J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

BiTS ’19: She Never Died


Unless you are a vampire, immortality usually isn’t much fun in movies. Lacey is a case in point. Initially, she appears to lead a feral, animal-like existence, but she applies a strict moral code to determine who she will kill and feed off. Lacey will find plenty of evil-doers who deserve to have their marrow consumed in Audrey Cummings’ She Never Died, the companion-sequel to Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died, scripted by Krawczyk himself, which screens at this year’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival.

Blessed with immortality and Wolverine-like healing powers, “Lacey” subsists on bone marrow rather than blood. That is why she often removes the fingers of her prey (you could call it finger-food). Of course, such distinctive corpses are likely to draw attention, but in this mid-sized post-industrial Midwest burg, only Charlie Godfrey, a disillusioned but fundamentally decent detective on the verge of retirement, does any serious police work. 

Lacey’s bodies definitely catch his interest, but he is even more concerned about the Remender Siblings’ human trafficking and sicko dark web video enterprise. Lacey has been staking out the Remenders too, so when she crosses paths with Godfrey, he suggests an unlikely alliance.

She Never Died is brutally violent, but enormously effective. There is nothing left to the imagination regarding what goes on inside these warehouse dungeons, so shrinking violets should consider themselves warned. However, the film has a real sense of morality and offers up some serious cathartic payback. Weirdly, it also opens a huge window into the wider mythology of the world in the final minutes, teasing some cosmic cataclysms to come in potential future films.

Regardless, Olunike Adeliyi is not mucking about as Lacey. If you want to see a female-led genre film, She Never Died puts Charlie’s Angels (any of them) to ignoble, humiliated shame. In fact, Meredith Remender is a much more formidable villain than her knuckle-headed brother Terrance. Yet, the irony is most of Lacey’s audience are likely to be red meat-gnawing men.
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The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful


Go might look like a board game, but it can be a full-contact sport in Korea. It has a lot to do with the wagering. Sometimes the stakes are even life and death. That suits a mysterious young Go prodigy just fine. He intends to serve up some revenge as cold and hard as Go stones in Lee Khan’s “spin-off” sequel, The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful, which opens this Friday in New York.

Young Gui-su showed an early aptitude for Go and an early thirst for vengeance after Go master Hwang Duk-yong takes advantage of his naïve older sister, driving her to suicide. All alone in the world, Gui-su has the mostly good fortune to fall in with Hur Il-do, a Go teacher and hustler, somewhat like Fast Eddie Felsen in The Color of Money. They start making the rounds, but the thuggish Busan Weed turns out to be a very poor loser. That leads to more grievances for Gui-su to settle later.

After several years of secluded study, the twentysomething Gui-su emerges for his payback. The main event will be Hwang, but Gui-su will warm up on everyone who ever wronged Hur. He will also make a little money in the process with the help of “Mr. Turd,” his bankroller and comic relief. Meanwhile, the mysterious “Loner” stalks Gui-su, hoping to extract his own vengeance for sins Gui-su committed with Hur.

In a way, The Divine Move franchise is like the Tazza series for the game of Go, right down to the supposedly-in-the-same-world-but-really-only-thematically-related sequels. The Wrathful is also like the latest Tazza film in that it is surprisingly violent and hard-bitten, especially for a film revolving around such a cerebral game. Regardless, it is as gripping as a shark bite and nearly as lethal.
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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Romanians: The Way I Spent the End of the World


Lalalilu “Lali” Matei is only seven years-old, but he still figures out Ceausescu is an evil dictator and his socialist system is corrupt. Obviously, he is not a millennial. Despite the steady propaganda diet he receives at school, the young boy recognizes how much trouble the regime causes for his beloved older sister Eva. However, the year is 1989, so if they can just hold on long enough, life will eventually change (for the better) in Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (executive-produced by non-Romanians, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders), which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

After December 1989, breaking busts of Ceausescu would become a form of national therapy, but it could lead to no end of woe earlier in the year. Unfortunately, Eva and her boyfriend Alex accidentally do exactly that while sneaking off for a bit of necking during class. Vomica is protected by his father, a Party member-police officer, but that leaves Matei to take the fall. Much to Vomica’s surprise (and only his surprise), Matei dumps him soon after. He wants to pick up where they left off, but she will not forgive and forget the way he turned his back on her.

Of course, carrying on the relationship would be problematic after Matei is expelled from the Communist Youth academy. She must now attend the technical school, but there she meets Christian Vararu, the brooding son of a disgraced political prisoner. Meanwhile, little Lali picks up on all her stress, so he tries to organize his bratty friends into a gang that will take direct action against Ceausescu.

Admittedly, Lali and his pals can be a bit too cute, but there is something genuinely touching about his stormy but affectionate relationship with Eva. Even though the narrative is largely told through his eyes, there is no question Dorotheea Petre is the breakout star of TWISTEOTW. She develops richly complex chemistry with all her principle co-stars, whether it be young Lali, privileged Vomica, or morose Vararu (all of whom are less mature than her). She is a teenaged character, but she must deal with some very adult issues, as well as the usual stuff for a 17-year-old.
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The Fare: Love and Time Loops


This must be a Twilight Zone kind of story, because the characters call for taxis rather than Ubers. This particular yellow cab will not get very far. The cabbie’s customer keeps disappearing after he takes her down a lonesome stretch for twenty minutes or so. Then everything resets. Time sure seems to be looping in D.C. Hamilton’s The Fare, which releases today on VOD.

Harris (don’t call him “Harry”) and Penny (like the coin) keep having the same chit-chat over and over—until he starts to remember. It turns out she always did. Finally, their conversation can advance into deeper territory. Unfortunately, they are unable to find a way to break the cycle, but they are clearly developing serious feelings for each other. Regardless, she still disappears and as soon as Harris resets his meter, they are back to where they started.

