J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Beyond Skyline: The Sequel We Didn’t Know We Needed

Technically, the stunning Hindu temple compound Prambanan is in Indonesia, not Laos, but that is a mere detail. Wherever it is, it shelters one of the most effective remnants of human resistance after the alien invasion. Yet, they are still mostly concentrating on simple survival until an extremely ticked-off LA cop is inadvertently dropped into their midst in Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Nobody really loved Skyline in 2010, but some observers were impressed by the visual dazzle rendered by the Hydraulx special effects house founded by the co-directors, the Strause Brothers. This time, the Strauses concentrated on VFX and producing duties, allowing O’Donnell (a co-screenwriter and co-producer of the first installment) to take over the director’s chair. It turns out, this is a much better distribution of labor, because Beyond is a gleeful helping of meathead sci-fi.

Mark Corley has been on leave from the LAPD since the death of his beloved wife Rose, but he still periodically pulls himself out of the bottle and into the station to bail-out his lashing-out “new adult” son Trent. They were headed home on the subway when the aliens started sucking all the people out of Los Angeles. Soon, they regroup with Audrey the conductor and a couple of Corley’s colleagues, but despite their best efforts, they still get whisked into the mother ship.

As viewers of the original know, abducted humans have their brains removed and inserted into robotic exo-skeletons, so they can serve as slave drones. However, the dude from Skyline ’10 fully maintained his consciousness and agency. When Corley blunders into him, he is still protecting his wife, whose pregnancy has been unnaturally accelerated by the aliens. In fact, Corley will deliver the fast-growing baby girl, pledging to protect her.

Thanks to alienified Jarrod, they bring the mother ship down right smack-dab in the center of the Golden Triangle. As the alien ship regenerates itself, Corley and Audrey forge an alliance with Sua and Kanya, sibling drug-runners turned resistance leaders. They have an extensive network of shelters underneath Prambanan. They also have a lot of guns, but the secret to mankind’s survival might very well be found in the genetically altered child’s blood.

Beyond Skyline really is the sequel we didn’t think we needed or wanted, but turned out to be exponentially better than the original. There have been plenty of sequels that were better the originals they followed, but the Skyline duology might represent the greatest increase in quality and entertainment value. It is easy to understand why from the one-sheet, which does not lie—Frank Grillo, along with Iko Uwais and Yayan “Mad Dog” Ruhian from The Raid lay a martial arts beat down on the aliens. Plus, Singapore TV star Pamelyn Chee gets to show off some action chops as Kanya.

Grillo was born to play damaged hardnosed characters like Corley, but he also develops some nice chemistry with Bojana Novakovic’s Audrey. He also has some nice moments with Jacob Vargas playing his former partner. Uwais and Ruhian do not have much opportunity to emote and develop character as Sua and the corrupt “Chief,” but they sure have the moves. Yet, Chee manages to make Kanya fully dimensional and tragically believable, despite all the bedlam exploding around them.

Look, Beyond Skyline is maybe not the only science fiction sequel opening this weekend, but it is guaranteed to blow away your expectations. O’Donnell also deserves credit from learning from the first film’s mistakes. No more shaky cam, so you can see steady full body shots of the fight choreography. Unlike the first film’s downbeat ending, Beyond ends on a note worthy of a John Williams fanfare. Recommended as just a lot of healthy, completely illogical fun, Beyond Skyline is now playing in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

One of Us: The Horror of the Hippy Harem Cult

Brent (if that is his real name) must be a cult leader. He has his followers convinced GMO food is dangerous despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. They accept his pronouncements uncritically, because they have fallen under the sway of his dominating charisma. The mind-control drugs also help. An investigative journalist will infiltrate his Ascension Family Commune, but she might be falling under his influence as well in Blake Reigle’s One of Us (trailer here), which is now available on DVD, from Monarch Home Entertainment.

Melanie Roberts has a talent for sniffing out stories, but she is not so good at living responsibly, despite the efforts of her ex-cop big sister Sophie and her easily up-managed editor. Right from the start, her latest story is dangerously personal. Roberts received a distressed phone call from her college friend Haley Cooper that was rather ominously cut-off mid-sentence. Her last known whereabouts was the Java Collective, a coffee shop run by Brent’s harem-like cult.

Like a savvy journo, Roberts basically throws herself at Partridge Family Cult and they accept her without a second thought, especially Brent, who is quite welcoming indeed. Awkwardly, her new roommate Luna is the only one who distrusts and resents her presence. Of course, there is a strict no cellphone policy, requiring her to turn over her phone. Unfortunately, that means her sister will not be able to warn her when she figures out just how dangerous Brent truly is.

At a time when cultural and political identity is becoming increasingly tribalized, a film that warns of the dangers of cults is rather welcome. However, One of Us pales in comparison to recent standouts, like The Sacrament and Faults. To their credit, screenwriters Andrea Ajemian & Blaine Chiappetta do a nice job establishing Brent’s evil New Age doctrines. The problem is the film is too blasted restrained. Most of those 1970s network made-for-TV horror films starring Kate Jackson are more intense than this.

Still, Derek Smith is chillingly convincing as the Svengali-like Brent. Watching him is practically a masterclass in cult manipulation, which would be a bad thing if someone really started to apply it. In contrast, Christa B. Allen is a problematically weak lead. However, that leaves room for Ashley Wood to steal scenes as the refreshingly proactive and well-armed Sophie Roberts. Amongst all the cult members, Chasty Ballesteros stands out as Luna, because she shows the greatest range and her character gets the most dramatic development arc.

If nothing else, One of Us gives us a vivid reminder that anyone who won’t shut up about GMO junk science probably belongs to a cult. It sets up the sinister inner workings of the Commune quite credibly, but it never goes sufficiently bonkers. It’s not bad, but there just ought to be more. Only for serious cult obsessives, One of Us is now available on DVD, from Monarch Home Entertainment.

