J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Freaks and Geeks, the Documentary

What if Brandon Tartikoff had canceled the low-rated Cheers in 1983, instead of having faith in its long-term potential? NBC would have missed out on a crucial piece of its vaunted “must-see TV” Thursday line-up. Fans of Freaks and Geeks argue that is basically what happened when their beloved but mis-scheduled show was prematurely axed. Given the subsequent success of its cast-members and the recent trend towards more complex, single-camera TV comedies, they might have a point. Cast-members and network executives reflect on the series’ inception and demise in Brent Hodge’s Freaks and Geeks, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Everyone gets a little nostalgic for the high school programs they watched during their high school years. Who doesn’t still love Happy Days, but you probably had to be there for the original 90210. Freaks and Geeks was the Square Pegs of its era. It was critically acclaimed and adored by its core audience, but it just could not catch on with a mass audience.

In retrospect, F&G’s pedigree looks sterling. It was created by Paul Feig, executive produced by Judd Apatow, and starred James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps. Unfortunately, NBC president Garth Ancier just didn’t get it, but you have to give him credit for explaining his decisions on-camera, even though he surely knew he was appearing in front of a hostile audience.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of Hodge’s doc is the chronicle of the behind-the-scenes network politics. Frankly, anyone who just had their first pilot picked-up should watch F&G: The Doc, for perspective. Collectively, everyone associated with the show makes a convincing case for its just-ahead-of-the-curve influence on the current wave of single-camera network comedies. It is also vividly (but not necessarily nostalgically) transports us back to the last gasp of big-four network hegemony. Hodge, who also helmed The Pistol Shrimps and I Am Chris Farley has the right touch with this kind of documentary, nicely balancing the sentimental reminiscences with dishy trade-story details.

NBC might have let something big get away that could have temporarily forestalled the inevitable dominance of Netflix and Amazon over episodic television, but most people involved landed on their feet. Hodge keeps it all briskly paced and engaging, even for viewers who were not on board when the show was on the air. Recommended for fans and aspiring show-runners, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary screens this Thursday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: Jonathan

They are like the Corsican Brothers, but more symbiotic—and weirdly codependent. They do just share a flat and some DNA, they cohabitate in the same body. Each gets his own shift from 7:00 to 3:00. If you question the sustainability of this arrangement, your skepticism will be validated in Bill Oliver’s Jonathan, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Jonathan is the tidy and responsible one, who gets the day shift. John is the sloppy but social one, who lives by night. Obviously, they can never be present together, but at the end of each shift they leave each other video messages, recapping their interactions with people, so they will not be caught flatfooted during their shifts. However, John has been out of sorts ever since Jonathan read him the riot act about pursuing a long-term relationship with Elena, a pretty young waitress completely unaware of their condition.

Much to Jonathan’s alarm, John stops leaving messages. He is even more concerned when he discovers their doctor and surrogate mother, Dr. Mina Nariman has been treating John for depression. However, he really starts feeling guilty when he pursues his own relationship with Elena.

Jonathan is billed as science fiction, but the radical treatment the J-men have undergone does not feel very speculative at all. To an extent, the film plays like a more innocent cousin of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Nevertheless, the fraternal relationship and the rules they embrace or chafe under to make their co-existence possible are intriguing and inherently dramatic. Yet, the film is never mind-blowing in the way it clearly hopes to be. Despite a few fresh wrinkles, the multiple personality subject matter is largely confined to familiar territory.

Still, Oliver’s execution is tight and stylish. He is particularly adept at conveying Jonathan’s closely guarded emotional state. Ansel Elgort and Suki Waterhouse also give career-best performances (thus far), which might sound like a bold declarative statement, but it based on an underwhelming field of films, including November Criminals, The Bad Batch, and the “Ent” franchise.

Credit is still due, especially for Elgort, who clearly delineates Jonathan, who provides our sole POV and John, seen only in video messages, without ever resorting to cheap tics or tricks. Of course, Patricia Clarkson is always reliable, but she really deepens the film with her subtle but forceful portrayal of Dr. Nariman. If anyone earns award consideration for Jonathan, it will be Clarkson, but Shunori Ramanathan should earn consideration for bigger roles for her sensitive turn as Jonathan’s concerned co-worker, Allison.

There are some obvious logical questions Oliver co-screenwriters Peter Nickowitz and Gregory Davis just hope viewers do not think to ask. Yet, there is something about the synaptic Cain and Abel relationship that resonates on a gut level. It will not stretch your mind or your consciousness, but it will get under your skin. Recommended on balance for the ensemble work, Jonathan screens this afternoon (4/24) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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A Violent Life: Corsican Gangsters and Separatists

Sometimes you have to wonder why contending parties would bother asserting their competing claims to hopelessly economically depressed territories, but Corsica is different. The picturesque Mediterranean isle has obvious potential for tourism and real estate development, if it were not for the unchecked organized crime and escalating separatist violence. Frankly, it is tricky to distinguish the separatist radicals from the gangsters in Thierry de Peretti’s A Violent Life (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Based on the in media res opening, we know things will get dicey for Stéphane. Initially, the university student was not inclined to be political. In fact, he was openly hostile to extremism on either side. However, when he rather inexplicable agrees to ferry a shipment of guns for his independence-supporting common crook pals (the motivation here is the film’s biggest pothole), he gets pinched and sent to prison, where he is radicalized by François, a grizzled separatist ring-leader.

When both men are released, Stéphane becomes François’s liaison to the domestic Corsican underground. Essentially, Stéphane’s old chums agree to lend their muscle to François’s network, in exchange for support and cover for their illicit business. However, this does not sit well with the international crime syndicates that the French government in Paris allows to operate freely on Corsica, as a way to keep the local populace cowed and marginalized, or so François explicitly charges. Regardless of conspiratorial arrangements, there are plenty of heavily armed people on the island, who are not happy with Stéphane and his comrades.

