Monday, August 10, 2020

Two from Ann Hui: Zodiac Killers and The Story of Woo Viet

Did I go for Zodiac Killers on Saturday night because it was late and the movie at the end of the shelf was a tidy 99 minutes? Yes, absolutely. Was I more than happy to go back to that same shelf to get another Ann Hui movie the next day, especially if it starred Chow Yun-Fat? Oh, certainly.

The pair were odd experiences, though, in that my exposure to Ann Hui had been her acclaimed films from the 2010s - A Simple Life, The Golden Era, and Our Time Will Come - so I wasn't sure what to expect from these two. I kind of expected Zodiac Killers to be a more straightforward genre film and Woo Viet to be something of a low-key epic, and as a result spent a fair chunk of Zodiac wondering if I was giving it extra credit because I knew what she'd be capable of later. One does that; it's tough not to look at earlier movies without that perspective.

They've got a similar sort of interesting vibe, though, genre film back-ends attached to more exploratory first halves, but as much as each of them can feel like two things glued together, but when you look at them afterward, they're more entangled than they look. It's kind of the opposite of how this sort of genre hybrid often works these days - western filmmakers often seem more interested in creating a quick hook and then letting the audience wander once the viewer is committed - and given that genre film isn't held in the same sort of regard as the more interior drama these films have in the first act, it can feel like a kind of devolution.

And I don't know that it's an unfair way to look at it; for all that Hui doesn't abandon the more overtly complex indie-ness to get people shooting at each other, the endings, tragic and emotionally messy as they are, are still a little too definitive for the way the situations were set up.

Hui had 1.14 movies on the schedule for 2020 - a Mainland co-production and one of the segments in Septet - and I'm eager to be able to see both, somehow. They likely won't be this sort of thing - which certainly play as a female filmmaker with indie sensibilities carving her own place out of a film industry built to crank out violent action - but they'll absolutely be the result of movies like this. Then again, as the only woman directing a segment in Septet, surrounded by six men known for action, maybe she'll be back in this space for twenty minutes or so.

Ji dao zhui zong (Zodiac Killers)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Zodiac Killers seems to be a product of a very precise time and place, even more than is typical for a film industry that cranks movies out relentlessly. Read a synopsis and it looks like a pretty standard crime flick, making the person who comes in for that frustrated as it wanders, but give it a little space and it becomes more intriguing: In 1991, lots of Hong Kongers are going abroad or looking for foreign passports, just in case the handover quickly goes south. And though the tendency to noodle around the crime story didn't need the sudden resurgence in independent film going on across the Pacific to show up in Hong Kong cinema, it certainly makes the time more specific for foreign audiences.

Ben Lee (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) might be aware of what's going on at Sundance; he and classmate Chang Chih (Tuo Tsung-Hua) are studying film in Tokyo, although Ben doesn't show up to class much, working multiple jobs to pay for class and rent. Meng Tieh-Lan (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) is in a similar situation, and they meet when Ben's friend Ming (Sun Peng) splurges to bring all the Chinese hostesses at a club to his table. Ben gets infatuated quickly, but it turns out Tieh-Lan already has a boyfriend, Hideyuki Asano (Jun'ichi Ishida), a gangster whose current situation is, generously, a mess.

Asano is not the guy who is holding onto Tieh-Lan's passport; that's a different guy with a similarly sketchy mustache who is also dealing with yakuza issues, and the way the script by Raymond To and Ng Lim-Jan suddenly drops one and brings in the other can certainly throw a viewer for a moment or two as she goes from ready to just walk out of everything and maybe interested in Ben to head over heels without anything else intervening. It's an odd transition, and one that signals a transition from Hui et al mosty poking around at these characters and their situation to something that's more of a straight-ahead crime story. They do well at both, but there's a pretty notable bump in between, and getting Ben involved in a righteous mission muddies how shifting to the story involving Asano involves Ben being a ridiculously entitled dick.

Which, itself, isn't a bad thing at all - there's a story in there somewhere about him going from the cynically materialistic but not exactly hard-working guy with all the useless crap in his tiny apartment at the start to the man who will selflessly sacrifice everything for a woman who doesn't love him the same way. It's one that Hui and stars Andy Lau & Cherie Chung more or less have to impose upon the script, but they know how to work the emotion over the plot, from an opening flash-forward that lays the melodrama on thick to Lau and Chung not exactly hamming it up but never allowing a scene to be overly subtle. The plot's not much, but Hui is zeroed in on the feel of the time and the emotion of the story is in broad strokes, and she's a good enough filmmaker to make a fairly impressive movie out of it.

Woo Yuet dik goo si (The Story of Woo Viet)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

As with Zodiac Killers, which came out a decade later, The Story of Woo Viet has a weird split to it, like director Ann Hui spends the first half of the movie making the independent film that focuses on the themes and situations that she's most interested in, with the second half being the crime movie from which you can cut a genre-film trailer and sends the mainstream audience out satisfied. It's not a bad trick, although a little disappointing if one is interested in the place where the movie starts.

Woo Viet himself is a refugee from Vietnam, and while he's escaped to arrive in Thailand on the way to Hong Kong (from whence he intends to reach America), he's not out of danger; the boatload of refugees contains spies, and when he kills one, his contact in Hong Kong has to get him and a fellow escapee out on fake passports. That gets him to Manila, where he winds up part of a Chinatown gang.

That would later become a familiar place for star Chow Yun-Fat, and Chow is easily the best thing about this movie: He shows an easy charisma early on, easily connecting with Cora Miao Chien-Jen as the Hong Konger with the obvious crush, Lam Ying-Fat as a kid taken under his wing, and Chan To-Kit as the cynical old man who it turns out is properly paranoid, as well as Cherie Chung Cho-Hung as the girl he will travel with to Manila, enough so that when situations call for him to harden, it's a hard shift. He'll never be quite the same afterward, and the second half reflects this - there's a cynical not-quite-hollowness to Woo Viet, gangster that shows how the decency that originally attracted the audience has been abraded away.

It's not a shock, though - Hui and company have quickly built the sort of sort of environment where hope and fear can easily co-mingle, making Woo's own reaction feel logical. She and writer Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting are good at making everything before Manila quietly chaotic, like nobody is really sure what they should do because they're not by nature as ruthless as the people the refugees are trying to escape, and Woo Viet having to expose that part of him and not put it away is tragic without requiring a lot of self-reflection. The second half goes through gang-movie motions, kind of rote even if the action itself is solid, but it's got a little more heft to it. The audience has an understanding of Chow's brooding badass and Chung's damsel that they might not have in lesser movies.

