J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Scion

Most insurance companies probably would not cover the treatment offered by this radical cancer clinic, but patients are better off that way. Skeptical patient Noah Ingraham suspects the cure could be even worse than the life-threatening disease in Scion, which premieres tonight on the CW, as the latest creepy tale in the current season of Vera Miao’s Two Sentence Horror Stories.

Ingraham has held up pretty well thanks to the support of his boyfriend Isaac, but his elitist parents are not so warm and fuzzy. It was their idea to check Ingraham into Dr. Lucie’s exclusive clinic, but there is something about the place that rubs him the wrong way. Maybe it is the janitor who looks and acts like he was lobotomized.

Of course, Ingraham initially hopes for the best, but his doubts and suspicions are quickly fueled by Izzy, a fellow patient, who happens to be the black sheep of a fabulously wealthy blue-blooded clan. Soon, Ingraham is experiencing vivid nightmares and losing time. According to Dr. Lucie, these are common side effects of the treatment, but that is not very reassuring, is it?

In some ways, Scion parallels Alice Waddington’s soon-to-be-released Paradise Hills, but director Natalia Iyudin and screenwriter Sehaj Sethi do not let the foreboding and dread get lost amid the woke statement-making. Iyudin deftly capitalizes on the claustrophobic setting and Ingraham’s very relatable position of vulnerability to build tension. It maintains the season’s impressive style and production standards, especially the work of cinematographer Guy Poole and the design team, who greatly contribute to the eerie mood. 

As Dr. Lucie, Kate Jennings is entertainingly sinister and arrogant, in the best tradition of horror movie doctors. Most of the waspy characters are rather bland and perhaps logically so, but Stanley Simmons chews the scenery with admirable zeal as the rebellious Izzy. Plus, the facility itself could pass for a tony clinic near the Bramford Building (a.k.a. The Dakota), as seen in Rosemary’s Baby.

Scion is another above average example of anthology television, but the heavy-handed conclusion also shows the risks of prioritizing message over story and character. Fortunately, it is outweighed by the ominous vibe and mounting paranoia so nicely realized by Iyudin and company. Still recommended for horror fans, Scion premieres tonight (8/22), as part of the second season of Two Sentence Horror Stories, on the CW.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fright Fest UK ’19: Blood & Flesh

If you were acting in an Al Adamson movie, your career was probably in trouble. However, he somehow arranged for Nelson Riddle to pen the theme song to Hell’s Bloody Devils (it was originally conceived as a spy caper titled The Fakers) and Charles Earland composed a wonderfully funky soundtrack for his blaxploitation film The Dynamite Brothers. Adamson prided himself on his films’ profitability, but he never claimed they were great art. Regardless, he was mostly well-liked by his colleagues, so it is a shame he met a tragic end worthy of his exploitation films. Adamson’s career and premature demise are chronicled in David Gregory’s entertaining documentary, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

Adamson was the son Victor Adamson, who at one-time had quite a career going as an actor and director of silent and early talkie westerns under the name Denver Dixon. His son Al took a shot at following in his footsteps, but quickly changed courses, believing he had an aptitude for helming horror and other assorted genres that featured gratuitous nudity and violence. The early years were a little rocky, but he had a great deal of success selling his biker and stewardess movies to drive-ins and grindhouses.

Along the way, Adamson employed a number of faded Hollywood stars, who had fallen on rough times. The great John Carradine was an Adamson regular, but even two of the surviving Ritz Brothers turned up in one of his later films. Unfortunately, he met a rather violent end. At this point, Flesh & Blood veers into true crime territory as it follows the investigation into Adamson’s disappearance and the grisly discovery of his body.

Frankly, it is impossible for a film to be dull when it can cherry-pick choice clips from the Adamson filmography. His co-stars included Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Russ Tamblyn (of West Side Story and Twin Peaks fame), Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones), Angelo Rossitto (the diminutive actor best known for Tod Browning’s Freaks and schlocky Lugosi movies like Scared to Death), adult film star Georgina Spelvin, and Gary Graver (who was Orson Welles’s loyal cinematographer during his final years).

So yes, there are plenty of exploitation elements in Gregory’s film, but it also provides a fascinating perspective on the exploitation movie business, at its peak. Yet, it is really all about Adamson the man and filmmaker, who emerges as a sympathetic (if somewhat roguish) figure well worthy of our time and attention. In fact, the film gets rather poignant during the third act, especially when covering Adamson’s devotion to his late wife and his own violent fate.

Adamson’s story is definitely worth telling, especially when it comes liberally illustrated by clips of such eccentric and outrageous cinema. It is just a shame he cannot enjoy the overdue ovation. Very highly recommended for grindhouse fans, Blood & Flesh screens this Friday (8/23) during FrightFest 2019, in the UK.

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Radio Silence’s Ready or Not

Downton Abbey fans definitely remember how difficult the entail inheritance scheme made life for the Crawley family (who only had daughters instead of sons). However, it seems happily progressive compared to the circumstances of the Le Domas family legacy. Their fortune is tied up in a Faustian bargain that is truly Faustian. Grace learns the shocking truth when she marries into the wealthy clan, but she might not live long enough to enjoy her honeymoon in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not, executive produced Chad Villella, the third member of their Radio Silence filmmaking combo, which opens today in New York.

Dirt-poor Grace grew up in foster-care, so she is thrilled to finally have a family—even one as intimidatingly dysfunctional as Alex Le Domas’s clan. Their fabulous fortune does not hurt either. They made their money through games, like a sinister Parker Brothers, so it is a mandatory tradition for brides or grooms joining the family to play a randomly chosen game on their wedding night. It is usually just an eccentric quirk, unless Hide-and-Seek comes up through the luck of the draw. They play that game by a decidedly nontraditional set of rules.