Violent Life tells an epic story that compares very directly to many Sicilian-based mafia dramas, but de Peretti’s approach, favoring medium-wide shots (or even wider), has a distancing effect. Stylistically, it shares a kinship with Garrone’s Gomorrah and to a lesser extent, The Connection. Despite all the resentments and rivalries erupting on-screen, de Peretti maintains a cold cerebral tone that gives the film the texture and vibe of a docudrama.

The ensemble mostly features local Corsican first-timers, but they certainly look the part. In fact, Jean Michelangeli’s quiet intensity as Stéphane rather effectively anchors the film. However, it is professional ringer Marie-Pierre Nouveau who makes the strongest emotional connection as Jeanne, Stéphane’s young-looking mother, who is desperate to protect her wayward son.

Corsica is not exactly top-of-mind for many Americans, but de Peretti and co-screenwriter Guillaume Breaud clearly illustrate how thorny life is there. It is an easy film to admire, but a hard film to love. Recommended for fans of ambitious crime dramas, A Violent Life releases today (4/24) on DVD, from Distrib Films US/Icarus.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Tribeca ’18: 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss, Etc., Etc.

They dig their cults in LA. Just review the recent history: the Mansion Family, the Source Family, the SLA, Synanon, a satellite office of the People’s Temple, and of course, L. Ron’s Thetans. It is easy to see the cult of the Holy Storsh gaining traction here, but that is bad news for Claire and her underwhelming boyfriend Paul. They rented the apartment where Storsh shuffled off his mortal coil, so they must contend with a steady stream of cult members intending to follow his example. However, the malleable losers will adopt a policy of “if you can’t beat them, join them” in Vivieno Caldinelli’s 7 Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Claire should call her dad, because she is in a cult. To put it more accurately, she aspires to join a cult, which is sort of sad. Sadder still, her support network entirely consists of her unemployed boyfriend Paul, who is even weaker than she is. Initially, they are freaked out by the Storsh-heads who break into their flat to kill themselves after performing an absurd set of rituals, but one day Claire starts reading one of Storsh’s little red books left behind by a cultist—and suddenly it all starts to make sense to her.

Of course, she carries along the spineless Paul with her enthusiasm. Suddenly, they start ushering the Storshies into the tub and even help them take their final exit. In fact, Claire gets super enthusiastic about assisting their suicides. However, they also have to keep the detective assigned to Storsh body-processing at bay.

The first fifteen minutes or so are mildly amusing, but 7 Stages Etc., Etc. never goes above, beyond, or below the level of a sketch comedy show routine. Basically, the film plateaus at a constantly level of one-liners and carefully calibrated bits of mildly transgressive slapstick. A film about a suicidal death cult should never become formulaic and repetitive, but that is what happens here. As a further source of annoyance, Caldinelli and the producers cast a number people like Dan Harmon, whom the entertainment media are constantly telling us how funny we find their work, but have no appreciable following with real people, aside from a few dozen podcast listeners.

Frankly, Harmon is excruciatingly embarrassing as the neurotic Det. Cartwright. It is also uncomfortable for very different reasons to watch how hard Kate Micucci tries to make it work as Claire. On the other hand, Sam Huntington takes the intentionally annoying character of Paul and makes him utterly nauseating. Yet, to give credit where it is due, it is duly stipulated Taika Waititi is thoroughly and profoundly eerie as old Storshy (seen in flashbacks).

I’m sure we are all looking forward to the day when 7 Stages plays on a triple bill with Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Seriously, a ridiculously long title has to be the cheapest gag possible. In this case, its fitting. Not recommended, 7 Stages screens again this Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: Mr. Soul

You won’t often hear this about a jazz musician, but this year, Robert Glasper is the toast of the Tribeca Film Festival. He participated in two all-star post-screening concerts, one for the soon to be reviewed Blue Note Records documentary, which prominently features him in performance and the doc-profile of African American broadcaster Haizlip and his PBS-produced variety show Soul!, which Glasper also scored. Soul! featured many jazz guests, but filmmaker (niece) Melissa Haizlip and co-director Samuel Pollard mostly focuses on, you know, soul. The music still moves and groves, but the rhetoric sounds awfully dated in Haizlip’s Mr. Soul, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Of course, there was a huge, under-served market for Soul! when it premiered on New York’s (then) NET public educational network (if you think it is hard finding an African American in the big three’s programming from this era, just try looking for an Asian). Supposedly, the idea was to do a show celebrating African American arts and culture, but politics was conspicuously high in the mix, right from the start. Perhaps that is inevitable to some extent, but when you chose up partisan sides, it makes you fair game for some hardball.

Be that as it may, it is pretty incredible how many great artists appeared on Soul!, including Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Hugh Masekela, Billy Preston, Al Green, Kool and the Gang, Ashford & Simpson, Lebelle, and Earth Wind and Fire. Yet, it wasn’t just music. Soul! often showcased modern dance, including dancers affiliated with Alvin Ailey and George Faison. There is no major network talk or variety show currently broadcasting today that gives air time to dance as a serious artform, which has truly impoverished our culture.

However, Haizlip interviewed guest like Louis Farrakhan and members of the Black Panthers, largely leaving their extremist views unchallenged. The contention Haizlip prompted Farrakhan to concede gays and lesbians (the term LGBT wasn’t yet in the lexicon) were still human beings on some basic level, but not necessarily socially acceptable, is embarrassingly underwhelming. You can get far better than that from the most conservative Evangelical clergy, without any effort. The show clearly chose a side, so they can’t act surprised when Nixon appointees declined to continue using tax dollars to produce interviews with radicalized militants. Had they also invited more conservative African Americans of the era, such as Jackie Robinson, Lionel Hampton, and George Schuyler for balance, it might have been a different story, but apparently, they didn’t.

