Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 November 2015 - 3 December 2015

Holiday weekend with what looks like good stuff coming out. It also means there's time to bone up on everything that leads to one of them.

  • That would be Creed, in which Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Apollo Creed, the great rival in Rocky and the first two sequels, with Sylvester Stallone reprising his role, this time serving as a mentor to "Adonis". Believe it or not, I've never seen any of the Rocky movies, although I suspect you can start fresh here. It's at Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the Superlux.

    Another reboot, of sorts, is Victor Frankenstein, with James McAvoy as the title character and Daniel Radcliffe as his assistant "Igor" in a steampunked-up take on the story, which is actually smarter and more ambitious than the previews make it look, despite the action being a mess. It's opening at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, Embassy, Boston Common, and Revere.

    There's also the second Pixar film of the year, The Good Dinosaur, one which posits the idea that the Age of Reptiles never ended, allowing them to evolve into intelligent creatures while humans lag somewhat behind, including one who apparently becomes a sort of pet of a lost dino. 2D-only at the Capitol, West Newton, and the Studio in Belmont; 2D and 3D at Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. Revere also has screenings of Roman Holiday on Sunday and Tuesday.
  • Legend also opens Wednesday, featuring Tom Hardy as twins who ruled the London underworld in the 1960s, and two Tom Hardys sounds pretty good. It's at Kendall Square and Boston Common. Kendall Square also has a one-week booking of Heart of a Dog, a documentary by musician Laurie Anderson, who recently lost her own dog.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a couple new Indian releases with subtitles. Tamasha features Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor who meet in Corsica, find each other four years later, and, well, don't quite hit it off right away. That's in Hindi and opens Wednesday. Thursday brings Telugu-language (but also subtitled) Size Zero, with Anushka Shetty as an overweight woman trying to drop kilos and find romance.
  • The Brattle Theatre has the second leg of their 75 Years of Film Noir series, this time focusing on "Authors of Noir", with movies adapted from great crime novels (or written by their authors). Wednesday & Thursday (Thanksgiving) kick it off with a double feature of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, which is kind of great. Friday's pair are Strangers on a Train and Double Indemnity, both with screenplays by Raymond Chandler. Saturday is more Chandler, with adaptations of Murder, My Sweet and The Lady in the Lake. Then they shift to Cornell Woolrich, with double-features of Phantom Lady & Black Angel on Sunday and Street of Chance & The Night Has a Thousand Eyes on Tuesday. James M. Cain is the featured author on Wednesday the 2nd with The Postman Always Rings Twice. Thursday loops back around to Dashiell Hammett, with The Glass Key and Miller's Crossing. All are in 35mm except Miller's Crossing.

    Smack in the middle of that is the DocYard/UMass Boston Film Series presentation of Frame by Frame on Monday, a documentary on the struggles of establishing a free press in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. As is often the case with the UMB series, directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli will be on-hand for a Q&A.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre mostly keeps the same line-up, although they have midnight screenings of #Horror on Friday and Saturday, with this particular small release centered on cyber-bullying and featuring Chloe Sevigny, Natasha Lyonne, Timothy Hutton and more. They also close out their Lloyd Kaufman series with Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead on 35mm those nights; Happy Thanksgiving!

    There's also a kids' show on Saturday morning with The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Conformist as a Big Screen Classic on Monday evening. On Tuesday, director Mark Phinney will be on-hand to screen his movie Fat, a locally-shot film that played IFFBoston last year.
  • The Harvard Film Archive finishes its fall calendar, incuding the Maurice PIalat retrospective, with three final films: Van Gogh on Friday, The House in the Woods (digital video) on Saturday, and The Son of... (with short "Love Exists") on Sunday. They also wrap up "Five O'Clock Shadow" with The Burglar Sunday afternoon, and "Furious and Furiouser" with Girlfriends (on digital video) on Monday, with director Claudia Weill in person. All in 35mm unless noted, as usual.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts finishes its run of Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights over the weekend, with screenings Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They start a new calendar on Wednesday, with The Art of Alfred Hitchcock starting on Wednesday the 2nd with Suspicion (Wednesday), Rebecca (Wednesday & Thursday), and Shadow of a Doubt (Thursday). The Hitchcock films will be shown on 35mm.
  • Lots of film at The Regent Theatre this week, with the annual Sing-Along screenings of Mary Poppins on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Later in the week come two documentaries: Of Men and War plays on Tuesday, telling the story of soldiers with PTSD. On Thursday the 3rd, Wayne R. Peterson (director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Area program) will be on hand for a Q&A after The Messenger, a look at the endangered songbird.
  • The Institute of Contemporary Art will be screening Station to Station, a set of 61 one-minute films shot as Doug Aitken traveled from New York to San Francisco on a train that was also a piece of contemporary art, on Friday and Saturday.
  • After taking the holiday week off, Bright Lights returns to the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount Theater on Tuesday with I Am A Knife with Legs, a lo-fi but very entertaining comedy. Writer/director/star/etc. Bennett Jones will be on-hand for a Q&A, and that is always entertaining. Then on Thursday the 3rd, Emerson professor Martie Cook will lead a post-film conversation after a screening of Brand: A Second Coming, following British comedian Russell Brand as he reinvents himself as an activist.

