J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Prison: Hard Time in Korea

The recidivism rate for this prison is darn near 100%, especially if you are fortunate enough to be quartered in Jung Ik-ho’s block. His men start re-offending almost right away, but their incarceration gives them an airtight alibi. It is a heck of a place for a disgraced cop to serve his sentence, but he happens to have a particular set of skills that will be of use to Jung in Na Hyun’s simply-titled The Prison (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A lot of his fellow prisoners are here because of Song Yoo-gun, awkwardly including the top dog of his prison cell. He will take some harsh beatings, but he will quickly develop a survival strategy. It immediately becomes apparent the corrupt warden is not really running the show here. Jung is. He and his men live well in their cell block, where they plot outside jobs to keep the dirty money flowing. By interceding in situations where none of Jung’s other men are crazier enough to act, Song ingratiates himself with the non-aligned gangster. In fact, he quickly becomes one of Jung’s favorites, but he also has a secret you can probably guess.

Those who are familiar with the Well Go USA catalog might wonder if they are starting to repeat themselves, since Erik Matti excellent thriller On the Job starts with a similar premise, but Na Hyun takes it in a very different direction. Like just about every recent Korean thriller, Prison is preoccupied with issues of governmental corruption. Granted, Song has a dramatic backstory motivating him, but unlike Matti’s film, there is absolutely no attention given to the home front. Frankly, there is not a single woman to be seen throughout the film and only one is briefly heard over the phone (so some things about prison life are still a bummer).

On the other hand, there is plenty of cartilage-crunching action. Previously best known as the screenwriter of crowd-pleasers like Forever the Moment, Na Hyun gets his money’s worth with his directorial debut, going big with a truly explosive climax. The two lead antagonists also hold up their end, generating all kinds of hardboiled heat. Frankly, it is great fun watching the hateful-yet-respectful chemistry that develops between Kim (Gangnam Blues) Rae-won and Han (Forbidden Quest) Suk-kyu as Song and Jung, respectively. It is also great fun to watch Lee (Inside Men) Kyoung-young, a character actor who seems to specialize in crooked politicians, do his thing as correctional department head Bae (who ironically happens to be somewhat honest this time around, but is still unrepentantly arrogant).

There is no question The Prison can hang with Inside Men and the most obvious comp film, A Violent Prosecutor, but in many ways, it is grittier and less sentimental. At the risk of sounding fannish, it is exactly the kind of film that reminds us why we dig Korean action movies and thrillers. Recommended with enthusiasm, The Prison opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Cezanne et Moi: The Great French Bromance

The “moi” in this case is Emile Zola, who was also the “I” in the Dreyfuss Affair J’Accuse. Despite his tremendous literary success at the time, Zola is now best known outside of France for his personal associations: the defender of the unjustly convicted captain and the estranged friend of Impressionist-forerunner Paul Cézanne. Opting for intimate drama over grand scandals, Danièle Thompson focuses squarely on the latter relationship throughout Cézanne et Moi (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1888, Cézanne visits his old friend Zola for the final time. Initially, they are cordial and even nostalgic, but the publication of Zola’s novel The Masterpiece hangs over the meeting. Everyone in the Smart Set considers the self-destructive protagonist to be a thinly veiled portrait of Cézanne, especially Cézanne himself. As the painter and the novelist dance around the issue, Thompson flashes back to episodes from their childhood and their early years scuffling in Paris.

Essentially, we see them switch positions. Zola, the naturalized Italian, will rise up out of his family’s mean circumstances to become one of the most widely read writers of his day. Conversely, Cézanne is born to privilege, but will be spurned by the art establishment as well as polite society. Nevertheless, he stubbornly adhered to his own artistic vision, earning an only partly unfair reputation for being a misanthropic recluse as a result.

C et Moi might have made a better stage play than a motion picture. The title roles offer a great deal of meat for two somewhat more mature actors to chew on. The classy subject matter also holds an obvious appeal to costume drama fans. Thompson seems to recognize she lacks the lightness of touch that made the best Merchant-Ivory films such lovely jewel boxes. Instead, she takes the film in another direction, penning some brutally frank, cruelly caustic exchanges. Indeed, the best scenes in the film focus on the two artistic giants, as they carve into each other as only formerly close comrades can.

Guillaume Gallienne (of the Comédie-Française) and Guillaume Canet are terrific as Cézanne and Zola, respectively, at least when they get to really play off each other (whereas, the flashbacks to their student years feel like routine historical drama exposition.) However, Alice Pol adds an element of unpredictability as befits Zola’s once scandalous wife Alexndrine (as she is now known).

Jean-Marie Dreujou makes the Provence landscape sparkle—a contribution Cézanne would surely appreciate. It is a richly appointed period production, but Éric Nevaux’s dully respectable themes lack any sort of flavor or texture. Still, Thompson and the two Guillaumes always make us believe these two men are so deeply connected, they know exactly what to say to hurt each other the most. Recommended for fans of classy French cinema, Cézanne et Moi opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Is America in Retreat? Johan Norberg Asks the Question

The term “world’s policeman” is often used in a derisive, Keystone Cops sort of way, but couldn’t this world use a bit more law and order? Maybe America does not necessarily have to fulfill those duties, but who else has the sufficient wherewithal? China? We have seen how they police their own people and it is highly problematic. Johan Norberg, Cato Institute Fellow and Executive Editor of Free to Choose Media chronicles America’s recent trend towards international disengagement and assesses the long-term implications in Is America in Retreat (trailer here), directed by Kip Perry & Elan Bentov, which airs throughout the week on select PBS stations.

If there is one single pivotal event in recent history for the commentators in Retreat, it would undeniably be the Obama Administration’s dangerous decision not to enforce its own “red line” prohibiting Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people, meekly accepting a “Russia deal” instead. Retreat explicitly links the “red line” capitulation to the subsequent refugee crisis, as well as the Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine. As Bret Stephens argues:

“Bashar Assad crossed that line by killing a thousand people with Sarin gas in Damascus. There were no consequences. Vladimir Putin observing what happened in Syria took Crimea in the space of a couple of days. Even then, there were almost no consequences.”