Regardless, the music and the dance were great—then and now. In the post-screening concert, formatted in the style of a vintage Soul! episode, with musical performances alternating with interview segments, Glasper and his band laid down a strong grove backing up the acts. Alas, the Last Poets sound like relics from a bygone era, but Kyle Abraham performed some lovely choreography for Stevie Wonder’s “You and I.” However, Lalah Hathaway really lived up to the show’s name with a rousing closer that definitely upheld her soulful family tradition.

Mir. Soul! is well worth watching just to get an eye and earful of all the great artists who performed on its stage, but its racial-cultural politics are certainly debatable. An intriguing time capsule (even if it is somewhat insular in perspective), Mr. Soul! screens tonight (4/23), Wednesday (4/25), and Thursday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Satan & Adam

For a musical art form to survive, it must be performed live, for real people, so it can actively engage with the world around it. Starting in 1986, the veteran bluesman known as Satan (born Sterling Magee, not a fan of organized religion) and Adam Gussow very definitely kept the blues alive. Playing on the streets of Harlem undeniably strengthened their attacks and gave them ample opportunity to pick-up on all the life going on around them. Satan’s vocals started to incorporate rap elements, while Gussow developed jazz saxophone influences on his mouth harp. V. Scott Balcerek chronicles the duo’s life and times in his twenty-three-years-in-the-making documentary, Satan & Adam, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is probably the second most famous creation story in blues, after Robert Johnson’s meeting at the crossroads. On that fateful day, Gussow asked to sit in with Satan, who was already quite recognizable for playing solo electric guitar, while accompanying himself on drums with the foot pedals. Satan was curious enough to agree and was pleasantly surprised when the kid managed to keep up. They started playing together so often, they became a regular act: Satan & Adam.

Initially, they busked on the streets, but they started to get respectable, recording an album, holding down a regular weekly bar gig, and signing with a manager. Frankly, their story was so attractive, it was probably inevitable they would get at least fifteen minutes of fame. They were after all the first interracial performers to appear together on the cover of Living Blues magazine. However, the music was so good and so honest, they maintained a loyal (and rather sizable, by blues standards) fan base, even after the music media moved on.

Balcerek managed to capture a fair amount of those glory days and he was also there for the quiet years of separation. Balcerek’s treatment is somewhat vague on the particulars, but Satan had something like a nervous breakdown and moved to Florida, where his Evangelical family forced him to temporarily give up the blues and the “Satan” moniker. In his nonfiction collection, Journeyman’s Road, Gussow more-or-less suggests he had to learn to let Satan go and get on with his own life.

As poignant as those sentiments were, it turned out the music wasn’t ready to let them go. In fact, S&A has the best third act of any music doc since Searching for Sugar Man. It was maybe more like a fourth or fifth act, but for their fans, it was utterly shocking good news, sort of like Harper Lee publishing Go Set a Watchman, but more satisfying.

It is that combination of pain and joy that makes Balcerek’s film such an immediately indispensable document of modern Americana. This film is blues to the bone, including the clear-eyed manner it addresses issues of race. As is often the case with jazz, the music we call the blues is frequently intertwined with racially charged questions of authenticity. Yet, without white (and increasingly foreign) audiences, there would be little market for the music. Of course, the first listeners Satan & Adam won over were “pre-gentrification” Harlem residents, who just responded to what they heard. If you respect the music, you also have to respect young players keeping it alive, regardless what they look like. (That is why it is so odd to see Al Sharpton turn up as a talking head in the film, because probably nobody else who has done more to foster racial tension in New York, through his involvement in the Tawana Brawley hoax and the Crown Heights Riots.)

Regardless, it is impossible to miss the appealing symbolism of Satan & Adam for music journalists and fans alike. Fortunately, Balcerek delves even deeper, really getting at the essence of friendship and music. The blues is rooted in the African American Delta experience, but it speaks to us on a universally accessible level. Balcerek presents Satan and Gussow in a way that we can similarly relate to. Satan & Adam is a terrific film that will move your feet and your soul. Very highly recommended, it screens this Wednesday (4/25) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: The Night Eats the World

It is based on a French novel written by Martin Page under the pen name Pit Agarmen, but it is clearly constructed over the foundation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Sam, a French musician, will barricade himself in a tony apartment when a zombie apocalypse sweeps through Paris, but as he battles loneliness and hunger, he comes to realize he is the freak amid this new world of the feral undead in Dominique Rocher’s The Night Eats the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

You could argue Sam is fortunate to be shy and have a low tolerance for alcohol, or perhaps the exact opposite. Either way, he survives the initial wave of the zombie outbreak, because he fell asleep in a tucked away back room during his ex-girlfriend’s hipster party. Most of the zombies have been there and gone, so he fortifies a particularly nice flat in her building and digs in.

Resigning himself to the new order, Sam does his best to forage for canned goods and clear the other flats of zombies. Much like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, Sam seeks companionship with a pet, but in this case, it is a cat—and Rocher and his co-screenwriters give their relationship a subversive twist. For most of the film, his only company is Alfred, an infected tenant trapped in the building’s retro wrought-iron elevator, until the exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani makes a cameo appearance.

There are so many similarities between Night Eats and I Am Legend, both the novel and its earlier film adaptations, Rocher really should have included some sort of hat-tip, such as a Matheson movie poster. Of course, Neville was fighting vampires in Matheson’s source novel, albeit very zombie-like vampires, so Night Eats should be off the hook for any potential litigation. There is also a pronounced Gallic vibe to Rocher’s film. For instance, when Sam passes the time by constructing some Rube Goldberg like musical constructions (which actually produces some groovy sounds), the vibe is almost Tati-esque.

