Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Call of the Wild '20

Boy, did this particular movie get caught up in the who deal of Disney acquiring Twentieth Century Fox - it seemed like it got shuffled around the schedule, then a bunch of trailers popped up, the online ads seemed to imply it was being brought under the Disney label, and then when it finally shows up, the title card says "Twentieth Century Pictures". It's fun trivia that a 1935 version of The Call of the Wild was apparently the last film from the original Twentieth Century Pictures before it merged with Fox, but now it just seems strange, a familiar logo that says the wrong thing referencing a period of time twenty years in the past.

Weird, but still not as strange as those CGI dogs, which make me feel like studios don't know how to make this movie anymore. There's a tactility to this sort of adventure that obvious effects have a hard time meshing with, and trying to make the animals too expressive seems to run counter to the way that part of the reason we show kids these stories is to teach that the wild is not like human society

The Call of the Wild '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

It's a good thing that the preview for the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild played before seemingly every movie to hit theaters in the last couple of months, if only to give potential viewers a head start on wrestling with the conflicting reactions the film seems designed to create: It's a handsome, family-oriented adventure film that feels almost like a throwback except for one modern element - the animal characters being realized with digital animation - that can't help but stick out like a sore thumb. So much of the film works, but there's a big piece smack in the middle that one's brain rejects.

That would be Buck, a big mixed-breed dog that, when he's introduced in San Francisco, is the spoiled pet of an influential judge (Bradley Whitford) and his wife (Jean Louisa Kelly). A night banished to the porch for misbehavior makes him easy prey for those looking to cash in on the need for sled dogs in Alaska. There he is purchased by Perrault (Omary Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee), a couple delivering mail between Skagway and Dawson, though Buck's soft-hearted nature puts him in conflict with Spitz, the husky that leads the sled team. Nothing lasts forever, though, and eventually Buck will have other masters - Hal (Dan Stevens), who has invested enough in his quest for gold to become desperate, and John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man looking to be alone on the edge of the world.

They're a central element in most of the film, but I can't say I ever managed to completely accept the digital dogs, though I am not one to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to digital effects. It's not that the effects work is badly done at all - for completely-digital versions of creatures people see regularly, the dogs and other animals in this movie look pretty good when they are in action doing dog-like things. And that's good - for many sequences in this movie, shooting it with actual dogs would involve them being put in danger or otherwise abused, so good effects work is crucial. It's the too-human expressions on Buck's face and bits of exaggerated body language courtesy of motion-capture performer Terry Notary that cause trouble; for all that a viewer can now "read" Buck better, it comes with a nagging thought in the back of one's head that dogs don't do that. On top of that, Buck being animated probably undercuts what the story is Doing: If, as in Jack London's original novel, the story is about Buck's animal nature asserting itself - and the narration underlines that as a theme - it's counterproductive for Buck to communicate like a human. He needs to be a dog, whether pet, working animal, or something near-feral, and at no point does he come across as one.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

These Weeks in Tickets: 3 February 2020 - 16 February 2020

The Oscars now landing smack in the middle of the Sci-Fi Film Festival can make for some crazy time, especially when there's other stuff too.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

With the Oscars just days away, I barely had time to catch the Nominated Live-Action Shorts before the ceremony, and it was a pretty darn entertaining selection compared to the previous year's resolutely grim group. A couple days later, with a busy weekend coming up, I figured it would be a good idea to check out Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which didn't quite feel like my thing at the time, but I was starting to feel a bit under the weather after what had just felt like a "you shouldn't eat the whole pizza" bellyache, so who knows?

Anyway, after that it was time for the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, which I basically decided to attack on a film-by-film basis this year, rather than buying a pass and trying to hit everything. Although, surprise, the first weekend was full of good stuff - Eva Green in Proxima on opening night; the not-great Dustwalker, the new Moorhead/Benson film Synchronic, and Sea Fever on Saturday; and then Mattie Do with her new film The Long Walk first thing Sunday.

There was more at the festival that day, but I wanted to catch Downhill as part of the Hitchcock Silents series, and… Hmm, kind of problematic, although the HFA people would talk about how it's not so much Hitchcock being misogynistic, as much as a kind of messed up play star Ivor Novello wrote. That let me out just in time to get home, order a pizza, and watch the ceremony. It was fun to watch Parasite do well! I don't think anybody saw that coming, even those of us who really like Bong Joon-Ho and Korean films in general.

After that, man, my stomach just rebelled in a way I couldn't remember since whatever made me miserable after the flight home from Hong Kong last year, like my stomach was going to burst. I wound up going into CVS to buy some Pepto-Bismol but looked at how it is meant to treat nausea and diarrhea and thought, wait a minute, those things feel like they would relieve some pressure - would this make things worse? So I didn't take it and was better a day or two later. Weird.

