J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Revelator: His Name is John and He Sees the Dead

John Dunning can see dead people, but is he ever defensive about it. The last person he should be teaming up with is an ambitious journalist trying to work her way out of listicle Hell, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Dunning was born desperate, thanks to his incessant visions of the dead and the increasingly severe mental stress they have caused. However, he might achieve some measure of relief and redemption if he does not completely crack-up in J. Van Auken’s Revelator (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

The only dead person Dunning has not been able to see is his late wife, a school teacher who drowned with her students in a freak ferry accident. Every three years, he moves into a brand-new apartment complex, because that is generally how long it takes before the first resident dies in the building. Unfortunately, that leaves little money for anything else. Despite his shady rep, Dunning has amassed little through his gifts.

The closest thing he had to a patron has just passed away. By law, he stands to inherit an unusual property from her, but the wealthy and powerful Bellevue family intends to contest the will into eternity, unless he can solve the mystery surrounding the death of patriarch Carmine Bellevue’s developmentally-challenged son. When scuffling journalist Valerie Krueger sniffs out the story, she sets off Dunning’s alarm bells, but he still lets her observe him at work, because he needs a regular ride. Dunning can indeed see the late poor Jacob, but in a somewhat unsetting turn of events, he also seems to see Dunning.

Revelator might have a few rough edges, like most first features, but Van Auken offers up a number of fresh wrinkles on the psychic spirit-chaser genre. In fact, some of the eeriest incidents actually do not happen on-screen, but are related as evocative confessionals. That also means they are quite well written.

Directing himself as the lead might sound like a vanity project or a decision mandated by a rigid budget constraint, but Van Auken arguably projects the right world weary, spiritually-deflated psyche for the literally haunted Dunning. Yet, the real discovery is Mindy Rae, who is terrific as the brash but also somewhat broken Krueger. (Careful googling her, because there is another Rae, who is completely different and totally NSFW.) Plus, Greg Lucey does his best to channel the Hammer Horror greats as Old Man Carmine, which is definitely not a bad thing.

When Van Auken starts working with bigger budgets and greater technical resources, he should produce something really distinctive. Yet, the talent and freshness to be seen in Revelator already make it worth searching out. (We’re happy to give it a positive review now—and suspect we’ll look like geniuses for it, in a few years.) Recommended for genre fans looking for the next new thing, Revelator opens this Friday (8/25) in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall.


Frightfest ’17: Voice from the Stone

Ever since the death of his mother, young entitled Jakob Rivi has refused to talk. For some reason, his sculptor father Klaus considers this a problem, rather than a consolation. More nurses have been fired at the Rivi estate than Trump West Wing staffers, but the oddly intense Verena might be different. However, she might be dealing with supernatural matters outside her area of expertise in Eric D. Howell’s Voice from the Stone (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Frightfest in the UK.

To call the Rivi’s home a manse or a villa would be an understatement. It has crenellations. It has also seen better days. Much of the masonry is chipped and cracking, unfortunately including Jakob’s room. Ever since the death of his pianist mother Malvina (doesn’t “mal” usually mean bad?), he has supposedly heard her speaking to him through the aperture in his wall. It seems he is afraid that if he starts talking, she will stop.

Enter Verena (presumably named after St. Verena, the patron saint of nurses and lepers, don’t you reckon?). At first, she is having none of Jakob’s spookiness. Yet, as her protective mothering instincts start to kick in, she begins to suspect there maybe something to it after all. The more driven she is to help Jakob, the more she and Klaus feel their powerful mutual attraction. She even starts sitting as a model for his unfinished statue of Malvina after he realizes how much they look alike. Yeah okay, if he says so, but not really.

Based on Silvio Raffo’s Italian novel, Stone clearly echoes Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, but it is really stingy with the sinister elements until late in the third act. There is at least one uncanny plot twist supposedly hiding in plain sight, but it is distractingly obvious (especially considering one late 1990s blockbuster is famously constructed around a similar revelation).

What works here is the atmospheric, Hammer-esque 1950s costumes, sets, and trappings. Castle Rivi and the family mausoleum are terrific gothic locations, but Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas are no Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Of the two, he fares the better, mostly just brooding and glowering like Edward Rochester’s less imposing cousin. The work of Clarke, (a Game of Thrones fan favorite) is rather lightweight, but she tries to compensate by opening her eyes impossibly wide. It is hard to imagine anyone would confuse her with Caterina Murino, which is why the audience starts to pine for Malvina along with Jakob (let’s just say he looks awkward on-screen and leave it at that).

Stone looks great, but it has no passion or sense of urgency. It is a strange choice for Howell, considering the grittiness of his Oscar-shortlisted short Ana’s Playground, but one could argue both films fully capitalize on the architecture of their settings. The ending almost redeems Voice from the Stone, but there are much better genre films at this year’s Frightfest UK, including Psychopaths, Sequence Break, Game of Death, Mansfield 66/67, The Villainess, Devil’s Gate, Meatball Machine Kodoku, and the short film Bad Heads. Here in the U.S., it is already available on DVD, but it has its UK premiere this Friday (8/25), as part of Frightfest.

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Monday, August 21, 2017

The Villainess: Kim Ok-vin Vanquishes All Pretenders

Sook-hee is a lot like La Femme Nikita, but she lends herself more readily to Freudian analysis. Gangster Joon-sang became both her father figure and fiancé, so when a rival gang killed him, she decided to wipe them out, with no regard for her own life. Of course, when Sook-hee, now working for a shadowy assassination agency, discovers Joon-sang is still alive and most likely betrayed her, you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to guess how she might react. The body-count is truly awe-inspiring in Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After learning of Joon-sang’s supposed death, Sook-hee launches a frontal assault on the gang that allegedly did it. Think of this sequence as the hallway scene from Oldboy, raised to the power of one hundred, but initially seen through Sook-hee’s POV, a la Hardcore Henry. However, Jung uses a cleverly transition to pop back to a standard omniscient viewer perspective about halfway through the opening carnage.

Sook-hee never expected to live through her super-charged vengeance-taking, but her conspicuous skills catch the eye of Chief Kwon, who oversees a double-secret counter-terror and organized crime agency. Basically, they are a death squad, but whatever. If Sook-hee gives them ten years of service, she can reclaim her life. It won’t be such a bad deal. She will assume the identity of aspiring actress Chae Yeon-soo and she will be able to maintain custody of the daughter she didn’t know she was pregnant with.

