Sunday, February 18, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year, Have Some Sequels: The Monkey King 3 & Monster Hunt 2

One ore sequel to go for the weekend, but other big movie/vacation things are going to keep me from seeing Detective Chinatown 2 right away (I see that there is a theater in New Orleans playing that one, so maybe I'll do that on a rainy evening), and I'm drawn to the big FX spectacles anyway. From what I gather, Monster Hunt 2 is the really massive hit this weekend in China, but Detective Chinatown seems to have grabbed more theaters in the U.S., perhaps because the student/expat audience that sees a lot of these movies in North America doesn't have kids.

Whatever the reason, the two family-friendly fantasies I saw were pretty darn decent, enough that I fear I'll learn the wrong lesson from seeing Monkey King 3 even though the first two were kind of disappointing. Their release as a whole is kind of interesting to me just in terms of how awkward these international releases can be - obviously, the Lunar New Year is a massive movie release weekend in China, much like Christmas, and Thanksgiving are in the U.S. and Diwali is in India, but even things with potential crossover appeal like Monster Hunt 2 get steamrolled because it goes up against Black Panther, which has a lot of screens, including almost all of the 3D ones. Both Monkey King and Monster Hunt strike me as potentially looking pretty good in that format, but the opportunity just isn't going to be there in America, which is a shame: There doesn't seem to have been the backlash against that format in Asia that there has in America, and both of these films had Hong Kong crews that are really good at using space in their action sequences.

Anyway, even if these movies are playing in a theater that MoviePass doesn't currently support and Black Panther is (understandably) a priority, give some thought to checking them out. They're pretty decent on their own and the fact that they are kind of huge, popular hits - you will likely see MH2 on some year-end list of the biggest movies worldwide - means they've got pretty broad appeal and you've got a chance to see where movies will go as Hollywood continues to chase the world market.

Xiyouji zhi Nü'erguo (The Monkey King 3)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

Sometimes, the third time apparently is the charm - despite a pair of less-than-impressive predecessors, director Cheang Pou-soi's third Monkey King film winds up being pretty darn decent. It's been a heck of a troubled path to get there, as the producers basically scrapped everything and started over at one point, and there have been at least two better takes on the same material while this series of movies has been a going concern, but on its own, this particular flick isn't a bad way to spend a couple hours if your local theater has booked it for Chinese New Year.

It picks up roughly where the previous film left off, with Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) serving monk Tang Sanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) as he journeys to the west to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, along with pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and water buffalo demon Sha Wujing (Him Law). Their route takes them down a waterway whose local river god has been wrecking shifts, and they are saved when a hand from the heavens sends them through a portal to the Womanland of Western Liang. Tang and the young Queen (Zanilla Zhao Liying) are immediately smitten, but men are outlawed in Womanland, and the royal Perceptor (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) is determined to make sure the death sentence is carried out, especially since there's a prophecy that this party heralds doom.

The irony is that it works in large part because Sun Wukong is pretty close to being a side character here, right up until a finale where they face a protean adversary that just can't be hit with a stick, which is pretty much Wukong's go-to move. Instead, the story focuses on the monk and the queen, forcing both to decide between personal attachment and greater responsibilities. It's a wobbly plot arguably built on what many may consider a false premise of there not being room in people's lives for both (indeed, many people need both), but it gives Feng good material to work with while his demon pals are mostly comic relief, and the series could arguably use an entry like that - adventure movies made from The Journey to the West often focus on the exciting monsters and wind up playing Tang as a naive fool who needs Wukong to bail him out, undercutting that the point is for the arrogant demigod to learn from the humble human. Presenting the group with a situation where even the villains are motivated and somewhat sympathetic, and that must be solved spiritually, even as it causes Tang to question himself, is a good move even if it does mean there's less action.

Full review on EFC

Zhou yao ji 2 (Monster Hunt 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

There are many sorts of sequels, all with their various merits - the serialized story, the shifting genres, the attempt to recapture the same magic but with more resources. Monster Hunt 2 definitely falls into the "more of the first" category of sequel, with a story that is often vague enough that it like some combination of treading water until a climactic third part or only having time for a loose outline before shooting because the filmmakers knew they'd have to leave time for visual effects in order to hit a Chinese New Year release date. That's okay; that first was pretty good and this doesn't throw much of it away to get Wuba and his human foster parents together again.

As it opens, Wuba and many of the other monsters in the human world are living in a new Village of Peace in the woods, and while young monster hunters Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) miss the little tentacled radish, they know he would not have been safe with them. It turns out he's not safe in the village either, as it's attacked and his guardians (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue & Eric Tsang Chi-wai) just barely help him to escape. Fortunately, he meets up with BenBen, an adult member of his species, albeit one who works with con artist and gambling addict Tu Sigu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who owes a lot of money to loan shark Zhu Jinzhen (Li Yuchun), and though she'd accept his hand in marriage instead, he'd probably rather have the cash bounty on Wuba's head. Meanwhile, not realizing Wuba is in danger, Xiaolan and Tianyin are starting to have certain qualms about the Monster Hunters' Bureau - for every rising young star like Yun Qing (Tony "Yo" Yang Yo-ning), there seem to be a lot of people just as happy to kill monsters as capture them.

Unlike a lot of sequels trying to scratch the same itch as their predecessors, Monster Hunt 2 opts to shake up the cast rather than bringing everyone back to repeat the same catchphrases, and this actually turns out to be a strength for the new movie. Bai Baihe and Jing Boran are back as Xiaolian and Tianyin, although they've got an easier, less contentious chemistry that comes from the tomboyish Xiaolian and the emotive Tianyin mostly accepting themselves as an odd couple rather than making any serious attempt for an interloper to get between them (in fact, Xiaolin more-or-less ignoring any attempt in that direction is something of a running joke). There's an enjoyable new group of supporting characters, from Da Peng as the Bureau's Q-equivalent (the one with the crush on Xiaolin) to the ever-reliable Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Tu. Leung plays the sort of scoundrel that is still worthy of his money-lender's affection, with Li Yuchun having fun chewing the scenery in that role.

Full review on EFC

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.02: Flora, The Gateway & Andover

Yep, a week later, I get this posted. So much for trying to do it quick by not writing a whole lot, but all three of these movies were just good enough that the "don't pile on" instinct didn't kick in and but also had something in them worth talking about for good or ill.

I skipped the family show in the early afternoon for the Animated Oscar Shorts, but settled in afterward for three movies, two of which had guests.



