Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Proud Mary (2018)

Proud Mary was one of the most anticipated films of the year within my circle of friends. Everyone wanted to see it, expecting it to be a second coming of a Pam Grier style exploitation film. When it finally arrived in January the reaction was less than positive. It took a while for me to see it, but when I finally did I found it was actually a pretty good action film.

The plot has Taraji P. Henson playing Mary. She is a hit woman for a local gang. When she leaves the son of one of her targets alive (the boy didn’t see her) she feels responsible for his welfare. When fate puts him literally in her path once more she takes him in. This complicates things because he has become a runner for a rival gang. Her efforts to get him out of the life go horribly wrong and the result is gang war that no one really wanted.

This is a good little action film. It has great action and solid characters. That the film works as well as it does is entirely because Henson is in the lead. She gives us not only a kick ass heroine but also a wounded one. There is clearly more going on inside her and we feel every conflicted step she takes. She is a heroine for this age and I would love to see more films with the character.

I have to say that having gone through a bunch of the Pam Grier films right before seeing Mary, I found that Proud Mary is actually much better than the earlier films. While I am a huge Pam Grier fan, I am fully aware that many of the films are not very good and survive because Grier carries them. Films like Sheba Baby are objectively dreadful. Yes they entertain but they are truly silly even by 1970’s exploitation standards. It may not be the prevailing attitude but Proud Mary outshines them.

I really like Proud Mary. If you like action, odds are you’ll like it too.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Quake (2018)

THE QUAKE is the sequel to Norway's Oscar entry a few years back called THE WAVE. That film was based on an incident where a tsunami went into a fjord and wiped out a village. This film is based on the fact that in 1908 there was a 5.6 earthquake in Oslo.

Picking up from the earlier film our hero is dealing with the emotional trauma of the earlier tragedy. When he hears of the death of a colleague in an underwater tunnel from falling debris he looks into what happened. He soon discovers that despite the insistence that there has been no seismic activity, everyone seems to think recent tremors can be linked to blasting for construction, there is something going on and it seems to indicate that something terrible is going to happen...and with the title THE QUAKE you can be damned certain it does.

While I don't think it is completely necessary to have seen the first film, I do think it will help. While seeing the earlier film will allow you not to need to get up to speed on the characters, the real plus is simply knowing what happened in the earlier film since it's referenced a great deal in the first 20 minutes or so of the film.

The film follows the plan of the first film with our hero investigating the evidence of an upcoming event, it happens and then dealing with the fall out. Where the first film balanced set pieces with character development, THE QUAKE largely deals with characters and plot for much of the film before the big one hits.This allows us to feel for the characters once the worst happens, which helps since the film's major flaw is that it takes about 70 minutes for the earthquake to happen. We need to feel for the characters because waiting over an hour for the promised destruction ends up stretching the suspense either to the last possible second before the tension breaks or past the breaking point. (I've spoken with a couple of people thought it went too long).

Once the quake happens the film goes into over drive as Oslo is destroyed and our hero along with his family and friends are left in danger. The resulting set pieces are incredibly tense, almost impossibly so even if some of them are unrealistic. This is what we all came for and the film doesn't skimp on what happens, keeping it epic in scope even as we remain focused on the characters we have been following from the start.

To be honest I'm not sure what I think of the film. Yes I love the final 35 minutes, but at the same time I'm not sure what I think of the rest of the film. Yes we get characters but at the same time it takes a long time to get us to the good stuff. Do we really need to go that long without a pay off? I don't know. Granted when it comes it blows us away, but I know in a week all I'll be talking about is the quake itself and struggling to remember the rest of it

Do I recommend it? Actually yes. The film is good enough on the whole to warrant seeing it if you can see it on a big screen and/or with great sound. This is disaster filmmaking done right and Hollywood could learn a thing or two from it.

Supergrid opens Friday- Go see it

How good is Supergrid? It is a late addition to my end of the year lists. A small budget apocalyptic tale that starts and goes at lightning speed straight to the end. Its full of great characters and even better action. If it’s not perfect it really doesn’t matter since what is important is finely tuned and nicely polished.

Set in a future where a giant mining company has taken over chunk of the US, poisoned the environment, and wrecked society so badly that evil gangs roam the roads (aka The Grid) killing and robbing anyone who cross their path. Driving into the wasteland are two brothers who need to make one more run for a criminal organization in order to get a certain package so they can be free of their obligation. Of course it all goes wrong…

I want to describe Supergrid in terms of other films, but that really isn’t fair. It’s also really damn lazy, since while the film kind of looks like other films here and there, the film as a whole, is wonderfully its own thing. Director Lowell Dean and his crew has done what the best filmmakers have done and taken the best pieces from the films and stories that influenced them and made something that is uniquely their own.

While the film commits the sin of trying to explain way too much of the world early on, once we get out of the city the film just goes. We’re in motion and things don’t have to be explained just witnessed and we are better for it. Deeds replace the words and we are drawn to the edge of our seats as a result. Deals are attempted, road blocks run, our heroes are hunted and helped and plans go sideways as bullets fly. It’s all beautifully done in such a way as to maximize suspense and popcorn munching.

