J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River

This quiet hotel on the banks of the Han River ought to be a perfect spot for a secret assignation, but its guests are working through the bitter aftermaths of their affairs instead. It has been a long process for aging poet Ko Younghwan. He might never fully repair his relationships with the grown sons he walked out on decades ago, because he is convinced he will soon die in Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Ko is weirdly famous for a poet (quick, name a living poet—any living poet), but apparently he is sufficiently respected for the owner of the hotel to offer him a free room. It seems the freeloading Ko has overstayed his welcome, but he really does not expect to be around much longer. Having had premonitions of his imminent death, Ko summoned his semi-estranged sons, Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, but he immediately regretted it. He fears their reunion will be too awkward, even by the low standards of a character in a Hong Sang-soo film.

On the other hand, Ko is quite taken with Sang-hee and her friend Yeon-ju. The former has checked into the hotel to recover from the heartbreak of a recent affair cut short by her married lover, as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque burn she subsequently suffered on her hand. This relationship clearly echoes that of lead actress Kim Min-hee’s scandalous involvement with Hong himself, as well as the uncomfortably meta affair that collapses around her character in On the Beach at Night Alone. However, in this case, the focus falls on Ko, who was rather ironically dumped by the woman he left his family for, decades ago. Yet, he regrets nothing.

One of the knocks on Hong is the alleged “slightness” of his films, but in Hotel, he is dealing with some serious themes of mortality and redemption. However, some consistencies remain, such as the ultra-neurotic nature of his characters and their capacity to guzzle down alcohol.

As Ko, Ki Joo-bong creates a marvelous humanistic portrait of a flawed man in the twilight of his life. He is simultaneously guilt-ridden and defiant, in a way that is quite compelling. This time around, Kim takes a backseat to Ko, but also largely defers to Song Seon-mi, who really gets most of the film’s laughs as Yeon-ju. The consoling friend ruthlessly roasts the immaturity of the man-children who populate Hong’s world, but she can’t dismissed as anti-male, because her husband is different. In fact, the unseen, unnamed fellow is apparently too healthy to appear in a Hong Sang-soo film.

Obviously, that cannot be said for Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, who are classic Hong archetypes, especially the latter, who is a conspicuously Hong-like uncommercial indie film director. Yet, Yu Jun-sang’s coolly reserved performance is consistently upstaged by Kwon Hae-hyo’s more angsty work as the messily human Kyung-soo, who inherited most of his father’s physical shortcomings and personality hang-ups, but none of his talent.

Hotel is very much in keeping with recent Hong films, particularly The Day After and On the Beach, in terms of their common themes and lack of the narrative playfulness that marked his earlier films. This is arguably his most mature work to date, but films like Hill of Freedom were a lot more fun. Regardless, it is rewarding to watch Ko, Kwon, Kim, and Song in a stripped down chamber-piece. Kim Hyung-koo’s stark black-and-white cinematography, perfectly suited to the snowy backdrop, also makes this the best-looking Hong film since The Day He Arrives. Respectfully recommended for Hong’s admirers and fans of talky relationship dramas, Hotel by the River opens today (2/15) in New York.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mega Time Squad: Kiwi Time Travel


Time travel can be dangerous, especially if you have low self-worth, because you might meet yourself—and it would be super-awkward knowing what you thought of you. Lug-headed John likes most people, even including himself, so he shouldn’t have any trouble working with his other selves. Yet, somehow he still quarrels and backstabs with himself in Tim van Dammen’s Mega Time Squad (trailer here), which opens this Friday in limited release.

John is decent bloke, even though he harbors serious gangster ambitions clearly beyond his reach. Currently, he is an unglorified errand boy for Shelton, a suburban Kiwi kingpin. That certainly should not impress Shelton’s younger sister, Kelly, who has recently moved in with him, but she takes an inexplicable shine to the lad. To impress her, John uses some inside intel to try to swipe a bag full of illicit cash, but that puts him in the middle of a power struggle between Shelton’s outfit and a Chinese gang moving in of their territory.

Fortunately, along with the cash, John also makes off with an ancient Chinese bracelet that allows the wearer to jump back in time. Van Dammen never gets very Doctor Who-ish regarding the details of how this works. Instead, he is more interested in the stage-managing the growing clique of Johns, who dub themselves: “The Mega Time Squad.” We do not get any lectures on the dangers of monkeying around with the space-time continuum, because John really doesn’t need one. The ancient Chinese demon stalking him makes the point well enough on its own.

Without question, the visual effects and physical traffic-directing of the various Johns is downright inspired. Unfortunately, the characterization is not as strong. Alas, poor John lacks the charm of either Bill or Ted and has nothing that can compare to the screen presence of Mi Yang’s various doppelgangers in Reset. As played by Anton Tennet, the dude is just a dude.

Still, his earnest (if clueless) courtship of Kelly is genuinely endearing. Hetty Gaskell-Hahn strikes just the right balance between sweetness and sarcasm as the object of his affections. To be fair, Tennet also does a nice job distinguishing each John by emphasizing the quirks that surface in each iteration.

“Nice” really is the word for Mega Time Squad. It is an amusing film that over-achieves quite resourcefully when it comes to special effects, but the vibe is a little too laidback for its own good. Pleasant but not essential, Mega Time Squad opens tomorrow (2/15) in select cities, including the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Tuba to Cuba: On the Road with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band


Don’t expect to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Hip jazz fans know requests of that “good old good one” will set you back a whopping twenty bucks in Preservation Hall. Honestly, it is probably worth it, but the band will really stretch themselves in new directions during this goodwill tour. Forget the politics and get ready to get down during T.G. Herrington & Danny Clinch’s A Tuba to Cuba (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are not a lot of seats in Preservation Hall and it is not well-air-conditioned, but they still pack in the standing-room-only crowds for every performance. The Hall was founded by the late, beloved Alan Jaffe, whose son Ben succeeded him both as the Band’s tuba player and the artistic director of the Hall. Having grown up in the middle of New Orleans jazz, Jaffe is particularly aware of its Latin influences—what Jelly Roll Morton called “The Spanish Tinge.”