Norberg travels (as near as he can to) to three geopolitical flash points, where the lack of American leadership can be directly felt. The first two are indeed Ukraine and Syria (represented by recently arrived migrants in Germany), which receive plenty of media attention. However, the third flash point, the South China Sea, is arguably the most critical, but under-reported.

One of the big take-aways from Retreat is the role first Britain and then the U.S. have played ensuring safe navigation during their respective Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. Throughout the last seventy years, the U.S. Navy has frequently mounted “Freedom of Navigation” operations through international waterways that overreaching nations have claims in defiance of international law, much like the British did during the prior century. In each case, the British and Americans have been the only nation powerful enough to do this kind of maritime policing, but we also stood to gain the most by maintaining the unfettered flow of international trade.

However, American foreign policy now officially takes no positions regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is obviously an open invitation to China to bully its neighbors. Norberg shows us the human cost of our deference to the PRC, traveling with a crew of Filipino fisherman who are chased out of their own waters by the Chinese Cost Guard.

Another big takeaway from Retreat is its application of James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory to foreign policy. It makes a convincing case we have reaped greater international instability and human rights catastrophes by ignoring smaller ones, like the poison gas attacks in Syria or Beijing’s island grabs. Unfortunately, it does not leave viewers feeling optimistic. Despite talking like an internationalist, Obama followed a policy of reckless retreat more often than not. Yet, rather perversely, he has been succeeded by a President who frequently falls back on “America First” rhetoric.

It is rather ironic the generally libertarian Free to Choose Network and the “Classical Liberal” Norberg would make this case for a more engaged U.S. foreign policy, but it also makes their arguments harder to ignore. Provocative but soundly reasoned, Is America in Retreat is highly recommended for all American citizens concerned about our position in the world. It airs in various cities throughout the week, including this Thursday (3/30) on Baltimore’s WMPB and Saturday afternoon (4/1) on New York’s WNET.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

BUFF ’17: Prevenge

Ruth probably takes reasonable precautions during her pregnancy, like only smoking filtered cigarettes and drinking clear booze. Granted, committing violent spree murders seems like a source of unnecessary physical stress, but you can’t blame her for it. She is convinced each killing was planned by her unborn daughter. Things will get messy in director-screenwriter-star Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (trailer here), the opening night film of the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival, which now streams exclusively on Shudder.

Her first victim will be a lewd pet shop proprietor. Her second vic will be an even crasser jerkheel. Yes, Prevenge has plenty of feminist implications, but they will be complicated by her subsequent victim, an ice cold professional woman named Ella. In fact, Ruth will become downright distressed when her collection of embryonic tissue insists a conspicuously nice dude will have to die, so she can reach her next intended prey. At this point, it should be clear to all her targets are not randomly selected. They are linked in a very personal way.

Ruth’s pregnancy certainly looks convincing, because Lowe really was expecting during the filming. That sounds absolutely exhausting, but at least she was able to channel her discomfort into on-screen mayhem. She has a knack for delivering bracingly caustic lines and has the power to summon some wickedly potent fierceness. Lowe truly makes Ruth a force to be reckoned with, but she still manages to evoke the insecurities that plague her.

As befits a semi-pseudo-feminist horror film, the strongest support comes from Jo Hartley as her chipper Health Service midwife, who is only partially aware of the awkwardness of the platitudes she tells Ruth. Tom Davis and Dan Renton Skinner also make strong impressions as her absolutely odious early victims.

Lowe previously co-wrote and co-starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers with Steve Oram, which should give you a sense of her genre sensibilities. Yet, Prevenge is a more restrained and ultimately more tragic film. It sees the miserable in British working class miserabalism, but adds a lot of blood and sarcasm to making rather transgressively fun. Recommended for fans of horror movies with attitude, Prevenge is now streaming on Shudder after kicking off this year’s BUFF.

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BUFF ’17: The Golden Chain (short)

You could call Cyin a Gödel galaxy. All known principles of science and logic break down within its high-density mass. It is more like a different dimension than a galaxy within our universe, because we can never truly understand or perceive reality as it exists inside. Rather understandably, Cyin represents an almost existential challenge for researchers on a far future Nigerian space station in Adebukola Bodunrin & Ezra Clayton Daniels’ animated Afrofuturist short film, The Golden Chain (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Yetunde cautions her young colleague not to impose her own personal meanings onto the great mystery of Cyin. All they can do as scientists is record data from the event horizon. She chastises with conviction, perhaps to convince herself. Indeed, she seems to be exhibiting signs of professional frustration and personal depression. Her earth-bound lover Andre tries to reach out through an interstellar avatar-based method of communication that incorporates tactile elements, but she evades and stonewalls rather than reveal her potentially cosmos altering plans.

Golden Chain is a short film, but it has some big ideas. In fact, it probably could have used more time to develop its cosmic themes and establish the Afrofuturist imagery (which seems to just pop up in the climatic sequence). In just thirteen minutes, they do an incredible amount of world building. Still, you could say Bodunrin & Clayton leave viewers wanting more (and yes, time is money when it comes to independent film production). There is no question Golden Chain could be fleshed out and expanded into a feature length film, but it is the sort of concept-driven science fiction that lazy critics and fan sites too often ignore.

Regardless, this is a wickedly smart film that feels remarkably up to date with respects to physics, astrophysics, mathematics, propositional logic, and critical theory. Highly recommended for fans of cerebral sf, The Golden Chain screens today (3/26) during the Get the Balance Right shorts program at this year’s BUFF (and be sure to stay for the terrific Dave Made a Maze).