Obviously, we can’t say too much about a film like this, because it would be spoilery. However, we can almost guarantee you won’t see the twist coming, even though hints are deviously dropped in the early going. Hamilton and screenwriter-co-lead Brinna Kelly engage in some truly masterful misdirection. On the surface, this is a shrewdly simple-to-stage two-person science fiction film that requires virtually no special effects, but the real story is much more complex.

The Fare also happens to be the best genre romance since maybe Benson & Moorhead’s Spring. Kelly and Gino Anthony Pesi are absolutely terrific together. Their chemistry is truly the key. We really care about them as a couple, which is an even greater trick to pull off in this case, because the film must be so cagey about their back-stories. Yet, their mutual affection deepens organically and never feels forced.
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Monday, November 18, 2019

The Romanians: The Great Communist Bank Robbery


They knowingly risked their lives and reputation to steal money that was practically worthless. Even today their motives remain shrouded in mystery. Sadly, we cannot simply ask them, because the Communist regime executed nearly all of the accused bank robbers. Alexandru Solomon investigates the unlikely caper and the state’s sinister response in The Great Communist Bank Robbery, which screens, which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

If the circumstances of the 1959 Romanian bank heist sound familiar, perhaps you saw Nae Caranfil’s excellent narrative film, Closer to the Moon, starring Mark Strong and Vera Fermiga. Although there is a lot we do not know about the incident, due to the regime’s secrecy, the British drama sticks fairly close to the facts as Solomon establishes them.

At that time, Romanian leu were officially unconvertible, due to Romania’s self-imposed isolation. Even in Romanian, leu were practically worthless, because there was practically nothing available in stores, under socialism. Not surprisingly, everyone was desperate for Western hard currency. That is why security was relatively lax for cash transports from the central bank.

There is little debate on the how’s of the robbery, in large part because the robbers re-enacted the caper for a Party-produced propaganda film titled Reconstruction. Solomon uses the film as a lens through which he refracts the Great Bank Robbery case as well as the fundamental realities of life under Communism. He incorporates extensive excerpts, sometimes screening them against the imposing architectural facades left behind like relics of the old regime.

Where Reconstruction most notably departs from the truth is in its depiction of the bank robbers themselves. According to the propaganda film, they were essentially adventurers and anti-social criminals of one sort or another. However, the truth is they were all former Communist Party members in good-standing. They also happened to be Jewish, caught up in the Party’s anti-Semitic purges.
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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Friedkin Uncut: The Exorcist, The French Connection, Etc.


William Friedkin directed the scariest film of all time and he also survived some of the scariest flops in Hollywood history. Two of the latter, Sorcerer and Cruising have enjoyed an appreciative critical reappraisal in the years since their release (but Jade, not so much). All in all, it is quite a career for the filmmaker and his colleagues to reflect on throughout Francesco Zippel’s Friedkin Uncut, which is currently playing in Los Angeles.

When Friedkin first sits down with Zippel and a cup of black coffee, he offers up an extended riff on how Jesus and Hitler are such intriguing characters because of the extremes they represent. This is the sort of material we would expect from a pretentious English major, but once he settles down, Friedkin has plenty of entertaining anecdotes to relate. Wisely, Zippel devotes the most time to The Exorcist and The French Connection, for obvious reasons. Both films were blockbuster hits in the early 1970s, whose power remains utterly undiminished with the passage of years.

Sorcerer and Cruising probably get the next most screen time after his Oscar-winning classics, partly because of the colorfully chaotic stories making-of stories and partly because so many critics and colleagues have come to respect them, especially the former. Again, this totally makes historical and aesthetic sense. To Live and Die in L.A. also gets its due, since it is a good film and introduced most movie-goers to Willem Dafoe and William Peterson. Plus, we see a fair amount of Friedkin promoting his latest, the real-life exorcism documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, but that gives the film an opportunity to revisit his 1973 masterwork again.

Strangely, Rampage and the financial misadventures that kept in shelved for years go unmentioned. Likewise, the roundly reviled Jade is scrupulously ignored, even though Friedkin himself has defended in the past. Frankly, it is always disappointing when these filmmaker profile-docs do not have its subject dish on the dogs in their filmography (seriously, Friedkin probably has some interesting things to say about Deal of the Century).
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Friday, November 15, 2019

The Romanians: Luxury Hotel


For filmmakers, the advantages of living through a real-life dystopia include the highly cinematic locations the regimes leave behind. Of course, for Dan Pita, there was no up-side when he was banned from filmmaking, because his 1983 film Sand Cliffs sufficiently perturbed Ceausescu. About a decade later, he filmed this weird surreal dystopian parable in the dictator’s former palace (now the parliament building). Once again, a sinister and capricious “boss” rules over the exploited workers in Pita’s Luxury Hotel, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians:30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

Alex is an earnest plugger, who thinks he has arrived when he is appointed manager of the Hotel’s flagship restaurant, but as soon as he tries to make improvements, the “boss” slaps him down. Of course, that suits his chief rival and most of the wait staff just fine. Even though he is popular with the patrons (who could well be the surviving ruling class in this ambiguous dystopia), Alex is soon transferred to the Hotel’s warehouse. However, Alex is a restaurant manager at heart. He will petition the Boss and generally drive his former employees to distraction in his efforts to regain his position.

Meanwhile, there are hints of a civil war going on outside and perhaps even inside the hotel. There could very well be a power struggle going on. We never get a good look at the Boss, but he might be a succession of figureheads, somewhat like Number 2 in The Prisoner. Yet, nobody seems to be aware of any of these wider conflicts, except Marta, the privileged femme fatale who makes no secret of her interest in Alex.