It turns out the NOLA-Cuba axis was a two-way street, as demonstrated by a sizable expat population that migrated to Santiago de Cuba, due to dissatisfaction with the Louisiana Purchase. Yet, that free-flow of culture and people was shut off when Cuba became a closed Communist police state.

There is some terrific music in Tuba to Cuba that more than compensates for the problematic way the film ignores the merciless human rights abuses that still continue unchecked under the Royal Castro family regime. There is no mention of the violent thuggery directed at the Ladies in White or the jailing of dissidents, like Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. However, there is plenty of music and it sounds terrific.

As you would expect, the Preservation Hall band-members and the local musicians (whether they specialize in jazz or rumba) mesh together seamlessly. In fact, they immediately recognize a kinship between the second-line and rumba traditions. They also feel a deep rhythmic connection that runs through Congo Square back to Africa.

Hopefully, Tuba to Cuba will also lead to more recognition for the world class musicians of Preservation Hall. Arguably, Mark Braud is younger than modernist snobs would expect, but he has masterful chops worthy of the city’s great trumpet tradition. On the other hand, the sunnily charismatic Charlie Gabriel is everything you could ever hope for from a New Orleans jazz statesman.

The music will recharge your batteries and the human connections forged during the film are genuine, so you might as well overlook the ugly truth, including widespread censorship and street violence employed as a tool of state intimidation, which Herrington and Clinch clearly did their best to conceal—but let’s not make a habit of it. Recommended for fans of New Orleans-style jazz, A Tuba to Cuba opens this Friday (2/15) in New York, at the Village East.

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MUBI/My French Film Festival ’19: Keep an Eye Out


Commissaire Buron is the kind of cop who reminds us both the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and the cypher-like postmodern detectives of Alain Robbe-Grillet are French. He inspires little confidence, but he might just out Columbo Inspector Colombo, while turning reality on its ear in Quentin Dupieux’s Keep an Eye Out (trailer here), which streams as part of From France with Love, MUBI’s showcase of films selected by the 2019 My French Film Festival.

Buron is supposedly interrogating Louis Fugain, but his mind seems to be elsewhere. In fact, he seems rudely disinterested in the civilian, but he still perversely refuses to let the hungry civilian leave to get something to eat until he finished his statement. Oh, those civil servants.

Initially, we assume Fugain is there is a witness, but we eventually learn he is Buron’s prime suspect. Alas, Fugain’s version of events is such an unlikely series of Rube Goldberg events, it is hard to believe he made them up—unless, of course, he did. This is a Quentin Dupieux movie, after all, so all bets are off. Inconveniently, Fugain’s chain of unfortunate events continues beyond Buron’s field of vision, which forces him to do some desperate improvising.

Although Eye starts out as the smallest film of Dupieux’s filmography, in terms of scope, it does not take viewers long to discover how weird life is in Fugain’s world. We are talking even stranger than his playful confections Wrong and Reality. Unless you are deeply steeped in post-structuralist philosophy and the wacky excesses of contemporary pop culture, Eye will be a real head-scratcher of a viewing experience. It could even make older patrons’ heads explode.

Hopefully, they could still appreciate the bone-dry humor of Benoît Poelvoorde’s performance as Buron. He manages to segue from clueless bumbler to sinister authoritarian to apathetic shirker without breaking a sweat. Grégoire Ludwig maintains a similarly weird, hard-to-peg consistency as Fugain, while Marc Fraize also deserves credit for playing it scrupulously straight as Philippe, a rookie cop with an impossible to describe eye affliction.

Frankly, the police station setting and ostensive procedural narrative are highly compatible with Dupieux’s gamesmanship. You can see his kinship with works like Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, but Dupieux has a flair for visual mischief that is all his own. That is what makes his films so amusing. Recommended for fans of his surreal head-tripping comedy, Keep an Eye Out streams through February 18th on MUBI and via other platform partners of this year’s My French Film Festival.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Van Damme is the Bouncer

Of course, Jean-Claude Van Damme can speak French. He’s the “Muscles from Brussels.” But no Flemish. He’s not the “Walloon Goon.” You would think Francophone action cinema would have made better use of him over the years, but at least he has a chance to play his age and take stock of his career in Julien Leclercq’s The Bouncer (a.k.a. Lukas, trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Lukas has a mysterious past, so he is forced to work dodgy partially off-the-books bouncer gigs to support Sarah, his adoring little moppet daughter. Money was already tight before he badly injures an aggressively obnoxious and entitled nightclub patron. As a last resort, Lukas accepts a bouncer gig at a strip club owned by Jan Dekkers, a mysterious Flemish underworld figure.  Unfortunately, Lukas is also “recruited” by predatory copper Maxim Zeroual to inform on his new employer.

Recognizing his talent and nee for cash, Dekkers and his righthand man Geerts quickly recruit Lukas to do some of his dirty work. Part of his duties also include driving and babysitting Lisa Zaccherini, an Italian printing expert, who is most experienced doing jobs with a 2.6 x 6.4 trim-size. Both sides of the law will make threats regarding Sarah to force Lukas to do their bidding, but the more desperate his circumstances, the more dangerous the old bouncer gets.