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Selected by Ai Weiwei: We the Workers

Nearly all of the subjects of Huang Wenhai’s latest documentary were arrested in a massive round-up of labor activists in December 2015. Several were also arrested during Huang’s extended 2009-2015 shoot. Huang nearly shared their prisoner-of-conscience experience first-hand, but he left just before the state security police arrived one fateful night. The resulting film is as real as real gets. Produced by Zeng Jinyan, who previously helped her former partner, Hu Jia document their term of house arrest in Prisoners of Freedom City, Huang’s We The Workers (trailer here) is a vividly personal indictment of Chinese labor exploitation, which screens this Sunday in DC, as part of a series of films curated by Ai Weiwei.

Peng Jiayong looks like a schlubby sitcom character, but there is nothing funny about it when he is beat up by thugs or arrested and held incommunicado by the cops. The working-class laborer-turned labor rights advocate is not the most sophisticated or disciplined organizer at the Panyu Workers’ Centre, but there is no denying his dedication. In contrast, clean-cut Deng Xiaoming is an earnest young activist, who could have come from central casting. Unfortunately, the beleaguered Deng is often forced to mediate conflicts within his own family when he is not risking life and limb in the field.

We will watch them fight the good fight over the course of several years. Both will endure considerable stress and harassment, but Peng bear the most physical violence. Sometimes it comes from goons hired by factory owners, but it is probably more frequently the police who are violently targeting the activists. Apparently, the cops often launch attacks following the Workers’ Centre’s victories, out of retribution, even though the owners are by then inclined to let things be.

Many of the activists find it prudent to relocate their offices every month. Even the Panyu staff is forced to avoid their office space for months. When they finally sneak back in under the cover of night, the eerie vibe is unmistakable, like revisiting an old apartment from your childhood. In fact, Huang has a knack for making viewers feel things. He gives us a grim taste of Chinese factory conditions in an extended vérité prologue, while conveying a visceral sense of the constant fear surrounding the organizers’ work. They are not perfect. Frankly, at least one of the attorneys working with the Centre is a real blowhard (like most attorneys), but they all have real guts and commitment.

We the Workers (the way the film’s international festival title echoes the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble surely cannot be coincidental) has epic sweep, not necessarily in terms of its narrative (although plenty happens), but for the way it portrays a huge cross-section of China’s marginalized population. It is simultaneously a towering film and an intimate documentary. We the Workers is nearly three hours, but it nearly always makes good use of its time. Constituting some of the boldest, most humanistic nonfiction filmmaking of the year, We the People screens this Sunday (12/17) at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, as part of the “Selected by Ai Weiwei” sidebar to his Trace exhibition.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Turn It On: Silver City

Evidently, the chaos and people-displacement leading up to the Beiijing Olympics even extended as far as the city of Bai Yin in the remote northwest. Technically, residents of Er Dao Wan village were relocated, by hook or by crook, to Bai Yin, to make way for the East-West Gas Pipeline, but the hyper-developing, flag-waving, bulldozing spirit of the 2008 Summer Games hangs over the events captured in director-editor-cameraman Li Peifeng’s documentary, Silver City, which screens as part of the Ai Weiwei-curated Turn It On: China on Film series, still continuing at the Guggenheim.

In the past, nobody traveled to Er Dao Wan without a highly personal reason. Li hails from the region himself. Making ends meet was always difficult, but they mostly pulled together to pull through. Communist Party surrogates have been dispatched to cajole the villagers to relocate, specifically for the pipeline, but also in accordance with the current urbanization policies (so much for “back to the countryside”). These are amusing rap sessions, starting with the tone-deaf Party reps claiming credit for everything under the sun, but ending with defiant hecklers letting them know how they really feel about the CP. The sad thing is most E Dao Wan visitors are resigned to moving anyway, because they understand they really do not have much choice in the matter.

Li captures some moments of such shocking candor, we fear for the safety of argumentative truth-talkers. There is no question a discrete community with its own distinctive identity is getting absorbed by a homogenizing whole. Frankly, the forcible relocation of peoples is one of the classic hallmarks of totalitarian regimes, going back to Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as Mao in the 1960s.

Even though Silver City is a little unfocused at times, Li has an eye for ironically telling visuals. He also vividly conveys a sense of the rugged and remote landscape. It is obvious why several recent neo-Eastern-westerns were filmed in northwestern China. The John Ford of The Searchers could relate to the landscape and the John Ford of The Grapes of Wrath could relate to the people. While not as powerful and damning as Zhang Zanbo’s The Road (scheduled earlier in the day), Silver City is still well worth seeing when it screens tomorrow (12/15), as part of Turn It On, at the Guggenheim.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia: Cosmic Wuxia from the Pen of Tsui Hark

The power of Dunjia, whatever that is, trumps “The Force” every time. That is why the secret Wuyinmen clan needs it. Like a cross between the Men in Black and The Four, the Wuyinmen have sworn to defend their wuxia world from evil alien monsters, but their strength has been depleted. Ironically, they might get a mojo infusion from an unlikely source when signs indicate a shapeshifting monster is destined to be their new leader in Yuen Woo-ping’s The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (trailer here), written and produced by Tsui Hark, which opens this Friday in New York.

Rookie constable Dao Yichang is honest, but not very bright. That is two strikes against him, but he keeps plugging away. Several times, he stumbles across Iron Dragonfly of the Wuyinmen Clan as she pursues monsters in human guise, but she gives him the MIB forgetfulness treatment before he can ask too many questions. Still, she kinds of likes the lug, so when he is seriously injured in an unearthly melee, she tends to his decapitated limbs (don’t worry, they’ll grow back eventually).

Thus far, Xiao Yuan has yet to bring out similarly nurturing instincts in her. Due to prophesy mumbo jumbo, the clan’s “big brother” and her ambiguously Tracy-and-Hepburn-esque comrade Zhuge Qingyun are convinced she is destined to be the next Wuyinmen leader, but Iron Dragonfly is skeptical. Regardless, they need to find a way to tap into the power of Dunjia to defeat the underworld demigods and space monsters conspiring against the human world.

