J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Midnighters: Happy New Year


Hasn’t anyone ever seen I Know What You Did Last Summer? If you hit a sketchy dude by the side of the road, just call the cops. It will be so much easier that way in the long run. Lindsey and Jeff Pittman do not do that, but they have some good excuses. Like, maybe it was self-defense and they didn’t even know it. Things get complicated quickly in Julius Ramsay’s Midnighters (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jeff Pittman should have made a New Year’s resolution to get a job, or at least not mow people down when his blood alcohol is over the limit. Since he and his wife Lindsey are already under a lot of stress, they agree to temporarily remove the body from the accident scene that they tidy up as best they can, with the intention of returning to face the music once they have sobered up. It is a swell plan that can’t fail, until they notice the rather thuggish looking man had their address in his pocket. If he was coming to do them ill, it stands to reason, there will be more like him coming in his stead.

Jeff Pittman blames his sister in-law Hannah, which both women resent, even though he is more right than wrong. She had moved back in with the couple after the death of her well-heeled older lover, doing their already strained marriage no favors. It turns out, the late boyfriend was even more mobbed up than she realized. As further visitors turn up, both Jeff and Hannah will try to turn Lindsey against each other, as their New Year turns into A Simple Plan.

Midnighters has some devious twists and turns, but like the Sam Raimi film, it reflects a sense of working class economic malaise. Eighteen grand is not too small a sum to kill someone for in the Pittmans’ world. This is indeed hardscrabble New England, with the emphasis on hard.

Based on her knock-out work in Starry Eyes and Tales of Halloween, Alex Essoe is poised to join the ranks of today’s pseudo rep company of hip horror movie specialists, but she is surprisingly restrained and withdrawn as Lindsey Pittman. In contrast, Dylan McTee brings plenty of cutting attitude and intensity as Jeff. However, Perla Haney-Jardine is just a pill but that is apparently how Ramsay and his screenwriter brother Alston intended her to be.

Cinematographer Alexander Alexandrov makes it all look dark and sinister, in a “wicked” New England kind of way. This is a tense, gritty, and tightly executed film that is too grounded to be horror, but definitely shares some of the stylistic elements. Recommended for fans of one-darned-thing-after-another thrillers, Midnighters opens this Friday (3/2) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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NYICFF ’18: The Highway Rat (short)


The BBC’s latest Julia Donaldson animated special is sort of like the fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but the freeloader is more criminal and predatory. He rides the highway, “occupying” the food all the other animals have harvested and saved—and yes, he is a rat. The old rogue will gorge himself in Jeroen Jaspaert’s The Highway Rat, which screens as part of the Shorts for Tots program at the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Donaldson’s stories are certainly accessible for young viewers, but as usual, Highway Rat has a voice cast that will appeal to parents. Like previous Magic Light Pictures productions, including Room on the Broom and the Gruffalo and Revolting Rhymes films, Rob Brydon leads the vocal ensemble, this time serving as the narrator, in the Hans Conried tradition. It is none other than the old Doctor, David Tennant, giving voice to the rat—and what a rat he is.

We see plenty of the rat’s plundering. He really wants pastries, but he still chews up their vegetables, just out of spite. The situation is getting dire, but the duck has an idea. Usually, ducks aren’t so bright, but this one is different.

Frankly, it is a little surprising the festival isn’t playing up Highway Rat more, considering the voice talent involved and the Oscar track record of previous Magic Light/BBC specials. Regardless, this is an enjoyable film, with an admirable takeaway: hard work and productivity are more rewarding than parasitic redistribution. Plus, the comeuppance is kind of clever.

Clocking in at a broadcast-friendly twenty-five minutes, Highway Rat is definitely the centerpiece of the Shorts for Tots program. There are enough furry animals and the quality of the animation (not Studio Ghibli, but still colorful and faithful to Axel Scheffler’s original illustrations) is high enough to satisfy most animation fans. Highly recommended for family viewing, The Highway Rat screens this Saturday (3/3) and Sunday (3/4), as well as March 10th, 11th, 17th, and 18th, during this year’s NYICFF.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game


You could say Masaaki Yuasa’s anime cult classic is like Heaven Can Wait on some serious psychedelic hallucinogens. Or maybe it is more like Pinocchio, but still on mind-melting acid or mescaline. Kids, there is no need for drugs when this movie exists. Strange and inconsistent, but clearly the work of a mad genius, Yuasa’s freshly restored Mind Game (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York, at the Metrograph.

Yuasa’s recent films, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu Over the Wall have been acquired by GKIDS, who are also distributing Mind Game, but parents and patrons should understand clearly and explicitly there is some very adult content in Yuasa’s semi-notorious 2004 provocation, but his hyper-kinetic stylistic blender might be even more off-putting for young viewers. Yuasa mashes together dozens of animation forms, including some deliberately ugly, highly stylized live action sequences, but always with a purpose, mind you.

Narrative is not a strictly linear business in Mind Game, but it largely follows thusly. Nishi is a profoundly morose slacker, who happens to meet up with Myon, the old not-quite girlfriend for whom he has been eating his heart out since their high school days. At the neighborhood ramen spot run by her sister Yan, Nishi had hoped to proclaim his love for her, but instead he meets her emasculating fiancé and is shot dead by an ex-soccer star turned Yakuza.

Nope, that’s not the end. Resentful that the disinterested God will not give him an opportunity for reincarnation, Nishi makes a break for it back to Earth. Coming to seconds before his murder, Nishi turns the tables on the Yakuza and drags the confused Myon and Yan on a mad getaway flight that ends in the belly of a whale. Therein starts the second act.

Actually, mid-section gets rather bogged down in the whale’s belly, which is the film’s greatest drawback. Frankly, there is a whole lot of story told in elliptical fragments that could have replaced some of the whale languor. Granted, there is a point to it all, that is actually totally on-point for our time: the uncertainty of real life is ultimately preferably to the safety of a whale’s belly (embroider that on a throw pillow), but viewers will miss the manic eccentricity that came before.

