J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sundance ’18: The Death of Stalin

Maria Yudina was such a brilliant classical pianist, she survived the Great Terror, even though she made no secret of her Orthodox faith and her contempt for Stalin’s brutal regime. According to a story mostly considered apocryphal, she was dragged back for a repeat concert performance (with full orchestra) after Stalin requested [demanded] a recording of her live radio broadcast of Mozart’s Concerto No. 23. That true-in-spirit historical legend inadvertently ignites a political crisis in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

The poor, harried director of Moscow Radio does indeed call back Yudina and the orchestra to accommodate Stalin’s whims. She is not inclined to be so agreeable, but her participation is quickly purchased. It is also an opportunity for her to slip a personal note of pointed condemnation to Stalin, who is so surprised to be criticized in such terms, he has a massive coronary and dies.

Of course, this ignites a power struggle within the Central Committee. Technically, the pompous Georgy Malenkov is next in line as the Deputy General Secretary, but the real contenders are Lavrentiy Beria, the sadistic chief of the NKVD and Nikita Khrushchev, the closest thing to a reformer in Stalin’s inner circle. Thanks to his de facto control over Kremlin administration, Beria gets a jump on Khrushchev, hypocritically positioning himself as reluctant participant in the purges and a would-be liberalizer. However, Khrushchev will win over key allies, such as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov and the dithering senior statesman, Vyacheslav Molotov.

Adapted from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s French graphic novel, Death of Stalin is a wickedly funny, pointedly scathing satire of corrupt power run amok. Frankly, the succession battle waged by Khrushchev and Beria ranks up there with the rivalry between Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka-fei in Johnnie To’s Election, but Iannucci’s film has a higher body-count—by a factor of at least one hundred. Despite the mordant wit and subversive slapstick humor, Iannucci and his platoon of co-screenwriters make it chillingly clear what happened to inconvenient witnesses and ninety percent of the victims Beria swept up during the Stalinist Terror. It is hard to believe one can laugh so much during a film openly discussing torture and mass executions, but such is the case.

It is also hard to believe that A: we can find ourselves openly rooting for Nikita Khrushchev and B: pencil-thin Steve Buscemi would be the perfect actor to portray him, but both also prove to be true. In fact, Buscemi gives a tour-de-force, possibly career best performance as Khrushchev, with the help of a little stomach padding. Arguably, Iannucci’s conception of Khrushchev as shrewd opportunist and a fount of nervous energy rather puts him in Buscemi’s wheelhouse.

Buscemi is perfectly counterbalanced by Simon Russell Beale’s wonderfully sly and flamboyantly sinister portrayal of Beria, which rather helps align viewer sympathies with Team Khrushchev. Jeffrey Tambor basically does his regular shtick as Malenkov, assuming he won’t be replaced by Christopher Plummer for the film’s American theatrical release. However, it is a real stitch to watch Jason Isaacs ham it up as Zhukov. Yet, maybe the best surprise in DOS, is a late-career comedic gem from Michael Palin as the astonishingly indecisive Molotov. Plus, Olga Kurylenko adds some class and poise as Yudina, while Andrea Riseborough gives it greater human dimension with her vulnerable and conflicted turn as Stalin’s future-defector daughter, Svetlana Stalina.

Satirizing a period of such widespread fear and suffering is a tricky business, but Iannucci and company pull it off with flying colors. DOS manages to be absolutely hilarious and totally chilling, simultaneously. It is a terrific film, but don’t take my word for it. The Putin regime is considering banning it, so you know it must be good. Very highly recommended, The Death of Stalin screens again on Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Slamdance ’18: The Troubled Troubadour (short)

The troubadour movement flourished in Europe during the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, but the Black Plague put a real damper on things. Ever since then, itinerant musicians and Death have been constant companions. Just ask Robert Johnson about that. An aging Japanese musician traveling across the southern coast of Korea has a fateful appointment to keep, but he will do his best to finally level his karma along the way in Forest Ian Etsler & Sébastien Simon’s The Troubled Troubadour (trailer here), which screens as part of Narrative Shorts Block 3 at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Somehow, the landscape the musician and his silent but still surly manservant travel is recognizably modern-day Korea, yet still exists outside of time. Essentially, it is a reflection of the Troubadour himself. Indeed, the pack of forest-dwelling children they encounter would not look out of place in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Mistaking him for the Mountain God, they bring him to cure their ailing Princess. Fortunately, he has the power of music. However, he will have to travel deeper into his subconscious before he is ready to make his final journey.

