the strong and appealing presence of Jill Lover as the dedicated Dr. Adams.

If you know your Monkees TV and Beatles movies inside-and-out than maybe The Squirrels will speak to your soul. For the rest of us, it is a nice little spoof that is pleasant to spend time with. It is also encouraging to see a cat like Katz still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Recommended for baby-boomers who will relate, Bucky and the Squirrels opens this Friday (2/2) in LA, at the Laemmle Town Center 5, Monica Film Center, and Playhouse 7—and it is currently playing in Appleton at the Hollywood and Valley Grand Cinemas.

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Lies We Tell: Where Two Englands Intersect

The legal age for marriage in the United Kingdom is a reasonable eighteen, but it is allowed for those as young as sixteen, provided there is parental consent. Apparently, that consent is easily granted within the Islamic “South Asian” enclaves in cities like Bradford. That is something an Irish-Anglo chauffeur probably never considered very much, until he takes a protective interest in his late boss’s Pakistani mistress, who finds herself at odds with the misogyny of her family and community in Mitu Misra’s Lies We Tell (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Demi Lamprose always told his chauffeur Donald, the only cheating husbands who get caught are the ones that do not love their wives enough to sufficiently cover their tracks. Presumably, he also thought enough about Amber to want to shield her from the shame such an affair would cause her Muslim family. It falls on the loyal driver to clean out the love nest, where he has the unfortunate duty of breaking the bad news to Amber. It is an awkward meeting that get even more awkward due to an unlikely chain of circumstances. However, when Amber reaches out, asking Donald to take care of some revealing photos on Lamprose’s phone, trust starts to develop between the two.

Donald and the viewers soon learn Amber is already a half-pariah in her community, despite her education and legal career, because she divorced KD, a rising Bradford gangster she was forced to marry when she was sixteen. She certainly had her reasons. However, in an act of sadistic parity, KD is now determined to marry her freshly sixteen-year-old sister Miriam—and her parents are only too happy to consent.

LWT is a scrupulously realistic film, which is terrifying. There is no way to sugarcoat the truth of the matter. Misra is depicting customs and behavior that is flat out misogynistic and essentially tribal in nature. Lest viewers have a kneejerk reaction, it should be noted Misra grew up in Bradford’s immigrant communities, but as a successful entrepreneur-turned filmmaker, he developed a wider perspective.

Granted, there are some first-time filmmaker mistakes to be found here. For instance, there is a pretentious bit of business at the end that is sure to elicit laughs at exactly the wrong time. However, the whole of this film is far more important than a few scattered parts like that. Indeed, some of the dialogue rings with significance, as when Amber’s mother accusingly asks why she always judges the family by British standards. We can see she wants to reply: because we are British and live in England, but she obviously knows that would be a mistake.

Sibylla Deen is terrific as Amber. It is a tough role, because sometimes the character is selfish and unlikable, but Deen really gets at her underlying vulnerabilities and makes her human. Gabriel Byrne reliably anchors the film as Donald, really lowering the boom in key moments. Having Harvey Keitel so prominent on the posters is somewhat deceptive, since Lamprose dies after the first five or ten minutes, but he is fine during the time. Jan Uddin’s KD is certainly a fierce villain, but Manzar Sehbai gives the film heft and complicated dimension with his powerful performance as Amber’s cowardly father, Zulfikar.

It is unusual to find on-screen a completely platonic relationship between two attractive and mature adults, played by the likes of Deen and Byrne, but that central relationship is what so distinguishes Lies We Tell. It is a very good film and an eye-opening reflection of “multicultural” British society as it is lived today in urban centers, like Bradford. Highly recommended, it opens this Friday (2/2) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Sundance ’18: Damsel


Ever since John Ford’s genre-defining The Searchers was released, nearly every subsequent western has had to deal with its legacy. That is even true of spoofs like this one. In the case of this goofball oater, the only Native character is just as big of an idiot as the pasty white characters. Nevertheless, echoes of The Searchers can be heard and seen throughout the Zellner Brothers’ Damsel, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Samuel Alabaster is a bit squirrely, but he seems like an earnest young chap, so sad sack Parson Henry agrees to make the trek to marry him and his beloved Penelope. However, while en route, Alabaster (he’s a white guy, in case you were unsure) informs the nebbish man of the cloth, he has actually joined a rescue mission. Dear Penelope has been kidnapped by the dastardly Anton. Yet, poor Henry agrees to soldier on, because he is moved by Alabaster’s ardor. However, things really get complicated when they arrive at the cabin.