The last time there was a nuptial game of Hide-and-Seek was played, Alex was child. He has been semi-estranged from the estranged from the family ever since. However, he still has to play—because there are fatal penalties for elopement. Of course, he is horrified at the prospect of his family hunting Grace Most Dangerous Game-style. He tries to help her, even though the Le Domases believe they will face serious karmic consequences if they do not hunt her down by dawn. Right, the game’s afoot.

The film’s basic premise is pretty clear from trailers and promo material, but the details of the full backstory are devilishly gothic. The entire creepy mansion setting is a triumph of art direction worthy of vintage Hammer Horror. There are plenty of subversive class-conscious implications, but fortunately Radio Silence does not let that get in the way of the bloody lunacy that erupts.

It hardly seems like a coincidence that Henry Czerny and Andie McDowell somewhat resemble Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern from Downton. Regardless, they are both terrific as the witheringly snobby patriarch Tony, and Becky, the matriarch, who is deceptively warm and welcoming on the outside, but ruthlessly steely at her core.

However, it is Samara Weaving who is destined to become famous for her work as Grace. It might not happen immediately, but the scenes of her wielding a shotgun while wearing a blood-stained wedding gown are just too perfect not get absorbed into the pop culture consciousness. The same could be true for Nicky Guadagni, who is spectacularly unhinged as battle-axe-wielding Aunt Helene. In fact, it is quite a colorful supporting cast, with Kristian Bruun scoring big laughs as “Fitch,” the pompous son-in-law and John Ralston handily taking care of horror movie business as Stevens, the Lurch-from-Hell butler.

Ready or Not represents a gruesome shot of paranoia, but it is also quite a jolly bit of fun. Come for the undermining of traditional family and marital structures, but stay for the social Darwinism. Enthusiastically recommended for horror fans, Ready or Not opens today (8/21) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Hoax: The Fur is Out There

Honestly, the one-minute Patterson-Gimlin film supposedly capturing Bigfoot out for a stroll ought to be in the National Film Registry, even though it is undoubtedly bogus. The salient point is how influential it has been. Decades later, it is still the best thing going for Sasquatch hunters, but a disgraced reality TV producer hopes to score a more conclusive scoop. Of course, he has no qualms about exploiting the mysterious disappearance of a group of horny teens in Matt Allen’s Hoax, which releases today on VOD.

Seriously, as soon as you start camping in the woods, horror movie rules immediately apply, so wandering off for a quick hook-up will get you killed every time. Unfortunately, the more responsible Alex Barnes vanished along with her randy friends, but her rugged outdoorsman father Cooper hasn’t given up looking for her. However, his resources are limited, so he accepts an offer to join the cast of Rick Paxton’s Bigfooting hunting series.

Primate vet Dr. Ellen Freese is also a little embarrassed to be part of the team, but she needed the money. John Singer is literally there for mercenary reasons, having been hired to protect the shows airhead host (and fiancée of the network president’s son), Bridgette Powers. As the party settles in, it becomes clear Cooper, Singer, and Freese are the three we have confidence in, whereas Paxton is absolute pond scum. They start to suspect the dirtbag producer is faking the weirdness in the woods, but we saw the opening prologue, so we know the danger is real.

The awkward truth is Bigfoot/Sasquatch movies are very much a hot-or-miss deal. The best of the lot approach the hairy beast in a decidedly idiosyncratic manner, like The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot and Stomping Ground, whereas more straight forward horror takes, such as Exists are rather mediocre. This is a case in point.

For the most part, Hoax is bland and unremarkable, but it has one thing going for it: considerable screen time for genre character actor Brian Thompson (who you might recognize as the head cultist in Cobra and the Alien Bounty Hunter on The X-Files). He is terrific as the steely, hardnosed Singer. Fans will also enjoy seeing Adrienne Barbeau pop up as Dr. Freese’s medical technician Wilma, even though it is a completely inconsequential role.

It is worth noting there is not much gore in first and second acts, but there is a sudden deluge in the last twenty minutes or so. Arguably, that is sign the film’s balance is off. Hoax earns some goodwill by reminding us of what a genre stalwart Thompson has been over the years, but then fritters it away with an ending that appears to be designed to incorporate as many unsatisfying horror clichés as was humanly possible. Not recommended, Hoax releases today on VOD.

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Nuptial Horror: Camp Wedding

How does the prospect of spending a weekend with Bridezilla and a pack of serial hash-taggers sound? Do the words “kill me now” come to mind? Unfortunately, that is the whole idea. A destination wedding runs completely off the rails in Greg Emetaz’s Camp Wedding, which releases today on VOD, its natural home.

Camp Pocumtuck is like Camp Crystal Lake on bad karma steroids. It is built over a Native burial ground, near the site of historic witch burning. When it was last functioning as a proper summer camp, a little girl died because of the counselor’s abuse and negligence. However, it was available cheap, so Mia booked it for her destination wedding.

Her idea was to have a camp-themed wedding, with activities and a talent show. It all sounds truly awful, but it probably isn’t happening, because some strange unseen force starts luring members of the wedding party out into the dark. Once they are disposed of, the mystery grudge-holding power will post grotesque selfies of them on the social media feed for Mia’s wedding. If Mia, her groom Dalvero, and their friends could work together, they might have a prayer of surviving. Alas, that is highly unlikely, especially after Mia lets it slip that she only invited her old childhood chum Eileen by mistake.

Camp Wedding is funnier than most alleged horror comedies, but its skewering of the hyper-online Twitter generation is often a little too on-target. For the most part, these characters are unremittingly shallow and abrasive, but at least this way we really won’t mind when they wind up hanging from a tree.

Of course, the more outrageous their behavior, the better the scattergun humor works. Morgan McGuire and Adam Santos-Coy score a lot of laughs as Paulette, the groom’s misanthropic platonic bestie and Trask, a horndog groomsman. Frankly, David Pegram is a bit too normal as Dalvero and Kelly Gates is too realistically annoying as Mia. However, Wendy Jung upstages everyone and even manages to eke out some character development as the socially awkward but surprisingly resourceful Eileen.

