J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

One Mind: Life in Harmony at Zenru Chan Monastery

The isolation of Zenru Chan Monastery on Yunju Mountain in Jiangsi province is good for the soul. It looks like the monk’s quiet way of life has been untouched for centuries, even though the building was indeed damaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. They outlasted the madness, just as they will outlast the current regime, not through active defiance, but by seeking enlightenment from within and through nature. Viewers will quietly observe the Zen Buddhist monks and experience the rhythms of their monastic life in Edward A. Burger’s observational documentary One Mind (trailer here), which has three special public screenings at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

If you really want to appreciate the monastery’s Zen tea, you don’t just sip it. You also help harvest the harvest the leaves. This is one of many ways the Zenru Chan monks stay connected with the earth. The monastery appears self-sufficient to a large extent, which means there are no idle hands. Of course, the whole point of living there is to lose oneself in work and meditation.

Mostly, the monks go about their business without offering any commentary, but one recent arrival having the stumble shorn from his head, explains the practice of head-shaving as a means for monks to renounce and deny their individuality. While we understand the principle, fortunately for us, many of the monks display plenty of personality, often in a cherubically enlightened kind of way, which makes them quite pleasant cinematic company.

One Mind is likely to be compared to In Great Silence and Gurukulam, the documentary following life in a Vedanta Hindu ashram (that also had an early screening at the Rubin). In each film, slow cinema and vérité filmmaking become forms of spiritual pilgrimage. One Mind is also billed as a “Buddhist documentary” rather than a “documentary about Buddhism.” There is definitely something to that, but it applies even more forcefully to the ecstatic ending of Seoungho Cho’s short documentary, Scrumped.

Viewers have reason to assume there is a large transient population at Zenru Chan, who just stay for a short time to restore their connection to nature and temporarily shut out the extraneous distractions of hyper-modernity. Yet, there seems to be a good feeling of fellowship shared by them all. That is part of what makes One Mind an aesthetically rewarding, immersive sensory experience. It is a film to take in with the eyes and ears, thanks to Burger’s own striking cinematography and the evocative natural and ambient noises modulated by sound editor Douglas Quin. Highly recommended for viewers interested in mindfulness and faith-in-practice, One Mind screens this Friday (9/22), the next Friday (9/29), and the following Wednesday (10/4), at the Rubin Museum of Art.

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Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars

Separatist sentiment runs high among those space colonists. This time it is the Martians agitating for a Marexit from the Federation. Unlike the hardy libertarians in Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, these colonists are more like agrarian pacifists, who really don’t see what humanity’s war for survival against the bugs has to do with them. However, they will learn the hard way when a suspiciously sudden bug infestation overwhelms the planet in Shinji Aramaki and Masaru Matsumoto’s animated Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Did you know there were four sequels to Starship Troopers, two of them animated? Among B-movie connoisseurs, they are considered the gold standard of direct-to-DVD sequels. However, you can’t technically call Traitor of Mars direct-to-DVD, because it had a special Fathom Events theatrical screening. It is also something of a reunion for fans, because it was written and executive produced by Ed Neumeier, who wrote the screenplay for the first Verhoeven movie and features the voices of original cast-members Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer (yes, her character has been dead since the first film, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still play a role). Seriously, you have to wonder how Denise Richards managed to be too busy to phone in a few lines for Fleet Captain Carmen Ibanez, but whatever.

As usual, “Mobilized Infantry does the dying, Fleet just does the flying.” Col. Johnny Rico is an officer now, but he is still all infantry grunt. Evidently, he had to make a hard choice in the previous film that saved humanity, but didn’t do his career any favors. As a result, he has been posted to the sleepy backwater of Mars to try to whip a misfit platoon of recruits into fighting shape. Of course, he is the last person Sky Marshal Amy Snapp would want on Mars, if she had foreknowledge of an alien attack, but let it proceed unimpeded to punish the Martians for their uppity behavior, which is about the size of things.

Of course, she will need a scape goat—a traitor of mars (or should that be “to mars?”). Carl Jenkins, her rival and Rico’s former high school classmate would foot the bill nicely, but he manages to get warnings to Rico and Ibanez before Snapp’s storm troopers grab him.

When it comes to military science fiction and mecha, Aramaki is the go-to animator. He has been entrusted with the Appleseed, Halo, and Harlock franchises, as well as the previous Starship Troopers animated sequel. He does spaceships and battle armor really well. It is also kind of neat to see the main characters noticeably age, albeit mostly rather gracefully. Basically, Rico now looks like Nick Fury on steroids and an all protein diet.

There is plenty of action and a number of call-backs and shout-outs to the original film. Yet, even though Neumeier doesn’t leave anyone in the lurch, his narrative ends somewhat ambiguously, without the kind of red meat payoff fans will want. It kind of feels like Phantom Menace, in that a lot happens, but our characters mostly end up back where they started, except for the Martians, who basically get done dirty.

Still, Rico and Jenkins continue to hold up as compelling characters, while Aramaki, Matsumoto, and their team create some cool science fiction visuals. Needless to say, it never remotely approaches the artistry of Loving Vincent, but it’s fun. Recommended for fans of Aramaki and the franchise, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars is now available on DVD.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Loving Vincent: Van Gogh’s World, Exquisitely Animated

Forget Van Gogh’s ear. The real question is what happened to his heart. Reportedly, six weeks before his presumptive suicide, Vincent Van Gogh was calm, stable, and poised to finally glean some recognition for his work. Soon after his death, his devoted brother Theo also passed away. Sadly, Van Gogh’s great friend Joseph Roulin, the postmaster of Arles, did not know that. He tasks his somewhat dissolute son Armand with the task of forwarding Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother. As Roulin reluctantly pursues his grim duty, he finally starts to appreciate the artist he had always dismissed as a mad tramp. He will also start to ask questions about Van Gogh’s death in Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman’s absolutely stunning animated feature Loving Vincent (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A lot of attention will justly focus on what a technical and artistic feat Loving Vincent represents. It does hand-drawn animation one better as the first film consisting entirely of hand-painted cells, employing oil based paints, in a style directly based on that of Van Gogh. Yet, there is also real acting to be seen throughout the film, thanks to a sort of inverse rotoscoping process, in which stills of the cast were painted over and enriched by the team of animating painters.

