J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Turning: Sort of Adapting Henry James

In gothic literature, serving as a governess is a more dangerous occupation than working as a coal-miner or a test pilot. Earnest young Kate would probably call herself a tutor, but close enough. Her new charges are quite a handful, as her predecessor could tell her, even though she’s dead. That should sound a lot like Turn of the Screw, but don’t blame Henry James for the weird deviations in Floria Sigismondi’s mid-1990s-set adaptation-in-spirit titled The Turning, which opens today nationwide.

Kate thinks she will be tutoring Flora, a six-year-old or so poor little rich orphan. So, she is surprised when she suddenly also has her entitled older brother Miles on her hands, after he is mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. The arrogant Miles ill-conceals his hostility for Kate. Flora maintains a sweet and cheerful façade, but there is still something a little off about her too. The ancient housekeeper Mrs. Grose is no help to her either. Nobody tells Kate much of anything, but she still discovers the previous tutor/nanny, Mrs. Jessel, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, most likely involving Peter Quint, a thuggish former servant, who is now also rather ominously deceased.

Right, that’s all very Turn of the Screw, until we reach the messiness of the third act. Screenwriters Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes do not just depart from the original James. They truly waste our time with one of the most annoying gimmicks they could dredge up.

On the plus side, Killruddery House is a wonderfully cinematic location doubling for Bly House. Sigimondi (an unlikely choice for Turning, given she is best known for directing music videos and The Runaways) has a keen eye for visuals and cinematographer David Ungaro (who has a good feel for the gothic, having also lensed Mary Shelley and Compulsion) gives it an appropriately atmospheric look.
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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Dead Lands, on Shudder

It wasn’t a virus that created these zombies. It was spiritual and cosmic, like a manifestation of Pre-Columbian malaise. Something is blocking the dead’s passage from the earthly Maori world (pre-Western contact), to the realm of the hereafter. That forces all the angry new spirits back into their decaying bodies. The notorious warrior Waka Nuku Rau also came back from the dead, but he is a special case. His ancestors won’t take him until he atones for his barbaric sins. It will take something big, but if he can reopen the passage between worlds of the living and the dead, bringing balance back to the universe, he could possibly restore his lost honor in The Dead Lands the series, which premieres today on Shudder.

The series incarnation of Dead Lands is more or less set in the same Maori universe as the 2014 film of the same name and their share similar themes and creator/screenwriter Glenn Standring, but the narratives discretely stand alone. Te Kohe Tuhaka also stars in both, first playing the menacing villain Wirepa and the film and now portraying Waka, the anti-hero—with an emphasis on “anti.”

Having killed, maimed, and pillaged with reckless abandon, Waka is a little short on good karma when his enemies finally get the drop on him. Essentially, the guardians of the afterlife send him right back where he came from, but being heroic does not come naturally to him. It takes a while for Waka to realize he was probably meant to help Mehe rescue her father, the chief of her tribe, from a subterranean horde of zombies (technically, they don’t call them zombies, because the Maori do not yet have Walking Dead comics or Living Dead movies, but it is the same difference).

Waka and Mehe bicker like cats and dogs, but when push comes to shove, he has her back—or at least he does throughout the first three episodes made available to the media. You have to give him credit for that, because the spirit of his not-so-dearly departed mother is constantly pushing him to sacrifice Mehe to the spirits. She is quite a piece of work, like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate crossed with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. It is easy to understand how he grew up to be so angry.

Dead or not, Waka still sure can fight. Good thing too, because he will have plenty of opportunities. Rather reluctantly, Waka will find himself embroiled in a power struggle within Mehe’s tribe and a mission to rescue a young man who knows who broke the world from a trio of witches, but he is always comfortable hacking away at zombies with his paddle-shaped patus.

The Dead Lands film deliberately set out to showcase the Maori martial arts of Mau Rakau. The series does not skimp on action either, but it also balances it with supernatural elements. Fans of the Joseon zombie movie Rampant should definitely dig this series too.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew

This is Shanghai, but not the glass and steel megapolis Chinese state media tries to project. It is a city of strife and toil—and immigrants from throughout the assorted Chinas. Independent Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke creates a multi-faceted portrait of the Mainland’s go-go financial capital that is part city-symphony and part oral history. Ten years after its initial screenings, Jia’s thoughtful ode to Shanghai finally gets a proper American release when I Wish I Knew opens this Friday in New York, at the Metrograph.

Technically, I Wish I Knew was commissioned to commemorate the Shanghai World Expo, but you can tell Jia will not be towing a party line when his first interview subject’s reminiscences primarily focus on juvenile street gangs and the hardships his family endured during the Cultural Revolution. He will return to the Gang of Four’s institutionalized madness later in the film, at even greater length.

Indeed, Jia is drawn to somewhat marginalized figures, like the daughter of one of Shanghai’s most notorious gangsters. Besides the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese occupation and Taiwan’s White Terror also loom large in the film. Although this is technically a film about Shanghai, there is clearly a sense the mega-city is intrinsically linked to Hong Kong and Taipei, which explains why Beijing is cracking down so hard on Hong Kong and why the Taiwan’s recent independence-affirming election induced a panic attack.

In between interview segments, Jia follows his wife and muse Zhao Tao as she strolls through the city, but instead of the glitzy shopping district, their perambulations mostly take us through docks, bridges, and post-industrial districts. You can tell the disparities of Shanghai just from Jia’s exterior shots.
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Quezon’s Game: Righteous in the Philippines

Probably only former First Lady and Chair of the Philippine Red Cross Aurora Quezon is more revered in Filipino history than her husband, President Manuel Quezon, the man responsible for negotiating his nation’s independence. Her countrymen were horrified when she was assassinated by the Communist Hukbalahap terrorists (quick, let’s elect a president who shares their ideology)—and with good reason. She reportedly endured her husband infidelities in order to encourage his humane policies, including an unlikely scheme to provide transit and sanctuary for European Jewry fleeing National Socialist death camps. The President’s righteous campaign gets the big-screen treatment in director-cinematographer Matthew Rosen’s Quezon’s Game, which opens this Friday in New York.