Or not. This is definitely a film for adventurous cult movie fans. Thematically, it shares some similarities with Night is Short, Yuasa’s best film to date, but aesthetically, Mind Game is entirely its own creature. Essentially, you just need to roll with it, as it starts, stalls, and goes in dozens of directions simultaneously. If you latch on to its wavelength, at some point, the unruliness starts to click, but don’t beat yourself up if you never get there. Still, this is a film serious fans and scholars of animation will have to deal with, because it is so singular. Recommended for the rude and bold, Mind Games opens this Friday (3/2), at the Metrograph.

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Sedona ’18: Instrument of War


The National WWII Museum is one of the best museums in the country, but since it is in the old Warehouse District rather than the French Quarter, a lot of visitors to New Orleans miss out on it. The Museum boasts an impressive collection of historically significant artifacts, including the violin secretly hand-crafted by 1st Lt. Clair Cline in Stalag Luft I. What started as a project to combat boredom became something much greater to his fellow prisoners. Cline’s story is dramatized in Adam Thomas Anderegg’s Instrument of War (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Sedona International Film Festival.

Instrument is an original production of BYUtv, but let’s be honest. You most likely missed it when it premiered last year. Lest you jump to conclusions, there is no mention of the Mormon Church anywhere in the film, or any sort of proselytizing whatsoever. This is a story of the Greatest Generation’s service to their country and what prisoners like Cline did to survive.

Cline and his co-pilot were shot down and captured behind enemy line during the final year of the war. The American POWs knew the Allies had the momentum, but there was a very real concern of what the expected German retreat would mean for them. Nevertheless, there was a mind-numbing monotony to their daily existence. To keep his mind occupied and to relive the memory of playing for his fiancée, Cline, the civilian wood-worker, sets out to construct a violin. Soon, many of his fellow prisoners start scrounging parts out of solidarity. However, the increasingly nervous and resentful Germans might not give the prisoners a chance to appreciate Cline’s long-awaited debut.

Granted, Instrument does not have the gritty battle scenes of Fury or Private Ryan, but it treats the POW experience seriously and responsibly. Some of the prisoners will not survive, which is how things worked in the camps. Frankly, the scope of Matt Whitaker’s screenplay could be easily adapted to the stage, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Jack Ashton, best known for Call the Midwife, has a leading man look, but he portrays Cline with sensitivity and compassion. Daniel Betts is also terrific as Lt. Col. Lawrence Packer, the camp’s senior American officer. Frankly, all the American and British prisoners are earnest and believable, but some of the Germans fall back on easy clichés. It is safe to say none of them have the seething presence of Ralph Fiennes, but that is admittedly an unfair comparison.

Regardless, Cline’s story is important—and Anderegg and Ashton bring it to life quite effectively. The music composed by the great Mark Isham also perfectly underscores the drama, while suiting the era. Recommended for general audiences, of all ages and backgrounds, Instrument of War screens this Thursday (3/1), as part of the Sedona International Film Festival.

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Michele Soavi’s The Sect


It was a real dream team that came together for this early 1990s Italian horror film—one you really couldn’t reassemble anymore. It was directed by Dario Argento’s protégé Michele Soavi and produced by his famous mentor. It co-stars the late great Herbert Lom, no stranger to horror cinema, and Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister Kelly. The score was composed by Pino Donaggio, who is justly celebrated for his collaborations with Argento and Brian de Palma and it was ushered in to world with the support of Silvio Berlusconi Communications. Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, and good night. Together, they gave us the feverish house of satanic horrors that is Soavi’s English-language The Sect, a.k.a. The Devil’s Daughter, a.k.a. Demon 4, which releases today on Blu-ray, from Scorpion Releasing.

In the 1970s prologue, a camper full of dirty California hippies gives hospitality to the wrong Rolling Stones-quoting, Charlie Manson-looking counter-culture creep. That would be Damon, the head of the satanic conspiracy’s American division, who is about to sacrifice his hosts to his big boss downstairs. The visiting Moebius Kelly, the European-based chief of the entire global operation, is quite pleased, but still consoles patience.

Two decades later, Kelly’s evil spirit is still willing, but his body is failing. It does not help when expat school teacher Miriam Kreisl nearly runs him down with her car (honest, she just missed him). Displaying incredibly poor judgement, she takes Kelly back to her house to recuperate. It is comfy bungalow with a finished basement—you know, mystical cult runes on the walls and a gateway to Hell at the bottom of an ancient well. Bizarrely, she never looked down there until the weird things started happening (seriously, she couldn’t use the storage space?).

Regardless, Kreisl starts having unsettling, nightmarish experiences after her guest passes away—or does he? Partly, it is due to the brain-feasting beetle he inserted up her nose before shuffling off the mortal coil. At least she can trust her colleague at school and the new, horny doctor assigned to the local hospital, right?

The Sect or whatever you want to call it is a wonderfully over-the-top exercise in demonic horror, with an element of social paranoia thrown in for good measure, a la Rosemary’s Baby.  Cinematographer Raffaele Mertes gives it a wonderfully lurid, Giallo-worthy look, while Kreisl’s sinister subterranean cellar is a marvel of production and set design.

Kelly Curtis is actually a credible and engaging horror-movie-woman-in-jeopardy, even though some of her character’s decisions induce audible face-palming. Of course, Lom chews the scenery like the old pro he is as the creepy Moebius. However, Tomas Arana might be even creepier Damon, the sadistic devil-worshipping hippie (weren’t they all).