Okay, The Bouncer isn’t exactly the equal of Gran Torino or Harry Brown, but anyone in the future who writes a scholarly survey on the filmography of Van Damme will spend a disproportionate amount of time on this film. Even if it sounds like faint praise, Lukas is probably his best and most honest performance to date.

Of course, Van Damme still throws down, but the fight scenes are grittier and way more street than his typical high-flying melees. There are also real stakes, because Lukas is decidedly not a super-hero. Leclercq (who previously directed The Assault and produced SK1) also helms some tight, tense action scenes, including a particularly impressive long take that follows Lukas as he stalks a rival gangster through a country villa (against his will).

Throughout it all, Van Damme looks convincingly weary and haggard, while forging some pleasing rapport with young Alice Verset. Who knew he had it in him? The villains are disappointingly bland, but Leclercq and Van Damme compensate well enough with their distinctively hard-boiled work. Recommended surprisingly highly, The Bouncer is now available on DVD.

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Welcome to Daisyland


Austin Powers had good reasons for being scared of carny folk: “Nomads, you know. Smell like cabbage. Little hands.” This traveling fair is even worse. It is downright evil, in a smells-like-Sulphur kind of way. However, Daisy will try to scheme her way out of the supernatural sideshow that bears her name in the web-series Welcome to Daisyland, directed and co-written by Tony E. Valenzuela, which premieres on BlackBoxTV’s YouTube channel this Thursday (Valentine’s Day).

The first thing you will notice about Welcome is the unsubtly blaring hard rock soundtrack provided by the Dead Daisies (co-founded by series co-executive producer David Lowy). It is so pervasive, it the web-series could almost be dismissed as a collection of music videos for the band, but there is a legit reason for all the swamp rock. Daisy agreed to serve as the “Ringmaster” of the infernal carnival as part of a Faustian bargain she struck with a mysterious demon to bring back her rocker lover after he died from a drug overdose. Now she travels through the forgotten backwaters of flyover country, along Route 666, picking up souls for her master.

The first four episodes introduce some of Daisy’s sinister colleagues and their signature killing styles, but the promised conflict between Daisy and her Mephistophelean puppet master are far more intriguing. Each episode is about five to seven minutes, including the opening and closing credits, so it is not a huge investment of time. Nevertheless, it is not as grabby right out of the gate as the first two episodes of Ravenwolf Towers, which Full Moon seems to have converted from a web series into a feature release.

Nevertheless, Pippa Sonuga has a nice vampy screen presence and maintains the character’s mysteriously ambiguous nature, at least thus far. There seems to be a good deal of improvement over the course of the first episode to the fourth, but it still probably isn’t essential viewing. For fans of the Dead Daisies and carnival-circus-themed horror, Welcome to Daisyland premieres this Thursday (2/14), via BlackBoxTV.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Ruben Brandt, Collector


He is something like a cross between the protagonists from Hitchcock’s Spellbound and To Catch a Thief. Dr. Brandt is a world-renowned head-shrinker, who is fully capable of curing his own inner demons, but his therapy is literally criminal. With the help of his patients, he will steal what troubles his psyche. “Possess your problems to conquer them” is one of the principles of his treatment, so the good doctor will take possession of some of the world’s greatest works of art in director-screenwriter-animation designer Milorad Krstić’s sly animated caper Ruben Brandt, Collector (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Mimi is cat burglar par excellence, who was hired to pilfered a rare gem from the Louvre, but she swiped an exquisite Chinese fan instead, because she found it more aesthetically pleasing. Alas, her nemesis, private detective Mike Kowalski recovers the rare piece, but Mimi slips through his fingers yet again. Of course, her mobbed up employer is unhappy with her improvisation, so she decides to lay low by seeking treatment at the Swiss clinic under the direction of celebrated art therapist Ruben Brandt.

Brandt really is a good doctor, who has been able to help his patients, like Bye-Bye Joe, a celebrity bodyguard, who is more Vin Diesel than Vin Diesel, but he has been plagued by vivid nightmares of great artistic masterpieces (Botticelli’s Venus drowned him j-horror style with her tentacle-like hair, for example). Unbeknownst to Brandt, his father, a B.F. Skinnerist mind-control researcher, tried to program into an artistic genius using subliminally enhanced cartoons. Out of appreciation and gratitude, Mimi, Bye-Bye Joe and their fellow patients, the ultra-flat bank-robber Membrano Bruno and the super-hacker Fernando will steal the paintings tormenting Brant’ subconscious.

On one level, Collector is a globe-trotting escapade that visits some of the most picturesque museums on earth, including the Guggenheim and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio. In addition, it is crammed to the rafters with erudite visual references to fine art and great cinema. Frankly, it could take hours to unpack and catalog them all, but most viewers will be distracted by Krstić’s manically-energetic and highly cinematic chase scenes. They are grounded in reality, but he takes advantage of the animated format to push them beyond the bounds of what mortal stunt-performers should be willing to attempt.

It should also be noted Collector is definitely intended to be an animated film for mature adults. The action never gets particularly violent, but it definitely has a grown-up sensibility. There is no hanky-panky between characters either, but Mimi is definitely a slinky, seductive femme fatale and Kowalski’s assistant Marina often works remotely from the spa, in various states of undress. In fact, she ought to replace Jessica Rabbit as the pin-up favorite of animation geeks.

Honestly, Collector is such a clever and stylish film, it makes us wonder what the heck the Academy thinking overlooking it (as well as an original vision like Tito and the Birds) in favor of two ho-hum sequels. Seriously, the animated division needs to raise its game and refine their tastes.