My plans will hopefully include a bunch of noir, The Good Dinosaur, Legend, Room, and Spotlight. Oh, and probably Tamasha, as I love me some Deepika Padukone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

By the Sea

I'm a little surprised at how much I liked this one; I've been frustrated both by the films that try to capture the 1970s European movie vibe it goes for and the genuine article, so this was one that I wound up seeing because that's where the MoviePass 24-hour window was pushing until tonight's reset.

Still, even as much as I liked it, I found it very difficult to break out of an analytic mindset into one where I felt I was really experiencing the film, and I wonder how much that was intended. Even more than usual, I was at least outlining this review in my head while watching it, rather than being captivated and wanting to know what was going to happen next, I was trying to make connections, figure out representation, note camera placement and usage.

There is a pretty good argument that this is the way a mature adult watches movies, and experiences literature, although I must admit that I enjoy it more when I'm captivated by what I'm watching, and all the technique the filmmakers use reveals itself to me either on a second viewing or as I try to relate it to someone else. The ones that can do both are the films I really love, and I missed the initial excitement. On the other hand, I've seen plenty of movies that lack the thrilling part and aren't enjoyable to deconstruct while watching, so there's still that.

Oh, and I don't know whether the next part is more creepy or SPOILERS!

... but this is absolutely the kind of movie that younger viewers would primarily be watching in hopes of seeing nudity, and I can't lie and say I wasn't keeping an eye out for that. Still, I think that it's a little more interesting given that writer/director/star Angelina Jolie Pitt underwent some pretty extensive surgery to remove her cancer-risk breast tissue and rebuild it, considering that her character is eventually revealed as devastated by health problems and losses that clearly make her feel less of a woman.

As I mention in the review, I had a kind of weird reaction to the ultimate revelation that Vanessa's depression has its roots in being unable to bear children; it seems very rote and almost dismissive to say that this is what reduces a woman to misery, even while acknowledging that it would be legitimately devastating. I'm certainly not going to scold her for it, but I think feeling that was is a kind of side effect of hwo I felt I was engaging to movie's construction rather than emotion - I was measuring the power of the story rather than feeling it.

(I did find myself feeling glad that people don't commonly refer to women as "barren" anymore. They don't, right? It sounds like such a personal condemnation in the film that I hope less evocative language has become more common.)


Interesting that she started crediting herself as "Angelina Jolie Pitt" for this one. Annoying, kind of - after one of the other writers on eFilmCritic mentioned that men being referred to by their last names and women either by their first or as "Ms. Jolie" annoyed her, I tried stop doing so, as it is kind of a double standard that subtly implies a somewhat lower level of respect for the women in question (assumption of familiarity). I kind of had to go with "Mr. Pitt" and "Mrs. Pitt" here, and it reads weird.

By the Sea

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2015 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

By the Sea is the sort of movie I would have called boring as a younger man, and I wouldn't back away from the word here but for the craftsmanship being so impeccable. It's a film that often seems to encourage dissection rather than reaction, paradoxically demanding close attention despite not always doing much to seize it.

The sea is the Mediterranean, the time is the 1970s, when an American writer by the name of Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) are checking into a hotel in the South of France for an extended stay. Roland intends to work on a new book, which seems to involve spending a great deal of time drinking in the cafe operated by Michel (Niels Arestrup) while Vanessa spends most of her time in the room or on the patio with her pills, not wanting to be there or anywhere, really, at least until discovering a peephole that allows her to spy on the newlywed couple next door (Mélanie Laurent & Melvil Poupaud).

It's a marvelously positioned void, really, placed just where the viewer will buy into Vanessa finding it while Lea and François do not, despite being large enough to afford more than a narrow line of sight. It probably makes things easier for cinematographer Christian Berger's camera, as well. The many shots through the hole cannot help but highlight the illicit nature or the glance - it's a perfect circle in the middle of a widescreen image - but there's also a flatness to those images that keeps what we're seeing from being far away. It's almost a TV screen meant to be watched, especially given how perfectly placed a mirror is to show what might otherwise be out of sight without overburdening the image. It feels meant for them (and us) to watch.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Our Times

I don't necessarily complain about how a lot of the Chinese and Taiwanese movies hitting the United States are kind of similar in the review, but I really have seen enough of these nostalgic romances over the past few years to feel pretty much done. This and A Journey Through Time with Anthony are actually fairly different movies, but seeing them three days apart was a bit much.