Frankly, seeing the iconic faces of the Roulins, Dr. Gachet, Pere Tanguy, and the Zoave will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Each time Kobiela and Welchman cleverly integrate one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces into the film, we feel an urge to applaud. Yet, Loving Vincent is more than a visual spectacle. The narrative, co-written by Jacek Dehnel, and the co-directors, is deeply resonant. Essentially, Loving Vincent becomes an Impressionist Citizen Kane, with the letter (signed “your loving Vincent”) replacing Rosebud as the Macguffin driving the investigation into the misunderstood title character.

Even though he never exactly appears on-screen, Douglas Booth gives a terrific performance as the increasingly guilt-ridden and morally outraged Armand Roulin, always seen wearing that impossibly yellow blazer. His relationship with his postmaster father (nicely brought to life by Chris O’Dowd) is surprisingly poignant and ultimately redemptive. The film even supplies some closure thanks to Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s jealous patron, layered over a haunting performance from Ripper Street’s Jerome Flynn.

Everything about Loving Vincent is exceptional, including the soundtrack, which might very well be Clint Mansell’s finest film work ever. To some extent, it adopts the conventions of a murder mystery, but it is a profoundly humanistic examination of art and mortality. If Loving Vincent does not at least win the Oscar for best animated feature, it may be time to seriously consider disbanding the Academy. The animation is breathtaking and the story is completely engaging on an emotional level. Kobiela and Welchman certainly did right by their subject, creating a legit work of art, with the help of their incredible team of painters. Very highly recommended, Loving Vincent opens this Friday (9/22) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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Hispanic Heritage Month: Beyond La Bamba

Ritchie Valens is reasonably credited with introducing American popular culture to son jarocho music, but there were plenty of recordings of the traditional Veracruz standard before (Xavier Cugat) and after (Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria) he cracked the top 40 charts with “La Bamba.” It is a tune José Luis Utrera surely knows as a scion of a celebrated family of son jarocho musicians. However, the young Utrera opts to chart his own course north of the border. Marco Villalobos & Daffodil Altan document his musical undocumented life in Beyond La Bamba (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“La Bamba” is indeed quite representative of son jarocho. It is a traditional form of music that is infectiously rhythmic and wildly improvisational. If you are not invigorated by a son jarocho “fandango” than you are just tragically lame. How and why Utrera settled in Milwaukee of all places is never explained, but it turns out you can even find a fandango that far north.

In fact, Utrera is quickly adopted as the local son jarocho prodigy/celebrity/guru, almost like a son jarocho Wynton Marsalis, but one that holds workshops in a community center rather than the Lincoln Center. The music remains true to Utrera, even introducing him to his future fiancée. However, the conscientious Utrera misses his family and worries his aged grandfather will slip away before he is able to return.

Utrera is a nice kid, but his unassuming demeanor does not translate well on-screen. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter, because the music is the reason to watch the half-hour Beyond. Utrera and his family, friends, and students can truly play up a storm. As a film, it is pleasant, but mostly rather serviceable, whereas as a PSA for son jarocho music, it should definitely inspire some CD sales.

Wisely, Villalobos (talk about a musical name) and Altan clearly try to minimize the issue of Utrera’s immigration status. Look, he is a wildly talented musician, so it is nice to have him here, but we can’t help think of all the even more gifted Japanese jazz musicians we know, who maintain their legal residency status, often through great hassle. Regardless, Beyond La Bamba sounds great, so give it a listen when it airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hispanic Heritage Month: The Head of Joaquin Murrieta

Joaquin Murrieta had to be a significant Mexican folk hero, because Ricardo Montalbán played him twice, once on Death Valley Days and later in the TV movie Desperate Mission. Murrieta was the inspiration for Zorro, but he came to a bad end. Over one hundred fifty years after his death, filmmaker John J. Valadez wrestles with the Robin Hood-figure’s life, times, and legacy in The Head of Joaquin Murrieta (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

In 1853, the highwayman and/or Mexican nationalist was gunned down by a band of state-chartered vigilantes, who decapitated his head as proof. For years, they used the head as a grotesque sideshow attraction, until it was allegedly lost during the San Francisco earthquake. It was not the finest moment for California’s justice system, or Murrieta.

Although the head (preserved in a bell jar full of alcohol) was out of circulation, reports of sightings still persisted into the current century. Obviously, it is prime documentary fodder, but Valadez’s first attempt at a Murrieta doc fell through when his attempts to find the head did not pan out. Then one day, a mysterious package arrived at his home.

Valadez is maddeningly vague about a lot of details. Yes, we understand he wants to make a serious, socially conscious documentary, but when your film is constructed around a head in a jar, you have to indulge viewers’ morbid curiosity. There is no speculation as to where it came from, nor is there any attempt to authenticate it. Call us square, but shouldn’t you tell the police if you receive a severed head in the mail, even if it is from the 1850s?

In fact, Valadez readily admits he has no way of knowing if this is the real Murrieta or not, but he is content to accept it as a symbolic relic. Out of respect for the historical figure and the dispossessed people he championed, Valadez sets off on a trek to bury the head in his old stomping grounds, but he will have to drive, because obviously. Along the way, we get plenty of less than edifying American history. However, Valadez will also get an awkward reminder from his own family history that many of the Mexicans who were forced off their property by western expansionism had done the very same thing to the indigenous populations a generation earlier.