It means The Story of Woo Viet isn't really two movies, even if it sometimes feels like it is - it just turns out to be a crime film with extra depth rather than a message drama that turns to crime.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 7 August 2020 - 13 August 2020

Keep writing to Save Your Cinema, since these places could all use some help, whether they're currently open, doing virtual screening rooms, neither, or somewhere in between.

  • The Brattle Theatre has their first significant turnover in the Virtual Screening Room in a few weeks, adding a pair of documentaries compact enough that you can do a double feature and not be up too late, even if you start at 9pm or so. Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine packs the Detroit-based publications rapid rise and fall into 75 minutes, while You Never Had It - An Evening with Bukowski is 53 minutes of Silvia Bizio's footage of a 1981 interview with Charles Bukowski, looks at how his Los Angeles neighborhood exists now, and readings of his poetry. You may even have time for Beats or Shanghai Triad afterward!
  • In addition to Creem and You Never Had It, The Coolidge Corner Theatre also picks up two more documentaries. A Thousand Cuts follows Filipino journalist Maria Ressa as she attempts to do her job despite the violent, authoritarian Duterte regime, while The Wild has filmmaker and fisherman returning to his home in Alaska where a copper mine threatens local fisheries. Those films are added to The Fight, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Marley, and John Lewis: Good Trouble.

    There are two guests this week, with filmmaker Amy Seimetz doing a livestreamed discussion of Barbara Loden's Wanda on Tuesday evening, while ScreenCrush editor Matt Singer has the Coolidge Education seminar on Thursday, talking about Groundhog Day. As usual, you have to watch the films on your own and then return to their site later.
  • The West Newton Cinema appears to have all of their screens open, including a bona fide new release in The Burnt Orange Heresy, which features Elizabeth Debicki, Claes Bang, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland in an art-heist thriller with a screenplay by Scott B. Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan way back when. That's on two screens (the better to spread people out), with the others showing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca,Motherless Brooklyn, The Goonies, The Wizard of Oz, and Happy Feet. Warner Brother seems to be offering pretty good rates to open the vaults. Buying tickets ahead of time is recommended with moviegoers required to wear a mask and keep distance between groups.

    The Lexington Venue is also open this weekend, also showing The Burnt Orange Heresy as well as Summerland, a WWII romance starring Gemma Arterton, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay, and Penelope Swinton. It's been getting some great reviews. They also have early-afternoon shows of My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising on both Saturday and Sunday.
  • The Somerville Theatre still has The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice in their virtual screening room; their friends at The Capitol are open for ice cream and snacks, with the "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their own virtual theater.
  • The Regent Theatre also shows Creem, as well as a live-streaming even with Dr. Rachel Geller on "Solving Common Cat Behavior Concerns" at 7:30pm Thursday. What Doesn't Kill Us, Reggae Boyz, and WBCN and the American Revolution may or may not still be available; the pages are still up but they're not listed on the events portion of the site.
  • If you've got a larger quarantine pod than me and my 1-person situation, The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton have all been offering relatively reasonable rentals for up to 20-ish people (though the Brattle looks like they've sold out their slots) while they ease into being prepared to open for the public. I envy those who can make it work, though!


I may just wind up in Lexington for a double feature at some point, but the calculation on it is tough - I want to see these movies, I want to support the small businesses showing them, but I don't know about actually sitting through them or all the public transit involved in getting there.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Star Wars Saga

Back in December, I kind of punted reviewing The Rise of Skywalker, figuring that I'd see it on the big screen twice like I had every other new Star Wars movie in the Disney era, but never got around to it. So I figured I'd wait until it was on disc, but by then it was a pandemic and Amazon was playing its now-familiar game with Disney pre-orders and pricing the 4K versions of the prior movies that came out at full retail. I eventually caved when they had a 3-for-1 sale that included the 4K discs, although I didn't quite update everything.

At that point, seeing them all lined up on a shelf made me want to do a re-watch and I decided to do it in the "flashback" order Drew McWeeny described on Ain't It Cool way back when they were new - start with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, then jump to the prequel trilogy in the wake of "I am your father", before seeing the fallout in Return of the Jedi. Now it makes sense to follow them up with the sequel trilogy, and while I was originally going to leave the "Star Wars Stories" out, I figured it would be fun to revisit them at the end, reaching back to Solo in the wake of how Han plays into the sequel trilogy, and finishing on Rogue One, so that we wind up coming full circle. If I had time, I might have tried to fit The Mandalorian in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, just to give a sense of a generation passing. Hopefully there will be good spots for the Obi-Wan (and rumored Lando) series in the future, although it's hard to imagine doing this sort of marathon again if there's not another pandemic. Every time I see people doing something like this - or even crazier, like rewatching a multi-season TV series - I wonder where they find the time, what with all the new material and reissues that are coming out all the time.

That said, it's something that's particularly interesting with this franchise because it gives you a couple chances to really see how things change both within an era and between them, even with the Special Edition coat atop the original versions. There has been so much talk of how Star Wars changed cinema over the past four decades that one can overlook that it is not so far from Silent Running (or THX-1138) as all that; it's just George Lucas squeezing as much out of the state of the art as he can and aiming at the mainstream rather than treating fantasy as a niche. You can see him pushing two generations' technology past their old limits in both the original and prequel series, too, inventing something new each time to get his ideas onto the screen. For the sequels, it often seems like there's not a lot of places new technology is needed, and it's just Disney/Lucasfilm pouring massive amounts of competence into the projects. There's something to be said for just being able to do stuff rather than having to innovate, especially for a mature franchise, but that means that there's only half as much chance to create awe and surprise in the new films, and only Rian Johnson has really managed it.

Apparently it will be a while before we can add more features to this sort of marathon (2023 at the earliest), although plenty of TV in the meantime. That's never not going to be weird for me, but truth be told, I wasn't expecting the rest - the relentless production of slick movies that don't have anything sticking out as bad should have kept it rolling a little more, even with the pandemic. I still wonder if pushing Solo to December 2018 would have kept the belt moving rather than the current situation where the movies seem up in the air.

I wish they were still doing "Star Wars every Christmas", though - just a couple days after finishing this, I found myself wanting to watch another Star Wars movie. I'm not going to dig around to find the more obscure stuff, but it suggests that I'll be up for more digs through various box sets and the like as the stay-at-home situation drags on, considering that I've usually got some trepidation about that.