That’s the film works as well as it does is due in large part to the cast. Everyone from top to bottom is clearly invested in their roles. No one is phoning it in and as a result everything carries weight. That may not sound like much, but way too often in genre films actors seem to take it less seriously with the result we stop caring because they have. How good is everyone? As the film was winding down I was thinking that I would like to see another film with the same cast.

I’m torn about whether to really talk about the film and give details or not. I want to tell you about some of favorite bits but at the same time I’d rather just let you experience it.

Actually just see it with a huge bowl of popcorn and beverage of choice and enjoy.

This is a great little action film. I like it so much that it's on one of my end of year lists.

Go see it.

Opening in Canada - December 14 in theaters including
Toronto - Carlton Cinemat
Calgary – Globe Cinema
Ottawa – Mayfair Theatre

It gets a VOD release in Canada and the US on December 18

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema (2018)

The best part of the film- Anthony Wong
Calum Waddell's Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema is a really big mess of a film. Calling itself a look at the Hong Kong cinema rating that filled cinema screens with with sex and violence for adults, it is more a badly edited piece of film on film that is missing way too much  to be anything in the way of the whole story.

For those that don't know, Category III is the strictest rating for films in  Hong Kong. It was brought into existence in 1988 when the Mainland Chinese film THE MEN BEHIND THE SUN about Japanese atrocities in WW2 pushed the envelope with graphic violence that included a real cat being eaten by rats and the autopsy of an actual dead child. The need to protect audiences resulted in the new classification.  Some filmmakers embraced the rating and soon began turning out films like EBOLA SYNDROME, SEX AND ZEN, DR LAMB, RICKY OH, Johnnie To's ELECTION films and even Wong Kar Wai's HAPPY TOGETHER (which could show a normal gay relationship).

A mix of talking heads, the most notable being actor Anthony Wong, and clips from trailers (owing to copyright issues) the film tries to chart the course of the category from it's inception until today. Unfortunately the film is all over the place and other than really dealing with the films during the first ten years of the the rating's existence there isn't much here.

Part of problem is that the  film is severely lacking in filmmakers who have worked on films rated Category III. Aside from Wong, we get Josie Ho and Godfrey Ho so the stories we get are only from a limited perspective. We don't get any other important names such as Simon Yam (who broke through in DR LAMB and according to IMDB wanted nothing to do with the film), Herman Yau (who made some of the best know Cat III films didn't respond to requests-per IMDB), Johnnie To (who has made several films), or any of the other name filmmakers who have made films that fall into the rating. As a result what we learn is primarily limited to a specific time period and only certain films.

The talking head experts (director Daniel Chan, actor producer Bey Logan, Mike Hostench, CEO of Next Day James Mudge and a couple of) are good but there is a sense that their interviews were severely cut down because they are so compact so as not to give any sense past the point. Watching the film I had the feeling that director Calum Waddell didn't go too far afield in getting interview subjects, sticking close to people he knew, since there are so many other people he could have or should have talked to.

It all might have worked had the film not been so badly put together. What do I mean?  First the film doesn't really explain what most of the films are. What exactly are the films being talked about. What was pushing the envelope? While a couple of films such as EBOLA SYNDROME are explained, many films simply have their titles mentioned and are noted as having sex and/or violence. There is no discussion of plots or how they really fit into the history of the subject.  What were the films other than the exploitative elements? We don't know.

Worse the film makes an absolute mess of the history. The film talks about how the Shaw Brothers were important and really started the march to the creation of the category  but other than talking about KILLER SNAKES in detail (or what passes for detail in this film) and showing some posters of other titles it simply jumps to MEN BEHIND THE SUN and then things get lost.  What happened in the 14 years between SNAKES and MEN BEHIND THE SUN? It's not here.  There is no historical thread only bouncing between ideas. A discussion of Amy Yip leads and SEX AND ZEN it's sequels but then the film jumps back saying that before SEX AND ZEN were the EROTIC GHOST STORY films which mixed sex and horror which morphs into a discussion of Qi Shu and how good and actress she is, before talking about horror and then a talk with Anthony Wong and his films UNTOLD STORY and EBOLA SYNDROME. There is no sense of when the films came out of the progression of  release and upping the ante.

And there is limited discussion of any film that isn't exploitative. Yes there is a longish discussion of Wong Kar Wai's HAPPY TOGETHER which got the classification because of it's gay subject matter, and some discussion of the more recent crime films a large number of films that don't fit the sex and over the top violence classifications are just not mentioned.

Somewhere about half way into the film we get a wobbly discussion of the hand over of Hong Kong to Mainland China which doesn't always seem tied to the films, the changes after the hand over and briefly how everyone is going to Beijing. As with much of what we see in the film the subjects are just thrown out there and floating around.