You have to give Valadez credit for keeping that part in the film, even though it is clearly embarrassing to him. Although, we would like more hard information about the head itself, the way he treats it on camera is quite tasteful and shrewd. Usually, he just shows it concealed by the box it was shipped in, which quickly takes on a sinister aura, sort of like the briefcase holding Marsellus Wallace’s soul in Pulp Fiction.

While clocking in just under half an hour, The Head of still manages to be persistently lectury. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story and it is fair to say Valadez is uniquely positioned to tell it. The adage “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” rooted in ancient Roman jurisprudence, certainly seems aptly to suited to this short doc, whether it be applied to misappropriated heads or twice-appropriated lands. It is provocative, but not knee-jerk. Recommended for those fascinated by folk legends, The Head of Joaquin Murrieta airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

TIFF ’17: Simulation

They are like characters in a Persian Pirandello play, but at least they are well accessorized. Existence is absurd and tragic, yet everyone sports ultra-sparkly blue boots. It is not realistic, but it is not meant to be. Probably the only thing true to life is the gut-punching conclusion, but that comes relatively early in Abed Abest’s experimental, reverse-sequence Simulation (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Abest starts with the third act and then rewinds to the second and first. Yes, it ends badly, but that is what you should expect if you’ve been dragged down to an Iranian police station. Living in Abadan near the Iraqi border means the Iran-Iraq War remains high in people’s consciousness, even for Abed and his two delinquent friends, Aris and Vahim, who are all far too young to have served. They have been arrested for causing disturbance of the home of Esi, a well-to-do merchant who is plenty old enough to remember the war.

The exact nature of their relationship is sketchy, but you probably would not call them friends. For obvious reasons, the tell-tale signs are double or triple coded, but we start to suspect Esi is somewhat openly closeted and the three young punks are pretending to be on the down-low to get close to him for nefarious, non-sexual purposes.

The action takes place on a stripped-down stage that is Spartan to the point of being surreal. Despite the deliberately “staged” presentation, Abest’s restless camera and distorted sound effects constantly bust us out of the proscenium arch. He does everything humanly possible to undermine the on-screen drama, yet somehow we get pulled in anyway.

Simulation partly derives its potency from the hot-button issues that divide contemporary Iranian society. Regardless of his sexuality, we can infer Esi is relatively wealthy and more secularly inclined in his values. On the other hand, Abed and company have little prospects, but even though they hypocritically indulge in alcohol and drugs, they most likely voted for Ahmadinejad, if they were old enough.

Despite playing a character at least twenty years older than himself, without the benefit of special make-up or costuming, Daniyal Khojasteh is terrific as old Esi. It is a portrayal of rage and dignity that leaves a deep impression. As Abed, Aris, and Vahin, Abest, Majid Yousefi, and Vahid Rad personify alienated malevolence, but Abest somewhat humanizes his namesake through Abed’s relationship with his adoring niece.

Frankly, Simulation is considerably more accessible than it sounds. There really isn’t that much not to get. However, Abest’s bold aesthetics will inevitably put off many viewers. Nonetheless, it is rather invigorating to watch him go for broke and mostly pull it off. Highly recommended for adventurous viewers, Simulation screens again tomorrow (9/17) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Barenholtz’s Alina

He played a zombie in Night of the Living Dead and is widely recognized as the man who discovered David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. Producer-distributor Ben Barenholtz’s place in film history was already secure before he directed his first narrative feature at the youthful age of eighty. Manoel de Oliveira was still regularly cranking out films when he passed away at an untimely 106, so who’s to say how many more films Barenholtz might have in him? In any event, his directorial debut is rather notable. The title character will sip tea at the Russian Samovar and learn something about herself and her dear mother in Barenholtz’s Alina (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Her mother never speaks of her father or their time together in New York, so Alina sneaks off to find out for herself, under the pretense of visiting Cuba on a rumba pilgrimage. It turns out her childhood friend degenerated into a gold digger with loose morals. However, Maria, a bartender at the Samovar proves to be a fast but true friend. She will help Alina follow her father’s trail, but in doing so, she inadvertently introduces the naïve Russian woman to some really smarmy cads, with money and bad intentions.

On the plus side, she also introduces herself to a big, boisterous Italian family, whose paths tangentially crossed those her father. The brooding grandson David rather turns her head and vice versa. There might be something brewing there, assuming history does not repeat itself.

As one would expect from the Ukraine-born Barenholtz, his film has a good feel for the Russian diaspora community, as well as the streets of New York City. Unlike terminally cute indies, the tone is darker and grittier than viewers might expect, but very true to the immigrant/migrant worker experience.

Darya Ekamasova (probably best known in America for The Americans) is quite remarkable as Alina. It is a forceful yet very vulnerable performance, which certainly sounds very Russian, doesn’t it? She shares a pleasant rapport with David Atrakchi’s David—and the rest of his big fat Italian family. On the other side of the spectrum, Grisha Reydler is charismatically sinister as her exploitative boss.

Alina is a nice film, distinguished by its assured ensemble and Barenhotz’s low key, but distinctive style. The soundtrack’s blend mix of classical, jazz, and Latin tracks well suits its seasoned sophistication and sounds terrific. Modest in scope but packing a potent after-kick, Alina is recommended for mature indie audiences when it opens today (9/15) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Infinity Chamber: Dystopian Prison Break

Frank Lerner is in prison, but perhaps his mind can set him free. In this case, that is not a New Age platitude. His fully automated, near future dystopian prison is forcing him to relive his final day of relative freedom within his own subconscious. However, he is also looking for clues that would explain his increasingly desperate situation in Travis Milloy’s Infinity Chamber (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

After a long day of drudgery, Lerner was blasted by secret intelligence agents just as he was ordering java in Gabby’s inviting coffee shop. He next wakes up in a granite and steel prison cell, with only Howard, his AI minder, for company. Howard’s primary responsibility is to keep Lerner alive, but he is also programmed to defend himself if the prisoner gets destructive. Aside from maintenance requests, he is firewalled from the outside network, but Howard can still tell there was something dodgy about Lerner’s processing.

