J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sundance ’18: The Guilty

In the glory days of radio, Sorry, Wrong Number kept listeners on the edge of their seats, simply by inviting them to listen in on an increasingly tense series of telephone calls. That is the basic premise behind this lean Danish thriller. It turns out smart writing and a ferocious nearly-single-handed lead performance make the formula crackle and pop, just like it did in the old school wireless era, in Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

It might be a good idea for first responders to have a better idea of each other’s jobs, but Asger Holm is convinced he was assigned to the Danish equivalent of a 9-1-1 call center as a punishment, because it very definitely was. However, if he and his partner Rashid can keep their stories straight at tomorrow’s disciplinary hearing, he should be returning to regular cop duties. Everything changes when Iben calls.

Holm quickly deduces the woman is pretending to talk to her young daughter Mathilde, because she was abducted by her resentful ex-husband Michael. He manages to glean details, such as the color and make of Michael’s white van, but the general location—somewhere along the North Zealand expressway—is not enough for the uniform cops to track them down. However, a call from the terrified Mathilde will motivate Holm to work the phones and internet, even pressing Rashid into unofficial duty, in hopes of anticipating Michael’s next moves.

Although they were different genres, The Guilty bears strong comparison with Locke, Steven Knight’s terrific man-on-car-phone dark-night-of-the-soul. That very definitely means Jacob Cedergren can hang with Tom Hardy and the screenwriting of Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen is on par with that of Knight. This is high praise indeed, but it is warranted.

Cedergren is not unknown to discerning American viewers thanks to Terribly Happy and Those Who Kill, but his tour-de-force work in The Guilty should take him to a new level. It is a slow-burning turn that eventually but completely believably explodes, like a crackpot disaster. Actually, the cast on the phone are not as strong as Andrew Scott and Olivia Colman in Locke, but Cedergren carries them along, nonetheless.


The Guilty is particularly effective, because it leads us to share each of Holm’s inaccurate or incomplete assumptions. As a result, when night close in on him, we feel like we are right there too. Altogether, it is quite a lethally effective procedural thriller. Very highly recommended, The Guilty screens tomorrow (1/21), Monday (1/22), Thursday (1/25), and next Saturday (1/27) in Park City and Tuesday (1/23) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’18: Dead Pigs

It is an act of supreme hubris to use an iconic cathedral over a century in-the-building and as yet unfinished as the model for a proposed mega-mega-housing complex. The Chinese ersatz Sagrada Família is fictional, but ethos of hyper-development behind it is very true to life. So is the 2013 Huangpu River Incident. At that time, more than 16,000 deceased swine were fished out of the river near Shanghai, after a mysterious epidemic swept through subsistence pork farms. The starkly demarcated worlds of the real estate developing haves and the pig-farming have-nots will intersect and overlap in Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs, which premiered last night at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Old Wang is one of those pig farmers, whose stock suddenly died. It happened at a terrible time for him. He thought he had invested in a promising start-up, but it was really just a scam. Unfortunately, his debt to the loan sharks is still due in two weeks’ time. Old Wang had hoped his son Wang Zhen could help. He had led his father to believe he had made good in Shanghai, but he is really just living hand-to-mouth as a busboy. Nevertheless, he manages to befriend and subsequently fall in love with Xia Xia, a fuerdai party girl.

The Wang father and son have their own problems, so they do not notice when Zhen’s hairdresser aunt, Candy Wang because an internet cult hero for refusing to sell out to the shady conglomerate, thereby putting a hold on the Sagrada Família project. This is particularly bad news for the development’s American architect, Sean Landry, who was hoping the ostentatious complex would restart his stalled career.

The corporate thugs will harass Aunt Candy, the street toughs will dog Old Wang, and the entitled brats will bully the hard-working Zhen. Their stories intertwine with those Xia Xia and Landry, but in organic, unforced ways. In fact, it is pretty remarkable how much contemporary cultural observation and criticism is jammed into two hours and ten minutes, including the wide-spread practice of accident fraud and the government’s blockage of Facebook. Yet, Dead Pigs still managed to pass the Party censors, maybe because they were distracted by the musical numbers. You read that right, there are two showstoppers (technically, one might be more of a cheerleading drill) that are worthy of Bollywood.

Yan also has the added dazzle of Vivian Wu’s star power. She has appeared in classics like Beauty Remains, The Pillow Book, and The Last Emperor, but Candy Wang might just be the role of her career. She is brassy, but dignified and vulnerable—and yes, she sings.

Vivien Li Meng and Mason Lee are also terrific as Xia Xia and Wang Zhen. There is genuine chemistry between them, but also real tension. This is nothing like your typical poor boy-rich girl rom-com. In their respective spheres, class boundaries are not supposed to be traversed. Both Yan’s well-developed script and David Rysdahl’s humanizing performance prevent the nebbish Landry from becoming an expat cliché, while Zazie Beetz steals a few scenes as Angie, a western events planner, who offers him some decidedly odd moonlighting gigs. At times, Yang Haoyu pitches Old Wang rather broadly, but his scenes with his son are pretty devastating.