There is definitely a ceiling on Camp Wedding’s commercial appeal, but it is tailor-made for the digital VOD market, after having enjoyed a credible run on the horror festival circuit. It lacks the in-your-face gore and subversiveness of the upcoming Ready or Not (apparently, this is a golden age for wedding horror movies), but if you think you will find it amusing, chances are your expectations will be satisfied. Recommended for genre fans who enjoy caustic attitudes as much as bloody mayhem, Camp Wedding releases today (8/20), on VOD platforms.

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Guangzhou Ballet: Goddess of the Luo River & Carmina Burana

You could say the Guangzhou Ballet’s very existence is a case of East meets West. For the program of Western-style ballet presented by the Chinese company this weekend at the David H Koch Theater, it was a case of West meets East and East meets West yet again. Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s adaptation of Chinese composer Du Mingxin’s violin concerto Goddess of Luo River and Chinese-American choreographer Jiang Qi’s transformation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was based on the bawdy song of poems of medieval monks) into something contemporary and Chinese proves the universality of music and dance. They also provided quite a striking program that showcased the artistry and athleticism of the Guangzhou Ballet of China in their New York City debut, made possible by the China Arts and Entertainment Group.

The original Goddess of Luo River written by poet Cao Zhi chronicled the tragic romance between said goddess and a mortal man. However, Quanz and the Guangzhou company reinterpret it as a much more upbeat affair. Of course, there is still plenty of dramatic pairings of the prima and secondary leads. In fact, even the small “chorus” section gets plenty of impressive choreography to show off their chops, which is true of Burana as well.

Thoughout Goddess, the leads practically seem to bounce off the stage, almost like they have springs in the soles of their feet. That high energy level definitely makes it an attention-grabbing ice-breaker. Plus, Anne Armit’s striking backdrop, evoking the look and texture of Chinese scroll painting, provides the sort of class and sophistication you would hope for from an afternoon at the ballet.

While Goddess ran for about a concerto-long half-hour, the three-part Carmina Burana lasts well over an hour. Based on the secular songs composed by 11th and 12th Century Bavarian monks on subjects they should not have known very much about, including boozing, carousing, love-making, and war-fighting, Carmina Barana inspired Orff’s cantata. You might not know it by title, but you will recognize the “O Fortuna” intro and reprise, which is often used in films whenever they need a really thunderous piece of music

The Guangzhou company and Jiang use the star-crossed romance of Helena and Bolanzifaluo as a through-line, but it is not really a narrative-driven piece. Instead, it is more a collection of impressionistic vignettes that illustrate love, loss, and the power of nature. Indeed, there is a good deal of striking moon and sun imagery.

Just as in Goddess, the Guangzhou company dazzles. Arguably, Carmina Burana is a better vehicle for traditional ballet grace, rather than the demanding physicality of Goddess. Regardless, everyone on stage gets their share of lifts and releases, so it is fair to say the entire company distinguish themselves with their individual talents. Yet, it is arguably the second lead (in the floral tunic) who most wows and charms the audience.

The choreography is dramatic, the production is classically handsome, and the dancers are like finely tuned instruments. It is everything people go to the ballet for, yet it is also a refreshingly different program than the five or six old standards that get re-staged season after season after season. The Guangzhou company and their choreographers, Quanz and Jiang, deserve credit for giving patrons something new, but in a way that feels both exotic and welcoming. The Guangzhou Ballet’s production of Goddess of Luo River and Carmina Burana is highly recommended for refined and adventurous patrons as their tour continues, following their NYC debut engagement, at the David H Koch Theater, on the Lincoln Center Plaza.

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Scary Movies XII: Black Circle

By now, the booming market for audiophile vinyl should have everyone convinced of the LP’s superior sound quality. That is great when you are listening to vintage Blue Note jazz, but not so hot in the case of a creepy 1970s self-help album with the dangerous power to mesmerize listeners. At first, two sisters feel empowered by the record, but the experience takes a dark turn in Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s Black Circle, which screens during Scary Movies XII.

You could think of the Stockholm Center for Magnetic Research as the Swedish equivalent of Tony Robbin and other such self-help gurus, who initially seem beneficial, but soon drag the unwary into a state of abject horror. To be fair, the now-defunct Institute tried to recall their LP, but somehow Isa found one among the possessions of a distant relative who recently passed away. After experiencing sudden success at work after listening, she passes it on to her slacker grad student sister Celeste.

After duly spinning the B-side before falling asleep, she is suddenly able to whip out her thesis. However, her second listening is interrupted by a stoned friend. As a result, Celeste sees something pretty disturbing that scares off spinning the record any further. Unfortunately, the dark, otherworldly process unleashed by the record has progressed much further in Isa’s case. To save her sanity and possibly her life, the sisters seek help from the people who created it, Lena Carlsson, a “master magnetizer” and daughter of the institute’s founder and Mårten, her late father’s surviving right-hand man. Of course, the process will be fraught with peril, but two young psychics happen to show up just in time to help, as if they were compelled to be there.

Black Circle is a triumph of genre art direction, cinematography, and mise-en-scene that brilliantly recreates the look and tone of 1970s Euro-horror movies. Every detail is perfectly rendered. Yet, the narrative is still wholly original and completely engrossing. Frankly, this is the best horror or horror-ish film to play with doppelganger themes since maybe the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, far-eclipsing Jordan Peele’s Us (which was admittedly pretty good).

Without question, Circle’s MVP is Christina Lindberg, the Swedish 1970s exploitation star, who plays Carlsson like the daughter of Peter Cushing and Lin Shaye. She basically magnetizes viewers with her commanding presence. Hans Sandqvist is also appropriately Nordic and reserved as old Mårten, while Erica and Hanna Midfjäll really keep the audience off balance, as Isa and her double.

