J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Russian Five: Red Wings from the Red Army


By the early 1990s, Detroit was a sad shadow of its 1960s industrial glory, but it was still represented a quantum increase in the potential living standards for Russia’s top hockey players. That really ought to be the final word on the Soviet Socialist experiment. Of course, it was not just their economic freedoms that were curtailed. The USSR tightly controlled their travel and maintained intrusive surveillance, especially when they might come in contact with Westerners. Nevertheless, the Detroit Red Wings managed to draft, sign, and suit-up some the best players produced by the Soviet hockey machine. The resulting Motor City sports history is chronicled in Joshua Riehl’s The Russian Five, which opens today in New York.

Sergei Fedorov was the first Russian player to join the Red Wings, after they helped facilitate his defection following an exhibition match sponsored by the Goodwill Games (that was probably the first time Ted Turner’s pet project made headlines, but it most likely wasn’t what he had in mind). The team also caused a bit of an international incident when they brought over Vladimir Konstantinov and his family, by way of Hungary, where they had already chucked Communism into the dustbin of history. However, it was a relatively easy process adding Vyacheslaw Kozlov to the roster, while Viacheslav Fetisov and Igor Larionov were acquired the old-fashioned way—through trades.

Together they were the Russian Five and they ignited the cellar-dwelling Red Wings. Not surprisingly, they were highly compatible on the ice. They racked up W’s during the regular season, but for several years, they experienced all sorts of heartache during the playoffs.

Like any good sports doc, The Russian Five has triumph and tragedy, as well as a seriously villainous rival in the form of the Colorado Avalanche. Even if you have no interest in hockey, you will still get caught up in the drama. This is the kind of film that is perfect for fans of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and HBO’s Real Sports. Obviously, there are also geopolitical implications to the story, but Riehl does his best to soft pedal them. This could well be a function of the subjects themselves, including Fetisov, who served as Putin’s minister of sport and a principle architect of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Nonetheless, there is absolutely no denying which side of the Iron Curtain had the best opportunities for players. Riehl uses some entertaining animated sequences to help tell the tale, but the liveliest episodes involve the team’s wild forays into international relations. He has lengthy on-camera sit-downs with all four of the Russian Five who are still available for media, as well as former Red Wings GM Jim Devellano and many of their fellow players, including team captain Steve Yzerman, who gets credit for being an equally important addition to the team and Darren McCarty, who can tell hockey war stories with the best of them. Jeff Daniels the actor also pops up from time to time, because he is apparently the Red Wings’ most famous fan.

You might expect Riehl’s film would overlap considerably with Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, but the Detroit focus makes it almost entirely new and completely fresh for fans of Russian hockey docs. Even though it is not about the Rangers, it is still quite watchable and engaging. Easily recommended for athletically-inclined viewers, especially those interested in how sports and culture relate and respond to each other, The Russian Five opens today (5/31) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

De Palma’s Domino


Denmark is relatively hawkish when it comes to the War on Terror—not just for a Scandinavian country, but also by European standards. Perhaps that is why Salah Al-Din, an Islamist terrorist mastermind has been focusing on Danish targets. A former assassin with a grudge against Al-Din is out to kill him and his associates, but for copper Christian Toft, the enemy of his enemy is not his friend in Brian De Palma’s Domino—yes, that Brian De Palma, which opens tomorrow in select cities.

Thanks to a flirtatious early morning after a long night of passion, Toft leaves his gun on his bed-stand before responding to what he and his partner Lars Hansen assume to be a routine domestic disturbance. Instead, they run smack into Ezra Tarzi leaving the scene of the crime. He had carved up a bodega owner, whose flat is filled to the brim with explosives and general terrorism paraphernalia. Alas, Tarzi gravely wounds Hansen while escaping from custody, but he does not make a clean getaway.

Instead, he is captured by the CIA, who are happy to aid his quest for vengeance, supplying him with intel and further hardball motivation—as if he needed it. Tarzi already has Al-Din’s YouTube beheading videos of his brother for that. Initially, the Copenhagen cops erroneously believe Tarzi is still with Al-Din’s Dahesh cell, so Toft assumes Tarzi can lead them straight to the terrorist, which is still mostly true.

By all reports, Domino was deeply troubled throughout every stage of production, finally pushing De Palma to largely disavow the film. However, it still shows flashes of the old De Palma magic. He does his usually Hitchcockian thing, while Pino Donaggio, his regular score composer, reaches back into his Bernard Herrmann bag of tricks—and it works more often than you would know from the rest of the reviews so far. In fact, the big, pivotal scene in a bullfighting stadium (the third act shifts to Spain, probably for tax credit reasons) is genuinely vintage De Palma, up there with the Battleship Potemkin homage in The Untouchables.