I apologize if that seems confused but it's because the film is even more confused. I know I left things out but so does the film. Part of the confusion is because of the arrangement of the material and part is because so much is missing (Look at the list of Cat III titles and you'll see how much is omitted or breezed over) . Outside of the Anthony Wong stories there isn't a lot of detail and we jump around time so the history and connections aren't clear.  Actually if you know the subject you can kind of sort of connect things up across the chasms of missing material, but I suspect if you were just walking in off the street you'd be lost.

I was shaking my head early on and I kept shaking it all the way through it. I also was talking to the film out loud asking it why certain bits were arranged as they were and asking why they were leaving other things out. While I will never claim to be an expert on the subject of Category III films, I do know enough to know that how this is put together doesn't work.

To be honest I'm not sure what I think of the film. I had been asked  if I knew anything about it few months ago by people who had heard mostly negative things about the film. As a result I went into the film expecting a horrific road accident. It's a road accident alright, I'm just not sure how bad it is.

Is it worth seeing? Not really. While there are some good stories in here, and Anthony Wong is funny but it really isn't enough to justify the loss of 85 minutes. That's time that would be better spent actually watching one of the films glossed over instead.

Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)

If I told you that Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson were in a film where they crack wise for two hours while shooting guns, and that excited you then The Hitman’s Bodyguard is for you. The film, which effectively reduces the buddy film to it’s most basic elements, is simply two hours of wisecracks and gunfights and if that sounds good to you then you’re set. If not go elsewhere.

The plot has a disgraced security expert (Reynolds) taking a job for and friend. She is an Interpol agent who needs to get a notorious hitman (Jackson)to the trial of a war lord. Never mind the hitman has been the bane of existence, he needs the job so they set off, only to be hunted all along the way.

There is more but it really doesn’t matter this is all about the action, verbal and physical, and as macho sparring this film can’t be beat. No it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense but you won’t care, Reynolds and Jackson are working at the top of their game. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough. The jokes make you laugh and the gunfights keep you on the edge of your seat…and that’s all you need.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Mute (2018)

Mute is a mess. Its intriguing as all hell, but it’s still a mess. It is a film I’m happy was allowed to exist but at the same time I wish it was better.

The plot has a mute bartender trying to locate his missing girlfriend in a neon dystopia of the future. He ends up meeting all sorts of odd characters on his trek to find the one he loves.

I apologize for being less than forth coming with details but while there are complications, most of the interesting stuff is not in the well-worn plot but in the window dressing of a world like our own but different. I mean in the techno- world one character is Amish. I was in love with all the visuals.

As for the plot not so much. Its wildly quirky (Amish) and strives to cover over the sense of being here before with showy stuff. Paul Rudd’s character is a genuine character, wild and crazy. You’re not sure what his deal is because, intentionally, you can’t get a bead on him until a bit of the way in. Writer director Duncan Jones gives us a lot of characters and it’s nice to see all these people on screen, but they really don’t do much. They come on show us their ticks and then get off. While the reasons for the film is to explore the disappearance you really don’t care after a while. I was about half an hour in when I realized I was starting to do something other than watch. There simply wasn’t enough real plot to keep me watching undivided. In away if I didn’t want to know hot it ended I probably would have turned it off before the end credits.

Visually interesting but not much more.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

I maybe late to the party with Bohemian Rhapsody, but I at least got to see it under optimal conditions at an Actor’s Guild screening with Rami Malek in attendance. It was big and loud and wonderful.

The film is the story of Queen as viewed through the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury. We go from his meeting of the band on through the Live Aid concert. Through it all we see Freddie’s ups and downs including his diagnosis of AIDS.

To be honest the film isn’t particularly deep. It is the standard Hollywood biography that messes with the history in order to compress things and in order to paint Freddie and the band in the desired light. This is not the whole story but it’s reasonably close. Close enough that if someone was interested they could go read the real story.

Absolute truth or not the film is ultimately what Freddie probably would have wanted- a grand time and a film that makes us all feel good. The story of a band of people who should never have been friends yet somehow changed the world by being themselves is one that resonates with all of us. They are ultimately us – just with better stage presence.

I was moved to tears several time. I cried because the music of Queen filled my life and I cried because my mom, who always said that when she died she was looking forward to meeting Freddie first and foremost, couldn’t do so- she long ago passed on where I’m sure she met the man in the great beyond.

I had a great time.

I’m curious how the film will play on TV where I’m not seeing it on a 40 foot high screen with booming sound track. I know I will be able to sing along with the song- something I did- and which strangely non one around me did. How could all the people who professed to loving Queen not sing along? (no I didn’t sing out loud but quietly to myself)

After the film Rami Malik spoke about making the film. With the audience filled with actors the questions were largely about how he did the prep work and his love of the music. It was really good.

I’m going to bet he has an excellent chance at winning the Oscar since it seemed the majority of people were there to see the film a second time because Malik was there and they wanted a chance to ask him questions about how he did such a wonderful job.