After breakfast, Lerner is zapped back into his head, but he has a reasonable degree of autonomy to change his actions and investigate his environment. It doesn’t always make sense that all this information would be imprinted on his subconscious, but it is such a heady head-trip, we just go with it anyway. There are elements of the coffee shop Lerner obsesses over, including Gabby, with whom he starts to carry on an unlikely romantic relationship. With her help, he will develop an escape plan, which will take on urgency when Lerner starts to suspect he has been abandoned to die in his cell.

Chamber is a really nifty science fiction chess game that dexterously exploits the claustrophobic nature of its limited sets and locations. As one of the smarter dystopian films in recent years, it is largely character driven, even though two of its three characters are not, in the strictest sense, human. In terms of motifs, it even bears some comparison to Nozim Tolahojayev’s animated short film adaptation of Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains.

As Lerner, Christopher Soren Kelly makes a refreshingly smart and humanistic everyman. He also forges some really terrific chemistry with Cassandra Clark, who is surprisingly poignant as Gabby. The circumstances are almost incredible, but their relationship feels real.

Milloy addresses some deep, sophisticated themes, but he always keeps viewers keenly aware of the ticking clock. Arguably, it represents the best sort of speculative fiction that does not require extravagant special effects to realize its vision. Very highly recommended, Infinity Chamber opens today (9/15) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

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Wetlands: Getting Noirish on the Jersey Shore

Let’s take an outing to Atlantic City, where the surfing is mediocre and Trump lost dumpster trucks full of money in the casino business. Signing on with the police force wouldn’t be much of a career move for a former hotshot Philadelphia cop, but Babel “Babs” Johnson was lucky to get the gig. He wants to rebuild his life, but rampant corruption and a brewing storm do not cooperate in Emanuele Della Valle’s Wetlands (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

We never learn what precisely went down in Philly, but it obviously involved drugs. Johnson is now clean-ish and used the last of his connections to join the AC force, in order to be near Amy, the daughter he lost all visitation rights for. His ex-wife Savanah will not cut him any slack, even though she is still a hot mess party girl herself. Frankly, her lesbian lover, “Surfer Girl,” represents the only stability in Amy’s life, even though she also happens to be pushing drugs on the beach for the local syndicate.

Johnson wants to shut their operation down, but his mobbed-up chief won’t have any of that. He sort of has an ally in his new partner, compulsive gambler Paddy Sheehan, but it is Sheehan’s wife, news anchor Kate, who is really in Johnson’s corner (and in his bed). Naturally, everything comes to a head as the storm of the century of the year bears down on the Jersey shore.

Wetlands is part noir and part character study, but all kinds of moody. Frankly, the Johnson family soap opera gets a little tiresome after the fiftieth awkward encounter between the cop, his ex-wife, and her girlfriend. However, Della Valla earns credit for drawing some vivid characters. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is always tightly restrained and inner-focused as Johnson, but his angst-ridden performance is often downright harrowing to behold. Heather Graham de-glams more than she ever has prior as the earthy ex-wife. As always, it is great fun to watch Christopher MacDonald do his roguish thing—and a cat like Det. Sheehan is dead-smack in the center of his power zone. Yet, it is Jennifer Ehle who is a revelatory scene-stealer as the disillusioned but still seductive Kate Sheehan.

There are plot holes bigger than the former Trump Taj Mahal in Wetlands, but we can overlook them for the sake of watching Akinnouye-Agbaje play off MacDonald and Ehle. Della Valle also captures the eerie calm feeling as a major storm approaches. This film will definitely bring back memories of the lead up to Sandy and the weirdly uncertain aftermath, at least amongst those who fortunately were not seriously impacted. It is definitely ragged around the edges, but Wetlands is still worth checking out eventually, but feel safe in waiting for less expensive VOD options. Recommended down the road for Jersey Noir fans, Wetlands opens today (9/15) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine downtown and the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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Against the Night: What Happens in Holmesburg Prison

You’d think a perfectly good prison would be the last thing the city of Philadelphia would leave sitting around unused. It is not like they don’t have a need for it, but Holmesburg Prison’s checkered past (riots, biological testing) just made its continued operation problematically controversial. It is still there. Given what went down, it sounds like the perfect place for an aspiring reality TV creep to film a spec ghost-hunting encounter, but it is the absolutely last place drunk college students should be horsing around. Strange, unexplained things will go on behind Holmesburg’s bars in Brian Cavallaro’s Against the Night (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Obviously, the night turned out badly, because the movie starts with the sole survivor telling her story to Philly’s least intuitive flatfoot. (I don’t remember which one she was, but does it really matter?) In any event, the gratingly obnoxious Sean convinces his pals to let him film them stumbling around Holmesburg looking for ghosts. Of course, the jerkweed pre-planned a lot of mean tricks to play with their heads. It also leaves them in a heightened disadvantage when whatever haunts those halls starts picking them off one by one.

At first, the unknown agency is supernatural. Than its human, but Cavallaro inevitably starts dropping hints it is uncanny after all. This time around, the is-it-or-isn’t-it tango just tries our patience. However, what Against has going for it, it has in spades: a massively sinister real-life location and some hugely creepy set dressing. Holmesburg might just be the creepiest movie setting ever, perhaps even more than Grave Encounters’ Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital (a.k.a. Riverview Hospital in BC). However, the Vicious Brothers displayed a far greater command of horror movie mechanics and a masterful control of the eerie vibe. Instead of being scared by Against, we just scope out spooky trappings while we wait for it to catch up with the wrap-around segments.

