Tuesday, June 02, 2020

These Weeks in (Virtual) Tickets: 18 May 2020 - 31 May 2020

Putting a ticket to a ballgame that wasn't played in because I'd like to see the page broken up a little and to remind me later that all of this doing nothing wasn't entirely a choice. I might very well have been weak given the option.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

I got a late start actually watching movies a couple weeks ago because I wanted to spend evenings writing up the really good movies I'd seen the week before, and I try not to write and watch at the same time. Heck, I may still have been writing when I decided to grab The Great Wall off the shelf. It's still one of the most bizarre productions I can remember seeing, like nobody between Universal and Legendary and the Chinese co-producers and the cast was on the same page. The next night I pulled Night Train to Munich off the "unseen recent arrivals" shelf, figuring that maybe I'd to a Charters & Caldicott binge, only to discover that I had seen it before, although I certainly appreciated bits of it more this time around, even if I do find a long stretch rough.

The rest of the weekend wound up being 3-D stuff, with Saturday's show being one that I thought I might have seen - Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain. Not only had I not seen it, but I grumbled about not having the chance to see it during its tiny North American release, and while five years later I'm probably a little more leery about this sort of Chinese "main melody" movie, I really would have liked to see Tsui Hark doing these big action-adventure things on the big screen. Then on Saturday afternoon, L.A. 3-D SPACE had another Online 3-D Movie Festival, with a much more solid line-up of movies than the one from three weeks earlier. Afterward, I followed up with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, mostly for a little bit more 3D although as I was starting it clicked that the spelunking documentary short was my favorite part of the earlier program.

A couple days later, I started dipping back into the local theaters' offerings with Lucky Grandma, a nifty little bag-of-money movie that feels different with an elderly woman at its center rather than the usual hapless young men. Then on Thursday, I finally got around to watching Up from the Streets on its last day streaming via the Coolidge, and wished I'd enjoyed it a little more.

Friday… Well, Friday was a crazy day in America and after refreshing Twitter and news feeds all day, and that wasn't great, so I capped it off with Mad Max: Fury Road, which really never fails to hit the spot, and then I pretty much spent the weekend on crossword puzzles and more scrolling social media to see what insanity was happening.

Gonna try not to do that this week, with some things planned and some things likely to show up on my Letterboxd page on a whim.

The Great Wall

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

As I mentioned above, and in my original review, this thing feels like nobody outside of Zhang Yimou really had a handle on what sort of movie they were making, with much of the cast either trying to be too serious or mailing it in because it was a silly thing, while Zhang just has a blast, using that Hollywood special effects money as best he can, never really to elevate or add extra weight to a script that hits all the marks but never really finds good moments in between them. Nobody on set seems to have the heart to tell Matt Damon that his ability to do an accent ranges from Somerville to Southie and his British is weird.

But it's still a lot of fun, in part because it is so utterly absurd, with the Chinese half of the cast taking it completely in stride while the westerners are freaking out, although William's impossible skill with a bow puts him in the same movie. The visual effects that were a little rough in 2016-2017 haven't necessarily aged better than others from that era, but there's just enough creativity and artistry to how they're used that what they're getting across still looks great.

One thing that's kind of funny about rewatching it for me is that the score is one that has been on my tablet and cloud music selections for the past three years, to the point where seeing action with familiar motifs is kind of strange. It's also fairly clear watching it that some bits of action were clearly built for 3D, to the point where I may order a disc of that sort from Hong Kong should it drop below $15 or so.

Full review from 2017

Night Train to Munich

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Night Train to Munich is not quite so good as The Lady Vanishes, but on third viewing, it has some awfully impressive pieces. I really love the first half of this movie, with miniatures and matte paintings that give the adventure a sense of scale that it might not otherwise have had. One also can't help but be impressed by the filmmakers' visceral revulsion at the Nazis, which seems to go well past the party line. The final action bit is genuinely nifty as well, drawn out and built out of the heroes being much better shots than the villains though it may be. They cut it together exceptionally.

Unfortunately, there's a lull in the second half that swaps a little too much tension for comedy, too confidently playing the spy game like a game. That very much includes Charters & Caldicott - the reason why this movie will forever be compared to Hitchcock's; they were fun oddball bits of an ensemble in their first appearance but too active here, perhaps the first in a long line of characters who were so well-liked at first that they were subsequently given bigger parts than they deserved.

What I thought way back in 2004

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

What I said back in 2011 still holds; this is a documentary that earns both its extra length over the typical science-museum fare and its third dimension for how it really brings out the shape of the cave and its walls. It's a film full of honest wonder that doesn't need further embellishment, and sometimes it almost seems to throw director Wener Herzog - there's not that much to look at from an odd perspective, really, and trying to be more philosophical can get into a strangely abstract position.