I got out of work late-ish on Friday, so only got to the late show, Dead Dicks, which I'd missed at Fantasia, but liked well enough here. Saturday at the festival had a few that looked interesting and wound up different kinds of good enough in Volition, I Am REN, and Blood Quantum.

The next day would have been the Sci-Fi Marathon in previous years, but I opted out this year, instead opting to head to Causeway Street, which seemed to be the last place Uncut Gems was playing at non-ridiculous times. It didn't really do all that much for me, which is a shame, because I'd really liked Good Time and other movies where Adam Sandler actually made an effort. There was a framing thing meant to lead into a Q&A, but it's a long movie and I just wasn't in the mood for more Safdies & Sandler at the moment, so I hopped the Green Line to hit Donnie Yen in Enter the Fat Dragon, and I'm not gonna lie, I probably had more fun with that, even taking into account that Gems isn't really about "fun".

That brings us up to a week ago, with a couple things on my Letterboxd page since.

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2020 in the ArcLight Boston #15 (first-run, DCP Wide Screen/Dolby Atmos)

Harley Quinn is a part of the DC universe that I've always liked more for the creative teams she got more than the character herself, and the current takes on her are kind of a lot more frantic than my favorites. The movie is like that too, a lot more mean-spirited and murderous than the animated series that spawned her, or the upbeat team comic that supplies this film's title and supporting cast.

That's not exactly bad, it just makes this movie much less my thing than it is others'. There's an awful lot to like about it, especially the dueling lunacy from Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor; they turbocharge any scene they're in with Robbie able to actually make something of this impulsive, mentally unstable lady, even if the moments where the script remembers that she was a talented psychotherapist feel right on the border of being the wrong kind of forced. Robbie doesn't quite suck all of the air out of the room herself, but making the movie from Harley's point of view means the rest of the talented cast is going to have to wait for the sequel to really shine.

On the other hand, the action is poppy and fun, especially compared to the other recent DC movies that have been digital overloads even when not dour. The getting there is an issue - a pretty great sequence of Harley busting someone out of a police station starts too aburptly, to the point where it takes a couple minutes to appreciate the colorful mayhem being served up. It's second-tier superheroes done well enough that you don't need a lot going in, more than enough to work for a couple hours.

Downhill '27

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm accompanied by Bertrand & Susan Laurence)

In this film, Ivor Novello is sent further and further down the social ladder by a series of deceptive, scheming women but is eventually returned home by a group of people of color - though he doesn't actually stick around long enough to thank them - and is able to reclaim the only thing this upper-class wastrel can conceive of as important: the right to represent his school in the oldboys' rugby game.

I kid, a bit, but Roddy Berwick's journey is the sort that a certain sort of man imagines himself as being subject to, punished for being honorable or at worst flirtatious, and you kind of wonder what Novello and co-writer Constance Collier were thinking when they wrote it (heck, what does this thing look like without a woman working on it?). Novello slips into the role easily and brings plenty of charm to bear, and that's a big part of the film's charm: He starts the film with charming ne'er-do-well energy and brings a lot of charm to a part that could be nobly self-flagellating, but that's more or less saved for the last possible moment. There's some classist garbage in a lot of the early films Hitchcock made, and he never quite escaped that worldview, but this is one that looks especially ugly in retrospect, in quite a different way from how it was originally conceived of as being dark.

On the bright side, the accompaniment by the Laurences was a real highlight, bouncy and exciting to start with and able to make the roller coaster work.

Uncut Gems

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2020 in ArcLight Boston #5 (first-run, DCP)

Uncut Gems contains a genuinely great performance by Adam Sandler in the middle of a movie that brought me irritation far more often than the promised tension. It's a strange thing, perhaps bred in part due to expectations generated externally after a few months of both pre- and post-release coverage, but watching this movie, I could see all the things that seem like they should be raising my blood pressure and how the Safdie brothers are setting it all up, but it just didn't click the way it did in Good Time. Maybe it would help if there were some visible amount of good intentions to Sandler's Howard Ratner or something other than selfishness and self-destruction, but he's just a guy one wants to get away from.

Which is good work on Sandler's part - he inhabits this guy completely, using little bits of his screen persona to grab the viewer a little more quickly without ever seeming to coast or force him into a different mold. It's not easy to create a character that does frighteningly stupid and dangerous things and make him feel genuine, and I absolutely believed in him even as he kept digging his hole. There's not a member of the cast around him that ever feels off, whether it be non-actors in heightened versions of their own personae or solid supporting types getting the reactions to Howard just right so that one can see how he's stayed afloat and maybe had some success.