Unbeknownst to the reinvented Chae/Sook-hee, her new neighbor is also her handler Hyun-soo, who is deliberately worming his way into her life and confidence. However, he legitimately falls for her and duly adores her daughter too. Then one fine day, Chae is ordered to assassinate a target that turns out to be Joon-sang. Chaos ensues.

Granted, there is a bit of slack in the middle of Villainess, but it is hard to judge it harshly when the extended, relentlessly pedal-to-metal action sequences at the beginning and end are so spectacularly cinematic. Jung started in the business as a stuntman, so he has always had an affinity for action, but he takes it to a new level of artistry in Villainess. It is the sort of film you will want to re-watch with a clicker to try to keep track of the escalating death toll.

This summer, Hollywood has been congratulating itself for casting women in action roles, but they are rather late to the party, considering how long martial arts superstars like Cheng Pei-pei, Angela Mao Ying, Kara Hui, and Michelle Yeoh have thrown down in Hong Kong productions. Nice try studio guys, but as Sook-hee, Kim Ok-vin blows away all the phonies, pretenders, and Johnny-come-latelies. She is a trained martial artist, so she has the chops, but she also has Eastwood levels of steely intensity. When she shares the screen with Shin Ha-kyun’s charismatically manipulative and villainous (so to speak) Joon-sang, all bets are off. Yet, for elegant ruthlessness, it is tough to beat Kim Seo-hyung’s deliciously imperious Chief Kwon.

The Villainess is an action film that delivers over and over again and then some more. As soon as you have seen the first half-hour, you will think of Sook-hee as an action icon. The brutally cathartic fight scenes should firmly establish Jung as a modern master, but he gets a key assist from cinematographer Park Jung-hun, whose work is by turns evocatively noir or wildly frenetic. When it comes to women action protags, Kim Ok-vin can’t be beat. Very highly recommended, The Villainess opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Polina: Juliette Binoche can Dance

Not much has changed in Russia. The president is a former KGB officer and the Bolshoi Ballet is still the nation’s most prestigious cultural institution. For an aspiring dancer like Polina Oulinov, rebelling against the Bolshoi is like any other Russian rebelling against Putin. Yet, she will risk a brilliant career to pursue modern dance in Valérie Müller & Angelin Preljocaj’s Polina (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Oulinov is not a superhero, but she can endure great physical pain and she was first brought to life in the pages of Bastien Vivès’ like-titled graphic novel. Although she was supposedly never that “supple,” young Oulinov was still admitted to the ballet school of the great Bojinski, a legendary choreographer who ran afoul of Soviet censors from time to time. He is hard on her, but he also helps her find the key to ace the entrance exam for Moscow’s leading ballet high school.

During her teen years, Oulinov steadily develops her art, but she still returns for tutoring from Bojinski. As a result, she easily aces the Bolshoi audition, but a special performance from a visiting French modern dance troupe convinces her to forsake the venerable ballet company to pursue modern dance in Aix-en-Provence. For a while, she makes progress under Liria Elsaj’s tutelage, but her prima ballerina attitude eventually clashes with the troupe’s cooperative ethos. Thus, begins a period of scuffling across France and Belgium.

Evidently, Juliette Binoche really can do it all. A few years ago, she performed in a legit dance production choreographed by Akram Khan, so it makes perfect sense to cast her as Elsaj. In fact, most of her on-screen performance comes through her dancing, which is impressive. Yet, her straight talk to Oulinov also leaves a lasting impression.

Likewise, Anastasia Shevtsova, a member of the Mariinsky, has all the chops you would expect. She is also quite a good screen thesp, making us despise and yet sympathize with Oulinov, in equal measure. Jérémie Bélingard (of the Paris Opera) compliments her perfectly, both in terms of dance steps and romantic chemistry. Yet, it is Aleksei Guskov who really gives the film its soul, even though Müller and Preljocaj have too much integrity for any tearful summation scenes between teacher and former pupil.

In fact, Müller the screenwriter and Preljocaj the acclaimed choreographer share duties at the helm without any apparent Jekyll-and-Hyde effects. They stage the performances in visually interesting ways and bring out the characters’ passion for dance. Their primary cast-members are used quite shrewdly, but they also get a key assist from Yurie Tsugawa and her partner, whose pivotal performance of Snow White is so arresting, we can believe it would send Oulinov off packing to France.

One thing comes through loud and clear during Polina: a dancer’s life is not for the weak of heart or limb. Despite a few melodramatic indulgences, it is a surprisingly honest and even gritty film. Plus, Juliette Binoche has space to show off talents many of her admirers have not had a chance to appreciate. Recommended for patrons of French cinema and modern dance, Polina opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.

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Eclipse Viewing: Night of the Comet

The Sun and the Moon exert an influence over the Earth every day of the year, so there is no rational reason to fear the eclipse. However, after revisiting this awesome Eighties cult classic, the idea of gazing heavenwards with a large group of strangers feels like an invitation to bad karma. Skip the eclipse and find a steel-lined shed instead, to watch Thom Eberhardt’s influential end-of-the-world romp, Night of the Comet (trailer here).

As the in-a-word-style narrator points out in the prologue, a mysterious comet is about to pass Earth for the first time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some find this fact significant, but most do not. Regina (“Reggie”) and Samantha Belmont haven’t given it much thought. They are more concerned with their own high school love affairs and drama with their unfaithful stepmother, Doris. Each skips the comet-watching, crashing in lead-lined rooms.

In Reggie’s case, she slept with her pseudo-boyfriend Larry Dupree, a bootlegging projectionist, who might have become another Tarantino if the world had survived to early 1990s indie boom. Unfortunately, Dupree lived through the comet, only to become the first victim of the zombie-like remnants. Eventually, they too will turn to dust, like the rest of the comet’s victims, but first they will kill whatever they can catch.

Alarmed by her own encounter with an infected non-zombie, Reggie makes her way home through the eerily empty, dust-strewn streets of Los Angeles, reuniting with her in-denial sister. They might look and sound like Valley Girls, but the Belmont sisters know how to take care of themselves, thanks to their Special Forces father. Hooking up with Hector, a long-haul trucker at a still broadcasting radio station (local, but alas, not so live), they decide to stock up on guns at the nearby armory and famously, do a bit of shopping. Unfortunately, the scientists who received their is-anybody-out-there message at the radio station do not necessarily have good intentions.