Troubadour sounds ridiculously New Age, but it is actually weirdly grounded, especially due to the passive aggressive tension shared by the Musician and his “boatman” servant. The young kids also manage to be both mysterious and cute, but never cloying. Etsler and Simon have a keen eye for visuals and they hopscotch back and forth between the modern world and the inner dreamscape quite effectively. Plus, cinematographer makes it all look highly cinematic and big screen worthy.

Indeed, Troubadour is “spiritual” in a sophisticated and earthy kind of way, featuring a not inconsiderably degree of ribald humor. As the musician, accomplished ukulele player Hachi Kasuga looks like a troubadour worthy of an epic song and his music is wonderfully wistful (here he is covering Jobim). Very highly recommended, The Troubled Troubadour screens again on Wednesday (1/24) as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’18: Fake Tattoos

Some stoners are actually sensitive kids. Believe it or not, it is not impossible for them to fall in love, under the right circumstances. This is even true in French Canada. When Théo meets Mag (short for Marguerite), the timing is either utterly awful or absolutely perfect. Regardless, their rapport develops at warp speed in Pascal Plante’s Fake Tattoos (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Initially, Mag and Théo meet awkwardly rather than cutely after a hardcore gig. She starts busting on him for sporting a temporary tattoo, but then admits his artistry with eye-liner is quite impressive. Aside from some comical guilty pleasures, they mostly have the same taste in music. They are also unhappy outsiders, so a bond quickly forms. Even a ragingly uncomfortable morning after cannot derail their mutual attraction. However, their affair must presumably be finite, because Théo’s mother is relocating them in two weeks, from Montreal to his grown sister’s provincial digs.

Tattoos is sort of like a grungy, slacker teen Éric Rohmer movie, mostly in the best ways. Plante takes time to develop his primary characters and gives them scrupulously realistic but consistently meaningful dialogue to chew on. Plante recreates the same breathlessly intimate vibe and uses music to devastating effect, but as is sometimes the case with some works from the master of the Seasons and the Moral Tales, it is debatable whether Tattoos adds up to much when it is all said and done.

Still, Anthony Therrien and Rose-Marie Perreault rather brilliantly keep us focused on the present moment, every second of the way. They are utterly unaffected and completely believable as the young nearly-lovers, but it would be a disservice to suggest they are just playing themselves. Most eighteen or nineteen-year-olds lack this kind of emotional maturity. Their chemistry is also quite real and potent.

On some level, most folks will easily identify with this tale of underdog outsider romance. It is a small film, but it gets its hooks into viewers, evoking memories of summer love and missed opportunities. Recommended as a nice sleeper, Fake Tattoos screens again this Thursday (1/25), as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sundance ’18: Un Traductor

Malin is a professor of Russian literature living under the Castro regime, so he ought to be well prepared to deal with tragedy. However, his specialty was quite in favor with his dictator (at least until the whole Glasnost business started), so he enjoyed perks under the corrupt system. Unfortunately, the bill will come due just before the plug is pulled on Russian aid. Assigned to translate for young victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster transported to Cuba, Malin will become overwhelmed by the enormity of their suffering, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else around him in Rodrigo & Sebastián Barriuso’s Un Traductor (a Translator), which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Malin is closely based on the Barriuso Brothers’ father Manuel Barriuso Andino and his contemporary art gallerist wife Isona is also modeled on their mother, Magda González-Mora. As the film opens, Malin and Isona do not let trifles like human rights and free expression trouble them, because they live well. It therefore comes as a rude shock when the Russian lit department is summarily closed and the faculty are assigned to serve as translators for the newly arrived Chernobyl patients. Malin really draws the short straw: night shifts in the children’s ward. He threatens to quit, but when told to “take it up with Fidel” he duly straightens up and toes the line.

Soon, Malin is leading a regular story-time. Not long after that, he starts to get deeply emotionally involved with the kids and their parents, especially young Alexi in the isolation ward and his school teacher father Vladimir. Meanwhile, with the cutting of Soviet aid, Cuban stores are now empty and Malin no longer receives gasoline vouchers—not that there is any gas left in filling stations anyway. The poor nutrition starts taking a toll on his son Javi’s health, but Malin hardly notices. He and the uber-pregnant Isona do not talk anymore, because he is so physically and emotionally exhausted.