It's just a lot, and maybe I'm just fortunate in not having been close enough to this particular sort of dysfunction for the film to resonate with me. I spent a lot more time wanting the film to end than caught up in it, and when the pre-recorded post-film Q&A was about to start, I bolted for something else rather than stick around for more of this.

Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Boston Sci-Fi: Proxima
Boston Sci-Fi: The Dustwalker, Synchronic, Sea Fever
Boston Sci-Fi: The Long Walk

Boston Sci-Fi: Dead Dicks
Boston Sci-Fi: Volition
Boston Sci-Fi: I Am REN
Boston Sci-Fi: Blood Quantum
Uncut Gems
Enter the Fat Dragon '20

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.09: Volition, I Am REN, and Blood Quantum

There were some things I might have wanted to see earlier in the day, but I wasn't really feeling like going out yet, since as was the case the night before, my stomach was in bad shape. I actually would wind up conking out a bit during Volition, enough to not give it a full review, although as I wrote something up on Letterboxd, I did start to wonder to what extent films like this - things with a sci-fi twist to the plotting but no truly original ideas or standout moments - have become filler at festivals like this. It's at least capable enough, which is an improvement over what similar films in previous editions of the festival have offered, but not quite enough to convince me to get a pass and try to see everything again.

I don't think any of the filmmakers who showed up for Q&As when I made it to the festival were local guys, and Piotr Ryczko is no exception, coming here from Poland with his pretty-decent android-in-a-mental-hospital picture, I Am REN. I wish that I liked it a bit more, because it was clearly a very personal film for him - as with Dead Dicks the night before, it was inspired by real-life mental illness in his family - but it wound up being a case of a movie where I think clarity might have served better than ambiguity.

I'm kind of surprised to see that his original novel is available on Amazon in English, and that the cover comes straight from the film despite having apparently been published before it was shot.

The last film of the day was Blood Quantum, which already had a Shudder logo in front of it, and more people stayed than I expected, considering most would be attending the 24-hour marathon scheduled to start at noon on Sunday, and I'd think you'd want all the sleep you can get! Not necessarily the case, and some were apparently up for a festival party afterward.

Me, I walked home, hit the bed, and felt an odd calm in not getting up early and settling in at the Somerville Theatre for the marathon. It's the first time I've skipped it since it took place at the Coolidge something like fifteen years ago, but it kind of lost its charm two years ago when folks started making lame running jokes during a 35mm screening of Close Encounters, and though I came back last year for the promise of greater involvement by the Somerville's Ian Judge and David Kornfeld and more 35mm, but this year's 'thon seemed like a lot of horror I'd seen recently and nothing being promoted as being on film. So, I figured that instead of pushing myself to stay awake, letting my aggravation with audience members who think they're the entertainment rival my excitement at discovering something new or seeing something offbeat, and using a vacation day to try and stay awake until 9pm so I could be to work fresh the next day, I'd catch up with a couple thing I've been meaning to see and use the vacation day on traveling someplace warm.

So that's a wrap on this year's Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, and a lesson not to see movies - which is supposed to be fun! - out of obligation, either because you've been doing it for a long time or because you want the festival to be a bigger deal or it's on awards lists or what.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

It's not a great sign when a time-travel crime movie is this tough for me to stay awake through despite favorable scheduling. This wants to be an intricate puzzle of a movie, setting pieces up and paying off when the plot loops back around, but the curving back on itself never comes off as more clever than obligation, and the picture revealed when you get to the end isn't that interesting. The cast is capable enough and the filmmaking is competent, but only occasionally feels specific.

It's the sort of "neat sci-fi idea that can be done without a lot of visual effects" movie that feels more like the filmmakers asked themselves what sort of movie they could make rather than how to make the movie they had in their head. That sort of film has become the backbone of smaller genre festivals, only now festival-goers have seen the like a few times already, and just doing everything in a professional manner isn't quite enough.

Jestem REN (I Am REN)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

When making a film like I Am REN, it's easy to see two worthy directions for things to go, and awfully tempting to find a way to try both. If you're going to do that, they'd better be equally interesting, or things would have to get more interesting as the film goes on and revelations change perspective. Writer/director Piotr Ryczko, ultimately, doesn't find the best way to put his various ideas together, even though many of them are good enough to keep the movie interesting.

He introduces the audience to the Wirskirska family - father Jan (Marcin Sztabinski), mother Renata (Marta Król), and son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki), living in relative isolation in a lake house in Poland. One day after Jan goes to work, Renata has a breakdown, and that's when it comes out that Renata is a REN-model android. Such automata are usually decommissioned and replaced after such an incident, but Jan and Kam have a hard time conceiving that, so they go to a compound for treatment - but Renata soon starts to wonder if she can trust her memories.