Spanish-born Bogliano has steadily built an international reputation as a horror master, but his best films, the English language Night of the Wolf (a.k.a. Late Phases) and now the Swedish-set Circle, have been produced outside the Iberian sphere of influence. In terms of the constituent elements, Circle is almost as much science fiction as horror, but Bogliano creates an unsettling sense of foreboding and cranks up the tension to wickedly high levels. This is definitely auteurist genre filmmaking. Very enthusiastically recommended, Black Circle screens Monday (8/19), as part of Scary Movies XII.

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Driven: The Latest DeLorean Movie

For years, various prospective John DeLorean movies languished in development Hell, but the DeLorean car achieved lasting big-screen immortality in Back to the Future. Its designer was well pleased. As cinematic legacies go, it is tough to beat Robert Zemeckis’s time travel classic, but it is still entertaining to revisit the happier, more prosperous Reagan years when Nick Hamm’s Driven opens today in New York.

Even before he started his own eponymous motor company, John DeLorean was one of the few auto executives average people like Jim Hoffman had heard of. Hoffman was basically a likable lowlife, who wriggled out of a narcotics bust by agreeing to work as a paid informant for the FBI. As fate would have it, Hoffman and his family moved into the more modest ranch house across the street from DeLorean’s luxurious McMansion. They didn’t exactly become friends, but they started hanging, sensing they could each benefit from the other.

Of course, Hoffman would eventually drop a dime on his neighbor, as we can tell from the in media res on-the-witness-stand framing structure. The question is—was DeLorean really and truly set-up (“entrapped,” according to his legal defense) or did he have it coming? If anyone ought to know, it should be Hoffman, but he sounds pretty confused under cross-examination.

Although Hamm and screenwriter Colin Bateman clearly suggest DeLorean made some grave errors in judgement, they let him off pretty easy. In contrast, Sheena M. Joyce & Don Argott’s hybrid doc Framing John DeLorean essentially gives him a pass on the coke charges, but nails him to the wall for the subsequent embezzlement case.

Regardless, Hamm undeniably has the better DeLorean in his star, Lee Pace, who wildly outshines the shticky Alec Baldwin as the disgraced would be auto magnate. Commanding and mercurial, we can easily see why his workers are always wiling follow his unsteady lead.

Jason Sudeikis is surprisingly but convincingly schlubby as Hoffman. It would be quite the stretch to call him an everyman, unless you know plenty of part-time drug mules eager for a promotion. Plus, Judy Greer impressively over-achieves (again), turning the thankless looking role of Ellen Hoffman into one of the smarter and sexier characters in the film.

The DeLorean presented by Hamm and Bateman is arrogant and yes, “driven,” but he is also the son of a problematic father. Arguably, he is somewhat akin to an Ayn Rand hero—the kind that take pride in the companies they built, so they aren’t about to let anyone take it away. Pace’s DeLorean also seems genuinely concerned about the workers in his Northern Ireland factory. It is all quite diverting, even for those who know the DeLorean story, chapter and verse. If you are in the mood for a breezy true crime melodrama then definitely check out the low-stress Driven when it opens today (8/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, from GKIDS

Luis Buñuel is easily the most important surrealist in cinema history. You could also say he was one of the early pioneers of the true-in-spirit hybrid-documentary. Just like his previous films, the 27-minute Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan or Land Without Bread immediately stirred controversy and was duly banned for years. Truth and artistic license jostle each other while witnessing the depths of Spanish poverty in Salvador Simo Busom’s animated making-of feature, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which opens today in New York, courtesy of GKIDS.

When Buñuel started developing the documentary that would become Land Without Bread, his reputation as a filmmaker essentially rested on two films, Un Chien Andalou, the short film that commenced his collaboration with Salvador Dali and L’Age d’Or, the hour-long satire that pointedly ended it. Both works generated explosive outrage as well as reverence within avant-garde circles. There are frequent references to Buñuel’s frosty relationship with Dali throughout the film, but the psychological influence of his distant and domineering father will be more significant.

Despite his baggage, Buñuel can be charming, at least at this early stage of his career, but also maddening. Just ask his anarchist friend, Ramón Acín Aquilué, who jokingly promised to fund Buñuel’s proposed documentary exposing the desperate living conditions in the Las Hurdes region—and kept his word when it came to pass. However, Acín was most definitely not made of money, which inevitably led to conflict with the not-so practical auteur.

Although most of the film is animated, Simo periodically inserts archival footage from Land Without Bread, cutting back and forth to show us what was happening on both sides of the camera. The way he and editor Jose Manuel Jimenez marry the two styles of footage together is enormously clever and visually striking.

Clearly, Simo has a great deal of sympathy for Buñuel, but the film is not a starry-eyed exercise in hagiography. Instead, he provides a complete portrait of the artist, including his tendencies to be a bit of a user and a flake. Even though Simo takes us pretty extensively into Buñuel’s head, it is still hard to decide what to make of him. Look, geniuses are complicated.

Regardless, Labyrinth of the Turtles (a reference to Las Hurdes’ tortoise shell-like roofs) is an entertaining and erudite primer on Buñuel’s early development as an artist. Simo’s animation is quite elegant, in a style befitting the 1930s, but he mixes in some wild, Freudian flights of fancy that are quite in keeping with the Buñuelian spirit.

In fact, Simo and co-screenwriter Eligio R. Montero will probably motivate a lot of intrigued viewers to take a deep dive into the Buñuel filmography. Yet, they avoid getting bogged down in problematic politics of the era. Altogether, it is probably the most fitting big-screen treatment of the larger-than-life auteur you could ever hope for. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated animation, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles opens today (8/16) in New York, at the Quad.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Two Sentence Horror Stories: “Legacy” & “Hide”

There is a reason why horror has been such an effective genre for social commentary. That is because fans have long acknowledged the dark side of human nature. It certainly looks like Vera Miao is charting a course for Two Sentence Horror Stories that follows in the George Romero-Rod Serling socially conscious tradition when the second two stories (or four sentences), “Legacy” and “Hide” premiere tonight on the CW.