Still, just look at it. It's not quite the only tour you can have of one of the world's most ancient cultural artifacts (I saw an amazing reproduction at the Montreal Science Museum once), but it's certainly the most accessible and most impactful

What I thought way back in 2011

Up from the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

It sometimes feels a bit like missing the point to review a documentary like one is grading an English paper, but somewhere about two-thirds the way through Up From the Streets, I noticed that a half-dozen people had referred to "Mardi Gras Indians" as an influence on various musicians but aside from the occasional cut-away, the filmmakers never get into what that group's deal is. It's even stranger when you consider that this 105-minute movie has at least 18 chapter titles, so maybe there would have been a spot for that. I get it - it's a thing that comes across as tacky and appropriating i contrast to the rest of the movie - but it's also an indication that writer/director Michael Murphy could have done much better in drawing up his plans for how to cover so much history in so little time.

Instead, those 18 chapters are each only able to give a quick look at some particular aspect or figure from New Orleans's musical history, and it creates this odd sensation of a high-level overview that you still have to be somewhat familiar with the material to appreciate. It's pleasant enough to watch - it's still New Orleans and it's still great music, even if there aren't showstopping numbers to highlight how great this is.
There's probably a terrific Ken Burns-style miniseries to be made from this material (if Burns's Jazz isn't NOLA-specific enough), but at 105 minutes, very little gets enough spotlight to fire the imagination, or even make one fall in love.

Mad Max: Fury Road

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I've purchased this movie on disc twice (one 3D, one 4K) but may not have actually watched it at home yet because it's had enough repertory screenings and re-releases to scratch the itch on a big screen; in a number of ways. Still, none of that's happening right now and the events of the day put me in the mood.

It's a little odd to see something that you'd seen exclusively in theaters alone at home; Fury Road being a crowd-pleaser and something that builds up ambient emotion has become so much a part of how I've experienced it (along with the soundtrack as part of a rotation as mentioned with The Great Wall) that having it all to myself seems a little strange. It's still flat-out great, but seeing it like this makes one focus a little more on how it's precise and planned, rather than just getting caught up in it. One does still get caught up - it's that good - and marvel at just how well it stick together.

The 4K disc looks incredible, as much for the HDR colors as the actual resolution (it's an upconvert from a 2K source/intermediate). As much as I found the "black & chrome" version fun and a nifty way to re-experience the movie, it will probably never be my preferred version; the color is so beautiful in this movie that I can't really treat it like an afterthought. I do kind of wish that the 3D and flat versions would use alternate shots/renders in some cases, though; for as gorgeous as this disc looks, there are some bits that mostly seem built for 3D. They don't all quite look odd flattened - some show off extreme foreground/background well, like the flares - but a few don't quite the format and are distracting.

What I wrote in 2015

The Great Wall
Night Train to Munich
The Taking of Tiger Mountain
L.A. 3-D SPACE Online Festival
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Lucky Grandma
Up From the Streets
Mad Max: Fury Road

Saturday, May 30, 2020

L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online #2 (24 May 2020)

I wasn't necessarily expecting L.A. 3-D SPACE to replace what had been on their calendar for Sunday with another online show just three weeks after their last when most months on the schedule just show one thing, but they did schedule an on-line show, although they wound up having some technical difficulties, both in terms of starting late and not getting the side-by-side and anaglyph streams running at once..

Still, for as much as I was kind of disappointed with the their last stream, I really liked this one. It was taken from the award-winners from their 2018 festival, and they were a really strong group, including a great doc or two, some really nifty animation, and a genuinely oddball entry or two. Even if you're not a 3-D nut like myself, they're worth checking out.

(And, even if you're not, I suspect that if you're reading this particular entry, you've probably got a pair of red-blue glasses kicking around.)

Anyway, there are links to individual shorts where I can find them throughout; as of right now the whole program is still online, with the side-by-side version first and then the red/blue anaglyph. Have fun with it, and maybe kick some cash their way, as they've still got rent and everything else to worry about.

"The Stereoscopic Society"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Kate Sullivan's "The Stereoscopic Society" is only a minute long, so it can only provide the briefest overview of London's Stereoscopic Society, which meets regularly for slideshows and to compare equipment.

Very short documentary, but by all appearances, a cool, charming place to visit and see cool 3D stuff.