Comet might just be the greatest apocalyptic science fiction movie ever. Some might dismiss it as a sarcastic teen comedy, but its sly attitude arguably reflects something acutely human, especially during times of stress. Maybe they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but if the world really did end, you could do far worse than teaming up with the bickering Belmont sisters.

As Reggie Belmont, Catherine Mary Stewart became the movie-crush of every Eighties teen science fiction fan. Seriously, how could you not fall for a beautiful woman, who could fight and shoot guns, but preferred to spend her time playing video games? (Plus, she had already appeared in The Last Starfighter and would go on to co-star in Weekend at Bernies.) Stewart perfectly played off Kelli Maroney’s Samantha Belmont, who had most of the best lines and the cheerleader outfit, carrying off both quite well.

Robert Beltran nicely serves a grounding, stabilizing influence. Despite his years on Star Trek: Voyager, he probably gets more questions at conventions about portraying good old Hector. For extra cult movie cred, Mary Woronov plays the decent mad scientist and Geoffrey Lewis plays her evil boss.

There are not a lot of special effects in Comet, which is one of the reasons it is so gosh-darned cool. Instead, Eberhardt and his cast and crew filmed guerrilla-style on the deserted streets of LA one early Christmas morning. As a result, Comet feels more desolate than just about every doomsday movie that followed it. Whedon himself has cited the film’s influence on the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you can see its influence on scores of ironic midnight genre movies. Frankly, Eberhardt’s contributions to 1980s and early 1990s pop culture have been criminally under-recognized, considering he also helmed the Sherlock Holmes spoof, Without a Clue and the pilot episode of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.

Sure, the scientists’ subterranean base is pretty cheesy looking, but that is all part of the fun. All things considered, the film holds pretty well, especially when it comes to the energy and attitude of Stewart, Muroney, and Beltran. Just as highly recommended as ever, Night of the Comet is available on DVD and it screens September 5th at the Alamo Drafthouse Winchester.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Future Imperfect: Slow Action

In the future, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon has been lost. Sociologists and ethnographers now believe utopia is attainable, though admittedly at a very high cost. Some sort of apocalyptic event has wiped out most of the world, but four island communities will vie for the designation of Utopia on Earth from an Asimovian encyclopedia in Ben Rivers’ experimental science fiction essay film Slow Action, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

Researcher-advocates will narrate anthropologic papers on their prospective island communities as Rivers camera explores the exotic locales. The city-state of Eleven offers the strongest case. Despite believing themselves to be holograms, the residents of Eleven sleep all day and venture out at night naked as jaybirds. They conduct their courtships through mathematical equations, so new arrivals better brush up on their diffy q’s, yet residents are always free to leave by boat.

Hiva is an island chain whose visible hardscrabble poverty contrasts sharply with the locals’ epic-heroic sense of self. While feudal fiefdom and communist collective compete under the archipelago’s lose central government, each resident maintains his own running narration of his life, building up to a dramatically scripted suicide.

Kannzennashima might be the truest Utopia yet, since it only has one resident, Harai, a castaway historian who finds sustaining glory in the “ruins of the ruins” of the island fortress. However, those who lived on the island ages before him would never have considered it utopian. Similarly, the characteristics of Somerset ought to instantly disqualify it. The streets are literally lined with gutters for blood, because the citizens exist in a constant state of warfare and rebellion. Fittingly, Trotsky and Rousseau are among the philosophical polestars of this community, whose residents wear burlap war masks that would not look out of place in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightbreed movie.

Slow Action incorporates elements of science fiction, but it is definitely in the Olaf Stapledon tradition, which was never particularly accessible. Perhaps unfortunately for Rivers, Lanzarote, the real-life setting of Eleven will be more recognizable to genre viewers after Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution was filmed there. Likewise, anyone who has seen Battleship Island will immediately guess Kanzennashima is in fact the tragically historic Hashima. Hiva is Tuvalu, but frankly, it never really looks that exotic, while Somerset is indeed Rivers’ South West England birthplace.

There are some striking visuals and some intriguing bits of speculative ethnographic detail, but Slow Action is definitely the sort of film that depends on viewers to invest it with their own meanings. There is no great truth that emerges out of the film, but it ironically reinforces the idea utopia is an elusive and frequently dangerous ideal that humanity would be foolish to pursue. It also effectively showcases Rivers’ eye for assembling images as the director, editor, and cinematography.

For those who want a taste of avant-garde filmmaking, the forty-five-minute Slow Action is pretty easy to handle, but it has rather awkwardly been paired up with Barry Jenkins’ Remigration (a didactic film that never manages to go anywhere), presumably because of his eleventh-hour Oscar victory with Moonlight. Produced as part of ITVS’s Futurestates, it is one of the lesser installments of the series. Only Slow Action is recommended for discerning patrons of experimental film and cerebral science fiction when it screens this coming Tuesday (8/22) and Thursday the 31st, as part of Future Imperfect at MoMA.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

New Filipino Cinema ’17: Hamog (Haze)

Whatever you do, do not stereotype these homeless children, the so-called “batang hamog” or “children of haze,” living by their wits on the streets of Manila. For instance, Rashid cannot say he has no family to live with. He has too much family, thanks to his uber-traditional Muslim father, who keeps marrying “stepmothers” that clearly do not like having him around. Instead, he builds a surrogate support system with three other homeless youths, but an ill-fated robbery will break them apart in Ralston Jover’s Hamog (Haze) (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Fifteen-year-old Jinky was cast out of her home by a drug-addled, mentally unbalanced mother, finding acceptance in the arms of the inhalant-huffing Tisoy. Eight-year-old Moy is the group’s mascot and the resourceful Rashid is the glue who holds them together. Their plans for this day are not so different from any other, but they pick the wrong cabbie to try to rob. Rashid and Tisoy make off with his cash, but the tightly-wound Danny catches Jinky and poor Moy is fatally struck by a delivery van during their escape.

At this point, the narrative splits in two, as we first watch the loyal Rashid try to raise the necessary funds to give Moy a proper funeral and a permanent resting place rather than the Philippine equivalent of Potter’s field. During his campaign, Rashid makes an unsatisfying homecoming, briefly meeting the new stepmother his father intends to marry during a ceremony he is politely asked not to attend.