In the late 1930s, Pres. Quezon was riding high in polls. Although he had already accepted a party of refugees from Shanghai, his greatest concern is lowering American tariffs. Ominously, an SS officer has been assigned to the German embassy, but Quezon and the Philippines remain squarely aligned with the U.S. In fact, his informal kitchen cabinet includes U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt and the American military attaché, an Army Colonel on the fast-track, by the name of Dwight David Eisenhower. Nevertheless, as word reaches the Philippines of the National Socialist oppression and murder of the Jews, Quezon is stirred to action (an impulse supported by the First Lady).

Inconveniently, since the Philippines was not yet independent, its immigration policies were still controlled by Washington DC, where Roosevelt was to wary of riling up the opposition of segregationist Congressmen and the State Department was rife with anti-Semites (probably the ambassador to the UK was the most notorious). Of course, getting exit visas and transit permits from Germany was no small order either. However, they had no trouble getting names of potential emigres, thanks to the small but organized local Jewish community.

Quezon’s Game suffers from many of the problems that commonly afflict high-minded historicals, starting with the portrayal of its protagonist, which is more akin to a Quezon passion play than a flesh-and-blood drama. However, it also has many of the hoped-for merits.

Both Raymond Bagatsing and Rachel Alejandro act like they are perched on pedestals as the Quezons (and understandably enough). On the other hand, David Bianco is terrific as Ike (shockingly so). He looks the part and has the proper military bearing. James Paoleli also convincingly humanizes McNutt (and Americans).
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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bonello’s Zombi Child

Thanks to France’s lingering colonialist mindset, it considers everything in the Francophone world essentially French. Apparently, that includes Haitian voodoo—and why not? They are the ones who created the circumstances it developed out of. An entitled French school girl will be tempted to dabble in the mysterious arts, which inevitably leads to dire consequences in Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which opens this Friday in New York.

Melissa was orphaned by the Haitian earthquake, but she still has her loving Aunt Katy, a tutor and voodoo-practicing “Mambo” in France. Since her late mother was a recipient of the Legion of Honor, the French government will cover her room and board at an exclusive boarding school, founded by Napoleon himself for the daughters of recipients of France’s highest honors. She is a little out of place, but she still falls in with a group of four other friends, who are basically shallow, self-absorbed teenagers—except pasty-white Fanny, who is especially shallow and self-absorbed.

Fanny is the sort of crush-blinded schoolgirl who sends long, dramatic letters to her long-distance lover Pablo. The kind that are guaranteed to spook a player like him into dumping her. She is the first to ask cultural insensitive questions of Melissa, but then she will turn around and attempt a massive act of cultural appropriation, for her own self-interest.

Fifty-five years prior, Melissa’s grandfather Clairvius Narcisse meets an untimely death via voodoo, but that is not the end of his story. The unfortunate man is partially revived to serve as a “zombi” slave laborer (they leave the last “e” off for cultural sensitivity).

Eventually, both narrative strands crescendo in parallel, with Fanny pestering Aunt Katy to cast a spell on Pablo, just when she should be preparing for a special ceremony in honor of her father, Narcisse. Frankly, the pieces do not exactly fit together perfectly, but the big picture is compelling. It isn’t horror or “elevated horror,” but it still steadily builds in intensity and foreboding.
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space

Like it or not, you will see a lot of this movie in the future. The GIF appeal of Nic Cage covered in blood yelling crazy things like “could I get a little cooperation here” is just too meme-perfect. People will inevitably lose sight of the original context, but it was all done in service of a pretty good H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. It also represents Richard Stanley’s first full-length narrative feature directorial job since the Island of Dr. Moreau debacle in 1996. Stanley and his star Nicolas Cage capture the madness and dread of Lovecraft’s source material in Color Out of Space, a SpectreVision production, which opens this Friday in New York.

While Ward Phillips is out conducting a survey of the water table outside Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, he happens across Lavinia Gardner conducting a wiccan ritual. He is quite struck by her, so is keen to see again when the municipal government calls him to inspect a meteor that landed on the Gardener farm (they raise alpacas, which sounds very Nic Cage). Weirdly, the meteor disappears by the time the media arrives.

The Gardners (and the alpacas) also start acting strangely, presumably under the meteor’s evil influence. Lavinia’s little brother Jack Gardner is more distracted and absent minded than ever. Her mother Theresa gets so spacey, she accidentally chops off her own fingers. Her father Nathan freaks out spectacularly, screaming and raging against everything he resents in life. (Yes, he is played by Nic Cage). Only she and her middle brother Benny seem relatively unaffected, at least for now.

Initially, Color feels a lot like the original Invaders from Mars in terms of its almost pastoral tone, but it slowly evolves into Mandy on PCP. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how smoothly and steadily Stanley manages the descent into utter bedlam. Of course, Nathan Gardner is the sort of role Cage was born to play. He dives in with both feet, but in this case, his acting methods perfectly suit the film. In fact, this is the best case of Cage being Cage since Mandy and Mom and Dad.
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Ashfall: Don Lee Predicts Disaster

South Korea really shouldn’t send mixed messages to a psychopath like Kim Jong-un. After years of wishing his nuclear program would just go away, here comes a movie that suggests his nukes could be put to positive use. Admittedly, it also portrays the DPRK as basically a collapsed wasteland. The imploding North is giving up their nukes, but the South wants to commandeer them in a desperate bid to end a seismic and volcanic disaster in Lee Hae-jun & Kim Byung-seo’s Ashfall, which is now playing in New York.

For years, Korean-American scientist Robert Kang Bong-rae warned the government of a potential catastrophe, but they ignored him until it is now almost too late. He still has a plan, but it only has slightly over 3% chance of success. The beleaguered president and his first secretary Jeon Yoo-kyung still believe that is better than nothing, so they dispatch two commando teams to take possession of the DPRK nukes, while Kang runs simulations to increase the odds.

Fortunately, the warheads will be easy to collect, because the North just packaged them up for collection as part of their de-nuclearization agreement with the U.S. Yes, things have gotten that bad in the Workers’ Paradise. Jo In-chang was supposed to retire today, but instead he must lead the B-team backing-up the primary squad. Tragically, they must take the lead when the A-team’s plane crashes. Ironically, the North Koreans are almost passive spectators in all this, but China was deeply unhappy about peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, so they recruit Lee Joon-Pyeong, a North Korean double- or triple- or quadruple-agent to redirect the Nukes across the Chinese border.