As Sam, Anders Danielsen Lie does heroic work, withstanding the rigor and scrutiny that comes with being on-screen nearly every second of the way. One look at his tortured countenance tells us he is a quiet on the outside but roiling on the inside kind of guy. The always striking Farahani is also deeply haunting as the mysterious Sarah. However, the wonderfully eccentric Denis Lavant (Monsieur Oscar from Holy Motors) supplies the film’s indelibly memorable and most likely iconic performance as the infected and immobilized Alfred, who just might possibly be lucid at some level deep down in his diseased psyche.

These are real zombies, who are always looking to chomp down on the infected. Rocher’s approach is admittedly more stylish and cerebral than many zombie films, but he still embraces the core principles of the genre. Rocher also composes some eerie visuals of the de-populated Parisian neighborhood and the ferocious swarms of zombie masses. Despite a relative paucity of gore, Walking Dead fans should be able to relate and approve. Enthusiastically recommended, Night Eats the World screens again today (4/22), tomorrow (4/23), and Friday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Tribeca ’18: Kaiser, the Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football

They take football seriously in Brazil, maybe even more so than music. That is why the picaresque story of Carlos Enrique Raposo (a.k.a. Carlos “Kaiser”) is so amazing. He was more of con artist than an athlete, who essentially defrauded the bicheiros (numbers-running gangsters) that apparently ran Brazil’s professional club teams. Somehow, he lived to talk about it in Louis Myles’ breezy documentary-romp, Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Rio, with its nightclubs and beaches, was tailor-made for Raposo. He is still recognized when he strolls along their wavy sidewalks, even though he literally never logged a second of professional playing time. When it came to football, the man dubbed “Kaiser” (as in the German Emperor) had terrible skills, but he was always in great shape and bore a convenient resemblance to superstar player Franz Beckenbauer.

Through deceit and chutzpah, Raposo managed to get signed to a thoroughly mobbed-up Corsican pro-team. He easily passed his physical, but then immediately feigned an injury. Despite his lack of productivity, Kaiser managed to maintain his contract by cozying up to one of the team’s most-connected executives. Eventually, he was cut, but he was able to repeat the cycle, because he had a stint with a pro team on his resume. The more teams he did not play for, the more legit he looked on paper. However, things started getting dicey when “Dr.” Castor de Andrade, the notorious bicheiro patron of the Bangu club finally ran out of patience.

Raposo’s story is a lot like that of Frank Abignale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, but it is more hedonistic and has better music. Clearly, Kaiser managed to hang on as long as he did, at so many clubs, because he could always start a party. Even Beckenbauer found himself vicariously indulging through his roguish pseudo-impostor.

Kaiser is mostly a great deal of naughty fun laced with episodes of head-shaking audacity, but it eventually gets serious in the third act. Alas, Raposo could not avoid real life indefinitely, but he has had a heck of a ride. Frankly, the film has the vibe of a guilty pleasure, but it also serves as quite a bold expose of the rough & tumble Brazilian football world in the 1980s and 1990s. Raposo never hurt a fly, which is why most of his “teammates” still have a great deal of affection for him (he also brought a lot of women around). On the other hand, the bicheiros were seriously bad cats.

Kaiser goes down as smooth as an ice coffee on an Ipanema beach. Myles keeps the pace at a brisk gallop and the diverse Brazilian soundtrack puts viewers in an after-hours-party frame-of-mind. He also scores some dishy and droll interviews with the survivors of the eighties and nineties Brazilian football scene. Even if you do not follow international football, you will be hard pressed to find a more entertaining documentary. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates Brazilian culture or a good con, Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football screens again today (4/22), tomorrow (4/23) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Blue Night

You should not judge Vivienne Carala too harshly for ignoring her body’s warning signs. When you are a jazz vocalist, you have to strike while the iron is hot and you can never stop hustling. However, missing out on her daughter’s childhood is another matter entirely, but that is the price she paid for kind of-sort of making it. A tumor diagnosis will rudely prompt her to reconsider all the choices she made throughout the fateful day before she is admitted for an invasive battery of tests and treatment in Fabien Constant’s Blue Night, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Carala has been gigging at a high level for over two decades. She is preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of her first Birdland gig (presumably, she has one of those weekend spots), which is an accomplishment, but instead of fulfilling her ambition of playing the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall, she might have to settle for Zankel Hall (which is also really nice).

Those were all yesterday’s concerns. This morning’s diagnosis has put everything in doubt. Yet, she still goes through the motions at a rehearsal and in press interviews. She has many people in her life she should tell, but she has trouble communicating with them (rather ironically, considering she is a vocalist in the Susannah McCorkle mold, who specializes in dramatically interpreting lyrics, rather than dazzling audiences with her chops).

Frankly, Blue Night is a lot better than you might expect, because it really looks like New York and gets a lot of the jazz details right. There is a scene shot on location in Birdland and another looks a lot like the Cornelia Street Café bar. The way Carala interacts with her musicians also feels very real (except for the fact that she is sleeping with her drummer, which happens less frequently than you might suppose). It is therefore frustrating that Constant did not have more confidence in jazz to use it for the underlying soundtrack. Instead, we hear a great deal of discordant strings.

Regardless, you have to give Sarah Jessica Parker a great deal of credit. First of all, she is willing to look her (and Carala’s age), often under harsh light and unflattering circumstances. Make no mistake, there is nothing vain about this film. She also handles Carala’s vocals with surprising taste and sensitivity. In fact, she really nicely turns a Rufus Wainwright original and a cover of Ritchie Cordell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” that plays over the closing credits.

When it comes to the drama, Parker develops some remarkably, ambiguously poignant chemistry with Common, playing her manager Ben. She also has some honest and effective scenes with Gus Birney and Simon Baker, as her daughter and ex-husband. However, the melodrama with her high-maintenance mother Jeanne (portrayed by the scenery-gorging Jacqueline Bisset) always feel forced and phony.