Tim Torre’s Sean is hugely annoying, but at least we can remember him. Everybody else blurs together, except for Frank Whaley playing the interviewing cop in a cameo he probably already forgot. Holmesburg is such a cool spot for a horror movie freak-out, it is a shame the execution of Against is so workaday and ho-hum. Genre diehards will appreciate the guided tour, but there are plenty of superior haunted/infested asylum movies out there. For Holmesburg “fans,” Against the Night opens today (9/15) in LA, at the Arena Cinema.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ten: Murder Island, or Ten Little Teens

By some measures, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the seventh best-selling novel of all time. Therefore, you can’t blame filmmakers for coming back to it, even though René Clair’s 1945 film is pretty definitive. Both Mario Bava and the Detective Conan anime franchise memorably riffed on it. In the latter case, the basic structure was adapted to a high school setting well before Gretchen McNeil’s teen novel. There are infinitely superior And Then There Were Nones, but it is strangely satisfying to watch the obnoxious teens get slaughtered in Chris Robert’s Ten: Murder Island (trailer here), based on McNeil's novel (and Christie's, by extension), which premieres on Lifetime this Saturday.

How many guests do you suppose were lured to a party on a remote island? In this case, they are students from three rival high schools, all of which Claire briefly attended before her untimely suicide. Instead of U.N. Owen, they thought they were invited by one of the most popular girls in their overlapping social circles, but it is quickly apparent they have been had.

Since there is no direct accusation, the shallow, entitled kids will have to figure out their situation on their own. Naturally, suspicion quickly falls on earnest Meg, because she is probably the slightest of stature of the whole bunch. She also happens to have the highest capacity for empathy and deductive reasoning. As a result, the killer leaves her illuminating pages ripped from poor Claire’s diary after each murder. The unknown subject also keeps a more conspicuous tally in red paint for the other idiots on the island.

As you would expect from millennials, all ten guests are dumber than a bag of hammers and none of them has read And Then There Were None. At least China Anne McClain is generally likable and sympathetic as Meg. Within the ensemble, Annie Q (who was terrific in Cardinal X) is the most likely to break out big. This won’t be the film to do it, but the catty edge she brings as rebound girlfriend Kumiko helps make the film watchable. Katya Martin is also quite effective as the bullied Claire in flashback scenes. Alas, the rest of the ensemble is either blandly forgettable or prone to excessive overacting or just plain dead before we can make a fair evaluation.

Christie’s basic premise is so insidiously compelling, it takes perverse effort to screw it up. Clair’s version is a classic and 1965’s Ten Little Indians with Shirley Eaton and the voice of Christopher Lee on the gramophone is nearly as good. The 1974 desert-bound incarnation with Oliver Reed and Charles Aznavour also holds up nicely. Even a 1959 TV production with Nina Foch has some merit. They are all better than Ten: Murder Island.

These kids’ lack of intuition and survival skills is just too problematic. However, Robert doesn’t go down without a fight, offering up some nifty aerial shots to distract us. What it really needs is more caustic attitude and ironic humor in the Scream tradition. Disappointing, yet weirdly difficult to turn away from, Ten: Murder Island airs this Saturday (9/16) on Lifetime.

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Rat Film: Baltimore, Rat City

Here in New York, we have a special relationship with rats. They are our neighbors and our co-workers. We have elected rats to represent us in the City Council and up in Albany. We even have a rat for a mayor. Yet, Baltimore seems to think they invented vermin infestation. We will concede they have exponentially more urban blight and social pathologies, but we take a backseat to nobody when it comes to our rat population. Nevertheless, Baltimore takes center stage as the rat capitol of the world in Theo Anthony’s docu-essay Rat Film (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Everybody acknowledges monkey-fishing was a hoax, but in Baltimore, rat-fishing is a real thing. We will watch one intrepid rat-fisher and his bat-man as they try to reel in a nice long Norwegian. You have to give them credit for taking their sport where they can find it. Other sequences lack their focus. Anthony hopscotches around, trying to use rats as a metaphor the rise of the urban underclass. Essentially, it takes him nearly the entire eighty-two minutes to build to the revelation that rat populations tend to be highest in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live below the poverty line.

Rat Film is a classic example of a doc that thinks it is way smarter than it really is. It wants to blame rats on white one-percent privilege, but if you nose around the trash cans of the Upper Eastside, it won’t take you long to find something with a tail. Frankly, Anthony has already been scooped and trumped by Morgan Spurlock of all people, whose entertaining and ultimately terrifying Discovery Channel doc Rats also consisted of a string of loosely connected, observational sequences, but it argues rats are mutating at such an alarming rate, they just might take over the world if we’re not careful.

It is pleasant to spend some time with one of Baltimore’s more philosophical city rat control specialists, but the film’s hodge-podge construction never really adds up the way Anthony believes it does. Instead, it just dissuades viewers from ever visiting Baltimore. Come to New York instead. Surely, there are spots that can accommodate an interest in rat-fishing. Not recommended, Rat Film opens tomorrow (9/15) in New York, at the Lincoln Center.

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TIFF ’17: Mrs. Fang

Fang Xiuying is sort of like a Chinese Mr. Lazarescu, but her passing is much less drawn out. She was also a real person. After years of faithfully documenting life in China as it really happens, Wang Bing finally captures some death in the brief (by his standards) but discomfiting Mrs. Fang (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Mrs. Fang has suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, so when death finally comes, it will probably be a relief for her. Certainly, most of her family will feel that way too. They have all duly assembled for her final moments, but they are starting to get restless. Most of them are obviously annoyed by this ritual, but a handful look genuinely distraught. However, the former take great delight in criticizing one of her grandsons, who will no doubt take flak for his absence at every family gathering going forward.

At a mere eighty-six minutes, Mrs. Fang practically qualifies as a short subject compared to Wang’s previous films, like the nearly four-hour ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and the nine-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. However, it displays the same uncomfortably intimate aesthetics. Frankly, it is hard to look at Mrs. Fang’s face, because she has essentially wasted away, leaving her desiccated features tightly drawn-looking. Yet, Wang forces us to look, with long, extended close-ups.