Left to right, that's Leandra from the festival and Flora cast members/producers Dan Lin, William Aaron, and Terese Marie Doran, with composer Nathan Prillaman on the right. They're a pretty cool group, many of whom knew each other and director Sasha Louis Vukovic in college and were thus able to pull this movie together knowing their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what they had access to. Part of that was land, in that they knew someone who would let them shoot on their property without a lot of trouble, although they pointed out that it wasn't quite so isolated as you might think - there are a lot of scenes where, if you turned the camera 90 degrees, you'd see that they were not far from civilization at all. They also wound up having to redo all the sound in post, because it wasn't nearly so animal-noise-free as the plot required. Also, even a movie as low-budget as this can have 100+ effects shots these days, even if it's mostly removing mosquitoes from your eerily still forest or jet contrails from your period piece.

Nobody came for The Gateway, but to be fair, they are Australian, and that is a heck of a flight.



That's Andover director Scott Perlman on the right. Seems like a nice-enough guy. I did find it weird just how much of the film wound up being connected to Jonathan Silverman, who from his filmography just doesn't seem like a guy to get anyone particularly excited.

(Scans further)

Okay, finding out that he's played a character with your name is weird.

Anyway, Perlman talked about how they wanted him at the start, but he dropped out both for timing and because there was potential tension with an ex-girlfriend in the cast, but then she dropped out, he was available when they were finally able to shoot, they talked about getting his wife Jennifer Finnigan a cameo, to wind up casting her as the dead wife who gets cloned multiple times, with Finnigan winding up being the best thing about the movie.

It's genuinely weird how this works out sometimes, isn't it?

Flora

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Flora is a thriller that, like may first films, is built to work around pitfalls and get the absolute most that the filmmakers can out of what they have available, to the point where it sometimes seems that the characters and filmmakers are improvising in the same way. While that's not the most exciting way to present a movie, it can certainly make for one that catches the eye when reading a genre festival's catalog or a VOD menu, and in this case the results are not bad at all.

Some of what makes it eye-catching is the 1929 setting, with four botany students - Ora Blackwood (Teresa Marie Doran), Matsudaira Basho (Dan Lin), Rudyard Corey (Miles G. Jackson), and Charles Horne (William Aaron) - are headed into an unmapped part of the woods to assist a professor on a survey, joined by nurse Avis Tasker (Sari Mercer) and Rudy's brother Haviland (Caleb Noel). When the professor doesn't meet them as planned, they voyage up the river and to the camp as planned, only to find it abandoned, and the provisions that were supposed to last them a month gone. They start to make plans to make do, but after a day or so they can't help but notice there are no animal and insect noises.

The jazz-age setting that writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic chooses is convenient in a lot of ways, and not just in the obvious lack of mobile phones and a setting where a reasonably-equipped expedition can still venture into unknown territory without the vague hand-waving of having supernatural forces mess up compasses and create impossible topology. It's also fun; it makes for period-appropriate music on the soundtrack, costumes which signal exploration, science, and adventure to the audience without it seeming like an affectation. Characters can drop references to being on the Discovery with Shackleton, and when it comes time to explain the scientific nature of the danger they face and what they're doing about it, it makes sense for it to be within the grasp of most of the audience rather than filled with difficult technobabble.

Full review on EFC

The Gateway (aka Alpha Gateway)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

The Gateway (also called "Alpha Gateway" because there's a good chance your cable company lists its pay-per-view options alphabetically) is a reasonably capable parallel-worlds bit of science fiction that relies an awful lot on security procedures being terribly lax in all versions of Australia, even the paranoid violent one. It's the kind of thriller that simultaneously hopes you'll be impressed by its twists and not notice the really questionable things necessary to get to them, but at least it's got a decent-enough cast to make the good bits work.

Chief among them is Jacqueline McKenzie, playing scientist Jane Chandler, a physicist working on teleportation in an office she shares with Regg (Ben Mortley). She's got an extremely supportive husband (Myles Pollard) and two kids (Shannon Berry & Ryan Panizza), and while she and Regg haven't exactly cracked teleportation - their most successful attempt seems to have just disintegrated the apple they were trying to move across the room - they eventually figure out that they sent it to a parallel universe. Research is put on hold when that husband dies in a car crash, leading her to transport herself. And when it turns out that Matt lost Jane in this other world, where they have no kids, well, that fits together just too perfectly.

My notes on this movie include some hasty calculations to try and convert the 350 petawatts for six seconds that this machine requires into the same units as my electric bill (at twenty cents per kilowatt-hour, each time Jane uses the device costs over thirty-one billion dollars American, and I kind of doubt that the exchange rate or different voltage makes enough of a difference that it makes sense for her to do so this casually), and that's just one of the many details about this project that don't make a whole lot of sense. As mentioned, it doesn't seem as though the people working on this project even do so much as lock their doors in any universe, and one might think that, even before things went further to hell, someone might ask Jane what her long-term plan was in terms of having a copy of her legally, verifiably dead husband around. There are a lot of things like that in this movie, unimportant if you're caught up and miss them, but kind of hard to overlook once they're seen, especially once director John V. Soto and co-writer Michael White start asking the audience to pay attention to details in the last act.

Full review on EFC

Andover

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Andover is just good enough that and audience may or may not be able to overlook how thoroughly misguided it is at a fairly fundamental level, to the point where it's actually kind of impressive how precisely writer/director Scott Perlman finds the no-man's-land between a deliberately heightened dark comedy and hiding from the cruelty of the premise. It's hard to recommend despite getting frequent laughs, and probably needs to hit a viewer just right to work at all.

That's not entirely far off from the situation Professor Adam Slope (Jonathan Silverman) finds himself in after his wife Dawn (Jennifer Finnigan) burns to death in her glass-blowing studio and he decides to use his advanced cloning research to bring her back, especially once student Emma Grady (Scout Taylor-Compton) suggests a way around the issue of it taking a couple years for a clone to grow to adulthood. The trouble with that is, even if it only takes Adam three months to raise Dawn #2 to adulthood, she feels more like his daughter than his girlfriend. Which means, starting with Dawn #3, he's got to find various ways around the whole nature-versus-nurture thing.