As straight-ahead science fiction goes, there are a lot of nifty things going on if one takes those elements at face value: The way Renata appears to be seamlessly integrated with that Wiskirska's smart home is a bit of futurism that feels right and also hints at the horror story that this could become if she were to become unstable in a different way, for instance. The idea that someone could be affecting her memory makes her fascinating in terms of both the limitations of an AI's sentience and for how it corresponds to human life in the present, where one can be overwhelmed with false or misleading information with the need to make consequential decisions. There's a fair amount of Asimov's I, Robot in the scenes where Renata visits a pair of therapists, though with a Twenty-First Century view of technology.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Blood Quantum

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Blood Quantum feels less like a movie than what you'd get if you took the pilot to a television series about the zombie apocalypse and edited it together with the first-season finale, and even if it was a good show, that probably wouldn't be the best way to experience it, at least the first time around. There's a big hole in the middle that can't be filled, and just a general feeling that you can't make the story mean something if you don't tell the whole thing from beginning to end.

It begins on the Red Crow Indian Reservation in Québec, where fisherman Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) is understandably alarmed when the fish he catches don't stop flopping around after he guts them. He calls his son Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the sheriff of the Mi'gmaq nation, although without details, so he's got a lot of other things on his plate as well, from picking up son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and his half-brother Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), who managed to get thrown in jail on the other side of the bridge that connects the reservation to white Canada. Ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse, is also getting a number of strange calls, Joseph's white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is pregnant, and by the end of the day, there's apparently a full-on zombie outbreak, with the twist that the Mi'gmaq appear to be immune. Six months later, the reservation has been fortified, but not everybody is happy about the increasing refugee population.

Expand this to a limited series, or just build the movie so that you're not skipping over all the tension between the big violent moments, and you've got a heck of a satiric hook there as the sort of North American white person who opposes accepting immigrants fleeing violence must depend on the kindness of those they've wronged while the Mi'gmaq must consider all the history between themselves and their neighbors - how do you act when you've gone from little power to a position of strength overnight? It's still there, as are a few potentially interesting bits of world-building, but so much has been elided that it's only at half power.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Saturday, February 22, 2020


Hey, director Paul Solet!

(with the Brattle's Ned Hinkle on the left)

Solet is from Cambridge, which probably helped his film get booked at the Brattle and encouraged him to show up for a Q&A on opening night. It's a short run - ending Sunday, with no matinees - but hopefully it will see houses close to as full as they were when family and friends came out. It's a nifty documentary that benefits from the big screen, as it is (somewhat unusually) built around a sequence that wouldn't be out of place in an action-oriented narrative.

Very much a fun Q&A, with Solet eager to talk about how he was stunned by the sheer amount of anger Marvin Heemeyer had. It took him eighteen months to make his bulldozer into an unstoppable assault vehicle, and how it's kind of incredible that this guy not only could get this angry, but stay mad enough long enough to actually do this. If you take anything from this movie, he said, take away just how corrosive anger is.

Anyway, this still looks to be in distribution limbo despite playing SXSW a year ago (which isn't unusual; I just got a publicist email for the American release of a movie I saw at a festival two and a half years ago), so who knows if/when it will ever play theaters again or if it will just quietly sneak onto VOD at some point. If it sounds like your thing and you can catch it now, try and do so.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

How many people are going to get to see Tread in a theater with an audience? Probably not many, but the reaction is an interesting phenomenon to watch, as people who had spent the previous hour growing more horrified by the paranoia and rage that lead to a rampage find themselves laughing or showing a tight sort of grin as the film hits its climax and the aggrieved subject starts going to town with a customized bulldozer. Are we just wired to respond to people taking creative action, the audacious absurdity overriding how toxic it actually is? For better or worse, that impulse makes this movie something that's hard to look away from.

It tells the story of Marvin Heemeyer, who settled near Granby, Colorado in the 1990s, made a fair number of friends (as an avid snowmobiler and master welder, he became known for custom sled bumpers). He worked in nearby auto shops and eventually opened his own on a piece of land he'd bought at an FDIC foreclosure auction, which is when the problems started: One of the rival bidders had been a Granby local with a lot of friends on the town board, and Heemeyer soon found himself at loggerheads with the local government and "Good Ol' Boys Club". Then things got weird - he purchased a Komatsu D355A bulldozer to park on his property to intimidate the neighbors, eventually bringing it inside his shop, holing up there and welding steel plates and concrete to the vehicle until it was a behemoth that the police could do nothing to stop as he drove it through the property of those he felt had wronged him on 4 June 2004.