"Domino, Secret of the Lost World"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This isn't quite the longest film of the presentation but it's the one that perhaps make the biggest impression, as filmmakers Richard Bouda & Marek Audy start from a somewhat strained metaphor (the dominoes of the title) and a fanciful introduction (that the tepuis being explored are where Arthur Conan Doyle set The Lost World, and then digging in to what you find when you actually reach the surface, and then you've got a documentary about an amazingly isolated ecosystem that features rugged-looking plants, sandstone caves, carnivorous plants, and unusual frogs. It's an amazing thing to build a documentary about.

Getting a 3D rig up to the top of one of those tepuis is maybe not as hard as it might have been, although they have traditionally been finicky enough that the rough handling Bouda & Audy must inevitably subject them to makes it very impressive that they got as much usable footage as they did. It may not be quite so pretty as what Werner Herzog and his crew got in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but the caves serve as a fantastic stage, extending back into the screen and showing layers of features. The camerawork is great whether examining a tiny frog or a dizzying drop.

"Domino" is the sort of short documentary I really love, made by people passionate about the subject matter going the extra mile to be sure that they can bring it to an audience in compelling fashion. It's the sort of thing that's fun no matter what, but seems to be made for 3D

"Espace, Espaces!" ("Space… Spaces!")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This one, by Marilou Deshayes and Esther Jacopin, took a bit of time to grow on me, because it's the sort of short film that doesn't seem to settle into the right groove between straight narrative and off-kilter messing around for a while. The filmmakers have access to a nifty building that looks great in 3D, but a very small cast, and large chunks of it don't seem that well thought-out, including the thread meant to tie everything together, with receptionist/cleaner Baptiste (Benjamin Romieux) seeming to have the most pure love for the Ministry of Space where he works.

And yet, by the end, it's evolved into something really nifty. There's a running gag about three exo-linguists industriously inventing new languages that won't be beholden to human standards and capabilities that feels kind of stretched until a scene where the Minister (Majida Ghomari) talks about how the entire department is often treated as a running gag, at least until the people in power need some science, and it becomes a very sincere, and sincerely frustrated, discussion of how sometimes important things run are fueled by things which the practical folks just can't grasp. That the three groups within the Ministry who keep finding themselves at loggerheads - the engineers, the diplomats, and the linguists - are played by the same three actors works as both Deshayes & Jacopin stretching their cast well (the gag didn't leap out at me until the credits) and a twist on how we're all weird specialists to someone else.

"Un Histoire D'amour" ("A Love Story")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

This one apparently won the top International prize in '18, although I think the previous two are more interesting. This one's amusing enough, especially early on when it looks like filmmaker Julien Charpier might be riffing on Makoto Shinkai's "Voices of a Different Star", or more directly doing so. It's at its best when it's working along those lines, but it loses that and connection to that and goes in a more generally avant-garde direction which is interesting and sometimes striking, but seldom as interesting

It's interesting, but tries a bit hard, and doesn't find the same sort of groove between its story and deliberate oddity that "Espace, Espaces!" does.

"Go Away I Like You Too Much"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Apparently "Go Away I Like You Too Much" (2D & 3D) is going to be part of a 40-minute production that includes all ten tracks on "Smitten" by The Simple Carnival, which was apparently filmmaker Jeff Boller on various instruments. The whole project looks to be about halfway complete.

This particular leg of it is a lot of fun - it's a good pop song with animation that keeps up, tells a story, and has gets a viewer in the head of its super-abstract characters in a couple of minutes. It is very much the work of someone who is playing with 3D animation and wants to see what he can do on top of making a good music video, but that's entirely cool in this particular situation. I'll certainly be going through the rest of the videos and hoping there's a way to purchase a good SBS version when he's done.

"Cryogen Children"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Movie Fest Online, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

Director Sadie Schiffman-Eller does something especially nifty with the animation in "Cryogen Children", as using 3D makes the separate elements in this mixed-media production feel a bit more disconnected from each other in ways that might not be as apparent when flattened. It's an apt metaphor for someone searching for her roots and knowing that, because her mother used a donor, she herself is metaphorically assembled in that way.

It's a nice bit of work, since Schiffman-Eller captures how strange the whole process seems from both ends, whether anonymously donating sperm or trying to find out where you came from. She leans into the collage aspects of the work, working double helices and other symbols into the film, and while this allows things to keep getting bizarre, Schiffman-Eller never lets it completely get away from her. It's an impressive pieces of work that uses all the bits and pieces it's made of well.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 29 May 2020 - 4 June 2020

This has always sort of been a quiet week for new releases, giving the Memorial Day openings a little extra room, so as you might imagine without theaters actually open, it's really super-dead

  • The Brattle Theatre still makes two new additions to its virtual screening room, both callbacks in a way. Joan of Arc is director Bruno Dumont's follow-up to Jeannette, and one way in which it is unusual is that he has retained the same actress who played the title character as a child in that one to play her as a teenager though Lise Leplat Prudhomme was only ten years old at the time of filming. There is also the option to RSVP for a Q&A with Dumont on Thursday afternoon.