The Pact is not an all-time horror classic, but it is not from a lack of trying. This film goes nuts six ways from the black sabbath, which makes it jolly fun to watch. Recommended for fans of Italian horror in its many varieties and all the famous names involved (except maybe Belusconi), The Sect releases today (2/27) on Blu-ray, from Scorpion Releasing.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine


Today, a lot of people are justly concerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election, but they do not seem particularly interested about anything that came before. Where were they in 2014 and 2015? Had the America and the West responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine more forcefully, the world might look like a very different place today. Hopefully, it is not too late for Ukraine, if we finally rally to the embattled democracy. Viewers will get a field report on the state of the Ukrainian state and a step-by-step chronicle laying out how we reached this point in Mark Jonathan Harris & Oles Sanin’s invaluable Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Democracy is a fragile thing. Ukraine won it during the Orange Revolution, only to lose it again due to the new government’s incompetence. Putin’s loyal puppet Viktor Yanukovych was duly elected president in 2010, even though everyone knew he tried to steal the election in 2004. However, that did not mean he could ignore the will of the people. When he refused to sign a trade treaty with the EU, at Moscow’s bidding, the people took to the streets. When he used violence against peaceful protesters, he lost any remaining claims to legitimacy.

That is exactly what the Maidan movement was about. Russian propaganda suggested otherwise, causing doubt in the Western media. In contrast, Harris and Sanin reveal the true nature of Maidan through their primary POV figures: Mustafa Nayyem, an Afghan-born journalist and democracy activist; Tetiana Chornovol, an investigative journalist who was badly beaten by Yanukovych’s thugs, Natan Hazin, a rabbi who became an officer in the volunteer Ukrainian army; and Andriy “Bohema” Sharaskin, the director of a children’s theater school, who defended the Donetsk Airport from Russian invaders. Russia would have us believe they were anti-Semitic militants—and the media bought their propaganda just enough to give it legs.

In fact, Harris (an Oscar winner for Into the Arms of Strangers and The Long Way Home), Sanin, and their expert commentators spend a good deal of time analyzing Russian propaganda. Especially galling is the actress who pops up at least three times pretending to be a local who duly spouts the Kremlin’s party line. Again, if the media had done their jobs properly in 2014-2015, maybe Putin would have been less inclined to meddle in other nations affairs and perhaps they wouldn’t now have to deal with Trump, who they so vociferously despise.

Sharaskin makes the point that it is far more motivating to be for something good and noble than merely against unpalatable. Despite Ukraine’s various setbacks, Breaking Point vividly captures the idealism and resolution of the Maidan movement. Hope is not dead in Ukraine, it is just getting shelled daily by Russia. Watching this documentary confirms the strategic significance of Ukraine as a line in the sand. If it falls, it would be a decisive loss for constitutional democracy and a major victory for Soviet-style kleptocracy. Somehow, Breaking Point is both inspiring and disheartening in equal measure, but it should be required viewing for anyone who cares about the future state of the world. Very highly recommended, Breaking Point opens this Friday (3/2) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot


Let’s be frank, the so-called BDS movement is anti-Semitic, through and through. Its real goal is to weaken the State of Israel, so that it can be easily toppled by its neighbors, who resent its progressive policies of LGBT rights, equality for women, religious liberty, and environmental protection. Predictably, the Israeli Film Festival in Paris was on the receiving end of BDS calls to boycott, but this year it was also shunned by Israel’s culture minister, for its choice of opening night selection. It is an odd spot for the festival to find itself in and it is all over a scene that probably doesn’t need to be in the film in question. It is so rife with controversy, it will be hard for many to dispassionately consider all aspects of the film (but that is what we are here for) when Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot opens this Friday in New York.

It is clear IDF bereavement officers have done this grim task many times before by the smoothness of their response when Daphna Feldmann collapses at the door. Her husband Michael is conscious, but nearly in clinical shock at the news of their son Jonathan’s death. While his wife sleeps under sedation, he goes about the grim business of making notifications, almost out of misplaced passive aggressive anger. And then there is the first of two closely-related game-changing revelations.

Maoz than rewinds to show what transpired over the last few days at the sleepy check-point Jonathan had been stationed at. Discipline is so slack among these bored young enlisted men, they make the characters of Zero Motivation look like crack commandos. However, something will happen.

In the case of Foxtrot, the tri-part structure actually makes organic sense. However, the scenes with Jonathan in the desert have nothing like the power and intensity of the bookends featuring his grieving parents. Yet, that is where all the controversy lies, because some object to its depiction of a wrongful border shooting that the top brass subsequently cover-up. Granted, Maoz is playing with notions of fate and karma, very much in the tradition of Greek classical tragedy, but there could have been other ways to ironically tempt destiny without handing ammunition to Israel’s haters. In fact, the overlong mid-section is the weakest link, in terms of narrative and drama.

On the other hand, Lior Ashkenazi gives an achingly arresting performance as the anguished Feldmann father. He has a lot of fire and fury in the first act, but the quiet resignation of the third act will be what gets most viewers. There is something acutely poignant about the way he can sit and calmly talk with Sarah Adler’s Daphna Feldmann, even after everything that has transpired between them. They most definitely deliver awards caliber work, with the third act sealing the deal.

Maoz has served up some of the most incisive cinematic critiques of Israel’s militarized mentality, but you would think he would also inclined to criticize the violent ideological extremism they face as well, given the Foxtrot was initially inspired by his family’s tangential brush with terrorism. Apparently, his eldest daughter was in the habit of asking for cab fare when she was running late for high school, so one morning, to make a point, he forced her to take the bus. Tragically, a terrorist blew himself up on the #5 line she should have been on, but he learned twenty-some minutes later, she was late for it as well. Yes, fate plays a role when the threat of terror is a constant presence.

Divorcing Foxtrot from the current political context surrounding it is a tricky proposition, but it is worth doing, to appreciate the visceral power of Ashkenazi and Adler. What matters about this film is the painfully true to life family drama, not the fictionalized events that did not happen in an unsupervised border crossing. Recommended on those terms, Foxtrot opens this Friday (3/2) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Primal Rage: Oh-Mah, the Legend with Big Feet

Big Foot must be real, because he fits the description of the Oh-Mah in Yurok and Hoppa native legends. According to the Pacific Northwest deputy, they are the restless spirits of deceased tribal chiefs. Those must have been some mean chiefs, because this Oh-Mah sasquatch is one ornery beast in Patrick Magee’s Primal Rage: Bigfoot Reborn (trailer here), which has a special one-night only Fathom Events screening tomorrow, at participating theaters.