Still, I was pretty happy where two of the three previews for Chinese movies before this one involved punching and kicking. Kind of interesting contrast in release strategies, though: Well Go is holding Ip Man 3 back until late January, presumably to take advantage of a weak schedule around that time versus being slammed at Christmas, especially if they figure Mike Tyson will draw a bigger crowd. Wanda, meanwhile, is going to be releasing Mojin - The Lost Legend on 18 December, making me very worried about local theaters giving it a screen that could go to Star Wars. But, hey, who knows?

Third trailer: Fall in Love Like a Star, which looked crazy generic.

Wo de shao nu shi dai (Our Times)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2015 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, DCP)

So, here's a weird coincidence - two Mandarin-language movies reaching American cinemas a mere two days apart, both nostalgic romances that, at different points, involve the young characters needing to meet up at McDonald's. They're from different countries (China and Taiwan) with very different focuses, and while I like this one a bit more, it seems like this part of the world is pumping out a lot of movies like this, and this one isn't one of the best.

This time, we're looking back on the late 1990s, when Lin Truly (Vivian Sung Yun-hua) was a high-school student with a celebrity crush on Andy Lau and a more close-at-hand eye on star basketball player Ouyang Extraordinary (Dino Lee Yu-hsi), though boys seldom seems to notice Truly with the beautiful Tao Minmin (Dewi Chien Ting-yui) living next door. That's why when Truly gets a chain letter promising misery if it's not passed on, she sends a copy to Minmin, one to a sadistic teacher, and one to Hsu Taiyu (Darren Wang Da-lu), the school's resident bad boy. When he discovers it, he proceeds to torment Truly, but he's got a crush on Minmin and discovering that Ouyang and Minmin are together transforms Truly and Taiyu to initially-reluctant allies.

This is, as is often par for the course, bookended by present-day bits with Joe Chen Qiao-en as the adult Truly, and it's one of the more peculiar uses of this over-used technique: After a fantasy sequence that isn't particularly well-delimited, it shows Truly as frustrated, self-doubting, and unrespected, and while she was certainly that way as a teenager, the 1990s material mostly has her on a trajectory that would seem to indicate her ending above that, which means that we spend much of the film waiting to see what's going to derail the happy ending, and that's not a whole lot of fun. It's a weird fit in other ways - neither the situation that inspires the flashback or her reaction afterwards really fits the story it tells, and the final present-day bits are a rickety story that seems primarily held together by Chen being extremely likable as the older Truly and Andy Lau being a really good sport.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

So, that's Philip Seyour Hoffman's last movie. Not quite Orson Welles calling it a career by doing a voice in The Transformers: The Movie, I guess.

I kid, although seeing Hoffman on screen and realizing that this was finally it was a kick to the gut; he's terrific but underused here, in part because of that goddamned overdose that killed him. I recall reading that there were two scenes unfinished, and it looks like one was given to Woody Harrelson and just isn't the same.

Even barring that, the movie is disappointing, and I don't think I'm just saying that because I had the large Dr. Pepper more or less finished by the time this 2.25-hour movie started and my bladder seems to have shrunk in middle age, to the point where every extra scene in the epilogue section had me feeling angrier with Return of the King flashbacks. I don't think I was alone, though - there were moments in the movie when someone in the audience would laugh at how awkwardly something was handled, enough that someone else could be heard asking what was funny. Was she missing a joke? No, this is just some bad filmmaking in a series that has proven it can do better.

-- How much better? I'm glad you asked:

The Hunger Games compared to Winter's Bone and Battle Royale.
Catching Fire is neat for focusing on millennial activism.
Mockingjay - Part 1 is intriguingly cynical and makes a weakness a strength.

Shame it had to end like this.

One other bit of audience reaction note: There were two previews before the movie, and though it's the same one that's been in front of a lot of things over the last couple of months, people go absolutely nuts for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. Applause, palpable feeling of excitement, the works. Since I often see mainstream movies on off-hours or sometimes in places like Assembly Row where the capacity just isn't big enough to get a real crowd (I think the larger seats diffuse it, too), I don't think I've seen this reaction before. Makes me even more excited.

Folks do not have the same reaction to the Batman vs. Superman trailer. It is bad and folks are quiet after it plays.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2015 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, DCP)

It's been gratifying to watch the Hunger Games film series evolve from little more than a toothless take on the same material as Battle Royale to one which is at least interesting in its cynicism, to the point where I was surprised how much I anticipated this final entry in the series. Unfortunately, the final film stretches everything out beyond reason, and what was intriguing before is played out well before this episode mercifully ends.