Perlman doesn't exactly hide from the obvious problem of how, if he wants to explore all the ways that this plan can screw up, he's going to need a lot of dead or abandoned Dawns; it's right in the opening flash-forward, one of the few times that using that trick to get the viewer's head in a certain spot is a net benefit. That's not necessarily even a bad thing; casually bumping off characters in the service of satire or a dark-themed comedy can be a lot of fun if you commit to that tone. And there's an argument to be made that Perlman does, that all the times a Dawn is thrown out as a failed experiment is just expressing the movie's themes in a metaphorical, larger-than-life way (I suspect this movie will play better in France, where that sort of vicious satire is more mainstream, than it will at home) - after all, if the science is patently absurd and dictated by the needs of the plot, why not the morality?

Full review on EFC

Friday, February 16, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 February 2018 - 22 February 2018

In this week's theater news, it looks like the AMC at South Bay has started some sort of tiered pricing, with "Premium Zone" (the stadium seating that takes up the rear half of the theater) costing a buck more than the "Vanguard Zone" (the flat-ish section up front), and while I tend to sit up front anyway, this just isn't a good look. I suspect it will spread to Assembly Row and other local AMCs soon enough, and I kind of wonder how it plays with what MoviePass and the other programs like it will pay. I kind of like it in the "Vanguard", but I understand people think I'm nuts for that.

  • They likely feel comfortable doing it because they will sell out a bunch of shows of Black Panther, Marvel's latest big 3D entry in the Avengers franchise (building on an appearance in Captain America: Civil War. It looks great, director Ryan Coogler has a pretty terrific track record, and the Afro-futuristic design promises to be like nothing we've seen in a blockbuster before. It gets a ton of screens at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D),the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D), Revere (including XPlus & MX4D), and the SuperLux.

    The other big opening is Early Man, and it shouldn't be slept upon - it's the new stop-motion feature from Nick Park, of Wallace and Gromit fame, with local cave-dwellers playing a soccer game against invading Bronze Age men to determine who gets the stay. I am told there is a giant duck. I'm sort of mildly surprised it's not getting a 3D release, but maybe Aardman only renders their digital pictures in 3D. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. Between those two (and a few other things), there's actually little room for Biblical epic Samson, which opens in South Bay and Revere.

    The TCM Classic for the week is The Philadelphia Story which screens Sunday and Wednesday at Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere. Fenway also has a one-time screening of distance bikinig documentary MAMIL: Middle Aged Men In Lycra, on Wednesday evening.
  • Kendall Square and The Coolidge Corner Theatre both open The Insult this weekend. It's the nominee for Best Foreign-Language film from Lebanon, a courtroom drama that springs from a confrontation between a Christian and a Palestinian refugee where the words were perhaps more damaging than the blows. Kendall Square also has a special screening of Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story on Wednesday, with filmmakers Mick McIntyre & Kate McIntyre Clere on-hand to take questions after their film about how, while the rest of the world loves one of Australia's best-known native species, they're actually considered something of a pest there.

    The Coolidge is busy at midnight this weekend, with two "women in horror" offerings - A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on Friday and a 35mm print of Jennifer's Body on Saturday - as well as the monthly screening of The Room on Friday. There's a "Science On Screen Jr." showing of Looney Tunes on Sunday morning to teach kids cartoon physics, and a 35mm showing of Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Wednesday as part of their Werner Herzog tribute that gives viewers a rare look inside the famous Chauvert Cave.
  • It's also a holiday weekend, with the biggest holiday world-wide being Chinese New Year, and there are some sequels on tap for that at Boston Common: Monkey King 3 has Aaron Kwok returning as Sun Wukong, still on the Journey to the West and this time encountering a land of women and, if the posters are to be believed, seeing one member of his all-male party get pregnant. More kid-friendly is Monster Hunt 2, a live-action/CGI followup to the gigantic hit about the heir to the monster kingdom being raised in exile by two humans (although both could go in weird directions that American kids' movies generally don't if their predecessors are anything to go by). There's also Detective Chinatown 2, which follows up the obvious franchise possibilities of the first by having the mismatched buddies who previously bet in Bangkok's Chinatown reteaming in New York's. That one also plays in Revere, which also has Mexican comedy La Boda de Valentina and Portuguese-subtitled screenings of Black Panther for the linguistically adventurous.

    Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway hang on to Padmaavat with Fresh Pond also continuing Pad Man. They also open up Hindi political thriller Aiyaary, Tamil action movie Naachiyaar, and Telugu sci-fi flick Awe!.

    Fresh Pond also give half-schedules to a couple American indies - documentary Poop Talk is an irreverent doc on the universal subject of the title, while Looking Glass has Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney buying a motel on a quiet stretch of road and finding strange things afoot. If you're like me, you were amazed that Cage is on pace to do a VOD-level thriller with the entire cast of The Craft by summer, but, surprise, Mom and Dad's Selma Blair wasn't in that one. Then again, at the pace he's making these things, he could still manage it.
  • President's Day is the other end of the long weekend, which means the back end of Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival at The Somerville Theatre, which features a 35mm print of Superman on Saturday afternoon, and Muse (from one of the co-directors of [REC]) that evening before the twenty-four-hour Marathon running from noon Sunday to noon Monday, which ha a pretty decent line-up and a surprise 50th anniversary presentation teased that has me wondering if the Somerville has a certain newly-commissioned print to debut. With the sci-fi guys gone after Monday, they'll have an empty theater, which will be filled with the latest edition of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour running Tuesday to Thursday, after having played The Regent Theatre on Monday. The Regent will also have one of their sing-along presentations during school vacation week, with Frozen starting Saturday and continuing daily matinees straight through next weekend.
  • School vacation week also means The Brattle Theatre will be running their annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival, alternating 35mm packages of an "All Bugs Revue" (Friday/Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday) and "Daffy Duck and Friends (Saturday/Monday/Wednesday).