Frankly, Ashfall is probably must notable for starring Don Lee/Ma Dong-seok in a non-action role, in an action movie. He is actually quite convincing as Kang, talking science instead of trash. His screen charisma still comes through. In fact, it shines brighter than Ha Jung-woo as Jo, the weirdly nebbish commando.

On the other hand, Lee Byung-hun goes convincingly dark and brooding as the profoundly disillusioned Lee. It is hard to believe Ha’s Jo can keep up with him. They just seem so mismatched, in every way. Most of the rest of the strike force are just stock characters (at best), but Jeon Hye-jin’s portrayal of Jeon, the political fixer, is intriguingly subtle. To her credit, former K-pop star Bae Su-zy brings more to the table than you might expect as Jo’s mega-pregnant wife, Ji-young.
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Sunday, January 19, 2020

SBIFF ’20: The Night

Airbnb horror is a relatively new phenomenon, but it follows squarely in the tradition of hotel horror. Some of the genre’s best have been set in hotels and motels, like The Shining, the Psycho franchise, and Horror Hotel, starring the great Sir Christopher Lee. Maybe we our just intuitively unsettled by the experience of temporarily making your home in a strange room, knowing full well people you’ve never met also have the key. Try to sleep tight. An expat Iranian couple definitely won’t when they check into a hotel with a 100% vacancy rate and a check-out time of maybe never in Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Babak and Neda’s marriage suffered while they were apart, but they have tried to make up for lost time after she joined him in America. They both take pride and delight in their baby, but there is still tension between them that always gets aggravated when Babak drinks. This is one of those nights (boy, is it ever). He is too proud to crash with their friends after the dinner party winds down, but Babak agrees to stop at a hotel when he gets a little too woozy during the drive back. Unfortunately, fate directs them to the wrong hotel.

It certainly is quiet, but that is because they are the only ones staying there. Yet, they are plagued by a mysterious prankster pounding on their door and crashing sounds coming from above the ceiling. Then weird time and spatial things start happening. They soon try to leave, but the hotel won’t let them.

It turns out Persian horror is a real thing and it is consistently good. Ana Lily Amanpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow are both superior films, but The Night can still hang in their company. Arguably, it could probably also be classified as “elevated horror” or “post-horror,” or whatever critics are trying to call films like Eggers’ The Witch these days, but Ahari’s slow build eventually reaches some pretty malevolent and surreal heights.
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Friday, January 17, 2020

SBIFF ’20: James vs. His Future Self

It is sort of like Looper, but the purpose of the time travel is love rather than contract killing. After years of research, James invented a process for time travel, but he had lost the love of his life long before that. Bitter over his life choices, the scruffy scientist uses his own method to try to convince his younger self to concentrate on the woman he loves instead in Jeremy LaLonde’s James vs. His Future Self, which screens during the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

James is intellectually brilliant, but an emotional idiot. Even though he is highly attracted to his co-worker friend Courtney, he is too consumed with his work to make any sort of advance. His older self will explain, in quite rough terms, what a mistake that is, but it is almost impossible to get through his younger self’s thick head. Nevertheless, the junior James agrees to finally act on his feelings, in order to make old bitter James (or “Uncle Jimmy” as he is forced to call him) go away. Initially, it all comes as a pleasant surprise to Courtney, who had largely given up on him. Unfortunately, the present-day James hasn’t really changed his obsessive, preoccupied ways yet.

LaLonde and co-screenwriter-co-star Jonas Chernick bring a fresh twist to time travel science fiction, even though they are not overly obsessed with the quantum mechanics of the space time continuum. Their focus is more on the personal, particularly James’ relationship with his older self. Most viewers would probably classify it as a time-travel rom-com, but it has a surprisingly bittersweet sensibility. It shares a kinship with The Wrong Todd (which could even be described as poignant at times), substituting time travel for parallel universes.
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Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different

Major record labels have made some baffling decisions. A case in point would be their refusal to sign funk firebrand Betty Davis to a long-term contract, because her performance persona was too overtly sexual. Seriously, they couldn’t figure out how to market sex? Her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna. Prince before Prince.” Yes, that Miles Davis. Her tenure in the public spotlight was limited, but she made quite an impression on listeners during that time. Phil Cox tries to track down the long-off-the-radar Davis in Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different, which releases today on DVD.

Betty Mabry came from Pittsburgh to New York hoping to forge a musical career, but she initially paid the bills as a model. It wasn’t such a bad day job, since it gave her access to the world of movers and shakers. She was not so much into jazz, but jazz trumpeters were another story. For a while she was romantically linked to Hugh Masekela (strangely overlooked in Cox’s film), who produced her Columbia 45 sessions, before her whirlwind romance and stormy marriage with Miles Davis.

Cox (with the help of experts like musician Greg Tate) fully explores her role as the inspiration and catalyst for Miles Davis’s turn towards electric fusion, but they do not let him overshadow her own music. It is definitely funky and highly sexualized, even by today’s standards. Frankly, it seems strange that she never developed a wider cult audience or became a significant source of memes. Her song “Nasty Gal” predated Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” by at least a decade and it was considerably nastier. Instead, her music is currently available on reissues from the specialized collectors’ label, A Light in the Attic.
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Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Wave: It’s a Trip

Should Frank have just said “no?” The consequences of the bean-counting attorney’s drug use are pretty dire. In fact, it might just cost him everything (really everything), but he just might reach the point where he can accept that in Gille Klabin’s down-the-rabbit-hole freak-out, The Wave, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Good old Frank is poised to finally win some positive attention from the firm’s senior partners when he spots a way to invalidate the hefty life insurance policy of a fire-fighter, who left behind a wife and kids (“they always do” is the cynical refrain of Frank’s colleagues). To celebrate his anticipated rising position in the firm (and for a respite from his not so passively aggressive wife), Frank joins his hard-partying colleague Jeff for celebratory drinks.