The world of Luxury Hotel shares common elements with Late August at the Hotel Ozone and Snowpiercer, but it is superior to both of those films. Frankly, its vision of class conflict within the paranoid surveillance state is not particularly ground-breaking, but the visuals are quite striking. The decaying but still ostentatious palace is indeed quite a sight to behold, which Pita and his cinematographer, Calin Ghibu, fully capitalize on. You truly couldn’t create sets like this.
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The Romanians: The Oak


According to this depiction of the dark, waning days of Ceausescu’s regime, a sort of double-negative principle applied in Romanian. The system was insane, so those who were mad were actually sane. This would describe Nela and Mitica to a “T.” They both have a knack for speaking embarrassing truths and making people around them feel awkward. It is hard to hide behind lies nobody believes when they are around in Lucian Pintilie’s classic The Oak, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

As the film opens, Nela is not dealing well with the death of her beloved father, a member of the secret police with a rather questionable record as a member of the WWII underground. She has been operating in a state of denial, while his days-old body molders in her bed. She even sets fire to the flat to chase off her estranged sister.

Eventually, she will have to move along, but she carries his ashes in a coffee can (that’s a family tradition for some of us). Her father wanted to donate his body to science, but Romania in the lack 1980s had a paucity of refrigeration and a surplus of corpses. Sort of starting over, she relocates to a provincial city, where she is roughed up by a gang of laborer on her first day. Fortunately, the brawling doctor Mitica saves her from the worst of it. She rather digs his two-fisted approach to bureaucracy, his commitment to medicine, and his rude sense of humor. A day or two later, they start acting like a couple, even though neither is really the affectionate sort. Nevertheless, they will stand side-by-side and face some pretty ugly harassment together.

The Oak is definitely an anarchic film, but its free-wheeling style will not trouble viewers who have drunk deeply from the wells of auteurs like Buñuel and Fellini. This is the sort of work that requires a bit of time to settle in. Initially, the shabbiness of the environment and Nela’s ragingly self-destructive behavior seem to work in concert to repel viewers, but she and Mitica evolve into grandly tragic heroes over the time.

Maia Morgenstern and Razvan Vasilescu are terrific as the unmoored but perfectly matched pair. They play off each other well (even for those of us relying on subtitles), while developing some effectively ambiguous chemistry. They run about and act out, but their quiet moments together really reverberate. On the other hand, the supporting cast, a colorful rogue’s gallery worthy of Daumier caricatures, provides no end of noise and chaos.
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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Line of Duty


There is nothing the media enjoys more than tearing down police officers. An internet wannabe like Ava Brooks hardly qualifies as media, but she certainly shares all their biases. However, she will learn just how dangerous it can be to serve as a uniformed officer in Steven C. Miller’s Line of Duty, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Officer Frank Penny was officially cleared of wrong-doing in a prior shooting incident, but his career has still suffered. He really was blameless, but he remains wracked with guilt, due to the acutely agonizing circumstances. He walks a beat these days, fatefully putting him in the perfect place to intercept a fleeing kidnaping suspect.

Unfortunately, Penny is forced to shoot the perp before he can disclose any information on the victim’s whereabouts. Awkwardly, she happens to be the daughter of the police chief. As a further complication, Brooks captures the entire shooting on her live-cast, as well as Penny’s subsequent dressing down. Of course, he goes rogue to rescue the young girl and she does her best to keep up with him, until things start getting violently real. Soon, the odd couple realizes they will have to work together to save the victim and stay alive.

If Line of Duty had been released during the peak of premium cable movie channels, it would have been a mainstay that we would have frequently re-watched. It is no classic, but it is slick, professional, generally reassuring, and highly watchable. Frankly, it is enormously refreshing just to see such a positive portrayal of a police office on-screen. Penny is no superhero, but Aaron Eckhart’s lead performance and Jeremy Drysdale’s screenplay cast him in an acutely human light that actually makes him more sympathetic than an unrealistically perfect action hero.
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DOC NYC ’19: Mai Khoi and the Dissidents


If the New Left anti-war protestors ever really took stock of their legacy, they would have to confront their inadvertent contribution to the abysmal human rights record of modern-day Vietnam, a one-party Communist surveillance state that regularly ranks down at the bottom of press freedom indexes, alongside China and Iran. Recently, the regime has also moved aggressively to curtail the flow of information over the internet. That is the environment the free-thinking recording artist Mai Khoi was forced to operate in. Filmmaker Joe Piscatella follows Khoi during a pivotal period of her career as an artist and an activist in Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC.

Khoi has frequently been dubbed Vietnam’s Lady Gaga, but she is also intelligent and capable of thinking for herself. However, her first big hit was something like the Vietnamese equivalent of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The government certainly promoted it that way, but she continued to grow as an artist. Even more inconveniently, she also developed a social conscience, especially with respects to free speech and women’s rights.

Inevitably, the Party cooled on the once favored Khoi and it became downright hostile when she launched an independent campaign for parliament. In a weird kink of the nation’s electoral laws, rival political parties are expressly prohibited, but independent candidacies are ostensibly legal. Of course, the Party still kept her off the ballot. As the pressure on Khoi mounts, she forms a new band that reflects her concerns and frustrations: “Mai Khoi and the Dissidents.” You know they do not reflect the Party approved aesthetics, because it includes a jazz saxophonist.

Although Dissidents is not quite as intense as Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, the stakes are high throughout the film and Khoi faces genuine peril. Despite its atrocious human rights record, Vietnam has enjoyed a fair amount of sympathetic press in recent years. Dissidents should serve as a sharp rebuke and a bitter antidote to such white-washed coverage.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: Buster Williams Bass to Infinity


The bass is really quite a fitting instrument for a Buddhist jazz musician. It can create a drone-like effect, especially if played arco. Yet, more importantly, the bass provides the selfless foundation that the rest of the ensemble plays over. Bassists frequently comp under soloists and generally “keep the band together,” to quote the words of Buster Williams. He ought to know. Williams played with everyone and has become a popular bandleader in his own right. Viewers get to hang with the virtuoso bassist in Adam Kahan’s Buster Williams Bass to Infinity, which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC.