    They also have two special screenings this week: Multiple guests will be on hand to introduce a free screening of A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the story of National Lampoon creator Doug Kenney, at 10pm on Saturday. As it's a Netflix film, this may be your only chance to see it on the big screen, so get a pass and line up early if that's your thing. Then, of course, Tuesday is trash Night, with an a-yet-unannounced movie for your mockery.
  • This year, at least, the films at The Harvard Film Archive celebrating the recipient of the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship are being offered free of charge, so you can learn about director Alain Gomis by seeing 35mm prints of L'Afrance and Andalucia without spending any cash. After that, it's a weekend of king-sized documentaries - Park Lanes by Kevin Jerome Everson documents an entire eight-hour work day in real time on Saturday and the finale of their Frederick Wiseman series on Sunday with At Berkley, which is just a hair over half that length. Then on Monday, they have their monthly "Cinema of Resistance" screening, this time around welcoming director Theo Anthony to introduce and discuss IFFBoston alumnus Rat Film.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has more of their Boston Festival of Films From Japan, including Over the Fence (Friday), Oh Lucy! (Friday), Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal (Sunday), and Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (Wednesday). They also begin a run of rotoscoped Irani film Tehran Taboo with screenings on Friday, Sunday, and Wednesday, while two classic international satires - 1963's Il boom from Italy and 1936's French The Crime of Monsieur Lange - start Thursday. In between, Saturday is Stanley Kubrick Day, with A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, and The Shining all screening.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights presents two differently-ambitious 2017 films for free in the Bright Screening Room this week, with The Killing of a Sacred Deer on Tuesday and The Florida Project on Thursday. Discussion with members of the school's faculty will follow.
  • The Institute for Contemporary Art has two free screenings with museum admission this weekend, with The Square playing Friday night and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry the week's "Month of Sundays" show. They also have Oscar-Nominated Shorts this weekend - Live-Action on Saturday and Animation on Saturday and Sunday. The animated and live-action shorts will also be playing all week at the Kendall and West Newton, while the Coolidge keeps the documentary shorts around for another week, and CinemaSalem fits all three programs into their little room.


Man, as much as I love the idea of the Sci-Fi Film Festival, it is really in the freakin' way this weekend! I'll somehow try to fit the Chinese New Year and Nic Cage films in around it, hang out with my brother for the first time in years, and then actually catch some of the others at night when I just want to sit down after walking around New Orleans all day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Short Stuff: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Every year that I write one of these wrap-ups, I point out that it's an awful shame that this collection of Oscar-nominated short films is the best chance many will get to see this kind of production which isn't expanded to a commercially-viable length and can be tremendously focused as a result. It can be tough to talk oneself into the short programs at a festival, if that's even an option, and traditional means of exhibition don't exactly have room for these subjects, especially now. It's a tremendous boost to them to get this nomination, and if the Oscar Shorts programs are playing near you or are on your cable system's On-Demand menu, these five films are a heck of a package.

That these nominations are a big deal is something the film makes explicit, as four of them include images of the filmmakers, cast, and crew hearing their nominations and being blown away, well-aware that what just happened may be life-changing, and if they actually win… Well, they probably can't imagine that, although given the subject matter of many of these shorts, they'll have a couple minutes further to both get their movie seen and plead the cases of something so important that they would spend a lot of time and likely more money than they can recoup to make a film of it.

Although, it's worth noting, these things are thankfully getting easier to see - even if the package doesn't show near you, think back on this list a few months - I've found that, as I have been fixing some broken links on this blog, a surprising number of short films can be found on Amazon, Vimeo, and other streaming services, including many nominees from past years. They often require even more digging than their feature-length cousins to discover - nobody streaming movies online has come up with something as easily and enjoyably browsable as a video store - but they are available in ways that have not been the case in prior years. Even if you can't catch this year's nominees before the ceremony, why not use the reminder that there are great short films up for awards to catch up with those from years past?

"DeKalb Elementary"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The first of the films nominated this year, "DeKalb Elementary" from filmmaker Reed Van Dyk, is a terrific little real-time thriller predicated almost entirely on the threat of something happening: As the school day begins, a man (Bo Mitchell) comes into the office, asking to make a phone call, but while the people at the front desk aren't paying complete attention, he pulls out a rifle, and soon the situation has shrunk to just him, administrative assistant Cassandra Rice (Tarra Riggs), and the muffled voice on the other end of the 911 call she makes, relaying his confused, aimless instructions.

Basing his film on an actual 911 call, Van Dyk structures his film as a contrast between confusion and capability, with Bo Mitchell giving a sweaty, nervous performance as the gunman while Tarra Riggs projects a fascinating sort of forced calm. There is never an easy interplay between them, but the way that they interact is fascinating. At the most obvious surface level, the audience is struck by the fact that Rice is used to dealing with children, and she approaches this man in the same way, carefully, slowly, aiming for clarity rather than confrontation - and it's clearly the right choice to make. Van Dyk's use of the elementary school as the background is canny, whether in how he chose the story or wrote the script, as it's not a cheap multiplier but an examination of how to best handle this sort of crisis. It's also worth noting that the two main characters are a white man and an African-American woman, and while this isn't something Van Dyk ever has characters remark upon in the film, it seems pointed - everybody that the audience sees at the school is black, and doesn't really question when this guy saunters in and asks to use the phone before he casually takes hostages, with Rice required to empathize with him rather than vice versa. It's an extreme sort of entitlement that is downplayed enough as to be taken for granted.

It may just be a quirk of casting, something not considered beyond trying to be faithful to the real-life participants (which, we should remember, is not something that filmmakers always bother much with), but it's also something that has the ring of truth, as does the increased tension and thoroughly believable reactions in the last few minutes - as good as Riggs has been through the rest of the picture, she's even better at the end. That density of detail is a large part of what makes "DeKalb Elementary" worthy of a nomination; it's a very well-done story in the most basic, functional sense, but shows even more truth as a viewer looks closer.

"The Silent Child"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

By contrast, "The Silent Child" puts things a little more in the foreground in its story of Joanne (writer Rachel Shenton), who has just taken a job as the tutor to Libby (Maisie Sly), a severely hearing-impaired four-year-old whose parents Sue and Paul (Rachel Fielding & Philip York) seem to mean well but are not truly prepared for the disruption tending to her needs can be, both in terms of expectations and a life that is already busy with two teenagers (Sam Rees & Annie Cusselle) and Paul's ailing mother (Anna Barry). The film has a lot of information to deliver on its way to closing title cards about how most deaf children are born into families that aren't truly ready for these unique challenges.comes across as both

This information that they want to communicate lets Shenton and director Chris Overton do a fair job of working the two sides of the story in different ways. They are not shy about being straightforward with the uplifting teacher-student story, and why not? Shenton writes herself a part that is well within her skill set, and she's got a pretty terrific part in young Maisie Sly, who gives Overton and the crew what they need to show how miserable and frustrated Libby can be at an age where a lot of kids might not get more nuanced than "bratty". This material lets the part of the story that is more individual to this family unfold, and while the filmmakers don't shy away from highlighting the pieces that Joanne is going to piece together, they don't spell it out with a fight, either.