Basically, the Zellners give an ironic O. Henry twist to the Old West premise and then devise ways to repeat the gag, over and over. Mia Wasikowska (well-represented at Sundance) is a formidable western heroine, but to get into specifics would be spoilery. Robert Pattinson is so unselfconsciously loopy as Alabaster, you have to give him credit for taking chances with his image. However, the Zellners’ MVP might just be Brother David, who is surprisingly humane and even rather affecting as Parson Henry.

As movie mash-ups go, Damsel is unusually moody. In fact, it rather dilly-dallies through the first act. Yet, that means the poignant pay-off does not so radically clash with the rest of the film. In many ways, we can see a kinship with the Zellners’ masterful Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (which also features a terrific supporting turn from David Zellner). It also directly addresses loneliness and the need for connection, but the outrageous gags give Damsel a partially split personality.

The Zellners clearly use the film’s Utah locations to evoke memories of The Searchers and other Ford westerns. They crank up the Utahness further by featuring Landon Weeks, a quite remarkable pianist from Ogden, as a saloon piano player, which is cool. It is an inconsistent film, but it proves movie spoofs need not be a brainless and soulless stretch of gags. Frankly, Kumiko was so great, it was wise of them to follow-up with something completely different. Recommended for viewers in the mood for some idiosyncratic humor that takes a few risks, Damsel is sure to get picked up by someone after it screened at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Slamdance ’18: Instant Dreams


The Polaroid camera was the original “selfie” device, but it was better. It used physical chemical film, so each shot meant something. Polaroid film was killed by the digital revolution, but it rose from the dead because people were not ready to let go. Instant photo-chemical film gets its due in Willem Baptist’s quasi-experimental docu-essay, Instant Dreams (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Chris Bonanos wrote the book on Polaroid. It is called Instant: The Story of Polaroid. He will provide some traditional documentary background and context, including the creation story. Bonanos is also a Polaroid user, which meant he was a film hoarder, as well. Stephen Herchen is the chief technology officer of the Impossible Project, who led an effort to reverse engineer Polaroid’s one-minute development project. Stefanie Schneider is one the artists who specialized in Polaroid photography (there were more than you maybe realized, such as Elsa Dorfman). Ayana JJ is a Japanese musician and artist, who would appreciate the immediacy old school Polaroid, but must make do with Polaroid-like pictures produced on a printer featuring the voice of Werner Herzog.

That is not the only weird cameo in Instant. Udo Kier makes an uncredited appearance in one of Schneider’s shoots. That is enough to forgive some of the film’s slow patches. However, what will really wins viewer hearts and minds is its unabashed analog love. Let’s be honest: digital sucks. Willem’s experts make that point pretty clearly.

In fact, there are some rather provocative ideas in the film, like the contention Polaroid was demonstrably ahead of its time, at least in a cultural sense. It is also rather mind-blowing to see a promotional film from the 1970s, in which company founder Edwin Land pulls a thin black iPhone-looking wallet out of his pocket, claiming someday every will have a camera that size, at their finger-tips.

There is nostalgia in Instant Dreams, as well as an appreciation for Schumpeterian creative destruction. Baptist has a keen eye for visuals (especially the Tokyo nightscapes) and a cool cerebral aesthetic. (Weirdly, some of the most banal looking sequences capture Schneider’s photo-shoots, which include brief nudity.) Regardless, it is a thoughtful, good-looking film that should have many more stops on the festival circuit following its screenings at this year’s Slamdance.