Of course, Collector is much more than a series of cultural and artistic references. It is also jolly entertaining. This is a jaunty romp that has some ingenious shoes to drop, worthy of old Hitch himself. Krstić’s animation is also archly striking, somewhat resembling Gagnol & Felicioli’s Phantom Boy, but with cubist accents to give it a bit of surrealist panache. Highly recommended for fans of high and pop art, Ruben Brandt, Collector opens this Friday (2/15) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

FCS ’19: Up the Mountain


In China, the closest you can get to the French region of Provence is a remote mountain community in Yunnan. It is there that formerly Shanghai-based artist Shen Jianhua moved to open his communal art school. It is like a small pocket of utopia in China, but it definitely stands at odds with the prevailing values and attitudes of dominant contemporary Chinese society. Hybrid filmmaker Zhang Yang documents the rhythms of Shen’s quiet retreat in Up the Mountain, which screens tonight during this year’s Film Comment Selects.

Without a doubt, Up has to be one of the most colorful Chinese documentaries of recent vintage, especially from a filmmaker with indie cred. It is easy to see why the green fields and vivid wild flowers have inspired Shen and those who study with him. The star pupil is Zhao Dinglong, the master’s star protégé, but most of his students are seventy and eighty-year-old aunties from the village.

Zhang’s observational film never patronizes the seniors studying with Shen. Nobody thinks of their work as cute or empowering, because it is straight-up good. Frankly, some of the best visuals in the film come from their colorful canvases. They clearly take it seriously and so will the audience.

Of course, not everyone appreciates life on the mountain as much most viewers probably will. The drama will come from Zhao and his fiancée, Xu Lin. She agrees with her parents and his parents that it is time for him to leave Shen and get a real job in business. However, the Zen-like Shen recommends Zhao invite her to spend time at the school, so she can come to appreciate what it means to him. It is sage advice, but the results will be somewhat ambiguous.

Frankly, Up is not the sort of film you watch for high drama. It is rather easy-going, even by documentary standards. Zhang is more interested in soaking up the vibe and texture of life in Shen’s artist colony, much like he did in his Eastern Western narrative Soul on a String and his more narrative-driven documentary, Paths of the Soul. The extremely boxy aspect-ratio almost looks like a mistake at first, especially since the sides of the familiar dragon logo of the State Film and TV Bureau are cropped off, but it gives the film an intimate focus that really draws viewers in.

Regardless, Shen emerges as an enormously intriguing, if somewhat inscrutable figure during the course of the film. The super-cool sunglass-donning artist always seems to have a knack for saying the right thing to bring peace to his pupils and to facilitate their artistic development. Zhao and Xu Lin are also a ridiculously attractive couple, whom we start to root for.

Clearly, it is Shen’s deceptively calm iron will that sustains his school. Outsiders just don’t seem to get it, even though anyone watching Up will immediately understand its charm. Essentially, Up is the indie documentary equivalent of a lazy afternoon nap in the countryside, but with some really striking folk-style painting. Recommended for patrons of Chinese independent cinema and regional art, Up the Mountain screens tonight (2/10) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2019 edition of Film Comment Selects.

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Saturday, February 09, 2019

Sundance '19: Shooting the Mafia---at Criminal Element

The Mafia's assassination of two crusading judges was not well-covered in the drive-by media (big surprise), but photographer Letizia Battaglia witnessed and documented those tumultuous times in Sicily first-hand. She lived to tell the tale in the documentary Shooting the Mafia. Exclusive Criminal Element review now up here.

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Sundance ’19: The Hole in the Ground

Sinkholes naturally occur when the earth below the surface is eroded away by water. Essentially, the ground becomes corrupted and collapses. Perhaps that makes the phenomenon an apt metaphor for Sarah O’Neill, who is seeking a fresh start with her young son after leaving his abusive father (or not). Unfortunately, she will trade a conventional horror for a supernatural one in Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground (trailer here), which screened during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

O’Neill was largely successful shielding her precocious son Chris from her violent husband, but she carries the physical scars of his abuse. They have moved to a sleepy provincial village, where nobody knows them—exactly the sort of place you find in horror movies. O’Neill has become a relentlessly overprotective mother, but Chris still manages to slip away into the woods, where an ominous looking sinkhole sets off all her internal danger alarms.

Shortly thereafter, the borderline catatonic wife of their nearest neighbor suddenly snaps to, telling O’Neill her son is not really her son. Unfortunately, she will start to suspect that herself when Chris’s behavior starts to change. Most distressingly, he has apparently lost all memory of the secret game they share. Horrifyingly, O’Neill comes to suspect her son has been replaced by a doppelganger, but she is deeply confused and conflicted regarding how she should treat him.

Hole is another horror movie that offers a revisionist take a parenthood, just like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. In this case, O’Neill’s formerly beloved son turns into a little monster. It is also a fine example to Irish horror, which generally seems to be distinguished by moody atmospherics as well as an often sinister view of rural life and the natural environment (as exemplified by Don’t Leave Home, Without Name, The Hallow, and The Canal).

As O’Neill, Seána Kerslake convincingly implodes into a puddle of paranoia, while James Quinn Markey is quite chilling as the supernaturally altered bad seed boy. Their scenes together are all kinds of tense and awkward. It is almost a two-hander, but James Cosmo adds some grizzled humanity in his brief but memorable supporting turn as their neighbor, Des Brady.

Granted, Hole is not outrageously original. Any fan could rattle off a list of films sharing a similar premise, but Cronin’s execution should still keep their attention focused. This is definitely a prime example of well-produced horror, especially with respects to Tom Comerford’s evocative cinematography and Jeroen Truijens’ subtly eerie sound design. Recommended for discerning horror consumers, The Hole in the Ground screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, ahead of its distribution via A24 and DirecTV.