Star Wars

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I wasn't quite old enough to see Star Wars in theaters when it first played - I would have been three and a half with no older siblings and I don't think it was really my parents' thing - so I'm just old enough that it didn't blow my mind as opposed to being a regular (if not every-week) part of what movies were. It also means that I never saw a lot of the science fiction that came before it, so it took me until now to really see how the look of it is not that far from other bits of 1970s sci-fi. There's a ton of kitbashing in the miniature work, cleverly repurposed items as props, a run-down aesthetic, plus tight quarters indoors and deserts outside. The 4K disc makes it more clear, with all that detail right in front of me, and finally getting to see the good sci-fi from the 1970s on the big screen rather than "so bad it's good" on DVD-at-best-quality video.

That aside, the movie works like few others do; Lucas and his team hit on a great combination of world-building, action, and character work that grounds the rest, and seldom falter despite it not really being done at scale that often before. It's fun in a way that works for kids and doesn't lose so much luster when seen through more mature eyes even if it doesn't quite reveal so many new depths as it maybe would like to. It's got the big themes if not the pointed ones that Lucas occasionally describes or which are more clear in the prequels.

One thing that strikes me more on this watch - and I don't know whether it's being older or the higher-resolution medium making the differences in age easier to see - but it's striking how much more clearly Luke and Leia scan as teenagers despite not being in the sort of situations that usually signify such than they did before. Maybe that's a side effect of having seen them as grown-up as a kid, or seeing young people more clearly getting thrown into terrible situations in the present and it seeming to fit more. It changes things up to see that clearly, and gives it an urgency and desperation that it didn't always have before.

What I said when I saw it with the Boston Pops last year

The Empire Strikes Back

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

If Star Wars surprises in how much it still kind of looks like a 1970s sci-fi movie underneath Lucas's polish (and a later coat of mid-1990s CGI), Empire is the movie that still feels like it belongs to that era and the ones that came before, with stop-motion (and go-motion) animation, and casual darkness that isn't just used as an exclamation point. In a lot of ways, Star Wars changed the game, but Empire shows that what came before still had some influence.

It's a great refinement of its predecessor, too: The writing team of Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan takes the broad strokes that George Lucas has always been good at and makes everyone a bit sharper without losing their original voice, with the actors taking great advantage, and then director Irvin Kershner and company tie it together exceptionally well. They're filling in the corners a little better without going too nuts, and this is almost certainly the most stylishly-shot film in the series until The Last Jedi. Its occasional darkness and hellish color schemes are probably a large part of why it was mostly left alone for the Special Editions - the digital effects guys weren't quite so good at matching a specific style then, as one can see from the CGI shots of Cloud City that don't quite feel as tactile as the obvious models. The 4K disc really brings the way Kershner and his crew didn't neglect a bit of this movie out.

It's a bummer that the Boston Pops screening of this film scheduled for the spring was cancelled, although I'm kind of glad that my first time seeing this since TLJ wasn't there - it rhymes with that so well that I'm glad I had some time to notice the way Johnson did similar things without seeming to imitate this movie when I might have wanted to concentrate on the score.

The Phantom Menace

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Rewatching this in "flashback order" after Empire does it no favors; you're both following one of the most stylishly tactile of the films with one of the most weightlessly rendered and one of the most mature with one consciously designed to appeal to the younger end of its audience with the idea of them maturing until they're ready for Episode III six years later, and it's a heck of a downshift. That's before you get to the ill-considered caricatures used for a number of characters (probably the most generous reading); I wondered a bit before hitting play how this might work if Disney Special Editioned the stereotypes down to quarter-strength, but there's a lot of it.

And, besides, it's not like what's around it is any less rough. There's some weak acting (Jake Lloyd was really not up for this), stretching to cover all the set-up Lucas wanted to do, and more effects work than even ILM working at cost can manage at the time, though it was more than anyone else had done. Nothing can take the thrill away from seeing new Star Wars for the first time in years come 1999, even if Lucas's plan to focus on the next generation rather than be more obviously dark and adult for the kids who loved this the first time around was a mixed bag.

And there is still quite a lot to like about it. Much of the cast is pretty nifty, from the expected folks like Liam Neeson, Frank Oz, and Sam Jackson to how Natalie Portman really grabs how Padme is a queen but also a teen prodigy and runs with it, catching how she's smart and mature but also curious and very much aware of how out of her depth she is at times. She's able to make the character hit just the right note that we can forgive her for being played even though it's got to be made kind of obvious to fit into the movie. And, yes, Ian McDiarmid is great at building his two halves of the movie so that they work separately but come seamlessly together. To what extent Lucas figured on doing this when casting him 16 years earlier, I have no idea, but it worked out (or maybe just having some version of the whole thing in your head at the start gives you more to work with later).

Attack of the Clones

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

It's a shame that so much of what is done with Anakin and Padmé clangs here, because the Obi-Wan side of the movie is really my thing, far more than I remember it being. It's just a really fun mystery/adventure which pushes up the level of intrigue nicely, with some of the most enjoyable pulp sci-fi imagery of the whole saga, the sort that highlights how George Lucas used the prequels to show new things even as many of the other movies played the hits.

That Anakin side is kind of a mess, half Lucas realizing that he's got a lot of work to do to get the blank slate from Episode I to where he must inevitably end up and sometimes seeming to zero in on how, aside from how he's being manipulated, Anakin is kind of a familiar sort of too-cocky guy, kind of a parallel with Han & Leia in "Empire", except that Padmé seems more genuinely uncomfortable (saying as much in so many words), but still falling for him. Which happens, although it's the sort of attraction that doesn't play so well twenty years later, and it also has the first of the saga's women just keeling over dead once they're not of any use to the story.

You can really start to see what Lucas is doing here, though, and the stuff he nails, he nails well: The sudden brutality and ruthlessness of the action in the final act shows a kind of horror at the militarism that can often just serve as background noise in this genre, which makes the callous, murderous ambition of Sidious hit all the harder. For all the film's faults - and I suspect that of the series, none show both George Lucas's strengths and weaknesses as well as this one - it gets the audience to feel Yoda's despair at the end, wanting what the Jedi are supposed to be but realizing that it ultimately breaks down.

Revenge of the Sith

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Man, this is almost great in so many ways. Lucas really should have found something for Natalie Portman to do throughout most of the movie or tweaked a few bits - imagine if Anakin's first force choke had caused an aneurysm rather than someone dying of a broken heart and how that would add to the operatic finale, for instance. There are a lot of little things like that, none that really crush the film, but which at the time made it pretty easy to look at how it wasn't quite like the Star Wars we remembered (even as bits try and force their way to it) and just dismiss the prequel trilogy.