Highly recommended, especially if you can see it LOUD and sing along

Clara’s Ghost: Chris Elliott’s Haunted Family

Which is scarier, the horror of the supernatural or the family variety? In this case, we are definitely going with family. The Reynolds clan is especially disturbing, because they are presented as unambiguous meta analogs of the director’s own famous fam in screenwriter-director Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost, opening today in select cities.

Clara Reynolds never had much luck in the business, so she is used to being ignored and belittled, particularly by her husband but also by her daughters. Currently, Clara’s daughter Julie is the biggest star in the family, much to the burning resentment of her sister Riley, with whom she co-starred in an Olsen Twins style sitcom during their youth. Even their father Ted is jealous of Julie’s success. He was once a big TV star, but he just talked himself out of a potentially recurring role on her current show with his unreasonable demands.

With her wedding (to the producer who fired Dad) fast approaching, Julie has even more license to be high-strung and high-maintenance. Frankly, only Ollie, the family dog, and Joe, the family drug-dealer (the sisters’ old high school classmate) exert any kind of rational, calming influence, especially when Clara starts seeing the ghost of Adelia, a former resident of their old New England-style Connecticut home.

Bridey Elliott is more concerned with family dysfunction than hauntings, but the former is so excruciatingly uncomfortable, it approaches the downright terrifying. Yet, the business involving Adelia’s increasing spectral control over Clara is surprisingly creepy. Indeed, it is just impossible to ever feel comfortable during the film, for a host of reasons.

Nevertheless, it is all still archly amusing. Chris Elliott probably does his funniest work since There’s Something About Mary as the vain, arrogant, self-centered Ted Reynolds. His daughters Abbey and Bridey really do seem like siblings with all kinds of rivalry and baggage souring their relationship. The casting of Haley Joel Osment as likably schlubby Joe is downright inspired (and it also gives the film one degree of separation from The Sixth Sense). However, Paula Niedert Elliott, the Elliott matriarch, is the show-stopper as Clara, the Reynolds matriarch. It is a carefully layered performance, with her outward passivity masking all kinds of neuroses, under which we can see hints of even deeper, darker simmering emotions.

Outsiders might wonder why the Elliott family would make a film that is sure to stir all kinds of gossipy speculation, but it is painfully obvious why the Reynoldses would. They must abide by what fame demands. As an added bonus, the film also stirs all kinds of 1980s nostalgia, starting with the awesome retro-looking one sheet. Cinematographer Markus Mentzer gives it an eerie, hazy look reminiscent of “prestige” horror from the early years of the decade. Of course, the mere presence of Chris Elliott brings a flood of memories from his glory Eighties years on the Letterman Show, back when it was still funny (remember this one?).

It is hard to describe the vibe of Clara’s Ghost, but it is deeply unsettling, precisely because Bridey Elliott has the scathing family comedy and supernatural elements working in concert rather than at cross-purposes. If you had to live with these people, you would probably go nuts too, just like Clara maybe sort of does, or perhaps not. Equally outrageous and insidious, Clara’s Ghost is very highly recommended when it opens today (12/7) at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles and the Highlands Ranch in Colorado.

Russian Film Week ‘18: Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story

Few literary characters are as universally despised as Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Generally, he is pegged somewhere between a cad and a heel. Nevertheless, he deserves the chance to tell his side of the classic story, especially since he has an interested listener in Karen Shakhnazarov’s Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story, which screens as part of Russian Film Week in New York.

There might be subtle differences in interpretation, but the events that happened in St. Petersburg are still quite faithful to Tolstoy’s novel. The wrap-around segments are based on the fictionalized but still very autobiographical writings of Vikenty Veresaev. Anna Karenina’s son Sergei takes Veresaev’s place as a doctor during the 1904 Russian-Japanese War. Clearly, the fighting in Manchuria has gone poorly for the Czar’s army, when even a staff officer like Col. Vronsky has been wounded. Of course, Vronsky and Karenin know exactly who they are. They also have unresolved feelings for Anna. As he recuperates, Vronsky explains the tragic events, most of which were kept secret from Karenin by his controlling father.

What happened was the story of Anna Karenina, which you really ought to be familiar with. It is rather fascinating how closely Shakhnazarov and co-screenwriter Yuriy Poteenko hew to the original Tolstoy, yet they still manage to recast Vronsky as an unexpectedly sympathetic character. On the other hand, the senior Karenin comes across like a bitter, moralizing misanthrope, while Karenina is portrayed as a problematically unstable and self-centered drama queen.

That is all quite an interesting take on Tolstoy, but the biggest surprise is the success of the Veresaev-inspired scenes in Manchuria, which are quite compelling. Max Matveev necessarily digs deeper as the older, more remorseful Vronsky. He also forges a rather poignant rapport with Sofia Sun’s Chunsheng, a Chinese orphan girl Vronsky takes under his wing.