Aside from Michael Moore, most grown adults now acknowledge the hype surrounding the Cuban medical system was really just hype. Still, it apparently beat the facilities available in both the USSR and Putin’s Russia, considering the Cuban Chernobyl program continued up through 2011. At times, the Barriusos clearly show a nostalgia for the Cuba Rodrigo never really knew. Yet, it is hard to gin up nostalgia for any of the circumstances surrounding the Chernobyl disaster.

Indeed, Un Traductor is not shy when it comes to playing on our emotions. There are an awful lot of sickly children in this film. Yet, the clear standout is Genadijs Dolganovs, who brings real dignity to the proceedings as Vladimir. His big climatic scene with Malin earns the inevitable lumps in the audience’s throats. Maricel Álvarez is also quite compelling as Gladys, the treasonous Argentine RN, who first busts Malin’s chops and then comes to respect his commitment. However, Brazilian international crossover star Rodrigo Santoro is problematically quite the cold fish as Malin and Yoandra Suárez’s Isona comes perilously close to a cliched scold.

In an enormously telling scene, Malin watches news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, described as a “monument to socialist workers” or some such nonsense on the Cuban state news report, with conspicuous alarm. The fact that this was a triumph for human freedom and dignity is completely lost on him, and most likely the film. The truth is East Germans, Czech, Poles, and Hungarians do not look back on subsidizing Castro’s police state with much more fondness than the midnight knocks on the door and the invading tank columns. Frankly, the degree to which their economy depended on Soviet largess proves how dysfunctional the Socialist system was and remains. Decidedly mixed, Un Traductor should not be a high priority during the limited time of the festival, but for those with an abiding interest in the Chernobyl experience, it screens again tomorrow (1/22) in Provo and Friday (1/26) and Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’18: Mandy

Which is deadlier, a drug-running hippie death cult or two lovers who dig their comic books and sf? Tragic history says the dirty smelly hippies, but the only caveat is the fannish logger husband will be played by Nic Cage. He will have a chance for a full freak out when the cult leader abducts his wife in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Red and Mandy Miller live happily in a remote cabin nestled in the Shadow Mountains. It is an Eden-like existence, until Mandy attracts the attention of Jeremiah Sand, a hippy cult leader most likely inspired by Manson, right down the failed release of hippy-dippy rock album. With the help of the vaguely supernatural Black Skulls biker gang, Sand and his brotherhood stage one of the most vicious home invasions you could imagine.

Initially, Sand tries to brainwash her with a special cocktail of mind-control drugs, but when Mandy resists their influence, he brutally murders her before Red’s eyes, leaving him for dead. That would be the cult’s only mistake and it might be enough to bring them down. Still, Miller’s crusty old trailer-dwelling crony warns him this vendetta could cost him his life, but Red is in no mood for such talk.

Essentially, Mandy is the male version of I Spit on Your Grave, as re-envisioned by Boris Vallejo, featuring fantastical matte paintings and brief animated cosmic interludes. Cosmatos doubles down on all the hazy neon visuals and synth-heavy proggish 1980s soundtrack music (think Tangerine Dream warmed up in Hell) that made less discerning cult movie fans flip for his first film, Beyond the Black Rainbow. However, this time around, he is also working with a narrative.

So, yes, this film is completely bonkers, but Nic Cage is right there with it, every step of the way. Forget about Leaving Las Vegas. This will be the film he will be remembered for forty years from now. He unleashes the Cage of Wicker Man and Mom and Dad for full effect. He is not quite Isabelle Adjani walking through the subway tunnel in Possession, but he is in the same gated community. Despite their classy pedigrees, Linus Roache and Andrea Riseborough keep in the spirit of the proceedings, as Sand and the title character. Plus, for an extra dose of hardnosed badassery, Bill Duke appears briefly but memorably as Miller’s old Jedi Master.