Still, 15 years on, it's pretty clear George Lucas had his finger on something, enough that I wonder if, after the rough start with Episode I, seeing where the country went after 9/11 gave him a certain sort of focus. This is an angry movie, and a tragic one, and I don't know that I fully saw the anger behind the Star Wars mythology coming full circle back then. Watching it now, it's clear, but I can also see where J.J. Abrams saw an opening for where he wound up going with Rise of Skywalker, and I think it's telling that he chose the mythology rather than the metaphor.

I kind of wish that Disney had dug out the 3D conversions that were done for the prequels rather than issuing them on 4K discs - the early-aughts digital capture doesn't have the same sort of detail and richness that the film-originated films do, but the action scenes and world-building feel like they would really pop in 3D, almost like they were being made with an eye toward that.

What I said way back in 2005

Return of the Jedi

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I suspect that I like Return of the Jedi at least a little more now than I did before the prequels; they make the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker more explicit and less cobbled-together. It's an insert that makes this movie feel more like the culmination of a continuing story rather than something that shows how it was made up as it went along, what with the sudden "I've always known" and entire first act spent reversing the last film's cliffhanger. It's not the case that it took 20 years and a decade of retcons to feel complete, but it benefits from having those later bits inserted more than its predecessors.

It's still a satisfying film on its own and finale for those of us that didn't know there would be more on top of that. George Lucas and his collaborators have finished building the modern blockbuster here, where the previous entries were in large part polishing and evolving the previous era's style, but now you've got serial structure, effects that may not be seamless but don't look like something made separately. It's a fun adventure movie that smartly doesn't get too heavy as it wraps up a trilogy. Industrial Light and Magic builds some big action without ever going overboard, and John Williams rises to the occasion with a great score.

The Force Awakens

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

I hadn't necessarily planned to upgrade this one because buying three copies within five years is a lot even for a guy who likes physical media as much as I do, but for all that this probably has the 3D shot I like more than any other, it's a clear step down visually from the 4K discs of the rest. I guess I'm just going to have to resolve myself to buying multiple copies for as long as they're making 3D discs.

Picture quality aside, watching this for the first time in a couple years actually has it improving a bit for me, in that the back half which I often dismissed as copying the original trilogy too closely works better than I'd thought. There's never a hard shift, really, and while Poe's sudden, unexplained return kind of foreshadows the mess that J.J. Abrams would make a couple years later as he desperately tries to give everyone what they want, you can see what he's seeding for later a little better, and fitting together counts for a fair amount. Everything that works in this movie works all the way through. And some bits - like Hux and Kylo communicating with Snoke in what is clearly a ruined, empty legislative chamber of some kind - works even better, demonstrating just how desperately the people involved are trying to concentrate power.

One thing that really stands out watching this so soon after the original trilogy is that, much as I complained at the time that Abrams mostly copied the visuals rather than really adding anything new, he and his team did establish a somewhat different aesthetic: It's still generally X-Wings, TIE fighters, and a lot of designs from the original trilogy, but there's a brushed-metal look to them that speaks to a less explicitly kid-targeted set of movies. Nothing looks kit-bashed anymore, even the Star Destroyers; between how effects have improved over the past decade and the amount of money Disney is willing to throw at the films, they seem to be building things full-size and then able to use the CGI to capture the full detail. There's no compromise related to how much can be done with either models or CGI, something I didn't much notice when seeing The Force Awakens alongside other blockbusters from the mid-teens but which sticks out more when seen after Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi.

Full review from 2015

The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Revisiting this one a couple years later, it is still easily the best film of the series since the original, or maybe since The Empire Strikes Back, since one can see how much its outline owes to that movie watching them so close together, and even if I don't necessarily expect everyone to agree with this, I'm still shocked at the level of vitriol it received. Did folks really look at the end of The Force Awakens and think "Luke has been training a secret Jedi army or is otherwise eager to get back into the fight" was how this was going to go? Heck, watching it again, I'm even more ready to defend the Canto Bight sequence - it's not nearly as long as people say, and when you put it next to The Force Awakens, it's pretty crucial for getting Finn from being the guy who is reflexively bullshitting people about his motivations to being someone whose beliefs align with the Resistance.

The second time I saw it in 2017, I spent a lot more time talking about the new theater than the film in large part because I gushed so thoroughly the first time and didn't have a whole lot to say, and I find myself in the same situation here, even if it is right up there with the ones I love the most. I've got a couple of nits that I maybe didn't have before - for as much as Johnson recognized that most of the First Order characters don't have much to them and was ruthless in exploiting that, either by making Hux mostly comic relief and recognizing that Phasma needed to be tossed aside once Finn wasn't afraid of her, he really boxed whoever was going to follow him in, although that was made worse by Abrams and company making a lot of other dumb mistakes. But I found things I liked a bit more, too, like how Snoke's throne room is kind of a ridiculous bit of pretension and the big fight shreds that. Abrams will kind of run with that bit, at least, although more as mythology than something grounded.

What I thought back in 2017

The Rise of Skywalker

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I said back during this film's theatrical release that it was probably going to take me a second viewing to decide whether this movie is genuinely bad, with most of what I enjoyed being a Pavlovian reaction to John Williams's score, or just a decent movie that is nevertheless a massive letdown because it follows (and in some ways undermines) the series's best entry in 40 years. It says something that I'm willing to consider that second viewing - it's Star Wars, and even the messiest and most flawed movies in the franchise have had something to impress - but probably something else that I didn't get around to it while it was still in theaters and instead waited until the home video release was on sale for a reduced price. For a movie that should have been a triumphant finale along the lines of what Disney's Marvel office achieved with Avengers: Endgame earlier in the year, it winds up forgettable, and lucky to be so, because it's filled with decisions worth forgetting.

Since the events of The Last Jedi, a message from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been broadcast across the galaxy, despite his winding up pretty unequivocally dead at the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, both Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has seized control of the tyrannical First Order, and the Resistance fighters led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) scramble to follow a trail to Sith planet Exegol. Ren has a massive head start, while the team of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Tuotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 must follow a trail hinted at by a series of lost artifacts.

It's a structure that winds up chopping the film up into a number of distinct sections, at least for the heroes, and that's okay, but it also leads to each section feeling lightweight, especially once the moment in one that was supposed to elicit a bit of strong emotion is undone in the next. It's a structure that gets more obviously rickety as the film goes on and the whole premise becomes even more far-fetched even by the genre's own standards, but which makes things feel less exciting and impactful even as the stakes get higher and the ticking clock counts down. As has often been the case over the course of his career, co-writer/director J.J. Abrams often seems to know what a great movie moment looks like but isn't quite so adept at connecting that big moment to smaller ones on either side that support it.