The film starts telling the story from Heemeyer's perspective, talking with his friends and a former girlfriend, highlighting his skills and successes, playing up the parts of his story that viewers will likely be able to identify with somewhat - feeling like an outsider, being subject to onerous regulations, that sort of thing. It's a narrative that people are familiar with, so even if they remember the incident from fifteen years ago, it's easy to sew that together with what they're seeing to tell a tale of the little guy striking back at the establishment. The film has plenty of Heemeyer's own words from tapes he recorded in early 2004, and it's initially folksy and easy to connect with.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Friday, February 21, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.08: Dead Dicks

Got home too late for the first film of the night after a week of weird hours and feeling like my stomach was going to rip in half, but I was looking forward to this one after it being a difficult skip at Fantasia last year (I appear to have chosen Miss & Mrs. Cops in the only slot when both played instead).

So say hello to director Lee Paula Springer and stars Jillian Harris and Heston Horwin, the ladies having come down from Montreal (I suspect Boston feels like a nice respite from the February chill if one starts from there), while Heston is from California. I am something like two-thirds sure that I've seen Ms. Springer around at Fantasia a few times, and not just when her film played last year, which created that slight "out-of-context" tingle in the back of my brain for a while.

The genesis of this movie sounded kind of crazy - she and her husband/directing partner Chris Bavota had another project set up with Horwin, but everything started to fall apart as their phone kept buzzing on the way home from another festival with another blow each time, so they came up with this crazy idea as something that could get made with relatively few resources to not get discouraged by this turn of events. It wound up finished days before it was set to premiere a Fantasia.

I kind of wish I'd gotten to see it there, because apparently some sort of snafu led to this festival receiving a DCP with unfinished effects. Not a huge deal - they aren't crucial - but it's strange they got mixed up like that months later

Dead Dicks

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

I find myself inclined to cut Dead Dicks an extra little bit of slack because here's something just tantalizing and absurd enough about the concept that one wants to see it done even if there's probably no way to make it something one can actually believe in. So while the filmmakers often have some trouble stretching their movie far enough to cover absolutely everything that they want to include, the narrative membrane doesn't quite get so thin as to tear, and that it lives right on the line between "very much independent" and "underground" works to its advantage.

The filmmakers put a content warning about suicide on the front, and the film earns it right away, showing a young man (Heston Horwin) committing suicide. It then moves to his sister Becca (Jillian Harris), who has just been accepted to nursing school with a focus on treating mental illness, the faculty feeling her personal experience will be of benefit. So she goes to work as a bartender, only to receive messages from her brother all night, eventually alarming her enough to go check on him. She does not, as the opening might suggest, find him dead, but just more inconsiderate than usual, walking around naked, cranking the stereo loud enough for downstairs neighbor Matt (Matt Keyes) to threaten calling the police. No, he's called her because there's something on one of his walls that births a new Richie when he dies - and he has killed himself several times that day.

Since death is not permanent within those walls, Dead Dicks is not entirely about suicide itself but mental health in general, magnified. Filmmakers Chris Bavota & Lee Paula Springer place these siblings in a small space and then run Richie through cycles of of highs and lows, thinking he's found a shortcut around dealing with his problems or has been given a fresh start without any actual work on the underlying issues. It leaves the sister who has often taken on the responsibility of dealing with the fallout a bigger, bloodier mess to wrangle - indeed, by the end, it's clear that she is as in need of a chance to hit reset as her brother, as she is just as trapped, with it quite likely that there is no satisfying exit to be found from this situation.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 February 2020 - 27 February 2020

What are awards ceremonies like the Oscars for? Boosting the business of great movies, like how Parasite is getting showtimes at the Imax theater at Boston Common and the Wide Screen at Causeway Street even though it's already out on disc.

  • The furniture stores are putting Frozen 2 back on their Imax screens, and I'm kind of surprised that The Call of the Wild isn't playing there. It's a weird-looking one - the previews show a wonderfully weary Harrison Ford and a CGI dog that doesn't quite convince. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Causeway Street, Fenway, the Seaport (Icon-X), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    Also opening is Brahms: The Boy II, in which the doll some family treated as their son in the last movie is still around and, I guess, possessed and kills people; I didn't see the first so I don't know. Katie Holmes is in this one, and it's at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. There's also Impractical Jokers: The Movie, which is based on an unscripted hidden-camera show of some kind, playing at South Bay.