The feature cut of Vronsky’s Story is culled from Shakhnazarov’s eight-part miniseries, but it really does not feel like it is missing anything. The way it marries together Tolstoy and Veresaev is really very clever, but Tass still manages to overstate matters. It erroneously claims Vronsky’s Story would be nominated for an Academy Award and Shakhnazarov, the Putin supporting director general of Mosfilm has already been nominated for Oscars three times before. The truth is Russia previously submitted three of his films in the foreign language category, but the Academy chose not to nominate them. This time around, Russia declined to submit Vronsky’s Story, in favor of Sobibor. Despite the disinformation disseminated on Shakhnazarov’s behalf, Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story is a classy and engaging film, definitely recommended when it screens Sunday (12/9), as part of this year’s Russian Film Week in New York.

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

I am struggling to work out if You Were Never Really Here is a victim of being over hyped or just not being very good. I am pondering this because after months of people raving about the film, numerous awards, and friends saying it is their top ten films of 2018 I sat down and watched the film was underwhelmed.

The film has Joaquin Phoenix playing man who is very good at rescuing children. Living off the grid and unafraid of bashing heads with a hammer he brings kids to safety. His latest job, at the request of a senator, is to rescue a certain girl from brothel specializing in underage children. Phoenix leaves a trail of bodies but gets the girl. Soon after the police show to a motel room, kill the clerk and kidnap the girl back. It seems the girl is favorite of the governor.

A suspenseful character driven action film You Were Never Really Here is also an odd ball art film. The violence is often unseen or filmed in ways that are not typical (the initial rescue is seen on closed circuit TV) It clearly has more on its mind than just the rescue of a little girl. I’m not sure how successful it is I putting those ideas over. Not so much that the ideas aren’t there, more that the brooding intensity can be a little much. Much is not said, which is fine I like films you have to work with, but I’m not sure we are getting to know everything we need to know. I was also left a little uncertain by some of the twists of the plot, largely in that a film which holds close to reality, the amout of bodies that pile up, especially ones involving such powerful people seems to rather not really blipped the authorities not in on the evil plan. (I think I would have bought it more if politicos were not wandering through the story)

Then again I could be over reacting to what is here since several people I know have been talking this film up as this year’s equivalent to the discovery of sliced bread. I like the film but nowhere near that much.

IS it worth a look? Yes. While I don’t think its great I did like it. Perhaps if you can keep the raves out of your mind you’ll like it more than I did.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Robin Hood (2018)

There is going to be a lot of discussion as to why the Taron Egerton headed Robin Hood crashed and burned at the box office. I mean it has a great cast who work over time and spectacular action sequences, why shouldn’t it work?

The answer is simple: they didn’t have a script. Actually they had the incredibly stupid idea about updating the story while keeping it set (kind of) in period and while throwing out everything other than the character names. For all they changed this could have, and should have been set on another planet.

The plot has Robin leaving Marion to go off and fight in the Crusades. There he fights in battles that look like modern day ones but with bow and arrows. He tries to save the life of Jamie Fox’s son and ends up free prisoners, including Fox’s character who later is dubbed Little John. Back in England Robin is believed dead. Marion has married Guy of Gisborne and they live in the mine at the edge of the city. (What no Sherwood?) Meanwhile Sheriff of Nottingham is taxing the hell out of the people in order to finance the crusade (I thought this took place after the Crusade)- which is really a cover for an evil plot the Sheriff has with the Pope to fund the Crusade so the Catholic Church can over throw the king and install the Sheriff as a Papal puppet. (Wait... wha- but England was a Catholic country....)

Your brain hurt? Mind  did.

It gets worse as they don’t even get to Sherwood Forest until the end in an add on sequence that sets up a sequel that makes no sense what so ever. The story is effectively done but they try to stretch it out.(The Pope sets up shop in Nottingham, installing a new sheriff so he can continue to tax the people to pay for the plot that had to be  paid for before the end of the movie.... which makes no sense because they have the documents revealing the plan so everyone knows which means... in theory the King or Prince would be sending troops to squash the plot...But the pope....anyone have an aspirin?)

I hope everyone was really well paid because this film is god awful mess.

Frankly if they were going to change this much they should have set this in another time and place- preferably an alien world where the industrial set up would have made sense. This wasn’t 12th Century England, not even remotely. It’s so historically wonky and so dramatically broken that even the repeated narration at the start that we should forget everything we know is bullshit. If you are changing this much of the basic story, why call it Robin Hood? Why set it in period?

More to the point why make it a reflection of the current War in the Middle East with machine gun like weapons and dress that resembles modern tactical dress? And why have the sheriff’s men look like black clad riot police. This isn’t a subtle political commentary and it falls horribly flat, partly because it’s over done and mostly because what it is trying to say has always been how the sheriff’s men were viewed. They didn’t have to guild the lily.

There is so much wrong with this film I literally was throwing up my hands in the AMC 25 in Times Square.(Apologies to everyone behind me)

What kills me is the cast is really good, and if they had even a marginally better script this film could have been something. Also the action sequences aren’t bad. If they were in another film they would be twice as enjoyable.