Williams played with undeniable legends, like Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, and Sarah Vaughan. However, his first professional stint came in the ruckus band co-led by “Boss Tenors” Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. It was quite an education for the young Williams, as viewers learn from his colorful anecdotes and the lively animated sequences that accompany them.

Most of the film is more conventional and laidback, but it slyly builds to a significant point, appropriately delivered by NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock, whose Buster Williams story perfectly represents and encapsulates the film. Disappointingly, we do not get to hear Hancock play with Williams (oh well), but we do hear the bassist perform with famous friends, such as tenor-player Benny Golson, vocalist Carmen Lundy, pianists Kenny Barron and Larry Willis, fellow bassist Rufus Reid, as well as his own ensemble featuring Steve Wilson and George Colligan, so that’s definitely something.

Buster Williams is a likable screen presence throughout the film. Oddly enough, Infinity could be the best opportunity to hear Williams on his own, because he never hogs the solo spotlight, even at his own gigs. He really takes the business of “keeping the band together” seriously. But of course, his musicianship is undeniably accomplished.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

SDAFF ’19: The 12th Suspect


The coffee is bitter and the conversation is depressing. That makes this post-war Seoul tea house the perfect haunt for moopy artists and poets. Unfortunately, their brooding will be interrupted by murder and intrigue in director-screenwriter Ko Myoung-sung’s The 12th Suspect, which screens during the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Most of the artists and literary types patronizing the Oriental Café assume this is just another day, but they are about learn one of their colleagues, poet Baek Doo-hwan, has been murdered. Kim Ki-chae, the investigating officer, makes it clear they are all suspects. However, it is rather odd that he is working the case, because he is with the counter-intelligence service, not the civil police. He also has more revelations to drop, including the involvement of feminist student-activist Choi Yoo-jung, whom many of the patrons carried a torch for.


12th Suspect
starts out as an appealing throwback to old fashioned multi-suspect Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, but it takes a rather ugly and stilted detour into anti-anti-Communist politics during the goodwill-killing second act. However, the third act revelations dig deep into Korea’s tragic history and largely salvage the film with their power and surprise.

Arguably, Kim Sang-kyung comes on too strong and too sinister right from the start as Kim, prematurely tipping us to his villainous nature. On the other hand, Heo Sung-tae and Park Sun-young are acutely human and complex as the café proprietors, prickly No Suk-hyun and his no-nonsense wife, Jang Sun-hwa.
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Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love


For some people, relationships are more frightening than ghosts and monsters. Guys like Damien Booster are a major reason why. However, it is Booster who must face a long night of chills and nightmares in Tyler Cole’s Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love, which releases today on VOD.

Booster has been gaining traction as a podcaster, but that hardly makes him famous in a town like Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he manages to impress Danielle Scott, who starts to develop feelings for him. She even invites Booster to meet her mother at brunch. Unfortunately, he reacts poorly, even by his standards. In fact, he butchers the moment so badly, she flatly breaks up with him.

Of course, Booster is pained by this, but his commitment-phobia is so ingrained, he unable to respond in any halfway appropriate manner. The visit of his old high school buddy Alan should distract him, but instead he acts like a self-absorbed killjoy, which he is. Granted, he has an excuse. Immediately after the break-up, Booster starts experiencing macabre visions or hallucinations revolving around relationship themes. There might even be some kind of spectral energy haunting him.

Philophobia is sort of like a Christmas Carol for bad break-up, but Booster is not explicitly visited by the Ghosts of Relationships Past, Present, and Future. Regardless, it is stakes out some surprisingly fresh genre ground. Old School horror fans might be disappointed the genre elements are not more prominent and graphic, but it could well be a function of Cole’s severely limited budget constraints (like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Philophobia was largely financed with maxed out credit cards).

What might really surprise many viewers is the sharpness of the dialogue, written by screenwriter Aaron Burt, who also plays Booster. Sometimes this film is painful to watch, not due to ghoulish visuals, but because what the characters have to say cuts so deeply.
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Monday, November 11, 2019

Scandalous: The National Enquirer Documentary


Mention of its name might stir nostalgia among those who used to hold it in contempt, just because of it represents a bygone analog distribution model. However, the tabloid journalism it used to practice has practically become the current industry standard. We do not need to feel nostalgic for The National Enquirer, because all of reputable competition have joined it at its scandal-mongering level. With the recent revelations regarding ABC News and the spiking Amy Robach’s Jeffrey Epstein story, it is now clear even the worst practices ascribed to Enquirer happen at entrenched media operations. Current headlines provide quite an ironic context to watch Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Generoso Pope Jr. was the son of Pope Sr., the publisher of Il Progresso and a major figure in the New York Italian American community. He was also reputedly mobbed up. According to Scandalous, that is where Pope Jr. went to get money to buy The New York Evening Enquirer, a sleepy New York weekly that mostly covered horse racing at that point. Pope quickly changed the name to reflect his national ambitions and started shifting the editorial focus. Initially, it specialized in an especially grisly brand of crime journalism, but it truly found its identity and its market with celebrity scandals.

The former employees (including Judith Regan) heard throughout Scandalous essentially confirm all our assumptions regarding the tabloid. They very definitely paid for tips and maintained somewhat looser standards for what newsworthy and “true.” Their coverage of Gary Hart and O.J. Simpson get called out as the highpoints in the paper’s history, with justification. However, the Enquirer’s greatest victory could very well be the photo taken surreptitiously of the deceased Elvis Presley on view in his casket.