Ashley just picked up her no-account husband Max from prison, hoping to salvage their relationship, but all he wants to talk about are shivs. Soon, he won’t be talking so tough anymore. Things look bad when bad when Ashley runs down a half-chewed victim fleeing the Oh-Mah, but they take a worse turn when they tumble down the ravine during the aftermath. Clearly, they will be the Oh-Mah’s next prey, but the creature seems to take a special interest in Ashley.

Max and Ashley could use some help, but the hunting party of drunken good old boys are not exactly the helpful type. They too seem to take an interest in Ashley, but they won’t be laughing either once Oh-Mah starts picking them off one or two at a time. He is a hairy creature, but he is smart enough to use tools, like a bow and arrows. Fortunately, the skeptical Sheriff agreed to attend a sweat lodge-style ritual for insight, so help is surely on the way.

During the long, long set-up, Primal feels like a pretty standard Big Foot movie, but the third act is surprisingly tense and brutal. Throughout it all, late veteran character actor Eloy Casadas is terrific as the Sheriff. Even though Casadas had a recurring role on Walker, Texas Ranger and regularly appeared in Ron Shelton’s films, it doesn’t look like the trades or Deadline covered his passing, so good for Magee and company for dedicating the film to his memory.

So, it does get going eventually, as soon as Oh-Mah’s arrows start flying. Casey Gagliardi and Andrew Joseph Montgomery stop being so annoying as Ashley and Max once the direness of their situation becomes apparent. Marshal Hilton also keeps things lively by gleefully chewing the scenery as B.D., the leader of the sketchy hunting party.

Thanks to some nicely drawn characters, Primal Rage is much better than Exists, but it is not nearly as fun as Stomping Ground. You probably do not need to reschedule your life to see it tomorrow, but you should definitely take time to appreciate Casadas’s final work when it hits streaming platforms. For loyal Sasquatch-watchers, Primal Rage: Bigfoot Reborn screens in select theaters tomorrow (2/27), including the AMC Empire and Regal Union Square in New York.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

WFA ’18: The Revenge of the Phantom Knight


The Shanghai French Concession formally ended in 1943, when Vichy relinquished their authority to the puppet government in Nanjing—not exactly a triumph over imperialism. Regardless, it remained one of the toniest districts in Shanghai for decades to come. It is exactly the sort of prestigious neighborhood that suits a well-heeled doctor like Gao Yuanyang. However, the former owner his new manor house was exponentially wealthier. There are secrets in the house that personally relate to Gao’s family and the masked ripper stalking the concession in David Shao’s The Revenge of the Phantom Knight (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Winter Film Awards in New York.

As soon as Gao’s wife Zhuang Jingwen crosses the threshold, she feels like she has been there before—because she has. It is pretty obvious Zhuang was one of the charges living in the nearby orphanage funded by the mysterious Lu Zeju, but she has repressed those memories, with the rather suspicious help of her husband’s drugs and powers of suggestion. However, her return inevitably prompts flashes of flashbacks. He too starts acting oddly soon after they move in, often disappearing at strange hours and compulsively skulking through the house.

At least Gao has an excuse to be out of the house when sleazy Chief Detective Liu Kuwen calls him in to consult on the murders attributed to the Phantom Knight (a.k.a. The Daredevil). Basically, the Phantom hunts his prey like the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow, but he uses a set of claw-like razors, much like Han the crimelord in the climax of Enter the Dragon. He is a relentless killer, who seems to be targeting people connected to the orphanage Lu funded, which would include Zhuang, whether she accepts it or not.

Phantom Knight is a charmingly melodramatic gothic horror film, in the best, retro way possible. We half expect to see the Scooby-Doo mystery gang drive in to pull the mask off the Phantom, revealing Old Man Smithers, who would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. There is all kinds of gaslighting, sneaking around graveyards, grudge-holding, searching for hidden treasure, and dangling off wind-swept cliff faces going on. Plus, the Phantom is pretty sinister looking. The evocative 1930s Shanghai setting also helps.

Qiao Qiao is terrific as the slowly more assertive Zhuang, while He Ruohe keeps us guessing as the Rochester/de Winter-like Gao. However, Liu Xiaolan steals scene after scene as Zhuang’s Velma Dinkley-esque former friend Li Sha with her earnest energy. Young Yang Yuxi is also admirably on-point and professional as Gao’s little daughter, Yingzi.

Shao unloads six or seven game-changing revelations on us during the eleventh hour, which is wholly in keeping with the gothic tradition. Frankly, the film looks quite polished, considering he had limited time and resources at his disposal. It might not be important art house cinema, but it is a lot of fun—so much so, it makes us crave a retrospective of recent Chinese horror and gothic-themed films. Recommended for fans who would appreciate a dark and stormy night in the French Concession, The Revenge of the Phantom Knight screens tomorrow night (2/26), as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

WFA ’18: A Roar of Wolf Troops


This is quite the rarity: a Chinese film celebrating the valor of their nation’s military. It is particular unusual, because it casts the Imperial Japanese as the bad guys, thereby potentially fostering a national sense of resentment—something the cultural commissars are ever so scrupulous to discourage. No, not really. At least this time around they reveal their secret weapon: notoginseng. It healing powers are desperately needed at the front, so a crack squad from the Yunnan Army will ensure its safe delivery, with a little help from the you-know-who in Zhang Xiniwu’s A Roar of Wolf Troops (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Winter Film Awards in New York.

The Yunnan Army largely consisted of the ethnic Zhuang minority, who take pride in the martial arts and military heritage. Their specialty is fighting the Japanese and only the Japanese. Of course, the Nationalists and Communists are also busy fighting each other. Unfortunately, the Yunnan Army was not so good at keeping intel secret, because all interested parties will converge on the shipment.