Jeff quickly gloms onto Nathalie and Theresa, the latter of whom really makes an impression on Frank. Consequently, he uncharacteristically joins them at an underground house party, where he and Theresa ill-advisedly partake of a mystery drug offered by mumbo-jumbo-spouting drug dealer (it will “hit you like a wave” he says). For a while, they gambol in some new age dreamscape, but when Frank wakes up, Theresa is gone, along with his wallet and all the available funds in his bank account.

Still tripping his lights out, Frank tries to make it through the most important business meeting of his career. Hoping to find something to take the edge off, he and Jeff set out in search of Theresa, only to discover she is missing in real life too. As Frank loses time and experiences waking visions, his grasp on reality weakens precipitously. Then things really go haywire for Frankie Boy.

There have been plenty of reality-problematizing movies before, but the way Klabin and screenwriter Carl W. Lucas manage to equally balance the humor and the disorientation is really something else. This is a wild ride, with some outrageous mayhem that does not always make total sense, but Klabin manages to fit the fractured pieces back together in clever ways.
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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Host: Next Time Book a Marriott

This film is so hostile to the Airbnb model, it could have been funded by the city of New York or the state of California. Still, it probably has a point when it suggests first-time mules should probably spring for a decent chain hotel when they are in Amsterdam to make a drop that will clear their gambling debts. Instead, Robert Atkinson opts for an over-booked hostel that refers him to a tony private home with rooms for rent, leading him straight into Hell in Andy Newbery’s The Host, which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

Admittedly, Atkinson faces an unusually dire situation, but it was his own spectacularly bad decisions that brought him so far astray. He was the one who decided to gamble with the cash left in his London bank’s short-term safety deposit and he is the one who lost it all and then some at a triad-controlled Casino. He doesn’t have much choice but to accept Lau Hoi Ho’s offer-he-can’t-refuse. He only has to schlep a locked briefcase to a prearranged exchange. Lau’s assistant Jun Hui and his enforcer Yong will accompany Atkinson to keep him out of trouble, but they do a terrible job of it.

First of all, they let DEA Agent Herbert Summers turn Atkinson during the flight. Actually, this is just fine with Jun, because she is a deep cover plant. However, letting him let a room at Vera Tribbe’s stately townhouse is a huge mistake. She is definitely a weird one—and dangerous. At least everyone will have a chance at a do-over when Atkinson’s responsible family man brother Steve comes looking for him.

This is a strange film, starting with Derek Jacobi’s initially baffling wrap-around cameo as the head-shrinking Dr. Hobson. However, judging from the third act revelations, one could guess it was intended as an homage to Simon Oakland’s brief but defining appearance in Psycho. The Host also takes its own radical turn, shifting from an in-over-his-head thriller to a veritable horror movie.

Newbery does not take us on the smoothest of rides, but he embraces each audacious plot point with relish. He also has the benefit of some colorful and distinctive character actors to help sell it, including Jacobi, Togo Igawa as Lau (a Japanese actor playing a Chinese gangster, but whatever), Tom Wu as the henchman Yong, and Nigel Barber radiating silver-haired authority as Agent Summers.
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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Bravest: Rewriting the History of the Xingang Oil Disaster

In today’s China, the bridges collapse, the mines cave-in, schools crumble if you lean against the walls, and nobody really knows what that mystery Wuhan virus is. The poor pigs had it even worse. At least there is no shortage of work for emergency responders. Several squads of grimly resolute fire-fighters grapple with a catastrophic blaze in Tony Chan’s The Bravest, which releases today on digital.

Bizarrely, this film is based on a real-life incident the Chinese Communist Party did its best to suppress, but the raging flames engulfing the Xingang oil refinery port were difficult to sweep under the rug. After censoring the news and strong-arming eye-witnesses into deleting their social media posts, the powers-that-be finally opted to turn the whole cluster-meltdown into a rah-rah propaganda film, which Sony has acquired for American distribution.

Jiang Liwei was the youngest squad commander in greater metro-“Bingang,” until his cockiness led to a death at a fire scene. Busted down in rank and transferred to the burbs, Jiang is a man in need of redemption. He will have a chance when the interconnected refinery tanks (and a couple of toxic chemical silos thrown in for good measure) erupt in flames, due to the negligence of a tanker captain. He would be the one listed in the credits as “Western Scapegoat.”

Suddenly, Jiang is battling the blaze, alongside Ma Weiguo, his former lieutenant and current chop-busting nemesis. Of course, the longer they hold the line together, the more they come to respect each other.

Honestly, Wang Chao’s screenplay is so manipulative, it is often embarrassing to watch. When we see Jiang’s disgrace has strained his relationship with his bratty son, we know with certainty he is a dead man walking. Likewise, when fire inspector Wang Lu continues to cold-shoulder her frogman fiancé Xu Xiaobin during the disaster, we can tell he is a talking corpse.
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Monday, January 13, 2020

Citizen K: The Khodorkovsky Epic

So far, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s life has been the stuff of a Russian epic. He went from being the archetypal oligarch to the archetypal prisoner of conscience. Naturally, Putin’s propaganda machine continues to do its best to slander him, so it is good to have a timely and up-to-date chronicle of his life and struggles thus far. Prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney never refrains from airing criticism of his subject, especially during his early 90’s “Wild West” years, but that strengthens his credibility when he turns his focus on the lawless and oppressive behavior of Russian President-for-life Vladimir Putin in Citizen K, which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Khodorkovsky admittedly pushed the envelop when he assumed control of the Russian oil company Yukos during the dodgy privatization process, but if he hadn’t taken over the state enterprise, another oligarch would have, resulting in even greater concentration of economic power. At least former state employees started getting paid again. In fact, it was the responsibility Khodorkovsky started feeling toward his employees that led to the awakening of his social conscience. First, he became a philanthropist and then he started campaigning for democracy and transparency, at which point he came into fateful conflict with Putin.

The trumped-up case against Khodorkovsky was well documented in Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky and Cathryn Collins’ Vlast (Power), but Gibney retells in compellingly, filling in some gaps and bringing it up to date. He asks some tough questions that Khodorkovsky answers quite forthrightly. Unlike, Aung San Suu Kyi, Khodorkovsky has maintained his claim to the moral high ground during the years after his release. Indeed, the Western media was shockingly negligent in its lack of coverage of Khodorkovsky’s trip to the Ukraine in support of the democracy movement in the days following the Kremlin-backed government’s siege of Maidan Square (but that was during the Obama administration, when they didn’t care about Russia).