Of course, Landsman does his best to exploit Trump’s ties to the Enquirer, using various talking heads to allege the paper spiked stories exposing his infidelities and personal misadventures in return for consideration of various sorts. Ironically, there was allegedly a similar arrangement in place for Trump’s sworn enemy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point, Carl Bernstein looks straight into the camera and tells viewers with all due seriousness that there is no greater journalistic sin than deliberately spiking legitimate news stories. So, who wants to ask Bernstein for a comment on the Amy Robach tape?
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Saturday, November 09, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

Obama became first U.S. president to visit Myanmar (or Burma as most Burmese still call it), even returning a second time. Everything was sunshine and rainbows until things suddenly got awkward again. Aung San Suu Kyi’s stock has plummeted in recent years, but Karen Stokkendal Poulsen takes a necessary step back to put current controversies in a fuller historical context. Viewers get a sense of how Burma’s tragic past has shaped its frustrating present in On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, which screens tonight during this year’s DOC NYC.

Aung San Suu Kyi might have fallen from grace, but we still love Michelle Yeoh’s portrayal in The Lady. Poulsen briefly covers her celebrated years of house arrest, but she dives deeply into the transitional period following her release. Burma was sort of democratizing, but the ruling generals had devised enough loopholes to ensure their continuing hold on power. The military was guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament and article 59 (f) expressly prohibited Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as the nation’s president.

However, she was elected to parliament, but that meant serving alongside former leaders of the not-so old regime. The guts of Poulsen’s doc really examine the implications of this situation, which are fascinating. Frankly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation would be secure today if she just voted no on everything and told the general to stick it in their ears. Instead, she tried to reach out and form alliances to get things done. Of course, making the repeal of 59 (f) a priority doesn’t exactly burnish her image in retrospect.

Poulsen does not let Aung San Suu Kyi off the hook for her response (or lack of a response) to the systematic attacks on Rohingya Muslims, but she also makes it clear how precarious her current position is. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the chilling consequences of the assassination of her legal advisor, who also happened to be Muslim. Frankly, it could well be that the film stops just as Aung San Suu Kyi’s third act might start (as time will perhaps tell).
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Friday, November 08, 2019

Danger Close: Anzacs in Vietnam


Many people no longer understand America fought the Vietnam War alongside many coalition partners, notably including the South Koreans, who contributed the second most troops after the U.S. Even our Brazilian friends joined to the war effort, albeit on a much smaller scale. Australian and New Zealand were also very much present and accounted for. In fact, they fought like absolute Hell during the Battle of Long Tan. A mere 108 ANZAC soldiers held off over two thousand North Vietnamese. Long Tan comes life in bloody but enormously cinematic fashion in Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close, which opens today in New York.

It is 1966 and at first blush, the Anzacs look like the sort of good-natured mates and blokes we expect from Aus and NZ. However, it is quickly apparent that does not describe Maj. Harry Smith. The former commando drives his men hard—maybe too hard—but the discipline he instills gives them the best chance of surviving the war. At least that is what his lieutenants thought until they were dispatched to the overgrown Long Tan rubber plantation.

Intelligence suggested there was maybe a platoon or two in the area. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent Smith’s divided forces have been flanked by at least a battalion and perhaps a full regiment. Yet, instead of retreating (as per orders), Smith regroups and reunites his men and digs in to hold off the North Vietnamese. It will be rough for everyone.
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DOC NYC ’19: Ai Weiwei Yours Truly


Ai Weiwei has arguably succeeded Warhol and Picasso as the most recognizable artist of his times. He has also succeeded Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn as the most recognizable dissident of our current era. The Mainland Communist regime is less than thrilled about both scores. Ai’s dissidence (as well as that of his father before him clearly informs his art, as his curator Cheryl Haines clearly documents in Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

For nearly three months, Ai was held incommunicado on bogus charged. He was then released, but placed under house and his passport was confiscated. It was under these circumstances Ai challenged Haines to help bring his art to an even greater international audience. Her idea to mount a site-specific show at the notorious Alcatraz island prison was fraught with complications, but the creative possibilities and symbolism fired Ai’s creative imagination. Much like banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi directing over the phone during his house arrest, Ai planned out the project from his Beijing workshop, relying on Haines to oversee the implementation on-site.

Clearly, the scale and historical significance of Alcatraz well-suited Ai’s art—perhaps better than most museums could. Patrons saw large scale installations that have been interpreted as tributes to the oppressed Tibetan people and his father, Chinese modernist poet Ai Qing, who was beaten, publicly humiliated, and ostracized during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.

Yet, the clear centerpiece of the show was “Yours Truly” that depicted Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience held at the time around the world and then invited patrons to write postcards to any of the subjects whose cases particularly moved them. However, Haines clearly focus on Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning as the centerpiece of the “Yours Truly” “dissidents,” which is problematic.
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Thursday, November 07, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: What We Left Unfinished


It is estimated the Taliban destroyed 200-300 Afghan motion pictures during their oppressive misrule. That is indefensibly horrifying, but at least it was not the complete and total destruction of Cambodian cinema wrought by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Ironically, five of the films that survived were incomplete Soviet occupation-era propaganda movies that will remain unfinished, because the featured actors have long since aged out of their roles or passed away. Veterans of the Afghan film industry contemplate its tumultuous past and uncertain future through the lens of these films in Mariam Ghani’s documentary, What We Left Unfinished, which screens today at DOC NYC 2019.

The films spanned a period from 1978 to 1991 and all had mostly wrapped their principal shoots, but they were halted due to regime changes, political infighting, and civil strife. Daoud Farani’s The April Revolution even featured the current General Secretary-Strongman Hafizullah Amin playing himself in the hagiographic biography he also wrote. Alas, his Soviet sponsors turned on him after three months, prompting the assassination that cut short the production.

There is no question Farani’s interrupted film is the most interesting of the quintet. To a large extent, Faqir Nabi’s Downfall, Khalek Halil’s The Black Diamond, Juwansher Haidary’s Wrong Way, and Latif Ahmadi’s Agent all have a similar look and feel, having been shot between 1987 and 1991 and feature tales of evil Westerners and heroic Afghan cops from the drug enforcement and counter-espionage squads. Think of the roughest, cheapest South Asian films you have seen and then try to envision them even more stilted.