In many ways, Dead Pigs is like the novel of today’s China Tom Wolfe has yet to write. It is bitingly satirical, trenchantly observant, and features a cast of characters that runs the entire social gamut. It is also deeply rooted in actual, documented events. Very highly recommended, Dead Pigs screens again this afternoon (1/20), Thursday (1/25), and Friday (1/26) in Park City and Monday (1/22) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’18: Black (short)

Imagine the film Gravity raised to the power of one hundred and you might start to understand the situation these two Japanese astronauts face. It turns out the last two people in the world are actually orbiting in space. The outlook is grim, but their final mission still holds meaning in Tomasz Popakul’s starkly black-and-white animated short film Black (trailer here), which screens as part of the Midnight Shorts Program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

During their time on the space station, nuclear war quickly and shockingly swept across the globe, leaving Haruko and Yoshi cut off from Earth. She generally copes by focusing on their original experiments, while he carefully monitors and records each new mushroom cloud. Ironically, the first day without an explosion leaves them (and us) feeling chillingly hollow, rather than relieved. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them, but their gaunt look and the increasingly distressed condition of the station tell viewers everything we need to know.

Realized by the Polish Popakul during his time as in Tokyo as an “Animation Artist in Residence,” Black is a short film of tremendous power. The central relationship, brought to life by Japanese voice actors Rina Takamura and Ryo Iwase, is acutely believable and deeply poignant. The sharp relief of Popakul’s black-and-white imagery is also absolutely stunning. You can clearly see a manga influence, but it is darker and moodier, not unlike the rotoscoped Alois Nebel. Regardless, the film just pops off the screen.


Black is as serious as any doomsday movie can get, yet it is not a downer. In fact, it leaves us exhilarated by its tragic beauty. This is fantastic, awards-caliber animation that is sure to leave the late-night crew dazzled. Very highly recommended, Black screens again with the rest of the Midnight Shorts tonight (1/20) and Friday (1/26) in Park City, as well as next Saturday (1/27) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’18: Circus Ecuador

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Apparently, it also runs through the hardscrabble Wishi community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Two novice filmmakers decided to document the construction of a much-needed school for the village, but instead, they witnessed chaos, confusion, and moments of sheer terror. Ashley Bishop & Jim Brassard are still not sure what exactly went down, but it was definitely a mess judging from the footage they assembled into the unintentionally gonzo doc, Circus Ecuador (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Admittedly, Elizabeth Gray was a tireless fundraiser around Albany, convincing the entire community to invest in the Wishi Project. Bishop and Brassard were so impressed, they dropped out of grad school to chronicle her efforts, even though the did not speak Spanish (or Shuar, the indigenous language spoken in the Wishi community). Unfortunately, as soon as they arrived in-country, her leadership started to flag. After one meeting with some self-appointed community leaders, the filmmakers believed they were in grave danger of being abducted—and it was all downhill from there.

While Brassard and Bishop were fearing for their lives, Gray seemed content to play Lady Bountiful with her favorites in the village (not that you could really call it a village). Just when they think the project will finally have some adult supervision with the arrival of Greg Sheldon from Gray’s fiscal sponsor, he starts talking about UFOs and ancient civilizations. However, they start to get some lowdown from “Canada” and “CIA Chuck,” two local “business partners” suspected of representing the CSIS and CIA, respectively, at least until Chuck starts changing his story. Regardless, everyone seems to agree there is gold in the nearby river.

According to their voice-overs, it took Bishop and Brassard quite a bit of time to figure out what they should do with their footage. Obviously, this would not be the sunny, feel-good film they were envisioning. What they ended up with is frankly mind-blowing, combining the unvarnished expose of the human cost of unintended consequences found in Mark Grieco’s A River Below with a staggering lack of self-awareness, worthy of the docu-mocker, Kung Fu Elliot.

If nothing else, Circus acts as a withering corrective to the idea we can simply shower money on a struggling community and everything will be fine. There is no substitute for proper due diligence. For instance, we eventually start to question whether Wishi is really even a community, when evidence surfaces it might just be a semi-organized group of squatters, hoping to steal a claim on lawfully titled land.


By the time Bishop and Brassard run out of footage, we can only shake our heads at the massive folly of it all. Yet, the biggest punchline isn’t even in the film. According to the University of Albany’s website, Gray is now Assistant Dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity. You have to wonder what the board will think of this film. At least Brassard and Bishop salvaged a film that holds great value, albeit of a cautionary variety. Very highly recommended for general audiences, Circus Ecuador screens again this Monday (1/22), as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Slamdance ’18: Rock Steady Row

It is like The Road Warrior, but with bikes and paddles. The good news is if you survive four years and keep your grades up, you will leave Rock Steady University with a college degree, but that is a big “if.” The key to survival owning a bike. That allows you to have a puncher’s chance of pedaling through the crime-infested campus unmolested. As usual, this new Freshman has his bike stolen on his first day, but he is more resourceful than the typical victims in Trevor Stevens’ Rock Steady Row, which screens as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

As the leader of the Kappa Brutus Omega frat, stealing bikes is Andrew Palmer’s thing. The Kappas control the bike trade on-campus, thanks to their regular kickbacks to the corrupt Dean of students. Their only rivals are The High Society, an upper-crust house led by the elitist Augustus Washington III.

Like Yojimbo, the Freshman will try to play the frats off each other, in hopes of breaking their hold on power and recovering his bike. He really liked that bike. Fortunately, his roommate Piper (Rock Steady is extremely coed) is an aspiring campus journalist, who can give him insight into how the crooked system works. She also has some embarrassing history with Palmer.

It is impossible to easily convey the tone of RSR. It is not really retro in the style of The Turbo Kid, despite all the Huffys and the Freshman’s mysterious old school Walkman. Nor is it a horror film, like Motorrad, but together those three films would be quite a bike-centric triple feature. It is nowhere near as mean-spirited as Hobo with a Shotgun either, but the world of Rock Steady functions in a very similar manner, with respect to logic and the causal acceptance of violence.