It picks up pretty closely on the heels of Mockingjay -Part 1, when former Hunger Games victor and symbol of the rebellion Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was nearly killed by comrade-in-arms Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who had apparently been very effectively brainwashed when captured in the Capital. Though she recovers quickly, rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) still chooses to mostly use Katniss as a propaganda tool, although she finds her way to the front lines, looking to be the one to kill President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Has there ever been a series whose nominal protagonist did less than Katniss Everdeen? Maybe it is different in the original novels, but she has been a fairly passive player in all three previous films, becoming interesting for how she chafes at this and doubly so for how the series' young core audience reacts to her - do they realize that heroine they identify with is seldom more than a pawn, even when she seems to have some skills at manipulating public opinion herself? Logically, this would be the film where Katniss seizes control of her own destiny, but that never really happens - even when she does attempt to strike out on her own, agency is quickly snatched away from her. And yet, she never seems to confront that she is not the author of her own destiny; the filmmakers seem terrified of what should be their film's central idea.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 November 2015 - 24 November 2015

Short week coming up with holiday openings next Wednesday. Good stuf, though, including something much anticipated since last year.

  • I refer, of course, the The Brattle Theatre's opening of The Creeping Garden, the sort of documentary that plays the Fantasia Film Festival and fits here perfectly. Its subject is slime molds, a life form that is neither animal, plant, nor fungus. It's the main show for the weekend, and also plays at 5:30pm on Monday and Tuesday.

    The later shows on Friday to Sunday is a 35mm print of Dangerous Men, made over the course of 26 years and likely a mess. This thing where Drafthouse Films tries to push a cult film on the world is weird. On Monday, the theater teams with IFFBoston to present an encore of Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, serving as an appetizer for Tuesday's preview of his new film, Youth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre had to wait a week for Brooklyn (as did the West Newton Cinema; the film also continues at the Kendall and Boston Common), but it's well worth the wait. They will also be getting Trumbo this week, starring Bryan Cranston as famed (and blacklisted) screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Interesting people behind the camera on this one - writer John McNamara has done a lot of quality genre TV and director Jay Roach is best known for the Austin Powers movies.

    At midnight on Friday they have something I really liked at this year's Fantasia Festival, Irish horror movie The Hallow, one of the more genuinely creepy things I've seen in a while. They also seek to confuse their patrons by having the first screening of The Room in a couple of months despite also having Room during the day. On Saturday, the month-long tribute to Lloyd Kaufman reaches its apex with the man on hand to receive an award and introduce a 35mm print of his most famous film, The Toxic Avenger. On Monday, cybersecurity expert Susan Landau will introduce The Conversation as part of "Science on Screen", and that's good stuff.
  • It's a fair-sized week at the multiplexes too, with a huge chunk of screens given to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, finishing up the series that got pretty good after a lackluster start. It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Jordan's Furniture (in Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Revere (including XPlus & MX4D), and the SuperLux.

    The Night Before is somehow the second Christmas-themed movie of the season already, this one featuring Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie as guys who have spent Christmas Eve with their best friend since he lost his parents on that day, but are planning a blow-out as they all move on with their lives. It's at Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Fenway, Boston Common, the SuperLux, and Revere. There's a somewhat smaller release planned for The Secret in Their Eyes, a thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as an FBI team that has been hunting the killer of one member's daughter for over a decade, with the discovery apparently even more horrific than expected. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere. Boston Common and the Embassy also picks up By The Sea, which had only bee playing at the Kendall.
  • Kendall Square has a one-week booking of Peggy Gugenheim: Art Addict, which may just be five days, so go see it if the story of one of the twentieth century's most prominent patrons of the arts is your thing.
  • Fans of Chinese cinema have plenty to choose from at Boston Common, with early/late shows of The Last Woman Standing, Wednesday's opening of the cute-but-flimsy A Journey Through Time with Anthony, and a Taiwanese entry opening on Friday. Our Times looks to be yet another nostalgia-based romance, this time with folks who crossed paths while in high school during the 1990s having a second chance when they meet 18 years later.