Meanwhile, Jinky and Danny must contend with each other. Much to his frustration, the cops want nothing to do with a minor and the children’s services bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque joke. Since Jinky desperately wants to avoid the abusive and unsanitary conditions of the juvenile foster home, Danny brings her home to his tenement apartment to serve as a live-in maid. While this arrangement smacks of forced servitude, Jinky seems to willing accept it, but Danny’s wildly dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend Paula and their third roommate Bernard is probably not sustainable.

Most of Hamog shares a thematic and aesthetic kinship with Brillante Mendoza’s street-level, issue-oriented films, such as Slingshot, written by Jover. However, it takes a weird third act detour into gritty noir terrain worthy of James Cain or Jim Thompson. Yet, Jover presents it so matter-of-factly, it never jars the viewer.

It also helps that the extraordinary young actress Teri Malvar, the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award winner at last year’s NYAFF, is the one selling it. She manages to be simultaneously heartbreaking and chilling as the abused and abandoned Jinky. As the delinquent and the cabbie, she and OJ Mariano (remarkably, the runner up on a Pop Idol-style competition now branching out into acting) develop a strange and evolving relationship that will keep viewers on their toes.

Throughout it all, Jover makes it clear respectable ethical standards do not apply in this world. It is like watching predators in the wild—only the strong survive. It will leave many viewers deeply unsettled (in fact, that is part of what it is going for), but the power of its performances elevates it well above typical slum denizen melodramas. Recommended for admirers of films by the likes of Mendoza and Midi Z, Hamog (Haze) screens tomorrow (8/20) and next Sunday (8/27), as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Old School Kung Fu ’17: Yes, Madam

It was the start of something big, in many ways. It was Michelle Yeoh’s first film as a lead and Cynthia Rothrock’s very first acting gig. It was only the second feature directed by Corey Yuen and launched the loosely connected In the Line of Duty franchise. Some even credit it as the first of the so-called “girls with guns” action movie subgenre, but the basic elements in question seem like perennial fan favorites that have always been with us. Regardless, there is a special place in many fans’ hearts for Yuen’s Yes, Madam, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

When Senior Inspector Ng is your superior officer, you darn well better say “Yes, Madam.” To resolve any doubts, we will watch her handily handle a gang of armored car in the prologue. Unfortunately, Richard Nornen, a friend and colleague from Scotland Yard is murdered to recover a piece of microfilm (remember that Macguffin?) that could incriminate Hong Kong’s biggest Triad boss. Inadvertently, two of the city’s dimmest criminals take possession of it when they swipe the dead man’s passport for their forger crony, embroiling themselves in a world of trouble.

Inspector Carrie Morris arrives from England just in time to land a few blows on the unfortunate punk trying to leave HK using Nornen’s doctored passport. She is the rule-breaking Oscar Madison to Ng’s straight-laced Felix Unger, but they both have mad martial arts chops.

Yes, Madam is just awesomely eighties. Yeoh (than billed as Michelle Khan) looks totally fab in Miami Vice whites and pastels, while Rothrock rocks the Michael Jackson jacket. Technically, it harkens back to 1978, but the cues “borrowed” from Carpenter’s Halloween also reinforce the 80s nostalgia.

Frankly, the screenplay is nothing special, but the morally ambiguous ending still packs a kick. Regardless, the climatic fight sequence entirely justifies the price of admission on its own. Set in the villain’s luxury condo (which is decked out with an unusual amount of glass furnishings and partitions), it features Yeoh’s athleticism and Rothrock’s chops to dazzling, star-making effect.

As added bonuses for the faithful, there is a head-scratching cameo from producer Sammo Hung and a weirdly poignant turn from future action-auteur Tsui Hark as Panadol, the profoundly unlucky forger. Yeoh would come back for the sequel, before turning the franchise over to Cynthia Khan, whose name was deliberately chosen to echo the two Yes, Madam co-stars. Yes, the film certainly has women with guns, but it takes flight when they use their fists and feet. Affectionately recommended for Yeoh and Rothrock fans, Yes, Madam screens this Sunday evening (8/20), concluding the 2017 edition of Old School Kung Fu at the Metrograph.

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Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

It is not exactly Le Mans, but since it usually runs over four hours, the Coca-Cola 600 is easily the longest race of the NASCAR season. That’s a lot of time to spend money at the concessions. Hopefully, it will also give Jimmy Logan enough time to pull off an unlikely heist in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Logan thought he would claw his way out of border state poverty playing football, but when his knee blew out, he lost his scholarship. Work had been so scarce, he drove all the way into North Carolina for a construction gig, but he is fired by the cold-blooded HR department for not disclosing his limp. At least Logan got a good look around while he was on the job repairing sink-holes under Charlotte Motor Speedway. Turns out, there is a system of pneumatic tubes that takes money dropped at the registers directly into the vault. It is enough to give a fellow ideas.

If truth be told, the Logan family could use the money. According to his brother Clyde, there is a Logan family curse responsible for Jimmy’s knee and the hand he lost while serving in Iraq. So far, their sister Mellie has escaped the curse, but the beautician is hardly living on Easy Street. When his ex-wife serves notice of her intention to move further away with his beloved daughter Sadie, it creates a sense of urgency, so he hatches a scheme to knock over the Speedway. In additon to his siblings, Logan will also need the help of the only demolitions expert he knows. Unfortunately, bleach-blond Joe Bang is serving time in prison, with his parole imminently approaching, so the Logans will have to sneak him in and out of prison without anyone being the wiser.

Frankly, some of the cleverest parts of the scheme revolve around that secret prison break. Unlike most caper films since Rififi, Soderbergh and first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt do not immediately explain the full extent of their plan, opting instead to reveal it step-by-step, while the heist is already underway. Apparently, critics on both coasts are so obsessed with the Donald, nearly every review includes a condescending line to the effect of: “this is Trump country, but the Logans are surprisingly likable and dignified.” Conversely, no Western Virginian review of a Woody Allen movie would ever feel the need to observe: “when Upper-Eastsiders are not dining at Elaine’s, marrying their ex-wives’ adopted daughters, and hosting fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, they are just as insecure as the rest of us.”