Sometimes Constant hits us over the head, as in Carala’s scenes with her mother and a chance encounter with a former friend and colleague, who essentially made the opposite choice, opting to raise her family instead of pursuing her career. Yet, somehow, he uses a lighter touch for the business with a Lyft driver who keeps crossing paths with Carala. By not forcing the issue, their final meeting packs a quiet wallop. It is just too bad there isn’t more music in the film Carala would actually like to hear. Recommended with all its imperfections, Blue Night screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.


Tribeca ’18: Cargo

Relatively speaking, Australia should expect high survival rates if a zombie apocalypse ever swept across the globe. They have a low population density and a good deal of open space. In fact, even the unassuming Andy has survived with his wife and infant daughter for several months. Unfortunately, dwindling supplies will lead to tragedy in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo (trailer here), a feature expansion of their widely viewed short film, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Commandeering a houseboat was a temporarily winning strategy, but it is not sustainable over the long run. Eventually, the need for food forces Andy (perhaps a nod to Andy Rodoreda, the lead actor in the 2013 short) and Kay to take risks and that leads to sloppiness. The upshot is first Kay and then Andy is infected with the zombie virus. She will go fairly quickly, but he will presumably have most of his full forty-eight-hour incubation period to figure out how to secure his baby daughter Rose’s future.

There are a few survivors out there, but some of them reflect the worst in human nature. Others demonstrate kindness, like a cancer-stricken school teacher, but obviously she cannot be a long-term guardian. Frankly, Australia’s aboriginal population seems to be the best prepared to deal with the zombies, so Andy tries to forge an alliance with Thoomi a resilient teen girl, who is essentially an orphan since her father turned.

Cargo is a zombie film with real emotional heft, sort of in the tradition of the Schwarzenegger film Maggie. Frankly, Howling & Ramke serve up relatively few zombie attacks, but they maintain an overwhelming sense of tension every second of the way, so you really can’t call it a revisionist zombie movie, or Heaven forbid, “post-horror.”

Based on what we heard from Steve’s interview with Martin Freeman forthcoming on Unseen Films, it is easy to understand why the film’s themes of fatherhood and sacrifice appealed to Martin Freeman. He is terrific taking over from Rodoreda as the father. He might just be the actor with the most everyman (or everyhobbit) credibility since Tom Hanks at his peak, which serves him well in this context. Susie Porter is also pretty darned devastating as Kay, while Kris McQuade also adds a graceful note of compassion as the school teacher, Etta.

The media and popular culture generally portrays widespread calamities as a catalyst for looting and exploitation, but the historical record suggests the opposite is more accurate. Disasters usually bring out the best in people, but we never see that in zombie movies and TV shows. At least Ramke’s screenplay offers a more balanced assessment. There are both good and bad people in Cargo, just as there are in real life. Recommended as a zombie film with heart and genuine feeling, the Netflix-bound Cargo screens again tonight (4/21) and Wednesday (4/25), during this year’s Tribeca.

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Tribeca ’18: Stockholm

Ostensibly, it is a term used to condone questionable decisions, but the term “Stockholm Syndrome” definitely carries highly negative connotations. In general parlance, it implies the victim was either too weak or too stupid to resist the brainwashing or seduction of their captors. However, the circumstances of the historical incident that coined the term were considerably different. At least, that is how the somewhat fictionalized chronicle of the Normalmstorg Kreditbanken hostage crisis unfolds in Robert Budreau’s Stockholm, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

He presents himself as an American singing cowboy, but the hostage-taker’s real identity will be the source of some controversy during the stand-off. Regardless, his love for Bob Dylan is genuine enough (the film opens with “New Morning,” a good one that isn’t over-played). Oddly enough, Kaj Hansson (as he is first assumed to be) is not so shocked when the alarm is tripped. In fact, it is a necessary precondition for him to start presenting his demands, which includes the release of his bank-robbing best pal Gunnar Sorensson.

It turns out Sorensson is rather surprised by the scheme, but he plays along—and maybe plays both sides against each other when the cops offer him a deal to act as a “mediator.” Bank officer Bianca Lind is more perceptive than Hansson (or whoever). She can tell he has more enthusiasm than brains. He is in over his head, but the increasingly infuriated cops are probably a greater threat to her safety. Together with the two other hostages, who also start to see things her way, Lind tries to help plot an exit strategy for Hansson and Sorensson.

For many viewers, the big surprise here is the portrayal of Lind (and to a lesser extent her two fellow hostages). Frankly, they are not victims at all (yes, they were menaced a bit during the initial hostage-taking, but they quickly get over it). There is no question Lind is the smartest person in the room—and she choses to help her serenading captor, making her own voluntary decision. As a result, this film is bound to be controversial, especially in Sweden, considering it portrays the sainted Olof Palme as a craven political beast.

The other happy revelation is just how good Noomi Rapace is as Lind. Let’s be honest, her post-Millennium Trilogy work has been iffy (we’re talking about films like Bright, Unlocked, and What Happened to Monday? here). Maybe going back to Sweden was healthy for her, because she is totally riveting as Lind, but in a way that is both cerebral and humane.

Rapace also develops some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry with Ethan Hawke as the nice guy hostage-taker. Arguably, Hawke is a tad old for the “impetuous kid” role (his historical analog was thirty-two at the time of the standoff), but he might be one of the few thesps working today who can credibly convey the character’s flamboyance and his naivete. Of course, Mark Strong is money in the bank as the intense, borderline sociopathic Sorensson. Terms like “heroes,” “villains,” and “anti-heroes” definitely get a little murky in a film like this, but Christopher Heyerdahl (a distant relation of the explorer) makes quite a memorably severe antagonist as police chief Mattsson.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is a term that gets haphazardly thrown around, but this film makes viewers question its usage, even starting in the first instance. It is a tight, energetic period thriller, helmed with a fair amount of flair by Budreau (who also directed Hawke in the hip Chet Baker bio-pic, Born to Be Blue). Highly recommended, Stockholm screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Tribeca ’18: You Shall Not Sleep

Method actors can be pretentious and annoying, but Alma Böhm’s method is downright dangerous. She has her actors stay up for days straight, in order to strip away their self-conscious selves and unleash their pure instinct—or something like that. Needless to say, this is a bad idea in a horror movie kind of way. Staging their performance in abandoned mental hospital further compounds the danger in Gustavo Hernández’s You Shall Not Sleep (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bianca has also been fascinated by Böhm’s work, so she can’t no when offered a part in her latest theatrical happening, even though she is well aware of the infamous ending to her last attempt at sleep-deprivation theater (apparently, 108 hours is a significant red line for participants). However, she is rather put out to learn she still has to compete for the role, against her pretty but less talented friend Dora.