Nong San and his men are riding shotgun, but he gets some unexpected help from the local CP cell leader and a team of behind-the-lines Zhuang resistance fighters, led by his fiancée, Lu Xiaomei. However, before the Japanese forces have a chance to swoop down on them, a group of bandits steals the cargo using sneaky but non-lethal tactics. Fighting and scheming ensues, but there is a distinct honor gap between the Yunnan soldiers and their Japanese rivals.

The frequency with which Mainland China’s sanctioned media relives and relitigates the Second World War is becoming almost comical in its kneejerk obsessiveness. Nevertheless, the world war has inspired many, many entertaining films, including a good number of outright classics. Roar can’t compare with any of them, but it is likably plucky, in an earnest, B-level budget kind of way.

As Nong San, Mo Tse definitely has the action chops, but he is constantly upstaged dramatically by Xiao Dong Me’s Lu. She is all kinds of fierce, showing off plenty of her own skills. Yet, there is something about Yi Ling playing Lu’s mute sister Azi that draws the eye and commands the screen. She obviously has no dialogue, but she is quite intense and expresses much. Of course, the interchangeable Japanese heavies could have wandered in from any number of previous films, while the mostly absent Nationalists probably get off easy.

Roar is a tad bit more eccentric than most Chinese war films, which is a plus. After all, it is something of an ode to holistic Chinese medicine. Zhang keeps it moving along nicely, so it doesn’t feel so slavishly propagandistic. It is not classic, but fans of Chinese warfighting action movies will appreciate its novelty when A Roar of Wolf Troops screens tomorrow (2/25) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: The Tolls (short)

Considered more of a historical urban legend than established fact, “Die Glocke” or “The Bell” was reported to be a National Socialist super weapon that combined Atomic research with occultism. It is a terrifying prospect if it actually existed—as it apparently does in an alternate dimension. Unfortunately, it will threaten the looming Allied victory in parallel realities as well in Liz Anderson’s short film, The Tolls (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival in New York.

Distraught over the presumed death of his wife Sadie, everyman GI Wes usually kills himself atop the Presidio overlooking the Bay. This time will be different, much to the surprise of Hans, a dimension-hopping SS officer, who is used to stepping over Wes’s body as he infiltrates the base. Instead, the grieving soldier pursues the German into the field of the German uber-reactor, jumping together into a world where Hitler was victorious. That is certainly alarming, but Wes soon discovers his Sadie is alive in this dimension, albeit married to a Nazi officer. He is in profound danger, as are other dimensions, but his Sadie seems to be the same person, with the same values.

The Tolls is a remarkably inventive time travel/alternate history film that actually holds some pretty mind-blowing implications when you think about it after the fact. Regardless, Anderson and her co-screenwriter-lead actor Wylie Herman squeeze an awful lot of narrative and sf speculation into a mere twenty minutes. This premise, along with these characters could easily sustain a full-length feature, but it would be hard to top the potency of the short film.

Herman is terrific as Herman, believably wrestling with some cosmic challenges, as well as some acutely human pain. As Hans, Anthony Cistaro (from Witchblade) again makes quite a suave and sinister villain. Plus, the Presidio Park locations really makes it all look big and cinematic.

The Tolls is way better than most of the time/interdimensional travel films that have recently come along, at least since Mi Yang rocked Reset. (The one exception would the equally excellent, but radically different Paleonaut, which also screens at the PKD Fest.) This is the kind of film that will fire up true genre fans, because it shows how much an inspired cast and crew can pull off when they work together on a nifty concept. Very highly recommended, The Tolls screens this Sunday (2/25), as part of Block Eleven: International Sci-Fi Shorts 3, at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea

Like the Wolf Warrior franchise, Hong Kong action auteur Dante Lam’s latest Mainland production was largely funded by the PLA and supported with extensive in-kind donations of military hardware. At least in this case, we get their money’s worth. Apparently, the military granted Lam’s every over-the-top request and the results are all up there on the screen when Operation Red Sea (trailer here) opens today in New York.

Basically, Red Sea is a loose thematic sequel to Lam’s blockbuster, Operation Mekong. This time around, the military takes center stage and the ripped-from-the-headlines story is based on 2015 evacuation of Chinese nationals from Yemen. Refreshingly, there are no western bad guys. Instead, they are Middle Eastern terrorists and Somali pirates (in the prologue). Sure, there is flag-waving, but it is not nearly as distracting as in the Wolf Warrior films.

Given the evacuation plot, Red Sea bears some resemblance to Wolf Warrior 2, but the action scenes, also choreographed by Lam, far exceed anything in Wu Jing’s hit duology. To a large extent, the film is one long action sequence, as one rescue mission begets another and eventually morphs into an operation to recover stolen yellowcake from a mad mullah. If you think that sounds like a criticism, you are sorely mistaken. Lam pulls out all the stops, giving us infiltrations, drone warfare, house-to-house combat, sniper duels, tank battles, helicopter attacks, and hand-to-hand combat during the mother of all dust storms.

Arguably, it is halfway realistic too, since a number of Jiaolong commandos are killed in the line of duty. Frankly, Lam does not spend a lot of time on boring old character development. Jiang Luxia’s Tong Li probably stands out the most, simply because she is a woman (who has no trouble hanging with her male colleagues). Ironically, the most memorable performance comes from Hai Qing, as French-Chinese reporter Xia Nan. Eventually, we learn became so driven to expose terrorists because her husband and young son were murdered in the 7/7 London bombings, which is a nice character development touch.

Red Sea is just a pedal-to-the-medal action movie that constantly doubles, triples, and quadruples down on explosions, mayhem, and blood & guts. In terms of sheer spectacle, it is tough to beat. Alas, Lam pays the piper with a closing shot across the bow basically warning the world better stay out of the South China Sea, if we know what’s good for us, but up until then, it goes down pretty smooth. Highly recommended for action fans, Operation Red Sea opens today (2/23) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Are We Not Cats


This is one semi-rom-com that should definitely carry a “don’t try this at home” warning. Seriously kids, drinking antifreeze is bad for you and eating hair is even worse. Yet, two potential lovers share that feline habit in Xander Robin’s Are We Not Cats (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Even shaggy-haired Eli would call himself a luckless loser. When his father decides to pick up stakes for Arizona, he leaves Eli a cargo cube truck that becomes his home and only source of irregular employment. One haul upstate connects him with Kyle, a born user, who drags him to a club, where the nebbish sad sack is thunderstroke by the jerk’s girlfriend, Anya.