In some ways, Thousand Faces could be considered the ultimate Tsui Hark film, because he gives absolute free reign to his cosmic flights of fantasy. It makes his Journey to the West franchise look gritty and grounded. Consider the climatic “hand of Buddha” scene from Conquering the Demons as its starting baseline. If you can explain just what Dunjia is, you’re way ahead of the game. Near as we can tell, it combines elements of yin & yang, Qi, the Force, and a double espresso.

Regardless, there is plenty of fighting to be done, often against Earth-shattering foes. Fortunately, that plays to the strengths of Yuen, the fight choreographer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy, as well as the director of Netflix’s Crouching Tiger sequel. He has a talent for coordinating gravity-defying moves and colossal set pieces, even if they don’t always make a lot of sense, strictly speaking.

Aarif Lee probably gives his most assured performance yet as the resilient Constable Dao. Wu Bai is massively steely and cool looking as the interim Wuyinmen boss, while Zhou Dongyu is ridiculously sweet and vulnerable as Xiao Yuan in human form. However, Ni Ni totally owns the film as the heroic but acid-tongued Iron Dragonfly. Few wuxia protagonists can match her cutting attitude.

Obviously, Thousand Faces was conceived as a franchise, because the final scene totally sets up the next film. Frankly, it is funnier than most Marvel stingers, so it should leave fans primed for more. In fact, by the time we reach the epilogue, we come to rather like this unruly band of near-superheroes. Recommended for fans of high-flying, fantastical wuxia action, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the AMC Loews 34th Street.

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Music+Film Brazil: Elis

Elis Regina was only the second vocalist to record “Waters of March.” The first and third were its composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, who initially cut the classic bossa tune on a very rare and collectible promotional EP. Regina was the first to bring the song to a popular audience—and did she ever. She also introduced songs by Edu Lobo, Vinícius Moraes, Chico Baurque, Ivan Lins, and Milton Nascimento. Many consider her the greatest Brazilian vocalist of all time, so who are we to disagree? Regina’s short but dramatic life gets the musical bio-pic treatment in Hugo Prata’s Elis (trailer here), which screens this Friday as part of the Music+Film: Brazil series.

Born Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, she often went by just plain Elis and released several confusingly eponymously single-named albums. She had the misfortune of arriving on the scene shortly after the military putsch put on chill on recordings sessions, but her talent would not be denied. Initially, she was a country naïf from the south, who sure could sing, but under the tutelage of producer/impresario Ronaldo Bôscoli, she incorporated seductive elements into her stage presentation. It worked so well, he became her first husband. Jazz musician-arranger César Camargo Mariano would be her second, longer tenured spouse.

“Elis” took pride in her success, cannily reflecting shifts in tastes, in a manner somewhat similar to Miles Davis. She sang samba, bossa, BPM, and even rock. Frankly, her popularity kept her out of prison, but the increasingly radicalized singer would be ironically slammed by the left when she agreed to perform at a ceremony for the military junta. Her attempts to re-establish her dissident credentials essentially constitute the film’s climax, but there is another twenty-minutes or so of the grouchy, self-destructive Elis, who isn’t much fun to spend time with. Alas, such are pitfalls of biography-based films, which are often locked into not especially cinematic conclusions, because that is the historical reality.

Andréia Horta is sensational as the legendary singer. Generally, she is a good likeness, except maybe slightly less earthy and more glamorous. She certainly never waters down the subject’s less edifying moments either, making both the film and performance surprisingly balanced. Likewise, Gustavo Machado clearly has no reservations when it comes to making husband #1 look like a jerkweed, while Caco Ciocler gives the film some soul and an accessible audience vantage point as husband #2.

Of course, the music is sounds terrific (even though “Waters of March” is largely glossed over). Somewhat counter-intuitively, Mariano’s Som Trés piano trio rendition of “Samblues” has particularly prominent placement, but it is an infectious showcase for his dazzling chops, so why not?

Biographical dramas about musicians usually follow a familiar trajectory, which is indeed the case with Elis. There is the early explosion of success, the mid-career struggle with inner demons, and finally the redemptive third act that is eventually cut short by physical or emotional baggage rooted in the second stage. Such is true of Elis too, but the redemptive part is shorter than typical. Yet, the facts are the facts. Fortunately, the music is also the music—and Prata shrewdly keeps the film fully stocked with classic tunes by Regina and her contemporaries. Recommended for fans of all genres of Brazilian music, Elis screens this Friday (12/15) at Symphony Space, as part of Music+Film: Brazil.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End

Okay horror fans, are you ready for some closure? “Closure” might be too strong a word, but fans of the internationally popular Canadian horror series who were surprised by its cancellation after only two seasons will surely settle for more. It turns out some of Todd Smith’s associates were less evil than he thought and some were more so, but isn’t high school always like that? The Necronomicon-like Book is still all kinds of evil, but maybe it is no longer Todd’s fate to be the “Pure Evil One,” predestined to destroy the world with its apocalyptic power (that’s not necessarily a good thing for the world) in Richard Duhaney & Craig David Wallace’s animated feature, Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End (trailer here), which releases today in a Canadian limited-edition DVD/BluRay collector’s set.

Happily, for newcomers, TATBOPE—TEOTE starts with an attitude-rich recap of everything we need to know, sort of like the classic spoof Soap, but in the George Carlin-like voice of Jimmy the Janitor. Despite triumphing over evil, Smith is a little depressed, because he inadvertently killed his best dude Curtis Weaver’s science nerd girlfriend, Hannah B. Williams. Frankly, Weaver is pretty chill about it, all things considered—and he completely lets Smith off the hook when Williams inexplicably returns from the dead.

Of course, this Williams is different. We soon learn she is an evil clone, who has thrown her lot in with the evil stoner dudes. Of course, it will take the gang quite a while to figure this out, for obvious reasons. On the plus side, Atticus Murphy, Jr., the former high school guidance counselor and leader of the underground satanic cult has decided to be good. He will also start pushing a mop when he discovers Jimmy took his old gig while he was gone. At least the janitor position pays better.