The good news is she is much more susceptible to Böhm’s method than Dora. That is also the bad news. Before long, Bianca is seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of her eye and having flashbacks from the POV of her character, a wronged patient who very nearly killed her baby when she set the hospital on fire.

Pretty soon, we are just as lost as Bianca in the various temporal shift and reality warps. Yet, there always seems to be a method to Hernández’s madness, so to speak. Frankly, YSNS is probably a horror movie by default (it would certainly be terrifying to live through equivalent experiences), but it has nearly as much in common with mind-benders like Inception. Still, it is hard to argue with the implication of a haunted and crumbling lunatic asylum.

The Uruguayan Hernández shows a masterful control of atmosphere, tension, and general mise-en-scene throughout it all. This is definitely a moody movie. He also gets some great performances from his cast, particularly Spanish actress Belén Rueda, who goes from being the woman-in-jeopardy in Julia’s Eyes, to being the one putting women in jeopardy, as Böhm. She is chillingly driven, sharing a kinship with Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. It is also scary to see how worn-down and hollowed-out Eva De Dominici gets as the tragically sensitive Bianca, while Susana Hornos really sneaks up on viewers as the dramatically less intuitive Dora.

You have to give Hernández credit for making a haunted asylum film that can never be mistaken for a clone of Grave Encounters or Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Indeed, there is quite a bit of fresh and originally creepy stuff to be found here. Highly recommended for unpedantic genre fans, You Shall Not Sleep screens again tonight (4/20), tomorrow night (4/21) and next Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Ramen Heads: You’re Supposed to Slurp

Osamu Tomita is a lot like Jiro Ono, but he dreams of ramen instead of sushi. Ramen is so much his thing, Tomita visits other ramen restaurants on his day off. It is mostly just to eat, rather than for purposes of industrial espionage. For the fourth year in a row, his ramen has been recognized as Japan’s best, so his competitors are more likely to steal from him, rather than vice versa. Yet, he boldly welcomes viewers into his kitchen to watch him prepare the next day’s broth and noodles in Koki Shigeno’s documentary Ramen Heads (trailer here), which opens today in Chicago.

Ramen is probably the most quintessentially Japanese meal. Originally, it was cheap but filling food the large class of struggling post-war laborers could afford, but it has evolved into a culinary art form. Yet, all the real ramen restaurants are small neighborhood establishments. To the uninitiated, Tomita’s place in Matsudo, Chiba looks like clean, unassuming establishment, but there are always long lines in the morning to buy timed-entry tickets for a table.

We see Tomita mix his broth, knead his noodles, and boil his bamboo shoots (none of those are euphemisms). Perhaps astute ramen chefs will pick up a step or two from what Tomita shows, but his secrets are safe with us. In fact, we feel like we more than sufficiently get it after a while. Fortunately, Shigeno eventually opens the film up a little, introducing us to some other notable ramen chefs and giving us a sly animated history of ramen. Frankly, Shigeno could have spent more time with the other ramen masters, because some of them must have stories to tell, especially seventy-two-year-old Katsuji Matsouka, who will nonchalantly sling 800-1,600 bowls of ramen each day at his Tsukiji Market stall.

Shigeno, a well-established director of Japanese TV food programming, gives viewers an insider’s perspective, which is obviously intended for hard-core ramen heads. However, he captures some of the vibe and every day details of Japanese ramen eating. This would be a good film to stream before visiting the country as a tourist, even if you have no intention of eating at Tomita’s shop.

Regardless, it is always refreshing to see someone like Tomita, who has a passion they are happy to share. Frankly, Ramen Heads is more accessible and energetic than the weirdly over-hyped Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but not nearly as fun as Mirai Kinishi’s Kampai! For the Love of Sake. Recommended for foodies and armchair travelers, Ramen Heads opens today (4/20) at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago (and also screens 4/22 and 4/28 as part of Udine’s Far East Film Festival).

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

CineFesta Italia ’18: Cinderella the Cat

There are no fairy godmothers in Naples. Prince Charming is the “King” of the underworld—and he’s no prince. Fortunately, Mia is a resourceful young girl, but not for long. She is about to come of age and inherit her murdered father’s fortune in Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak & Dario Sansone’s mature animated fable, Cinderella the Cat (trailer here), which screens during CineFesta Italia 2018 in Santa Fe.

Vittorio Basile’s plan to revitalize the Naples seaport district is so visionary, only he understands it. His grand QE2-like cruise ship headquarters and its pseudo-artificial intelligence only hints at the potential grandeur of the project. Unfortunately, Basile falls for the wrong woman, torch-singer Angelica Carannante, who is conspiring with her lover, gangster Salvatore Lo Giusto to kill Basile as soon as the rings are exchanged. They will have to keep his young daughter Mia around until she is old enough to sign over her inheritance, but that does not mean her wicked step-sisters (and drag queen step-brother) have to be nice to her.