Gibney’s regular doc audiences will probably be most interested in Russia in relation to its campaigns of disinformation and electoral interference. There are sequences in Citizen K that address such issues, but he always maintains a direct connection to his subject. Frankly, it is frightening to hear how many provincial Russians have bought Putin’s big lies (particularly Khodorkovsky’s alleged role in supposedly ordering the assassination of a Siberian mayor long assumed to be the work of Chechen gangsters, until Putin’s state media changed its story, on command).

Indeed, the most pressing take-away from Citizen K could very well be the implications of what the term “state media” means in practical applications. It is frightening how easily people can be deceived (of course, if you do not follow a few outlets that do not share your politics, you are essentially brainwashing yourself—Trump-lovers and Trump-haters alike).
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Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson: Brace Yourself, Because This Exists

The opening montage of this film reminds us what a crummy decade the 1990’s were. We see the LA Riots, Bill Clinton, and O.J. Simpson. It was especially disappointing because it followed the greatness of the 1980’s: the resurgence of the American economy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of acoustic post-bop jazz. Arguably, the brutal Simpson murders and the distasteful media storm that followed were the worst of what came to pass in that decade (but the blue dress certainly gave the bloody glove a run for its money). Daniel Farrands revisits the whole tragic business in the stunningly ill-conceived The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, which is now playing in LA.

Even though she has been divorced for two years, Nicole Brown is still constantly harassed by her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson. Ominously, she fears his hostility is escalating. That much is true—and probably only that much. Although living in fashionable Brentwood, she still struggles to raise her two young children as a single mom, getting little support from her family and nothing but stress from O.J. Her hot mess friend Faye Resnick is not much help either. Only her bestie Kris Jenner (formerly Kardashian) is reliably there for her.

Since Resnick flaked out halfway through redecorating Brown’s home, she hires the handyman working next door to finish painting the interiors. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Glen Rogers, a serial killer, whose victims were attributed to him as both the “Casanova Killer” and the “Cross Country Killer.” Brown happens to be exactly his type. In fact, he is the “real killer” (perhaps acting with O.J.’s passive encouragement).

Basically, this film is based on O.J. Simpson’s self-serving fantasies. Truly, the bad karma just oozes off the screen. Beyond the obvious problematic issue of denying reality, it also seems downright slanderous, especially with regards to its portrayal of Resnick as a drug-addled fair-weather friend, who bitterly resented Brown for not reciprocating her lesbian lust. However, the absolute nadir of the film is its graphic depiction of the murder of Ronald Goldman. We can only hope and pray the Goldman family never see this train-wreck.

As cinema, the structure of the film is inherently anti-climactic, because it steadily builds towards the titular murder (there were actually two of them) like a tawdry pop-culture passion play. Mena Suvari’s one-deer-in-the-headlights-look-for-every-scene approach to playing Brown does not exactly help either. She is not an effective mouthpiece to allow “the victim to tell her story,” but the film doesn’t try to do that anyway. Remember, Simpson was found civilly responsible for her murder. Probably the only people dumb enough to buy screenwriter Michael Arter’s alternate theory are the twelve idiots who served on Simpson’s 1994 jury. Make that theories. In one absolutely bizarre dream sequence, Brown is thrown about her home by an invisible entity, so maybe the “real killer” was Pazuzu.

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Friday, January 10, 2020

The Outsider: HBO Adapts Stephen King

DNA evidence has been widely hailed as a tool to exonerate the wrongly convicted. However, in Terry Maitland’s case, it falsely implicates him in a horrific child murder. He will need someone who can think way outside the box to prove his innocence. Holly Gibney from the Mr. Mercedes books and TV series is certainly an unconventional investigator. She sees things others miss, so she might be the perfect detective to stalk the real killer in The Outsider, Richard Price’s 10-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.

Terry Maitland is a well-liked teacher and coach in his quiet, working-class Oklahoma community, until Det. Ralph Anderson has him arrested and cuffed during one of his little league games for the murder of eleven-year-old Frank Peterson. There is ironclad DNA and eye-witness testimony linking Maitland to the crime scene, but his lawyer, Howie Gold, quickly uncovers physical evidence and video footage placing him in another city at the time of the murder.

It is all quite baffling to everyone, so Gold retains Gibney’s specialized services. Feeling guilty for turning the town against the Maitland family, Det. Anderson joins Gold’s investigation team while on leave from the department. He is not inclined to believe the fantastical, even when Gibney uncovers a string of similar child murders attributed to suspects still proclaiming their innocence, due to similarly conflicting DNA evidence and eye-witness statements. However, his wife Jeannie is more willing to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. She too joins Gold’s kitchen cabinet, after forging a sympathetic understanding with Maitland’s wife, Marcy.

Based on the first six episodes provided to the press (out of ten), it should be safe to say the serial killer at work boasts some sort of supernatural shape-and-DNA-shifting powers—and that shouldn’t be particularly spoilery, since it is a creation of Stephen King. However, the series unfolds with the style and drive of a procedural mystery. Indeed, comparisons to HBO’s True Detective are rather apt. Yet, Price fully capitalizes on the existential implications of a monster that (perhaps literally) feeds on human alienation and misery. These are especially damaged characters, even by the standards of King’s oeuvre.

Jason Bateman’s earnest everyman portrayal of Maitland easily convinces viewers to buy into the character’s predicament, sort of like Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man taking a detour through the X-Files. Yet, perhaps more importantly, he effectively sets the vibe of mounting dread as the director of the first two episodes. However, Ben Mendelsohn surpasses him when it comes to projecting world-weary angst as Det. Anderson, whose every decision is influenced by the prior death of his own young son.

The Outsider
also earns credit for featuring three women characters, who transcend stereotypes and become of equal or greater importance to the story than Maitland or even Anderson. Cynthia Erivo never resorts to cheap ticks or shtick in her endlessly intriguing portrayal of the on-the-spectrum Gibney (radically different from Justine Lupe’s depiction in the Mr. Mercedes series). It showcases her brilliance, a la Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but also emphasizes her acute vulnerability. Yet, Price also empowers her as a woman, who haltingly explores the possibility of romance with a former law enforcement contact, nicely played by Derek Cecil.