She is an ultra-hipster, who wears a wig, because she has chowed down on all her hair. (In contrast, Eli just nibbles on his mane a little, as a nervous tic.) She is unusually sweet for a club kid, but she is unhealthily codependent on the abusive Kyle. Nevertheless, Eli will take his shot, thereby inflaming Kyle’s jealousy. However, puncturing Eli’s tires, leaving him stranded at Anya’s place as a result, probably is probably not the most effective way of lashing out. Then potential tragedy strikes, testing Eli’s judgement and our stomachs.

AWNC earned a lot of admirers for its sudden detour into body horror, but it takes a long time getting there. For a good deal of the film, viewers will just feel like they are standing around watching Eli being awkward and uncomfortable. We respect Robin’s interest for these extremely marginalized characters, but he makes us work pretty hard for it. Also, the big shocking sequence totally strains credulity, which is a legit issue, considering how gritty and grimy the film is most of the time.

Still, Chelsea Lopez really announces herself as a talent to watch with her performance as Anya. She clearly has a remarkable knack for expressing much with very few words. Michael Patrick Nicholson also makes a compelling sad sack and develops some earnestly engaging chemistry with Lopez.

This is the kind of film you will want to like more, especially if you have heard the raves coming out of genre festivals. The tone is somewhat uneven, with weird dashes of Wes Anderson and Shinya Tsukamoto (of Tetsuo fame) thrown in, but it is always grungy to a fault. Still somewhat worth seeing, but more as sign of promising things to come than a film to love and get swept up in, Are We Not Cats opens today (2/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: Niggun (short)

It is fitting that we finally officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After all, it is a city that captures the imagination and it endures all attempts at destruction. In the far future, it will be about all that is left of the fabled planet Earth in Yoni Salmon’s animated short film, Niggun (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

The Rabbi and the Archaeologist believe they deduced the location of the mythical Earth from a series of esoteric clues, but they are alarmed when the smallish blue planet does not appear where it should. As they get closer, they find clusters of fragments held together by gravity. The largest asteroid holds the well-preserved remains of what resembles the capital city of Jerusalem. At first, they are disappointed, but there is still much to see. However, it is not quite as lifeless as it initially looks.

Niggun is a strangely rewarding film, because it gives off a whimsical vibe, but evokes a deeper, sadder sense of wisdom and enlightenment. Frankly, it is hard not to be moved by the site of Israel in ruins—still standing as all that really remains intact of Earth.

Salmon’s animation is also quite droll, incorporating hat-tips to Star Trek and Planet of the Apes (with the Statue of Liberty’s torch). The result is a cool and surprisingly successful attempt to reconcile the sacred with the profane and the spiritual with the slapstick. Highly recommended, Niggun screens this Sunday (2/25) as part of programming Block Ten: International Animation/Fantasy, at this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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The Chamber


This isn’t James Cameron’s top of the line submersible. The cranky Swedish researcher’s craft is held together chewing gum and defiance. It is the last sub a special ops team would want to commandeer, but desperate times call for desperate measures. They become even more desperate when disaster strikes in Ben Parker’s The Chamber (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

The Chamber has been on the shelf for a spell after its initial festival run, so as a result, it feels somewhat dated, in an unlikely way. It is not that we cannot believe the news reports of North Korea behaving badly, interspersed throughout the opening credits. On the contrary, we can believe them so well, it is hard to join Parker’s hand-wringing over the wisdom of the mission and its execution. Three Navy SEAL-like commandos have been ordered to retrieve a memory card from a drone shot down over DPRK waters and destroy the drone, so most viewers will agree they darn well better retrieve the memory card and destroy the drone. End of moral dilemma.

Of course, Mats doesn’t know that. He is only along because he knows how best to pilot his temperamental submersible. He is on the strictest need-to-know basis, so he acts like a churlish five-year-old throughout the entire first act. The team leader, “Red” Edwards tries to make nice, but Mats prefers to be a pill. He definitely rubs Parks the wrong way, which is unfortunate, because he is the biggest of the three—and he will soon go a little nutty from pressure sickness.

It is painfully obvious Parker does not know anyone in the military from his depictions of the commandos. First of all, nobody has to explain the bends to a Navy SEAL, even if he is in the throes of full scale undersea-pressure-induced psychosis. Nor would an elite group act like teenagers moaning and griping at each other. None of the men would ever second guess Edwards’ decision to blow the drone. Frankly, they are prepared for these kinds of extreme eventualities.

If you want to see a thriller about trapped people dealing with limited oxygen and burgeoning psychosis, catch up with Ben Ketai’s not bad Beneath. It also features some nice performances from Witchblade’s Eric Etebari and the great Jeff Fahey. Unfortunately, only Charlotte Salt is convincing as the cool and collected Edwards. At least Elliot Levey projects a suitably intelligent presence for the tech guy, but he looks like he would be hard-pressed by basic training. On the other hand, no military man would carry himself in the manner of James McArdle’s obnoxious and argumentative Parks. However, nobody is more insufferable than Johannes Bah Kuhnke as the grating Mats.

Yes, sometimes the military has to do things that aren’t very nice and sometimes they even die. That is the price they pay for our freedom and security. They certainly understand that better than Parker does. He just gets everything wrong about the military mindset and personality, in ways that directly undermine the film. Not recommended, The Chamber opens tomorrow (2/23) in theaters and on iTunes.