As Toft, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a serviceable lead, who looks sufficiently convincing in his action scenes. Guy Pearce practically sleeps through the film playing Machiavellian CIA agent Joe Martin (a case of been there, done that, if ever there was). Søren Malling is largely under-utilized as Hansen, whereas Paprika Steen is completely wasted as his wife Hanne. Unfortunately, Carice van Houten is badly offkey as Toft’s unofficial new partner Alex Boe. However, Eriq Ebouaney is a real standout as the steely Tarzi.

Domino is a grubby, Eurotrashy film that struggles to alienate its core audience with kneejerk moral equivalencies. Yet, it still has moments of grand suspense. It is not De Palma’s worst film, not by a long shot (hello Passion and Redacted). The question is whether it is a last gasp or a harbinger of a final masterwork to come (as John Frankenheimer’s under-appreciated Dead Bang and Fourth War were to Ronin). Sort of recommended for fans of ticking time-bomb-thrillers, Domino opens tomorrow (5/31) at the AMC Rolling Hills in the LA-area and releases day-and-date on iTunes.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fantaspoa ’19: His Master’s Voice


There is something about the work of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem that inspires more ambiguous and open-to-interpretation adaptations than the original source novels. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a classic case, but Ari Folman’s The Congress was no slouch. Neither is this. Gyorgy Palfi offers a Twenty-First Century re-imagined, sequelistic vision of Lem’s classic Cold War-era novella with His Master’s Voice, which screens today at this year's Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Like many Lem novels, Voice is a first contact story—sort of, but perhaps less so this time around. Regardless, Peter Horvath’s father left dark, dreary Socialist Hungary in 1981 to study a gamma ray phenomenon in America that he became convinced was a signal from space—and he just stayed. Unlike his mother and disadvantaged brother Zsolt, Horvath never really blamed him that much, but he always had a sinking feeling his father really shouldered some of the guilt for three notorious explosions that rocked Colorado (remember, it was gamma rays that created the Incredible Hulk).

With the fall of Communism and the rise of online connectivity, Horvath sets out to find his father, following the clues from a History Channel-style conspiracy show and the remains of the old research facility adjacent to Los Alamos. Many of his fears will be partly confirmed when he finally meets his father, now known as Hogarth, but everything is much more complicated than he ever suspected—cosmically so.

Palfi pitches his material at a very high level and he engages in a fair amount of mischievous flights of fancy, so expect to get a little lost once or twice. That’s just going to happen. Fortunately, it is worth unpacking all his scientific and philosophically speculation and following his narrative jumps. This is ambitious story-telling and sophisticated sf speculation, but it has genuine cinema substance at its core.

The characters are also sharply-drawn and surprisingly engaging, especially considering how out-there the film sometimes gets. Csaba Polgar portrays Horvath as quite a dogged everyman, but Eric Peterson really creates an impressively nuanced, multi-dimensional (so to speak) portrait of old Hogarth (formerly Horvath). Adam Fekete (who also co-starred in Kills on Wheels) is convincingly whip-smart and angry as heck as Zsolt. However, Diana Magdolna Kiss does not have much significant business to perform as Horvath’s lover Dora, who seems to magically visit whenever his is in need of a quick booty call.

There are some metaphysically significant plot points that are just left hanging at the end of Voice, but that is in keeping with the Lem spirit. Palfi’s outrageous visual stylings similarly fit Lem’s themes like a glove—the early sequences in which old, yet-to-be-revealed Hogarth/Hovarth’s face appears to be cut out of the film with scissors is one of the easier examples to explain. This is a smart, strange film, but that is to its credit. Highly recommended, His Master’s Voice screens today (5/29), as part of Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.

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Fantaspoa ’19: The Last Warrior


We do not really think of Disney in the context of Tolkienesque fantasy, but the Mouse House produced The Sword in the Stone, The Black Cauldron, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in Fantasia. This film does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, but it is still a fantasy and it is sort of Disney—the Russian arm of the company. Enchantments are made to be broken in Dmitriy Dyachenko’s The Last Warrior (a.k.a. The Last Knight), which screens during this year’s Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Ivan Naydenov thinks he is an orphan, but he is actually the son of Ilya Muromets, the legendary knight, or rather Bogatyr, who was hidden away in our dimension to protect him from the evil forces that assumed power in the fantasy realm of Belogorye. It turns out the Sorceress Varvara and her lover, Prince Dobrynya Nikitich hunted down and turned to stone all the other bogatyrs, much like Dark Vader and Emperor Palpatine’s massacre of the Jedi Knights. This is all quite a lot for Naydenov to take in when he is suddenly whisked away from our world to Belogorye.