Young Mia had a rather touching relationship with her bodyguard Primo Gemito (sort of like the Man on Fire movies), but alas, he is the first person Carannante fires. However, he will make a dramatic return to the now shabby-looking ship as an undercover cop. Frankly, the rusty vessel is a good place to nose around, because it often records significant moments and projects the holographic playback at times that are either extremely opportune or inopportune, depending on one’s perspective.

This is not a Cinderella for kids, but it is wonderfully stylish and rather inventive. With its retro-futuristic fairy tale setting and holographic imagery, it feels something like a cross between the under-appreciated Italian science fiction classic, Morel’s Invention and maybe Streets of Fire, or who knows what. Plus, as an added bonus, there are several contemporary pop-big band musical numbers that are quite jaunty.

Yes, there are four, count them four, credited directors on Cenerentola, but the look and tone are always consistent. Along with three additional co-screenwriters, they create some unusually sharply drawn characters. Their villains are particularly strong, especially the glamorous femme fatale Carannante. Arguably, the traumatized Mia is the least developed, but everyone around her more than compensates.

There is a cat who occasionally slinks in and out, but the title is figurative. However, there is a talking crow, who has a significant role to play. Frankly, this Cinderella is probably too adult for GKIDS to handle (more so even than Chico & Rita or Mind Game), which is a shame, because they might be the only distributor who can handle animation this sophisticated.

Regardless, animation fans will be impressed by the originality and ambition of this noir fairy tale. Again, it should be fully understood this is not a kid’s cartoon. It is meant for grown-ups with discerning taste, who still enjoy a little mayhem. Very highly recommended, Cinderella the Cat screens this Saturday (4/21) at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, as part of this year’s CineFesta Italia.

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Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: The Devil’s Temple

If it were so easy to “sever the bondage of earthly desires,” than everyone would be doing it, right? Thanks to the Buddha’s teachings, a high priest from Kyoto managed to do exactly that—at least for a while. However, a disgraced noble turned outlaw was easy pickings for a demonic temptress. If she can also corrupt the priest, it would represent the metaphysical victory of evil over good. Although essentially a four-character chamber play, the stakes are unusually high throughout Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple, which screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

After the loss of his fortune and the dissolution of his clan, Mumyo no Taro became rather wayward. His long-suffering wife Kaede has tracked him down to the ruined temple, where he has been living in sin with his shameless mistress, Aizen. Kaede expected he would obediently return to her out of shame, but instead, the illicit lovers brazenly carry on in the main chamber, while she camps out in an anteroom.

Kaede hopes salvation arrives when a traveling high priest stops to rest at the temple. He hopes to talk Mumyo back onto the straight and narrow. However, he also gently calls out Kaede for the perverse pride she takes in her martyrdom. Unfortunately, Aizen is more dangerous than he initially assumes, but he will start to get the picture when he realizes she is his destructive former lover. Of course, she is determined to drag him back down into the carnal depths, whereas he hopes to lead Kaede and Mumyo toward righteousness through his example of resistance.

Even though there are no genre elements per se in Temple, the suggestively demonic nature of Aizen is profoundly unsettling. Frankly, Hawthorne could have easily related to both its vibe and marquee conflict, yet the character and flavor of the film are distinctly Buddhist. It is also a dramatic example of how evocative sets and general mise-en-scene can help foster a mood of foreboding. Plus, Miyagawa’s lensing is surprisingly dynamic for a more-or-less one-set four-hander. When the action strays the temple, he gives it a disorienting, nightmarish look.

Showing tremendous range, Michiyo Aratama is scorchingly seductive and flamboyantly evil as Aizen, the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. This is light years away from her heart-rending performances in The Human Condition and Kwaidan, but it might leave an even deeper impression. The legendary Hideko Takamine (looking rather ghostly herself here) is also extraordinarily nuanced and rather ambiguous as the wronged Kaede. Shintaro Katsu (Ichi-san) is a bit of a blowhard stock character as Mumyo, but Kei Sato makes the humble priest quite a distinctively cerebral hero.

This is a terrific work of Buddhist cinema that treats big-picture spiritual concepts with scrupulous seriousness. There are not a lot of films structured around temptations of the flesh, so that makes Temple quite memorable, especially since it is Aratama providing the temptation. Very highly recommended, The Devil’s Temple screens this Saturday (4/21) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

Shintaro Katsu had quite a run with the Zatoichi franchise: twenty-six feature films from 1962 to 1989. For the final film he directed someone else in the role, but there were also four non-consecutive seasons of the 1974-1979 TV series. Tora-san still has him beat in terms of longevity (48 films, from 1969 to 1995), but Zatoichi definitely has a much higher body count. This time around, Katsu’s Zatoichi also gets to play Robin Hood. It is considered one of the more visually stylish entries in the popular series, so it is quite fitting Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

Zatoichi (often just plain Ichi) is coming to town, so you know there will be trouble. In this case, his motives are pure. He has come to pay his respects to a yakuza he mistakenly cut down. Apparently, mistakes like this can happen when you are a blind swordsman, even if you have Zatoichi’s remarkable skills. Unfortunately, while contemplating mortality, he sits down on a stolen chest of gold. That would be the villagers’ tax payment, which agents of the Intendant have stolen, so the corrupt official can double collect.

To be frank, Zatoichi maybe should have wondered what that wicker chest was doing in the middle of a field and why were people suddenly attacking him for it. Regardless, the villagers will somewhat logically suspect him of aiding and abetting the theft, so he will have too clear his name by finding their gold. Fortunately, he will have some help from Chuji, a rebel-bandit holed up in the mountains and Chiyo, the sister of the dead man Zatoichi laments.

The opening sequence is definitely one for the Miyagawa highlight reel. Bathing the foreground in darkness, Miyagawa creates a kabuki-like vibe for the sword fight, through judicious use of focused, golden light, approximating the chiaroscuro effect in Flemish masters. In fact, there is quite a bit of visual panache throughout the film. Shôhei Miyauchi’s fight choreography is also widely hailed as the roughest and toughest thus far (we’re six films into twenty-six at this point). Indeed, it definitely should hold up for Chanbara fans. One thing that might jump out at genteel viewers is the ugly contempt for the blind expressed by the villains, but that makes their anticipated comeuppance even sweeter.