Miao’s “Legacy,” written by Pornsak Pichetshote directly addresses the awkward subject of domestic abuse, which sounds like a heck of a lot of fun, right? Yet, it is easily the best of the series (including the online first season), so far. While he was alive, Angela’s recently deceased husband Jin drank to excess and frequently beat her physically. Horrifyingly, he continues his pattern of abuse as an angry spirit. However, there is much more to this story.

In just a whisker over twenty minutes, Miao pulls off some shocking revelations and stages a dramatic exorcism session with fresh wrinkles worthy of the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. She steadily builds tension and stage manages the escalating bedlam quite masterfully, while cinematographer Paul Yee gives it all a suitably dark and creepy look.

The small ensemble is also uniformly terrific. Kim Wong and Wai Ching Ho keep the human element—the fear and the pain—compellingly front-and-center as Angela and her mother-in-law. Benjamin Ye is also a smart and convincing standout as Harold, the mild-mannered exorcist. It would be interesting to see his character reappear in another story somehow. Regardless, this is one of the scariest works of network programming since the 70s glory years of made-for-TV horror movies.

For the most part, Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia’s “Hide,” is nearly as frightening, which is quite a surprise, given the vastly different tone of their best-known directorial collaboration, H. (our review might have used words like “ambiguous” and “pretentious”). The horror business of “Hide” revolve around a brutally violent home invasion. It is Araceli’s bad luck to be working for her wealthy employers on this fateful night, but she will do whatever she can to protect their autistic daughter Gracie from “Yellow” and “Red,” the two sadistic teen girls out to commit slasher-style murders for sport.

The problem with “Hide” is the denouement, which goes eye-rollingly political. Yes, it is a bit of a cliché already, but more importantly in this context, it has nothing to do with the second sentence whatsoever. Nevertheless, Greta Quispe is impressively intense as Araceli, making her a refreshingly mature and working-class alternative to the airheaded teen “final girl” babysitters so familiar from most every other slasher that came before. Conversely, Sarah Irwin and Kyli Zion are wildly creepy and unsettling as Yellow and Red.

Even though “Hide” fails to stick the dismount, its pairing with “Legacy” represents an unusually tense and suspenseful night of network horror. Highly recommended for fans of genre anthologies and short films, the second two tales of Two Sentence Horror Stories premiere tonight (8/15), on the CW.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Divine Fury: The Priest and the MMA Fighter

No matter how lapsed they think they are, lapsed Catholics are still Catholics. MMA champion Park Yong-hu denies it, but he is a perfect case in point. For years, he claimed he did not believe in God, but he was really just angry over his father’s death. He would still seem like an unlikely candidate to carry the stigmata, but there it is anyway. Despite his skepticism, Park gets pulled into an epic battle of G vs. E in Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury, the closing film of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Park’s father was a devout policeman, who was killed by a demonically possessed motorist during a routine traffic stop. Alas, Park’s prayers were not enough to save him. Subsequently, Park turned against God and allowed his heart to harden against the rest of humanity. Then one day, his palm starts bleeding from a wound that refuses to close. Starting with doctors and proceeding to shamans, Park is mysteriously directed to Father Ahn, a grizzled Vatican exorcist.

The good Father has returned to Korea to hunt for the Dark Bishop, a powerful servant of demonic powers. He has been responsible for a wave of frighteningly severe possessions, like the one Park walks in on, saving Father Ahn with the power of his stigmata. Much to his surprise, he does not dislike Father Ahn. In fact, he almost feels compelled to help him, but the forces of evil, led by Ji-sin, the Dark Bishop himself, will be relentless and vicious.

Relentless is indeed the word. Divine Fury has some of the most intense and exhausting exorcism scenes since the mother of all exorcism films, Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Arguably, Jang Jae-hyun’s The Priests is even more frightening, because it leans into the Catholic imagery and demonic archetypes to a greater extent, but Divine is still all kinds of scary and intense.

There is no question veteran thesp Ahn Sung-ki is the rock on which Divine Fury is built. He is absolutely terrific as the weary Father Ahn. We are used to seeing movie exorcists who are either blind believers or mired in a crisis of faith, but Father Ahn is particularly compelling, because he has faith as well as self-doubts, making him acutely human. For the better part of the film, Park Seo-joon is rather standoffish as Park Yong-hu, but he humanizes the fighter when the film really needs him to. In contrast, Woo Do-hwan is never less than coldly, clammily sinister as the Dark Bishop.

This is scary stuff, but the best news is Kim avoids nearly all the clichés we usually get from horror movie conclusions. However, the film flat out promises a spin-off sequel featuring a minor supporting character. Based on the quality of everything proceeding it, that qualifies as good news. Indeed, Divine Fury is definitely A-list K-horror, along with The Priests and The Wailing. Very highly recommended for fans of demonic horror, The Divine Fury opens this Friday (8/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Osten & Rai’s Shiraz: A Romance of India

When it comes to tragic epics, this one has all the elements. You have a foundling, a noble woman raised as a commoner, and most importantly, a love triangle. However, this is not Shakespeare. It is one of the three great Indian silent films produced by the collaboration of actor-producer Himansu Rai and expatriate German director Franz Osten. Restored to its full striking glory by the BFI, Osten’s Shiraz: A Romance of India is a visual feast for cineastes when it releases today on DVD/BluRay.

Selima was born a princess, but when the caravan taking her family north is ambushed by raiders, the abandoned girl is lucky to be adopted by a common tradesman. Initially, their son Shiraz considers her a sister, but overtime he develops an all-encompassing love for her. Unfortunately, just as Shiraz starts to get serious, Selima is kidnapped by slave traders. Shiraz follows them tenaciously, but he is powerless to intervene when she is auctioned at the slave market.

All is lost for Shiraz, but perhaps not Selima, since she is purchased by an agent of the Moghal court. In fact, Selima and Prince Khurram start to take a shine to each other, but he cannot pursue his feelings for her, because of class restrictions. Of course, that does not stop Dalia, an ambitious social-climbing noble, from growing increasingly jealous of Selima. When she notices Shiraz moping outside the palace, she starts scheming.