Likewise, Mare Winningham and Julianne Nicholson are consistently devastating as Jeannie Anderson and Marcy Maitland, respectively—two women ironically united in grief. Each woman displays unexpected agency, beyond merely standing by their men. In fact, Nicholson could arguably be considered the Outsider’s lead and central POV figure.
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Speed of Life: A Time Travel Ode to Bowie

He wrote “Space Oddity” and starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth. David Bowie brought science fiction into rock & roll better than anyone, so he probably would have been amused by the fanciful notion his death could so unbalance the universe, it tears a wormhole into the space-time continuum. That is exactly what happens in director-screenwriter Liz Manashil’s Speed of Life, which releases today on VOD platforms.

January 10, 2016 is a particularly fateful day for June Hoffman. First, her favorite recording artist, David Bowie, passes on to the great glitter club in the sky. Next, her boyfriend Edward Karp is ripped through the wormhole caused by his passing. Rather awkwardly, they were having a “we need to have a talk” sort of argument when he disappeared. For the next three decades, she lives in a state of limbo hoping he will re-materialize, as indeed he does, just when she is due to move into a dystopian state-mandated retirement home on her 60th birthday.

Karp has not aged a second, but society is now a watered-down version of Logan’s Run, requiring communal early bird dinners at sixty, rather than death at thirty. She had intended to run away with her torch-carrying friend Samuel, but Karp’s arrival complicates everything.

Speed of Life is a heartfelt film that features several nicely turned performances, so there is definitely stuff there to like. With that stipulation, it must be noted Manashil does not have a strong grasp on the mechanics of time-travel narratives. Ultimately, she sort of tries to have her temporal cake and eat it too, resulting in an ending that makes no sense whatsoever. She also seems to be uncomfortable handling dystopian themes, because the nearly sixty-year old Hoffman appears to live in a bizarrely sunny and laidback Brave New World. Frankly, it is never clear just how much urgency there is to the countdown to 60. On top of all that, the brief 75-minute feature feels conspicuously padded with a subplot involving Samuel’s daughter Laura and her new neighbor Phillip, which never pays off to any meaningful degree.
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Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Marshes, on Shudder

He is a symbol of Australia, but we’ve had our Uncle Sam horror movies, so why can’t they have a psycho “Swagman” as well? Usually, the Swagman is an impish trickster, but this incarnation is hardcore homicidal. He will give three field researchers the Wolf Creek treatment in Roger Scott’s The Marshes, which premieres today, exclusively on Shudder.

Three is definitely a crowd for Dr. Pria Anan and her biologist colleagues. Understandably, there is a great deal of tension between her and Ben, her chief rival for grant money that will extend her term of employment, or his. Adding further jealousy into the mix, there could be some sparks between her and Will, the eager new undergrad intern. Unfortunately, Ben amplifies the bad vibes with his unusually macabre reading of the ghostly swagman immortalized in “Waltzing Matilda.” Needless to say, whenever they hear the ghostly strains of the Australian folk anthem, it portends very bad things.

Initially, the researchers assume a rather loutish poacher is messing with them, because he is. However, they will eventually realize the Swagman is a more pressing and dire threat. He even seems to have supernatural powers to disrupt compasses and warp the space of the wetlands, forcing them to constantly walk around in circles. Frankly, you could describe Marshes as a simplified version of In the Tall Grass, but with more slasher violence.

The use of “Waltzing Matilda” is clever and effective, but the film itself is dark, brutal, and off-putting. Like clockwork, it offers up a totally clichéd ending that is a real downer. It is only eighty-five minutes, but it leaves you wondering why Scott went to all that effort take us to that place.
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Wednesday, January 08, 2020

1917: Oscar Contender

Operation Alberich was a German retreat, but it was a strategic retreat. It was conducted about a month and a half before America entered WWI, so there was obviously a lot of fighting left to do. The war seems endless for two lance corporals, but time is decidedly short for the completion of their fateful mission in Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning 1917, which opens nationwide this Friday.

Cpl. Tom Blake has been recruited to send a message from Gen. Erinmore to the Devonshire Regiment near the Hindenburg Line, for very personal reasons. His brother, Lt. Joseph Blake serves with the Devonshires and stands to die alongside his men unless he and his mate, Cpl. William Schofield, can reach them before they charge into a certain German ambush. The General has written orders canceling the doomed attack, but reaching them in time will be no easy feat. First, Blake and his mate Cpl. William Schofield must traverse No Man’s Land, the German front line, and several active battle sights.

Superficially, 1917 might sound similar to Saving Private Ryan, but Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns quickly break the mold of the prior film and turn audience expectations on their ears. Once the film really shows its true colors, the only real kinship it shares with Spielberg’s film are the equally intense battle scenes. In fact, 1917’s incidents of warfighting are sometimes even more visceral, in ways that will have viewers seeking a tetanus shot afterward.

Frankly, 1917 is not easily pigeon-holed as an anti-war film or a celebration of patriotism. It is really just about two young kids trying to survive a war they do not fully comprehend. Mendes & Wilson-Cairns’ narrative, based on the reminiscences of the former’s grandfather Alfred Mendes, is a case of the epic becoming acutely personal. The tone is almost Homeric, but without any pretentious baggage.
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Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Sonata: The Devil is in the Score

Everyone thinks heavy metal is the music of the Devil, but there are way more demonic classical compositions, like Night on Bare Mountain, Danse Macabre, Totentanz, and the good parts of Carmina Burana. Richard Marlowe’s last masterwork could very well take it to a whole new level. It could literally raise Hell, but his violinist daughter will have to first figure out the bizarre score he left behind in Andrew Desmond’s The Sonata, which opens this Friday in New York.

Rose Fisher never knew her reclusive father, but hardly anyone really did. At one point, he was considered the great hope of classical music, before he mysteriously disappeared. It turned out, he was quietly working on his masterwork sonata in a creepy old French chateau, up until the point he decided to self-immolate. Fisher is a socially awkward prodigy who has trouble forging human connections, but the revelation of her father’s fate still unnerves her.