    They also bring back IFFBoston alum Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, this time in its theatrical version - apparently it was recut after its festival run. They also hold over Lucky Grandma, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Fourteen, Vitalina Varela, and Thousand Pieces of Gold.

    No week-long series of recommendations currently, but they continue to post "Y'Know, For the Kids!" on Tuesdays and Saturdays, recently featuring The Secret of Roan Inish and the original Escape to Witch Mountain, with #BreakYourAlgorithm picks appearing Mondays and Thursdays, with the past week's selections including Soapdish.
  • There's no mere popcorn pop-up at The Capitol this weekend, as their Capitol Creamery ice cream shop is now open for phone orders and curbside pickup daily from 1pm to 8pm, including traditional popcorn and candy. They also pick up The Cordillera of Dreams to play in their virtual cinema (it previously played the Brattle's) alongside The Painter and the Thief, Heimat Is a Space in Time, Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon.

    Their friends at The Somerville Theatre would have been wrapping up the 70mm film festival this weekend, and we can only hope it's safe to open by the time David would get the projectors ready to use the big film for Tenet For now, they add Military Wives to their virtual cinema, continuing The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Alice, Pahokee, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers. Both also add Blackfish to Magnolia's "some of our favorite docs" program, with a Q&A scheduled for Wednesday and both RBG and Life Itself still available.
  • Independent Film Festival Boston continues to host The Rabbi Goes West in their virtual cinema through Thursday afternoon, and will also host a Q&A with filmmakers Amy Gellar & Gerald Peary and subjects Rabbi Chaim Bruk and Chavie Bruk on Sunday the 31st.
  • The Regent Theatre adds Reggae Boyz to their VOD offerings; the documentary follows a Jamaican soccer team attempting to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Their run of WBCN and the American Revolution also continues, with a Q&A on Tuesday evening.They have also extended Dosed and Fantastic Fungi.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre slows down a bit this week, though there's a limited edition T-shirt added to their online store. They continue to show Lucky Grandma, The Painter and the Thief, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, Driveways, Straight Up, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and The Booksellers in the virtual screening room.

    They also have three ways to enhance home viewing on the schedule. First, Akira Oni will be doing a thirty-minute live drag show on Saturday night inspired by Pan's Labyrinth, part of the "After Midnite" offerings. For post-show conversation, they will be hosting author Ben Mezrich to talk about The Social Network (adapted from his book The Accidental Billionaires) on Tuesday, while Emerson professor Andre Puca does the week's Coolidge Education introduction/Q&A, discussing Federico Fellini's - register, watch the intro, watch the movie, come back Thursday evening for the Zoom call.
  • The West Newton Cinema has not yet updated their virtual cinema page for the weekend, but they'll presumably also add Blackfish while continuing Life Itself, RBG, Military Wives, Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers.
  • Boston Jewish Film continues their online summer cinematheque program in somewhat unconventional fashion this week with a behind-the-scenes look at upcoming film Vishniac with director Laura Bialas, writer Sophia Sartain, and producers Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg. The film itself is not finished - it is expected to play the festival in 2021 - they will be there to discuss photographer Roman Vishniac and his world on Wednesday evening. Pre-register here.
  • The Showcase Cinemas drive-in show starts this weekend, not last; my bad. It's in the parking lot of their Foxboro location, kicking off with Raiders of the Lost Ark this Saturday night (future shows will be on Fridays), with proceeds going to the Foxboro Food Pantry and tickets/snacks are on sale via their smartphone app. They also continue to serve as a portal for Military Wives, The Mindfulness Movement, Fantastic Fungi, Capone, and Scoob!, although different films are listed depending on where you land on the site.

Looking like a week of catch-up (notably The Rabbi Goes West) and working through the shelf for me.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lucky Grandma

I'm not sure how much longer folks will be able to do this and Thousand Pieces of Gold as a double feature via the Brattle's virtual screening room, but I suspect they pair well, with different tones and periods but two intriguing women sometimes wrestling with the idea of being Chinese-American.

(Plus, both Rosalind Chao and Tsai Chin were in The Joy Luck Club, but I suspect that can apply to nearly every well-known Chinese-American actress from that period.)