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

BUFF ’17: An Eldritch Place (short)

Which is scarier, the Lovecraftian Dreamlands or the Paris suburbs? An immigrant security guard will have a chance to compare and contrast in Julien Jauniaux’s short film An Eldritch Place (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

A reputable scientist should never look as haggard and stressed out as Francis Wayland. Even though his apartment complex is in the city outskirts, it is still considered a reasonably quiet neighborhood, so he really shouldn’t be so concerned about security. However, he has some rather specialized gear in his garage and a malfunctioning door. Frankly, it sounds like a dull but easy temp job to Abdel Alhazred, who is perfectly willing to accept.

Of course, it will be more complicated than he anticipates. First, a catty neighbor tells him malicious gossip about the disappearance of Wayland’s wife. Then he starts to hear strange noises over the walkie-talkie—real strange. When he investigates, Wayland is nowhere to be found, but the scene he left behind is decidedly ominous. Yes, there are references to Cthulhu and the Dreamlands.

Eldritch is one of at least two impressively produced Lovecraftian short films at this year’s BUFF, but its tone is radically different from Nick Spooner’s The Call of Charlie. Jauniaux’s film is thoroughly eerie and loaded with foreboding. Frankly, he makes the earthly glass and concrete housing complex just as spooky as the realm of the Elder Gods, if not more so. Yet, the eldritch dimension looks surprisingly real, but still appropriately malevolent.

As Wayland, Ludovic Philips follows in the tradition of Jeffrey Combs’ Dr. Herbert West, creating another creepy Lovecraft-associated mad doctor. Thanks to cinematographer Elodie Drion, it all looks stylishly sinister, while sound designer Jeremy Bocquet and composer Sarah Bloom further underscore the unsettling vibe, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of vintage John Carpenter. It is a terrific horror short that proves the Lovecraftian themes and motifs are still yielding rich new interpretations. Highly recommended for genre fans, An Eldritch Place screens tonight (3/25) as part of BUFF ’17.

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BUFF ’17: She’s Allergic to Cats

There is a point on the cinematic spectrum where cheapo grade-Z schlock starts to approach the style and texture of low-fi “expression for expression’s sake” experimental film. This movie understands that place because it lives there. Obsession and humiliation are just part of ordinary life for a video artist working on the fringes of Hollywood in Michael Reich’s She Allergic to Cats (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Mike Pinkney plays Mike Pinkney, an aspiring filmmaker who came to Hollywood to become a filmmaker, but found the town had not awaited his arrival with great anticipation. Currently, he works as a dog-groomer, a job he hates and is terrible at doing, as we can see from his Mekas-esque video diaries, dressed up with retro-1980s off-the-shelf computer effects. However, it is through his work at Tail-Waggers that he meets the alluring Cora.

Oddly enough, Pinkney will have more luck pursuing Cora than anything else he tries. He still dreams of making his version of Stephen King’s Carrie with talking cats, but he has no support from his bullying German agent Sebastian. He also can’t get his club rocker landlord Honey Davis, played by Honey Davis from Honey Davis and the Bees to do anything about his rat infestation problem. So, do you see where this might be going?

Reich and cinematographer Zach Driscoll deserve tremendous credit for nailing the look of either terrible exploitation films or ambitious avant-garde cinema. Someone should be embarrassed how aesthetically compatible Allergic to Cats is with Joan Jonas’s Double Lunar Dogs—and it isn’t Reich. However, that does not change the fact all Allergic’s cheesy graphics and VHS tracking effects are likely to give you a stress migraine.

It is actually sort of fun to watch Sonja Kinski (daughter of Nastassja) and Pinkney play off each as Cora and his meta-self, at least in their early scenes together. Flula Borg is also a contemptuous riot as the arrogant Sebastian. However, the cold hard truth is a little of Allergic goes a long, long way.

Still, just about everyone will agree this is the film The Truth About Cats and Dogs should have been in a more interesting world. The more you relate to Pinkney’s circumstances, the more you will likely appreciate its deliberately off-putting vibe. Basically, you should already know with absolute certainty whether She’s Allergic to Cats is for you, so plan accordingly when it screens today (3/25) at this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

BUFF ’17: 68 Kill

Its called exploitation for a reason. Neither the filmmaker or the characters of this gleefully sordid, southern-fried caper gives a toss if it hurts your feelings or upsets your delicate sensibilities. People are going to get humiliated, beaten-up silly, and all kinds of dead in Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill, which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

A femme fatale vixen like Liza ought to be well out of the league of Chip, a truly luckless loser, but they probably deserve each other. She treats him like dirt and he keeps coming back for more. Unfortunately, he does not make enough money mucking out septic tanks to cover their rent, so every month she pays off the landlord in “services rendered.” Unfortunately for him, he lets it slip during their awkward pillow talk that he has 68 grand in cash, currently on hand, just begging for Liza to hatch a violent home invasion scheme to snatch it away.

Of course, that is exactly what she does, dragging the alarmed Chip along to ride shotgun. Seeing how easily Liza guns down her victims makes rethink their relationship, especially when he lays eyes on Violet (another woman reluctantly forced to service the late landlord). Chip is smitten and also horrified by Liza’s plans for their captive (they are utterly appalling), so he coldcocks his soon-to-be ex, grabs the money and the girl and starts running for all he’s worth. Obviously, Liza will be hot on their trail, with Hell following after her, but a group of sadistic white trash psychopaths might turn out to be a more pressing problem.

68 Kill is a lurid, nihilistic revel in perversity, but it is bizarrely entertaining to see how low it is willing to go. When Haaga hits rock bottom, he starts drilling into the Earth’s crust. This film just wallows in primordial sleaze, but you have to give it credit for making due on its promise.

Based on his performance as Chip, Matthew Gray Gubler would probably make a good whipping post. Seriously, it often just hurts to watch him. On the other hand, AnnaLynne McCord is beyond fierce as Liza, the villainess from Hell. However, Sheila Vand (as you’ve never seen her before) totally hangs with McCord’s Liza as Monica, the goth-trash psycho-hooker. Alisha Boe also keeps the audience off balance as Violet. She looks and acts sweet, but she archly delivers some of the dirtiest lines in the film.