It is similarly tricky to pin down the Freshman. He is not exactly a hardnose or a slacker or sad sack or a sociopathic drifter, but he has elements of them all. Whatever that note is, Heston Horwin manages to hit it. Diamond White is terrific as the reasonably proactive Piper, while Logan Huffman is appropriately Skeet Ulrich-esque as the oily, psychotic Palmer. Plus, Isaac Alisma and the great Larry Miller really ham it up as Washington and the Dean, respectively.

I don’t know about you, but right now, I’m glad I went to a Lutheran school. There are no safe spaces at Rock Steady, that’s for sure, but it is what we’ve been asking for, by putting the barbarians in charge of higher education. Regardless, you won’t find any ideologically tinged satire in RSR. It is all about chaos, anarchy, and bikes. Despite their gleeful mania, Stevens and screenwriter Bomani Story create a weirdly self-contained and dramatically functional world. Enthusiastically recommended for cult movie fans, Rock Steady Row screens again this Monday (1/22), as part of the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’18: Whales (short)

This isn’t the sort of work the Private signed up for, assuming he had any choice in the matter, which is doubtful. Regardless, no soldier wants to be assigned duties within their own country, especially not as a body-fisherman. These are not immigrants, so do not jump to conclusions, but they do say something about their Iranian homeland in Behnam Abedi’s Whales (trailer here), which screens as part of Narrative Shorts Block 1 at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Seven bodies have washed up in the shallows, so it is the Private’s job to drag them ashore, while his commanding officer busts his chops. It is a bad business, even before he recognizes one of them. He cannot place where, but it still personalizes the grim proceedings. Frankly, most locals will be happy to hear the people in question are dead. Like the hunter who first called in the body sighting, they have their reasons. Nevertheless, the Private and the Officer will still find themselves in a moral dilemma.

Whales is not exactly a genre film per se, but it is loaded with eeriness and foreboding. As is often the case with many distinctive Iranian films, the ambiguity of Whales feels like a deliberate strategy. There is certainly space in the film to ask who wouldn’t be crazy living in an oppressive environment like that. Karma also plays a role in the film, in ways that are both obscure and pointed.


As the Private, Majid Norouzi is not just the film’s anchor. He really makes it what it is. More than merely a resentful subordinate (although he is definitely that too), Norouzi projects an existential confusion that expresses the essence of the film. Abedi is also a wildly impressive filmmaker, who uses a full, wide frame to artfully compose each shot. Admittedly, Whales demands the viewer’s full attention, but when granted, the film delivers some unsettling surprises. Very highly recommended, Whales screens again Monday (1/22), as part of Narrative Shorts Block 1 at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Sundance ’18: 306 Hollywood

Evidence of the 1950s and 1960s was visibly apparent throughout Annette Ontell’s house. In contrast, you can see the influence of uber-postmodern aesthetics throughout the documentary her grandchildren made about her. Much of the film probably would have baffled Ontell, but she surely would have been proud of the sibling filmmakers anyway. Elan and Jonathan Bogarín consider their grandmother through the prisms of archaeology and fashion, while struggling to catalogue the resulting clutter in the Bogaríns’ 306 Hollywood, which premiered last night at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

306 will be quite a programming challenge for many subsequent festivals. Ontell is an audience-pleasing kind of figure. For years, she put up with her husband, while building a reputation as an ultra-exclusive dress designer. Generally, she made only two of each chic frock—one for her Park Avenue clients and one for herself. They lived modestly, but comfortably in Newark at 306 Hollywood Avenue for decades. The Bogaríns also had the foresight to film her extensively during the last ten years of her lives. However, when it came time to box up the old house on Hollywood, the sibling filmmakers and their mother, Marilyn Ontell, were at a loss.

Every dress told a story and every knick-knack seemed to hint at a wider narrative. Their dilemma took on spiritual-metaphysical dimensions when told by various experts the souls of the dead linger in their homes for eleven months. The family decides to keep the house during that time, so they can commence a psychological excavation of everything Ontell accumulated. As part of the process, they solicit commentary from pop culture physicist Alan Lightman, funeral director Sherry Anthony, and fashion conservator Nicole Bloomfield.

The Bogaríns also incorporate a great deal of the footage they shot of Ontell in her late eighties and early nineties, some of which she would have probably preferred not to over-share. When a stray audio cassette is discovered, they even resort to using actors to lip-synch the scene. Yet, it is their representational collages that really would have made Ontell shake her head in confusion. They have cited Wes Anderson and Agnes Varda as influences, which definitely makes sense, that puts the film on the rather playfully experimental end of the spectrum, exactly where those most inclined to identify with Ontell will feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Yet, this is such a rarified work unto itself, it is impossible to identify anything that does not belong. Frankly, this is the sort of film that ought to be preserved in a terrarium, much like the dioramas it features. Indeed, its colorful stylistic eccentricities are refreshing to those of us who have done our time with Marker and his followers.


There is a lot of family love in 306 Hollywood that all viewers ought to be able to recognize and appreciate. There is also quite a bit of craftsmanship, some of which might be lost on its presumed target demo. If Ontell were not such a warm, motherly figure, we would definitely tag it as a better fit for experimentally minded documentary festivals like RIDM and DOXA, rather than Sundance. Recommended for viewers inclined to be both adventurous and sentimental, 306 Hollywood screens again this morning (1/19), Wednesday (1/24), and Friday (1/26) in Park City, as well as tomorrow (1/20) in Provo and Sunday (1/21) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Delirium: The Hell Gang Records Their Hell Night

The Hell Gang is sort of like the Scooby Mystery Team, but with hazing and dumbassery. Basically, they send out prospective initiates into reportedly haunted sites with a video camera and then try to scare the half-wits out of them. Talk about bad karma. As you might guess, they have picked the worst possible house for their latest escapade. This time could very well be the last time in Johnny Martin’s Delirium (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Eddie is the Hell Gang’s latest victim—and he really will be a victim, because these geniuses picked the notorious Brandt mansion, the scene of your basic thirteen children family massacre. After the poor sap has been gone for a suspiciously long time, the Hell Gangers reluctantly go in after him, immediate causing them to realize what jerks they were for not even giving him a flashlight.