Actually because of the cast and the action I kind of like the film in a bad film sort of way- but the truth is this is a bad film and you shouldn’t do what I did and pay money to see it.

One of 2018’s biggest disappointments

Russian Film Week 18: Hoffmaniada

It surely would have been a classic, but instead it is one of the best-known unmade films not associated with Orson Welles. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s script for Hoffmaniana, German Romantic fantasist E.T.A. Hoffman would have interacted with characters from several of his classic stories. This is a very different film, even though it has a similar title and premise. Stylistically, this is not very Tarkovskian, obviously starting with the painstakingly rendered stop-motion animation. E.T.A. Hoffman and his alter-ego vividly come to life in Stanislav Sokolov’s Hoffmaniada, which screens as part of Russian Film Week in New York.

Hoffman is a young advocate with artistic ambitions, who unfortunately looks like a much older man. As a result, he lives vicariously through Anselmus (of “The Golden Pot”), the dashing young archivist in love with Serpentina, who is in fact, rather serpentine. Unfortunately, his courtship with be interrupted by Coppelius (the notorious villain of “The Sandman”), who bewitches Anselmus/Hoffman with the alchemical automaton Olimpia. Along the way, there are also cameos from an unfortunate child name Zaches, as well as a certain Nutcracker and Rat King.

Hoffmaniada really makes one wonder about the Tarkovsky film that never was, because Sokolov and screenwriter Victor Slavkin so cleverly and seamlessly integrate Hoffman into his own stories. It sounds very contemporary, in a self-referential hipster kind of way, but it really follows in a meta tradition that go all the way back to Don Quixote. Admittedly, sometimes the transitions from story to story can be a bit abrupt, but that is a minor flaw, especially considering how visually striking the film truly is.

Frankly, the sets, backdrops, and costumes alone make Hoffmaniada one of grandest literary period dramas of the year. It also might be the best stop-motion animated feature since My Life as a Zucchini, even on a par with Jiri Barta’s Toys in the Attic.

Those who know their Hoffman will find Hoffmaniada an even richer viewing experience. However, those who only know the tale of the Nutcracker, will still get swept up in it (and if you don’t know that one, just sit quietly in your shame). For Sokolov’s Hoffman (and Hoffman’s Anselmus) love and literature are both very difficult to pursue, but they are worth the hardships that come with them. Very highly recommended, Hoffmaniada screens this Sunday (12/9) as part of this year’s Russian Film Week in New York.

Night Train To Lisbon (2013)


After rescuing a young woman from leaping from a bridge in a rain storm a professor finds himself on a train to Portugal where he tries to track down an author of a book written in response to the dictatorial takeover of the country.

An excellent cast (Jeremy Irons,Tom Courtenay, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz,Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling among others) makes this overly literary film worth trying. While there is enough drama to carry us from start to finish, the film, an adaption of a novel by Pascal Mercier, seems to be missing something to make it fully click. I kept wanting to know more about some motivations, such as why Irons would simply flee his class and run off as he does. I’m guessing the motivation in the novel was part of some interior monologue that has been lost in translation.

To be honest I really do like the film, but I wanted to like it more. It’s kind of a really good film that just sort of misses being great. Reservations aside. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Into the Dark: Pooka!

This must be the worst must-have toy since the Chuckie Good Guy doll. It looks a little like the Philly Phanatic mascot crossed with Gizmo the Gremlin, but its supposed charm is its unpredictability. Kids are crazy for it, but it is driving the actor wearing its furry costume even crazier in Nacho Vigalondo’s Pooka!, the Christmas installment of Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced monthly holiday horror anthology, which premieres this Friday.

Wilson thought he was auditioning for a proper acting gig, but when he was offered the “role” of Pooka, the money was too good to turn down. He will be the only one wearing the suit, so he will own the role. However, it will be more like he will be owned by Pooka.

Of course, the whole point is to sell Pooka dolls, which jump off shelves like a combination of Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpins. Pooka’s gimmick is recording and playing back snippets of conversation it overhears, but there is no guarantee it will pick something polite. In fact, it has a reputation for being naughty more often than nice. Considering it is in such high demand, scoring one for the son of Melanie Burns, the single mom Wilson is trying to romance is quite a coup. Unfortunately, just as he makes progress on the relationship front, the character of Pooka starts sending him violent dreams and visions that threaten his hold on reality.

Arguably, Pooka is more of an extended Twilight Zone episode than a scare-your-pants-off horror movie, but that is not a bad thing. You can also consider it a loose riff on A Christmas Carol—really, really loose. Thanks to screenwriter Gerald Olson and a snappy cast, the characterization is unusually strong by genre standards. We feel for poor Wilson and rather like several of the people in his orbit, particularly Red, the retired actress living in the next-door apartment.

Admittedly, Pooka cannot compete with Vigalondo’s inspired Colossal, but it will not diminish his reputation as one of the best genre directors working in film today. He clearly has an affinity for Pooka’s inherently eccentric nature, but this could well be his most subtly executed film to-date.