To his credit, Haaga keeps it all zinging along. This is everything My Father Die aspired to be, but fell far short of reaching. Recommended for its sheer chutzpah, 68 Kill screens tonight (3/24) as part of this year’s BUFF.

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BUFF ’17: The Call of Charlie (short)

Unfortunately, Emily Post never explained how to act when attending a dinner party with a Lovecraftian elder god. It turns out you can just call him Charlie, but please don’t stare at his Cephalopod head. Of course, it is hard not to, as one somewhat uncouth couple learns when they crash the wrong soiree in Nick Spooner’s short film, The Call of Charlie (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the Homegrown Horror shorts block at the 2017 BostonUnderground Film Festival.

Diane and Mark are preparing for an intimate dinner party. The only guests they have invited are their old friend Charlie and Maureen, an office-mate they hope to fix him up with. They have thoroughly prepped her for Charlie, so she understands what to expect. However, when Diane’s college friend Virginia and her husband Jay spontaneously decide to pop over with a bottle of wine, they have no idea what they are getting into.

Poor Jay is a little put off by Charlie’s tentacle-face. As his revulsion grows, he starts breaching etiquette in numerous ways. Still, it is hard to blame him for getting rattled, since Charlie radiates pure, ancient, primordial evil.

Call of Charlie is easily one of the funniest shorts currently making the festival rounds. You could argue it is essentially a prolonged comedy sketch, but the sad truth is shows like SNL simply are no longer sufficiently literate to produce a Lovecraft-themed routine, nor do they have the guts to handle its macabre edge.

Brooke Smith and Harry Sinclair are terrific as Diane and Mark. They seem very with-it and witty, but they are also completely nuts. Frankly, Roberta Valderrama is just amazingly obnoxious as Virginia, while the way Evan Arnold’s Jay loses his cool is quite a spectacle to behold.

The Charlie make-up effects are impressive as well, especially considering short films usually have short budgets. Lovecraft fans will absolutely bow down in reverence, but anyone who digs horror and cult cinema will be charmed by The Call of Charlie when it screens tonight (3/24), as part of Homegrown Horror, at BUFF ’17.

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Life: It’s Out There

Now that NASA is not so temporarily out of the manned space flight business, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians if we want to visit the International Space Station (ISS) that we helped build. Perhaps we should just leave it to them, if it really is the veritable playground for hostile extraterrestrials this film suggests. The good news is scientists have confirmed the existence of an alien life-form, but the bad news is it will inevitably start killing everyone in Daniel Espinosa’s Life (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Due to technical malfunctions, the ISS crew nearly fails to retrieve the fateful sample from their Mars probe, which would have ended the film prematurely but prolonged the characters’ lives. Naturally, once they start analyzing the sample, they find some kind of alien entity within. Nicknamed “Calvin” by driven lead researcher Hugh Derry, the creature starts out as an amoeba like cellular organism, but soon grows into a hissing, slithery alien not unlike the one from a certain 1979 science fiction-horror film we could mention. For a while, Calvin appears to go into hibernation, but it rouses in a foul mood when Derry gives it a series of electro-shocks. What a super idea that turns out to be.

Before you can say “in space nobody can hear you scream,” Calvin starts killing off crew-members one-by-one. He has a rather nasty technique of invading the body through open orifices and then exploding outward—again not wildly dissimilar from the Ridley Scott classic (it truly casts a giant shadow over Espinosa’s entire film).

So yeah, it is a heck of a lot like Alien, but not as scary. However, what really works here is the ISS setting and easy-going camaraderie of the crew. Espinosa and production designer Nigel Phelps really give viewers a sense of what it is like to live and work on the ISS. We feel like we understand exactly how the station operates, thanks to some surprisingly tense duct-closing sequences. Furthermore, Life arguably has some of the best weightlessness scenes rendered to-date on film. Screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick also differentiate the crew-members’ personalities much more than the typical “bug hunt” movie. Yet, those merits make it even more disappointing when the film stops trying to be original and resigns itself to ripping off Alien during the third act.

Don’t get too attached to anyone, but while he is around, Ryan Reynolds is jolly good fun to watch as Rory Adams, the ISS’s cocky space cowboy. Ariyon Bakare and Hiroyuki Sanada add tragic heft as Derry and Sho Kendo, respectively. Although Olga (Twilight Portrait) Dihovichnaya’s Russian Captain Golovkina is more of a stock character, she gets the best death scene.

Despite its genre-ness, Life still manages to show its respect for the sacrifice and idealism of the space program, which is rather nice. It is somewhat akin to Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report, but it is more conventionally monster-driven. While it falls short of its ambitions, it is considerably better than it had to be. Frankly, it is kind of impressive Life has ambitions in the first place. It probably doesn’t justify Manhattan ticket prices, but it will seem like a surprisingly good sleeper movie for those who stream it on impulse in a few months’ time. For those who can’t wait, Life opens in wide release today (3/24), including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Diamond Cartel: Life is Cheap in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was the last republic to declare independence from the bad old Soviet Union. Since then, Communist era strongman Nursultan Nzarbayev has remained the nation’s unchallenged authoritarian ruler. Kazakhstan has remained a staunch ally of the Putin regime and factored prominently in international corruption inquiries (often focusing on the oligarchical petroleum industry). In short, it is perfect but strangely under-utilized setting for an international thriller. Kazakh filmmaker Salamat Mukhammed-Ali certainly knows the territory, but his execution is spotty. However, he still managed to assemble a cast for the ages in Diamond Cartel (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Strictly speaking, there is no diamond cartel in Mukhmmed-Ali’s film, but whatever. Hong Kong Triad boss Mr. Luo has agreed to sell the Star of the East diamond to Mussa, the flamboyant kingpin of the Kazakh underworld, but their core businesses are the traditional vices. Unfortunately for Mussa, the transaction is interrupted by a hit squad loyal to his rival, Khazar. The diamond and the suitcase full of cash will become a slippery Macguffin, changing hands multiple times.