Of course, the only trace of Eddie is his camera, which is loaded with rather unsettling footage. Yet, they still act like the game is still on. Frankly, these kids need a thesaurus, because they use the word “creepy” about a thousand times while tramping through the weirdly immaculate Brandt House.

Okay, so it is pretty creepy. The Brandt house and its ghoulish Late Nineteenth Century American bric-a-brac bring quite a bit of atmosphere to the table. It is certainly an evocative location (the historic Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate, also seen in the original Phantasm) and David Stragmeister’s mostly non-found footage cinematography is quite eerie. Frankly, Martin does a pretty nice job directing Hell Gang’s Hell Night, but the screenplay is just too standard issue. We have been here before and seen it done better (like the original Grave Encounters). The blandly interchangeable and thoroughly unlikable cast of characters does not help much either. Only Ryan Pinkston has anything remotely distinguishable going on as the comparatively more reflective Keith.


There is just no hook here. A pack of obnoxious kids enters a haunted house and have their heads handed to them by an evil entity. Ho-hum. Still, Martin shows some consistent skill. Delirium could be considered a step up from Hangman, if anyone notices it. Only recommended for horror fans desperate for a fix, Delirium opens today (1/26) in Los Angeles, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mark Dacascos’s Showdown in Manila

Maybe Trump shouldn’t have asked for so many encores from Duterte, the Mindinaoan Fog. Ordinarily, you would think when an American FBI agent is gunned down on the beach of the Philippines’ most exclusive tourist hotels, the cops would be slightly keyed up to catch the killers. Unfortunately, his widow will have to retain the services of an unlikely private investigator, Russian Nick Peyton, a former Manila copper and his American sex addict partner, Charlie Benz, in Mark Dacascos’s Showdown in Manila (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

How did a Russian stiff like Peyton get on the Manila force in the first place? Apparently, it was his fast-and-loose approach to due process and that kind of stuff. These days, he mainly works divorce cases and his partner Benz causes them. Mark Wells’ new widow is a bit frustrated with the local cops. Everyone knows he was gunned down by the notorious drug lord Aldric Cole and his men. She can even whip up a portrait of him, since she is a former police sketch artist.

The problem isn’t identifying Cole, it’s finding him. Fortunately, Peyton will be able to track him down by laying a beating on several of his known associates. While they are at it, Peyton and Cole will also rescue Kiki, a lapsed recovering teen addict they both seem to take a creepy fatherly interest in.

Thank Heavens, Cynthia Rothrock, Don “The Dragon” Lee, and Olivier Gruner all show up to save the film’s bacon when it is time to launch an assault on Cole’s jungle hideout-meth lab. They are also old colleagues from the Manila SWAT team, or whatever. In any case, when they are shooting the living the snot out of Cole’s men, Showdown is pure 1980s gold.

Unfortunately, it takes about an hour to get to that point. Still, Alexander Nevsky (the actor, not the Thirteenth Century Russian Prince) and Casper Van Dien are tolerably chummy as Peyton and Benz. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Matthias Hues chew plenty of scenery as Cole and his chief henchman, Dorn. Philippine teen idol Hazel Faith Dela Cruz has some screen presence, but as Kiki, she looks totally out of place in this ostensibly gritty story. Of course, Rothrock, Lee, and Gruner do their thing as Haines, Dillon, and Ford, basically the cavalry. However, Dacascos kills himself off too early as Wells, because he definitely still has the moves. As a bonus, that really is Tia Carrere as Mrs. Wells.

Dacascos helms the big action scenes with the sort of lucid professionalism fans prefer. We’ll take the clarity of Isaac Florentine over the shaky-cam of Paul Greenglass every time. Everybody seems to enjoy the big smack down with Rothrock and company, like a sort of mini-b-movie Expendables featurette, for good reason. Indeed, a little less talking, a little less Nevsky, a little more action, and a little more Dacascos and this film would have really been getting somewhere. Worth catching on VOD as a nostalgia trip, Showdown in Manila opens tomorrow (1/19) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mom and Dad: Filicide with Nic Cage

This film is like a poisoned slice of apple pie. Somehow, motherhood has been corrupted, as has fatherhood, right along with it. The how’s and why’s are a mystery, but for whatever reason, parents are caught up in a psychotic urge to murder their children. It is probably Trump’s fault, or maybe Brexit is to blame. Regardless, if you see your parents, run like mad in screenwriter-director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

We can infer that staticky white noise infecting broadcast signals is to blame, but whether it is supernatural or terrorism—whose to say? It started while most kids were at school or sitting for their SATs, but it eventually exploded into a full-scale crisis. It only applies to parents and their direct spawn, so teachers and emergency personnel will do their best to protect the future generations, but it is hard to convince all those dumb kids to avoid the very people who have nurtured them all their lives.

The Ryans’ teen daughter Carly has been a bit of a pill lately, so she stands a good chance of being the final girl. Seeing the phenomenon affecting her friends’ parents, she scrambles home to protect her little brother Josh. Presumably, their dad Brent is still at work and their mother Kendall (man, are these ever some white names) is at the hospital with her mega-pregnant sister (that situation gets extremely messed up), but both will come racing home with murderous intentions.