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Slamdance ’19: Tijuana 1924 (pilot)

Carmen Sanchez is like the “Queen of the South” for tequila. Prohibition is on, which is a huge opportunity for an aspiring kingpin like Sanchez, especially since her husband has just been appointed chief of police. Of course, he thinks he is calling the shots in their liquor-running operation, but he is just kidding himself. The tequila will flow (across the border) in Mary-Lyn Chambers’ Tijuana: 1924, a prospective proof-of-concept pilot that screened at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

Throughout the pilot, Sanchez explains to her wide-eyed daughter how easy it is to manipulate men like her husband, Manuel Sanchez (or any other man, for that matter). Like a crafty Lady Macbeth, she has prodded the new chief copper into betraying his former partners to corner the illicit tequila trade into the United States. She did not waste any time, prompting his betrayal before he could even enjoy her celebratory gala, where she will truly be in her element, flirting and working the room like a pro.

Frankly, the fifteen-minute pilot leaves viewers wanting more, but it certainly proves the concept. Carmen (originally Charlotte) Sanchez is an entertainingly crafty and seductive femme fatale. However, Chambers has yet to introduce a foil worthy of being her rival, but with all that tequila around, there must be a worm in there somewhere. Ilana Guralnik vamps it up in style, gliding about as the Tequila Queen. As Chief Sanchez, David “Blak” Placencia is tightly wound, but appropriately clueless and in-denial regarding his subservience to his ruthless wife, which is a tricky line to convincingly walk.

Tijuana’s potential commercial appeal is conspicuously obvious, combining elements of Narcos and the original La Reine del Sur with the Prohibition period productions, like The Untouchables. Presumably, Chambers was working within limited budget constraints, but the over-achieving pilot features some lush, well-appointed sets and a full swing orchestra at the Sanchez’s party (frankly, it sounds more like a band from the 30’s than the 20’s, but it is festive regardless). It looks great and sounds quite nice, but the real fun comes from Madame Sanchez’s shameless attitude and scenery-chewing. This one deserves a full series order. Recommended for fans of historical crime dramas, Tijuana: 1924 screened as part of the episodic showcase at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

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Friday, February 08, 2019

Oxford ’19: Body and Soul—An American Bridge


His name holds little recognition these days, even among serious jazz listeners, but Johnny Green won five Oscars for his film music and co-wrote several standards, including “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Out of Nowhere.” Yet, his best-known work is even more ubiquitous among jazz musicians’ repertoires. Robert Philipson chronicles the history and legacy of the beloved standard in the mid-length hour-long documentary, Body and Soul: An American Bridge (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Oxford Film Festival.

Green original co-wrote “Body and Soul” with lyricists Edward Heyman and Robert Sour for British musical theater performer Gertrude Lawrence, but it soon became a jazz standard. Naturally, one of the first classic renditions came from Louis Armstrong, who really did everything in jazz first. There was also a historically significant recording by the racially-integrated Benny Goodman Trio, featuring the great Teddy Wilson on piano. However, Coleman Hawkins’ legendary recording of “Body and Soul,” which most jazz historians consider the transitional link between swing and bebop is only mentioned in passing. Frankly, that is beyond bizarre, because we were eagerly anticipating a long discussion of Hawk (it isn’t perfect, but Ken Burns’ Jazz gets this right).

Still, Philipson deserves credit for giving Benny Goodman credit for sticking his neck out to lead his racially integrated trio (which became a quartet when he added Lionel Hampton on vibes). It is fashionable to mock Goodman for his legendary penny-pinching and the withering glare, dubbed “the ray,” he leveled at bandmembers who displeased him, but he took a risk and became an agent of progressive change in this country.

Instead of a bridge between swing and bebop, Philipson positions “Body and Soul” as a bridge between Jewish and African American musicians. He certainly has a strong case to make, but “Body and Soul” is hardly unique in this respect. After all, George Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess and Irving Berlin penned standards like “How Deep is the Ocean.” There are plenty of songs that could represent that sort of connection, but it almost always happens through jazz.

Regardless, any film that discusses Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson at length is totally worth seeing. The best-known musicians Philipson interviews on-camera are probably NEA Jazz Master bassist Richard Davis and Loren Schoenburg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, who certainly know their stuff, but like it or not, no Marsalises this time around. Recommended for fans of pre-modern (swing, New Orleans) jazz, Body and Soul: An American Bridge screens this Sunday (2/10) as part of the 2019 Oxford Film Festival.

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Thursday, February 07, 2019

Amityville Murders: The Original Suffolk County Horror

This is the kind of notorious history real estate agents are supposed to disclose. We’re at 112 Ocean Avenue, one of the most notorious addresses in America, but it is before the Lutzes, who came before James Brolin and Margot Kidder. The evil started with the DeFeo family murders, which are dramatized for the first time—entirely exploitatively—in Daniel Farrands’ The Amityville Murders (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

The notorious DeFeo murders really did happen, but probably not the way they are depicted here. Regardless, this would be “film zero” in the Amityville chronology, but Murders is clearly not part of the increasingly loose franchise of sequels, reboots, and whatever you might call Amityville: The Awakening. Previously the stuff of prologues, the DeFeo family takes center stage as Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. precipitously descends into madness. Arguably, it is all his own fault—and that of his sister Dawn. They decided they wanted to fool around summoning a spirit. Now they can’t get rid of it.

Frankly, the DeFeo family is a nightmare even before they open the portal to Hell or whatever. Ronnie DeFeo Sr. is abusive towards his long-suffering wife, his teen daughter Dawn, and old Butch. He also appears to be engaged in some sort of shady mob business. Plus, he is a Nixon supporter (serious, can’t they give Tricky Dick a break?).