Ghani takes a quiet, meditative approach, but her film lacks the emotional wallop of Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, his documentary elegy for Cambodia’s cinematic heritage, which is the obvious comparison film. Ghani’s participants are also in an awkward position of admitting they accepted Communist regime funding and were very definitely expected to tow the Party’s line (although some claim they still stayed true to reality and their creative visions).
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Wednesday, November 06, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: In Bright Axiom


If you ever find yourself wondering “hey, am I in a cult,” then dude, mostly likely you are. Still, it is understandable why it would be hard to tell in the case of the House of Latitude. Secrecy was supposedly their watch word, but everyone was perfectly willing to participate in director-editor-co-writer-co-cinematographer Spencer McCall’s documentary, In Bright Axiom, which screens during DOC NYC 2019.

The origins of the House of Latitude go back to a fantastical era never documented in official human history. It had been dormant for centuries, but it rose from the ashes in the back alleys and brew pubs of San Francisco.

Just what is the House of Latitude? Essentially, it is the Jejune Institute 2.0. That is why those who have already seen McCall’s previous (and superior) “documentary,” The Institute will quite likely be a bit disappointed in Axiom. It is an unusually slick and stylish hybrid-doc-thingy, but The Institute maintained a greater sense of mystery. Frankly, the Latitude backstory is not as compelling either.
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Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Bare Knuckle Brawler


Technically, they are both the victims and the perpetrators, but underground fighters do not make the rules and they reap little reward for their efforts. It is the criminal gangs promoting the fights that make all the money. A particularly nasty outfight is cutting through palookas like tissue paper, but they will mess with the wrong family of martial artists in Joe Gawalis’s Bare Knuckle Brawler, which releases today on DVD.

Joey Calderon was always the perfect son, following in the footsteps of his retired cop-sensei-father, Mike Calderon. Unfortunately, Steve Calderon was the family black sheep, but he is the only son their father has left after Joey is murdered by the fight-club gang he infiltrated. Of course, Steve is determined to bring Santo Ariza and his henchmen to justice, despite his father’s best efforts to dissuade him.

That is the tried-and-true premise of Knuckle in a nutshell. Granted, the narrative is not exactly overly complicated, but the fights scenes are impressively brutal. Yet, that arguably puts us a similar position to that of degenerate modern-day Coliseum spectators cheering for each death in the ring.

Frankly, Knuckle looks cheap and sub-professional. However, the greatest disappointment is the complete and baffling way the film under-employs Martin Kove (the mean-spirited Sensei Kreese in the Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise) as the Calderon patriarch. At least he gets to work with his son Jesse Kove, who portrays the ill-fated Calderon brother, while he is alive.
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SAF3 2: Under Pressure, Starring Dolph Lundgren


It is a lot like Baywatch, but there is more focus on rescues than bikinis (but it is not completely disinterested, mind you). It also happens to be a TV show, re-edited into feature-length form. Regardless, the men and women of the Malibu Fire Department’s special “sea-air-fire” rescue unit are admirably fit and dedicated in Gary Capo’s SAF3 2: Under Pressure, which releases today on DVD, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

SAF3 (pronounced “safe,” not “saf-three”) is an elite team but morale is low, due to a recent disaster that hit home hard. They are still mourning one team member and rooting for the rehabilitation of Alonzo Rivera, who suffered severe burns over much of his body. To add insult to injury, SAF3 might be shut down by shrinks and bureaucrats. Nevertheless, SAF3 continues to answer distress calls.

There is no question John Eriksson is their leader—and don’t you forget it—because he is played by the legendary action star and anti-human trafficking activist Dolph Lundgren. He still performs rescues, but he is a bit of a Baywatch Picard. Of course, he has his own demons to battle, but they are nothing compared to Rivera’s challenges, both physical and emotional.

The travails of SAF3 are definitely the stuff of middling episodic television, but there is at least one pretty interesting rescue. Led by Eriksson, SAF3 must shepherd five survivors trapped in a submerged air-pocket up to safety, with only four air tanks for them all. This might sound like a broken record, but Lundgren gives the show more credibility than it probably deserves, because he is still built like Ivan Drago and projects the right air of authority.
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Monday, November 04, 2019

CineCina ’19: The Shadow Play


Historically speaking, the leading cause of political corruption has been questions of land use, so it almost goes without saying a successful real estate development company must be up to their eyeballs in graft in a society like Mainland China, where public corruption is so pervasive. That is certainly the case for Violet Gold Real Estate, an outfit whose meteoric success is particularly suspicious since its founder’s seed capitol came from Taiwan. As a Communist Party member, it was Tang Yijie’s job to know where the bodies were buried, until he became one of them in Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play, which screened as part of this year’s CineCina Film Festival—and is currently available for viewing on international American Airlines flights under its alternate title, Cloud in the Wind.

In the stunningly cinematic opening sequences, a riot breaks out in a Guangzhou slum, where Violet Gold is evicting longtime residents for the sake of a high-profile development scheme. Tang is dispatched to make peace and deal with the media, but instead, a shadowy figure pushes him off a roof, impaling him on a piece of rebar. Hot-shot police detective Yang Jiadong starts working the case, quickly concluding Tang’s not-so-grieving widow Lin Hui and Violet Gold’s founder Jiang Zicheng are most likely involved in the crime and with each other. He also suspects the unsolved disappearance of Lian Ah Yun, Jiang’s lieutenant and a close friend of Lin, is somehow related. Unfortunately, his investigation will be slightly sidetracked when the tabloid media catches him sleeping with Lin, one of his leading suspects.