    For Indian flicks, Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond opens up Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, which looks to be a "Prince and the Pauper" type thing featuring Salman Khan as the crown prince and the nice-guy double, which Sonam Kapoor as his princess. Sounds like Dave, too, for that matter. There's also Kumari 21F if you speak Telugu.
  • Spotlight continue to expand, adding Somerville, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere to the Coolidge, Boston Common, Kendall Square, and the SuperLux. The Somerville Theatre also has their final "Silents, Please!" screening of the year with Jeff Rapsis on-hand to accompany The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the 1921 film that made Rudolph Valentino a star and introduced the tango to America.
  • The Harvard Film Archive resumes its Maurice PIalat retrospective after a couple of months off this weekend with a vengeance, with To Those We Love (Friday 7pm), Graduate First (Friday 9pm), Loulou (Saturday 7pm), The Mouth Agape (Saturday 9pm, DCP), and Police (Sunday 7pm) taking up most of the schedule. There's still room for the two other continuing series, though - Sunday's "Five O'Clock Shadow" entry is Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo, while Monday's "Furious and Furiouser" flick is Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace. All except The Mouth Agape are 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues its screenings of Welcome to Leith and Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights, with both having screenings Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • The Regent Theatre will have their vacation sing-along next weekend, but before that they will be showing Back to the Future docuemtnary Back in Time on Monday. BTTF superfans/memoraelia experts Bill and Patrick Shea will be on hand, and all proceeds will be donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Not sure what my plans will be - probably Four Horsemen, Hunger Games 3.5, The Night Before, Spotlight, Our Time and maybe The Secret in Our Eyes, fitting other things in as possible.

A Journey Through Time with Anthony

Another week, another Chinese movie, with another one opening tomorrow. There are a lot of them these days.

It didn't start until fifteen minutes past the advertised starting time, with no pre-show and loud noises coming from the projection booth behind us. I kind of found myself wondering just what causes that when everything is hard drives ingested into digital projection systems; it's not like people were moving heavy reels of film around.

Pei an dong ni du guo man chang sui yue (A Journey Through Time with Anthony, aka Les Aventures d'Anthony)

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2015 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

China seems to be producing a lot of movies like A Journey Through Time with Anthony (slightly less unwieldy than the film's Mandarin title, "Pei an dong ni du guo man chang sui yue") lately, plucked from the blogs and romans à clefs of relatively young writers. Some of them not only translate the distinctive voices and doodles into sweet little movies, but it seems the majority wind up like this one: Cute, pleasant, and eventually coming up against how a series of reminiscences isn't quite the same thing as a story.

Anthony (Liu Chang) is a young man from Dailin, China, about to start a couple of years of study abroad in Melbourne, while his best friend Xiao Ying (Bai Baihe) studies sound engineering in Tokyo. He's set up in a boarding house full of Chinese students, and he soon meets another, "Serena" Xiao Xuan (Tina Tang Yi-xin). It's not long before he encounters her again after deciding to change his major to culinary arts, discovering he has a real knack or it, even as Ying feels like she is constantly disappointing Fang jie (Jin Shijia) on a movie project they are working on together.

Anthony's a nice guy, meets nice people, and has a chance to grow and discover things about himself over the course of the movie. In that way, it's a pretty mild "finding yourself at college" story, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that. Director Janet Chun Siu-jan (who also adapted the book by the real-life Anthony) does not go in for excessive dramatics in situations that don't merit them, and while she allows for plenty of moments of levity, she never lets the film veer into over-sentimentality or silliness, even as a cartoon bunny avatar pops up in various corners. She knows the tone she's going for, and she seldom misses.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Angel Face

Only a couple weeks left in the Harvard Film Archive's Sunday-afternoon "Five O'clock Shadows" program, but I'm going to miss it. This and the Monday evening "Furious and Furiouser" programs remind me of the vertical calendars that initially played a big part in my falling in love with the Brattle Theatre. The wordplay in their titles and generally impressive selections, mostly on 35mm film, are also excellent for combating the stereotype of the HFA as the stodgiest of the Boston area's repertory cinemas. It can be, but it can also have electric material. Maybe it's just me, but they seem to be having more fun lately.

As much as I love the weekly presentations, I will admit that they don't cooperate with the format of this blog much, so stuff like this either gets ticked awry in a weekly update or with some other vaguely related item. This one gets a spotlight as much via timing as anything, though it's deserved. It's a movie I exited liking but more hung up on the silly courtroom scenes than anything else, but which gets a lot better with a little more thought. It's one that got better the more I poked at it, and those are rare.

One side thought: Sometimes you get hung up on contemporary things when watching old movies, and for a good chunk of this one, I was thinking about how much young Jean Simmons looked like Krysten Ritter. It's a shame Ms. Simmons is no longer with us, because that would be some great older/younger casting.

(Then again, if would probably be in an adaptation of some Nicholas Sparks book, and they both deserve better.)