For a good portion of the film, they will be in the possession of Aliya, a former dealer in Mussa’s casino, who opted for life as one of Khazar assassins when her previous boss tried to force her to become his concubine (to put it politely). Having recently been reunited with Ruslan, the naïve love of her life, Aliya decides to make a run for it with the guy and the loot. If they can make it out of Kazakhstan, they might be able to start a new life, but that will be a big “if,” judging from the in media res opening.

Cartel holds many distinctions, but it will probably get the most attention for being Peter O’Toole’s final film. The machine gun-wielding Tugboat is a pretty crazy note for him to go out on, but it is a real shame the film is so conspicuously dubbed, robbing us of his final arch line readings.

As if that were not enough, Cartel also features Armand Assante hamming it up as Mussa, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa playing it cool as Khazar, Michael Madsen quickly getting killed in the ill-fated diamond transaction, Bolo Yeung still looking fierce and totally cut as Mussa’s henchman Bulo, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson keeping it real as Mr. Luo. The parade of cult-action stars is nostalgic fun, but the bulk of the film is carried by Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova and Alexey Frandetti as Aliya and Ruslan. She could be a reasonably intense and seductive femme fatale/action figure in a different context, but he is essentially a wall flower carried along for the ride. Fortunately, Assante also gets a whole lot of screen time, because who is going to stop him—and why would they want to?

The Kazakhstan backdrops are genuinely striking, often in an ominously cinematic way. Obviously, there are a lot of action chops assembled here, notably including Murat Bissenbin as Aliya’s assassination instructor, but the fight scenes and shootouts are mostly just okay and the flashbacks to Aliyan and Ruslan as children are a grave mistake. Some of us will want to see Diamond Cartel just so we can say with certainty that it exists, but it is a rocky road—even if it is one of the priciest Kazakh domestic productions—reportedly costing something in the high six-figure neighborhood, mind you. It is what it is and it opens tomorrow (3/24) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

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The Dark Below: Serial Killer on Ice

It could be considered the psycho-horror version of the Ray Milland Cold War thriller, The Thief. There is virtually no dialogue to be heard throughout the film, but frankly, there really isn’t much left for Rachel and her serial killer husband Ben to say. She is rather disappointed he turned out to be a murderer and he is rather disappointed she deduced the truth. Consequently, he tries to consign her to a watery grave in Douglas Schulze’s The Dark Below (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Phoenix.

As we learn from flashbacks, Ben swept Rachel off her feet when she enrolled in his scuba class. With his help, she became an accomplished extreme diver in her own right. She in turn helped him open his scuba shop. However, she starts suspecting something is off when the cops repeatedly come asking for information on missing customers—all of whom are women. Unfortunately, Ben soon knows that she knows, so he drugs her and crams her pliable body into her wetsuit, hoping to stage a diving accident in the frozen lake. She might go quietly, but she won’t give up without a fight.

Man, you can just feel the frostbite while watching Dark Below. Admittedly, the dialogue-free approach is a gimmick, but it works rather well. An over-orchestrated score can be heard throughout the film, presumably to fill the silence, but the film would have been better served by more hauntingly minimalist themes. (Frankly, only a blustering ham like Meryl Streep could approve of the way these cues crash down on the audience’s ears)

One thing is beyond debate—nobody can fault Lauren Mae Shafer for her relentlessly committed, harrowingly physical performance as Rachel. You shiver and wince along with her as she suffers from exposure, oxygen deprivation, and straight-up battery. Veronica Cartwright is also quietly (by necessity) powerful, as Rachel’s mother, an unusually intuitive horror movie mom. At first, David G.B. Brown looks a little too soft to be a hardcore serial killer, but that makes it even more disturbing when he flips on the psychopathic switch.

Having sat through some awkward dialogue that did no favors to genre films with potential, Dark Below might really be onto something here. Call it a stunt, but it certainly forced Schulze to refine his narrative down to its essence. As a result, the film is all muscle and no fat. Recommended for horror and thriller fans who dig something a little outside the predictable category parameters, The Dark Below opens tomorrow (3/24) in Phoenix, at the Arizona Mills 25.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dig Two Graves: They Hold Grudges in These Parts

Evidently, if you go south enough in downstate Illinois (bootlegger country) it starts to look downright Southern. In this rural 1970s community, adherence to superstition far exceeds job creation. Violence is rooted in the very land and Sheriff Waterhouse helped plant the bloody seeds. Consequently, he will have to face up to his karma in Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jake Mather made the right decision when she declined to dive from a natural scenic overlook into the rocky waters below, with her beloved older brother Sean. However, she still inevitably blames herself for his resulting watery demise—or rather his presumptive demise. There are so many caverns and ledges in that watering hole, his body will probably never be found.

Unfortunately, a trio of brothers will exploit her uncertainty and guilt, as part of a scheme targeting her grandfather, craggy, crotchety Sheriff Waterhouse. As members of a demonic snake worshipping cult, they appear to possess supernatural powers. They will offer Mather a Faustian bargain: Sean’s resurrection in exchange for the life of Willie Proctor, the bullied grandson of Waterhouse’s predecessor and former boss, with whom he is not on good terms.

For the most part, Two Graves seems to be a horror movie, but it becomes much more ambiguous during the third act. Regardless, there is nothing more sinister in Adams’ film than the past. It also has a strong sense of place. Many viewers will mistake the Southern Illinois setting for Appalachia, but they are really not so far wrong. The point is, this is a community where people know some pretty twisted secrets about their neighbors.

Two Grave has another major claim to coolness: the great Ted Levine (the other serial killer in Silence of the Lambs) taking care of business as Waterhouse. He brings the attitude, swaggering and glowering like a junkyard dog, but he also develops a rather endearing rapport with his granddaughter Jake (played with unflagging earnestness by Samantha Isler).

As mean old Proctor, Danny Goldring goes toe-to-toe with Levine, chewing the scenery and clearly enjoying his despicable villainy. To be honest, he and Levine look like they just have baking flour caked on their faces during their frequent flashbacks scenes (jumping back thirty years), but they still strut and snarl like old pros. If you need any more genre credentials on top of all that, keep in mind the joint is executive produced by Larry Fessenden.