Regardless who the Logans might have voted for, the suggestion Soderbergh treats them and their milieu with respect is indeed correct. Frankly, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver look more like real life siblings than any movie pairing since De Caprio and Carey Mulligan appeared as near-identical twins, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s accidentally taboo take on the Great Gatsby. As Jimmy and Clyde Logan, they convey a sense of years of shared history and the shorthand that comes with such familiarity. When Tatum rolls his eyes at Driver’s talk of the curse, we feel like they have replayed this scene thousands of times before.

Yet, the most important relationship in the film is that between Jimmy and Sadie Logan. We can believe he would indeed risk his fabulous bachelor lifestyle to maintain their connection and possibly scratch out better futures for them both. A good deal of pre-release publicity has understandably focused on Daniel Craig’s drolly eccentric and muscularly swaggering performance as Joe Bang, but Riley Keough stands a chance of breaking through to Tatum’s level of fame through her work as the sassy but grounded Mellie. As a bonus, Hillary Swank and Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair nicely uphold the Twin Peaks-X-Files tradition of eccentric FBI agents in near cameos as the investigating Feds.

Lucky has a pleasantly genial vibe, but the stakes for the Logans are much higher than in Soderbergh’s Ocean films, which diegetic news reports slyly name-drop. There are definitely some clever bits, but more importantly, the film has real heart. Recommended for fans of caper movies and NASCAR, Logan Lucky opens today (8/18) across the country, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

New Filipino Cinema ’17: Lily

This shape-shifting witch has become a popular Cebuano urban legend, but it should not surprise anyone to there is a man to blame for all her horrors. He did her wrong, but she would not be ignored. Her story will be told in a fractured, narrative-scrambling manner in Keith Deligero’s Lily (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

While hunting with a dubious friend, Mario Ungo nearly bagged a mythical sigbin, but one false step nearly did him in instead. Fortunately (or so it seems at the time), the titular Lily finds him. Hiding him in her room in a remote convent, where she seems to be a prospective novice, she nurses him back to health. Given all the time they spend together, it is not so surprising when Lily becomes pregnant with his son. Soon, they become a common law family unit, but Ungo is clearly uncomfortable and restless. Eventually, he leaves to find work in Manila, where he repeats the pattern with Jane, a stripper. Resenting his deceit and abandonment, Lily will come looking for him—and she is far more dangerous than he ever realized.

Or something like that. Deligero puts the film through a stylistic blender of jump cuts, flashbacks and flashforwards, lurid subliminal imagery, and poverty porn. To get an idea of the vibe, imagine if Khavn had remade Cat People as a hardcore music video. It definitely shares a kinship with aesthetically severe, experimental horror films, such as Khavn’s work and Dodo Dayao’s Violator, particularly with respects to the graphic visuals found in the former.

TV idol and rom-com movie star Shaina Magdayao certainly deserves credit for taking a chance on such an out-of-left-field departure. She is undeniably intense as the vengeful supernatural being, but she also connects with her tragic core. Rocky Salumbides is thoroughly despicable as Ungo, but in a believable way that helps the film get to where it needs to go. Natlileigh Sitoy also covers a lot of ground as the sultry but vulnerable Jane. Frankly, it is pretty impressive the cast registers at all, given the film’s jittery style and mondo extreme elements.

The regional mythos that inspired Lily is compelling stuff, but Deligero compulsively takes us out of the film by rubbing our noses in his experimental and bodily excesses. A small circle will be knocked out by his boldness, but for most viewers, less would have been more. Indeed, the sum of its more striking moments is greater than its whole. Recommended for those with adventurous tastes, Lily screens this Sunday (8/20) and Friday, September 1st, as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

It’s time for 50 shades of the Shaw Brothers. It might seem pretty tame to us now, but in its day, this 1972 film was billed as the first Shaw sex movie. When a resilient peasant girl is abducted and sold into a brothel, she quickly becomes the star attraction. Bare breasts, floggings, and lesbian make-out sessions soon follow. She can fight too, but so can her mistress in Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

Maybe you could argue Madam Madame Chun Yi is so adept at catering to her pervy old clients, because she shares their tastes. That is particularly true of her latest acquisition, Ai Nu, but the trafficked woman is having none of it. She even tries to commit suicide, but she is saved by “the Mute,” a former bandit now forced by injuries to toil as a lowly servant. When he is killed during their escape attempt, she swears to avenge him (and get some payback for herself), but in the meantime, she pretends to make nice with Madame Chun.

In fact, she up-manages Chun so well, the Madam will even run interference for her when she starts killing her creepy regulars. Of course, none of that sits well with Chun’s partner, who has long carried a torch for her—obviously to no avail. The honest new sheriff in town also feels duty bound to prevent murders, but he does not yet understand the full context of her vendetta.

Even without the steaminess, Intimate Confessions is a bit of a mind blower. Frankly, it is about as risqué as Ingrid Pitt’s lesbian-themed Hammer vampire films from the same period, but Hong Kong was a much different market in 1972 than America or the UK. This is truly feminism at its most lurid: men are dogs, who deserve to die—and to prove the point, here’s some skin to ogle. Plus, it has to be conceded: the big climatic fight sequence is a barn-burner.

Regular Shaw Brothers leading lady Lily Ho took her career to the next level portraying Ai Nu a stone-cold force to be reckoned with. However, Betty Pei Ti steals the show outright as the flamboyantly villainous and recklessly lusty Madame Chun. She clearly evokes a sense of classical tragedy, but she could also hold her own against Sybil Danning’s prison wardens.

Intimate Confessions definitely stands apart in the Shaw Brothers filmography, but the wuxia production elements are all first-class. Fu Liang Chou’s score also has some funky seasonings that might be anachronistic, but work well in context. Its excesses are rather stylistically distinctive as well as indulgent. Highly recommended for all Shaw Brothers fans, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan screens this Saturday (8/19), as part of Old School Kung Fu 2017 at the Metrograph.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

6 Days: The Other Iranian Hostage Crisis

It was the other Iranian Hostage Crisis. While the prolonged captivity of American embassy personnel in Tehran made Jimmy Carter look weak and incompetent, the siege of the Iranian embassy in South Kensington, London made it clear to the world Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a strong leader, who was not to be trifled with. However, the SAS (Special Air Service) commandos did not storm the embassy immediately. For five days, DCI Max Vernon did his best to keep the terrorists talking. The British response to the hostage-taking is dramatized day-by-day in Toa Fraser’s 6 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To this day, Western authorities are still rather baffled why Arabic-speaking Khuzestan separatists launched their operation on British soil. Although they maintained diplomatic relations, the UK and Iran were not on friendly terms. Yet, Arabistan Liberation gunmen expected the Brits to convince Iran to release their imprisoned comrades. They also demanded safe passage, which the Thatcher government refused to grant. That did not leave DCI Vernon much room to negotiate. However, he maintained a dialogue with his terrorist counterpart and even managed to secure a handful of hostage releases, as a sign of “good faith.”