It's a nifty one, and while it's cool that funds from rentals are going both to theaters and Chinatown-based funds, I'm once again disappointed that I'm seeing it this way, since I'd kind of love to be in an audience with a bunch of Chinese-American people just to hear which jokes land well that I don't recognize. Heck, having seen just how much of the stuff I found when doing an Amazon search for Tsai Chin was music, I now really want to know if she was ever on the soundtrack semi-ironically.

Lucky Grandma

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, KinoNow via Roku)

It's not a trick that works every time, or even the thought process that most filmmakers are using, but you'll probably get something interesting by taking a story that has been done a lot and then adding twenty years or so to the main character's age. Sure, it may seem like suicide commercially, but you'll wind up with a terrific character actor in the lead, new challenges and solutions in the story, and the chance for nifty juxtapositions. It makes for one of the more intriguing bag-of-money movies to come out in a while.

It starts with Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) getting a reading from her fortune teller (Wai Ching Ho), who says she will have a "10-year-luck pillar" on the 28th of October. One might worry that her winning a few bags of rice as a prize for being the 88th customer at her bank on an anniversary date is the extent of it, but she instead withdraws her savings - all $1,757 of it - and heads to Foxwoods, where things go well and then don't. But then, on the bus home, her seatmate with a bag full of cash has a heart attack, and since he's got a gang tattoo, nobody would really get hurt if she goes home with it. A couple days later, "Little Handsome" (Michael Tow) and "Pockmark" (Woody Fu) from the Red Dragon gang show up, so she sensibly goes to the Zhongliang gang to get get some protection, in the form of gentle-seeming giant Big Pong (Ha Hsiao-Yuan).

Growing old means being left behind and out of place in a lot of different ways, with little to do but accept it either begrudgingly or bitterly, and filmmaker Sasie Sealy saturates Lucky Grandma with this. Grandma Wong exists in cramped corners and dark rooms, defiantly unchanging but, as a result, completely out of place when she ventures into her son's bright, bilingual household, and not really able to push back when her grandson brings it to her place. She's not alone or innocent in this - the film hinges on the fact that Mr. Lin's death probably would be completely unremarkable if he hadn't been moving a bunch of mob money - but that's not a knock on the film. Indeed, it suggests that part of growing old, at least for people like Ms. Wong, is a reluctance to admit to weakness, leading to greater isolation and aggression and often having a smaller space than one might otherwise have.

It's something that could have been hard to see, behind her dark glasses and taciturn manner, but the way Tsai Chin plays all of those little moments imbues them each with meaning that may or may not be explained later on, especially when adjacent ones seem to contrast: There's an aggression that's not exactly joyless but also not exuberant as her lucky numbers come up, which pairs well with the devastated but pessimistic acceptance when this stops. Later on, her back is up as she pushes Pong away so that she can talk to an old friend, a conversation that seems to be the most relaxed she has been through the whole film, like she's protecting something precious. Chin highlights how much this is not Wong's world without ever making it seem like she doesn't know how to navigate it, and there's a great sort of quiet tension between her and Eddie Yu as her son - they love each other but come from different worlds, and aren't really sure how to deal with the other. There's a more easily enjoyable contrast between her and Ha Hsiao-Yuan's Big Pong - visually, it's a size difference usually reserved for animation, and Ha plays that softness as a notable contrast to his charge's frequent harshness, a reticence that covers what is generally a friendly attitude. Despite his size, he still can fit in a lot of places, eventually.

Sealy and co-writer Angela Cheng do a nice enough job of using the bag-of-money plot to put the life of an old, immigrant widow like Grandma Wong into focus that it's actually a little jarring when that plot spreads outside of her life and forces a confrontation, though not in a bad way - she, too, maybe has to be jolted into remembering that she's part of things. On either side of that moment, though, Sealy and her collaborators do a nice job of keeping things moving, giving the audience time to look around without feeling like they're stuck somewhere, emphasizing how places from a somewhat poor neighborhood to a casino can feel both off-putting and homey. They have some fun with how a senior lady is an unconventional choice for this sort of story, with the occasional music cue that's funkier than she is or a wink at how dark glasses to protect elderly eyes and frustration can often be read as cool indifference.

It's a combination that winds up too organically intertwined for Lucky Grandma to just be a bag-of-money movie with an older-than-usual lead, but also makes for a pretty great twist on that genre. That's on top of being one of those great showcases for someone who has spent much of a long career in character roles - but, then, that's why find a way to build a movie like this around this sort of veteran.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Not really a lot to say here that I didn't include in the eFilmCritic review other than noting that the disc I ordered from Hong Kong however long ago appears to be a 3D-only disc, with no option to watch in 2D that I saw on the menu (unless it's buried in a submenu somewhere) and no second disc in the package. It's a pretty long movie to have multiple versions on the same disc, although I suppose it could just show the left-eye or right-eye stream. Still, I suppose the 2D version is there for streaming if I ever opt to show this to someone, but it doesn't look like it got a 3D release in the U.S. aside from maybe theatrical (and I am reminded that this did not play Boston even though obviously inferior Chinese movies did).