There is no question Shiraz is pure 100% melodrama, but it is epic in scale. The sets are big, the locations are sweepingly cinematic, and the cast of extras are worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. The clarity of the restoration makes the film really pop off the screen. Yet, what makes this edition of Shiraz so accessible is the propulsively rhythmic original score composed by Anoushka Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s daughter and Norah Jones’ half-sister).

It is amazing how a contemporary soundtrack can “open up” a classic silent film. Although Shankar is working within a classical Indian framework, her music still has a very modern sensibility. In fact, some sections are quite jazzy and it all has a killer groove. Shankar’s sitar is hypnotic, but contributions from jazz-world hybrid artists like Idris Raham on clarinet and Danny Keane on piano and cello really give the music a lush, full bodied sound.

As for the on-screen business, Rai is a woefully sad-eyed as the tragic title character, but his performance still holds up pretty well by modern standards. Charu Roy certainly looks like a dashing prince, but for contemporary viewers, it is hard to understand why he is so popular with the people when he buys slaves who were kidnapped from their homes and has people executed via elephant trampling. Regardless, Enakshi Rama Rau is appropriately delicate and sensitive, like greenhouse orchid, as Selima.

Spoiler alert: Selima will eventually be known as Mumtaz Mahal, which means the film will take an architectural turn down the stretch—as in that Mahal. Cinematographers Emil Schunemann and Henry Harris really made the Taj and the Moghul palace sparkle. Thanks to the restoration and new score, it all looks great and sounds terrific. Very highly recommended for fans of silent cinema and contemporary classical-crossover Indian music, Shiraz: A Romance of India releases today (8/13) in a DVD/BluRay combo pack.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy

You could say the Line Walker feature films are to deep cover operations what the Overheard films are to surveillance details. They do not share the same characters or a continuing narrative, but they address similar themes and feature the same actors. However, in this case, it is the bad guys who have gone deep undercover in Jazz Boon’s Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy, which opens this Friday in New York.

A shadowy international criminal organization is kidnapping children in the Philippines to be groomed and programmed to act as moles in police forces around the world. Apparently, the Hong Kong police force has been compromised, making it rather difficult to solve the mystery of a rash of suicide attacks plaguing the city. However, there might be a big break in the case when Inspector Ching To saves the wary freelance journalist-hacker Yiu Ho-yee from an assassin. Yet, just as he wins her trust, Cheng Chun-yin from the Security Wing sweeps in, claiming jurisdiction over the case and his witness.

Apparently, Yiu’s partner in Burma downloaded a hard drive full of sensitive intel from the conspiratorial organization, so a team will be dispatched to retrieve it. Rather awkwardly, both Cheng and Ching will be under the operational command of Superintendent Yip Kwok-fan, Ching’s current boss and Cheng’s former mentor. Unfortunately, the mission will go down spectacularly badly, in a way that will cast suspicions on both Ching and Cheng, but in very different ways.

Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, and Francis Ng are all back from the original Line Walker film, even though not all of their characters made it through the first feature alive. Although the first feature maintained some tenuous connections to the Line Walker television series, Boon basically shakes the Etch-a-Sketch clear for the sequel. What he keeps, besides the all-star trio, is an abiding interest in the psychological ramifications of operating undercover with an assumed identity. He also continues to stage some adrenaline-charged action sequences, but this time he goes bigger—way bigger. An unforgettable case in point is the final extended smash-up sequence, involving the running of the bulls in Spain, which Boon and action director Chin Ka-lok make the absolute most of.

Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise is Louis Koo. He has certainly played his share of steely gangsters before, notably in Johnnie To films like Election and Drug War, but as Cheng, he projects existential anguish and inner turmoil truly impressive range. Of course, Cheung continues to be one of the hardest hard-nosed action leads in the business, so Inspector Ching To is totally in his wheelhouse. Ng is also perfectly cast as the upright and conscientious Yip, while Zhang Yichi makes quite a creepy (and athletic) heavy as “Demon,” the henchman who becomes the primary antagonist down the stretch.

Admittedly, some of the over-the-top action will have the audience guffawing in disbelief, but you have to give Boon and company credit for their determination to entertain. In fact, the climatic sequences in Spain even rival the noise and fury of Hobbs & Shaw. Recommended for fans of HK action and the three big name stars, Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy opens this Friday (8/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Chain ’19: Motherland (short doc)

The Soviet state was determined to prevent the existence of this film (and many others like it). When disaster struck the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the primary goal of the socialist regime—led by Mikhail Gorbachev—was to contain the truth, rather than the damage. They did neither. Several survivors of various ages attest to this fact in Colby Blackwill’s short documentary, Motherland, which screens tomorrow during the 2019 Chain Film Festival.

As one survivor explains, her brother-in-law happened to be fishing when the explosions rocked Chernobyl, so he rushed home to evacuate their family. Fortunately, he had a good idea of what trouble at the plant meant and how the Party would respond. They were probably one of the last cars out, before the Soviets blocked the roads, trapping the rest of the city of Pripyat within reach of Chernobyl’s deadly radiation.

Eventually, some of the elderly citizens were allowed to return to their homes in the surrounding Exclusion Zone, despite the lack of electricity, running water, or basic services of any kind. Frankly, it was probably considered a means of “disposing” some of the refuges who became a troubling embarrassment to the Soviets. Yet, they continue to live on defiantly. In what might be the most poignant moment of the film, one such octogenarian “babushka” ruefully laments the likelihood she will outlive her grown children in their early 50s, because they have long exhibited signs of radiation-related sicknesses.

Motherland is not the definitive document on Chernobyl, but it collects some valuable oral history. Blackwill presents it with great sensitivity and takes the ribbing of one of the babushkas with good humor. There is plenty of truth to be found within, despite the Communist Party’s best efforts. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Chernobyl after the terrific HBO miniseries, Motherland screens tomorrow (8/12), as part of a program of short documentaries at this year’s Chain Film Festival.