Screenwriters and series co-creators Wallace and Charles Picco maintain the same ruckus and ribald sense of humor in the animated format. This film is not afraid to go to tasteless places for a laugh, but it understands all the established horror conventions and skewers them quite drolly. It is also easy to identify with the knuckleheaded characters. If you didn’t know someone like them in high school then you were one of them.

In a way, TATBOPE—TEOTE is like Star Trek: The Animated Series. The animation is not spectacular, but it is the same cast and the same writers, so it is the next best thing to new episodes of the classic series. If you were fans of the original TATBOPE, this will satisfy your cravings and those who are new to the franchise will still get a kick out of its lunacy. For home viewing suggestions, it would pair up nicely with either Deathgasm or Bad Kids of Crestview Academy. (Frankly, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea should have been more like this.) Highly recommended for fans of cult television, midnight movies, and macabrely wacky animation, Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End is now available on Canadian DVD/BluRay and VOD platforms, from Raven Banner Entertainment.

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Submitted By China: Wolf Warrior 2

Tired of America serving as the “world’s policeman?” Perhaps you would like to have China sub in for a while. Wu Jing is so eager to show us what that might look like, it is downright scary. Yet, somehow, he manages to greatly improve on the first outing for PLA sniper-commando Leng Feng. Things get more personal when his fiancée vanishes while on assignment in Wu’s blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 (trailer here), China’s no-chance-whatsoever official foreign language Academy Award submission, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Believe it or not, Wolfy 2 includes maybe a thimble full of critical domestic social commentary—maybe. As the film opens, Leng Feng and his brothers-in-arms are delivering the ashes of their fallen comrade to his home, only to find his family blocking their shrine from a real estate tycoon’s bulldozer. When the sleazebag threatens to make the surviving relatives’ lives miserable, our favorite Wolf Warrior fixes his attitude problem permanently.

Cashiered out of service and convicted of manslaughter, Leng Feng is unable to protect Long Xiaoyun, his former commanding officer and love-of-his-life, when she is ambushed in Africa. All he has left of her is a bullet with a distinctive decorative design. After his release, he disappears into Africa, hoping to match the vanity bullet to a bad guy. Much to his surprise, he gets emotionally involved with several locals, especially his “godson,” Tundu.

When mercenaries hired by a coup-plotting general start running amok, Leng Feng is there to go rogue. With the unofficial support of the PLA, the ex-Wolf Warrior sets off to rescue Dr. Chen, the modern-day Albert Schweitzer who founded the “Chinese-Invested Hospital” (that seems to be its official name) and then liberate the workers at a Chinese factory under siege, including Tundu’s mother. However, instead of Dr. Chen, he winds up with his colleague, Dr. Rachel Prescott Smith, but old Leng seems to find this a fair trade.

Although Wolfy 2 features an honest to goodness flag-waving scene, it still is not nearly jingoistic as its predecessor (the marketing campaign is another story, since it included key art with Wu flipping the world the bird and the tag line: “anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.”). Still, it is hard to argue with Leng Feng when he tells Dr. Smith the U.S. Marines have up and evacuated, leaving utter bedlam behind. What can we expect, when we have steadily disengaged from the world, over the last eight-plus years?

Of course, most viewers will be more interested in the action, so they will be happy to hear Wu steps it up considerably from the first film. Action directors Sam Hargrave and Wai-leung Wong stage some gritty, adrenaline-charged fight scenes, but it is the way-over-the-top tank battles that really make the film.

Ironically, Wu Jing is more charismatic and likable this time around, even though his character is supposed to be more jaded and disillusioned with life. He also has all the moves and a deceptively thin, but super-cut physique, making him one of the most credible action stars working today. Frank Grillo brings more gusto as the latest western nemesis than Scott Adkins, but it is former wrestler Oleg Prudius and crossover stunt-performer Heidi Moneymaker who really add villainous flair as hench-mercs, Bear and Athena (you’ll be able to guess which is which). Yu Nan appears briefly as the ill-fated Long, but Chinese American Celine Jade develops better rapport with Wu as Dr. RPS. However, Wu Gang does the most to keep the film grounded as He Jianguo, the factory’s world-weary PLA-veteran security director.

In WW2, Wu blows up crap pretty good. He also gives us a peak of the world we have been sliding into. For eight years, we had a policy of isolationism through multilateralism—meaning if anyone might object to the use American power, we would duly defer. Now we have a more honest “America First” brand of isolationism, but it is just as likely to put China in charge mediating the world’s disputes. Wu Jing says they are ready and Jade has a hard time disagreeing. Recommended for the action, not the messaging (but perhaps as a wake-up call), Wolf Warrior 2 is now available on DVD and BluRay.

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Love and Saucers: David Huggins’ Out-of-this-World Art and Romance

Outsider art does get more outside than that of painter David Huggins. His inspiration and subject matter is truly extraterrestrial. For years, he has painted the aliens that visited him, including Crescent, with whom he lost his virginity as young teenager down south. It was sort of like Summer of ’42, but with UFOs and little gray men. Huggins might just be the most convincing alien abductee ever filmed when he tells his story in Brad Abrahams’ documentary, Love and Saucers (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Huggins is a fairly well-known figure on the UFO circuit, but he stands apart from the field. For one thing, he does not describe his experiences in nightmarish terms, like skeptics and casual observers would expect TV shows and films like Communion and The X-Files. After all, he was getting regular action. You could even say he was in a caring relationship with Crescent, who followed him from rural Georgia, where he grew up, to Hoboken, where he has lived for decades.

Yes, Huggins has a pretty crazy story. He is also surprisingly credible, precisely because he does not appear desperate to convince anyone. His folksy attitude appears to be: believe it or not, but either way, it’s no skin of is nose. However, the last second revelation that Huggins has lived with his ex-wife for the last twenty years (presumably sharing him with Crescent), but she refused to participate in the documentary, ends the film on a frustrating note. Obviously, there is just so much more to his story, but Abrahams couldn’t get it on film.