Nyasha Hatendi should put himself on a lot of fans’ radar for his terrific work anchoring the film as the increasingly distressed Wilson. He covers a wide emotional gambit, while remaining faithful to the character’s tightly wound reserve. Hatendi also develops a credible rapport with Latarsha Rose’s Burns. Yet, Dale Dickey and Jon Daley really help distinguish ITD: Pooka! with the color and energy they bring, as Red and Wilson’s Pooka-selling boss, respectively.

Whether you call it horror, dark fantasy, or psychological thriller, Pooka! is up there with Anna and the Apocalypse as one of the best Christmas genre films this season. (FYI, there’s also something called Elves out there we just can’t force ourselves to watch.) It is very well made and rather haunting in its way. Very highly recommended, Into the Dark: Pooka! starts streaming this Friday (12/7) on Hulu.

Mowgli (2018)

Andy Serkis’s Mowgli has had a rough trip to the big screen. A big screen motion capture adaption of the Jungle Book is had many people scratching their heads since it went into production so close to Disney’s version. Once Warner Brother’s shelved the film more eye brows were raised. And then the film was picked up by Netflix for release this Friday which gave some people hope.

What shocked me was that quite unexpectedly and unheralded, Netflix dropped the film into a couple of theaters. In New York, where it is playing in one theater (The I-Pic at South Street Seaport) the film is playing in 3D. Apparently the theater didn’t know they were being sent a 3D print so weren’t charging for a 3D film.

Monday, with five hours to kill between Award screenings I shot down to I-Pic and saw Mowgli on the big screen….

First and foremost this is not the Disney films. It is not the Sabu film. This is a version of the story told in the Disney films but it is ultimately, and gloriously its own film. Once I really dropped the connection to Disney I loved the film.

The film tells the story of Mowgli from his being raised by wolves through his battle with the tiger Shere Khan. It has most of the characters you know from the early films but no King Louie. And while it has a lot of elements you know it takes it all in a different direction.

I think the biggest reason that Warner’s walked away from the film is that this really isn’t for little kids. The film is real and raw. The characters are feral with matted hair and flies buzzing about. Characters die. There is blood and fed on carcasses. Yes the animals have the features that approximate the actors playing them, but they are most assuredly animals and this is the jungle. Everything has a cost. This really is life and death - where one death had me tearing up.

Actually a lot of the film had me tearing up. There are a lot of deeply moving sequences in this film that just kicked my ass. The speech that Mowgli’s mom gives him about loving him no matter what damn near broke me; as did Mowgli’s venting his rage at being so different that he will never fit in. That exchange between himself and his best friend, an albino wolf left me fumbling for tissues. You could feel the pain, especially if you were ever on the outside knowing you’ll never be on the inside no matter how you choose to look at life.

And that is what makes Serkis’s film truly great, the real and raw emotion. We feel everything that happens. We feel the danger, we feel the jungle and we relate to the emotion everyone is feeling. Rarely has any big budget film been this in touch with its emotion…and not just in touch, but able to express it so we in the audience not only seen and hear the film but feel it on every level.

It is a stunning achievement.

And some people are not going to get it or understand it. They want Disney. They don’t want the complexity. They want a film that isn’t this one, and that’s okay, there are other versions.

What I think is going to happen is that despite parents being cautious, the kids will stumble upon it and fall in love. I think the kids who like darker things will find it first and then the outsiders and then the rest of kids. Once the  film has time to be discovered and it will be hailed for what it really is - a masterpiece that come critics, the studios and audiences didn’t get right away.

This is a great film and even if you end up not thinking so now- I’m guessing once you get distance you’ll come around to thinking so

In brief:The Frozen Ground (2013)

Nic Cage hunts serial killer John Cusack in the true story of Robert Hansen who killed at least 24 women in Alaska in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Unexpected low key performances highlight this police procedural show just how good Cage and Cusack can be. This is a nifty little thriller about how a very bad man was brought down by a series of mistakes that were only discovered because Cage (playing a character who is an amalgam of several officers) wouldn’t let it go.

I really liked the film a great deal and it kind of messed up my evening because I put the film on with the intention of doing something while I watched it only to end up simply watching it to the end. Highly recommended

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Capsule Reviews WOLF CREEK 2, IN THE NAME OF THE KING 3, and NUMBERS STATION

Wolf Creek 2
More hunt and stalk in the outback is either going to thrill you or bore you to tears.
Frankly what annoys me about the Wolf Creek films is that they are so well made the fact that they are essentially a version of slasher films makes them less than they are. If only they had actually give us real characters and more of a plot than a crazed mad man hunts kids. I know people eat this sort of thing up but after all these years I find I need more than good filmmaking to make my heart go pitter pat.

In the Name of The King 3
Uwe Boll turd ball looks good, has some great moments, but is so lacking in passion that it will put you to sleep.