I'm mildly curious how well this did at the box office; I wouldn't be shocked if it was the most commercially-successful of Tsui Hark's big 3D action/adventures he made in the 2010s, even if I'd probably only put it ahead of Journey to the West: Demon Chapter. Many similarly rousing military-action movies have come out in its wake, not always made by people with the same sort of skill, and I hope Tsui's future plans are more the big fantasies (especially the Detective Dee time-travel story he's been kicking around) than what a lot of folks describe as "Call of Duty movies".

Zhi qu wei hu shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

The Taking of Tiger Mountain was one of the first films in China's recent wave of military action blockbusters, and it's got most of the issues of the ones that have followed, primarily that it has exactly the amount of nuance one would expect of a big-budget movie whose makers know that it must pass through a fairly strict censor board. This one's at least got Tsui Hark at the helm, and he's probably got more experience making this sort of effects-laden movie than anybody else in China, and even more making entertaining action/adventure.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1946, in Northeastern China, a year after the defeat of Japan, a time when the People's Liberation Army, Nationalist forces, and warlord bandits. The PLA unit attempting to secure the area is seriously under-supplied, although Captain Shoa Jianbo (Kenny Lin Genxin), known as "203", is being sent reinforcements - scout Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) and nurse Bai Ru (Tong Liya) to join a team including aide-de-camp Gao Bo (Chen Xiao) and locals Tank (Zha Ka) and Li Yongqi (Guo Hong-Qing). The greatest local threat appears to be Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who has holed up in an abandoned Japanese fort and may have a line on the location of an arsenal the retreating army left behind.

Tsui has spent the 2010s finally able to make the big, effects-laden movies he never had the resources for in the early, Hong Kong-based phases of his career, and in the early going he occasionally seems to be using bullet-time to stop and linger, like this is exactly what he storyboarded and wants to take a snapshot. He's similarly self-indulgent with 3D, absolutely loving to throw things directly at the audience or use slow-motion to let things hang in mid-air. For all the flashy moments, Tsui uses his budget like the old pro that he is, letting the audience learn their way around the various main settings, creating depth and keeping the movie from looking too busy, plus threading the needle between the PLA being underdogs and being desperate.

In threading that needle, though, he and his co-writers don't necessarily give a decent ensemble cast a whole lot to work with. They're mostly dutiful soldiers and desperate villagers, and while it's easy enough to like 203, Gao, and Bai, they're well-played stock characters, as is the initially-uncommunicative kid that falls in with them. The fun mostly comes from Zhang Hanyu's scout/undercover operative, who is just gruff and unpolished enough to come across as a possibly-untrustworthy rogue even though nothing in the story necessarily suggests why 203 and his unit would regard him with suspicion, at least to an outsider, though Du Yi-Heng's duplicitous henchman and Tony Leung Ka-Fai's mugging warlord. They may be caricatures, but evil caricatures can be more entertaining than simple do-gooders.

It's an issue that Tsui has to overcome as the last act explodes into action; there's never any particular doubt in the outcome, especially with the heroic sacrifices and everything else happening right on schedule. It's countered mainly by the film shifting gears, becoming less a war movie than a Saturday-serial sort of action/adventure, built around an absolutely ridiculous ski jump that leads into action that is as entertainingly staged as it is thoroughly one-sided. There may never be any real doubt about the outcome, but the scale is big, the staging solid, and all the little bits that make up the larger sequence are played with enthusiasm but not sadism. It's the sort of action that's easy to get caught up in, grinning at the sheer craft, even if there is not a lot of suspense to it.

There's also a frame on it with a man in the present stopping to meet friends in New York on the way to a lucrative job in Silicon Valley before footage of a Peking Opera show inspired by the same story leads him to return home and pay tribute to said heroes, just in case the appropriate message wasn't received. Tsui winks at that in the most over-the-top way possible in the end credits, but a last-minute acknowledgment of this sort of acknowledgment and myth-making doesn't make the two hours that came before more than slick and professional.

Also on EFilmCritic

Friday, May 22, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 22 May 2020 - 28 May 2020

A lot of overlap for this long holiday weekend, and it can't be that fewer movies are being released because they figure we'll be out doing other stuff.