Still, Huggins is a pleasant fellow to spend time with—and his grown son Michael (who does appear) comes across as a well-adjusted, gracious fellow. Regrettably, we never get to meet any of the hundreds of hybrid children he sired with Crescent, but you have to expect that, because they are aliens. He is also rather unique among so-called outsider artists, considering he studied at the Art Students League of New York (whose famous alumni include Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, and Ai Weiwei).

Essentially, L&S is a relaxed film that invites the audience to get to know Huggins over a cup of coffee and a cheese danish. Frankly, it is a nice change of pace from all the paranoid Art Bell claptrap that usually dominates discussions of alien contact. Recommended for UFO watchers and connoisseurs of outsider art, Love and Saucers releases today on VOD, from the Orchard.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, Another GKIDS Contender

Everything is cuter with talking animals, right? This film will test that theory with drug addiction, schizophrenia, police brutality, and industrial disasters. It is no wonder three alienated animal youths are determined to escape their dysfunctional and dystopian island home, but leaving is not such a simple proposition for the late Birdman’s son. He is seemingly tied to the island by bonds of psychological and emotional pain in Pedro Rivero & Alberto Vázquez’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (trailer here), an officially qualified Oscar contender, which opens this Friday in New York.

Not so long ago, a nuclear meltdown wiped out the island’s industrial sector, leaving a vast dumping ground in its wake. Residents of the island’s supposedly civilized quarter avoid it as best they can, but a tribe of scavengers known as “the Forgotten Children” constantly picks over the trash heaps in search of salvageable copper. Dinky, a recently orphaned mouse, pines for Birdboy, her sort of boyfriend, but it is unclear whether he can commit to her on any level. Tragically, he is still tormented by the death of his father, Birdman, who was murdered by the island’s shoot-first police dog, on the suspicion he was dealing drugs.

Dinky and her friends, Sandra the schizophrenic rabbit and Little Fox the little fox, plan to purchase a light boat in the [post-]industrial zone, so they can make a Cuban-style getaway, but the sensitive mouse hopes she can convince Birdboy to leave with them. However, he has his own ghosts and mental demons to exercise. Plus, the police dogs are hot on his trail.

GKIDS deserves all kinds of credit for giving ambitious animated films like this a chance. Make no mistake, Birdboy is absolutely not for kids—not one little bit, even though the characters look deceptively youngster-friendly. Based on Vázquez’s graphic novel, it is a dark and sophisticated film that is almost relentlessly pessimistic about human nature, or rather anthropomorphic animal nature. Yet, it is singularly macabre and richly inventive accomplishment in world-building. There is just so much that is bizarre and frightening about their island environment, it would be a shame to miss out on it.

Vázquez’s characters are also unusually complex and deeply damaged. This is one neurotic animated feature, but we really feel compassion for Dinky, Sandra, Little Fox, and Birdboy. They are way more human than anything you will see in The Boss Baby or the latest Despicable movie. (However, parents should again be cautioned, our cuddly cast of characters is headed for a bittersweet conclusion that is more bitter than sweet.)

As if Birdboy were not sufficiently challenging on its own, it will be paired with Vázquez’s Goya Award-winning short film Decorado during its New York engagement. Featuring dreams-within-dreams and worlds-within-proscenium stage sets, Decorado will confuse most Millennials. It also features sexual references and a vicious parody of Donald Duck. It is trippy and unsettling, but it is also dazzling, in a postmodern kind of way. It certainly is not out of place proceeding Birdboy, but it does not have anything like its emotional payoff.

Alas, Birdboy has no chance for best animated feature, because there is no way the Academy can handle it, but if you want to see what animation can be, it will duly impress (along with Decorado). These are haunting visions, whose very existence makes our world a stranger and more mysterious place. Highly recommended for animation connoisseurs, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown: The Sidekick Rides for Vengeance

Old Lefty Brown’s riding mates have gone on to great things. One is now the governor of Montana and another is a U.S. Marshall. Perhaps most impressively, his partner Edward Johnson is the great state’s senator-elect. Brown ought to sign up with a lobbying firm and peddle access, but that is a city-slicker thing to do. He’s an open range cowboy all the way. It becomes a moot point anyway when Johnson is murdered by outlaws. Brown was always the comic relief, but like Sam Spade, he understands a man has to do something when their partner gets killed. Not a lot of people ever took the sixty-five-year-old bunkhouse cowpoke seriously, but he rides for vengeance anyway in Jared Moshe’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Johnson was a respected rancher, lawman, an opponent of railroad interests. As we see in the opening scenes, he still dispensed justice frontier-style, with Brown right beside him. His wife Laura hoped their upcoming move to Washington would finally shake loose old Lefty, but Johnson was dead set on leaving him in charge of the ranch. Regrettably, that all changes when the two crusty partners walk into an ambush.

Poor, misunderestimated Brown is left alive to face the contempt of Johnson’s widow and ranch hands. Determined to settle the score, Brown sets off alone. Of course, nobody thinks he can do much of anything, so Gov. Jimmy Bierce dispatches Marshall Tom Harrah to retrieve him when they arrive for the funeral. However, Harrah finds his old riding mate is hot on the trail, so he temporarily joins the pursuit instead. Unfortunately, Brown will eventually find he has been denounced as an accomplice back at the ranch, just when he is most in need of help.

It is so refreshing to see a new western that respects the genre and what it represents, as is the case here. Ballad is definitely darker than your singing cowboy movies of yesteryear, but it is not exactly revisionist either. Moshe has obviously processed a whole lot of western cinema, but the films of Anthony Mann really jump out as a likely influence (which is a recommendation in itself).

He also gets an award caliber performance out of the always reliable Bill Pullman, possibly doing his best work since he was on Broadway in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? It is a tricky role playing the goofy sidekick forced to become deadly serious. In past eras, maybe a Walter Huston could have handled it, but he nails it cleanly. It is not just his partner who died, it is his way of life that is also slowly expiring, which viewers can just see in his sad, but still hawk-like eyes.