Adams certainly gives us a macabre portrayal of hill-and-hollow country, but he never shows contempt for his hardscrabble characters. In fact, he respects them for being survivors, even the bad guys. Recommended for fans of horror and dark suspense, Dig Two Graves opens this Friday (3/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Beyond Godzilla: Latitude Zero

It was released in 1969, but this Japanese-American co-production (more Japanese than U.S., since Hollywood bailed mid-stream) eerily predicts the fashions of the disco era. There is gold lamé, plunging necklines, and sporty scarves. Keep in mind, we’re still just talking about the guys here. That is just how they dress in this technologically advanced Atlantis. Two scientists and a Yankee journalist will see it for themselves in Ishirō Honda’s The H-Man (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s new film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

Japanese team leader Dr. Ken Tashiro and his French colleague Dr. Jules Masson had invited Perry Lawton to document their undersea exploration mission in James Cameron-style submersible, but an unexpected volcano eruption swept them away from their life lines. Fortunately, the two-hundred-year-old Nemo-esque Captain Craig McKenzie was there to save them. He commands the submarine Alpha, the flagship of Latitude Zero, a utopian combination of Shangri-La and Galt’s Gulch, where principled scientists are free to pursue their work confident it will not be ill-used by either side of the Cold War.

Alas, not every two-century-old genius inhabiting these deep equatorial waters is as progressive as McKenzie and his colleagues. There is also Dr. Malic, a traditional super-villain bent on world domination. He hunkers down in his lair at Blood Rock, sending out the Black Shark sub and its tragically loyal captain Kroiga to do his bidding. Like Dr. Moreau, he has a thing for grafting humans and animals together, blowing them up to gigantic size to create kaiju. Inconveniently, Malic has just kidnapped Dr. Okada, a Japanese with a game-changing formula to counteract the effects of radiation, who had intended to defect to Latitude Zero.

Latitude is certainly enjoyable as a groovy time-capsule, but it never taps into the Japanese national subconscious in the way Honda’s The H-Man and Godzilla do. There is a bit of hand-wringing on behalf of a more neutral Cold War position, which has not dated well in retrospect.

Yes, that is Joseph Cotton, from Citizen Kane, Niagara, and The Third Man sporting the V-neck as Capt. McKenzie. He plows through as best he can. That is also Cesar Romero hamming it up as Dr. Malic. Since this is post-Batman, you know his performance will come in only one speed: high camp. However, Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada maintain their dignity while looking relatively alert and willing as Tashiro and Masson (remember, he’s the French one). Linda Haynes is also far better than snarky reviews have suggested as Latitude Zero’s bikini-top rocking Dr. Ann Barton (also looking ready for a night at the discotheque). However, it is a little awkward watching Richard Jaeckel embrace just about every crass American stereotype as Lawton.

Honestly, Latitude Zero is so ludicrous, it can’t miss. It too is a film that was released in multiple cuts. Logically, the Japan Society has opted for the 15-minute shorter Japanese-language version, which wisely jettisoned Cotton’s unnecessary voice-over narration. Judging from the American version, the Japanese cut is probably the one to see. Amusing in a giant flying Griffin way (yep, that’s in there), Latitude Zero screens this Saturday (3/25) at the Japan Society, as part of the ongoing Beyond Godzilla series.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Metamorphoses: Honore Does Ovid

The ancient Greeks told shape-shifting stories millennia before Kafka and dozens of tawdry paranormal romance writers, but it was the Roman poet Ovid who really crystallized the theme. As France becomes increasingly multicultural (and Mediterranean), why shouldn’t the Greco-Roman gods reassert themselves, like Apollo in Star Trek? Christophe Honoré modernizes Ovid’s epic poem, envisioning the Olympians living in the grubby Parisian suburbs, just as randy and petty as they ever were in Metamorphoses (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in Brooklyn.

Europa is the daughter of immigrants living in the projects, but she is still a princess to Jupiter, a morally degenerate but roguishly charming truck driving. He makes no bones about abducting her and she is happy to go along for the ride. Of course, they will have to avoid his jealous wife Juno, especially when he explains what she did to Io, another princess who was unfortunately caught in a compromising position with Jupiter.

Over the course of several days, Europa will fall under and out of Jupiter’s spell, hear a bounty of stories, spend time with Bacchus, and get swept up in King Cadmus’s personality cult. Some vignettes are stronger than others, but their net effect compounds with each re-told myth. Frankly, it is eerily logical how aptly these tales of arbitrary cruelty and self-absorbed vanity fit in our current day and age.

Arguably, the two highlights depict the Juno’s blinding of the future oracle Tiresias (memorably played by Rachid O.) and the ill-fated romance of Atalanta and Hippomenes, initially fueled and then sabotaged by the goddess Venus. For extra bonus points, Honoré stages the scene of their supernaturally overheated love-making session on the floor of a store-front mosque, so stand by for the professional outrage police.

As Jupiter, Sébastien Hirel manages to be sinister (in a Joyce Carol Oates kind of way), but also displays the shortsighted immaturity of a man-child. That might sound rather unappealing, but it is a neat trick to pull off, rather in keeping with the mythological source material. Mélodie Richard plays Juno like a nag from Hades, again in keeping with Ovid, Edith Hamilton, and Rick Riordan. Amira Akili perfectly serves as a somewhat naïve audience surrogate, but frankly she looks disturbingly young for her sex scenes with Jupiter. On the other hand, Gabrielle Chuiton and Jean Courte lend the film a shot of poignant dignity as the proto-Christian Samaritans, Philemon and Baucis.

Despite, or maybe because of its messiness, Metamorphoses might be Honoré’s best film to date. Shrewdly, he avoids pedantic one-for-one parallels, striving to transpose the spirit of Ovid’s myths, more than the letter. He also keeps the physical transformations discretely off-camera, which actually heightens the sense of mystery. When it works, it works. Recommended for literate viewers, Metamorphoses screens five nights at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, starting this Thursday (3/23) and opens a week-long run at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles this Friday (3/24).