Just so you know, there is a chainsaw duel in Mandy. At one hundred-twenty-one minutes, it is shamelessly self-indulgent in just about every way possible, but you cannot accuse of getting stingy with the madness. Frankly, it over-delivers on the promised lunacy. Highly recommended for midnight movie regulars who fully understand what they are getting into, Mandy screens again Wednesday (1/24) and Saturday (1/27) in Park City and this afternoon (1/21) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’18: Beast

For some reason, women have been known to date and even marry notorious serial killers. Moll is not like that. She is genuinely uncertain whether her new lover might be a repeat murderer. Even if he is, she is not entirely sure how different they would be. Love and paranoia cohabitate in Michael Pearce’s Beast, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Living with her judgmental, borderline-abusive family makes life a joyless existence for Moll. We can hardly blame her for bolting from her own stiltedly awkward birthday party. Rolling into the pub, she eventually locks eyes with Pascal, an unruly, hardscrabble descendant of Jersey Island’s original French landowners. Their attraction is immediate and the fact he will surely annoy her manipulative mother and condescending brother is a bonus.

Compounding their snobbery is the realistic fear of a serial killer stalking young girls on the island. The fourth disappeared on Moll’s birthday. Given his record (including a statutory charge), it is inevitable the police will try to pin the murders on Pascal. However, Moll will alibi him, even though she notices little details that start to stir her own suspicions. She also begins to doubt her own stability, especially in light of the violent school incident that continues to cast a shadow across her life.

Beast has been billed by some of its champions as a modern update on the Lodger-esque serial-killer-under-the-same-roof-style thriller, but it is more of a character study, not so different from the bullying fable, Pin Cushion. Moll has so much angst and resentment bottled up inside that it is indeed utterly harrowing to see it finally erupt. However, the film never really surprises, per se.

Regardless, Jessie Buckley’s performance as Moll has not been over-hyped. She is astonishingly fierce and frighteningly vulnerable as Moll. In contrast, Johnny Flynn is icily charismatic as Pascal, just like serial killers are supposed to be. Yet, Geraldine James might be the scariest of all as Moll’s Mommie Dearest (and taskmaster choir director), Hilary.

Frankly, Beast takes its time getting started and sometimes its slow burn is problematically slow. Still, the two co-leads maintain an absolutely magnetic hold on the screen. Recommended for fans of art-house serial killer films (something about the tone also brings to mind William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth), Beast screens again this Monday (1/22) in Provo and Tuesday (1/23) and next Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’18: Time Share

In a town like Park City, the evils of time share sales require little explanation. Alas, poor Pedro could have used a good cautionary talking to. He paid the nominal membership fee and attended the sales seminar, just so he could reserve a villa at the Vistamar resort, for a highly discounted rate. However, the dodgy company double-booked their private pad. Much to Pedro’s dismay, they will be forced to cohabitate during their “healing” vacation in Sebastián Hoffman’s Time Share, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

If Time Share were a 1980s Hollywood comedy, the uptight Pedro might have been played by Tom Hanks and the slovenly but infinitely shrewder Abel could have been John Candy. Initially, they would have clashed, but eventually they would have teamed up to teach the nefarious resort company a lesson. This will not be that film. Instead, the reserved and somewhat snobbish Pedro starts to suspect Abel and his clan are deliberately trying to alienate him from his wife and son.

Frankly, it almost seems like Team Abel and the staff of the Vistamar, now renamed Everfields by the new American owners, are in cahoots. The only exception is Andres, a laundry worker increasingly estranged from his wife Gloria, an up-and-coming member of the sales team. Andres might be the only one more paranoid than Pedro, partly because he has recently gone off his meds. Still, that does not necessarily mean either man is wrong about the resort.

Time Share is not a horror film, but it rests uneasily in the zone of psychological extremity frequented by Polanski, Solondz, and Aronofsky at their indiest. The paranoia is definitely contagious. Unfortunately, Pedro is a problematically weak focal character and Luis Gerardo Méndez never fleshes him out to any great extent. Frankly, as soon as we meet him, we can’t wait to ditch him.

In contrast, Miguel Rodarte’s Andres is nearly as reserved, yet deeply unsettling and completely unpredictable, in a tightly wound sort of way. Yankee RJ Mitte is just as hard to shake playing Tom, a horrifyingly manipulative sales coach, who could pass for the sociopathic nephew of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Hoffman exhibits a masterful control of mood and foreboding, which is amplified by the ominous shine rendered by cinematographer Matias Penachino. He really makes the palatial resort look simultaneously seductive and sinister. Time Share will make viewers antsy in both good and bad ways, but there is no denying it is a distinctive piece of filmmaking. Recommended for those who appreciate dark psychological dramas, with a hint of the surreal, Time Share screens this Monday (1/22), Friday (1/26), and Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as well as tonight (1/21) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’18: Manila Death Squad (short)