He has, admittedly, been given a tremendously difficult task - not just crafting a film that can serve as a suitable finale to a trilogy, but to a trilogy of trilogies, but being asked to step in when another filmmaker was dismissed from the project, giving him a year less time than is typical for this type of movie, while also dealing with death of an actor who was going to have a major role and an extremely polarized reaction to the previous entry. Some of the compromises made are primarily awkward, like how every attempt to build something coherent out of what little unused footage of Carrie Fisher from previous movies does little but demonstrate that they probably would have been better off just saying she was busy on another front. Sometimes he and his co-writers bend over backwards to have the same situation lead to a different outcome as The Last Jedi; sometimes they don't even bother. These filmmakers get that "fail the first time, succeed the second" gets a cheer, but don't do much to earn it.

Instead, they undercut the broader themes Rian Johnson made a huge part of The Last Jedi that moved the franchise away from chosen ones and lineages, and for those who were impressed by Johnson's take on the series, it feels a bit like rolling back changes that made the franchise feel more modern. Instead, Abrams goes hard on legacy and something called a "Force Dyad" which, in terms of reducing the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of The Force to nuts and bolts, is right down there with "midichlorians". He even undermines his own good work from The Force Awakens, a movie built around an indoctrinated Stormtrooper listening to his conscience and the child of heroes choosing evil, by reducing both choices to supernatural influence. The prequels had their own issues, but Anakin's fall was his own.

If rough casting choices were what hurt the prequels the most, that's certainly not a problem with the sequel trilogy; the cast Abrams and company assembled for The Force Awakens is still strong and charming and completely committed to their parts even if the material isn't nearly as good. There are a number of new additions that are also pretty good, even if they are by and large redundant. The way they bounce off each other is generally fun to watch. By this movie, the audience is as comfortable with them as with John Williams's score, and nobody is slacking off or otherwise doing anything to sacrifice that trust.

Similarly, the film is slickly-produced enough to go down fairly easy. A ton of resources are thrown at Industrial Light & Magic, the various other effects houses, and I wouldn't be surprised if the producers hired the absolute best pre-visualization crews in the business. It's a terrific looking movie with a lot of creative and stylish action, and while the only intermittently has enough heft to it to truly delight, it's never short on spectacle. Even in an era when new blockbusters come out every week, Star Wars still manages to make an argument for being the gold standard.

Disney paid too much for Lucasfilm to let one bad movie sink the franchise for good, and over the past few years, they've shown great willingness to spend a bunch of money and hire enough good people to prevent the sort of unwatchable debacle that damages the investment. The Rise of Skywalker is a bad movie, but it's one a viewer can get through without it tainting the rest of the series, even as the conclusion.

Also at eFilmCritic

Solo: A Star Wars Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

After all the chaos that Solo went through over the course of production, leading to a movie that stumbled hard enough at the box office to make Disney pause the theatrical franchise so that they could spend a couple years figuring out just what to to with it after the end of the Skywalker saga, it's kind of funny that this is the movie that threw Disney for a loop, because of just how conventional it winds up being. It is, as I said at the time, probably the most fan-servicing movie of the franchise, but it's also the one that most feels like it could have been the result of taking a non-franchise script and putting a coat of paint on it.

That's no bad thing, though; if what the original directors were planning was (as has been speculated) a self-aware riff on unnecessary origin stories, that might have been a step too far for the franchise, the sort of thing I'm already leery of when I see jokey appearances by Darth Vader and Stormtroopers at sporting events. As with The Rise of Skywalker, Solo makes it pretty clear that Disney will throw not just enough ability to get the job done and move on at a foundering Star Wars product, but an arguable excess of competent craftsmanship.. It works here; Solo is a fun movie that looks pretty great on its 4K HDR disc; I'm curious how many people who had issues with less-than-great projection will find it in their own living rooms where they can turn the brightness up or where they've just got more raw resolution than 2K theatrical projectors. It's a good movie that's maybe not what it could have been had Lucasfilm either stuck with Lord & Miller or hired Ron Howard to play the Kasdans' script straight to start with, and might have done better if released in the fall with enough time for talk of it being a troubled production to die down, but it still works pretty darn well.

What I thought in 2018

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

I'm mildly surprised that I didn't write about this upon its release; it appears to have fallen through some pretty tight cracks between eFilmCritic, this blog, and Letterboxd. In this case, that may be for the best; I wasn't exactly down with it being so different in tone than other Star Wars yet, I would have given the way that some of the most striking moments from the previews didn't make the film a little more emphasis than was probably merited (review the movie you've got, not the one you wanted), and a couple other issues.

On second view, though, it turns out to be a really electrifying look at what Disney could be doing with the "Star Wars Story" movies, from the first sharp chord of Michael Giacchino's soundtrack to the ground-down amorality of everyone involved, which is a different sort of compromise than the smugglers and mercs we've seen before. It takes a turn toward being more intense when even the more intense movies in the Skywalker Saga would be fun, and it's impressive that director Gareth Edwards (and Tony Gilroy on the reshoots) never wavers on that different tone.

Part of what makes it so memorable is how this is the film which most pointedly brings the galaxy's civil wars home to its people; most of the time it's attacks on isolated bases, outer space, or at such scale that there never seem to be ordinary people around. This one reminds me of footage from relatively current middle-eastern conflicts, and not just because Jedha is a desert environment and that's where a lot of contemporary combat footage comes from - it's how Scarif in comparison looks like one of those absurd cities on the Arabian Peninsula like Dubai or Doha, gleaming metal towers that seem more like a statement than something sustainable.

I was surprised at just how badly the digital Peter Cushing has aged, though - I recall it being fairly convincing in 2016, on an Imax-sized larger screen, but looked awful plastic-y in my living room. It's a different sort of misfire now than it seemed to be then - where before I just wanted more room for Ben Mendelsohn to be the film's primary villain, now I'm more intrigued at how Mendelsohn' Krennic chafes at Tarkin taking over his project, and the friction is something robo-Tarkin can't contribute to. It's a more extreme version of how none of the cast are really as vibrant as they perhaps could be, with the exceptions tending to be momentary rather than any one sticking out.

There's also not nearly enough of Donnie Yen beating the crap out of Stormtroopers with a stick, and given that this was one of my main reasons to be excited for the movie, I probably wouldn't have been fair to it on that count either.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 31 July 2020 - 6 August 2020

Lots of places sending out links to Save Your Cinema right now, because things are starting to get tricky - because the state(s) can clear theaters to open, it's harder for them to tell their landlords, mortgage-holders, and the like that they can't bring money in, but both the restrictions they'ren under and people sensibly not wanting to go out, they're unlikely to make enough. So go to that site, let your Congresspeople know this is important, and hopefully there will be some assistance down the road as places try to figure out what comes next.