At least Sr. doesn’t bother the young ones too much. Usually, Dawn can also up-manage him relatively well, unless he thinks she is acting trampy. Unfortunately, the hippyish Butch is practically asking for it. The mysterious black car surveilling their house does not help his disposition either, but it is just massive loose end that goes conspicuously unresolved.

Arguably, Amityville Murders is fundamentally ill-conceived, because it climaxes with an utterly horrible murder-spree. There is precious little fun to be found in this film and even less suspense, thanks to the opening sequence featuring the fateful 9-1-1 call.

The hard truth is Eric Walter’s documentary My Amityville Horror is still the best Amityville movie, but Amityville Murders isn’t even in the running. Supernatural tom-foolery is implied, but most of what Farrands shows is just terrible parenting.

Paul Ben-Victor is suitably ferocious and rodent-like as Ronald Senior. He is a rather unsavory character, but that doesn’t mean his complaints aren’t valid. Alas, Lainie Kazan and Burt Young are largely wasted as Ronald Sr’s in-laws. However, John Robinson is so sweaty and twitchy as Butch Jr., he might as well be wearing a “murder-suicide” t-shirt.

The overriding problem with 'Mitty Murders is not its predictability, but it’s the plodding pacing. This is a hard slog. That’s not exactly what you typically look for in a lurid “based-on-a-true-story” cash-in. Not recommended, Amityville Murders opens tomorrow (2/8) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Sundanc '19: Relive--at Criminal Element

It might just be Blumhouse that truly breaks out David Oyelowo as a box-office-opening movie-star. Exclusive Criminal Element Sundance review of Relive now up here.

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Slamdance ’19: Ski Bum—The Warren Miller Story


If Warren Miller were still alive, he probably would have blown off the debut of the documentary chronicling his life and career to hit the Park City slopes instead. When it came to the sport of skiing, he was the preeminent filmmaker, but he was also a four-walling pioneer. He built his annual ski movie road show into a tradition for hundreds of thousands of fans and served as an outreach evangelist for the sport in its early years. Patrick Creadon surveys his peaks and valleys in Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story, which won the Best of Breakouts Audience Award at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

After an unhappy childhood and a brief stint in the Navy, Miller was ready for a life of adventure sans responsibility. He found it as a veritable ski bum. Although he was a complete beginner, his enthusiasm quickly propelled him into ski instructor positions. He started recording feats on the slope as an amateur videographer, quickly deciding to turn pro. Thus, was born Warren Miller Entertainment, which released its first film in 1949.

With one disastrous exception, Miller followed an event-driven four-walling model. Although he filmed professionals, has laidback narration made him the star of his films for scores of fans. Warren Miller films were an influence on Bruce Brown’s classic surfing doc, The Endless Summer and arguably supplied the foundation for the rise of extreme sports, but it was not always a bed of roses for Miller. In fact, his personal life was often a source of bitter disappointment.

It is about time Miller got his due. Fortunately, Creadon (probably best known for I.O.U.S.A., which incidentally makes us wonder what his thoughts might be regarding the explosion of our national debt over the past ten years) managed to record an extensive series of sit-downs with Miller prior to his death last year. He is a constant presence in the documentary, offering commentary on every development in his life-story. His candor is also quite notable—Miller never ducks anything, no matter how painful—and there are incidents that must still smart, such as the revelation his mother and sister were embezzling from him.

Frankly, Miller emerges as a highly sympathetic figure precisely because he owns up to the mistakes he made. Creadon also incorporates plenty of clips of the spectacular skiing that was a hallmark of Miller’s films (including some never seen before), but his real concern is Miller’s cultural influence. This is not a clips package. If you want to watch someone face-plowing down an exotic mountain, go see a Warren Miller film.

Miller’s work still holds up, but his life is probably even more compelling. Creadon’s profile should foster a solid appreciation of both among viewers, even those who have little or no experience with winter sports. Recommended for fans and anyone interested in early independent filmmaking, Ski Bum: The Warren Miller should have a long festival life, especially in mountainous states, following its award-winning premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

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The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot


Calvin Barr is the personification of the Greatest Generation. He already did his part during WWII and now he might just save Canada. Apparently, there really is a Bigfoot, who is spreading a doomsday virus across the great white north. Obviously, this is a job for the titular hero of Robert D. Krzykowski’s The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Barr is now old and disillusioned, but when he was young, he was a hardworking, patriotic American. He was also deeply smitten with Maxine, the great love of his life, but alas, it was not to be. There were separated first by the war and then by her untimely death. Most frustratingly, Barr was even denied the solace of her correspondence, due to the sensitive nature of his service. The mild-mannered Barr excelled at behind-the-lines work, so was entrusted with the most hush-hush top-secret mission of the war: killing Hitler.

In the somewhat present day, Barr is sick of killing and still heartsick over the loss of Maxine. He mostly haunts a barstool, but he still finds time for Ed, his ever-loyal little brother. When “Flag Pin,” a shadowy Fed and his Canadian counterpart come asking for his help, Barr initially turns them down flat, but he eventually agrees. After all, he is still part of the Greatest Generation—and his nation needs him.

TMWKHATTB sounds like lunacy, but it is surprisingly poignant. Instead of an Inglorious Basterds romp, this is an elegiac ode to an action hero’s fading glory. Arguably, Elliott’s Barr belongs in the company of Michael Caine in Harry Brown, Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Ron Perlman in Asher, and Jackie Chan in The Foreigner.

In a more just world, Sam Elliott would be nominated for this film, rather than A Star is Born (which is a remake of a remake of a remake of a film from 1937). Barr is cut from similar cloth as Lee Hayden, his character in The Hero, but the aging commando is an even more poignant and messily human figure. As Barr, every one of Elliott’s wrinkles tells a story.