Obviously, Varvara and Nikitich want him dead too, but he manages to escape with the help of the immortal Koschei, Vasilisa the Wise (a.k.a. the Frog Princess), and Baba Yaga. To fight the evil duo, Naydenov will have to find the enchanted sword Kladenets, the Slavic Excalibur, but he really just wants to go home. They will get seriously sidetracked fooling around with Vodyanoy the merman (who sort of looks like the cow that wants to be eaten in the BBC version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), before Varvana and Nikitich restart the plot be recapturing everybody.

Naydenov is a thoroughly annoying character (when we first meet him, he is working as a cheap con artist and fake magician (under the title, “The White Mage”), whom Viktor Khorinyak portrays completely without charm or charisma. His chemistry with Mila Sivatskaya’s Vasilisa is completely non-existent, even though she is nearly as boring. By far, the most interesting character is Konstantin Lavronenko as the Richard O’Brien-looking Koschei. Ekaterina Vilkova (who some might have seen in Hipsters and PyraMMMid) also has some villainous presence and flair as Varvara. However, far too many characters a shticky stick figures.

This is one of two recent Russian films known internationally as “The Last Warrior.” The other, which screened at Fantasia as The Scythian is considerably grittier and better. There is just too much mugging and slapstick humor from Khorinyak/Naydenov. Still, Dyachenko crafts some spectacular fantasy imagery, especially during the third act. It is sort of interesting to see Russian myth and folklore mashed up into a greatest hits narrative package, but it is hardly essential. Lifechanger, Seder-Masochism, and Violence Voyager are all better films screening soon at Fantaspoa. Just sort of “eh,” The Last Warrior screens tomorrow (5/30), during Fantaspoa 2019 in Porto Alegre.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

General Commander: The Steven Seagal Direct-to-DVD Downward Spiral Continues

Why not just call it “Vague Chief?” It is the name of an international security firm funded by a Russian heiress as a favor to a CIA veteran, but its only business plan is avenging a comrade murdered in the line of duty. Technically, the killer is already dead and his organ and gun-trafficking boss does not even know Jake Alexander and his team exist, but whatever. Steven Seagal needs to keep films flowing into Moscow theaters, so here’s another one. Alas, the once formidable action star continues to show his age in Ross W. Clarkson & Philippe Martinez’s General Commander, which releases today on DVD.

For some reason, Alexander and his ragtag team of agency “assets, not agents” were running a sting on a Southeast Asian organ harvesting operation overseen by Orsini, a Camorra renegade. One of them gets killed (along with all of Orsini’s men), so the CIA station chief pulls the plug. Of course, they all go rogue after telling her to go to Hell in the ludicrous “you-want-the-truth-you-can’t-handle-the-truth” debriefs the film constantly flashes back to.

Katarina Sokolov sets Alexander up in business because he once saved her life and because she finds him attractive (which is so gross). From there, Alexander’s right-hand man Tom Benton just has a few of his seedy contacts set-up some meetings with Orsini’s lieutenants and soon there all shooting at each other on the streets of Manila.

You have to give Van Damme and Dolph Lungren credit for aging gracefully, especially whenever you watch a Seagal movie. They still look credible kicking butt, whereas he does not. His direct-to-DVD movies definitely suffer for it, but they are also several cuts below in terms of screenwriting and production values. Keep in mind co-director Martinez previously helmed Viktor, in which Gerard Depardieu plays an art thief looking to avenge his son, when not resting and recuperating in the safety of Chechnya (seriously).

There are some watchable moments in General Commander, but they have little to do with Seagal. Byron Gibson nearly redeems the film with his high energy turn as Benton and Mica Javier shows a fair amount of action movie potential as Maria Lopez, Alexander’s motorcycle driving associate. Unfortunately, Seagal has lost his mojo, which undermines action journeyman Ron Smoorenberg’s big fight scene against him.

The flashbacks with their unsynchronized audio add an air of pretension that becomes laughable, like Clarkson & Martinez think they are paying homage to Godard and the Nouvelle Vague. Next time they should try to just make a competent action movie instead. We’ve seen worse and Seagal probably has much worse to come, but you are far, far better off watching something with Scott Adkins, Iko Uwais, or Tony Jaa instead. Not recommended, General Commander releases today on DVD.

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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Graf at Anthology: The Invisible Girl


This provincial Bavarian town has a picturesque Medieval festival, but it is a border town, with border town kind of establishments. It is also a divided town. One faction believes young Sina Kolb really was murdered by the mentally challenged convicted of the crime, whereas the larger faction suspects he was railroaded by the cops. A recent transfer from the Berlin police department will start digging up the past when investigating a potentially related murder in Dominik Graf’s The Invisible Girl, which screens during the Graf retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

Niklas Tanner wanted a fresh start after he was erroneously accused of acting improperly with a witness. Rather inconveniently, he immediately has a one-night stand with a woman who will factor prominently in his first case in the fictional burg of Eisenstein. It turns out Inge-Marie Kolb was Sina’s mother. She also happened to meet Eva Lorant shortly before her death. Lorant claimed to have seen the missing Sina after her presumed murder, according to the cops’ bogus timeline. Obsessed with the case, she came to Kolb again, believing she saw the grown Sina in the red-light district supermarket, where she worked.