Jim Caviezel is entertainingly slimy as the governor, while Peter Fonda clearly enjoys his brief time riding tall in the saddle as the hard-nosed Johnson. However, Tommy Flanagan nearly steals the picture from Pullman, as the morally conflicted and profoundly haunted Marshall Harrah. It is a rich supporting turn, with range worthy of the frontier.

Clearly, just about everyone involved made the most of their opportunity to work a genuine western with an A-list cast, because Ballad looks just about perfect. Cinematographer David McFarland captures the sweep of the Montana plains and badlands and the design team gets all the period details right, in a Spartan kind of way, that never overshadows the grungy, archetypal drama. This is a film that people will definitely see over time, because there is a hunger out there for good westerns, like In a Valley of Violence and Slow West, but the target demo is naturally skeptical. Moshe’s film can hang with both those recent westerns, which is also saying something. Enthusiastically recommended, The Ballad of Lefty Brown opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Village East.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

If You Can Screen It There: Plants

Graphic novels and manga can be helpful. During trying times, they can be a source of distraction, or perhaps even a forewarning of danger. A series about body-snatching sentient flora will at least provide the former to a moody fan girl in Roberto Doveris’s Plants (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of Anthology Film Archive’s ongoing series, If You Can Screen It There: Premiering Contemporary Latin American Cinema.

Florencia (Flor) is clearly going through a rough patch. Her brother Sebastián (Seba) rests at home, but persists in a vegetative state, while her mother is hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening illness. Her father lives abroad and remains intentionally out of touch, so the once-privileged family now faces desperate financial circumstances. Forced to let go their live-in nurse, Flor must care for her brother herself. On the positive side, this gives her carte blanche to cut class whenever she feels like it.

It is too bad Doveris is not really telling the story of the Las Plantas comic book-within-the-film, because it sounds like it would be a really cool riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He could also probably draw a fair degree of suspense out of the genre elements, judging from his simple but evocative handling of Flor’s dream sequences. Instead, he is more interested in teen angst—and boy is there plenty of that.

Before we go any further, it should be established Flor is seventeen-years-old, just like the kid in Call Me by Your Name and still a year shy of the Chilean age of consent. There is no question she is sexualized in Plants, but it is deliberately disturbing (rather than romanticized, as in Guadagnino’s film).

For the record, Argentine pop star Violeta Castillo is twenty-two years-old and truly remarkable as Flor. It is a bold performance, calibrated to discomfit viewers by punctuating her coy faux innocence with flashes of fierceness. Ironically, she receives the most effective support from Mauricio Vaca, who subtly suggests moments of pointed lucidity as the uncommunicative Seba. They both project hints of something dark and incestuous shared between the siblings.

Plants will leave viewers hungry for a sci-fi/horror film about parasitic vegetation. The audience should also be duly impressed by Castillo’s raw and gutsy screen debut. It probably has enough fandom references to have earned it considerable play at genre film festivals during past years, but not in the current, post-Kevin Spacey-Woody Allen climate. Recommended for edgy hipsters and Castillo’s fans, Plants screens this Thursday (12/14) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of If You Can Screen It There (but a lot of us might prefer to re-watch Little Shop of Horrors and Day of the Triffids instead).

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Saturday, December 09, 2017

AFI EU Showcase ’17: Pin Cushion

Aren’t you glad smart phones and social media weren’t around when you were in high school? Unfortunately, cyber-bullying isn’t even the worst of what the physically and emotionally awkward Iona endures from her false frienemies. She and her meek, hunchbacked mother Lyn were hoping for a new start in a new town, but the hostile welcome they receive will strain their formerly close relationship in Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion, which screens during the AFI’s 2017 European Union Film Showcase.

Iona and Lyn love birds and cats and stuff with lace and little cake things. Dad is out of the picture and never remarked on, so it is just them. Iona is eager to make friends, but through her imagination, she has visualized fast friendships that maybe aren’t so realistic. In fact, they leave her vulnerable to the predatory manipulations of Keeley, the queen bee of her class. Just for kicks, Keeley sets her up for a fall, leaving her a disgraced social pariah. Sadly, Lyn fares little better with her efforts to make friends among the snotty, rough-hewn neighbors.

Ugh, this is often a hard film to watch, especially in light of the horrific story of cyber-harassment that culminated in the suicide of adult actress August Ames, who committed the sin of opting out of a gig with an actor who also performs in gay videos (apparently, that side of the business has a reputation for less frequent testing, which her tormentors vehemently denied). It is a story that is crossing over into the mainstream, because it illustrates the soulless vindictiveness and supreme self-righteousness of the cyber-lynchers.

Now some of her trolls are trying to backpedal and claim they simply wanted to offer information to counter her misconceptions, but they were still piling on—and they had to know it. Their tone may have varied, but they wanted to make her feel shamed and alone. They succeeded. Human beings can only take so much. We can see both mother and daughter reaching that point in Pin Cushion, which is a harrowing spectacle to witness.

Joanna Scanlon is a well established British screen thesp (she was one of the best things about Ralph Fiennes’ just sort of okay The Invisible Woman), but her performance as Lyn is definitely something of a higher order. She is heartbreaking and exasperating, but ultimately quite unsettling. Likewise, Lily Newmark’s portrayal of Iona definitely tips her as an emerging talent to be reckoned with (like a young Saoirse Ronan). Frankly, Sacha Cordy-Nice also shows future potential star power, as her tormentor Keeley.