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Sundance ’18: Genesis 2.0

It is only a matter of time before Jurassic Park becomes a reality. We are already living with the weird hybrid technology of Dr. Moreau. In fact, high school students from around the world compete in the annual International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, like Science Fair for prospective Dr. Frankensteins. What does that mean for humanity, as we have thus far known it? It is hard to say, but the woolly mammoth may yet get a new lease on life, thanks to the paleontologists and researchers working to revive the extinct species in Christian Frei & Maxim Arbugaev’s Genesis 2.0, which screens again today as the winner of the World Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The woolly mammoth once roamed free throughout Siberia and its remains can still be found just beneath the ground of the New Siberian Islands. When the weather permits access to the archipelago, hearty fortune hunters band together in search of tusks. They really do not care about the rest of the skeleton, but sometime they will pass on word of a particularly complete looking skeleton. Peter Grigoriev, the primary representative tusk hunter is probably better about that than many of his colleagues, since his brother is paleontologist Semyon Grigoriev, the director of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk.

Thanks to tips from tusk hunters, the adventurous academic recovers a mammoth body that still has preserved, running blood. Eventually, Grigoriev will take those live cells to Hwang Woo-suk—yes, the very same Hwang of the stem cell research scandal—whose Sooam Biotech regularly churns out perfect clones of deceased family dogs. However, for a prospective job like this, they will need the resources of the National GeneBank in China.

So, if you want to see a live woolly mammoth in your lifetime, eat healthy, exercise regularly and maybe it will happen. However, if the mammoth is resurrected, it will most likely happen in China. Frei hints at the possible downside to conceding the future of genetic engineering to China through a tense exchange between Hwang and the PR liaison for the National GeneBank, who seems completely baffled when Hwang’s American colleague expresses ethical qualms regarding the prospect of genetic engineering Down Syndrome out of existence. Who knows what else might be targeted?

There is much to consider in Genesis 2.0, but Frei gives us time to do so. This is a ruminative film that values imagery and symbolism over information downloads. Both Frei and Arbugaev, the former hockey player turned filmmaker, who documented the tusk hunting as co-director and Siberian cinematographer, are clearly fascinated by the parallels between the genetic and primeval trophy-hunting pursuit of the woolly mammoth, occurring simultaneously and represented by the odd couple brothers. They certainly capture some remarkable images, especially Arbugaev, who likely deserves most of the credit for the Jury’s cinematography award.

Some slight pruning would probably make Genesis 2.0 stronger, because it is a bit slow at times. However, it dramatically illustrates our current technological tipping point. Neither Frei & Arbugaev nor Grigoriev or even Harvard genetic engineering guru George Church tell us what we should think about of all this, but the film makes it clear we should start giving it some serious thought. Recommended for science buffs and armchair futurists, Genesis 2.0 screens again today (1/28) as an award-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’18: The Happy Prince


Most author’s biographies are boozy stories, but to be fair to Oscar Wilde, he had more than his share of sorrows to drown. He also had the defense mechanism of his caustic humor, but it started to fail him during his final years of disgrace. After his release from a British prison, Wilde lived like a refugee in France and Italy, but the “Bosie Affair” continued to reverberate. First-time helmer Rupert Everett directs himself returning to the role he previously played on-stage (Hare’s The Judas Kiss) in his literary biopic, The Happy Prince, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Due to his disastrous libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, Wilde was imprisoned and humiliated, but he was still profoundly attached to his nemesis’s son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Broken by the scandal, Wilde now survives on a small allowance provided by his long-suffering wife Constance and the charity of a small group of friends, including novelist Reggie Turner and his besotted literary executor Robbie Ross. However, Wilde pushes away Ross and risks permanently severing ties with Constance when Douglas joins him in exile.

Everett has garnered raves for his performance as Wilde and raspberries for filmmaking prowess, but frankly Happy Prince is perfectly presentable. Despite the exquisitely cinematic locations (seriously, we should all be tarred with scandal if it allows us to stay in such picturesque digs), Everett’s film is meant to be a memory play in the tradition of literary theater. It meanders, because that is what the genre does.

Regardless, Everett is downright spooky channeling Wilde’s acerbic wit and soul-weary moroseness. To his credit, he does not sanitize the literary icon, fully expressing all the bitterness and depression sapping his strength. Yet, there is something quite poignant about the rapport he develops with Colin Morgan, as the entitled Douglas. Problematic in several ways, Morgan is both a callow and sentimental figure, which is a tricky role to play, but Morgan pulls it off nicely. Executive producer Colin Firth basically roller-skates in and out as Turner, the concerned bystander, but Tom Wilkinson adds some much-needed energy and flair, as Father Dunne. He literally appears in deathbed scene, but he still invigorates the film.