Fisher’s agent-manager-enabler Charles Vernais does his best to shield her from the world, but she is poised to drop him out of impatience with his slow-build approach to her career. However, they call a truce when Fisher discovers the score of her father’s final composition. The premiere of a new and final Marlowe work could be a sensation, but it will require some investigation, especially the strange occult symbols marking each movement. Those would be the power-signs used by an ancient secret society, who reportedly believed music held real, earth-shaking power.

The Sonata is a horror movie, but it is one of the few narrative films in the last few years that presents classical music with deadly earnestness. It is at least fifty times—perhaps one hundred times better than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection. It also features one of the late, great Rutger Hauer’s last screen appearances, rather hauntingly as the deceased Marlowe.
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Wrinkles the Clown: He’s Not the Crying on the Inside Kind

Poor Emmett Kelly must be rolling in his grave. The beloved circus performer would be heartsick to see how clowns are now linked to horror movies, creepy flash-mobs, and weird lurking incidents. This clown deliberately set out to be provocative, but he may very well have inspired less thoughtful imitators. The viral sensation tells his story—sort of—in Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary Wrinkles the Clown, which releases today on DVD.

Maybe you saw the YouTube video of Wrinkles sliding out of a trundle drawer under a young girl’s bed and then ominously standing over her. You will definitely see it several times before Nichols’ 75-minute film is through. Scaring kids became Wrinkles’ thing. In fact, he advertised his services as a tool for parental discipline. Basically, he would frighten them straight. Apparently, there was a demand for this in South Florida (living up to its rep for strangeness). As more videos of his handiwork dropped on YouTube, his notoriety spread.

Whatever you think of Wrinkles (he actually has some rather thoughtful and nuanced things to say), he is clearly a self-styled trickster with no malice in his heart, rather than a psychopath or even a nasty practical joker. On the other hand, some subsequent reports of real-life evil clown sightings had a truly menacing vibe.

It is easy to understand why Nichols was fascinated with Wrinkles, but the resulting film is decidedly uneven and often rather dull. There are an awful lot of YouTube clips in Wrinkles’ doc, but far too many of them do not even feature Wrinkles. Instead they feature kids calling Wrinkles, talking about Wrinkles, or making their own Wrinkles-inspired videos. Granted, working with online videos presents some cinematic challenges, but Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare presented that kind of material in ways that were clever and completely absorbing. Not so for poor Wrinkles.
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Monday, January 06, 2020

The Battle of Mosul & Peshmerga

The Kurds have been betrayed by Trump, Bush I, and Obama, (who created the vacuum for Daesh to occupy in Iraq by prematurely withdrawing our troops, solely for domestic political reasons). Nevertheless, the Kurds keep fighting and keep hoping. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy documented the brave Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force as it drove the Daesh (a.k.a. Isis) terrorists out of the autonomous Kurdistan region and neighboring areas of Iraq in The Battle for Mosul and Peshmerga, both of which open as a double-bill this weekend at the Quad.

Battle opens in October of 2017, with the Peshmerga army on a roll. It turns out the Isis terrorist forces are good at oppressing and torturing civilians and destroying the treasures of antiquity, like the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, which we see in ruins. However, they are not so hot at battlefield combat against a comparably armed foe. Their best strategies involve snipers and ambushes, but they continue to retreat in the face of the Peshmerga advance. Then, for a host of thorny political reasons, the regular Iraqi Army takes over the business of liberating the minority-Kurdish, Iraqi city of Mosul. At this point, the war gets far more complicated as the Iraqis get bogged down.

To some extent, it made sense the Iraqis should liberate an Iraqi city, but Lévy questions the wisdom of the strategy from the outset—and his is soon vindicated by battlefield realities. In Battle, Lévy goes further advocating complete independence and recognition for a Kurdish state than in his previous film, Peshmerga—and again, it is hard to argue with him based on the events he captures on film.
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Saturday, January 04, 2020

Contenders: I Lost My Body

Usually when a severed hand scuttles about of its own accord, it is the stuff of horror movies, as in Evil Dead II, The Beast with Five Fingers (starring Peter Lorre), and Oliver Stone’s The Hand, the undeniable pinnacle of his career. This hand is something different. Instead, it represents humanity in all its tragic pathos throughout Jeremy Clapin’s Oscar-qualified Netflix animated feature, I Lost My Body, which screens during the 2019/2020 season of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Naoufel harbored dreams of being both an astronaut and a concert pianist, until his Moroccan parents are killed in a traffic accident. He subsequently finds himself living in Paris with his cold-hearted uncle and his sleazy older cousin. To pay his share of the expenses, Naoufel works (badly) as a pizza delivery prole, but his frequent tardiness is costly. Then one rainy night, Naoufel has an intriguing conversation with the mysterious Gabrielle through the intercom of her fashionable high-rise building. Soon, he becomes borderline obsessed with her, so he sets out to find the snarky librarian in real, face-to-face life.

As Naoufel’s story unfolds in flashbacks, we follow his former hand as it escapes from some sort of lab and makes its way through the streets of Paris, in search of its full body. We can tell it is indeed Naoufel’s hand by the tell-tale birthmark and based on second act developments, viewers can probably take a credible stab guessing how the two became separated. Yet, the exact circumstances still pack a dramatic punch.
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Friday, January 03, 2020

PSIFF ’20: Zana

It is strange to think widespread belief in fairies (“zanas” in traditional Albanian lore), curses, and witches persists in a modern European. Such seems to be the case in Kosovo, but it is really haunted by post-traumatic stress and the still-raw memories of Serbian war crimes. Lume Kelmendi’s torments are probably more psychological than supernatural, but that most likely means the Albanian Kosovar’s pain is even more acute in Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana, Kosovo’s official international Academy submission, which screens during the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Ever since their daughter was killed during the Kosovo War, Lume and her husband Ilir have struggled to conceive another child. He mostly accepts the situation with grim resolve, but his mother is so anxious for another grandchild, she is openly exploring the possibilities of arranging a second (concurrent) wife for him. That puts a great deal of pressure on Lume, who dutifully allows her mother-in-law to drag her to specialists, faith healers, and witches.