  • Meanwhile, The Coolidge Corner Theatre continues to rotate movies in and out of their virtual screening room, with this week welcoming three documentaries. The Fight is the first film to be granted wide access to the workings of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose workload has seemingly grown exponentially after the election of Donald Trump as president. In addition to regular rentals, distributor Magnolia Pictures is also presenting a live Q&A on Sunday evening with both the filmmakers and the subjects. They also open two "Cinema Jukebox" entries, with Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind and Marley profiling two very different musicians. They also continue the runs of Yes, God, Yes, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, six Sundance Film Festival Short Films, and John Lewis: Good Trouble.

    There's also a second weekend of Goethe-Institut selection Relativity, with the German film running through Sunday. The Coolidge Education seminar for this week has Emerson professor Yu-Jin Chang discussing Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite on Thursday evening (rent/watch the film and sign up for both the introduction and Zoom discussion).
  • The Brattle Theatre has recently been sharing pictures of the upgrades they're working on to be able to open safely, which will be tricky - the box office/concession area doesn't exactly have room for people to stand six feet apart. In the meantime, they're having a pop-up concession sale this weekend - order ahead at this page and they'll have popcorn, snacks, soda, beer, etc., ready for you during a specific half-hour window between 3pm and 6:30pm on Saturday. This should hopefully pair well with a Virtual Screening Room such as Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, and The Killing Floor, with 36Cinema's latest film-with-commentary, The Man From Hong Kong playing Saturday night.
  • Wicked Queer, the Boston LGBT film festival, has been going on for a week and continues through Sunday evening, and it looks like they've pivoted from having films playing specific days to most being available for the rest of the festival period.
  • The Somerville Theatre also brings The Fight to their virtual screening room, which also offers Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice. Their friends at The Capitol, in addition to having the ice cream shop open for snacks, have the "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their virtual theater.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open with $5 matinees that (if I'm reading this right) include popcorn and a soda. No new releases, but 2001: A Space Odyssey joins Casablanca,Motherless Brooklyn, Dolphin Tale, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz; buying tickets ahead of time is recommended with moviegoers required to wear a mask and keep distance between groups.

    The Lexington Venue remains closed with the website indicating a planned August 7th re-opening.
  • The Regent Theatre brings What Doesn't Kill Us back to their virtual offerings, along with Reggae Boyz and WBCN and the American Revolution. This week's Kalliope Reed Quintet concert streams on Friday night, with Bearly Dead streaming from their stage on Wednesday.
  • New York's Japan Cuts continues to stream through the 30th, while the Korean Cultural Center's Korean Movie Night continue through the 26th.


This week's plan is mostly to not let the discs from the annual Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection sale sit on my shelf for too long and maybe get a head start on the screener streams from Fantasia, although my plan is mostly to try and follow the schedule being released Thursday when I can.

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (aka Relativity)

I've been doing a ton of crosswords over the past couple months or so and yet I did not notice the wordplay going on and I feel a bit ashamed even if it was in German.

I probably should have connected viewing this to Amulet a little more explicitly; give or take 20 hours, they were seen back-to-back and are both women making their feature debuts with stories that use multiple timelines. What's kind of interesting is how they take the opposite approach; Romola Garai is so intent on making a thriller that she holds back to the point where it's hard to be interested in the situation while she's revealing it, while Minoguchi is happily willing to let the audience see the shape of the whole thing right away, even if it means there's not that much suspense even when people are pointing guns at each other. It's not often that such pairings present themselves in quite that sort of contrast.

LIke a lot of the Geothe-Institut films that have played The Coolidge's virtual screening room since the shutdown started, this was originally booked for three days but did well enough to come back for a second weekend, and while my initial thoughts on Sunday were a kind of weak recommendation, it's grown on me over the week, and worth checking out (and incidentally kicking some cash the theater's way) over the next couple of days.

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (Relativity)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

One of the first scenes in Relativity has doctoral candidate Aron (Julius Feldmeier) defending his thesis on how time's arrow is bidirectional, the future and the past part of larger patterns that can be extrapolated in either direction, which is somewhat fatalistic if you take it as meaning that the universe is a mechanism that has no room for free will. In a way, it serves more as instructions for watching the movie - though I'm not sure whether it means to treat Relativity as a puzzle to be solved or to not do that. It may just mean to look at the events as a sort of four-dimensional pattern, with only certain facets visible at once.

Aron is part of an exceptionally cute couple - his girlfriend Nora (Saskia Rosendahl) is not just similarly attractive but their areas of confidence and senses of humor line up nicely. His parents are warm and like her a lot; her mother is somewhat more prickly, not able to understand how Nora gave up the ice-skating she had spent so much effort on and now works in a supermarket. A mix-up with Aron's debit card has them in a bank just as it's being robbed, and when they try to call the police, chances of a long and happy life together go out the window. Elsewhere in the city, security guard Natan (Edin Hasanovic) has just received the news that his daughter Ava has an aggressive form of leukemia, the sort that requires an experimental treatment only available with private insurance, only to lose his job over a trivial matter soon after.

Attentive viewers will see how everything snaps together fairly quickly, and arguably too easily: Despite what I just said above about the film should probably not be approached as a puzzle box, writer/director Mariko Minoguchi isn't exactly laying everything out early and she's still structuring the movie around the audience realizing that this flashback involving Nora hooks into that bit with Natan. She pointedly has Aron advance the idea that déja vu is remembering the future early on but it's not something that anybody seems to personally experience. Having spent time moving up and down the chronology at will, bringing the movie to a climax is somewhat awkward, and she ends on a note that can sit wrong, that this is all just fate and intent is never as important as happenstance.

If that is the case, at least Minoguchi does interesting things illustrating it, especially early on, suggesting Irreversible as she starts to work backwards but makes sure that she doesn't limit herself to that early on, while consciously making sure that some bits of how the timelines connect remain a bit murky. It doesn't matter what Natan is doing during Nora's scenes and vice versa; their stories being intertwined is a much looser thing. She also uses that flexibility to show how one can get lost in time when grieving, deliberately stringing scenes together so that a jump backward could initially look like the next thing going forward, even as Nora hears Aron's voice. Looping back around seldom reveals new information - what the audience saw before was true, not just a limited perspective - but instead serves as a reminder, making it easier to piece things together without having to jump back.