It's not necessarily the most interesting narrative; a lot of it seems fueled by Sue being jealous of the pretty younger woman who can get through to her daughter, which is the sort of thing that feels simultaneously true-to-life and regressively cliched. It's good work that the film winds up far less focused on that sort of melodrama than it could, injecting just enough to give color and humanity to an easily-dismissed situation.

"My Nephew Emmett"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

As soon as many see the title of this film and the caption stating it takes place on 28 August 1955 in Money, Mississippi, they'll feel a tension even if they came into this short blind and don't remember the exact date and location of Emmett Till's lynching; it's an event that has grown in infamy in the subsequent decades, enough so that viewers may worry that they're getting a mere recreation of it, which can seem exploitative even if many, living under better circumstances, could probably use the jolt of horror that simply reading the facts cannot deliver.

Writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr. delivers that, using the very fame of this case to let the audience watch dominoes fall from far away, as when a discussion at the local watering hole has Emmett's uncle, preacher Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), knowing that the 14-year-old kid may be getting himself into trouble he can't predict, let alone handle. It's heightened later on when white men come to his house, with early emphasis on how the borders of a black man's home are not respected, from the flashlights shining into bedrooms at 2:30AM to the utter entitlement the invaders feel to cross Mose's threshold. The confrontation is staged like a standoff but still emphasizes the powerlessness Mose feels.

It's what actor L.B. Williams does leading up to that sequence which makes the film truly memorable, though, as Wilson shows Mose at the end of a long day and life in general, the sort of situation where you've got to go down to the river and pump a few buckets of water just to take a relaxing bath. Williams is wiry and makes Mose move without limp or hesitation but without hurrying too much; he's learned how to keep things steady and not make a lifetime of wear obvious. It's the stance of a survivor but one who is not so ideally strong that he can't fold, a dignity that is pushed to shame later on. It's a contrast to Dane Rhodes, who plays the man knocking at his door - just big enough to have had an extra meal while still clearly insecure enough to push his black neighbors down, with a hint that he can be pretty likable among his peer group until the slurs start coming out of his mouth. It's a pair of terrific performances that slot into Williams's singular perspective on a story that is often used as a stand-in for all lynchings exceptionally well.

"The Eleven O'Clock"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The set-up for "The Eleven O'Clock" is simple enough that the audience can see ninety percent of it sliding into place as it happens and then spot just how useful the other ten is as it's coming into play, and while it's not always great for a thing that plays as a well-oiled machine to give the viewer to have such a clear view of the mechanism in question, it works here as it sets up Terry Phillips (writer Josh Lawson) as a psychiatrist confronted with temp Linda (Jessica Donoghue) instead of the usual receptionist and being informed that his first patient, Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman), has "grandiose delusions"... of being a psychiatrist.

It's a straightforward gag that works in large part because Lawson and Herriman have play the duelling "analysts" so as to both tap into the ego that they need to presume they can solve others' problems (but which patients resent) while coming at it from different directions, one stuffy and one manic. Lawson's script calls for lots of back-and-forth banter that goes from snappy to snippy, especially once word-association begins and Linda being roped in and hung up upon frequently threatens to send things careening in another direction. Director Derin Seale and his crew keep the pacing quick, and do interesting things with space, as a giant lobby makes Linda feel even more trapped in her tiny alcove, while the office seems to rapidly shrink around Terry and Nathan, with the point of view flipping back and forth in a way that is sharp but not jarring.

"The Eleven O'Clock" is the only comedy of the quintet, which always seems to be the way, like the collectie Academy knows that one of the things shorts do best is this precision timing that lasts just as long as the joke, but still can't help but give more recognition to the ones that focus on something important.

"Watu Wote" ("All of Us")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

And sometimes that "more important" can also overlap with "not as well-reported as it should be in the West". That's the case with "Watu Wote" (given an English title of "All of Us"), which opens with text describing the tensions between Christians and Muslims on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, in particular noting the large number of attacks by terrorist group Al-Shabaab. That's the reason why Jue (Adelyne Wairimu) asks whether the bus from Nairobi to Rhamu will have a police escort in the more dangerous areas; she's also visibly - and sometimes vocally - unnerved by the number of Muslims on the bus. Of course, when the journey reaches that homestretch, the police car overheats and is unable to follow.

The incident that follows seems to have been something of a notable one in that region of Africa, but it's noteworthy that director Katja Benrath and primary screenwriter Julia Drache do not exactly play it up as revolutionary or necessary even unusual. Jua's rosary beads have been exchanged for a head covering almost before the audience realizes what has happened, and teacher Salah Farah (Abdiwali Farrah) pushes back against their attackers without dramatic pauses between his words or a dramatic swell to the score. This pivotal, climactic scene is not necessarily more tense for how the filmmakers play it; it may actually let a bit of the air out. I'm curious as to whether this was a conscious choice on their part to position the actions of Salah and Jua's neighbor as not primarily heroic but what should be expected of people whether they consider themselves brave or not. It's an intriguing realignment of the aspirational true story that emphasizes not just that ordinary people can and should resist violence, but that they must.

It's a message that gets across in large part because of how Benrath has her cast play the scenes leading up to it; both Adelyne Wairimu's Jua and Abdiwali Farrah's Salah often come off as abrasive and prone to suspicion of others' motives, and the actors convey that well; they're also given material that lets them show the characters as having more to them before being thrown in the crucible. The locations shooting is beautiful as well, and never fails to capture the right combination of vibrance and danger.


If I were a betting man, I'd put it on "My Nephew Emmett", and I'd have a hard time arguing against it as the most award-worthy of the bunch. The whole package is well worth checking out, of course, whether before or after the awards.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Short Stuff: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Or, "The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Shorts (Animation)", as the program would have it. They can say that officially so that it doesn't look stale, but I say that the proper title ought to refer to the year the films were released, and not the one where the awards are given.

At any rate, here we are once again, looking at the Oscar categories that historically have been some of the most opaque for the viewers at home despite potentially being a huge deal for the people nominated, as "Oscar-Winning Director" certainly makes people look twice at your loan or grant application when you're looking to fund the next project. They are, thankfully, much easier to see these days, as they are packaged into a single presentation and play in most cities with a decent boutique cinema, and are apparently available on demand elsewhere. I've long argued that the true worth of awards is not in who actually wins but in how they provide people with a list of noteworthy films (or films that have some noteworthy element) and a sense of urgency to see them, and being able to see these good short films in anticipation of the ceremonies is the very definition of that.