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Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: Nose, Iranian Style


Rather surprisingly, Iran leads the world in per capita rhinoplasty. It maybe isn’t what the martyrs died for during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, but they indirectly contributed to it. When you are forced to wear the chador, suddenly your nose becomes much more important to your self-esteem. However, Mehrdad Oskouei was somewhat baffled by the number of young Iranian men also getting nose jobs when he set out to investigate the phenomenon in Nose, Iranian Style, which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style at Anthology Film Archives.

Compared to his other films about juvenile delinquents and gender iniquities in provincial Iran, Nose is definitely a lighter film from Oskouei. Yet, he still has he same calm, reassuring style as an interviewer that gets his subjects talking like old friends. If they ever franchise Kids Say the Darnedest Things in Iran, he would be the logical candidate to host. Nevertheless, he still offers some trenchant social observations.

Basically, Oskouei and some of his commentators see this trend as a by-product of a vacuous (and highly censored) pop culture that holds little interest for younger generations, who also feel alienated from political and religious authorities. There is indeed also the issue of women who want to look good in the deeply resented chador.

Still, it seems younger Iranians just have it in for the nose. Oskouei talks to a number of pre-teens who just can’t wait to go under the knife. They all seem to think he and his crew could use some work too. Of course, this isn’t without discomfort, expense, and even risk.

Watching Nose, it is clear there are some really attractive young Iranians, who need plastic surgery like they need emergency ice shipments in Antarctica. Those Green Wave demonstrations must have been quite a happening (and what a pity they were so harshly crushed). Apparently, you have to do something to pass the time, when free expression and unfettered political participation are not available (granted, that is not exactly how Oskouei puts it). Deceptively light-hearted and ultimately quite fascinating, Nose, Iranian Style screens with the short doc Maryam of Hengam Island this Saturday (2/24) and Sunday (2/25), as part of Anthology’s Oskouei retrospective.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: Sound from the Deep (short)

It is like At the Mountains of Madness for the era of climate change. H.P. Lovecraft is indeed the loving and sinister inspiration for this tale of primeval arctic horror, but it has an international flavor the scribe from Providence would have had a hard time relating to. The Arctic Ocean is a cold, dark place that was better shunned by mankind in Antti Laakso & Joonas Allonen’s short film, Sound from the Deep (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K.Dick Film Festival.

Mikael Aalto is a Finnish grad student, who joined a joint Scandinavia-Russian petroleum prospecting vessel as a research fellow, under the tutelage of his mentor, Prof. Norberg. Their mission was to search for oil and natural gas deposits in the regions of the ocean recently opened to navigation due to polar melting. Unfortunately, they have nothing to show for their efforts until Aalto picks up a strange noise on his instruments. Norberg convinces the captain to take a detour to investigate, arguing it must be a large pocket of natural gas. However, Aalto and Sofia, the Russian sonar specialist, are not so sure.

At a tight and tense twenty-nine minutes, Sound might just be the purest and most effective Lovecraft homage yet. It is also massively impressive from a simple logistical perspective. Laakso and Allonen have a legit looking Arctic cutter that they put through some very stormy seas. They have scenes that are more cinematic than anything in The Perfect Storm. Yes, there is also something Elder God-ish, but they vary it slightly from strict Lovecraftian mythos.

Sound is so impeccably Lovecraftian, it starts with Aalto telling his cautionary story, mindful that his listener most likely assumes he is mad. Ojala Eero is perfect as the accursed survivor, cover the spectrum from an awkwardly cerebral rational positivist to the profoundly shaken doomsayer. Nastasia Trizna is also scary convincing portraying Sofia’s mental deterioration.

Thanks to Ville Muurinen’s sweeping cinematography, Sound is one of the rare short films that truly deserves to be seen on a big screen. The creature effects are also terrific. Anyone who appreciates ambitious genre filmmaking will be fired up by what Laakso & Allonen have to offer, but Lovecraft fans will absolutely flip for it. Very highly recommended, Sound from the Deep screens this Saturday (2/24) as part Block Four: International Sci-Fi Shorts 2, at this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Curvature: Time Travel on a Budget and a 36-Hour Time Limit

In the TV show 7 Days, that was the limit to how far they could travel back in time. Sam Beckett was limited to the span of his own lifetime in Quantum Leap. However, the time travel system developed by Helen Phillips’ fellow scientist husband only goes back 36 hours. That means she cannot go back and prevent his murder, but maybe she can stop herself from becoming a murderer herself in Diego Hallivis’s Curvature (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Phillips has been a basket case since the suicide of her husband Wells, but she suddenly snaps out of her funk when she gets a mystery call warning her to get out of the house. It is sort of like the opening scene to The Matrix, but the voice sounds weirdly like her rather than Laurence Fishburne.

When she connects with her platonic work pal, Alex, Phillips learns she has lost a week of time. Soon thereafter, she comes to suspect the time machine Wells developed with his partner at Curvature Corp. really works—and the mysterious blue hoodie woman is actually herself, gone back thirty-six hours. When she discovers the truth about Wells’ murder, which we can guess the second our prime suspect enters the frame, she realizes why she went back. Can she stop herself from going to a very dark place, when she happens to be herself?

Curvature is an okay time travel film, but it is way too predictable. Honestly, one of the innumerable drawbacks to filmmakers’ biases against businessmen and venture capitalists is that it makes it stupidly simple to deduce the real villain’s identity. Curvature is a clear-cut example of that phenomenon.

On the plus, side the time travel stuff is pretty decent. Wisely, Hallivis does not try to do too much with respect to near-misses and crossed paths for Phillips and Phillips-prime. Instead, he focuses on Phillips’ intellectual and emotional challenges. A bit where she and good old Alex use their shared history to figure out a password is especially well-written, by Brian DeLeeuw. Lyndsy Fonseca and Zach Avery also turn it quite nicely, even they are often a bit stiff together. Sadly, the great Linda Hamilton had to be released early, so we only get a few tantalizing scenes of her playing Phillips’ mentor. However, it is fun to see been-in-everything character actor Glenn Moorshower turn up again as Wells’ partner, Tomas.