Minoguchi is also impressive in how she builds out her characters' worlds without overwhelming or distracting the audience but also making it clear that, even if these moments are going to be turning points in their lives, there are large chunks of their experience which are not directly connected. Nora, Aron, and Natan are all carrying significant baggage, but loose ends are plenty acceptable here, and even the spots where Minoguchi opts to tie things up closely are more interesting coincidences than portentous, right down to using the film's original German title as its final line.

The cast is strong as well, with perhaps the most impressive thing being how well Saskia Rosendahl and Julius Feldmeier establish their pairing as more than just the adorable young lovers seen in the first couple of scenes - Minoguchi gives them the chance to show how they shore each other up and challenge each other, and it's an intriguing contrast for when Rosendahl has to play scenes along or against Edin Hasanovic's Natan; she's got the room to not entirely be one half of a whole. Hasanovic finds a good line to walk as Natan, making him the same guy in both his best and worst moments, not just someone whom circumstances pushed into being someone else.

They're good enough to make Relativity better than it seemed when I first realized that it wasn't going to do that much new with its story and conventionally-unconventional narrative tricks (much more so than the previous night's movie which did some of the same things but not as well). There's a fair amount of pleasure to be found in seeing Minoguchi and Rosendahl get most of the details right, especially once one decides to treat the film as one would a painting, turning your gaze to this part and that and enjoying those pieces even though you can easily step back and see the whole thing, rather than a puzzle where each part only makes sense when you slide the other bits into position.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Amulet

You know, I don't think I've seen I Capture the Castle since it first came out, and I can't say that I've seen or been enthused about much else that Romola Garai has done as an actress since (a lot of which just really hasn't grabbed a lot of theatrical or basic-cable real-estate on this side of the Atlantic), but I see that she's written and directed her first feature and my eyebrows go up.

I did not much care for it, unfortunately, and tapped out after about thirty seconds of the post-film discussion included when you rent it via the Somerville Theatre's virtual cinema (it was also late after my second movie of the night). But, like I mention, there's enough done well here that I'm interested to see what Garai does, especially if her next project is in a different genre and she doesn't feel quite so much need to save things for later. The hold-back and reveal is a tricky thing, and not everybody gets it on the first try.

Amulet

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre virtual screening room, Eventive via Roku)

It's always worth asking what particular thought is the one which drove the creation of a movie. Is it a metaphor, a twist on familiar tropes, a particular image, or scene, or potential performance? Or are people just making movies because it's their job and this keeps them employed? Amulet never fully seems to be that, but seldom offers much more than just people doing their jobs in capable but not exactly inspiring fashion.

It centers on Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a veteran of a Central-European conflict currently living rough and doing day labor in England. An injury has him in hospital where he's visited by Sister Clare (Imelda Staunton). She introduces him to Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman living alone but for her sick mother and a bit overwhelmed caring for her. He needs a place to stay, she has an extra room and could use some help with the large and ramshackle old house, so it's a good match. Except, of course, that most people caring for an ailing parent don't have them locked in the attic.

There's some potentially interesting things to dig into here - Magda, as a dutiful daughter who is sacrificing any semblance of a life of her own to take up the burden of her mother's care; Tomaz, who is haunted by events during his service that have some parallels with his current situation - but writer/director Romola Garai often keeps the material that could resonate at arm's length. She's making a thriller and has no problem pointing out that something strange is going on, but by keeping things mysterious, she's often not giving the audience enough interesting nuggets to be drawn in and feel like there's something resonant just out of reach, rather than just details the audience is not being told. It feels like she's biding time and when it finally comes time to pull back the curtain, what's behind doesn't mean a whole lot. There are secrets and lies but they are arbitrary, not close enough to the situation Tomaz thinks he's in to make it clever.

It's striking to look at, although that imagery has some of the same issues as the script: There's ambition behind it and it pops out as mysterious and not-quite right, but it winds up more recognizable as scary than actually frightening. Garai and her team (notably cinematographer Laura Bellingham and editor Alastair Reid) spend a lot of time in the early going making a feature that feels like a short film, with shots held in ominous quiet for a moment two longer than they might be, sacrificing some sharpness and letting the color fade a bit to signal an oppressive atmosphere and a working-class simplicity that should help the audience get in their corner. The more overt material is well-executed too, with some quality grotesquerie and a trippy sequence or two.

The cast, at least, is doing good work. Alec Secareanu finds ways to make the broken, nervous Tomaz appealing and form a strong connection between how the man appears as both a young soldier and the veteran who has seen more. He doesn't have a lot of lines but manages to be just twitchy enough to make it work without screaming "acting!" Carla Juri is good as well, finding the right mix of guilt and resistance to keep her alone in this house. Imelda Satunton's Sister Claire is obviously there to be more than just get Tomaz into Magda's house, but doesn't insist on being more early on and clearly has fun when she gets the chance.

They're good enough and there's enough going on that I'm sure that this movie will click with some people, or the icky stuff will catch them just right. It didn't for me, and the determination to keep things mysterious had me bored enough that things getting weird toward the end wasn't enough to bet me back into it. There's enough pieces of a good movie here that Amulet is hard to actively dislike, but it would be a lot better if Garai didn't hold so much back for so long rather than just banking on how it looks like a smart horror movie.

Also available on eFilmCritic

Friday, July 24, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 24 July 2020 - 30 July 2020

Anybody else out there plotting out how to go to a movie in the next few weeks without compromising principles too much? I'm doing some heavy rationalization involving how not a whole lot of people are as into the movie I'm targeting, that I like sitting much closer to the screen than everyone else, and that I will absolutely suck M&M Minis through a straw rather than take my mask off. It's probably not smart, and I'll probably reconsider when the time comes, sticking to what I can see at home for a little while more.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has a fairly hefty amount of turnover on that count, having ended several runs but opening a few more. Yes, God, Yes stars Natalia Dyer as a teenager coming of age with a whole bunch of Catholic guilt about the process, and the theater will livestream a Q&A with writer/director Karen Maine about it on Tuesday evening. They also open Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, the latest documentary about an iconic fashion photographer to hit screens. They also get a collection of six Sundance Film Festival Short Films, with the mix of narrative/documentary/domestic/international pieces running 80 minutes total. Also sticking around are Runner, the Alex Cox Double Feature of Highway Patrolman & Straight to Hell, John Lewis: Good Trouble, and Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things.