Aidan Turner does not have the same kind of presence as the younger Barr in his Hitler-killing scenes, but he develops some nice chemistry with Caitlin FitzGerald, who is quite touching as Maxine. Weirdly, their sweet, ill-fated romance is one of the best things going for the film. However, it is Larry Miller who really brings it home as the devoted Ed. Who knew he had such a sensitive performance in him, especially in such an unlikely genre film?

Oddly, killing Hitler is the least interesting part of The Man Who. Of course, it is physically and constitutionally impossible for Elliott to be uninteresting. Krzykowski short-changes viewers several obvious and necessary payoff scenes, but his characterization is quite strong. Recommended for fans of more sophisticated action-adventure movies, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot opens this Friday (2/8) in New York, at the Village East.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Sundance ’19: Count Your Curses & End (shorts)


In one of the shorts that screened at this year’s Sundance, average people take their encounters with the supernatural in stride. In another, not so much. Usually, such incidents are extraordinary, but they are common place in Lorène Yavo’s wickedly droll animated short, Count Your Curses, which screened during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Rather ominously, Sophie wakes to find their house spirit has been mauled to death it again. It is not just a pet. It is supposed to protect her and her roommate Charles from the ghosts and mythological beasts haunting the nearby field. They try to buy a new house spirit from the spirit store, but the proprietor refuses to sell to them anymore. Instead, he refers them to a sorceress, who might be able to diagnose the supernatural phenomenon at work.

Curses somewhat resembles the MTV show Daria, in terms of its blocky visual style and deadpan humor. Yavo’s dialogue is quite amusing, in a drily arch way. Plus, there is also humor in the characters’ blasé acceptance of some outlandish situations.

On the other hand, there is nothing funny about Yimit Ramírez’s End. The bad news is Juan is dead. He will get the chance to relive an episode from his life, but it turns out this is not good news either. The personification of death gets to chose when and it opts for the worst moment of his life. He does not handle the experience well.

End is a remarkably dark film with some real bite, but the budget constraints show in the scenes of the void of purgatory. Nevertheless, it is nice just to know Ramírez was able to complete this film, considering his past film reportedly ran afoul of the Cuban censors. His feature I Want to Make a Movie did not even criticize the royal Castro family. Instead, one character of dubious credibility goes off on José Martí, who has been dead for over one-hundred twenty years.

Both Count Your Curses and End are clearly the work of talented filmmakers, who must have some distinctive films ahead of them. Curses is the sort of highly rewatchable film that could go viral if it were a Vimeo Staff pick. Sadly, Ramírez will also have to navigate politics and bureaucracy (indeed, it is difficult to resist reading allegorical meanings into the Hellish vision of the afterlife presented in End). Each film is recommended for festival programmers, following their screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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FCS ’19: Flight of a Bullet


You can’t see this film in Russia. Putin’s thugs won’t let you. They stormed the stage to prevent its screening at Artdocfest. Ironically, they took issue with filmmaker Beata Bubenec’s portrayal of the pro-Ukrainian Aidar militia, even though most rational people would consider its political implications to be decidedly mixed. It is also hard to accuse her of selective editing, since the film consists of one single continuous take. Viewers can judge for themselves when Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet screens during this year’s Film Comment Selects.

Aidar has a reputation, fairly or not, for unjustly detaining suspected Russian separatist supporters, which basically happens within the first ten minutes of the film. While surveying the damage done to a bridge, a surly bystander starts heckling Bubenec’s escort, so he places him under “arrest.” That definitely happens, but aside from the inconvenience, nothing particularly terrible happens to the wise-cracker. In fact, he offers Aidar unsolicited intel on the separatists stationed in his village (whether it is legit or not, who can say?).

Frankly, the film should end right there. Instead, the Flight continues rather aimlessly from there. Bubenec deflects some rather course advances from some of the Aidar members, while fixing snacks and just generally hanging out with her subjects. It is not great cinema, especially compared to the first half.

You could also question Bubenec’s judgement as a documentarian, but the Russian-loyalist, anti-Ukrainian thugs basically bail her out. Thanks to their violent attack, which included some sort of noxious pepper spray (or worse), Flight is now an important document that has significance beyond itself. Ironically, they also do Aidar a solid. While their extralegal detention would be problematic, it now appears completely benign compared to the violence exercised by the Separatist mob (reportedly Russian Liberation Movement South East Radical Bloc, SERB, a criminal separatist group granted sanctuary by Putin). Thanks to SERB, Aidar looks moderate and responsible.

There is some worthy boots-on-the-ground reporting in Flight that cuts both ways (or at least it would in a more logical world). The continuous unedited take lends confidence to the film’s veracity, but it goes on too long. It would have been more interesting to follow-up with the detainee and the information he volunteered to his interrogators than listening in on the Aidar fighter arguing with his girlfriend over the phone. It is interesting, but highly imperfect. Recommended on principle, just because Putin’s knuckle-dragging puppets don’t want us to see it, Flight of a Bullet screens this Thursday (2/7), as part of the 2019 Film Comment Selects.

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Monday, February 04, 2019

Sundance '19: The Inventor--at Criminal Element

Good news, Alex Gibney's latest documentary-of-the-week is one of his best. Exclusive Criminal Element review of The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is now up here.

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Slamdance ’19: Demolition Girl


It is good for high school kids to have jobs, because the employment experience teaches responsibility. Cocoa already happens to be plenty responsible, unlike her deadbeat father and even worse deadbeat brother. Unfortunately, her choice of employment will lead to trouble and scandal in Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl, which screened during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

It wasn’t Cocoa’s idea, but an old friend of her brother convinced her to appear in his foot-crushing fetish videos. Right, we’re talking about women’s feet stomping on things. She really doesn’t get it either, but the money is good and the work doesn’t take long. Those are both important factors, ever since she decided to take a shot at the national university entrance exams. She should be smart enough to pass, if she could study as much as her friends, but paying tuition and expenses will be another matter entirely. Of course, her lazy father and parasitical brother still expect to live off her.