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The Quiet Hour: Planetary Invasions and Home Invasions

Even the unseen aliens terrorizing the English countryside appreciate tea time. For two-hours every day, they retreat back to the mother ship, giving the humans a brief respite. Sadly, but only too believably, most survivors squander that time on in-fighting and their own inhumanity towards man. A young former veterinary student did not ask for any of this, but she will do her best to protect her home and blind brother from terrestrial invaders in Stéphanie Joalland’s The Quiet Hour (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Monarch Home Entertainment.

Two days ago, Sarah Connelly’s father did not make it home in time. She buried him, but has yet to break the news to her brother Tom. Unfortunately, she will have more pressing issues when a former solider named Jude barges into their home. Frankly, he does not seem so bad. It is the small gang of plunderers (very much in the tradition of The Road) chasing him who will be the problem. Jude insists the earth-scorching Kathryn and her savage family will not stop with him. They will also steal the Connelly’s food and supplies, most likely killing them in the process. Although Tom is skeptical, his sister is quickly convinced. Thus, begins a strange siege that is only waged two hours a day.

The atmosphere of Hour is almost indescribably dark and moody. It is sort of like a cross between the early episodes of the BBC’s mid-1980s sf show, The Tripods, and the post-apocalyptic prepper dramas, like The Road or Into the Woods. There are most definitely aliens raining down death from the skies, but it is a complete mismatch of extinction event proportions. We never see the aliens themselves, jut the mother ship looming in the horizons and snatches of the patrol vehicles (because if you ever saw them clearly, you’d probably be dead).

Hour is very unsettling, in part because the alien occupation is so impersonal and callous. There is no commander sneering at humanity like the dreadlock-sporting John Travolta in Battlefield Earth (to pick on a real strawman example). We do not even register—period.

The French-born British-based Joalland is remarkably assured executing the intangibles like vibe and world-building (sort of like the more precise mise-en-scène). Viewers can feel a hush settle over them as soon as the film starts. However, she never really kicks the narrative up to an appropriate climatic level. Instead, it just seems to slowly rise along a modest gradient.

Regardless, Dakota Blue Richards (the young lead in the disastrous Golden Compass adaptation way back when New Line was still a studio) is terrific as Connelly. She is tough, sensitive, and looks comfortable holding a hunting rifle. Likewise, Karl Davies broods quite effectively, while also handling the macho stuff pretty well. In contrast, Jack McMullen’s Tom Connelly is rather petulant and whiny, but the character is probably entitled, given his backstory.

It is too bad Joalland could not seal the deal with a perfect dismount, but she still shows plenty of talent and potential, especially if she continues making non-traditional genre films. This is exactly the sort of film that would make a perfect video rental back in the day, or something like a digital VOD stream in current parlance. Ultimately well-worth seeing for its considerable merits, The Quiet Hour releases today (3/21) on DVD, from Monarch Home Entertainment.

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I Called Him Morgan: The Death of a Blue Note Icon

Since the early days of New Orleans until the early 1950s of Hard Bop, trumpeters were the Gabriels of jazz. Just think of Louis Armstrong’s golden tone or the supernaturally fleet articulation of Dizzy Gillespie. Lee Morgan was cut from a different cloth. You could hear plenty of grease and snarling attitude in his horn. His devilish sound also scored him some unprecedented crossover success. Yet, his tragically public demise will always define his all too brief life story. Swedish documentarian Kasper Collin revisits the music and the man through the memories of the woman who shot him and the rival who stoked her jealousy in I Called Him Morgan (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Evidently, Morgan’s common law wife Helen never cared for the name Lee. Hence the title. We hear this directly from the source herself in the spectral-sounding audio tapes of an interview Ms. Morgan granted jazz radio host Larry Reni Thomas mere weeks before her death. Offering no excuses and seeking no sympathy, she tells her story matter-of-factly, but her overwhelming feelings of regret are immediately evident.

Collin (who also helmed the equally sensitive My Name is Albert Ayler) gives viewers the broad strokes of Morgan’s career, starting with his discovery in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, his rise to prominence with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and his glory years as a vintage Blue Note Records recording artist. Along the way, label co-founders Albert Lion and Francis Wolff get their just due for producing the classic sessions that would largely define the Hard Bop style.

However, the film is really centered around a forensic reconstruction of Lee and Helen Morgan’s imploding relationship. Initially, all his musician friends thought they were a good match, giving her credit for helping Morgan get clean and supporting him while he rebuilt his reputation. Yet, the film takes a heavy turn when she starts to describe how their romance turned to resentment. Like a Hard Bop Rashomon, Collin presents the events of that fateful night both from her perspective and that of Judith Johnson, the third side of Morgan’s love triangle (albeit a rather chaste one, according to her testimony).

Indeed, Collin relates the events of that ill-fated blizzard-battered night with eerie inevitability. Frankly, ICHM is an unusually impressionistic film, featuring dreamy noir cityscapes that aptly match Collin’s musical selections. Clearly, he has a preference for Morgan’s modal period (tunes with gently explorative harmonies) over his boogaloos (in this context meaning up-tempo Hard Bop tunes constructed over a strong rhythmic vamp). In fact, Morgan’s greatest hit, “The Sidewinder” is never heard during the film. (In this case, “greatest hit” is no exaggeration for a tune featured in a Chrysler commercial.)

Shrewdly, Collin also incorporates quite a bit of Wolff’s celebrated session photography. In addition to many striking black-and-white images familiar to fans from classic Blue Note album covers, Collin includes some surprisingly light-hearted candid shots that should only further burnish Wolff’s photographic reputation.