  • The Brattle Theatre opens two new ones, with Lucky Grandma following a Chinatown octogenarian who winds up in the middle of a gang war, while Peter Medak's The Ghost of Peter Sellers follows how making Ghost in the Noonday Sun with a pair of comic geniuses was, in fact, not fun at all. Lucky Grandma will have a virtual premiere starting at 5:30pm EST (like, right now!), and both films will be featured as part of a Monday afternoon Zoom session with Ned & Ivy. Fourteen, Vitalina Varela, and Thousand Pieces of Gold are "held over", and there's a Sunday night stream of Shogun Assassin with RZA and Dan Halsted giving live commentary.

    The annual "Reunion Week program kicked off on Wednesday with Toy Story and Dead of Night celebrating 25 and 75 years, respectively, continuing through Tuesday with a variety of films celebrating anniversaries that are multiples of 25 years. I don't think the program has done a 100th yet, but they must be getting awful close. Among the regular recommendations, "Y'Know, For the Kids!" (Tuesdays and Saturdays) recently suggested Rango, while #BreakYourAlgorithm (Mondays and Thursdays) most recently included Cookie's Fortune and Cast a Deadly Spell.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre also has Lucky Grandma and Shogun Assassin, and picks up two new documentaries: The Painter and the Thief following a Czech artist befriending the career criminal who stole her work and Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy featuring "The Julia Child of Mexico". Director Elizabeth Carroll hosts a virtual Q&A for the second Saturday night, along with some special guests, and one is planned for Painter, with the theater offering an opportunity to submit questions. Driveways, On A Magical Night, Up From the Streets, Straight Up, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, and The Booksellers continue.

    Geothe-Institut presentation Free Country returns for a second weekend (playing through Monday), and the week's Coolidge Education seminar has Slate senior editor Sam Adams discussing The Long Goodbye. Register, watch the introduction, stream the movie, and then join the Zoom discussion on Thursday.
  • I was going to be living at The Somerville Theatre this weekend for the cancelled 70mm film festival, but may still stop by for the popcorn pop-up on Saturday. They also open The Ghost of Peter Sellers in virtual cinema, along with Alice, Pahokee, The Whistlers, and Once Were Brothers. Their friends at The Capitol add The Painter and the Thief and cinematic essay Heimat Is a Space in Time, to their virtual cinema alongside Spaceship Earth, Dying for Gold, The Whistlers, Once Were Brothers, and Slay the Dragon.
  • The West Newton Cinema, the Somerville, and the Capitol are all participating in Magnolia's "A Few of Our Favorite Docs" series, where $5 both rents a movie and registers one for a Wednesday Q&A; this week's selection is Life Itself, with RBG still available.

    West Newton also adds Military Wives to their screening options with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Hogan in a true story of members of a military wives' choir that became a big deal in the UK for a while; it's the latest from Peter Cattaneo, who directed The Full Monty. Once Were Brothers, Slay the Dragon, and The Whistlers continue, as does their GoFundMe campaign, and "Local Hero" advance ticket sales.
  • Independent Film Festival Boston is still holding out hope that its 2020 edition is only postponed, but in the meantime, they've set up an online screening area for The Rabbi Goes West, from festival friends and alumni Amy Gellar & Gerald Peary, following an evangelical Hasidic rabbi as he ventures to Montana. It will be available as of 10am on Sunday (24 May 2020) and run through 4 June, with the filmmakers and subjects scheduled for a Q&A on the 31st.
  • Boston Jewish Film would normally be running a summer cinematheque program at local theaters during the summer, but with that out, they are doing it virtually. The first one scheduled is Resistance, with filmmakers Johnathan & Claudine Jakubowicz and star Jesse Eisenberg joining a Zoom conversation Sunday afternoon at 5pm. Pre-register here, watch the film on your VOD provider of choice, and enjoy the conversation!
  • The Regent Theatre has started a "Regent TV" weekly variety show, and continues its two virtual features, with Dosed including a Q&A on Tuesday at 8:30pm. WBCN and the American Revolution also continues, with a Q&A planned for 2 June.
  • Showcase Cinemas is also opening Military Wives and Fantastic Fungi, with The Mindfulness Movement, Capone, and Scoob! also continuing. And while none of their theaters are able to open, they are starting a pop-up drive-in series in the parking lot of their Foxboro location, with Raiders of the Lost Ark playing Saturday night and proceeds going to the Foxboro Food Pantry; tickets and snacks are on sale via their smartphone app.
Man… I'd normally be adding the outdoor screenings bit to this right about now, wouldn't I? Of the new stuff, I'll probably catch Lucky Grandma and The Painter and the Thief, with an eye toward things coming off the shelf.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 11 May 2020 - 17 May 2020

I think this is the first week of lockdown where I went in with the goal of actually watching a movie every night, and I think it went pretty okay.