Fans of literary dramas will be pleased by the film’s classy package. Cinematographer John Conroy gives it a gauzy, painterly look, while Gabriel Yared’s score isn’t particularly memorable after the fact, but it always unobtrusively supports the drama on screen. Expectations might be a factor into how Happy Prince is received. It is not a definitive statement on homophobia or a brilliant directorial debut, but it is a very nice British period piece. Regular viewers of Merchant-Ivory films and PBS’s Masterpiece will find it satisfying, while they wait for the next big mini from Julian Fellowes. Respectfully recommended, The Happy Prince screens again today (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sundance ’18: You Were Never Really Here

Don’t be surprised if authoritarian advocates of the nanny state start agitating for restrictions on the unregulated sale of hammers. After all, they easily to conceal and potentially lethal. That is why they are the weapon of choice for “Joe,” a psychologically tormented vigilante, who specializes in rescuing teen runaways from white slavery. Unfortunately, Joe’s death wish might get fulfilled in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Aside from his aged mother, Joe has little contact with the outside world. Most of his jobs come through intermediaries. He works outside the law, invisibly passing through the low-rent no-tell motels where his prey can be found. Through flashbacks prompted by auto-asphyxiation (with no erotic component), we come to understand the abusive childhood he suffered. Apparently, it was all at the hands of his father, because the empty hulk of a man still dutifully cares for his elderly mother. She is clearly declining physically and mentally, but she still seems to recognize her son.

Joe’s deliberately withdrawn life will be up-ended by his latest assignment. Distraught State Senator Votto retains his services to save his daughter Nina. Initially, it seems like business as usual, but the job mires Joe in a political conspiracy largely beyond his comprehensive and mostly outside the scope of the picture. Regardless, bad guys with guns and badges are coming for him—and the handful of people he knows.

Joaquin Phoenix bulked up De Niro-style for a quietly harrowing performance that just might be a career best. As Joe, he broods and seethes like nobody’s business, but he never resorts to cheap theatrics. It is work that seems to dredge up genuine pain buried deep within. Seriously, Phoenix really is everything reports from Cannes cracked him up to be. Yet, Ramsay sometimes gets in the way with her attempts to put her own narrative-fragmenting stamp on the material. We do not need the constant intrusion of flashbacks to childhood and suicidal fantasies. We totally believe he is profoundly damaged already.

Despite Ramsay’s showiness, young Ekaterina Samsonov matches Phoenix’s taciturn intensity as the equally haunted Nina. They develop an awkward but poignant rapport that makes YWNRH something like the art-house analog of Man on Fire (either one). Judith Roberts is also tragically convincing and compelling as Joe’s ailing mother, while John Doman adds some gritty genre color as McCleary, Joe’s employment agent.


The cast is devastating, but stylistically, this is a case where less would have been more. Nevertheless, Phoenix and company power through Ramsay’s fractured prism. Ultimately recommended as a flawed but visceral character study of a flawed but viscerally-driven man, You Were Never Really Here screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’18: The Cleaners


They are called “moderators,” but the net effect of their work has not made the world a more moderate place. These young underpaid workers specialize in flagging objectionable content from the internet, such as extreme pornography and incitements to violence. However, any real Free Speech advocate will argue one man’s hate speech is another man’s trenchant political analysis. Yet, the really consequential decisions regarding what to block and what to allow happens several hundred pay-grades above them. The state of the internet as a public forum is critically examined in Hans Block & Moritz Riesewieck’s documentary The Cleaners, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The major social networks, especially including Facebook, are sensitive about the word “censorship,” so they all outsource their content moderation to tech firms in the Philippines (cheap labor, high English fluency, and incidentally overwhelmingly Catholic and currently supportive of Generalissimo Duterte). One can argue overwhelmingly egregious images should be policed, but you have to wonder who would put their names to such vileness in the first place. Of course, the slope quickly gets slippery when violent or sexual imagery is incorporated into political commentary.