Collin scored sit-downs with a number of Morgan’s contemporaries, including Wayne Shorter, his legendary bandmate in the Messengers, as well as his own prominent sidemen, including Billy Harper, Jymie Merritt, Larry Ridley, and Bennie Maupin. However, the great (and we do mean great) Harold Mabern, a born raconteur if ever there was one, is conspicuously but perhaps not surprisingly absent. Reportedly, he still found it difficult to discuss Morgan’s death four decades after the fact, so presumably his feelings have not changed (which we should respect).

Regardless, ICHM is a starkly stylish and deeply humane film. It is that rare bird among music documentaries that has such considerable merit as a film in its own right, it should assure continuing awareness for Morgan’s music. Very highly recommended, I Called Him Morgan opens this Friday (3/24) in New York, at the FSLC’s Munroe Film Center.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Bokeh: Doomsday in Iceland

Is it the rapture or some weird Icelandic tradition? Two American tourists wake one morning to find they are perhaps the only people left in Iceland and perhaps the entire world. At least the streets are clean and the automated geothermal power will hold out longer than fossil fuel plants. One will try to make the best of it, but the other will see the apocalypse as definitely a “glass half empty” kind of event in Geoffrey Orthwein & Andrew Sullivan’s Bokeh (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Riley was really stretching to fund this trip, but in retrospect, they could have gone first class all the way. Regardless, both he and Jenai were enjoying Iceland’s stunning natural scenery and distinctive architecture, until the end of the world happens. They just wake up one morning and everyone is gone. There are no bodies or heaps of clothes left behind. The internet still works, but social media is completely silent.

Initially, they are distracted by short term concerns and anticipating long term issues. However, around about the second act, fissures start to develop in their relationship. Riley is almost happy to accept an Adam & Eve existence with Jenai in the sensible Icelandic environment. In contrast, she is increasingly depressed by the notion everyone else she knows is apparently dead or relocated to the Hale-Bopp Comet.

The word “Bokeh” refers to the area of a photograph that is out of focus, often deliberately so for artistic effect. Even if you know Riley is an amateur photographer, who compulsively snaps away with his old school Rolleiflex, Bokeh is just a terrible title that is guaranteed to hinder the film’s business. That is a shame, because it is a pretty credible addition to the apocalyptic cinema canon. In fact, it would make a good pairing with von Trier’s Melancholia (essentially arguing the opposite thesis, regarding personality types under catastrophic stress).

It is still rather baffling that It Follows' Maika Monroe has not reached a JLaw level of popularity yet. Granted, the Independence Day sequel did not work out the way her people probably expected, but still. Bokeh is too small (and bafflingly titled) to take her to the next level, but it won’t embarrass her when she finally gets there. It is considerably moodier and more existential than Night of the Comet (the gold standard for last-people-on-Earth movies), but it works nicely as a chamber piece.

Monroe and Matt O’Leary develop some richly complex chemistry together, conveying a sense of Jenai and Riley’s significant shared history. The Icelandic setting, with its orderly streets and aesthetically severe Lutheran churches, is genuinely inspired. It resembles Planet Ikea, but with geysers. Cinematographer Joe Lindsay perfectly capitalizes on the icy loneliness of the backdrops, making the survivors look as small as they feel.

The ending is bound to be divisive, but upon reflection, audiences should accept the rightness of it all. It is a surprisingly accomplished film that deserves more eyeballs than the headscratcher title is likely to generate. Recommended for fans of doomsday movies, Bokeh opens this Friday (3/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Beyond Godzilla: The H-Man

For obvious reasons, Japan has long held conflicted feeling about nuclear energy. There is no better example of their inherited collective memory of atomic devastation than the king himself, Godzilla/Gojira. The annual leveling of Tokyo was definitely a macro, big picture event. In contrast, this radiation monster operates on a micro level, flowing under doors to dissolve its prey, one by one. The production team from the original Godzilla reunited to bring to oozing life the monster of Ishirō Honda’s The H-Man (trailer here), which launches the Japan Society’s new film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

As so many monster films do, H-Man begins with a maritime disaster. The crew of the Ryujin Maaru II are basically fodder for the goo, but a few will survive to tell their tale. Shortly thereafter, a mid-level drug trafficker named Misaki meets a rather strange fate, apparently dissolving on the streets of Tokyo. This is not some sort cartel acid attack, because Misaki’s disembodied clothes were left behind unharmed. Therefore, the cops initially assume he is still alive and proceed to hassle his innocent girlfriend Arai Chikako, in hopes of finding a missing shipment of drugs.

Straight-laced young Prof. Masada understands this not a garden variety gang war. The phenomenon is nuclear (the “H” for Hydrogen might be a bit of a misnomer, but whatever). He has even recreated predatory radioactive goo in his lab, using frogs (or rather toads). Whichever, this is science, it doesn’t have to be precisely accurate. Regardless, the cops are determined not to get it, until it is too late. Still, they are not necessarily wrong to be concerned about the gangsters operating at the night club where Chikako performs. Naturally, the drug smuggling subplot will come to a head right when the H-Man strikes, because that is how it always works.

It is hard to think of a film that purees more genres than H-Man. It is sort of a kaiju film, but also somewhat akin to a Universal-style monster movie, especially following Black Lagoon. There are science fiction elements, but also old school gangster shenanigans. Plus, there are exotic Cotton Club-style night club floor shows that are far more surreal than anything involving the H-Man. Yet, it all fits together relatively logically and flows pretty smoothly, thanks to Honda.

Yumi Shirakawa is convincingly innocent and vulnerable, while still rocking the sequined Josephine Baker outfits. Kenji Sahara’s Masada is unflaggingly earnest and tireless in the service of exposition. Technically, there is not much of an H-Man to brood or emote, but Makoto Satō chews enough scenery for the two of them as Uchida, the ruthless drug kingpin.

H-Man is weird and crazy in all the right ways. Frustratingly, it is one of those films that was chopped up and redubbed for its original American release, so it has often been presented in prints and cuts that do not do it full justice. Happily, the Japan Society will present The H-Man as it should be seen (in color and subtitles) when it screens this Friday (3/24), kicking off the Beyond Godzilla film series.

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