Obviously, Katsu has a good idea of what he is doing as Zatoichi by this point. Machiko Hasegawa also has some amusing scenes with him and her femme fatale presence is definitely intriguing, but Ikehiro lets her disappear for far too long. However, Tomisaburo Wakayama (future star of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise) really fills up the screen as the Intendant’s unrepentantly villainous Samurai enforcer, Jushiro.

Chest of Gold must be a fun movie, since they made twenty more Zatoichis (not including reboots). It definitely delivers the hack-and-slash, but the way Miyagawa lensed the action represents some true artistry. Highly recommended as a fan-pleasing, expectation-beating, formula-stretching Chanbara film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens this Friday (4/20) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

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Mercury 13: The Other First-Generation Astronauts

The great Clare Boothe Luce championed them in Life at a time when that magazine really meant something, but it was to no avail. They privately trained for the American space program, passing many of the same physical and psychological tests, but the fix was in to keep them out. Although the thirteen women never trained as a unit like the original Mercury 7 astronauts, they still developed their own group identity. Their careers and legacy are chronicled in David Sington & Heather Walsh’s documentary Mercury 13 (trailer here), which premieres this Friday on Netflix.

Each of the Mercury 13 were accomplished aviators. In fact, many of them were veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization, who ferried combat planes from the factory to wherever the military needed them, except the actual combat zones. You could argue this made them something very much like test pilots, but NASA rigidly used test pilot experience as a prerequisite to disqualify the Mercury 13, even though such duties were not open to them.

When telling the story of the 13, Jacqueline Cochran emerges as the Chuck Yeager figure. Having achieved national stature as an aviator, Cochran convinced NASA flight doctor and life science expert Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to start a pilot program for prospective women astronauts at his private clinic. However, she later undercut the program at a critical moment.

Several of the surviving 13 lament what a great propaganda loss it was when the Soviet launched the first woman into space with Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Frankly, she was more of a sporting figure than a real pilot or scientist, so any of the 13 would have made far more credible astronauts. There is no question they were qualified pilots and when it comes to space travel, being smaller of stature is a plus. However, there is a nagging hypothetical nobody dares to explore. Suppose a woman astronaut had died in the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The 13 were surely prepared to accept such risks, but you have to wonder if the reaction of the flawed 1967 media could have really set back the space program.

Regardless, the 13 deserved more respect from their male colleagues and NASA would have been much smarter if they had found high profile roles for them to play in the program, but not a lot of observers accuse NASA of being overly intelligent anymore. This is a fascinating story, but even at a highly-manageable seventy-eight minutes, Mercury 13 is conspicuously padded in places. If you enjoy footage of gliders, we have good news for you.

Even though Sington, Walsh, and most of their interview subjects direct plenty of criticism towards NASA, they are still obviously big believers in space exploration. After all, they are arguing for greater and wider participation, rather than less. That is why it is so frustrating to watch a space doc like this (or In the Shadow of the Moon, which Sington also directed, or Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, which Walsh co-produced) knowing we have allowed our own space flight capabilities atrophy into nothing. Recommended for providing a unique perspective on the Space Race, Mercury 13 starts streaming this Friday (4/20) on Netflix.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

#Screamers: The Horror of Viral Videos

Can you imagine the endless debates among the producers whether or not to include the hashtag in the title? They must have been excruciating. Tom Brennan and Chris Grabow have that sort of argument all the time at Gigaler.com. They are sort of like YouTube for viral videos, but supposedly more curated. It hardly sounds like a revolutionary business model and their tight cash flows bears out our skepticism. However, they believe some creepy jump-scare videos might be the opportunity they have waiting for in Dean Matthew Ronalds’ #Screamers (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

We really get to know Brennan and Grabow thanks to the corporate film their marketing guy Griffin is shooting. The in-house doc paints a rosy picture of a start-up on the rise, but we later learn the company’s financial position is much more precarious. The so-called “screamer” videos were just what they needed. Basically, an otherworldly goth girl distracts the viewer, setting them up for a jolt when the Screamer comes lunging at them from out of the corner. Traffic is booming, but they need exclusivity, so they (or rather Abbi, their best coder) tracks down the makers. The metadata leads them Rochester, NY, where the makers might be engaging in an elaborate but distasteful hoax, involving a local woman gone missing and Francis Tumblety, an American suspect in the Jack the Ripper case.

Frankly, it is sort of strange Tumblety’s Ripper connections have not inspired more horror movies. Yet, Ronalds and co-screenwriter Malloy only skim the surface of his eccentric weirdness. Instead, they vexingly devote almost the entire first two acts to establishing the interpersonal dynamics of Gigaler. Brennan is the obnoxious glad-hander, Grabow is nebbish and passive aggressive, while Abbi is the shy computer nerd (in this wacky alternate universe). We so get all that. What we want is more creepy stuff involving Tumblety and more backstory for the mysteriously missing Tara Rogers.

Indeed, it is frustrating how little time Ronalds and Malloy devote to legit horror movie business, because they actually created some intriguing mythology. Still, there is no question, as Brennan and Grabow, Malloy and Chris Bannow feel like annoying hipster tech partners, who are just itching to sell out their customers, like Facebook. All the Gigaler scenes feel totally believable and true to life, but that also means they aren’t a lot of fun.

There is just too much click-and-eyeball talk in #Screamers and not enough Rippers and missing persons. When the film finally gets down to business, it rushes through the third act, rather than trying to build extended tension. It is the sort of film that makes you want to do your own reshoots and re-editing. So frustrating, #Screamers releases today on VOD platforms.

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