Angel Face

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2015 at the Harvard Film Archive (Five O'clock Shadows, 35mm)

It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but one thing that many films noirs have in common - especially if the viewer knows going in that the film has been tagged as part such - is that you can see disaster coming. The specific way and moment it arrives may be a shock, but make no mistake, the protagonist is doomed, and half those in the audience will grudgingly admit that the temptation may have been irresistible. Trouble announces itself faster and more clearly than usual in Angel Face, and that's part of what makes it a fine example of the genre.

Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) should know better; a race car drive before the war and behind the when of an ambulance now, it's the very end of his shift when he takes a call to the home of writer Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) when his wife Catherine (Barbara O'Neil) nearly dies from a gas leak in her room. On the way out, he meets Charles's 20-year-old daughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who wastes no time getting into her little sports car, meeting Frank at a diner near the hospital, and offering him a better-passing job as the family chauffeur which could also lead to an investment in the garage he dreams of opening. That it gives her plenty of time to try and seduce him away from his lovely girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) is not lost on anybody, but just because you see the disaster coming...

From the very first scene, it's clear that something isn't right, and watching the film 60-odd years after its original release may add an unintended but intriguing level of misdirection to the opening: Though it's painfully clear how unlikely the "accident" story all of the men coming to Catherine's aid agree upon its, it initially looks like they're perhaps not willing to consider mental health problems on top of not taking a woman's concerns seriously. It's more than soft chauvinism, of course, and the situation becomes even more clear when Diane visits Mary and cheerfully lays out that she intends to insinuate herself into their lives, as a friend, of course. Later, Frank will see the mess he's gotten himself into, but he'll let it go until too late.

Full review on EFC.

This Week In Tickets: 8 November 2015 - 14 November 2015

Seven days, six movies. A pleasant and sustainable pace.

This Week in Tickets

First up was a preview screening of one I had been looking forward to since the first time the trailer popped up (and it has done so with some regularity in recent months), Brooklyn. I've been a fan of Saoirse Ronan long enough to have really been uncomfortable in terms of being a grown man so impressed by a teenage girl, but, hey, she's good. So is the movie.

I spent just enough time getting groceries afterward that I almost missed the 4:30pm screening of Spectre, which would not have been a huge tragedy, but, if you assume I'm going to see the new James Bond film opening weekend (save assumption), I may as well make the effort to see it on Screen #1 in Somerville. Yes, I did check which showtimes were on that screen and which were on an inferior one when seeing Love a few nights earlier; why do you ask?

Monday, I worked from home entirely so that I could catch Fantasia at the Coolidge that night, as Brookline by 7pm is a much easier target when starting from Somerville than Burlington. The movie remains great, although it's a shame that Disney didn't distribute 35mm prints to places that can still project it. There is, in retrospect, a reason why I generally sit further back for digital presentations than ones presented on film.

Tuesday was a long one day at work, and then on Wednesday I headed to Boston Common for the first day of The Last Woman Standing, which wasn't quite so crowded as the latest Chinese imports, but it did open on a Wednesday a few days after opening in China, and the pirates are fast.

I tried to make it to Room at the Coolidge on Thursday, but the T ground to a halt in frustrating fashion. Friday found the bus running at the right speed just after staying at work a bit longer than usual that I was passing the Capitol at just the right time to see The 33. OK, although it really should be better than OK.

Meant I missed the first half of Guy Maddin's two-day visit to Harvard (I gather he's been there for the semester, but these were his only in-person appearances for the series), but I was able to hit the second, when he introduced and did a Q&A for The Forbidden Room. As usual, Maddin was a lot of fun, both in terms of the movie he made and what a fun guy he is in person.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

About four years ago, DC Comics rebooted its entire line, with the idea of making it easier for new readers and recreating the characters to be edgier and cooler. Frustrating for long-time fans, but what's really frustrating is that every once in a while, they will do something like pair off various characters or otherwise do something that is only really impactful if the audience refers back to the previous iterations of the characters. It's a cheap trick, and a cynical one, and it's one that Spectre pulls several times, especially in the homestretch.

That's not the movie's only issue; but it's the most obviously frustrating, especially since its opposing impulse is to try and make some sort of personal connection between Bond and Blofeld. Because, you see, it's the 21st Century, and it's not enough that the world be threatened by some sort of grandiose disaster; there must be something personal as well: A last mission from the former M, a sort of brother-figure, a romance that isn't quite earned but is apparently strong enough to position the film as feeling like the capstone to Daniel Craig's entire run as Bond. It attempts to revive one of the more grandiose elements of the earlier films, but does so without a lot of the fun, stumbling even when it tries to be a bit lighter.

It's hardly all bad - there's a terrific sequence to open the movie, for instance, and Daniel Craig continues to home in on what makes his take on Bond work, doing a fair job of juggling the conflicting tones that the film goes for. The central cast of characters works very nicely; as much as I loved Judi Dench's M, I'm also very fond of Ralph Fiennes's more active variation, along with Ben Whishaw's Q and Naomie Harris's Moneypenny. Casting Andrew Scott (of Sherlock) in his role may have been giving the game away too obviously, but he certainly works.