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Baba Babee Skazala

Other nations have a nasty habit of negotiating Ukraine’s fate without their consent. It happened at the onset of WWII with the German-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and it happened after the War with Operation Keelhaul. At least the Allies halted the latter when they discovered the brutal reception that awaited forcibly repatriated Ukrainian “Displaced Persons” and POWs. Yet, throughout it all, Ukrainians preserved their culture and national identity. Matej Silecky collects the oral history of Ukrainians who immigrated to the West in their teens and twenties in Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother, which screens today during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC.

By the time Poland was invaded from both sides, the Soviets had already committed large scale genocide in Ukraine through the collectivization and deliberate starvation campaign now known as the Holodomor. Basically, they continued the policy in what is now western Ukraine. First Poles and Jews were rounded up. Then the Soviets came for Ukrainians. Tragically, this is why many Ukrainians mistakenly welcomed the Germans as liberators.

Despite the oppression Ukrainians suffered at the hands of both the Soviet Socialists and the National Socialists, they maintained a sense of who they were as a people. Many of the survivors Silecky interviews credit their experiences in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps established by the Americans and British for allowing them to unify as a people again. Unfortunately, they also started to force them out of the DPs, because everyone wanted to assume the best with respects to “Uncle Joe.” That did not work out so well.

As a work of cinema, Baba is pretty straight forward, but represents some genuinely significant historical testimony. Frankly, both the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Operation Keelhaul are largely ignored in the media and school curricula today, so there will probably be a great deal of new material here for a lot of viewers. The contributions of Prof. Alexander Motyl as both an advisor and an on-camera commentator are particularly valuable. The tone is sensitive and respectful throughout, so the often-horrific incidents Silecky and his subjects chronicle mostly lead to humanistic, life-affirming take-aways.

Even though most of the participants’ recollections are confined to the 1940s, seventy-some years ago, it is still relevant and illuminating for our current age, when Ukraine once again finds itself threatened by a belligerent Russia that is determined to re-conquer its neighbors. More generally, it vividly illustrates the dangers of collective ideologies and unchecked government power. It just runs over an hour (69 minutes), but there is a lot of important stuff in it. Very highly recommended, Baba Babee Skazala screens this afternoon (8/10), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.

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Friday, August 09, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Ghost in the Graveyard

Basically, it is just another name for “Hide and Seek.” Whoever is “It,” is called the “ghost.” Sometimes, it really is played in a graveyard, but that sounds like a tremendously dangerous idea, whether or not you believe in the supernatural. Of course, spirits are decidedly real and apparently somewhat angry in Charlie Comparetto’s Ghost in the Graveyard, which screens tonight during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC (formerly the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema).

Sally Sullivan was not away at the loony bin for the last several months, but that does not stop the mean girls at her high school from circulating ugly rumors. Their malicious scandal mongering is able to take hold, because everyone knows how young Sullivan was present when her classmate Martha died accidentally, amid a game of ghost in the graveyard, in the graveyard. There might even be a kernel of truth in what they say, considering Sullivan regularly sees Martha’s ghost.

Rather awkwardly, Sullivan is not so eager to set the record straight, even though she loves her little girl and her father and big bro are totally supportive. As for her mom, she vanished years ago, quite mysteriously. The same happened to the father of her chief maligner, Zoe, who also happens to be her main rival for the romantic attention of long-haired, stoner-ish Reed. Maybe that will be the basis of an understanding between them, or maybe not. Regardless, Sullivan will need allies when she learns the full extent of the forces at darkness at work in the quaint town of Mt. Moriah (fyi, named after the presumed location of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac).

Ghost starts out as a micro tale of juvenile haunting, but quickly segues into a full-scale satanic conspiracy thriller that is surprisingly intriguing. The problem is Comparetto does not have the Kevin Williamson knack for writing teen characters and dialogue. As a result, a good deal of the first half sounds flat and phony. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for going all in when it comes to the archetypal good versus evil stuff.

Kelli Berglund gets by okay as Sullivan, but Olivia Larsen is much more fun as the catty Zoe. The other teens mostly just melt into the background, but the adults are more colorful. Jake Busey is surprisingly poignant as Sullivan’s father Charlie, who knows considerably more than he lets on. Maria Olsen bolsters the film’s genre cred with her creepy appearances as Zoe’s mother. However, it is Royce Johnson, as the Sheriff, who really puts a stamp on the film when he gets Medieval on the forces of darkness. Seriously, he is more than enough to compensate for any of Graveyard’s shortcomings.

Even William Peter Blatty probably would have approved of the way Comparetto presents the eternal struggle between goodness, virtue and light against darkness, fear, and bad vibes. Genre fans need to give it a little time, but its merits emerge down the stretch. Somewhat recommended for fans of the Omen franchise and its like, Ghost in the Graveyard screens tonight (8/9), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.

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ECCO: The Latest Assassin Anti-Hero

Michael is a lot like Jason Bourne, but at least he does not have any commitment issues. He would be perfectly happy to settle down and start a family, but his shadowy past will not let him in director-screenwriter Ben Medina’s ECCO, which opens today in Jersey.

Michael never told his wife Abby about his shadowy past, partly because he is not one hundred percent sure of it himself. Now gainfully employed on a fishing boat, we can assume his history involves the contract killing that opened the film, or else why would Medina show it to us? Presumably the sailor who is lucky at cards was once the assassin who pulls off a spectacular hit on a private plane and then goes home to Aubrey, his fashion photographer girlfriend.

As viewers might expect, bad guys will be stalking the silent, brooding anti-hero in both timelines—and they will come loaded for bear. Frankly, the details regarding the shadowy group Michael was formerly associated with remain sketchy throughout the film. In fact, Medina seems to rely on audience familiarity with previous covert conspiracy capers to fill in the blanks on their own.