As usual, the animated films tend to be quite short indeed, so the presentation is not only broken up by amusing cartoon interludes, but three "Highly Commended" features have been added to the program. This year's program is very kid-friendly, basically one bloated corpse away from an American PG rating.

"Dear Basketball"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

If "Dear Basketball" is a vanity project on the part of Kobe Bryant, or a canny entry into producing films (like I said, "Oscar-Nominated" looks pretty good when you're trying to enter into a business relationship in this industry), it's certainly one where he found top talent - director Glen Keane was long one of Disney's best character animators before a shift to almost entirely working in CGI rearranged how the process worked, and composer John Williams is John Williams. As a New Englander whose default position is "screw the Lakers and screw Kobe in particular", I don't exactly doubt his sincerity, but I'll readily admit that it doesn't make my heart well up in a way that a similar project from, say, David Ortiz would. Bryant may be one of the greatest of all time, but he was never a bigger-than-the-game icon the way Jordan was, no matter how much ESPN insisted we should love him.

Still, it's capable as heck. Bryant's poem seems heartfelt even if his delivery sometimes seems like it's rehearsed rather than spilling out of him - there's a reason why you often leave emoting to the professionals - although it picks up in the end. John Williams's score is a fine five-minute John Williams score, uplifting but not really having the time to be playful that he has in his best work. It's Keane's work that impresses the most; his work at Disney was character design and animation, and as in his previous short "Duet", he spends much of his time focusing on that to the exclusion of all else, using rough lines and transparent shapes to convey form and movement, especially with flashbacks to Kobe as a kid as compared to the rotoscoped-seeming scenes of him on the court as a pro. Keane's first feature as a director is due in 2020, and this nomination has probably raised its profile.

"Negative Space"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

There's a methodical charm to "Negative Space", quite literally - filmmakers Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata are describing the proper method for packing luggage, and it's something that is enhanced just a bit by the fact that this is a stop-motion production, and all the folding, rolling up, and squeezing in is something the animators actually had to do. Not that other forms of animation are any less meticulous, but you can cheat a bit with pencil drawings and computer models; not so much with tangible things, even if Kuwahata & Ru are occasionally putting them in fanciful situations as their narrator talks about how packing suitcases with his oft-traveling father was a way that they bonded.

Those fanciful bits help pad this 5-minute short out a bit and make the pacing work, creating time for reminiscence that allows the world to fill in a little more, and just enough time for the viewer to adjust to a third new setting that waits just long enough to spring what has become an inevitable, but perfect, joke.And then it's done, having accomplished the neat trick of getting the audience to care about the set-up on its own without tossing it away for the punchline.

"Lou"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Though the category stalwarts at Pixar did not have a short included with the release of Coco (and that Frozen follow-up is certainly not getting nominated for much), they did put "Lou" out in theaters, playing in front of Cars 3, which has been thoroughly forgotten. Still, this was almost certainly the best part of an afternoon watching Cars 3, and while it doesn't necessarily shine quite so brightly when placed in the middle of a group of excellent shorts rather than in front of a mediocre film, it's still an enjoyable cartoon.

It's not quite so ambitious as other recent Pixar/Disney shorts that have played before their features: The kids that make up the main characters and playground where the action takes place seem familiar, and even the title character - a chimera made of various objects in the school's lost & found - seems like it's constructed from reused models. That's perfectly fine; good storytelling is, after all, a matter of what artists do with their tools as opposed to how well they create new ones, and there's some fine character animation on display here, a lot of kids and one monster given distinct personalities and a lot of expressive slapstick. This may not be Pixar's most memorable short, but it is certainly an example of how they relentlessly crank out quality work.

"Revolting Rhymes Part One"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The BBC Christmas Special is nearly as regular a nominee as the year's Pixar short, and "Revolting Rhymes Part One" suggests that there may be some gaming the system going on in order to secure that spot - why else would this not simply be one hour-long special rather than two that run 29 minutes and are thus Oscar-eligible? It even ends on something of a cliffhanger rather than coming to a true conclusion, although it is self-contained enough that watching it alone is a satisfying half hour.

It's perhaps a bit familiar, though, in how it mashes up a number of fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs cross paths here), gives them a more modern setting, and serves it up with a dry self-awareness. Filmmakers Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh do that fairly well here - there are plenty of good jokes, and Dominic West narrates the film in character as the Big Bad Wolf with a perfect sneer, and they do wonderful things with the friendship between Red and Snow - and only stretch things too far once or twice. It's just good enough that I'm curious to see where the second part goes, even if I'm not ordering a DVD right away.

"Garden Party"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

French entry "Garden Party", meanwhile, is rather less conventional, as it is populated almost entirely by photorealistic frogs and other amphibians hopping around a seemingly empty estate. The animation is good enough that it occasionally makes one wonder about categorization; is this an animated short or a live-action one with some impressive creature effects? It doesn't much matter, because the frogs themselves are funny, especially a big toad that gorges itself on rich food once it has found its way on top of a table.

What the filmmakers do that is most impressive, though, is to amp up just how sinister the situation is as the film goes. The frogs are never quite anthropomorphized enough to be cheerful, but they're not examples of horrific and uncaring nature, either, but the setting becomes more unnerving as the short continues - even without certain details showing up in the background and then moving forward, it slowly becomes clear that it's not a case that people have just left, giving the frogs free reign, but something happened. The big reveal isn't quite so well-executed as the one in "Negative Space", confirming what the audience has already guessed rather than twisting things around, and the dark comedy is a little shakier at the end than it was earlier. It makes for something genuinely weird, though, and a fine way to cap off a set of nominees that are otherwise very conventional, even when they're being eccentric.

"Lost Property Office"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

That eccentricity continues in the first of three "Highly Commended" shorts that fill the program out toward feature length, "Lost Property Office", in which writer/director Daniel Agdag tells the story of a drone working in the public transit system who meticulously collects, files, and repairs the items left behind, only to be laid off as nobody ever actually comes to claim them. It's the sort of story that combines dreary reality with a flight of fantasy, but does so well.

What makes it work is the detail, as is often the case with stop-motion projects that involve tinkering. The most obvious visual impression is just how thoroughly grey this Art Deco world is, with the most obvious visual jokes being the ads for drowning one's sorrows in alcohol that have the sharpest black-and-white contrast. Still, they tend to fade into the background once the viewer starts noting the body language of the main character. This "Edward Hopper" is extraordinarily well-designed, with a straight back and a face that, while not terribly detailed, suggests a bit of age and weather. There's a hint of despair when he learns about his redundancy that allows Agdag to fake the audience out with a couple of visual gags, but the whole of him makes it obvious things will go another way. He has too much pride and care despite how spare he is in a world that tends to the crowded and caricatured.