It is almost impossible to not feel intrusive while watching these final personal moments. Yet, it is important to take into account Wang was filming with the full cooperation of her adult children and he had met his silent subject well before her health declined so sharply (however, she had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by the time of their first encounter).

Like many of Wang’s documentaries, Mrs. Fang is not expressly political, but it is hard to imagine it getting any noticeable theatrical release in Mainland China, since any censor worth their salt would recognize it is just bad for Party business. As a resident of Maihui Village Zhejiang Province from 1948 to 2016, Mrs. Fang lived under mean circumstances and she died under mean circumstances. That is an incontestable truth that comes through loud and clear in Wang’s film.

In fact, Wang’s films are always about getting at truths, through patient observation. Mrs. Fang is not as emotionally engaging as Ta’ang, Fengmeng: A Chinese Memoir, or Three Sisters, but it is more substantial and compelling than his previous shorty, Father and Sons, which was cut short by outside interference. Recommended for admirers of boundary-pushing documentaries, Mrs. Fang screens again tomorrow (9/15), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CIFF ’17: Maineland

There are many reasons why Chinese parents are sending their teenage children to study in America. A degree from an American university still carries great prestige in China and study abroad also offers a way to avoid the hyper-competitive Chinese entrance exams. As an added bonus, the Chinese students attending Fryeburg Academy in bucolic Maine might just receive an excellent education. For three years, Miao Wang followed a group of Chinese students as they learned, grew, and matriculated in Maineland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

With domestic enrollment down, Chinese recruitment has become critically important to traditional day-and-boarding prep schools like Fryeburg, the eighth oldest private academy in America. The outgoing Stella charms her way in on the first interview, whereas the shy Harry makes it in on the strength of his academic record. Both believe it is their familial duty to study business in college, even though she would prefer to take a degree in education and he would rather pursue music.

Not surprisingly, she will be more socially active than he, but both will take advantage of the opportunities that would be unavailable at Chinese schools. In Harry’s case, this means studying the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, which clearly leaves him deeply confused. Stella joins the cheer squad and other Chinese students make their own documentary about their experiences and the perceptions of their American classmates for their film studies class. There will indeed be plenty of culture clash to navigate and it is unclear how wide their circle of friends extends beyond fellow international students. However, from what we see, the teachers really have a knack for reaching them.

Frankly, Fryeburg looks like a truly superior school that really does foster critical thinking. If every Chinese pupil studying in America receives a roughly comparable education, China could be a vastly different country in twenty years—unequivocally for the better. Much like Neasa Ní Chianáin & David Rane’s School Life, Maineland also gives us a chance to track their development over time, with the general trend definitely looking positive overall. The Chinese students clearly have just as strong an emotional attachment to Fryeburg, which says a lot.

Despite their entrepreneurial-class parents’ privileged positions, the Fryeburg Chinese boarding students all come across like good kids who will be decent adults with a wider perspective on life. That is sufficient cause for a little optimism. Any film that gives us a little hope for the future of China is quite welcome, especially considering how vividly Wang’s previous feature-length doc Beijing Taxi portrayed the class-stratifications of contemporary Chinese society. Highly recommended for China watchers and anyone nostalgic for boarding school life, Maineland screens Sunday afternoon (9/17) during this year’s CIFF. In addition, South Jersey residents should also consider Lana Wilson’s The Departure and Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, two terrific documentaries that have already screened in New York and are continuing their festival runs in Camden.

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CIFF ’17: Let There Be Light

There was a time when it seemed like the only people talking about fusion energy were the LaRouchers. Remember Fusion magazine? Despite their interest, many scientists still believe nuclear fusion (as opposed to conventional nuclear fission) is a realistic goal. A multi-national consortium has sunk billions of dollars and Euros into an experimental sun-like reactor, yet some grubby start-up might just scoop them with something smaller and weirder looking. The scientists, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs working to solve the fusion problem explain their vision in Mila Aung-Thwin & Van Royko’s documentary, Let There Be Light (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is so huge, the construction team likens it to cathedrals that took generations to construct. It is a multinational, intergovernmental partnership of the U.S., EU, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia, so it is likely to run past its deadlines and over budget. Nevertheless, many consider it our best chance to develop truly clean and sustainable energy for future generations.

To Michael Laberge of General Fusion, that is all very well, but anything that cost tens of billions to produce and lifetimes to construct will never become a practical energy source. The prototype his team is working on would be much more scalable. That’s him, standing in front of its jutting turbines. Yet, the slightly mad Eric Lerner and his storefront Focus Fusion might be the dark horse to watch. We will see him sell shares in the company to his landlord, which definitely should count as an accomplishment.

The upside of fusion is truly revolutionary, but if ITER fails, it could very well poison the well for fusion research for decades. These are high stakes, but Aung-Thwin and Royko are much more interested in the science. Yet, there is a real horse race going on, with no guarantee every rider will reach the finish line.

Still, the enthusiasm of the scientists is refreshingly engaging. To their credit, they are able to explain some big concepts in lucid layman’s terms. At one point, the American representative to ITER likens the project to the Apollo Moon landing effort, but there is no public face making fusion’s case in the media, unless you count this film.

Let There Be Light is an enjoyable work of popular science filmmaking, but it never makes the blindingly obvious point. In a world where the leading fossil fuel providers are countries like Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, wouldn’t it be nice to achieve a breakthrough in fusion power? Still, the film is generally optimistic, which is cool. Recommended for fans of real science docs, like Pandora’s Promise and Particle Fever, Let There Be Light screens this Friday afternoon (9/15) during the Camden International Film Festival.