Technically, Lume is physically healthy, but she is clearly unwell psychologically and emotionally. Yet, her husband, parents, and in-laws seem bizarrely lacking in empathy, even though they fully understand what happened to her and share her loss. Granted, Kastrati is also clearly trying to depict the sexism of traditional rural communities, but it is still hard to reconcile their blithe indifference with the truth as we suspect it, which will be duly confirmed in time.

Indeed, none of the film’s revelations are likely to surprise viewers, but that is hardly the point. Instead, it is all about the corrosive effects of grief and misplaced guilt. As Lume, Adriana Matoshi is quietly devastating. This is a slow-burning, deceptively reserved performance, but it lands like a load of bricks dropped from a crane. It is sharply intelligent contrast to the sort of loud and messy, wailing and flailing we would expect from a shtick-maven like Meryl Streep. It is deeply powerful and uncompromising work.
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Thursday, January 02, 2020

Apparition: Another Haunted Foray into Preston Castle

This app is really a piece of supernatural malware. Using it is risky under any circumstances, but the ill effects are exacerbated by human nature and human stupidity. Following it to a place like Preston School of Industry (a.k.a. Preston Castle), possibly the most notorious reform school in America is obviously a bad idea. Nevertheless, that is the premise of Wayman Boone’s Apparition, which concludes its “excuse me” theatrical engagement tonight in Brooklyn.

In real life, Preston was pretty bad, but former wards like Merle Haggard, Neal Cassady, and Edward Bunker lived to talk about it (clearly, it was not very effective in the case of the latter). However, it is hard to believe guards would actually use cigar-cutters to snip off kids’ fingers, as we see in the film’s second nasty prologue. (Yes, it takes forever to get to the primary narrative strand.)

Eventually, we reach the contemporary timeline. At which point, the nice girl Skylar King is marrying evil Warden White’s obnoxious son Derek, for reasons neither of them really understands. On the night of the rehearsal dinner, they start messing around with an app created by Derek’s way-on-the-spectrum brother Sam that creates a connection to the spirit realm. Supposedly, he downloaded some material from the dark web, but there is no serious attempt to explain how it works.

Regardless, Taylor, the daughter of one of White’s deputies, uses it first, to reach her late grandmother, in a deceptively benign encounter. Skyler tries it next—and off they go to the abandoned Preston Castle, with her embittered fiancé griping and moaning the whole way. Fortunately, the vengeful spirits will shut him up. We could watch him get killed several times over, but the Skyler’s companions are rock-stupid but weirdly likable, so they really don’t seem to deserve what’s in store for them.

Apparition goes from being bad in an absolutely appalling way, to being bad in a meat-headed, ham-fisted kind of way. Screenwriters Rob Rose, Boone, Mark S. Allen, and Howard Burd sound like they are going for intentional unintentional humor when they have their characters say things like, “what’s the worst that could happen.”
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Wednesday, January 01, 2020

PSIFF ’20: Our Time Machine

The motto of artist Maleonn’s family could very well be “the show must go on.” His father Ma Ke managed to direct over eighty Chinese Opera productions, even though he was forced to take time off for the Cultural Revolution. Now the artist born Ma Liang is determined to pay tribute to his father with an experimental puppet show while the senior Ma can still appreciate it. Maleonn’s costly, time-consuming project is documented in S. Leo Chiang & Yang Sun’s Our Time Machine, which screens during the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Even though Ma Ke has rewritten several epic drafts of his memoirs, he is losing his memory to Alzheimer’s. Watching it happen is a painful experience for Maleonn, but it directly inspired his new project, Papa’s Time Machine. He often used puppets in his photography, sort of like the work of Gregory Crewdson, but with a pronounced Pinocchio influence. However, this will be his first time mounting a puppetry production on stage.

The allegorical story follows the son of an aging aviator, who creates a time machine to remind his father of the important events of their lives. Unfortunately, developing the puppets and the richly detailed sets proves to be far more complicated (and expensive) than Maleonn and his production managers initially estimated. Soon, the Time Machine project is wildly over budget and running two years behind schedule. On the plus side, Maleonn falls in love with the co-director he recruits for the show.

There is a weird moment in the film when Maleonn tells his parents to ignore he might say and just follow the advice of the Chinese Communist Party instead. Presumably, that is the price it took to get Our Time Machine approved by the Chinese Film Authorities. Of course, it is hard to believe he really means it, especially considering the hardships his parent endured during the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact he was a direct product of those times. The hard labor was particularly taxing for his mother to endure, but she saw that pregnant women were allowed more time to rest, so hence she was soon pregnant with him.
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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Primal: Hunting Big Game with Nic Cage

Nic Cage famously bought two albino king cobras, a Mongolian dinosaur skull, and the reportedly haunted LaLaurie mansion in New Orleans, so it figures he would have an affinity for a hunter who bags a rare white jaguar. However, this hunter-trapper is motivated by mercenary motive rather than a collector’s impulse. Yet, he is not the worst passenger on this slow boat to danger in Nick Powell’s Primal, which releases today on DVD.

Frank Walsh briefly worked at ten zoos before finding his calling as a freelance trapper and seller of rare computer-generated beasts. When he bags the fabled white jag, he sees nothing but dollar signs, but getting it to his transfer point in Mexico will require some off-the-books transit. The dodgy freighter, the Mimer, is his paperwork-free ship of choice, but this time he will have company. The U.S. Marshall Service must transport an apprehended cartel assassin out of Brazil fast, before the government reverts back old 1970s methods of criminal justice. Uncle Sam wants to try Richard Loffler legally, but he has a rare neurologically condition that precludes air-flight.

Naturally, Loffler soon escapes and turns loose Walsh’s beasts to distract his former captors. The white jag is the deadliest of the menagerie, but there are also two venomous snakes unaccounted for. Right, Primal is a lot like Snakes on a Plane on a boat, with Nic Cage thrown in for extra irony. That could be decently entertaining, but screenwriter Richard Leder goes out of its way to tell us the U.S. military trained Loffler to kill, offering him up as a simple-minded microcosm of American foreign policy. Inevitably, the secret bad guy turns out to be an NSA agent, which makes no sense, since the NSA specializes in electronic intel rather than field work. Seriously, if you’re going to slander than American intelligence community, you should at least take the trouble to slime the right agency.
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