"Weeds"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

Of the three extra shorts included, "Weeds" is the one that will likely lead to the most second-guessing of the nominations, as its three minutes of a dandelion seeing its friends whither and die in one patch of dirt before straining to uproot itself and make its way to a nearby spot that has a sprinkler and sunshine is spot-on perfect, giving the flower a distinct design and personality, suggesting that three feet can be a tremendous, perilous adventure, and ending on a moment that mixes triumph and tragedy as well as films fifty times its length.

Is its message tremendously obvious and on-the nose? Oh, yes; without ever directly stating its metaphor, Kevin Hudson's film is about as subtle as a well-labeled political cartoon. But that's the power of animation and cartooning, being able to pack that information tight and make it clear without having it come across as a lecture.

"Achoo"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The bright cartooning continues into the final short added to the collection, "Achoo", an amusing story of a small Chinese dragon whose stuffy nose prevents him from breathing fire and creating floating, flaming art the way that the larger dragons do, although he may be onto something by accident. It's a fluffy, kid-friendly short that can be a little clumsy, but errs on the side of being charming.

The filmmakers also have a knack for switching up visuals to impress; a "two-and-a-half-D" opening sequence gives the CGI shenanigans that follow a little more gravitas while the bigger dragons' successful artistry after watching the little guy stumble is a genuinely nifty effect. both make me curious as to whether the short was animated with 3D exhibition in mind, as does the different sort of effects animation used at the climax.


If I had a vote for this award, it would probably go to "Negative Space"; it's got the best balance of convention and creativity, though I suspect the smarter money when filling out your entry in the Oscar pool is probably on "Dear Basketball" or "Lou". "Dandelions", it seems, is the one that got robbed.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.01: Junk Head & Ayla

I think the new phone's camera gets cinema marquees better than the old one.



So, hey, it's time for the festival that I want to be so much better than it is, and whose moments of actually being pretty good make the rest harder to swallow. That's this year's opening night in a nutshell: Junk Head is an amazing accomplishment and a nifty movie, and then you follow it up with Ayla, which is pretty terrible. There's also a side of initially claiming Junk Head was a North American premiere despite the fact that I saw it in Montreal last summer and it played Fantastic Fest in Austin.

It's kind of a tough opening night, really - Junk Head is long and Ayla is kind of pretentious, so while there's some potential in both films, but I don't think either is what you'd call a crowd-pleaser.

It might be a few days before the next one of these gets posted, as I'm going to be trying to fit Oscar shorts in before vacation, and that will get posted first.

Junk Head

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Junk Head was one of the most striking things I saw at Fantasia last year, but it's also one that has its flaws; it's long for an animated film, and episodic, without actually arriving at a finish, and a second viewing had me a little less bowled-over by the sheer level of achievement that a handful of people (and one in particular) and noting the length a bit more. It's still an amazing-looking movie, well worth catching during its Sunday encore if you missed it on Friday.

Full review on EFC (from Fantasia).

Ayla

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2017 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

About ten or fifteen minutes into Ayla, I was wondering when the first really necessary scene would be. There's a flash-forward, a bunch of bits that don't establish much at all, and just generally a long slog until it gets to the actual useful information and gives the characters some amount of personality. Writer/director Elias plays a lot of formal tricks that don't really help, with hallucinations, extremely mannered dialogue and characterization (a couple of scenes with BIll Oberst Jr as extremely different but equally daft hotel managers are the worst offenders, but not the only ones), and things like having dialogue spoken over barely-connected imagery all suggest not that he's a next-level artist but that he can't simply tell the story in a clear way.

And while there's some potential for the story of a man who lost his sister when they were small children somehow has her revived as an adult - or at least, a peculiar woman who looks like the digitally-aged picture of four-year-old Ayla appears in a supernatural event. There's a potentially interesting vibe of her still being a child in there (although, dude, four-year-olds can talk), and a sort of vampirism aspect that suggests both that this Ayla is draining him and that, metaphorically, holding onto that grief is hollowing him out as well. The trouble is, Elias really hasn't constructed a story around that, and the audience is left with an idea that the filmmakers don't really do much with. There's also a weird incest-y thread that needs either a much more detailed and horrific backstory that the audience is given or some sort of exploration of how mixed up things can get inside a disturbed mind.

It doesn't help that the cast really doesn't seem up to this, either - Nicholas Wilder is technically giving a believable performance as grieving brother Elton, but it's so off-putting and seemingly detached that it's hard to figure what his girlfriend (Sarah Schoofs) sees in him. That relationship seemingly only exists in order to put Elton in a place where he can be shocked by Ayla appearing. Tristan Risk handles the revenant's odd physicality well, but never really makes her into anything as either memory or monster. D'Angelo Midili is okay as the more sensible, grounded brother, but Dee Wallace is unable to do much with terrible material as their mother.

By the time it's over - with the trademark slow credit roll to get the movie over 85 minutes - one can certainly see what Elias is trying to do, but it seems undeniable that his opinion of his craft is well ahead of his actual ability to tell a story. We can see what he's going for, but it's boring and sloppy, the work of someone who doesn't seem to have mastered the basics before trying to break rules.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Finishing the Series I: Sha Po Lang 3: Paradox, Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City, The Monkey King, The Vanished Murderer

My shelves of media are what you might call a large number of ambitious projects all jammed into the same space, the inevitable consequence of my being paid well enough to get a copy of any movie or book that interests me despite knowing that I probably don't have time to actually watch or read them. It's gotten to the point where a sort of decision paralysis sets in as soon as I do have a couple of hours, the same sort of thing that has me wasting a couple hours in the morning when I'm on vacation because the city I'm in has so much to offer. I've taken to constantly reorganizing my to-read shelves graphic novels to pull the unread volumes of series that had a new entry toward the front, but the main effect of that is to emphasize just how far behind I'm falling.

With the movies, I'm trying to take a more practical approach. Find a theme, go through the unwatched material, post about it. Basically, program myself a repertory series like you'd find at a cinema, only it always starts at the most convenient moment and extends as long (or short) as you'd like. That led to watching a bunch of 3D stuff toward the end of last year. Right now, I'm going with "entries in series that I haven't watched yet".