More two films than one, the film has Dominic Purcell playing a hitman who wants out. After kidnapping two young girls he is sent back in time and becomes a crusader for truth justice and the rights of the downtrodden. Or something. Boasting some really good Dragon effects and some good fight scenes the film somehow never manages to catch fire. I was bored for the most part.

While I have taken brickbats for liking some of Uwe Boll’s films (including the first In the Name of the King film) and I do think he can make a good movie if he wants to (Tunnel Rats anyone?) the last bunch of years he has been simply turning out uncaring crap. All the passion that made me like his films is gone. He still can be technically proficient, but the stories are dull and the performances are allowed to be walk throughs for a paycheck making the films a chore to get through. Boll can do better.

While In the Name of the King 3 isn't a complete turkey its really dull.

Numbers Station
Disgraced secret agent  is sent off to watch over a code expert at a number station (a radio station that sends out numbers as coded instructions). When the station is compromised the agent and the expert must fight for their lives.
Okay thriller starts off gangbusters but slides into a kind of boredom as they have to wait for rescue. and what was an action thriller becomes slow burn thriller. Its not a bad film, but the shift from action to talk takes the edge off everything.

BOB LAZAR: AREA 51 & FLYING SAUCERS (2018) is out on digital platforms to own today

I really liked BOB LAZAR: AREA 51 & FLYING SAUCERS but I am really mixed on it.  For one thing the film is a great portrait of Lazar who has always been a lightning rod for people in the UFO community. On the other hand the film struggles to be really mystical and it kind of distracts from the man himself.

For those who don't know, Lazar is a scientist who claims to have worked at Area 51, where the UFOS are kept and saw them fly, saw the alien bodies and was told how things worked. There has been questions about his background because official records largely have been wiped clean but phone lists and news stories support his claims.

Containing some old interview footage, the film is largely made up of several interviews with Lazar where he talks about what he saw and the cost it has had on his life. It good and interesting stuff.

The trouble is the film tries to me mystical at times. The narration, expertly delivered by Micky Rourke talks about different dimensions of belief and altered experiences and such a bit too much. We don't really need it since Lazar is a compelling soul. More so now that he has been beaten down by the madness surrounding his claims. There is a world weariness to him that adds a great deal of credibility to what he is saying since no rational individual would have umped into the lion's den had they know what it would bring.

Divorced of the mystical stuff I really liked the film. I like it enough that I am going to get it hen it is released to have in my collection.

Should you see it. If you have an interest in UFOs  yes absolutely, especially if you know of Lazar and are looking to see him speak at length on his life and what he's witnessed.

Own it on Digital December 4th and Available On Demand December 18th

Monday, December 3, 2018

All The Devil's Men (2018)

A contract CIA operative is tasked with one more mission before being allowed to go see his wife and new born. An ex-operative has gone rogue after being disavowed and is now trying to set up a deal for a nuclear warhead. Given a team of operatives our hero goes to war against the bad guys in London in order to stop a potential nuclear incident.

While the film slows down as it becomes needlessly messy in the second half (I'm not sure writer director Matthew Hope really thought out how to get from start to finish without having to add weird turns) the film always holds our attention thanks to some very good action set pieces and a dynamite first half. By the time things go sideways we are invested enough to want to see where it all goes.

While there is no doubt that we are in a B movie, outside of the opening in Marrakesh the world is pretty much a ghost town and the action is limited to confined spaces, Director Hope manages to turn the emptiness in his favor since we get the feeling that we really are watching something happening on the fringes of society. This is a war being fought by men and women too long in the trenches who have lost their humanity, and those that haven't are doomed to die (watch how anyone who shows a feeling for anything other than killing dies next)

While never destined to be the next big action film ALL THE DEVIL'S MEN entertains in such away that is perfect viewing for a rainy afternoon.

Currently available on Direct TV  ALL THE DEVIL'S MEN hit theaters Friday December 7.

The Colony (2013)


In a frozen future what is left of mankind has disappeared into deeply buried colonies. However things have been cold for too long. Things are breaking down. Food is running out. Disease when it occurs runs rampant. Things are so bad that if you don’t have a quick turn around with a cold or flu while in isolation you are either executed or sent off to wander the wasteland and take your chances. When an SOS is received from a sister colony a small group is sent to see if they can help. What they find is a blood bath. A group of cannibals have over run it prompting a fight for survival and a flight home in the hope of warning their colony.

Solid scifi adventure/horror film sucks us in and moves along at a good enough clip that we really don’t notice some of the bumps in logic to the plotting. Its buoyed by a great cast that includes Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton in key supporting roles. They add a weight that helps put the whole story over.

I really liked this film a great deal. I remember when the film was originaly released wanting to see it, but missing it theaters. I was disappointed by the less than sterling reviews, but now having seen the film I’m kind of left to ponder why the film wasn’t better received not why the film has kind of fallen off the table since it is entertaining and a great gem to curl up with on the couch.

Highly recommended.