Friday, August 28, 2020


Opening on Amazon Prime...

Get Duked!--"All this fresh air is horrible." So remarks one of the young heroes of this Brit comedy, stranded in the Scottish highlands in pursuit of the (real-life) Duke of Edinburgh's Award, an Outward Bound-like camping excursion meant to expose urban youth to survival skills like "Teamwork," "Orienteering" and "Foraging." One of the lads is a conscientious sort looking to build his resume, another is a hip-hop wannabe who goes under the name "DJ Beetroot" and the other two are ordinary numbskulls looking forward to working in the fish packing plant like their dads.

What the boys don't expect is to be hunted like game by the tweed-clad, rifle-bearing local gentry, led by a disturbingly masked Eddie Izzard. Written and directed by Ninian Doff, the movie spins away into terror and violence, farcical but with a tinge of the authentically macabre just the same.

The local law enforcement also sets aside the hunt for the notorious "Bread Thief" ("A've no hud a ciabatta in weeks," laments one officer) to pursue the boys, who they're pretty sure are terrorists. Hallucinogenic rabbit droppings are ingested, leading to some of the funniest depictions of tripping ever put on film.

The whole movie is freakin' hilarious, come to that. It carries hints of everything from Beavis and Butt-Head to The Wicker Man, but it also feels original, and it has a defiant and unpretentious dash of social anger. In its way it's a harsh movie, but it isn't a heartless one; the laughs it offers are very welcome in these unfunny times.

Monday, August 24, 2020


In honor of the Post Office, and especially, this past week, of Mr. Bannon's new acquaintances in the Postal Inspection Service, let's remember the 1936 Universal picture Postal Inspector...

...with Ricardo Cortez as the two-fisted Postal Service man and Bela Lugosi as the shady nightclub owner he's after. You can watch it in its full less-than-an-hour-long glory here.

The British producer Alex Gordon said that when he was a kid and he and his film buff friends heard about Lugosi in Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, etc, and were desperate to see him, Postal Inspector was their first chance, being the first of Lugosi's films to pass the British censor.

In recognition of the "zombie cicadas" we've been ominously hearing about in recent weeks...

...Dockyard Press has re-published my short story "Cicada Summer" online.

Friday, August 21, 2020


Available this weekend in virtual cinemas...

Desert One--Directed by the great Barbara Kopple, this documentary chronicles the disastrous, abortive April 1980 attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Tehran, which ended in a fiery collision between two aircraft and the deaths of eight servicemen in the middle of the Iranian desert. The 52 hostages remained in captivity for almost a year longer, and the incident effectively ended Jimmy Carter's chances of reelection.

A two-time Oscar winner for the classics Harlan County, USA and American Dream, Kopple builds her account around talking heads, with their description illustrated by the vivid animations of Iranian artist Zartosht Soltani. The approach feels meticulous, almost forensic, and Kopple's point seems, at least partly, to debunk the long-held right wing narrative that the catastrophe was somehow due to Carter's feckless, dilatory indecision (similar wishful stories went around about Obama's handling of the Somali pirate takeover of the Maersk Alabama).

Kopple and her sad, heavy-hearted interview subjects make it clear that the culprits were just wind, sand, mechanical failure, pilot error and bad luck. Or, if you believe the Ayatollah Khomeini, it was an Act of God; Kopple shows us a festival that takes place annually near the crash site, celebrating the American defeat.

It's a masterly piece of cinema that courageously takes on a rarely-addressed theme: failure. There's no way to spin this mission as anything else. Sometimes, this movie reminds us, brave people make great efforts and take great risk in their country's service, and everything goes wrong, and that's it. There's no last-minute reversal in favor of the good guys, and the attempt is no less deserving of respect.

Available On Demand...

Watch List--If you aren't bummed out enough by Desert One, this stunning drama set in Manila should do the trick. After landing on the "Watch List" of former drug users, Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) loses her husband to one of the "Extrajudicial Killings" under Duterte's regime. Desperate to support her sweet kids in her now even more impoverished circumstances, she tries to negotiate with a police detective to be an informer, and soon finds herself pressed into service as a killer herself.

If this sounds like some hot La Femme Nikita-style action fantasy, forget it. Directed and co-written by Ben Rekhi and also known as Watch List (Maria), it's a tragic and disturbingly plausible-feeling dramatization of how a decent person could be dragged to these hellish depths, and of the toll it would take on their spirit.

Rehki's tightly economical direction has something of the efficiency and immediacy of a Warner Brothers cautionary gangster picture from the '30s. And like the best of the Warner gangster flicks, he also has a star that gives the movie a potent charge; Alessandra de Rossi is heartbreakingly good as Maria, bright and sensible and endearing, and shattered by the knowledge of what she's capable of.

Ravage--This horror picture is of the "rural people are evil" genre. Harper (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a nature photographer working alone in a remote part of Virginia. She witnesses, and records, a gruesome crime out in the woods. Soon she's in the clutches of a cadre of sicko hillbillies, led by an excellent actor named Richard Longstreet, who don't cotton to outsiders.

Written and directed by Teddy Grennan, this is unapologetic torture porn in the tradition of a '70s drive-in shocker. The showcase atrocity with which the film ends, however, is of much greater antiquity; a variation on it can be found in the Merry Jeste of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, a no less horrific (and misogynistic) 16th-Century ballad that was one of Shakespeare's sources for Taming of the Shrew.