This Week in Tickets

I started out by noting that the Brattle recommended Dave Made a Maze as their #BreakYourAlgorithm selection on Monday, and since I don't know that I'd seen it since it ran at BUFF, it seemed like a good thing to dive into. It is, as you might expect, still a bunch of fun, even if it's not quite the same when you're watching it in your living room by yourself, knowing what you're in for, versus getting hit by it with a crowd, but what is?

I actually tried to to watch a second movie Monday night but conked out, and decided that if I was going to do an "RIP Twilight Time" post, it would be with another movie, so I went with Model Shop, a Jacques Demy movie they put out which seems like it really should be in the Criterion Demy set since his early films have Marvel-style continuity, which I suspect might be a fun way to introduce today's binge-watcher to him as a filmmaker.

Wednesday night, I pulled an impulse-purchased disc off the shelf and did a double feature of Deluge & Back Page, although it was mostly about seeing the first after having seen clips posted and figuring, well, better see the whole movie. Not necessarily great stuff, but interesting since Deluge might be the first American post-apocalyptic movie, at least in terms of how we think of the genre, and I am kind of fascinated by sci-fi in the golden age of cinema. I'm going to have to dig into saturday serials sometime, since that appears to be where most of the action was.

Thursday evening I went with Knives Out, in part because I was falling behind in my blogging and figured sprinkling some stuff I'd already seen in there would slow that down. Besides, what's the point of buying these 4K discs if you don't occasionally marvel at how good this stuff looks.

The weekend wound up bringing a pretty decent slate of movies, or at least ones I wanted to see. I kicked that off with Free Country via the Coolidge and Geothe-Institut, which turned out to be a remake of a Spanish film I saw at Fantasia a few years ago. I'm guessing it's not quite so strong, but it's been long enough that I didn't immediately recognize everything. Saturday night, I started with Driveways, which is kind of terrific, and then decided to finish the double feature with On a Magical Night Turns out that the second would be a more natural double feature with Alice from the Somerville Theatre's offerings, although to be honest, Night was going to suffer in either pairing because both Driveways and Alice are really terrific.

Not nearly as much getting seen this week, but re-watches will probably show up on my Letterboxd page before here, though I'm not sure what the rest of the week looks like

Dave Made a Maze

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This was easily my favorite film from the Boston Underground Film Festival three years ago, and it's still kind of fantastic. It's impossible to get knocked flat by discovery and creativity the second time around, but some of the ideas and performances are still strong - it's a genuinely fun set of characters, from the most to least nuanced, and it's kind of a shame that Meera Rohit Kumbhani doesn't seem to have had any sort of breakout since. The craft is really great for something that was made on a fairly insane schedule.

The theme of it sits a little easier with me on a second viewing, with the inconsistency working a little more. At first, the film seemed to be wrestling a bit with not necessarily knowing how to say "some people just aren't artists, no matter how much they want to be, and that's okay". This time through, I get a bit more of a sense of the filmmakers talking about getting started - it can take a lot of false starts to find your medium, you maybe don't necessarily want to share those first attempts with others, and while it's important to finish, just so that you know you can do it, you may wind up losing or burying those first attempts. And, to repeat, that's okay

I think there's a bit of both in there, and maybe that makes for a muddled metaphor, but getting started is messy.

Full review from 2017

Knives Out

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

This 4K disc is pretty dang good-looking, the sort of thing that reminds me that what sits on my shelf is really competitive with what I saw in the theater. Just really gorgeous.

It's hopefully not too spoilery at this point to say that what filmmaker Rian Johnson does here makes it a bit more rewatchable than it might otherwise have been; he's pointed out that the plan was to put a Alfred Hitchcock movie inside of an Agatha Christie novel, so you don't get quite so caught up in either spotting where Johnson was trying to trick you or getting bored because scenes don't work if something isn't being held back. The movie is, in many ways, enjoyable the second time around in the same way it was the first.

And it's still great, full of fun characters and witty exchanges, and Johnson is really great at just knowing what he's doing. His movies aren't full of flashy camera moves or stylization, but they move quickly and feel slick and stylish without ever coming across as generic. The film may have a couple of spots where it hits a bump - although I kind of suspect that the Trump conversation will come across a bit more as a useful time capsule than an awkward attempt to be topical when we watch it ten years from now - but I really appreciate the way he knows how to use his tools well enough that he doesn't have to show it off.

What I thought last fall

Dave Made a Maze
Model Shop
Deluge & Back Page
Knives Out
Free Country
On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)
Alice (2019)