While Vernon was talking, Rusty Firmin and the SAS were formulating attack plans. Glenn Standring’s screenplay does its best to suggest Thatcher placed undue restrictions on the operation, out of concern for how it would play in the media. However, it is hard to argue with the results. Despite some strongly worded statements, Thatcher’s decisiveness clearly made an impression on Iran.

The South Kensington hostage rescue is a fascinating and highly instructive episode in fairly recent history, whose significance has never really been fully appreciated on our shores. Fraser effectively shows the action from the perspectives of both the cops and the SAS, but attempts to include the standpoints of the media are far less compelling. After all, they are just along for the ride. 6 Days is a radical departure from Fraser’s last film, the very cool Maori martial arts fantasy, The Dead Lands, but his execution is lean and pacey. Throughout the film, he concretely establishes the military, political, and humanitarian stakes at play in the stand-off.

As Vernon, Mark Strong is as intense as always. Likewise, Jamie Bell looks young, but he has an appropriately steely presence as Firmin. Abbie Cornish doesn’t really bring much to the party, but to be fair, she is only playing journalist Kate Adie. One could also argue Tim Pigott-Smith is excessively pompous and high-handed as Home Secretary William Whitelaw, who was an unusually sure-footed politician throughout his long career in public service.

Any victory over terrorism is worth revisiting on film, for numerous reasons. Fraser breaks down the South Kensington rescue operation quite well, fully capitalizing on all the inherent drama and action. Recommended for fans of Argo and The Delta Force franchise, 6 Days opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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New Filipino Cinema ’17: Bliss

Reportedly, film production in the Philippines is much more regulated now than during the glory days of Roger Corman’s jungle prison movies. However, Jane Ciego might have her doubts. She was badly injured on the set of her latest picture—a horror movie about a famous actress abused by her caretakers after she is badly injured on the set of her latest movie. You might have a general idea of the meta-ness afoot, but there are still plenty of twisted turns to Jerrold Tarog’s Bliss (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Ciego has been a star since she was a child, but this film was supposed to be her breakout as a serious actress. Ditto for Abigail, the character she was playing. She has been successful enough to produce her ambitious art house horror film and continue to be a meal ticket for her ineffectual husband Carlo and her greedy stage mother, Jillian. Again, the same is true for her character, except her husband in the film-within-the-film is maybe slightly less contemptible. Regardless, this is hardly the sort of film you would want to “lose” yourself in, if that is indeed what happened to Ciego, or Abigail.

Things get even more sinister when Tarog gives us reason to suspect Ciego’s openly hostile private nurse Lilibeth is actually Rose, who is wanted by the police for sexually molesting young patients. As Ciego and Abigail’s realities conflict and intrude upon each other, Tarog keeps doubling back and folding the narrative over, to spring darkly clever revelations.

Iza Cazaldo has a Kate Beckinsale vibe working that is absolutely perfect for Ciego/Abigail. She establishes a strong persona as Ciego, which makes it so compelling to then watch her tear it apart at the seams. Evidently, there was a lot of buzz about her topless scene in the film, but it is nothing like what her fans probably assumed. Adrienne Vergara is also creepy as heck as Lilibeth/Rose and Shamaine Buencamino is spectacularly bad news as Mama Jillian. However, Audie Gemora often upstages everyone as her wildly flamboyant director, Lexter Palao.

Serving as his own editor, Tarog rather brilliantly cuts together all the reality problematizing and timeframe shifts. Mackie Galvez’s mysteriously murky cinematography further causes us to lose sight of ostensive in-film reality. It all adds up to a head-trip you can never take for granted. Highly recommended for fans of horror movies and Lynchian cinema, Bliss screens this Saturday (8/19) and next Thursday (8/24) as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: My Young Auntie

Martial arts talent definitely runs in this family. Cheng Tai-nun married into it, but she has as much chops as anyone. She is also surprisingly young and pretty, but she is the still the elder in Lau Kar-leung’s My Young Auntie, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

To prevent his wastrel criminal brother Yu Yung-sheng from inheriting his estate, a childless landowner marries Cheng, a trusted servant and martial arts champion, to insure his nephew Yu Ching-chuen becomes his rightfully beneficiary. Immediately after his death, she quickly brings him the will and deeds for safe keeping. Of course, the genial, older middle-aged Yu is not expecting an auntie like her, so miscommunication and misunderstandings inevitably ensue. It is even more so the case with Yu’s son Charlie, a westernized college student.

He definitely thinks she is hot, but hopelessly square in her traditional ways, so he and his jerky pals try to teach her a lesson in Hong Kong hipness. Unfortunately, while they having their fun, Yung-sheng’s colorful cast of henchmen steal the estate documents. Naturally, that means Cheng and Charlie will have to take them back, but they might need an assist from his father (her nephew) and his skilled brothers.

Auntie is definitely a comedy with the emphasis on physicality. Frankly, some of the jokes will strike contemporary viewers as rather boorish. However, there is no denying Kara Hui’s chops and presence as the titular Auntie. Trained as a professional dancer, she was clearly blessed with tremendous grace and flexibility. You can definitely see how her experience with one sort of choreography laid her in good stead for another.

There is a lot of “Tiger Claw” kind of Kung Fu going on that looks absolutely insane, but Lau totally sells it as director, fight choreographer, and co-star, playing Old Nephew Yu. In fact, he takes over the big climatic match-up with Yu Yung-sheng, which is likely to produce mixed emotions in fans. As much as we want to see Kara Hui settle accounts, there is something satisfying about watching the grey-haired veteran throw down with authority.