Probably the evilest and most effective aspect of M&D is the way Taylor slyly hints that the sinister whatsit only amplifies dark urges that were already buried deep within every over-worked, under-appreciated parent. He doesn’t spend any time on the mayhem device, because he doesn’t need to. It is just the push the Ryans have been waiting for.

Finally, M&D is the film that fully and necessarily capitalizes on Nic Cage’s bat-scat crazy acting style. He shows Brent Ryan’s dark side, in all its twitchy, seething fury. While Cage goes up, over, and out, Selma Blair is severely restrained, repressed, and resentfully self-denying as Ms. Ryan. When they get together and go crazy, they make quite a pair. However, all bets are off when the great Lance Henriksen shows up as Grandpa Ryan.


M&D is unrepentantly violent and subversive, to its unending credit. Frustratingly, Taylor leaves a few obvious avenues unexplored, like what happens to parents who adopted? Maybe that will be grist for a sequel. Regardless, the film is way more psychologically believable and compelling than a lot of folks will want to admit. Highly recommended for fans of horror films and Nic Cage tantrums, Mom and Dad opens this Friday (1/19) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Hiroshima: Lessons of the Hibakusha

Eiji Okada was from Chiba, but cineastes will be forgiven if they assumed he was from Hiroshima. He worked with auteurs like Teshigahara and Naruse, but he is best remembered for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. In Resnais’s film, he and Emmanuelle Riva were trying to forget their pasts, but six years earlier, he played a crusading school teacher working to keep the memory of the Atomic bombing fresh and vital in the Japanese public consciousness. Fresh from a critical rediscovery, Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima screens this Friday at the Japan Society.

Mr. Kitagawa is new in town, so he is initially a bit insensitive to the ongoing struggles of the hibakusha survivor students. However, when one of his students nearly passes out from a nose bleed, he starts to get the picture. About one-third of his class are hibakusha and the other two-thirds are insensitive Hellions. However, he will slowly instill in the latter some empathy and historical perspective. The story of a former classmate named Endo will be particularly instructive. He and his little sister are two of the primary survivors Sekigawa follows in the extended second act flashback to the pikadon flash-boom.

Hiroshima was bankrolled by the Japanese Teacher’s Union, so its pedagogical excesses make some kind of sense. It literally starts with a classroom lecture and features interludes of students reading international “peace” manifestos (or anti-American tracts) verbatim. It is a shame because the relationship between Kitagawa and his students has real potency.

Of course, the horrors of the bombing are the film’s reason for being. Each characters’ tragedy is certainly heartrending, but the film never reaches the exquisite poignancy of Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain, probably because it lacks a relationship as well developed as the Yoshiko Tanaka-Kazuo Kitamura father-daughter bond.


Okada is very good as Kitagawa and many of the young cast-members are quite extraordinary. Screenwriter Yasutaro Yagi earns a bit of credit for at least mentioning the Bataan Death March and Pearl Harbor. However, the Rape of Nanjing, the Alexandra Hospital Massacre, and the sexual enslavement of “Comfort Women” would have been more to the point. Just how Japan would have been forced to surrender without an Earth-shaking game-changer like the Atomic bomb is never addressed in protest films like this. Nevertheless, we feel deeply for the innocent children, who were just as much victims of their militant government’s intransigence. Recommended as a human drama rather than a history lesson, Hiroshima screens this Friday (1/19), at the Japan Society in Turtle Bay.

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Yor, the Hunter from the Future: 35 Years Young

It was an Italian adaptation of an Argentinian comic book, filmed in Turkey, starring a former USC star fullback best-known for playing Captain America. It is definitely a product of its time—1983—so it does its best to rip-off both Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. Yes, it is cheesy, but it is nostalgic cheese for viewers who bite into Antonio Margheriti (a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson)’s Yor, the Hunter from the Future (trailer here), which releases today in a “special” 35th Anniversary BluRay edition, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

Yor just happened to be ambling along when he saved Kala from a demonic stegosaurus. Since she is the daughter of the late chieftain, her tribe welcomes Yor with open arms, especially Pag, her grizzled protector. Unfortunately, Yor will not be enough to save her people when a tribe of pseudo-Morlocks launches a sneak attack. Technically, the Blue Meanies abducted Kala fair and square, but Yor doesn’t cotton to their ways, so he rescues her right back. Yet, just when Kala is starting to feel it between them, he lights out in search of Tarita, a reputed witch, who wears an amulet identical to the one Yor sports.

Alas, the love triangle will not last long, but another oppressed tribe points Yor towards an outpost of futuristic scientists, from whom he and Tarita are descended. Sadly, the post-apocalyptic survivors are subjugated by the accurately titled Overlord, who rules with the help of an army of clones, whose armor ever so coincidentally resembles Darth Vader. Of course, there is a resistance movement that has been waiting years for a stone age barbarian to come lead them to the promised land.

Reb Brown never really caught on, but his pageboy-loincloth-and-mukluk look as Yor is weirdly iconic. Corinne Cléry is most famous for playing the lead role in Story of O and a Bond Girl in Moonraker, so it shouldn’t be rocket science to figure out why she was cast as Kala. Ironically, one of the biggest names in the film at the time was British Giallo veteran John Steiner, who is practically unrecognizable as the Overlord. Poor Luciano Pigozzi (often billed as “Alan Collins,” as he is here) always looks like he is on the brink of a heart attack, but somehow he survived his stint as Pag.