Of course, these are exactly the sort of details senior inspector Wilhelm Michel is supposed to sweep under the carpet. He assumes the semi-disgraced Tanner will be a perfect fall guy, if need be. Granted, the Berliner might not be too smart, but he is tenacious. He will also find an ally in Joseph (with a “ph”) Altendorf, the original detective investigating the Kolb disappearance, until Michel replaced him.

For German viewers in the know, Invisible Girl probably slanders Bavarian politicians left-and-right, but for Americans coming in without baggage, it is a pretty tightly constructed little police procedural-political thriller combo. Ronald Zehrfeld (whom we hope you recognize from Christian Petzold’s masterful Barbara) is solid as Tanner, in a believably beefy, non-superhuman kind of way. Elmar Wepper also nicely grounds the film in cynical morality as the prickly, not-letting-it-go Altendorf.

Weirdly, Anja Schiffel is terrific as Michel’s right-hand lieutenant Evelin Fink, even though the sexual nature of some of her scenes with him are a little creepy and off-putting (remember, this is for German television). More appropriately, Ulrich Noethen is spectacularly slimy as the snake-like Michel.

Despite a few excesses, Invisible Girl is a highly credible mystery-thriller, with a keen sense of the Czech-Bavarian border region. It also clearly demonstrates Graf’s professionalism. If it is your stein of beer, you had better see it when it plays during the Graf retrospective. Recommended for fans of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas, The Invisible Girl screens Monday (5/27) and next Saturday (6/1) at Anthology Film Archives.

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Graf at Anthology: Twilight Eternal


For obvious reasons, art collections with iffy provenances acquired during the early to mid-Twentieth in Germany will arouse suspicions. Such is the case with the Magnus Dutt collection. The elderly eccentric is quite secretive regarding his holdings, but Philipp Keyser’s employers are convinced he has a rare painting only recorded in rumor and vague second-hand reports. They will retain him to acquire the painting, by hook or by crook, However, he will get more than he bargained for when he tries to get to Dutt through his artistically tempered niece in Dominik Graf’s Twilight Eternal (a.k.a. At the End of Time), which screens during the Graf retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

Keyser is told acquiring the painting in question is a matter of justice for the firm’s client. He is not wildly concerned about such matters. For him, it is a potentially chance to return full time to the Grisham-sounding “firm.” The idea is to cozy up to his great-niece Alma, a defiantly unmarketable artist in her own right, who will then introduce him to the old man. Maybe she will and maybe she won’t. Regardless, she does not seem very put off when she learns their romance is based on mercenary motives. Their relationship might not be the healthiest, but on the other hand, these two could really be perfect for each other.

Eternal (or End of Time, or Am Abend Aller Tage) is another Graf TV movie that has garnered more than typical screenings and ancillary interest outside Germany. Most likely it is due to its wink-wink source material: the notorious case of the real-life Gurlitt Collection, as refracted through Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. It also happens to have some interesting things to say about the nature of art and its appreciation.

However, the presumed charms of Friedrrich Mucke’s Keyser are rather lost on this reviewer. Whereas Victoria Sordo’s Alma, the Miss Tina analog, is a far cry from a Plain Jane, she certainly has issues. They definitely have convincing sexual tension and dysfunctional (but still potent) chemistry together on-screen, Yet, Ernst Jacobi frequently steals the show as Dutt, whose connection to his collection runs deeper than mere investments.

Again, Graf helms with greater style than viewers usually expect from the term “TV movie.” It is more engaging intellectually than on an emotional level, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Frankly, anyone intrigued by its literate but cynical take on the gallery business and of-the-moment contemporary art should see it during the Graf retrospective, because it probably will not be back around anytime soon. Recommended accordingly, Twilight Eternal screens today (5/25) and Wednesday (5/29), at Anthology Film Archives.

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Friday, May 24, 2019

The Perfection: Hell’s Cellos


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Graf at Anthology: The Cat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Graf at Anthology: Tatort—The Red Shadow


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Avengement: Scott Adkins is Miffed


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 20, 2019

American Pavilion ’19: Empty Skies (short)


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

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

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

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

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

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Tribeca '19: Georgetown--At Criminal Element

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

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Tribeca ’19: The Hot Zone


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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