Within the Shaw Brothers filmography, Auntie is also notable for addressing issues of evolving gender roles and the culture clash between modernized and westernized Hong Kongers and traditional country residents. It has all kinds of energy but the gags tend towards the shticky side of the spectrum (Gordon Liu wearing a blond Musketeer wig? Yes, it’s in there). My Young Auntie is definitely recommended for Kara Hui and Shaw Brothers fans, but King Hu’s Shaw-produced Come Drink with Me is even more entertaining and visually impressive. For your Shaw Brothers fix, My Young Auntie screens this Saturday (8/19) and Come Drink with Me screens Sunday (8/20), as part of Old School Kung Fu 2017 at the Metrograph.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Adventurers: Andy Lau Steals His Way Across Europe

Evidently, French prisons are so hot at rehabilitation either. To be fair, this Hong Kong jewel thief was primed for recidivism. He was caught stealing part of the priceless “Gaia” three-piece necklace set. To find the villain who betrayed him, he will need the other two pieces. He will also commit crimes against the English language, but his French copper nemesis sounds nearly as awkward in Stephen Fung’s breezy The Adventurers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dan Zhang is an old school Thomas Crowne kind of jewel thief, who was planning on going straight after the big score that sent him up the river. With a few loyal accomplices and “Red” Ye, a hotshot new recruit, Zhang plans to take the other two pieces of Gaia. The first outstanding component-piece has been put up for charity auction in Paris by Tingting, a Chinese celebrity animal lover. Ironically, Red will whip up the animal rights protestors against her, over her alleged fur wardrobe, to cover-up the caper unfolding.

That will be the easy heist, even though it is in Bissette’s backyard. The hard one will be the third piece of Gaia, nestled in a vault within a castle outside Prague, owned by a nouveau riche Chinese oligarch. His security is state-of-tomorrow’s-art, but Zhang has Red. However, Bissette also has his own surprise ally, Amber Li, the art expert who authenticated the original fateful piece of Gaia, who happened to be engaged to Zhang at the time. Unaware of his true profession, she also felt slightly betrayed by the events that transpired.

Despite the fractured syntax, The Adventurers is cheerful throwback to old fashioned caper movies. Yes, there are all kinds of double- and triple-crosses going on, but it is still a genuinely low stress affair. It is all about exotic locales (Paris, Prague, Kiev), cat burglar stunts and gizmos, and a ridiculously attractive cast (Andy Lau, Shu Qi, Zhang Jingchu, You Tianyi, and probably Tony Yo-ning Yang counts too), plus bonus character actors Jean Reno and Eric Tsang.

If you enjoy watching Raffles-like characters shimmying across ledges and illuminating motion sensor-lasers, then The Adventurers is your cup of General Foods International Coffee. As Zhang, Lau has his on-screen charm cranked up to eleven. Shu Qi enjoys playing against type as the mercenary femme fatale Red, but Zhang Jingchu might actually outshine everyone as the sensitive but cerebral Li. Of course, Reno and Tsang do their thing as Det. Bissette and Zhang’s “uncle” fence, King Kong.

The Adventurers probably will not make it onto very many awards ballots, but it will be fifty times more entertaining to re-watch than Crash, American Beauty, or Titanic. It is a fun, sparkly film that goes down easy and leaves you with a desire to visit Prague with Shu Qi or Andy Lau. Recommended as pleasant “Summer Friday” matinee, The Adventurers opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Guarding Samuel L. Jackson

Alexander Lukashenko must be bent out of shape. Hollywood makes a movie about a Belarusian dictator trying to escape prosecution for crimes against humanity, but they can’t be bothered to call him out by name? Instead, it is one Vladislav Dukhovich who has put a price on the only international assassin crazy enough to testify against him. All the other potentially damaging witnesses have been killed, but Darius Kincaid is bizarrely hard to kill. He will also have old nemesis, personal security specialist Michael Bryce watching his back, whether he likes it or not, in Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Several years ago, a Japanese arms dealer under Bryce’s protection was drilled between the eyes, dragging Bryce’s business down with him. It was Kincaid who made the shot. In the small world department, Bryce’s ex, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel is in charge of Kincaid’s security. Captured through a fluke, Kincaid cut a deal to testify against Dukhovich in exchange for his wife’s freedom. Unfortunately, his lack of faith in Interpol’s security protocols will be vindicated when Dukhovich’s mercenaries ambush their motorcade. Suspecting a mole in the agency, Roussel contracts Bryce to safely transport Kincaid to The Hague, despite their bitter history as rivals. Much Odd Couple-style humor ensues, as the body count escalates.

In between car chases and gun fights, Kincaid and Bryce will bicker and banter—and in the case of the former, drop MF bombs like there is no tomorrow. Yep, he would be the one played by Samuel L. Jackson. Frankly, this is the sort of loopy action comedy that were a staple of 1980s second run dollar theaters. It is therefore rather fitting Richard E. Grant has a cameo in the prologue as Bryce’s latest sleazy client.

It should be readily stipulated Jackson and Ryan Reynolds develop an amusing comedic chemistry together. They settle into a nice rhythm playing off each other and neither is too shy to mug a little for the camera. Jackson is basically recycling his Pulp Fiction persona yet again, but it still hasn’t gotten old yet, so it’s tough to blame him. Reynolds is well cast as the armed-and-dangerous Felix Unger. It is also nice to see Elodie Yung get to participate in the action as Roussel, while Gary Oldman (a reliable villain if ever there was one) chews the scenery as an entitled dictator would. However, Salma Hayek is under-employed as Kincaid’s borderline psychotic wife Sonia.

Bodyguard has plenty of action, exotic locales (getting riddled with bullet holes, but whatever), and some classic blues and R&B tunes licensed for the soundtrack. That doesn’t exactly add up to a masterpiece, but it is fun in a goofy, meathead kind of way. Thanks to the gung-ho commitment of Jackson and Reynolds, it all works on a basic laughter-and-mayhem level. Recommended for fans of Jackson and old school action-comedies, The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens this Friday (8/18) throughout the City, including the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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AOF ’17: Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon (short)

It is always nice when animated films can teach us a lesson in comparative religion. Take for instance, Fugen Bosatsu, a Bodhisattva (an enlightened one, who defers Nirvana to help point us crass mortals in the right direction) and one of the eight Buddhist zodiac guardians. He will play a significant role in Siddharth Ahluwalia’s animated short film Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon, which screens during this year’s Action on Film Festival.