Rodrigo Duterte, the karaoke crooner, might not approve of the Flying Ipis’s punk rock “My Way” (although he should, because it is pretty awesome), but a lot of what goes on in this sleazy after-hours joint he would be perfectly fine with—allegedly. A Filipino-American journalist hopes to get the scope on vigilante killings from the horse’s mouth, but she might end up part of her own story in Dean Colin Marcial’s short film, Manila Death Squad (trailer here), which screens as part of the Anarchy shorts block at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

The last person the death squad wants to talk to is a journalist, but she invites herself to join their party anyway. She knows who they are and she wants an exclusive from them. Their hardnosed leader tries to use drinking games to dissuade her, but she can think on her feet and hold her liquor. Ultimately, she wants an interview with their boss—and wouldn’t you like to know who that is. Maybe we will find out if MDS gets expanded into a feature.

There seems to be able room in this ripped-from-the-headlines world for a full feature treatment, but you have to wonder if Marcial can keep up the dizzyingly nervy breakneck energy for such an extended period. Even the subtitles in MDS are hip and stylishly noir, but the threat of violence is palpable and ever-present.

Somehow, Marcial also recruited a cast worthy of mainstream studio features, reuniting Annicka Dolonius and Sid Lucero from The Apocalypse Child, as the reporter and the death squad leader. Dolonius is totally on the money, playing the journalist tough, smart, and vulnerable. However, Lucero’s sinister fierceness is a bit of a pleasantly frightening surprise. They are both terrific playing off each other, plus the Flying Ipis totally rock the house.

Marcial also helmed the spooky Midnight Service webisode docs, so he clearly has a talent for making potent shorts. Manila Death Squad packs a mean punch, but its characters and circumstances would easily sustain a more extended film. Regardless, it represents some wildly impressive filmmaking. Very highly recommended, Manila Death Squad screens again tomorrow (1/22), as part of the Anarchy shorts package at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’18: AniMal (short)

It is time for a little body horror, but at least it is for a good cause. A dissident desperate to escape will take on the appearance and characteristics of a bighorn ram. It is a crazy scheme, but it might work only too well in Bahman and Bahram Ark’s short film AniMal (trailer here), which screens as part of the Anarchy shorts block at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Making a break for the heavily patrolled chain-link border is a low percentage move, as viewers quickly see for themselves. It is worth noting in passing, this border wall is designed to retain freedom-seeking citizens imprisoned within, rather than keep outsiders out. Regardless, the well-armed guards mean business—and they seem to enjoy their work. However, the would-be immigrant has a plan to disguise himself as a ram, capitalizing on his hunting and taxidermy skills. To make it look convincing, he will binge-watch old nature documentaries on VHS. What could possibly go wrong?

The Arks are distinctive filmmakers, who have crafted a gritty and slightly macabre character study. Although we should be judicious in our political readings, the fact that they are Iranian is not insignificance, especially in light of the many recent Iranian films that address the challenges of (mostly legal) immigration, such as Goodbye and Melbourne. In this case, the man’s extreme circumstances force him to resort to extreme measures. It is a powerful sight to behold, but unfortunately, there are two rather obvious O. Henry-esque endings this story can take—and the Arks duly opt for one of them.

Nevertheless, you have to give all due credit to Davoud Nourpour’s performance as the “animal,” because it is truly fearless, in many ways. Thanks to his convincingly animalistic performance, some enterprising programmer ought to pair AniMal up with Rune Östlund’s The Square, featuring the ape-like Terry Notary.

AniMal is a film that just might hold equal appeal for art-house cineastes and unruly cult movie fans. Highly recommended, AniMal screens again tomorrow (1/22), as part of the Anarchy shorts package at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival, which is having a really great year for short films.

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The Alienist: Caleb Carr’s Novel Comes to TNT

The state of psychological treatment was pretty grim around the late Nineteenth Century, but fortunately you were much more likely to die from disease, malnutrition, or industrial accidents before depression or schizophrenia could really run their course. Murder was also a possibility. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is a progressive head-shrinker and a pioneering criminologist loosely attached to the NYPD. Even the reformist commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt is skeptical of his methods, but he will empower his investigation of a suspected serial killer anyway in TNT’s limited series adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (trailer here), which premieres tomorrow night.