Haywood intriguingly uses fairy tale motifs throughout the film, but she takes it in a dark, Brothers Grimm direction. Yet, the human emotions and human cruelties are always very real. There are very light fantastical elements, mostly rooted in dreams, but this film definitely holds a mirror up to modern social norms and pathologies. That is why it stings. This is the kind of film that is riveting to watch once, but nobody will ever want to re-visit. Highly recommended for patrons of social issue films, Pin Cushion screens tomorrow (12/10) and Thursday (12/14), as part of the AFI’s annual EU Film Showcase.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

November Criminals: Lost in Translation from Page to Screen

When a film is produced based a novel, but instead of official key art, there’s just a forlorn looking “soon to be a major motion picture” burst on the cover, you know the poor marketing department had some awkward meetings with sales. That’s the case with Sam Munson’s teen novel, but his publisher probably isn’t missing out on much. Fans of the book are likely to be vocally disappointed in Sacha Gervasi’s adaptation of November Criminals (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In the book, Addison Schacht is a small-time pot dealer, who enjoys collecting Holocaust jokes, even though he is Jewish. In the film, he is a mopey sad sack, who is still grieving the sudden death of his mother. For kids who hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye, Schacht’s snarky, drug-addled voice really resonated, but it is entirely lost here. At least he still proceeds to investigate the murder of Kevin Broadus, a straight-laced African American classmate, whose death the lazy DC cops just write-off as a gang-related incident. However, as Schacht starts to snoop around, he realizes he maybe didn’t know Broadus as well as he thought he did. Of course, in the book, he would be the first to admit he hardly knew Broadus at all.

If you are going to remove everything edgy and distinctive about a book than why bother? You’re just setting everyone up for fan blowback. Instead, why not write a completely original, bland-as-cardboard screenplay about as shaggy dog high school student solving a friend’s murder? It is particularly disappointing that such an unremarkable time-waster was co-written by Steven Knight, the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, as well as Locke and Redemption, which he also helmed. Surely, there must be a much more interesting draft sitting neglected on his hard-drive.

Ansel Elgort has been cast in some high-profile YA properties, so the media acts like he is a star, but he can’t prove it in November. Frankly, he seems to have the antidote for charisma. Spending extended time with whiny, grandstanding Schacht just becomes excruciatingly painful. Chloë Grace Moretz shows more signs of life as Phoebe, the platonic pal turned potential romantic interest, but there is not much she can do with the thinly sketched character. She too has been watered down from the source novel, in which she appears as “Digger,” Schacht’s friend-with-benefits. Ironically, the most fully developed performances come from David Strathairn as Schacht’s widowed father and Catherine Keener as Phoebe’s single mom Fiona.

The book uses Schacht’s college admittance essay as the narrative device framing the story, but in the film, he mails off his application in the first scene. Instead, the movie Schacht uses a video diary to express his feelings and establish the exposition, which is a nauseatingly tired cliché, post-Sex, Lies and Videotape. Still, you could argue it perfectly suits such a dull work of mediocrity. Not recommended, November Criminals opens today (12/8) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Other Worlds Austin ’17: Paleonaut (short)

Nicholas Sparks can’t top this message in a bottle. Scientists have developed a method of H.G. Wells-style time travel, so the first human test subject will travel back to the pre-historic era, hopefully to leave a message for the research team in the fossil records. Essentially, the time traveler will become the fossil. It was a mission Dr. Maria Lin volunteered for, but she might possibly start to develop feelings for the man chosen instead in Eric McEver’s short film Paleonaut (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival.

There might be a future in our past. If the so-called “Paleonaut” can successfully adapt to pre-human living conditions, it could open the door to colonization of the past, from the environmentally doomed near-future. Apparently, they are not worried about Butterfly Effects or Prime Directives, because desperate times call for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lin is too valuable as a team member to send her back in time, but Kai is pretty disposable. Indeed, he seems to have nothing tying him down to the present day. Yet, as the shy Dr. Lin trains the socially awkward Kai, they come to like and respect each other—and maybe even something more.

Any jerk who says science fiction cannot be emotionally engaging should watch Paleonaut and then grovel for forgiveness. It is a beautiful but finely nuanced film that suggests so much through hints and implications, yet it is epochal in its sweep. McEver takes a mammoth-sized big-picture-idea and examines it from a distinctly individual and intimate perspective.

Of course, he has a huge advantage in his remarkable lead, the uncannily expressive Tomoko Hayakawa, who can truly break your heart while lucidly explaining the principles of paleontology. Plus, she forges some acutely potent chemistry with Yasushi Takada’s Kai. He is also terrific and terrifically subtle portraying the standoffish Kai as he slowly comes out of his shell around her.

Paleonaut was shot on location at various Chinese research institutions and science museums, so it has a totally legit science fiction look. Genre fans will definitely respect its intelligence, but the central relationship makes Paleonaut accessible to anyone who enjoys a good tale of star-crossed romance. Very highly recommended, Paleonaut screens this Sunday (12/10) as part of the Scifi Shorts: Paradox of Choice programming block, at this year’s Other Worlds Austin. 

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Goth(ic): Vampire Hunter D

He stalks his prey in a post-apocalyptic landscape and his wardrobe is very High Plains Drifter, but you cannot get much more gothic than the protagonist of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s franchise of horror novels, manga, and anime. From the standpoint of the ancient vampire “Nobility,” he is a particularly dangerous hunter, because as a half-human, half-vampire dhampir, he is practically one of them. In fact, he has quite an illustrious lineage, but that will only be hinted at in Toyoo Ashida’s anime feature Vampire Hunter D (trailer here), which screens as part of the ongoing Goth(ic) film series at the Metrograph.

It is the year 12,090 AD and humanity is not doing great. The spawn of the few humans who survived the nuclear Armageddon live under the heel of the undead Nobility, who trace their blood line back to Dracula himself. Ten thousand-year-old Count Magnus Lee is especially powerful, but he is prone to boredom, so he decides to take pretty young orphan Doris Lang as his bride. Having marked her with his fangs, he leaves her to twist in the wind for a while, but she manages to recruit “D” to hunt the Count and hopefully free her of his influence.

Naturally, the town shuns Lang and her young brother when they learn she is marked, except for Greco Roman, the lecherous son of the sheriff, who hopes to exploit her condition. (The jerky Roman is suspiciously like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but he predates the Disney character by six years.) D is a tough customer, but he rather rashly lets the Count’s various mutants and familiars get the drop on him. Fortunately, he is supernaturally difficult to kill.