Shadow Play is an epic noir that spans decades and indicts just about every level of Mainland society. It is easy to see why the state authorities kept the film on pins and needles waiting for the authorization for its international premiere. Frankly, it is rather surprising it was finally granted at the last minute, but not for reasons of quality. This is a flat-out masterwork from Lou—arguably even a masterpiece. It functions as a crime drama with brutal efficiency, but it also has the sweep and dramatic irony of classical tragedy.

Just about the entire cast deserves award consideration, starting first and foremost with Song Jia, who covers the terrain between femme fatale and deeply-wronged victim with compelling ferocity. Qin Hao similarly keeps the audience guessing with his intense yet ambiguously mysterious turn as Jiang. Completing the primary triangle, Zhang Songwen is absolutely loathsome yet acutely human as the “victim,” Tang.
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Thursday, October 31, 2019

John Carpenter’s Halloween


Two films released in the late 1970s had a disproportionate influence on the movie business in the 1980s. Stars Wars was one. This is the other. It inspired an army of imitators, a platoon of inferior sequels, and what is still considered the most violent Atari game ever. Its place in history has been codified by its selection for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry—and its still scary. John Carpenter’s Halloween screens tonight in New York and probably somewhere near you, because its Halloween.

For some reason, all the parents in Haddonfield, IL always choose to enjoy a date night on Halloween, leaving their children in the care of sitters. Ordinarily, that means good money for Laurie Strode and her friends, but this year they will be stalked by a monstrous psychopath who has just escape from a criminal insane asylum. You know his name: Michael Myers. You also recognize his iconic William Shatner mask.

Logically, Myers should not be such a superman, since he has sat silently in an apparent catatonic state since murdering his older sister on a fateful Halloween at the tender age of six. Unfortunately, there is nothing logical about pure, unalloyed evil. Dr. Samuel Loomis understands that. He is a headshrinker with a license to practice and to carry, the latter because Myers so profoundly freaks him out. He will follow Myers back to his old hometown of Haddonfield, where the escaped patient will become obsessed with Strode.

Even in 1978, the screenplay, co-written by Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill, was not exactly revolutionary, but the way the elements combined was like lightning in a bottle. First and foremost, it is impossible to overstate how much Carpenter’s music adds to the overall vibe of mounting fear. It is not just the instantly recognizable opening theme. The entire soundtrack potently enhances the mood and worms its way into your ear.

Halloween also establishes the signature look of Carpenter’s films, thanks to Dean Cundey’s soft yet sinister lensing. In many ways, Halloween resembles an evil Norman Rockwell painting. Frankly, it is weird that there haven’t regular Cundey retrospectives, since he also shot films like The Thing, Jurassic Park, Psycho II, and the Back to the Future trilogy.
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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Creepshow: Skincrawlers/By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain


Sometimes monsters are a metaphor for man’s inhumanity. Other times, they are just icky, slimy buggers. The first of monster of the Creepshow season finale is both, but they are much more the latter, whereas the episode’s second monster is more about the former. Either way there will be monsters in the first season capper of Creepshow, which just debuted on Shudder.

In Skincrawlers, Dr. Sloan has developed a radical weight loss technique employing a rare form of monster leech he discovered in South America. Yep, you already get the idea. He has no shortage of volunteers to help launch his treatment, but Henry Quayle is still skeptical. Nevertheless, the transformation of a fellow fatty into a hottie convinces him to be the volunteer for Sloan’s big TV premiere, but there will be complications.


Skincrawlers
is absolutely vintage Creepshow. It is gleefully gory and disgusting, but the blood and slime is all in good tasteless fun. Screenwriters Paul Dini and Stephen Langford serve up big laughs and director Roxanne Benjamin keeps upping the WTF stakes. This is what Creepshow and the E.C. Comics that inspired it were all about. As an added bonus, Dana Gould keeps it all mostly grounded, playing Quayle with sad-clown-dignity—and handling the gallons of practical effects like a champ.

It is therefore surprising the first season ends with the middling By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain, even though it is based on a Joe Hill short story and is directed by Tom Savini (thereby establishing another apostolic link to the 1982 movie). In fact, Lake Champlain follows a narrative course that is very similar to that of Creepshow’s The Companion, based on a Joe R. Lansdale story. In this case, a sea monster replaces a killer scarecrow, but domestic violence still represents a more pressing danger.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

10 Minutes Gone: Bruce Willis & Michael Chiklis Go Head-to-Head


There is a lot of baldness in this caper, but maybe that makes sense. There will definitely be less chance of leaving behind follicle evidence that way. The job still goes down spectacularly badly, resulting in the death of Frank Sullivan’s brother. Bruce Willis and Michael Chiklis star in Brian A. Miller’s 10 Minutes Gone, which releases today on DVD.

Everything was going smooth as silk with the bank vault job Sullivan was hired to pull, until suddenly it wasn’t. The cops just showed up out of nowhere. However, it was probably one of Sullivan’s own guys who cold-cocked him and killed his brother. Rather curious to find out who it was, Sullivan stalks each one of them, so they can have words. Meanwhile, Rex, the contractor who hired the heist specialist wants to have his own words with Sullivan. His client paid to recover a package from the safety boxes. Sullivan and his brother briefly had it, but now it is presumably in the killer’s possession.

10 Minutes starts off pretty promising, but it turns out to be way too simplistic. Frankly, it is painfully obvious who the snake in the grass is, just because the cast of characters is so small. It is also hard to buy Chiklis in his action scenes, because he is such a big target and way too slow. On the other hand, it is amusing to watch Willis chew the scenery as the snarky big boss. He and Texas Battle are more interesting arguing with each other as contractor and client than Chiklis bickering with Meadow Williams playing his brother’s girlfriend, whom he has promised to keep safe.
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Monday, October 28, 2019

The World is Full of Secrets: Think of Them as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


For horror enthusiasts, story-tellers sometimes become as important as their stories. Think of the fandom inspired by the likes of Poe and King and Wes Craven and Dario Argento. When done right, the act of story-telling stirs something primal on an archetypal Beowulf level. These girls are perhaps not the greatest story-tellers, but they inadvertently reveal much about themselves as they spin their yarns in screenwriter-director Graham Swon’s The World is Full of Secrets, which opens this Thursday at the Anthology Film Archives (check them out getting into the Halloween spirit).