Curvature has its merits, but it is also saddled by its budget constraints and blind spots. It is the sort of independent science fiction we want to champion, but this is definitely a case where the sum of its parts is greater than its whole. Just kind of okay, Curvature opens this Friday (2/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: The Other Side of the Burka


The tight-knit Islamist villages dotted along Iran’s southern coast look extreme even to many Revolutionary true believers throughout the rest of the country. Down there, the chador is not sufficient. Women must wear Burkas. At least it is the Gulf-style metallic mustache-guard burka rather than the completely encasing version preferred in Afghanistan, but if you think it is so comfortable than why don’t you start wearing one? The women who live there are desperate, miserable, and bereft of hope, judging from the interviews Mehrdad Oskouei conducts in The Other Side of the Burka, which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style, a new retrospective of the documentarian’s work starting this Friday at Anthology Film Archives.

The catalyst for Burka was the suicide of a long-suffering wife and mother named Samireh. Ironically, she seemed to be in better spirits than many other women, but there is no secret why she did what she did. The words of her widower husband speak volumes: “As the saying goes, women are like footwear, if you lose one, you can easily obtain another. But, what am I to do with my children?” Well, maybe he could consider stepping up and taking responsibility, but we’re just spit-balling here.

In any event, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Oskouei quickly establishes what social conditions are like. Women are married off early in this region—thirteen-year-old brides are not uncommon in the community. They are forced to have many children, but their husbands often have difficulty supporting their families. On the flip side, when times are good, the men often take younger second wives.

Oskouei records one harrowing story after another chronicling physical abuse, mental cruelty, and perverse attempts to induce abortions. The filmmaker tries to show the men some compassion too, explaining how over-fishing forced many fishermen to resort to smuggling, running a very real risk of arrest and imprisonment to feed their families. Yet, it is as obvious as the burka on your face they would be much better off if they married women who were somewhat older and allowed them to complete their education and pursue employment outside the home.

Again, it is striking how completely these women trust Oskouei. They have difficult stories to tell, especially to an Iranian man, yet they give him shockingly intimate testimony, on-camera. They are brave to reveal so much, but he was also pretty gutsy to expose the systematic injustices they continually endure. It clocks in at an economical fifty-two minutes, but it says plenty in that time. Very highly recommended, The Other Side of the Burka (paired with Oskouei’s documentary short, My Mother’s Home, Lagoon) screens this Friday (2/23) and next Monday (2/26) during the Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mikhalkov’s Sunstroke


Ivan Bunin was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but that did not exactly thrill the Soviets, since he was living in Paris at the time as a “White émigré.” Among the White or Menshevik-affiliated exiles, Bunin was a rock star, but it was a small group. Nikita Mikhalkov reminds us why so few dissidents escaped the 1920s Red Terror in his fusion of Bunin’s nonfiction Cursed Days and the titular short story. Mikhalkov remains a problematic figure, but there is no question Sunstroke is one of his best films in years, which finally releases today on DVD.

It is 1920. A large contingent of surrendered White officers are being processed for their promised return to Russian society. In exchange for relinquishing their arms and accepting the Soviet state they have even been promised the opportunity to immigrate. It is all very depressing for an honorable officer like the unnamed lieutenant, but his heart was already broken a lifetime ago in 1907. As he endures the boredom and petty indignities of the makeshift POW camp, his mind drifts back to his brief, intoxicating affair with a mystery woman while they were both traveling on a Volga steamship.

Sadly, it would only last one mad night, but the memory still lingers. Even the day after, largely spent in the company of Egoriy, a plucky street urchin takes becomes bittersweet in retrospect. Indeed, the 1907 narrative is classic Bunin, somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” In contrast, the 1920 storyline is all Soviet, through and through. It also happens to be the more powerful strand. Although Mikhalkov eventually brings the twains together in a way that genuinely pays off, the 1907 narrative really could have been handled as one or two long flashbacks. In contrast, it is quite haunting to watch the loved-and-lost romantic lieutenant facing the utter end of his era, with dignity and sad resignation. (At least his comrade still has his loyal hunting dog Syabr).

Everyone should generally know how 1920 ended for Russia, but Mikhalkov still manages to surprise us. He is a talented filmmaker, but there is no question he is tainted by his friendship with Putin and his own unprecedented consolidation of power within the Russian film industry. We give him credit for calling for the release of Oleg Sentsov, which he really didn’t have to do, but by defending Russian aggression and imperialism in Ukraine, he has become what he condemns in the third act of Sunstroke and throughout the Burnt By the Sun trilogy.

Regardless, Mikhalkov’s stitching together of Bunin is truly epic in a tragically lyrical way that totally falls within his cinematic wheelhouse. He can balance the dark romanticism of his Dark Eyes with a historical indictment in the tradition of Wajda’s Katyn. Frankly, this film deserves more attention, but it is Mikhalkov’s own darned fault it has not enjoyed the festival love bestowed on his earlier films.

In addition to his bravura filmmaking techniques, Mikhalkov gets the benefit of some fine ensemble work. Milos Bikovic is terrific as Syabr’s owner, the aristocratic naval officer, Baron Nikolay Alexandrovich Gulbe-Levitsky, Vitaliy Kishchenko is wildly but believable unhinged as the defiant cavalry captain, and Kiril Boltaev is wryly sardonic as the Cossack Captain. However, nobody can withstand the furious power of Miriam Sekhorn as Rozaliia Zemliachka, a Communist revolutionary figure and architect of Soviet mass murder. She is just a chilling, show-stopping tour de force. Ironically, Martinsh Kalita and the Ukrainian-born Viktoriya Solovyova aren’t nearly as engaging as the star-crossed lovers.

Mikhalkov is still going big, which pays dividends in this case. This is a mixed bag film (that appears to have been judiciously trimmed for its US home release, with no obvious ill effects), but when it connects, it lands a haymaker. It takes a little work (and requires overlooking Mikhalkov’s politics), but it is worth it. Recommended for fans of Russian cinema and literature, Sunstroke releases today on DVD, from Distrib Films US/Icarus.

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