That is certainly problematic, but the greater concern is Medina’s sluggish pacing. This film takes an awfully long time just to get out of the blocks. Partly, that is due to the stylized, vintage 1970’s paranoid thriller vibe he is going for. A little of that is cool, especially given Duncan Cole strikingly stylish noir cinematography, but after a while it impedes the suspense and dampens the energy level. Plus, the hazy villain walks with a limp—a rather unfortunate bit of stereotyping, but one that rarely ever gets called out.

Still, Lathrop Walker is quite good as Michael and Helen Grace Donald is notably both seductive and ultimately quite haunting as Aubrey. In fact, the ensemble is quite good, but they have their work cut out for them, due to what is on the page. Basically, the dialogue is over-written and the narrative is under-written. Yet, it still clocks in with a running time just over two hours.

It is tricky to write about ECCO, because there are obviously a lot of twists that should be not be spoiled, even though most astute viewers will be way ahead of the film. It also boasts some slickly executed action scenes, but there is too much slack in between. We respect the look and feel of ECCO, but still can’t recommend it when it opens today (8/9) in Jersey, at the AMC Jersey Gardens and the AMC Palisades.


Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Roache-Turners’ Nekrotronic

It turns out those mind-numbing internet games are powered by the pentagram rather than Pentium. For millennia, necromancers have battled demons, tooth and nail, but the forces of darkness have really upped their game during the internet age. It is up to a formerly oblivious necromancer and his rag-tag band of allies to foil a web-based scheme for total planetary domination in Kiah & Tristan Roache-Turner’s Nekrotronic, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

The latest internet game craze is devilishly addictive—and just plain devilish. People think it is cool to be able to view the wraiths and ghosts around them, but they do not realize they are really real. The app also opens up a backdoor through which the demons can suck out users’ souls. Unfortunately, Rangi, Howie North’s mate and partner in the garbage collection trade perishes from his use of the demon app, but he comes back to haunt (or hang with) him as a wraith. It certainly freaks North out, but he will soon have wilder revelations to process.

Basically, as the orphaned son of two esteemed necromancers, he is the prophesized prodigy of all prodigies. Unfortunately, his mother Finnegan succumbed to the dark side and killed his father, right after he managed to arrange magical protections for North. That is all gone now, but at least he gets a crash course in necromancy from three who have survived Finnegan’s relentless war on necromancers—grizzled Luther and his two grown daughters, Molly and Torquel. Oops, make that two surviving necromancers.

Nekrotronic is even more unruly and chaotic than the Roache-Turner Brothers’ Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. With all its flashing lights and over-the-top carnage, Nekrotronic is tailor-made for an ADD-addled generation raised on Candy Crush. That sounds cynical, but its eagerness to please is quite impressive. Frankly, there are a lot of clever elements the Roache-Turners do not fully capitalize on, because they are already moving on to something new and different.

Of course, it helps enormously having Monica Bellucci vamping it up something infernal as Finnegan. It is like she is getting revenge for all the films that roughly abused her characters, most notably Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. She definitely seems to enjoy being evil, especially when belittling blokes like North.

Ben O’Toole certainly brings out North’s blokiness, but that is appropriate, since he is a rather passive fellow, who just gets caught up in the maelstrom. Bob Epine Savea has plenty of shticky goofball moments as Rangi, but he wears well over time, becoming something of a trusted companion for characters and audience alike. Caroline Ford and Tess Haubrich both step up nicely, assuming the action responsibilities as hard-charging sisters, but the latter really shines as the take-no-prisoners Torquel.

Nekrotronic is quite a bit of fun, but definitely in a meathead kind of way. Yet, that makes it rather refreshing. Recommended for fans of kitchen sink sf-horror hybrids, Nekrotronic opens tomorrow (8/9) in LA, at the Arena.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Every Time I Die

You would hope a paramedic would respond quicker during times of crisis, but poor Sam is apparently not so nimble. It will even get him killed—more than once. Yet, much to his surprise, his spirit keeps taking over the bodies of his friends (or the closest acquaintances he has) in Robi Michael’s Every Time I Die, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Between the married woman he is obsessed with and his repressed memories of his sister’s death during their childhood, Sam has all kinds of issues he isn’t dealing with. Nevertheless, his partner Jay, now chipper and philosophical after surviving a breakdown, still sufficiently values his company to invite him along for a weekend by the lake. It should be cozy sitting around the fireplace with Jay, his girlfriend Poppy, her sister Mia (whom Sam has been sleeping with), and her violent-tempered husband Tyler, who just returned from a tour of duty with the U.S. Army. Sounds like fun, right?

Of course, Tyler turns out to be a rage-fueled psychopath, who kills Sam in a fit of jealousy, launching his body-jumping. So much for thanking veterans for their service and sacrifice. For Michael, they are apparently just creepy stalkers—perfect fodder to demonize on film. It is a shame, because it significantly detracts from a clever concept.

Michael’s overwrought style does not help either. There are way too many woo-woo interludes and symbolism-laden deep dives into Sam’s subconscious. As a result, most viewers will start to feel detached from the narrative and the fantastical Macguffin driving it. Frankly, this is probably a case where less would have been more. The leaner, grittier Lifechanger is a prime example, especially since it also features a protagonist whose consciousness jumps from body to body.

Drew Fonteiro’s repressed-to-the-point-of-lifelessness portrayal of Sam does not help the film much during the first half hour either. Even though Tyler is a problematic heavy, Tyler Dash White’s performance somewhat humanizes him, which is something. Michelle and Melissa Macedo definitely look like sisters (with good reason), but they are also pretty compelling and believable dealing with Sam, in his various erratic acting hosts.

The final implied twist is a good one, but it takes far too long for Sam to start his body-hopping. The fact that Michael manages to pull viewers back in is impressive, but audience engagement should not ebb and flow to such an extent in the first place. Still, there would probably be enough interesting elements to recommend Every Time I Die, were it not for the problematic stereotyping of veterans. Enormously frustrating, it opens this Friday (8/9) in LA, at the Arena.