The Chinese zodiac is represented by twelve animals, but there are only eight guardians, so some will have to double up. Fugen Bosatsu has responsibility for Snake and Dragon. As it happens, Jake was born in the Year of the Dragon, so his connection to the Dragon Guardian makes some kind of sense. Under Fugen Bosatsu’s guidance, he is pursuing a quest through what looks like a Southeast Asian pyramid.

Bosatsu essentially plays like a proof-of-concept superhero origins story, but with considerably more spiritual significance. There is no question Ahluwalia’s concept could be expanded to support a feature or series treatment. With a visual style clearly inspired by anime, it should be quite accessible to genre fans, even if they are completely ignorant of Buddhism.

Maddeningly, Osamu Tezuka’s second film in his anime adaptation of Kozo Morishita’s manga life of Buddha has yet to screen in North America—at least not to any extent that we might notice, so Bosatsu is a nice bite-sized consolation while we continue to wait. It is fun, stylish, and well-versed in Buddhist teachings. Highly recommended, Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon screens this Friday (8/18), as part of the 2017 Action on Film Festival.

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Future Imperfect: Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence

These cops freely quote Descartes, Confucius, and Milton. It is impressive, but their cybernetic implants probably help. Batou has been augmented to such an extent, he has become a full-fledged cyborg, but he is still more corporeally human than his commanding officer, Major Motoko Kusanagi. She took what was left of her consciousness that she could claim for herself and disappeared into the network. However, she still has his back in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

Batou’s new partner Togusa has very few implants. He also has a family, so he is not thrilled about the hard-charging Batou’s tactics. The days following the Major’s disappearance have been uncertain for the Men in Black-ish Section 9, but they are still working cases, like the one just assigned to Batou and Togusa. A new model of specially modified gynoids (female androids) have run amok, killing their owners and then self-destructing. Both acts clearly violate the Asimovian principles of android programming that still apply in this world.

Evidently, these gynoids in question have been specially designed for adult entertainment purposes. That explains why the victims have kept things so hush-hush. The possible involvement of the yakuza also logically follows, but a shadowy off-shore company is the real brain behind the gynoids’ design. With the help of the ghostly Major and his reluctant partner, Batou will try to connect the dots, while also fending off a brain hack and caring for his beloved basset hound, Gabu (or Gabriel, depending on subtitles).

At the time of its production, Innocence was one of the most expensive anime films ever, forcing Production I.G to co-produce with Studio Ghibli. Over a dozen years after its theatrical release, it still looks terrific. The world-building is richly detailed and often awe-inspiring in scope. However, what remains most striking about the film is the intriguing relationship that continues between Batou and the unseen (but perhaps ever-present) Major. It is surely the reason for Innocence selection for Future Imperfect.

Not only does the film directly address what it means to be human, it also includes plenty of fan-pleasing action and a loyal, slobbering basset hound (a recurring motif in Oshii’s films). It also stands alone relatively easily. If you happened to be one of the few people who accidentally saw the live-action Hollywood version, try to forget it entirely, if you haven’t already—and start fresh with Innocence. Highly recommended, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence screens this Friday (8/18) and Saturday (8/19) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

What Happened to Monday?: Multiple Noomi Rapaces on Netflix

In the medium-future, the Euro-dystopia has adopted China’s family planning policies. One-child allotments are rigorously enforced by the jackbooted Child Allocation Bureau (CAB). Extra siblings are humanely put into cryogenic sleep to await a better, more sustainable world. Yeah, sure there are. In any event, cranky inventor Terrence Settman was not about to let his orphaned septuplet granddaughters get whisked away to a bureaucratic fate worse than death. Instead, he secretly raised them to live as the tag-team Karen Settman persona. However, when the first Karen Settman of the week fails to come home, her grown twins must track her whereabouts without revealing their secret in Tommy Wirkola’s What Happened to Monday? (trailer here), a Netflix original film, which starts streaming this Friday.

Old Man Settman, seen in formative flashbacks, assigned each twin a day of the week to leave the apartment, which became their informal names among themselves. At the end of each day, the siblings would have a group review, so they could fake their way through their respective days. Since they each have their respective talents (Friday is a numbers cruncher, Thursday can drink all night with clients), they have risen up the corporate finance ladder quite quickly. However, on the day Karen Settman receives the big promotion they had been working towards, Monday disappears.

Obviously, if anyone on the outside sees two Karen Settmans, it would be curtains for at least six of them. Nevertheless, Tuesday will have to venture out to determine the fate of Monday. Despite some tiresome smoke-blowing from a work rival, it quickly becomes apparent the dastardly Nicolette Cayman is involved. Not only is she the architect of the draconian One Child policies and the director of the CAB, she is also a candidate for parliament, so she is not eager for news of septuplets surviving undiscovered well into adulthood to leak to the press.

Sometime in the 1970s, the apocalyptic left recognized Marx’s failures and adopted an 18th Century British country curate as the guiding philosophical star. Thomas Malthus’s dire forecasts of exploding population and dwindling resources could be used to justify no end of governmental controls. Formerly a liberating force, the masses became the rapacious instrument of their own destruction. Happily, Malthusian analysis was thoroughly debunked by Julian Simon, but screenwriters Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson obviously did not get the memo. People are still little more than a drag on resources in Monday’s world. It is just a little tacky to kill them outright, like Cayman does.

Obviously, there are echoes of Orphan Black to be heard in Monday. It also bears some similarities to Ben Bova’s entertaining 1980s novel Multiple Man, in which a series of clones managed to get elected President of the United States and then somehow lose their “Monday.” Bova’s novel would probably require a lot of updating, but its political intrigue would still be more fun than Wirkola’s derivative dystopia.

Most problematically, Noomi Rapace does not distinctly delineate her various Karen Settmans, forcing us to rely on superficials, like wardrobe and hairstyle to tell them apart. Glen Close has chewed plenty of scenery as various villainesses, but she phones it in as Cayman. However, Willem Dafoe’s Grandpa Settman is appropriately intense and (justly) paranoid, while Marwan Kenzari charismatically upstages his love interest[s] as Adrian Knowles, the CAB officer who has been secretly carrying on an affair with Monday.

Dystopia is getting old. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back towards Heinleinesque and Roddenberryesque science fiction optimism. Monday is a case in point. It all just feels like familiar ground. Okay as a time-wasting stream, but instantly forgettable, What Happened to Monday? launches this Friday (8/18) on Netflix.

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