    They also partner with Goethe-Institut to host Relativity, where love at first sight is cut short only to have a strange sequel, from Friday to Sunday. The week's Coolidge Education seminar spotlights Clueless, with Simmons professor Audrey Golden offering both introduction and Thursday night discussion for those who register.
  • The Somerville Theatre adds horror movie Amulet (including a post-film discussion with writer/director Romola Garai) to its virtual cinema, joining John Lewis: Good Trouble, Shirley, Alice, Pahokee, and the Quarantine Cat Film Fest. Sister cinema The Capitol stands pat with shorts package "One Small Step", the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their the virtual cinema and ice cream shop/concession stand open.
  • The Brattle Theatre and Massachusetts Historical Society are ingfinish their "Boston on Film" virtual series with a bonus third "half" that focuses on independent and genre films including Next Stop Wonderland, Funny Ha Ha, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Children of Invention, Session 9, and The House by the Cemetery, with a final double feature being announced Saturday morning. The Virtual Screening Room stays its course with Beats, Shanghai Triad, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, In My Blood It Runs, and The Killing Floor.
  • The Brattle would normally be one of the main venues for Wicked Queer, the Boston LGBT film festival, which has instead pivoted to an online model for 2020. Note that films are only available to stream within a 24-hour period, with the cutoff for purchase three hours before the end.
  • The West Newton Cinema is also open again this weekend, and likely into the week even if showtimes are not yet listed. They add Casablanca and Motherless Brooklyn to a slate featuring John Lewis: Good Trouble, Dolphin Tale, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz, with the latter three (at least) offering $5 tickets as part of a family fun day on Saturday, with curbside popcorn pickup if you order by 10am. Their GoFundMe campaign also continues.

    The Lexington Venue does not seem to be open this weekend based on their website, with the next scheduled opening August 7th.
  • The Regent Theatre still has Reggae Boyz and WBCN and the American Revolution for virtual movie offerings, the Kalliope Reed Quintet concert streaming Sunday night, and a GoFundMe campaign.
  • New York's Japan Cuts continues to stream through the 30th, while the Korean Cultural Center's Korean Movie Night continue through the 26th.


There's baseball to watch and the "Boswords" crossword puzzle tournament, but I'll likely try and catch Relativity, Amulet, and maybe some of Japan Cuts around that and the shelves full of Blu-rays that dominate my living room.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Looks like this is one week and out in the Coolidge's virtual room, so if you're reading this on 22/23 July 2020, watch it now, if you feel like it might be your thing. Like I say in the review, I don't know how much new material I actually learned from it - I didn't know much about Denise Ho, but I'd known some of the basics of the Hong Kong protests - but it does a nice job of sorting it out and putting it in place, which is valuable.

One thing I found kind of amusing is that the film more or less skips over the fact that, like her mentor and idol Anita Mui, Denise Ho has been an actor as well as a pop star, something not exactly unusual in Hong Kong, and after following some links through her IMDB entry and my own reviews, I saw that I'd liked her in Life Without Principle. I suspect that, like the rest of her entertainment career, she wound up shut out from even Hong Kong productions via companies' self-censorship. I absolutely see why you don't include that part of her career in an 85-minute movie, but I was amused, because I was just having an online conversation about how the line between "pop star" and "movie star" is much more porous in Asia than it is in the English-speaking world.

I probably give this a bit of extra credit because not only do I love Hong Kong and regret how, if I ever get to go back, it won't be the same, but apparently she spent her teen years in Montreal, where I should be right now. This is just a frustrating part of the 21st Century all around.

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Kino Marquee via Roku)

Those looking for an easy entry into just what's going on in Hong Kong right now could do a lot worse than starting with Denise Ho: Becoming the Song, in large part because filmmaker Sue Williams presents it as something inextricably intertwined with her subject, not just necessary background or something on which an ignorant audience must be educated.

Williams starts with news stories about Denise Ho Wan-Si (also known as "HOCC" to her fans) being banned in mainland China due to her support of the "umbrella movement" and the later protests against a broad extradition law in Hong Kong before both showing how she arrived in that position and how she works as both an activist and entertainer. It is, in large part, told from Ho's point of view - not only is she an active participant in the film, giving Williams a great deal of access, but very few of the other people interviewed talk much about her life, with even her brother mostly talking about their musical collaborations. Most of the other people interviewed discuss the greater forces around her.

It is a story that spans the globe while also being grounded in this area that is but a dot on a world map, and in that way makes her representative of Hong Kong itself. Williams uses that to push back into the 1980s, when Anita Mui Yim-Fong was becoming the region's biggest star by fusing Western-style pop and Cantonese lyrics into "canto-pop" right around the same time that Great Britain and China were codifying their plans to return Hong Kong. Ho's parents, teachers, were among the many that obtained foreign passports and emigrated (to Montreal), though she would return in search of a music career and mentorship from Mui. As her "disciple", Ho would spend a great deal of time after in Mui's early death following in her footsteps before carving out a persona more explicitly her own and building a Mandarin-language career in the mainland until her outspokenness destroyed that and self-censorship by Hong Kong and international businesses did the rest. It's a fine line between presenting Ho's experience as a typical parallel for what's going on in Hong Kong as a whole while still acknowledging that she's a rock star and her version of it is larger than life.

That said, a large part of what makes the film enjoyable is how pleasant a personality Ho is on-screen. Both her work protesting and managing a music career - whether in terms of creating or managing the nuts and bolts of a tour without a record-label support system - display a humility that doesn't seem performative or unnatural. She never pretends to be confused about why someone would make a movie about her and has clearly put some thought into everything she says and does, without seeming calculated. It's often a fine line to walk between being artistic and pragmatic, and it makes the film go down easy. Most of the other people interviewed, from fellow entertainer Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming to former government officials and academics, have a similar sense, very affable and passionate but firm rather than fiery.

Williams puts it together well, tending to show something for long enough for the audience to get the idea and then clarifying and filling in details rather than building up to a revelation or explaining something that was vague enough to leave the audience confused, making the information dumps entertaining but serious, accommodating those who are just learning about all of this while acknowledging that most watching probably have some sort of existing interest in the subject. She chooses good performance footage to get the emotion across to viewers who only speak English. What the subtitling crew does can seem a little cutesy - text made to look handwritten that appears in different areas of the screen - but it's readable and keeps one's eyes from settling at the bottom of the screen.

I don't expect Becoming the Song will be the sort of documentary that has a huge impact on many viewers; it's the sort of thing where one has to have some sort of prior interest to find it in the first place and it's built more to fill in gaps rather than shift perspectives. It's well put-together and goes down easy, with just enough meat to it that most watching it will come away knowing a little bit more, a bit better able to research further and understand what's going on as the situation keeps evolving.

Full review on EFilmCritic