While anonymous moderators are flagging naked Trump cartoons, their client bosses are cutting deals to censor criticism of the increasingly Islamist Erdogan regime for Turkish IP addresses. Conversely, they allow genocidal hate speech directed at Burma’s Rohingya minority to continue unabated. Likewise, dubious fake news (approaching deliberate misinformation) peddled by Duterte’s supporters, including his high-profile cheerleader, Mocha Uson, a former pin-up model turned Spice Girls-esque pop-star, are allowed to flow freely.

There is a great deal of eye-opening and disturbing stuff in The Cleaners, but it is mostly anecdotal and often at odds with itself. Social networks should censor more in Burma (nobody calls it Myanmar, except maybe tech company staff attorneys) and the Philippines, but far less in China and Turkey. Essentially, Block & Riesewieck argue whenever a judgement call is needed, Facebook and YouTube have almost always gotten it wrong. Most people can be easily convinced of that (frankly, its like shooting fish in a barrel), but that doesn’t leave us much in terms of policy implications and action item takeaways.

Okay, so Facebook is evil. Now what? Granted, there is some interesting stuff in The Cleaners. Uson with her racy past and BFF relationship with Duterte cries out for her own, snarkier documentary. However, the film is too unfocused and contradictory to be an effective catalyst for reform. We wish this film was better than it is, but it is still pretty frightening. Despite its flaws, socially engaged viewers might want to check out The Cleaners anyway, when it screens this afternoon (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’18: Arizona


Everybody knows somebody like Sonny. No matter what happens, its never his fault. Sure, he signed an adjustable rate mortgage, but nobody told him the rate might actually go up. Yes, he also killed his realtor, but he was provoked. He then takes his put-upon employee Cassie Fowler hostage, because she made him nervous talking about cops and ambulances.  Sonny never takes responsibility, but nobody gets off easy in Jonathan Watson’s Arizona, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The recently divorced Fowler is in roughly the same boat as the man who abducts her. She bought her home from her future boss, only to soon find herself underwater when the market turned. Now, she is struggling to unload similar houses on not-so-unsuspecting buyers, in hopes of making a commission to apply to her deeply-in-arrears mortgage. Sometimes the erratic Sonny will see her as a fellow victim and sometimes as a sub-prime predator, but he has a nasty habit of killing people in front of her, like his callous ex-wife. Of course, it is never his fault, mind you.

The stakes start to rise when Sonny sets out to abduct Fowler’s daughter for more leverage. Since the gated communities cratered, people moved away, so there was no much pressure on the one-cop police force to expand. Eventually, the resourceful Fowler slips loose, but there is really no place for her to go. At some point, accounts will just have to be settled.

The screenplay by TV writer-producer Luke Del Tredici desperately wants to be topical, but it works better when it settles down and focuses on genre business. If anything, the utterly irresponsible behavior it chronicles undermines its sub-prime messaging.

However, the cast still manages to do wonders with the inconsistent material. Rosemarie DeWitt is highly charismatic on screen, which helps make Fowler an appealingly proactive character. Danny Masterson plays Sonny like a Man-Boy from Hell, basically falling back on his established shtick, but casting it in a darker, more sinister hue. David Alan Grier isn’t around for long, but it is hard to forget his appearance as Coburn, the Keystone-esque cop.

Watson fully capitalizes on the loneliness of the Arizona desert (technically shot in New Mexico, but close enough) and the sinister possibilities of the winding lanes and dead-end cul-de-sacs lined with empty foreclosed houses. Its like Detroit in the desert. In truth, it is a tense, competently executed thriller, but it does not belong in the Midnight section (not enough blood or attitude). Earning a moderate recommendation for thriller fans, Arizona screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’18: Hereditary

Like the saying goes, emotional problems do not run in Annie Graham’s family, they gallop. She always blamed her mother, perhaps with good reason. However, she starts to feel guilty about her long simmering resentments when the semi-estranged matriarch finally passes away. Yet, the full toxicity of Grandma’s legacy soon becomes apparent as the Graham family tragedies compound in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Annie Graham lives with her family in a remote chalet-style home, where she works as a scale-model artist, thereby establishing a creepy locale and décor for Aster to build off. Their teen son Peter can’t even fit in with his stoner friends, but his younger sister Charlie is the real odd duck. Maybe not so coincidentally, Annie and her husband Steve allowed Grandma more access to Charlie, but they totally froze her out during Peter’s early years.