Kreizler is an odd fellow, but he still has a knack for convincing newspaper illustrator John Moore to do his bidding. Moore will be less than thrilled when Kreizler sends him out to sketch the grisly crime scene where a murdered boy prostitute was found, but he does it anyway. Kreizler is convinced the killer has struck before, but the uniformed officers are either paid to look the other way or too callous to care.

They both have shared history with TR, but that will only get them so far. Moore also had some prior dealings with Roosevelt’s stereotype-challenging assistant Sara Howard, but that was all quite unfortunate. Nevertheless, the three will become the brain-trust of a semi-official task force, rounded out by Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, who are not well-liked on the force, due to their modern investigative techniques (as well as the fact they are Jewish). Howard will report their findings directly to Roosevelt, because Captain Connor is transparently corrupt and quite possibly complicit in the murders, at least to some extent.

Based on the first two episodes, will feel confident saying The Alienist is a prime example of the importance of casting. As Connor, David Wilmot is already a bad guy we love to hate and the great Ted Levine promises even greater scenery-chewing villainy as his predecessor, Thomas Byrnes. The three primary leads, Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans are also bang-on target.

In fact, Kreizler could very well be the breakout role Brühl has struggled to find after Inglorious Basterds led to predictions he would be the next big thing. He really has the right blend of twitchiness and arrogance. Evans keeps his jaw squared as Moore, while Fanning is strong but sensitive as Howard. Only Brian Geraghty seems off-the-mark, coming across rather passive and milquetoast as TR (who was nobody’s shrinking violet).

The Alienist is a richly detailed period production (executive produced by Cary Fukunaga, with John Sayles on board as a “consulting producer”), but after two installments, Hossein Amini’s adaptation still feels somewhat weighted down with exposition. Presumably, helmer Jakob Verbruggen will quicken the pace for the subsequent six episodes. It certainly shows promise and fans of the original novel should appreciate its faithfulness. Recommended (so far) for viewers of BBC America shows, like Copper and Ripper Street, The Alienist begins tomorrow night (1/22) on TNT.

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Slamdance ’18: Love After Time (short)

Taiwan is a democracy with the world’s fifteenth largest economy, but the UN and global diplomatic community wants to pretend it doesn’t exist. When nuclear disaster ravages the Other China, they just carry on ignoring, like business as usual. Radiation and isolation make things pretty dystopian, pretty quickly for the survivors, but life maybe has a way of hanging on in Henry Tsai Tsung-han’s short film Love After Time, which screens as part of the Anarchy shorts block at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

There is a new policy: only survivors with a clean health certificate are now eligible for emergency food relief. That does not sit well with the mystery woman. She sparks a riot and then shrewdly uses as a distraction to steal food. That doesn’t sit well with the officer overseeing the distribution. However, when he corners the thief in her makeshift shelter, he finds she has his number, in multiple ways. She happens to be surprisingly confident and seductive. She also realizes he is a mutant, just like her.

LAT might have the most bizarre sex scene you will see in Park City. Some survivors start growing organs in nontraditional places, if you get the picture. Eventually, we learn even the circumstances of reproduction have been affected. In some ways, LAT covers similar ground as Antonio Pandovan’s short film Eveless, but it has a more humanistic perspective. In fact, Tsai passes up many opportunities to gawk at the mutated deformities, preferring to focus on the evolving ways humans relate to each other—and whether such a term still applies to mutant survivors.

Nana Lee Chien-na also must be the spriteliest wasteland waif you will see in a month of apocalypses, but there is no denying her charisma. The Taiwanese pop idol-actress is an unusually big-name celebrity for a scruffy nuclear Armageddon short film, but good for her. Her courtship with Lee Hong-chi’s Army Officer is definitely intense and he looks pretty darned freaked and conflicted during the aftermath.

LAT directly addresses the question what does it mean to be human, which is a big theme for any film, of any length. Tsai creates a convincingly grubby dystopia that is worlds removed from his previous teen TV work. Highly recommended, Love After Time screens again tomorrow (1/22), along with Philippe McKie’s very cool Breaker, as part of the Anarchy shorts package at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sundance ’18: The Guilty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sundance ’18: Dead Pigs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sundance ’18: Black (short)

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

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

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

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

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Slamdance ’18: Circus Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slamdance ’18: Rock Steady Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slamdance ’18: Whales (short)

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

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

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

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

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Sundance ’18: 306 Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delirium: The Hell Gang Records Their Hell Night

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mark Dacascos’s Showdown in Manila

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

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

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

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

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

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

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