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TIFF ’17: Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month (short)

Life in Metro Manila is social Darwinism at its worst. For Ms. Dela Cruz, her sudden unemployment is the least of it. Small eruptions of violence threaten to flare up around her on her last night pumping gas at a foreclosed service station. By the way, this is a comedy. Needless to say, the humor comes in fifty shades of pitch black in Carlo Francisco Manatad’s short film, Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

That would be her face we see dominating the Employee of the Month chart. That was then. Tonight, Dela Cruz is trying to sell RC bottles filled with gas, while her co-worker scratches off all the lottery tickets. Unlike her, he probably never really cared, but she will try to make up for lost time in one night. Unfortunately, some of their Clerky antics will not be taken in the spirit of Kevin Smith.

In terms of tone, we are talking really gosh-darn dark here, but it also funny, in a ruthless kind of way. Yet, we have to say, Manatad manages to capture that wistful end-of-an-era, last-day-of-school vibe. As a result, we can identify with Dela Cruz and her slacker shift-mate on an acutely personal level, even though we have (hopefully) never had a final day on the job like this.

Angeli Bayani (a well-established thesp, known for prestige pictures like Ilo Ilo) is a marvel of understatement as the quietly simmering Dela Cruz. Her bracing work is a perfect example why there should be more awards for acting in short films. Ross Pesigan also plays off her well as the more outspoken Randal to her Dante (another Clerks reference).

Although Employee is not explicitly political, it certainly serves as a withering indictment of Philippine social malaise in general. Regardless, it looks great. Manatad keeps it gritty and grounded, but he and cinematographer Teck Siang Lim still drench it in noir style. Very highly recommended, Jodilerks Dela Cruz screens again at TIFF this Saturday (9/16), as part of Short Cuts Programme 06.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

TIFF ’17: Motorrad

The politics of Easy Rider and Electric Glide in Blue are radically different, but the endings are oddly similar. Two wheels are generally a hard mode of transportation in the movies, but what Hugo faces with his brother’s dirt bike running mates is something else entirely. The machete-wielding rival bikers are real enough, but there is something ominously uncanny going on just outside our range of perception in Vincente Amorim’s incredibly strange Motorrad (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

It’s not exactly Mad Max out there yet, but in Hugo’s provincial corner of Brazil, a carburetor is worth risking your life for. Rather awkwardly, the nebbish mechanic is busted red-handed trying to lift one from the body shop run by Paula’s grandfather (or whoever). Much to his surprise, she lets him go, with the part, after tending to a burn on his palm. As a result, Hugo is able to invite himself along when his brother Ricardo lights off on a road trip with some friends and dodgy acquaintances. Things get even better when they stumble across the very same Paula broken-down on a remote mountain trail. She will take them even further off the beaten path, which makes them sitting ducks when a black-clad gang of psychotic bikers starts picking them off, one by one.

Motorrad sounds like a simplistically conventional exploitation movie, but there is a lot more going on than initially meets the eye. Plus, the vibe is indescribably out-there. Clearly, Amorim is processing disparate influences, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, perhaps Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and most of Jodorowsky’s filmography. The tone is weirdly unsettling, even though his sprawling visuals are frequently quite beautiful. Frankly, this film is light-years removed from Amorim’s moral dramas, such as Good and Dirty Hearts.

Therefore, it looks primed for cult-status, provided enough people see it at Toronto to build word-of-mouth momentum. Of course, it is guaranteed to be divisive, because of the curve-balls that come out of left field, but cineastes should still give all the credit in the world to the craftsmanship of Amorim, cinematographer Gustavo Hadba, and editor Lucas Gonzaga. This is an extraordinary looking field, but it is also pretty intense on a grungy genre level.

As Hugo, Guilherme Prates is a credibly gawky everyman and Brazilian TV regular Carla Salle is ambiguously seductive as the mysterious Paula, but this is not the sort of film that will launch actors to superstardom. This is Amorim’s show—and he constantly lets the bikes and harsh landscape upstage his competent ensemble.

As motorcycle movies go, Motorrad might just give Easy Rider a ride for its money (but Glide still takes the honors). It is one of the strangest films of the year, yet it also fulfills its slasher horror movie duties. Highly recommended for adventurous audiences, Motorrad screens again tomorrow (9/13) and Saturday (9/16), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Ole Bornedal’s 1864

It was a bloody year. While Americans were killing each other at the Battles of Atlanta and the Wilderness, Denmark sent out its army to be slaughtered by the Germans. It seems like inconceivable hubris in hindsight, but the tiny Scandinavian country expected to win in short order. Instead, their crushing defeat sent them reeling into modernity, at least according to Ole Bornedal’s epic Danish miniseries 1864 (trailer here), which releases today on MHz Choice.

Although Bornedal is best known for genre films like Nightwatch and Just Another Love Story, he has already had a go at historical dramas with I am Dina. However, 1864 is much greater in scope and touched on still sensitive Danish national nerves. Conceived and filmed as a straight-shot eight-hour feature, it was broken up into hourly installments by Danish TV. As is usually true of sweeping historicals, both the poor and the privileged are represented, but in this case, some of them knew each other before the fateful war.

The reason Denmark was so confident at the start of the Second Schleswig War was because they had won the first one in 1851 so handily. Like many of his comrades, tenant farmer Thøger Jensen made it home to his wife Karen and young sons Laust and Peter, but his infected war wounds are an ominous site. The landed Baron’s only son Didrich also returns damaged from the war, but it his case, the stress and shame of his cowardly conduct (papered over by his father’s bribes) have corroded his soul. The Jensen brothers become a target for bullying, especially when they befriend Inge Juel, the new estate manager’s twelve-year-old daughter, whom Didrich creepily fancies as well.

In the early 1860’s liberal reformist Prime Minister Ditlev Gothard Monrad is openly campaigning for war, stoking nationalist fervor over the Schlewig question. As the matter then stood, the German-speaking enclave maintained a degree of autonomy as a Grand Duchy within the Danish state. For Monrad and the National Liberals, anything less than full Danish integration was unthinkable. However, Otto von Bismarck had learned from all the flukes and mistakes that led to Germany’s 1851 defeat, which would be quite unfortunate for new recruits like the Brothers Jensen. Even worse, they find themselves serving under the contemptible Didrich, who is recalled to duty at the rank of captain.