Graham was already unsettled, but further family tragedy sends her hurtling down to some dark emotional places. In some ways, Hereditary evokes the spirit of The Babadook as Graham’s relationship with her son becomes increasingly poisoned. Yet, there is also plenty of The Conjuring, including some seance business, which always works out so well in horror movies, right?

Hereditary is getting a lot of buzz, because its depiction of family dysfunction is nearly as harrowing as its supernatural horrors. As Annie Graham, Toni Collette gets frantic and feverish beyond on all reason. It is sort of a cross between Isabelle Adjani in Possession and a dramatically less shticky Meryl Streep in Ossage County. In a straight domestic drama, she would be excessively over-the-top, but in a claustrophobic horror film like this, she is just what the mad doctor ordered.

Aster’s narrative takes some shockingly dark and insidious turns, but it all seems believable, thanks to his masterful control of atmosphere. Each time he drops a revelation, it raises the hair on your arms. His horror movie mechanics are spot-on, especially in his use of Graham’s diorama models. Plus, there is an attic to the Graham house that you really wouldn’t want to rummage through.

Gabriel Byrne nicely counterbalances Collette as the painfully reserved Steve Graham. Milly Shapiro (one of four young actresses who originated the role of Roald Dahl’s Matilda on Broadway) gives a remarkably weird performance as Charlie, making the more conventional teen angst of Alex Wolff’s Peter, pale in comparison. Of course, Ann Dowd is rock solid as Joan, Graham’s séance buddy, in scenes reviewers will want to revisit after the fact.


Hereditary is an unusually good-looking horror film, thanks to Pawel Pogorzelski’s eerie cinematography and the richly-detailed, award-worthy work of production designer Grace Yun, art director Richard T. Olson, and the rest of the design team. This is a deeply scary film that fans of James Wan ought to flip over. Highly recommended, Hereditary screens again this afternoon (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Sundance ’18: Beirut

There was a time when Lebanon’s capital city was a prime tourist destination, renowned for its night life. Then the PLO moved in and the party came to a screeching halt. Up-and-coming Foreign Service Officer Mason Skiles was stationed there when things first started to go bad. Reluctantly, he agrees to return ten hard years later in Brad Anderson’s Lebanon, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In 1972, Skiles’ star was on the rise. Lebanon was getting more violent, but it was not the wasteland ruled by the Hezbollah terrorist group that it is now. Skiles and his wife were in the process of adopting a war orphan named Karim, but unbeknownst to the Yanks, the scruffy thirteen-year-old is actually the younger brother of notorious Munich terrorist Abu Rajal. That is why the Mossad crashes the Skiles’ soiree hoping to grab Karim, but his brother’s faction gets him first.

Flashforward ten years. Skiles is now a boozy labor mediator, who wants nothing to do with the Middle East. However, he gets pulled back in when all-grown-up-terrorist Karim abducts Skiles’ old pal, Cal Riley, the local CIA hand. Karim demands the release of his brother in exchange for Riley and he insists on Skiles as the negotiator. Rather inconveniently, the CIA is not holding Rajal and they are far from sure the Israelis are, either.

Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is very le Carré-esque, in that it posits mixed motives and duplicity on all sides. At least in this case, that includes the PLO, who might be the scummiest of all, which indeed they are. Regardless, there is plenty of enjoyable intrigue and a fair degree of action. Using Morocco and CGI, Anderson also gives us plenty of opportunities to gawk at the wreckage of the city, Holidays in Hell-style.

As Skiles, Jon Hamm makes a perfect boozy anti-hero in the Graham Greene tradition. He has the right look, size, and presence to be a disillusioned policy wonk who can mix it up with terrorists. Frustratingly, Rosamund Pike is largely squandered as Riley’s trustworthy protégé, but Mark Pellegrino exhibits his usual flintiness as the hardnosed Riley.