Clara survived whatever happened that fateful night in 1996, but it had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her parents left her alone while they took some kind of trip, as they always do, but they had no problem with her inviting a few friends over (no boys, of course). To pass the languid time, Susie challenges each girl to tell the most disturbing real-life anecdote they ever heard. Looking back decades later, Clara can’t really remember the first story itself, but we can see how innocently animated her friend gets in the telling.

Emily’s story might just confuse and discomfort a lot of viewers, because it chronicles the brutal martyring of a young Christian women during the repressive pagan years of the Roman empire. However, Clara drops ominous hints that the horrors the Roman protagonist would later befall the storyteller as well.

By far, the scariest story we hear is the one told by Suzie, who suggested the competition in the first place. It is a brutal tale that describes how easily average people can slip into criminal madness through boredom and peer pressure, but what really makes it frightening is the way Swon and young thesp Ayla Guttman insidiously hint that perhaps Susie was in fact one of the participants in this grisly affair.
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Saturday, October 26, 2019

Zomboat!: Sailing through the Zombie Apocalypse


Sometimes a zombie apocalypse is like basic training or freshman dorm assignments. People get thrown together and have to make the best of it. Of course, Jo and Kat know each other, but they are not so good at working with each other in an amicable manner. They do not know bickering best pals Sunny and Amar from Adam, but their fates become intertwined when zombies start terrorizing Birmingham in the horror sitcom, Zomboat!, which is now streaming on Hulu.

Kat is the gamer with an encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies, so she thinks she is well prepared for zombiegeddon. Jo is the girly, social media obsessed one, who is pretending to be over her ex, even though she is cyber-stalking and smart phone-tracking him. The thing about him is he owns a houseboat. Kat is convinced they can just sail it through the canals to London. Jo is not so convinced, but she doesn’t have a better idea. Neither do Sunny and Amar, who were hiding below deck.

At this point, zombie spoofs are nearly as abundant and cliched as straight-up zombie horror movies, so any newcomers must overcome a great deal of skepticism. Frankly, Zomboat probably sounds a lot like Cockneys vs. Zombies without the EastEnder accents, which it sort of is, but that film was a lot of film, so we could do far worse.
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Friday, October 25, 2019

AFF ’19: DC Noir


George Pelecanos is a master of Beltway crime fiction, but he is drawn more to grittier neighborhoods like Baltimore and Anacostia than tonier Fairfax and Georgetown. That’s where the bodies are—and also quite a few stressed out cops. Known as a novelist as well as a writer-producer for shows like The Wire, Pelecanos adapts his own short stories in the anthology feature-pilot, D.C. Noir, with segments directed by Pelecanos himself, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stephen Kinigopoulos, and his son Nicholas Pelecanos, which screens during the 2019 Austin Film Festival.

Pelecanos’ first story, “The Lovers,” is probably the most traditionally James M. Cain-ish “noir.” It features a high-powered lawyer who wants a permanent, low-cost divorce from his much younger and consequently unfaithful wife. However, the armed robbery specialist he sought to recruit tries to roll over on the counselor when he is busted by Det. Mitch Brooks, who passes it along to an undercover colleague—with unintended consequences.

Akinnagbe is terrific as Brooks and he also helms the best story of the quartet: “String Music.” It has a distinctively moody, late night vibe, but it is impossible to overstate what the great character actor Jay O. Sanders brings to the table as world-weary beat cop Sergeant Peters (or “Sgt. Dad”). Marcus Craig-Bradford is all kinds of intense as Tonio Harris, a youth getting pulled against his will into a potentially violent rivalry, but what is really compelling is the way Sgt. Peters interacts with the people on his beat. You really can call it “community policing.”

Probably the most conventional tale would be “Miss Mary’s Room,” directed by the younger Pelecanos, in which two friends find their bonds of loyalty threatened by the harsh realities of criminal life. We have seen this sort of thing many times before, but Judith Hoag elevates the material with her poignant portrayal of the titular mother.
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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Creepshow: Night of the Paw/Times is Tough in Musky Holler


You know W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” must be a horror classic when it gets satirized on The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror. Shudder’s Creepshow also riffs on the fateful paw in what could well be its best story of the season. Three wishes lead to some serious monkey business in the latest episode of Creepshow, which premiered last night.

The widowed undertaker Avery Whitlock is not surprised when a mystery woman collapses on his doorstep. It is the power of the paw, after all. Of course, he did not ask for this specifically, but the monkey digits work in mysterious ways. After patching her up, he will give her the full history of his involvement with the paw. It still grants three wishes, but in ghoulishly unexpected ways, as was the case in Jacobs’ original tale.  John Esposito’s teleplay somewhat parallels Jacobs, but it has some fresh twists to offer. Unfortunately, Whitlock’s reluctant patient will miss the most important implications of his experiences, but isn’t that always the way?

“Paw” is a wonderfully macabre yarn that is so aptly suited to the Creepshow/E.C. Comics aesthetic, especially its sinister kicker. Academy award nominee Bruce Davison is perfectly cast as Whitlock, making him a rather weird but tragically poignant figure. Plus, the design of the grotesque paw is wonderfully creepy.

“Paw” is one of Creepshow’s best, but it is paired up with the worst so far. Presumably, “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” was intended to be a commentary on the power of fear to corrode communities, somewhat in the tragic of Twilight Zone episode, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” but it has none of Rod Serling’s insight or the power of helmer Abner Biberman’s’ stark imagery.
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