    Anime feature My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising opens on Wednesday with subbed and dubbed shows at Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere (including MX4D dubbed), with it being a one-day thing at Fenway, the Seaport, and Assembly Row . Among the other one-offs, Showcase in Revere finishes their vacation Harry Potter matinees with Half-Blood Prince on Friday and a Deathly Hallows double-feature on Saturday. There are anniversary screenings of The Color Purple at Fenway and Assembly Row on Sunday. Fenway has the documentary Free Burma Rangers on Monday and Tuesday, and Russian sci-fi comedy (Not) Perfect Man on Wednesday.
  • Kendall Square, CinemaSalem, and Boston Common pick up one of my favorites from last year's Fantasia Film Festival, The Lodge, featuring Riley Keough as an escaped cult member not just snowed in with her fiancé's children, but seemingly cut off from the world in some mystical way. They share The Traitor with West Newton; that one is Marco Bellocchio's film about the man who broke the vows of omerta and took down the Sicilian mob in the 1980s.

    For themselves, they have Ordinary Love, with Leslie Manville and Liam Neeson as a couple trying to get by after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. The one-week booking is What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Rob Garver's documentary about the famed film critic.
  • The Brattle Theatre welcomes director Paul Solet - who has previously mostly done horror movies - on Friday night to answer questions about his film Tread, a documentary about a man who built himself a homemade tank and smashed through a small town in 2004, with the film also playing evenings on Saturday and Sunday. A new set of 35mm Looney Tunes plays the Bugs Bunny Film Festival matinees those afternoons.

    Monday's DocYard presentation looks to be an odd sort of hybrid, with director Zia Anger there to perform and answer questions for her "Live Cinema" presentation My First Film. After that, it's an impromptu Kirk Douglas tribute, with a 35mm print of Out of the Past Tuesday, Lonely Are the Brave on Wednesday, and Paths of Glory on Thursday. Wednesday also features a free "Elements of Cinema" screening of The Haunting.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens two Indian movies billing themselves as possibly the start of something bigger this weekend - Mafia: Chapter 1 is a Tamil crime flick starring Arun Vijay, while Vicky Kaushal stars in Hindi-language horror movie Bhoot: Part One - The Haunted Ship. The bigger release would appear to be romantic comedy sequel Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, in which the family of one of the two men in love tries to match him up with a girl. Telegu romantic comedy Bheeshma also plays, with Love Aaj Kal and Oh My Kadavule sticking around. Someone also really cheaped out on the four-wall booking of 10 Things We Should Do Before We Break Up, which stars Christina Ricci and Hamish Linklater as a pair who conceive during a one-night stand, but only gets one show a day, and that at 5:45pm.

    Mexican film Las Pildoras De Mi Novio plays in Revere, with the English-language title "My Boyfriend's Meds" describing how it involves a woman discovering that her seemingly-perfect lover takes a huge variety of prescription psychiatric pills when he forgets them on a working vacation.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre mostly maintains their current mix of films, although some of the special presentations are interesting. It starts on midnight on Friday, when local filmmakers Jess Barnthouse & Stacy Buchanan show off their film The Man in the Mask, a look at an actor, Kip Weeks, whose career peaked as a masked slasher-movie villain before moving to Portland, ME and starting a small business but still wanting to get back into film (or I suppose you could see The Room). The midnight show on Saturday is a 35mm print of the original Pet Semetary, and they have already sold out of a Sunday afternoon screening of "CatVideoFest". The Big Screen Classic on Monday is Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, with an optional pre-screening seminar.
  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Japanese filmmaker Tetsuya Mariko this weekend for a program of "Self-Destruction Cinema", with Destruction Babies playing Friday, Miyamoto on Saturday, and a selection of short films on Monday. The Saturday matinee is aimed more at teens than younger viewers this weekend, though Boyz N the Hood still plays on 35mm for $5. They also begin a series of Patricio Guzmán's Chile Trilogy on Sunday, with Nostalgia for the Light at 4pm and his latest film The Cordillera of Dreams at 7pm, the latter also part of the Cinema of Resistance series.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts starts a run of Zombi Child this week, with shows on Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday. The Boston Festival of Films from Japan has what seems like a tie-in but is actually a very different film in We Are Little Zombies! Friday and Sunday, with the last show of the series The Journalist, also on Sunday. There's also a Saturday-morning matinee of documentary In Search of Beethoven, and one of "Two Films by Terrence Malick", The Badlands, on Wednesday evening.
  • Bright Lights has co-director Jiliann Spitzmiller over to present Meow Wolf: Origin Story on Tuesday, while Thursday's screening of The Green Lie will feature a panel discussion with Emerson faculty. As always, these screenings are targeted toward students but anyone can show up at the Paramount theater's Bright Screening room for them.
  • School vacation's not over, so The Regent Theatre has sing-along matinees, playing The Wizard of Oz through Sunday. Later in the day, they will be showing documentary Chuck Berry (subtitled "The Original King of Rock 'n' Roll" on the poster), with shows on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. There's also a free screening of Glory on Wednesday.
  • The Luna Theater has Clemency on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday Evenings. WBCN and the American Revolution and Parasite both play Saturday afternoon, while Monty Python's Life of Brian has the place on Sunday Free shows include the Magical Mystery Movie Sunday morning, a UMass Lowell Philosophy and Film presentation of Jet Li in Fearless on Monday, and the surprise "Weirdo Wednesday" show.