Beirut is a cynical film, but what can we expect, given the backdrop? If anything, the prognosis for the Hezbollah-dominated nation is even worse now, than during the civil war-torn 1980s. Anderson maintains a healthy pace and juggles the large cast of characters adroitly enough. Recommended for fans of murky international thrillers, Beirut screens again tomorrow (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’18: Revenge

This country wouldn’t be so violent, if we could just keep out the French. That seems to be the clear take-away from this new vengeance horror-thriller. The director happens to be French too, but she is also a woman—an inescapable fact that gives her a different perspective on the brutality of the New French Extremity movement and the grindhouse tradition of the rape-revenge thriller. Jen, the party girl, is in for a hard time, but she will give back even more than she gets in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Jen does not mind that her French lover Richard is married—and neither does he. The important thing is he has money and the right kind of looks to be with her. It is maybe implied that he and his frog hunting buddies work for some sort of merc contractor, but details are kept deliberately vague. Regardless, Richard, Stanley, and Dimitri certainly seem to be comfortable with guns. The latter two were supposed to arrive after Jen had already left the isolated desert vacation home, but Jen is a good sport when they show up early. Unfortunately, Stanley takes her flirtiness as sufficient grounds to rape her during Richard’s absence. When he returns, he is quite disappointed by the state of affairs, but when Jen rebuffs his hush money he decides to kill her instead.

Usually, getting pushed off a cliff and impaled on a jagged tree trunk is enough to kill most people, but not Jen. Despite her hard-partying ways, she instinctively adapts to the hunter-prey cat-and-mouse game. She also discovers the healing power of peyote. Frankly, her epic cauterizing scene has some logical potholes (kids, do not try this at home), but you have to give the film an “A” for effort. However, Revenge really locks in during Jen’s big showdown with Richard, back at the ranch. Let’s just say Fargeat fully capitalizes on the sticky, slippery nature of blood (when it flows and pools).

It is a simple title, but that is what Revenge is all about. Matilda Lutz handles Jen’s transformation from sex kitten to spiritual vengeance warrior as convincingly as anyone could. Kevin Janssens does a similarly credible job with Richard’s evolution from loverboy to stone cold man-hunter. Vincent Colombe basically makes us hate Stanley more and more, taking him from callous attacker to sniveling cowards, but he is certainly effective.


So, where can we build a wall to keep the French out? As this grindhouse subgenre goes, Revenge is about as brutal as it gets, while still preserving the cathartic satisfaction of the payback. Granted, it is a small body of work to judge from, but Revenge still represents a radical departure from Fargeat’s previous work, the relationship-driven science fiction short film, Reality+. Nevertheless, she clearly knows what she is doing. Along with cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert, she clearly evokes the look and spirit of “classic” exploitation cinema. Even more intense than Cravioto’s Bound to Vengeance (a.k.a. Reversal), Revenge is recommended for hearty viewers who can handle its graphic extremes, when it screens again tonight (1/26) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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The Great Buddha+: Down and Out in Taiwan

The plus is a reference to the iPhone 6+, exactly the kind of coveted gadget that is beyond the reach of luckless losers like Belly Button and Pickle. They can only gawk at how the other half lives through the love hotels captured on the dash-cam of Pickle’s boss. However, the title maybe takes on additional meaning when the ne’er do wells see something they wish they hadn’t in screenwriter-director Huang Hsin-yao’s pitch black comedy The Great Buddha+ (trailer here), which opens today in San Francisco.

If you are going to use narration, you need to have a reason. Huang gets that, because he owns his frequent voiceovers. They are even more rewarding if you get the puns based on regional southern Taiwanese dialects, but the mordant humor still comes through the subtitles, crystal clear. As Huang himself explains, Belly Button always spends his idle evenings with Pickle, the night watchman, because he is only one in the provincial town more passive and put-upon than himself.

Pickle’s boss Kevin Huang owns a metal-works that specializes in large-scale Buddha statues. Of course, the meaning of the Buddha is lost on the two sad sacks, as well as most of the boss’s customers. When the TV goes on the fritz, Belly Button convinces Pickle to extract Huang’s dash-cam memory cards, which they quite enjoy in a voyeuristic way, until they happen to see the boss murder an inconvenient former mistress.