Cocoa’s upbeat resiliency is quite appealing, but viewers will rightly suspect her method for earning quick money is not sustainable. When the shoes start to drop (so to speak), the film takes a decidedly dark turn. She can justly blame her brother’s friend, who unwisely started selling his videos through a gang of sleazy underworld thugs, but he really isn’t a bad guy. On the other hand, her brother is truly pond scum.

Aya Kitai was quite deservedly recognized with an Honorable Mention for the Slamdance Acting Award, because her performance will make your heart ache for Cocoa. We feel for her acutely, yet the remarkable thing about her portrayal specifically and Matsugami’s film in general is how uplifting it is, despite all the rotten things that happen. Somehow, her indomitable spirit lifts our own. She also forges believably grounded but very different kinds of rapport with her besties and the aspiring fetish filmmaker.

Matsugami’s DIY-style aptly suits the drabness of Cocoa’s depressed provincial town and the mean circumstances of her life. Everything in his film feels really real. Yet, Kitai lights up the digital screen. After watching Demolition, we sincerely hope Matsugami continues to tell Cocoa’s story, returning to her every so often, like François Truffaut did with his Antoine Doinel films. Yes, I’m dropping Truffaut’s name in a review of Demolition—honestly, Cocoa might just be even more emotionally engaging (even though Truffaut’s artistry was admittedly greater). Very highly recommended, Demolition Girl had its world premiere at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’19: Sister (short)


If you have a solid grounding in recent history and global politics, you should be able to guess the devastating twist that comes at the end of this stop-motion animated short film. A grown man looks back on his childhood, growing up with the little sister who was born four years after him in China, during the early 1990s. If you don’t get it by now, you certainly will be the end of Siqi Song’s beautifully rendered Sister, which screened during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

It is only eight minutes long, but it packs quite an emotional wallop. There is no question Sister is a highly personal statement from the Chinese-born, Los Angeles-based Song, who is credited as director, producer, screenwriter, animator, cinematographer, editor, and art director. Still, she did not do it alone. Her collaborators include Bingyang Liu, who performed the sensitive voice-over narration and Karen Tanaka, who composed the classy score.

As the film opens, the narrator fondly remembers his bratty little sister, who often brought their parents wrath down on him with her own mischief. Yet, something seems a little off with this picture. Eventually, all will be revealed—and it will be a painful revelation—even for viewers who were expected it. (As a final hint, Nanfu Wang’s documentary at this year’s Sundance also addresses the same topic.)

Ultimately, Sister does indeed indict the Chinese government’s recent policies, but it is still essentially a deeply humanistic family drama. Song’s animation is quite skillful and her visuals are sometimes surprisingly fanciful, but that does not dilute the power of her message. Very highly recommended, Sister screened during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’19: Paradise Hills


It is a dystopian finishing school, where they finish the heck out of difficult young women. Sure, it is creepy, but at least the amenities are super-luxurious and the views are postcard-worthy. Uma, the cash-poor heiress refuses to be seduced by such trappings in Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Uma is the picture of a perfectly subservient bride, but she was not always like this. Cue flashback. Initially, she had no intention of marrying her slimy groom, because she rather resented the role Son played in her father’s economic ruin and subsequent suicide. Her mercenary mother is all for the match, but Uma rather crassly still carries a grudge.

It will be the job of Paradise Hills, under the direction of the regal Duchess, to mold her into a more reasonable young woman. She is not there by choice and she cannot leave of her own accord. However, she makes fast friends with her roommates. Yu is a former prole, who must learn to behave in a manner befitting the upper class now that she has been sent to live with her Beijing relatives. Chloe has been shipped away to shed the pounds her family finds so undesirable.

Probably the hardest case currently in residence at Paradise Hills (technically an island, perhaps in the Mediterranean) would be Amarna, a pop starlet, who wants to chart a more Melissa Etheridge course for her career (and private life), much to the horror of her management. There is definitely an ambiguous something going on between her and Uma, until Amarna is suddenly discharged and acting like a bubblegum idol in the media.

The art direction and frilly costuming of Paradise are to die for, but it blends fantasy and science fiction in ways that do not conform to any consistent internal system of logic. Frankly, it is a bit surprising the screenplay was co-written by mad genre master Nacho Vigalondo (along with Brian DeLeeuw, writer of Curvature and Some Kind of Hate), because it really looks like the film started with its feminist message and built its narrative structure out from there.

Emma Roberts is so dull and vanilla as Uma, it is hard to fathom why the villainous Son would be so preoccupied with her. In contrast, Eiza Gonzalez smirks and smolders with electric intensity as Amarna and Mila Jovovich chews the scenery with devilish delight as the ab fab Duchess. Danielle Macdonald has some poignant moments as Chloe, but Awkwafina never really elevates compulsively earphone-wearing Yu above stock character levels. Of course, all the guys in Hills are either pigs or dogs.

Waddington is a gifted stylist, whose ultra-chic, darkly sinister short film Disco Inferno played at Slamdance in 2016 (proving the cross-pollination between the two fests). Josu Inchaustegui’s cinematography perfectly evokes a fantastical vibe, filtered through a high-end fashion magazine layout. It is the sort of film we want to admire, but it never fully lands. Still, it proves Waddington still has loads of potential to make distinctive genre films. Sort of half-recommended, Paradise Hills is certain to have a robust life on the festival circuit, following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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