    Cinema Salem picks up Makoto Shinkai's Weathering with You and has Goldie in the 18-seat screen.

I… kind of don't know what I'll hit this weekend. Probably Tread, but it could be all catch-up and impulse viewings after that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.03: The Long Walk

Hey, check it out, Mattie Do in the house!

Kevi Monahan of the Boston Underground Film Festival surprised her with a gift from one of her producers, a little something to toast the end of The Long Walk's festival run. He was clearly hoping it could have gone on a little longer to play BUFF, but the timing probably wouldn't have lined up as well, as Do mentioned she had meetings over the next week for an English-language movie which could potentially fund a few more Laotian films.

It was an emotional Q&A at times; when making the movie, she had recently lost her mother and her dog and was as such determined not to make death look nice in this film - even when it could be seen as a respite or a kindness after long suffering, it still plays hell with the living, and that she succeeds shows what a relatively delicate balance it is; one of the pivotal scenes of the film is largely built on a well-meaning bit of euthenasia that has to ride the line between the audience understanding why the person in question does this but also immediately seeing why a person taking this on is tremendously dangerous, and I don't know if it would have succeeded if she wasn't so determined to not compromise there.

(I'm sure it sounds odd to put those two deaths in the same sentence like that, but from the way she talked, I suspect that putting her dog down was a fairly direct inspiration for that scene, because it meant taking direct control over ending another's life. The ideas come where they come. And besides, I believe we established that she really loves dogs three years ago in Australia.)

Not that the Q&A was primarily maudlin; Ms. Do is an enthusiastic, funny live wire whose jokes often have genuine bite to them, like when she laughs about being a "jungle Asian" rather than a kung-fu Asian or tea-ceremony Asian and how it can as a result in mostly seeing poverty porn when outsiders make a movie about her home. A lot of what she talked about was how it was a wild shoot - parting ways with the original cinematographer early, then hiring a guy at the last minute based upon the recommendation of Synchronic filmmakers Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson. That tightened their schedule, which meant that a lot had to go right toward the end, because you don't get a lot of chances for reshoots when the last few days of shooting involve burning down the house where many earlier scenes had been shot, getting the last shots in town while the agers did their work, and then shooting the scenes you needed after the house had been overgrown with vines and the like. It is worth mentioning that apparently setting a house on fire is not quite so easy as it looks and how the part of the production design/set decoration team that makes things look older are kind of amazing; movie magic that requires a bunch of detailed work that audiences don't see up close but which can boot you right out of the picture if done poorly.

Anyway, Mattie Do is great, and I hope this movie pokes through into theaters, helping her get some of that Hollywood money to make more Laotian films.

Bor Mi Vanh Chark (The Long Walk)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

A fair amount of people might think The Long Walk takes too much time to get to the good stuff, as the really tricky genre material doesn't show up until halfway through. It's a fair critique if that's all you want from the movie, but it's a rich experience getting there.

It opens about fifty years in the future, with an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) scavenging parts from an old, wrecked motorcycle. He has a reputation for being able to see spirits, one with a basis in fact: The girl who wrecked the motorcycle (Noutnapha Soydara) has been with him since he was a small boy (Por Silatsa), as her body was never cremated. In the 2010s, she was the closest thing he had to a friend, trapped as he was between an angry father (Brandon Hashimoto) and a sickly mother (Chanthamone Inoudome); in the 2060s, he's approached by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), a young girl who had left for the city, to find out if her missing mother has died. Soon, these timelines begin to cross, and the hermit becomes tangled up in the world around him in more ways than one.

The team of director Mattie Do and her husband, writer Christopher Larsen, do something kind of interesting in how they shift the timeline on this story from past/present to present/future but do not use a technological means for having the protagonist become unstuck in time; it unburdens the story from any colonial baggage it might have picked up even accidentally, letting the filmmakers ground the film in Laotian tradition without having to write around ubiquitous westerners who will try to explain things scientifically. There are still some around, in the present, of course, installing solar panels that are of little practical use to a farming family, but Lina's modernity and uncertainty with tradition, for example, are her own, not the result of external changes. It's an odd situation, sliding the timeline forward so the audience doesn't get caught up in nostalgia or other ways of either discounting or romanticizing the past.