The vibe of GB+ is hard to describe, but it includes elements of Hitchcock, Beckett, Steinbeck, and the Frank and Ernest comic strip. In a sense, it evolves into a murder thriller, but just how much Kevin Huang knows about what our two idiots know is always kept decidedly ambiguous. In fact, the entire finale depends on the power of suggestion. Nevertheless, the scathing satirical dressing down of Kevin Huang’s local political cronies is boldly pointed and impossible to miss.

Taiwanese indie superstar Chung Mong-hong serves as cinematographer as well as producer, giving the film an arresting black-and-white look. In contrast to convention, he films the dash-cam sequences in warm neon color reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar-wai. Straight up, even though it is still January, this could very well be the most visually distinctive film of the year.

It also is features some wonderfully dry and understated comic performances that land quite lethally. “Bamboo” Chu-sheng Chen makes Belly Button one of the great anti-heroes of recent memory, while proving the adage every bully is really just a coward. However, the tragic dignity of Cres Chuang’s Pickle might be even more powerful. Chang Shao-Huai does not say much, but he still makes a strong impression as Belly Button’s silent drifter-squatter pal, Sugar Apple. Yet, nobody can top the charismatic villainy of Leon Dai’s Kevin Huang.


In general terms, GB+ shares a kinship with classic Coen Brothers films, but the specifics of Huang Hsin-yao’s execution are richly idiosyncratic and defiantly original. Twenty-six days in, it is definitely the best of the year so far (I wouldn’t want to have to go out there and top it). Very highly recommended, The Great Buddha+ opens today (1/26) in the Bay Area, at the Lee Neighborhood 4-Star Theatre.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sundance ’18: The Catcher was a Spy

According to Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg’s commitment to Germany’s atomic bomb program was an ambiguous uncertainty that bedeviled the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr years after the war ended. An American OSS agent had to make that determination based on a few hours observation and a brief conversation. He was not a physicist, he was a professional baseball player. Nicholas Dawidoff’s bestselling chronicle of Morris “Moe” Berg’s WWII service is now dramatized in Ben Lewin’s The Catcher was a Spy, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Berg was a member of the Boston Red Sox, but please do not hold that against him. He was a dependable but not spectacular journeyman player, who held roster spots on several teams. He spoke several languages, including German and Italian, and regularly read foreign policy journals. As a result, he had the foresight to film Tokyo harbor during a 1934 exhibition tour, well before Pearl Harbor. Once the war started, Berg’s talents and his 16mm film attracted the attention of “Wild Bill” Donovan and the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor agency.

Eager for field work, Berg gets his chance when Donovan orders him to prevent the retreating Germans from abducting or killing Italian scientist Edoardo Amaldi, with the help of Dutch physicist Samuel Goudsmit and Major Robert Furman, the Manhattan Project’s intelligence chief (who would later oversee construction of the Pentagon). However, their Italian mission will lead to a trickier assignment in Zurich. Berg is to meet with Heisenberg, assess the status of the German Atomic program, determine whether Heisenberg is trying to advance or hinder its progress, and if the former proves true, kill him.

Without question, Berg is one of the great, under-heralded figures of World War II history. Arguably, he is the sort of renaissance man you just do not find anymore. He was also a “confirmed bachelor,” which led to plenty of speculation that Robert Rodat’s screenplay continues to stoke. Be that as it may, the film also nicely captures the intriguing milieu of the Donovan-era OSS.

Paul Rudd is does some of his best work bringing out the personal contradictions of the deeply patriotic and borderline-savant-like Berg. He also develops some ambiguously potent chemistry with Sienna Miller in the otherwise under-written role of Berg’s lover, Estella Huni. Catcher is also packed with colorful and convincing supporting turns, including Paul Giamatti as the humanistic Goudsmit, Mark Strong as the evasive Heisenberg, and the great Tom Wilkinson as Paul Scherrer, the Swiss anti-Nazi physicist, who brokered the meeting between Berg and Heisenberg.


It is just tremendously refreshing to see a film that celebrates American intelligence operatives as heroes. It also thinks quite highly of scientists and soldiers. It is a fascinating true story and a well-crafted period production. Very highly recommended for fans of historical intrigue (like Bridge of Spies), The Catcher was a Spy screens again this morning (1/25) and Saturday (1/27) in Park City and Sunday (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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