Good old Yor is definitely more cult than classic, but it still brings back fond memories of early 1980s science fiction. It would make a great triple feature with Krull and Spacehunter: Adventures of the Forbidden Zone, which also originally released in 1983. In terms of aesthetics and craftsmanship, Yor is the least of the three, but it has its cornball appeal (everyone keys in on the theme song, so we won’t even go there). Recommended nostalgic riffing, Yor, the Hunter from the Future is now available in the unfussy anniversary BluRay edition it so richly deserves, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Small Town Crime: Noir at its Booziest

Mike Kendall sounds like a nice, progressive fellow. He was adopted by an African American family and now his best friend is his brother-in-law. He could almost be a character in a Norman Lear sitcom, if he weren’t such a boozy, self-sabotaging low life. However, he just might earn himself a bit of redemption if he can bring the murderers of a prostitute to justice in Eshom & Ian Nelms’ Small Town Crimes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Kendall longs to return to the police force, but that just isn’t happening after he helplessly watched his partner get gunned down while in a drunken state. Waking up from his nightly bender on the outskirts of town, Kendall discovers the badly beaten body of a young girl. He racers her to the hospital, but she will not make it. For some reason, Kendall cannot leave things as they are. He starts his own independent investigation, even bluffing the victim’s well-heeled grandfather to retain his services as a private investigator (not that he’s licensed, mind you).

Yet, much to the exasperation of the real cops working the case, Kendall starts developing some genuine leads. In fact, he gets close enough to prompt the killers to target his sister Kelly Banks, and her good-natured husband Teddy. Kendall has them convinced he has a legit temp job, which is sort of true, but he is also kidding himself regarding his general crime-fighting fitness.

STC is a sly noir in the Jim Thompson tradition, featuring an absolutely terrific performance from John Hawkes. Just when you think he has finally bottomed out, he finds a way to sink even lower. Just looking at his haggard, drawn face gives you the urge to pop an aspirin with some hair-of-the-dog.

Hawkes owns this film, but he has some worthy support from a colorful cast of characters, including the eternally steely Robert Forster at the peak of his steeliness, as the sharp-shooting estranged grandpa, Steve Yendel. Hawkes and Anthony Anderson’s Teddy Banks also play off each other quite amiably, while executive producer Octavia Spencer is believably exasperated but still completely human and compassionate as his long-suffering sister Kelly. Plus, Clifton Collins Jr. is the total wildcard, who constantly cranks up the energy and attitude as the victim’s eccentrically righteous pimp, “Mood.”


The Nelms Brothers have a few prior indie films to their credit, but STC deserves to be their breakout. We’d also be happy to see it spawn a bleary-eyed Mike Kendall franchise. He might actually be the most dissolute movie detective since who knows when, but that is all part of his charm. Enthusiastically recommended, Small Town Crime opens this Friday (1/19) in New York, at the Village East.

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The Road Movie: The Dash-Cam is Watching

These are the folks who keep voting for Putin. In addition to trading Olympic hosting duties with China, Russia should also become the permanent home of the Darwin Awards. At least viewers could jolly well come to that conclusion after watching this compilation of Russian dash-cam footage. In any event, the spectacularly crackheaded vehicular misbehavior is never dull to behold in Dimitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To be fair, the snowy Russian winters do not do motorists any favors. There are indeed plenty of clips featuring cars and tractor-trailers gliding gracefully towards the recording dash-cam car, like a figure skater. Then there is also the woman who used a butane lighter to illuminate her gas tank while pumping petrol. Gasoline plus open flame. You do the math.

Most of the footage assembled in Road Movie fits somewhere on the spectrum between Jackass and the particularly horrifying 1960s driver’s ed industrial films, like Dice in a Box (which explained how vans are basically death traps on wheels). Yet, just when you think it isn’t political, Kalashnikov shows about a dozen SWAT-style cops shaking down an unlucky dash-cam owner in an apparently bogus traffic stop. How much could they possibly hope to extort from him—a few thousand rubles? They really ought to be more ambitious in their corruption.

Moments like that elevate Road Movie beyond an online super-cut. Serving as his own editor, Kalashnikov (fittingly, like the assault rifle) has a shrewd eye for tension and telling details. The frequent presence of words like “b*tch” and “f*g” are surely no coincidence, but an effort to reflect street level attitudes. Seriously, these are the people who tampered with our election? That’s truly terrifying. Yet, nobody can blame him for what found its way into the film. The dash-cam has a fixed, unfiltered perspective. How you enter its field of vision is on you.


Road Movie clocks in at a mere sixty-nine minutes, but a concept like this could easily turn lame if it were conspicuously padded. Kalashnikov gives it enough of veneer of sociological inquiry to make this massive exercise in rubber-necking feel respectable. Indeed, it is often a literal traffic wreck that we can’t turn away from. Recommended for mayhem seekers and anyone perversely curious about the state of the world, The Road Movie opens this Friday (1/19) in New York, at the Quad Cinema downtown and the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but she understood American architecture. While most people recognize the protagonist of The Fountainhead was transparently inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, fewer understand his mentor, Henry Cameron was largely based on Wright’s first boss and formative influence, Louis Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s uniquely American aesthetic was overlooked in favor of his great rival’s hodge-podge eclecticism. Sullivan’s life and the development of multi-story steel-frame buildings are chronicled in Manfred Kirchheimer’s Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (clip here) which opens this Friday in New York.

Tall starts by inviting the audience to look up and then explains how those buildings got so high. We get a nutshell explanation of traditional (and not so traditional) building techniques—post-and-lintel, arches, cantilevers—in order to establish the significance of steel frame building techniques.