The film just doesn't know how to embrace fun, though - there's a massive explosion that apparently set some records for this sort of pyrotechnics, but it doesn't feel important, and while there's some interesting ideas at play in the concept of centralizing global intelligence, Spectre isn't smart enough to really examine the idea or dumb enough to let it run. And, ultimately, it's too much about James Bond, rather than an adventure that is too big for anyone but James Bond.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2015 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (75th Anniversary, digital)

I gave Fantasia a full review at its last divisible-by-five-years anniversary, and one of the things that came up then was how the first time seeing it was a big deal because it was a special trip. Presentation was what I came away from this viewing with, and it was frustrating; the Coolidge did not seem to get a great digital file at all, with artifacts visible during any shot of conductor Leopold Stokes in silhouette and the fine linework of Mickey Mouse showing pixel structure when not strictly horizontal or vertical. It was probably less noticeable even a few rows behind me, but when I pay nearly $20 for a ticket, I like being able to sit close to the front row and not be distracted.

Let it be very clear that this is not on the Coolidge at all; their projection routinely looks great, and though I had some conversations indicating that different models of digital projector might have done better, this should have been film - and that's not even considering how anachronistic the "soundtrack" segment is in a digital presentation!

At least the movie itself is still excellent. Though I did find myself getting a bit impatient with the Deems Taylor introductions, which half the time seemed like little more than descriptions of what we would be seeing in the next few minutes, there is no denying the beauty of the music or the impressive ambition of the animation. Disney was not quite the only game in town in 1940, and they were not quite so beholden to a specific tone as is often assumed, but they were still doing bold things here, with a level of polish not generally seem on art-for-art's-sake projects.

That Disney's style eventually became synonymous with family entertainment may be what keeps Fantasia thrilling even now - though there may be far more animation intended for adults today, this film can still surprise by presenting something scary or grandiose right next to the expected cheerful whimsy. And while it's still a joy to watch on video, it becomes even more astonishing in a theater, both for the big-screen and surround-sound experience and for the audience, as one is removed that this sort of music, so often treated as the property of the elite connoisseur, can in fact be a joy for everyone.

2010's full review on EFC.

BrooklynSpectreFantasiaThe Last Woman StandingThe 33The Last Forbidden Room

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guy Maddin at the HFA: The Forbidden Room

Another series at the HFA, another case where I only see the final film. Slightly more forgivable than when I lived a block or three away, but I really should reinstate my membership, if only so that I'm more inclined to make the most of it.

Still, this was one of only two screenings where Maddin was appearing in person, and I'd already seen him talk about My Winnipeg. Also, I hasn't yet heard that this was just going to be the first time The Forbidden Room played here; as seems to happen relatively often toward the end of the year, the Archive will give it scattered screenings throughout the month of December.

It's a fun movie, if not for everybody. Maddin said he knew it had to be "too much", although he had to hold back to keep it from being "too too too much". That talk of excess manifested most obviously when he talked about using pieces from seventeen "Seances" performances, including one point where they were stacked nine deep.

I'd heard of "Seances" when it was announced, although I didn't connect it with The Forbidden Room until the introduction. As mentioned in the review, that was sort of an installation project where Maddin and a group of actors would try to recreate a lost film in a day during museum hours, with the name coming from how, at the start of the session, he would place the cast in a trance and ask the spirit of the film to possess them. Actors, said Maddin, are easy to place in trances; sometimes they come pre-tranced or will accidentally entrance each other.

I liked that he pointed out that a bunch of those easily-hypnotized thespians were more famous than some in the audience might think in response to a question about how he got some big-name European actors to appear - basically, the casting people knew who in Paris might find this a fun project. Like a lot of us, though, he was a bit surprised how big some of the folks he worked with in Montreal were locally, with Roy Dupuis being a major Quebeçois star. I figured some in the a audience might recognize Caroline Dhavernas, although Wonderfalls was a while ago.

He also spent some time talking about this being his first work with digital for a full project - I recall him talking about how he used it during My Winnipeg because the new arena didn't deserve film, and hope he's enjoying his new hockey team anyway. One thing he mentioned was that there are few lucky accidents with digital photography as opposed to film, no mechanical or chemical missteps that leave an imprint on the end result, which is an issue with the aesthetic they were going for (I've seen other digital productions look silly because they put the same "aging" filter on every frame). They actually wound up coding something to introduce random "errors", with the trick being that you have to commit to them whether you like the end result or not. Similarly, he talked about how they tried to simulate two-strip Technicolor in ways that gave each recreation is own color palette, although using impossible chemistry in many cases. That he's still talking about building color schemes in terms of chemistry shows how film-based his thinking is still.