Admittedly, Harper isn't an old-school victim; she has MacGyver-ish combat skills that force her attackers to respect her, often in the split second before they lose their lives. I can't claim I'm too pure to have enjoyed these moments. Also, Bruce Dern turns up long enough to contribute one creepy scene.

On the whole, though, I'm over movies where young women mewl and wail and scream for their lives. This movie's nods to female empowerment weren't enough to override this distaste.

Friday, August 14, 2020


On Apple TV+...

Boys State--Under the opening titles, we learn that alumni of the American Legion's longtime, nationwide youth civic program are as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Samuel Alito, Bill Clinton and Cory Booker. Watching this documentary by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, it's hard not to wonder if we're seeing a future big deal, or more than one, in this crop.

The movie's focus is on the 2018 program in Austin, Texas, where a thousand or so high school juniors, all boys, assembled to create their own political parties, develop platforms, nominate candidates and hold an election (there's a Girls State, too; which would also make a terrific movie). Seeing these guys in their matching shirts, marching through the streets of Austin waving standards, it's almost impossible not to think of a Fascist youth group. Yet the movie gradually reveals a more complex reality.

Certainly they're a rowdy, wound-up bunch, and at first they seem highly reactionary, bellowing anti-abortion and (especially) pro-gun sentiments to howling approval. "Our masculinity will not be infringed!" declares one kid. Another suggests a bill proposing that all Prius drivers be relocated to Oklahoma. (In 2016 the Texas Boys State Senate voted to secede from the Union.)

But as the movie brings the individual kids into closer focus, we see startlingly open-minded, honest, even vulnerable attitudes come out. We also see cynical political angling, and guilt over it: "Sometimes you can't win on what you believe in your heart," bemoans Robert MacDougall, who's privately pro-life but can't admit it.

MacDougall, who looks like the rotten rich kid who insults Molly Ringwald in a John Hughes movie but proves more thoughtful than we expect, is one of several of the boys who make a strong impression. Others include Ben Feinstein, a Ronald Reagan-adoring double-amputee, and Rene Otero, a flamboyant African-American kid who becomes party chairman.  Probably no one comes across as strongly, however, as Steven Garza, a sober working-class kid from Houston; the son of Mexican immigrants.

He seems an unlikely candidate for prominence at Boys State, not only because of his progressive views but because of his undramatic, soft-spoken personality. Yet his serious-minded and principled approach wins the respect of the boys, and ultimately his party's nomination.

And that's how this movie works; one minute delivering depression or even terror at the prospect of this generation taking over America, the next minute offering inspiration and hope. Just like this country.

Friday, August 7, 2020


Now streaming:

Lake Michigan Monster--Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie, I've often wondered why nobody has yet made the signature Great Lakes monster movie. So despite a twinge of regional jealousy, I take my hat off to the makers of this very low-budget, very silly spoof, resourcefully shot on cool locations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan.

Seafield, an ebullient nautical sort played by writer-director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, assembles a sort-of-crack team including a weapons specialist, a Navy veteran and a "sonar individual" to hunt down and destroy the title creature who, he insists, killed his father. Like Wes Anderson's Steve Zissou, Seafield isn't after research or scientific achievement or even profit; he's out for revenge.

Tightly scripted, crisply edited and shot in lovely faux-vintage black and white, the movie starts with facetious sketch-comedy material, amusing enough for a while but probably not sustainable at feature length. Just as you're thinking this may prove a long hour and eighteen minutes, however, the tone shifts, as we get to Seafield's underwater confrontation with the monster, and with his own mysterious past.

With eerie ruins and anglerfish and unsettling yet somehow endearing robed masked ghosts, the movie spins off in its homestretch into a free-associating surrealism that leavens the nuttiness with a weird visual beauty. It's like a combination of Lovecraft, Georges Melies, Cabin Boy and SpongeBob, and it's pretty memorable.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Now streaming:

Red Penguins--Back in 2014 filmmaker Gabe Polsky chronicled the Soviet Union's national hockey team during the Cold War years with the documentary Red Army. Now Polsky is back with this post-Cold-War take on Russian hockey as it abandoned itself to western-style capitalist decadence.

The new film tells how, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, a group of U.S.-based investors led by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, and including Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox, took a 50% financial interest in the broke, decrepit Soviet National team. They dispatched a young marketing whiz named Steven Warshaw to the team's crumbling Moscow stadium on a mission to, as the saying goes, get asses in the seats. He wasn't above using a wacky penguin mascot, strippers and circus bears to do it.

Polsky's film is brisk and jaunty in tone, but it contains some grim passages showing how rough the transitions between political and economic systems can be. It gradually settles into a contrast between the manic, bouncing-off-the-walls hustler Warshaw and the team's baleful coach, Viktor Tikhonov and GM Valery Gushin, both scary old-school Soviet apparatchiks who resented and mistrusted the vulgar (and effective) antics of this young American showman. Gushin and Warshaw are still around to tell their tales as talking heads (Tikhonov died in 2014). Both seem to have mellowed with age, but traces of the '90s-era craziness remain.