Hunter D was one of the first successful crossover anime films and it still holds up quite well, even though subsequent mature anime releases dramatically upped the ante in terms of violence and supernatural horror. Watching it thirty-some years later is like going back to basics. Anti-heroic good dukes it out with arrogant evil in a savage wasteland that really feels very 1980s, in a good way. Plus, longtime illustrator Yoshitaka Amano’s design work is truly archetypally iconic. Frankly, you will recognize D, even if you are completely unfamiliar with the franchise.

Ashida maintains a brisk pace, showcasing a number of pleasantly gory fight scenes. Screenwriter Yasushi Hirano’s adaptation of Kikuchi’s first novel hits enough traditional vampire bases to satisfy western audiences, while introducing a good deal of the distinctive series mythology. Yes, there is even some brief fan service for horny teens.

There are western and science fiction elements in Hunter D, but it is still a natural fit for a gothic film series. Those blood moons and creepy castles still set quite the macabre mood. Nostalgically recommended for anime, horror, and spaghetti western fans, Vampire Hunter D screens twice tomorrow (12/8) as part of Goth(ic) at the Metrograph.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Other Worlds Austin ’17: Three Skeleton Key (short)

It was one of Vincent Price’s most popular roles in the early 1950s, but he only performed it on radio. At the height of its fame, French author George G. Toudouze’s Esquire-published short story failed to make the transition to film or television, probably because the hordes of killer rats were too difficult to render properly on screen. However, Andrew Hamer proves it can be done in 2017. There will be rats in his short film, Three Skeleton Key (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival.

The remote lighthouse is literally welded to a narrow key that becomes entirely submerged in water during high tide. The surrounding waters are shark infested and the supply boat only comes once every three weeks. Its sole purpose is to keep boats off the rocks, but most vessels have the good sense to avoid the rugged stretch of coastline. However, nobody is navigating the derelict craft about to founder on the reef—for good reason. It has been commandeered by throngs of flesh-eating rats.

These are ships rats, the kind that do not drown. Having reached the rocky outcroppings, they will swarm onto the key and over the sealed lighthouse. With no relief scheduled to arrive for weeks, the weary light-keepers must hope and pray the door and windows will hold up against the scurrying masses.

Hamer’s film basically teases what presumably could become a full feature film treatment. Logically, he does not give away the store when it comes to swarming rats, but he still shows how realistic and scary they can look. He also makes a few changes from the original story and radio plays. Instead of the French Guyana coast, it is now set along a desolate stretch of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, which probably gives it more commercial appeal, but it makes it harder to accept the lighthouse’s extreme isolation.

What does work is complicated friendship between the white Terry Driscoll and the much-abused African American Andre Rolle, the two laborers on the lighthouse crew (memorably played by Robert Fleet and Dan White, respectively). It is definitely not a simplistic buddy relationship, but they are the kind of salt of the earth who will presumably rise to the occasion when the tower is overrun with vermin.

Hamer’s Key is loaded with atmosphere and first-rate period details. In a mere ten minutes, he rather impressively establishes a claustrophobic vibe and an ominous sense of foreboding. It is definitely Poe-like in that respect, but fans of the Vincent Price productions will miss the taciturn Basque boss Louis, and the high-strung Auguste, whose self-destruction was predetermined by their respective character flaws.

Although Toudouze’s 1937 story is still used as an example of a suspenseful tale in primary English classes here and there, it has largely receded from the popular consciousness, which is why it is so cool to see Hamer revive it. It would be great if the short led to a full feature adaptation. Regardless, the short film version we have now gives viewers a good taste of mid-Twentieth Century macabre. Recommended for horror fans, Three Skeleton Key screens this Saturday (12/9) as part of the Under World Shorts—Evil This Side of the Door programming block at this year’s Other Worlds Austin.

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Bullet Head: Dogs and Robbers

This dog definitely has a purpose—to bite your face off. He was trained to be a killer, but he exceeded his handler’s expectations. Now he is roaming the decrepit warehouse where a trio of hard luck thieves hope to regroup and lay low after pulling their latest job. Good luck with that. The killer dog movie gets a gangster twist in Paul Solet’s Bullet Head (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

We can have confidence in a jaded old crook played by John Malkovich. That is less true for his younger but nearly as jaded associate portrayed by Adrien Brody, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt. However, we assume the worst about their junky accomplice, with good reason—he is played by Rory Culkin. They have holed up in a squalid former warehouse, waiting for their getaway ride, but they are not alone. Cujo is also roaming the halls, but he was known as DeNiro during his dog-fighting days. His trained assumed those days were over after a particularly nasty battle royale, but he assumed wrong—fatally wrong.

The larcenous trio mostly concentrate on eluding the homicidal pooch, which does indeed require their full efforts. However, they eventually come to realize he is part of a particularly evil criminal enterprise, whose mastermind will most likely be returning sometime soon, to look for his now dead accomplice and the bag full of money from the last fight.

Solet’s feature debut Grace was weirdly over-hyped, but his follow-up release Dark Summer and his contribution to the anthology film Tales of Halloween were quite sly and pleasingly sinister. He shows even greater range this time around, mashing up horror and Elmore Leonard-esque crime elements into a hybrid that defies all expectations.

Of course, Solet has Malkovich doing Malkovich, which is a rock-solid foundation to build on. This is a weirdly discursive film, featuring several stories within the main narrative, but that definitely plays to Malkovich’s let-me-tell-you-a-thing-or-two strengths. Brody’s hound dog face also works well in the context of the film. In contrast, we just want to give Culkin a good slapping, but that is how we are supposed to feel about him. Plus, Antonio Banderas is absolutely not fooling around as the all-business, seriously malevolent dog-fighting gangster. He is hardcore, for real.

At this point, the combination of Banderas and Brody might suggest straight-to-DVD retro cash-ins, but Bullet Head is a straight-up good movie. It also suggests Banderas is a dog who can learn new tricks, while Malkovich’s old tricks are still just as entertaining as they have always been. Highly recommended for fans of heart-warming dog movies, like The Pack and White Dog, Bullet Head opens this Friday (12/8) in New York, at the Village East.

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