Sullivan was definitely an early adopter. His skyscrapers (modest by our standards, but lofty in their day) also featured tasteful decorative elements that clearly shaped Wright’s aesthetics. Sullivan contributed significantly to the growth of Chicago, but his rival Daniel Burnham sabotaged his rise, by marginalizing his contribution to the World’s Columbian Exposition. To his credit, Kirchheimer is even-handed in his assessment of Burnham, praising some of his work, including the good old Flatiron Building (which you could argue is his most Sullivanesque building).

In Tall, Kirchheimer gives viewers context and insight to better appreciate the cityscapes surrounding them, which is a gift. Frankly, this film is getting its belated premiere theatrical run at a time when it is sorely needed. We are increasingly in danger of losing our collective cultural memory for music, literature and films that were previously considered classic. Architectural awareness has always ranked even lower in the collective consciousness. Yet, how impoverished are those who pass by the work of Wright, Sullivan, and Burnham, without understanding their artistic and functional significance.

Kirchheimer assembles a collage of striking architectural images, many archival, but a good deal were also captured by his battery of cinematographers: Zachary Alspaugh, Peter Rinaldi, and Taiki Sugioka. Tall also sounds great, thanks to his tasteful music choices, including selections of Miles Davis and Count Basie, as well as constantly-working character actor Dylan Baker’s warm but authoritative narration. The film is not biography per se, but it definitely establishes the tragic nature of Sullivan’s life and greatly humanizes Wright, who is often portrayed as a distant genius, staring off into the lofty heights, as icons are likely to do.


Tall is a highly accessible documentary, but it is also clearly the product of a thoughtful craftsman. It should definitely spur an increase in the understanding of and interest in architecture with general audiences, which would be enriching, since architecture is all around us. Very highly recommended, Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan opens this Friday (1/19) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

NYJFF ’18: The Invisibles

Even under the oppressive National Socialist regime, at the height of the war, homelessness afforded a cloak of invisibility—fortunately. The air raid blackouts also helped. Even after Berlin had been declared “free of Jews” in 1943, an estimated seven thousand remained in hiding throughout the city. About 1,700 would survive the war and outlive their tormentors. Four of those survivors tell their stories in Claus Räfle’s dramatic-documentary hybrid, The Invisibles (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

When it comes to surviving, Cioma Schönhaus set a new standard. For a while, he lived night-to-night pretending to be a new draftee summoned to Berlin, living in spare rooms provided by patriotic Germans for recruits awaiting their formal mustering. Eventually, he fell in with a counterfeiting ring and saved thousands of German Jews and dissidents with his fake papers, while also making enough money to eat in fancy restaurants.

After dying her hair blonde, Hanni Lévy spent her days in cinemas and window-shopping on the Kurfürstendamm, but she never knew where she would spend her nights or where her meals would come from. Ruth Arndt and her sister would eventually become maids for a high-ranking military officer, who knowingly shielded them from his colleagues. Eugen Friede probably lived a more typically “hidden” existence, but he too would become involve with the resistance.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how little time Räfle’s subjects spent locked away in attics, like Anne Frank’s family. Instead, they largely followed a hide-in-plain-sight strategy, which seemed to work, because the National Socialists never expected such the-heck-with-it gutsiness. Of course, their involvement in resistance networks would raise the stakes even further if they were caught.

There have been previous films that combined talking head documentary segments with dramatic representations, but usually one has been conspicuously privileged over the other. However, Räfle gives them both equal weight. Probably the strongest performance is that of Alice Dwyer as the desperate Lévy, but the late Schönhaus’s recollections are the most fascinating. Nevertheless, the entire ensemble is quite strong and the oral history of all four survivors is profoundly valuable.

We think we know everything there is to know about the horrors of National Socialism, but Invisibles will add further dimension to our understanding. Yet, all four survivors go out of their way to celebrate the righteous Germans who sheltered them. What Invisibles documents and dramatizes is really pretty darned incredible. Very highly recommended, The Invisibles screens this coming Thursday (1/18) and Sunday (1/21), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

NYJFF ’18: Across the Waters

1943 was an awkward time to be a Danish jazz musician playing in a style inspired by Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club of France. Being Jewish was even more dangerous for Arne Itkin and his family. Denmark was an exception to the norm in occupied Europe, because of the high survival rate for Danish Jews and the extensive defiance among everyday Danes. Unfortunately, the October 6th tragedy in the seaside village of Gilleleje was the exception to the exception. That is exactly where the Itkins are headed in Nicolo Donato’s Across the Waters (trailer here) which screens during the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Initially, Itkin refused to believe there was any danger of French-style round-ups, because of the high degree of autonomy the protectorate government negotiated. He was wrong. As a result, his family was not as prepared as it should have been to seek passage to Sweden (where his well-to-do in-laws were already safely established). For a while, Itkin kept lugging his guitar, believing it would help serve their needs in Sweden, but it will not survive the close calls on the road to Gillejele.

Most of the Calvinistic Gilleleje villagers believe it is their Christian duty to aid all Jewish refugees, especially Niels Børge Lund Ferdinansen, the unofficial leader of the skippers and Donato’s grandfather. Unfortunately, his brother-in-law Kaj is an exploitative war-profiteer—and that’s when he is at his best.

Across depicts probably the ugliest incident in Danish history as a way of portraying the best of the Danish resistance. This is not a dumbed-down morality play. Both Jews and ostensibly Christian villagers alike make bad decisions and act disgracefully out of fear or panic. Yet, the fact remains, the overwhelming majority of the village refused to participate in injustice.

As Arne and Miriam Itkin, David Dencik and Danica Curcic hardly have time to catch their breath during the tense, on-the-run first half of the film, but they really lower the boom in the tragic Gillejele-set scenes. Jakob Cedergren also helps humanize Donato’s revered grandfather, while sacrificing none of his heroism. Nicolas Bro is boldly and fiercely contemptible as the irredeemable Kaj, while his real-life sister Laura Bro is quietly devastating as the profoundly sad and deeply disappointed Katrine Ferdinansen.