They will find at least two comrades who have a knack for keeping their men alive: the valiant Second Lieutenant Wilhelm Dinesen (real life father of Karen Blixen) and the leathery veteran corporal Johan Larsen. They both also take comfort from corresponding with Juel, but Peter is unaware Laust violated their unspoken gentleman’s agreement by sleeping with her. All of this family drama and national angst unfolds as a punkish teen working for a meals-on-wheels agency reads Inge’s handwritten memoir to her aged grandson.

The deeper you plow into Bornedal’s decade-spanning saga, the more it starts to click. Frankly, if half the scenes of the bratty young Jensen Brothers in short-pants had been cut, it would not have hampered plot or character development to any appreciable extent. The contemporary wrap-around segments are also quite contrived and unnecessary. However, the battle sequences are impressively mounted and the political intrigues are thoughtfully realized, thanks to Bornedal’s use of the nonfiction books of historian and series-advisor Tom Buk-Swienty as a blue-print. If you enjoy negotiating table drama, his screenplay does a nice job of integrating a good deal of Danish into the narrative without it feeling exposition-y. This might be Denmark in the mid-1980s, but it is clear how dangerous it is to relinquish control of military strategy to politicians and the press.

Pilou Asbæk (A Hijacking, Game of Thrones) might be the most recognizable cast-member, who really goes all in, wallowing in self-loathing misanthropy as the increasingly pathetic Didrich. Jakob Oftebro looks the part of the more dashing Laust Jensen, but Jens Sætter-Lassen gets the better speeches as Brother Peter, carrying them off quite well. However, the real star is the witheringly intense Søren Malling as the battle-hardened, but compassionate Larsen and the real discovery is Johannes Lassen as the fiery Dinesen.

1864 definitely has the look of big budget tent-poles, thanks the crisp vistas lensed by Bordenal’s regular cinematographer, Dan Laustsen and the smash-up battle pyrotechnics. After watching all eight hours, you will conclude Danes are lucky to be speaking Danish rather than German. Imagine if congress and the media had second-guessed George Washington’s strategic retreats, much like what happened to the admittedly eccentric Gen. De Meza? Despite some concessions made to the TV audience (that means you, moody teen with the piercings), 1864 is definitely a smart, grand-scale tragedy that pay dividends to attentive viewers who invest the time. Recommended for fans of old school epics, 1864 starts streaming today on MHz Choice.

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The Lost Empire: Shock the Monkey King

Media experts have observed China’s latest round of censorship guidelines would most likely prevent further adaptations of China’s most celebrated novel, Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, if they were duly applied, since they prohibit subjects involving superstition, reincarnation, vengeance, and most forms of the fantastical. Where would that leave Chinese film and TV? Pretty damn impoverished. Sadly, this Western non-adaptation might sort of make their case. Xuanzang is gone (too religious), replaced by a Western scholar, but don’t bother getting worked up about whitewashing. The problems run deeper than that in the miniseries The Lost Empire (a.k.a. The Monkey King, trailer here), directed by Peter MacDonald, which releases today on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.

Nicholas Orton is a Sinophile-scholar reduced to hustling business consulting gigs in China. Journey to the West is fiction in his world, but its example has inspired China and all of mankind to greatness. Unfortunately, poor old Author Wu does not currently see it that way. For centuries, the brainwashed scribe has been held captive in the Heavenly realm by the demonic Five Masters, who would remove all traces of his novel, just as they tried to do when they possessed Ming era censors. Alas, few in the Heavenly realm understand the book’s merits, besides Kwan Ying, the love goddess. She half-tricks the bedazzled Orton into journeying into her world to save Wu’s disintegrating original manuscript.

Right from the start, the romantic tension between goddess and mortal is hot and heavy, but not so with Orton’s teacher, the newly freed Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King. Of course, Pigsy and “Friar” Sand will soon join their merry band. Their challenge will be to convince the heavenly Jade Emperor to save the last remaining copy of Journey in the ethereal realm, in order to preserve it in our world as well.  Inconveniently, the duplicitous Confucius has rigged the proceedings in favor of the Five Masters and Kwan Ying is losing her powers, because she is following for the incredibly white-bread Orton.

The idea that censorship could be the earthly and cosmic Macguffin for our heroes to overcome is actually quite provocative. Presumably, that was the chief contribution of screenwriter David Henry Hwang, the well-regarded playwright of M. Butterfly fame. So much of Lost Empire is just too cheesy for words, but we can’t blame him for the chintzy special effects. They must be unspeakably painful for MacDonald to watch, considering he helmed Rambo III and did second unit work on blockbusters like The Empire Strikes Back and Superman.

Thomas Gibson has carved out a surprisingly long career on network television by being stiff and waspy, but it makes him a woefully underwhelming romantic hero. Russell Wong’s monkeyisms cause plenty of wincing, but the really embarrassing shtick comes from Eddie Marsan’s Pigsy and Ric Young’s horrifyingly prissy Confucius. Somehow, Bai Ling earns credit in the real Heaven for trying to elevate the film with her surprisingly warm (but wasted) portrayal of Kwan Ying and Kabir Bedi’s distinctive voice makes Friar Sand, unusually commanding. (“Sandy” is always the tricky Journey to the West character. Sometimes he is sand-like, other times not.)

Frankly, it is pretty lame they could not fit Xuanzang into the narrative, but maybe it is just as well for him. Journey to the West survived this miniseries and it will survive Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’s current censorship strictures. If you want a family-friendly introduction to Sun Wukong, check out the animated films, The Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven and Monkey King: Hero is Back, but skip The Lost Empire when it releases today on DVD.

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