Although who knows what the future holds? Maddin joked about how he imagined going up to Martin Scorsese at a film festival and asking if he really thought he liked old movies, but also said that after this particular project, he felt like silent and lost movies were out of his system. A big motivator for much of his career to date was that the only way to see any of these films whose descriptions intrigued him was to recreate them himself, but doing this much at once had him interested in trying some new things.

Hopefully that goes well. I like Guy Maddin; he's one of those surprising guys who, for creating art that is kind of on the arcane and demanding side never seems like he considers himself above his prospective audience, and never seems consumed with his own eccentricity. He could be a more insufferable Tim Burton, but instead always comes across as someone who could carry on a fascinating conversation about film who's sitting next to you at a hockey game, though he would not force it upon you.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, digital)

Though part of the Archive's Guy Maddin program, this short was made by his co-director on The Forbidden Room, Alex Johnson, and is not hard to see why the two were natural collaborators. There are similar aesthetics at play here, as Johnson also draws inspiration from their home town of Winnipeg to create a black-and-white, found-footage piece that plays as an offbeat counter to dry expectations, although it is very much his own.

It's neat, though, a self-aware work that exaggerates is darkness by having the voice narrating what a dreary pall the elm trees cast upon the city rumble almost to the point of incomprehensibility; it's neither a Vincent Price-like layer of elegance atop something dispiriting nor a parodically contrarian attempt to make something lovely sinister, but something right at the boundary of the second. And while we're noting what Johnson is doing with the narration and selection of images seemingly taken on one of the city's dreariest days, he's increasing the closer-ups of leaves stricken by Dutch Elm Disease, introducing genuine malaise into the manufactured sort.

It's a neat trick, if not a whole lot more. If nothing else, it's a nifty-enough few minutes to make one curious about what else Johnson is capable of on his own.

"Louis Riel for Dinner"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, digital)

Presented as a story that Guy Maddin found thrown away as a kid, this three-minute piece is built around soft-peddling one joke - a little girl being appalled at finding the family's roast duck has the head of Louis Riel (an important figure in Canadian history and legend) - but the measured approach to everything that director Drew Christie takes makes things even funnier. The animation is limited and the father's almost bored response keeps it from escalating to cartoon lunacy beyond some incongruous visuals. It is comedy boated by an unwillingness to proclaim itself thus.

And maybe that makes what's underneath - a little girl's hero worship dashed both by her father's actions and his casual disregard for a great man - a little more powerful. You wouldn't necessarily describe this cartoon in those terms, but they may be what allows it to gain a little traction in one's head. That feeling, after all, is one we all understand, even if we don't need to articulate it to enjoy a little slice of absurdity.

The Forbidden Room

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, DCP)

Given that The Forbidden Room wasn't even really supposed to be a movie, you have to say it turned out pretty well. Conceived as a two-part multimedia project - the first half live "seances" where Guy Maddin and the day's cast would recreate a lost film, the second a website that mixed and matched the results - the feature was added to the project even as the number of seances were cut, forcing Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson to Frankenstein together something a little less random than intended, but still a wonderfully singular mess.

Frankenstein is a fair metaphor for this movie in a couple of ways; not only are the filmmakers trying to sew the parts of various dead films together and reanimate them, but the novel itself is perhaps the most enduring nested narrative in literature, though few of its cinematic adaptations preserve the multiple-narrator, flashback-within-a-flashback structure. Maddin and his collaborators go kind of nuts with this, though, using common actors and other more dubious methods to assemble seventeen recreations into something that resembles a single work, at one point submerging the audience nine layers in an ocean of flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies.

The surprising thing, then, may be just how effective many of these little vignettes are. The audience enters them in absurd ways and often playing as parody, there is nevertheless something genuine to many of the stories that keeps them from just seeming like mockery of early 20th century film. Consider the segment introduced as the dreams of mustache hairs trimmed from a dying man (Udo Kier), which features his goat returning for a third "final, final, final" farewell and a story of his son (Vasco Bailly-Gentaud) gluing those hairs to his face to fill his blind mother (Maria de Madeiros) into thinking her distant husband is still around despite him seeming to enjoy his death more than his marriage. It's ridiculous on the face but genuine in its underlying cruelty. Several levels further up, a "Saplingjack" (Roy Dupuis) attempting to rescue the local beauty (Clara Furey) from a gang of bandits is an entertaining serial-style adventure that actually becomes more intriguing for its connections to the stories above and below it.

Full review on EFC.