There have been many well-meaning, competently executed survivor stories previously dramatized on the big screen before, but in this case, music helps distinguish Across from the pack. There is a nice large ensemble Hot Club musical number that helps establish the Itkins’ passion for life, but Jesper Mechlenburg’s closing original song, “Safe and Sound” has a strikingly somber, somewhat Leonard Cohen-esque vibe that really sums up the essence of the film. Highly recommended for general audiences, Across the Waters screens this Thursday afternoon (1/18) and Saturday evening (1/20), at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

NYJFF ’18: The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg

As cover stories go, the official Communist Party line on the fate of Swedish diplomat-humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg was pretty bad. The official story is Wallenberg was accidentally arrested and passed away while languishing in Lubyanka Prison. That doesn’t exactly put you in the mood to sing “The Internationale,” does it? Yet, for years, Wallenberg’s family and admirers suspected his true fate was certainly more mysterious and possibly even worse. Alexander Rodnyanskiy set out to investigate the Wallenberg case as far as 1990 Glasnost policies would allow, but it turned out that wouldn’t be so very far after all judging from the resulting documentary, The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg¸ which screens again as a restored revival selection, twenty-five years after its original New York Jewish Film Festival premiere.

It was not merely false hope. For years, eyewitness accounts of prisoners claiming to have seen Wallenberg in various work camps and prisons trickled out of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just the Wallenberg family asking questions. The tens of thousands of Jewish Hungarians saved by Wallenberg, including future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, also wanted answers. In 1990, Wallenberg’s sister traveled to the USSR, assuming Glasnost would open all the vaults and archives to her. Alas, she was over-optimistic.

Rodnyanskiy’s documentary definitely investigates the Wallenberg disappearance, chasing down false leads and plausible but uncorroborated witness statements. However, it is also very clearly testing the limits of the supposedly new order, finding them not so different from the old regime. We see plenty of stone-walling, dissembling, and crude bureaucratic runaround. Even though Rodnyanskiy is the first to admit it does not make much sense for the Soviets to keep such an explosively embarrassing prisoner locked away somewhere for decades. Yet, all the evasiveness Rodnyanskiy captures just vindicates and further stokes our suspicions.


Mission is an amazing work of documentary filmmaking that renders a severe judgement against the Soviet Union’s past and present. Its future would also turn out to be just as disappointing. However, the Ukrainian Rodnyanskiy has evolved into one of Russia’s finest film producers, whose credits include Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. This is a frustrating film, but due to no fault of Rodnyanskiy. Sadly, it is just as timely now as it was then. Very highly recommended, the freshly restored, historically significant The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg screens this coming Monday (1/15) and Wednesday (1/17), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

NYJFF ’18: Sammy Davis Jr—I’ve Gotta Be Me

Jazz fans and hardcore cabaret connoisseurs can still enjoy their favorite musicians in clubs, but Sammy Davis Jr might be the last headliner who could lure average folks into a nightclub. You can bet he always made it worth their while. He is one of the few entertainers who found success in film, television, the recording industry, Broadway, and Las Vegas casinos. Yet, in this day and age, he strikes many as an awkward anachronism, despite his documented popularity and gutsy activism. Davis gets his due for the trailblazing social significance of his life and career in Sam Pollard’s Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

At the age of seven, Davis justified all of W.C. Fields’ warnings by up-staging the great Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President. Ever since then, he was in show business, aside from an unpleasant stint in the military. That all probably fits with the narrative you expected, but Pollard opens with Davis’s literal embrace of Pres. Nixon and his 1972 re-election campaign. Davis took a lot of flak for it, but he stood his ground and largely won over his critics. However, during the course of the film, we come to understand how he reached that point.

In fact, Pollard does a nice job of balancing considerations of Davis as a performer, activist, patriot, and hipster icon. He forthrightly addresses JFK’s instruction to drop Davis’s performance from the inaugural ball. Conversely, Nixon also gets due credit for inviting the first African American to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom. That was Davis.

However, the assorted commentators do not really get the full context of their friendship. Nixon was a lifelong friend of Lionel Hampton, going back to his first congressional campaign and formed a fast friendship with Duke Ellington, after his 70th birthday appearance at the White House. Maybe Nixon really wasn’t racist—he just preferred people who were older, more conservative, and overcame mean circumstance early in life, just like himself.

It is also disappointing Pollard could not shoe-horn in consideration of Davis’s film A Man Called Adam, because it really is fascinating. Portraying a trumpet player transparently modeled on Miles Davis, SDJ mentors a young musician played by Frank Sinatra Jr and humiliates his sleazy booking agent played by fellow Rat-packer, Peter Lawford. Mel Torme plays himself—and he’s great, while Louis Armstrong depicts an analogue of himself in a heartbreakingly poignant turn.

Frankly, it is depressing how many of Davis’s contemporaries are also gone, but Pollard features talking head segments with several former associates and friends like Quincy Jones and Diahann Carroll. Without question, the most powerful memories are those of former lover Kim Novak and friend-and-mentor Jerry Lewis.


Gotta Be Me will inspire nostalgia for those who remember Davis for his Newly-Bricusse hits and campy appearances in films like the original Cannonball Run. It will also lead to greater appreciation of Davis as an activist and advocate (pro-Civil Rights, anti-war, pro-Nixon). He was complicated, as well as multi-talented. Highly recommended, Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me screens this Sunday (1/14) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.

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