Do tells an intriguing story of sad, kind of selfish isolation here, one that ultimately turns inward in frightening fashion. For a large portion of the movie, it plays out in somewhat conventional if heightened fashion - a young boy with litle life outside his parents loses one and is basically abandoned by the other never learns to connect with others, instead retreating into the company of spirits nobody else can see. The filmmakers see a way for this to be potentially sinister even before the chance to encounter himself as a boy starts letting him tighten his circle, and once that kicks in, those who come to this looking for a time-travel story will marvel at how nicely the film is constructed. There's genuine horror to be found in the shifting timelines and impressive attention to detail; Do does good work in getting big impact out of small things, and subtly changing the look of the film between the present and the future so that we can traverse the gap naturally but still know where we are. This part of the story is done well enough tht some will wish it was the whole film. Underneath, it's more than a puzzle; it's an acknowledgement that loneliness can't be solved unilaterally, and that good intentions can be twisted.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, February 17, 2020

Enter the Fat Dragon '20

I'm kind of mildly surprised that it took this long for Well Go and other distributors of Chinese films in North America to fall back on the movies that opened for the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong after the Mainland films were wiped out by the coronavirus outbreak. I suspect there was a lot of "this will just last a week" and then it didn't and then the window was closed for stuff without crossover appeal like this, where folks in North America know Yen and you could probably cut a decent trailer by pulling English-language lines out of the movie. It wasn't particularly crowded on Sunday afternoon despite a theater right next to Boston's Chinatown feeling like a really good place for a Donnie Yen film to open. I've got no idea how the combination of a few weeks to get bootlegs out, the local population seeming to generally prefer Mandarin-language films, and Yen being a contentious figure among the Cantonese-speaking audience plays into that

Still, it's a fun hour and a half, and has Yen pulling a lot more from Jackie Chan's comic action playbook than usual. He's got comedic chops and playing a likable dork kind of agrees with him, so seeing him put a lot more slapstick into his fights than he has in the past worked well. It's a bummer that the first film with this name is kind of hard to find in the US right now - the DVD on Amazon has a bit of that "may be a bootleg" look to it - so hopefully we'll get a decent Region A Blu-ray of Sammo Hung's film out of this one's release.

Fei lung gwoh gong (Enter the Fat Dragon) '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

This colorful, fast-paced bit of kung fu silliness works well enough that I'm not sure why they bothered to put Donnie Yen in a fat suit. It really doesn't affect how he moves or the story at all, and there aren't even that many jokes at the expense of his character's weight. Did someone just have the remake rights to Sammo Hung's film and figure it would add 5% to the take or something?

Yen plays "Fallon" Zhu Fulong, a cop whose career has stagnated because his ability to catch the bad guys is cancelled out by the collateral damage he causes, both in terms of Hong Kong in general, within the HKPD, and with fiancée Chloe Song (Niki Chow Lai-Kei). In the aftermath of a bank robbery, he's reassigned to a property room, and not being able to exercise after an injury has his appetite way ahead of his metabolism, so six months later, he's packed on a hundred pounds before his old partner Shing Huang (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) gives him a milk run mission to extradite Japanese porn director Yuji (Hiro Hayama) to Tokyo. Except that Japanese detective Endo (Naoto Takenaka) lets Yuji escape, interpreter Maggie (Jessica Jann) seems like something of an airhead, and the help Shing refers Fallon to is his old partner Thor (Wong Jing), who has been in Japan for ten years trying to stay close to Charisma (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her nephew Tiger (Lin Qiunan). Oh, and yakuza Shimakura (Joey "Tee" Iwanaga) just happened to see Yuji on the plane to Tokyo, where he was traveling with Chloe, who is big in Japan and has been hired as a spokesperson for one of Shimakura's fronts.

That's potentially a lot going on but also not quite enough as it plays out; for all that producer Wong Jing and his co-writers set up all these threads to follow, they all get picked up and discarded in fairly haphazard fashion. Wong Jing and Teresa Mo are plenty of fun in this movie, for instance, but all the time spent with them could maybe have gone to Fallon actually tracking down Yuji and realizing he's got to do more detective work because the crazy kung fu stuff is harder carrying this weight, giving Chloe something to do while she's in Japan (or, heck, deciding just how good/popular an actress she is, as that seems to change based on what a given scene needs), or the like. This sort of martial-arts comedy has never really needed a terribly coherent plot, but it seems sloppier than usual here, and more like a missed opportunity.

Full review on EFilmCritic