That one actually had its genesis in my first order of Hong Kong Blu-rays a couple years ago, when previews for The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas to Macau 3 started playing at Boston Common despite neither predecessor having gotten an American release (though I had seen the first From Vegas to Macau at Fantasia a couple years earlier). They didn't make it to my house on time, so they wound up sitting on the shelf until I found myself ordering Sha Po Lang 3: Paradox.

As much as I try to watch a lot of it, I don't really follow Asian cinema like I do American stuff, so I mostly don't know things exist until they slap me in the face by having a trailer show up, or appearing in a festival program, or in this case, my getting an email newsletter from an online store that says "SPL 3" somewhere. Having enjoyed the first two, my reaction is basically "how has this appeared on video somewhere in the world without me having a chance to see it on a big screen?" And while I'm clicking buttons to order it, I do find myself stopping short - what if it's because it isn't very good? A new SPL movie that came out in Hong Kong theaters in September would be something Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Well Go, Chopflix, etc., would jump on, right? Maybe it's just bad timing - the producers wouldn't give it to Fantasia two months before release, the Drafthouse guys don't really do much with Asian movies, and I guess those weeks might have been kind of crowded. Still, it's a testament to how used to instant gratification we've got where Chinese movies are concerned that this delay made me suspicious when twenty years ago, we would have been grateful for what scraps we got.

Fortunately, the movie was okay. More disappointing pictures have shown up in local theaters the same week they opened in China, but I kind of see why Well Go and Chopflix didn't release it theatrically. Kind of surprised that Well Go doesn't have a disc up for pre-order, though.

I kind of figured to go in reverse-alphabetical order after that, just based on how unwatched discs were piling up, which made Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City next up. The perfect excuse soon came up, too: Donald Trump's first State of the Union address wreaked havoc on local television schedules - and, really, guys-who-run-WLVI, why did you bump Black Lightning for that? Aside from how there would be lots of folks in the Boston area looking for counterprogramming, you'd think that particular show would have an audience not interested in his nonsense. Anyway, I joked on Twitter that in a choice between SOTU and a Takashi Miike movie about a ridiculous superhero who wakes up in the future and must fight a pop idol extracted from his worst impulses, it was an easy choice. It was not necessarily a great movie, but every Miike thing has at least a few scenes that amaze in their insanity, and it was nice to spend an evening being amused by absurdity rather than riled up by it as many were.

Worth mentioning: This thing has been sitting on my shelf so long that, even though it's a Blu-ray Disc, the packaging is DVD-sized. I don't recall whether Funimation was offering two separate SKUs for the packaging, but the thought process seemed to be that it would look more sensible next to the DVD-only release of Zebraman like that, or that most of their releases would still be standard-def with an HD version as a bonus.

I jumped out of order for The Monkey King, figuring that I probably wouldn't drill down that far by the time movie The Monkey King 3 hit theaters for Chinese New Year, and even though the second served as a reset for the series, that was what the disc was there for. It wasn't good, unfortunately, although it had some nifty 3D bits. It was still better than The Vanished Murderer, which I ordered because I liked the first and the second didn't show up in the US. That one was just generally bud, even if it did a lot of the surface things well enough to recall its much better predecessor.

I was going to finish this batch up with Tremors 5, but it looks like I've run up against the start of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and then vacation, so it will be a couple of weeks before I get back to this project. By which point, it's entirely possible I'll change the plan up because a plan that asks you to jump right into Tremors spin-offs without the people who created it is kind of suspect.

Sha po lang: taam long (Paradox)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 20 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, HK Blu-ray)

So far as I know, no North America distributor has yet bought up the rights to the latest entry in the "Sha Po Lang" franchise, renamed it Kill Zone 3, and waited until nearly a year after its Hong Kong release to release it, and that's both kind of surprising and kind of not: As much as noteworthy Chinese movies have been getting same-day (or at least quick) releases abroad in recent years, and this series is certainly noteworthy, this entry is a different beast, less focused on the martial-arts action and more on the dark, underlying themes.

It continues the series' tradition of starting fresh with each entry, with characters from the previous film in different roles. In this case, Louis Koo Tin-lok plays Lee Chung-chi, a Hong Kong detective who tends to still think of his daughter Wing-chi (Hanna Chan Hon-na) as a little girl, although she's not that pre-schooler any more, breaking the news that she's in love and pregnant as Chung-chi is buying her dinner for her sixteenth birthday. Inspector Lee does not take that well, and soon Wing-chi has run off to Pattaya, Thailand, to visit a friend who works there as a tattoo artist (Iris Lam). She goes missing, and Lee convinces local detective Chui Kit (Yue Wu) to let him tag along on the case. It turns out that she's been kidnapped by organ traffickers led by ex-mercenary Sacha (Chris Collins), and the mayor needs a new heart.

Louis Koo is a big star in Hong Kong, but he's not primarily a kung fu guy like the previous stars of these movies (Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, and Tony Jaa). He can play intense with the best of them, and doing so forms the backbone of this movie, from the tightly-coiled rage as Lee discovers just how grown-up Wing-chi is to his determination upon discovering who is responsible for the horrific ordeal she's been put through. It's not a terribly broad range of emotion to play, but Koo finds the right nuance for each scene to keep Lee from just being a set-jaw robot with one operating mode; whether Lee is pushed further into despair or given a temporary glimpse of hope, it feels authentic right down to a moment visiting Chui's wife in the hospital where he still seems focused but not unable to grasp what others are also going through. The crime film industry cranks out enough cops like Lee Chung-chi every year that it's tough to make a new one stick out, and while Koo may not manage that, he doesn't often misstep and the movie gets the job done because of him.

Full review at EFC

Zeburâman: Zebura Shiti no gyakushû (Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen on 30 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, Blu-ray)

Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City came out three years before The Purge, and that you didn't hear the fans of Japanese pop culture in general and the prolific Takashi Miike in particular grumble is that the thing they have in common is an indication of just what a shotgun approach Miike can take to making movies: Though he had slowed down from his earlier insane pace, he was still cranking out two features a year, and not all of them are exactly carefully crafted. Zebraman 2 bounces between ideas and gags like Miike's career as a whole does, but at that scale it's more randomness than variety.

After the events of the first Zebraman movie, titular superhero Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) has become a hounded public figure, unable to return to his job as a disrespected third-grade teacher and abandoned by his family. One day, he finds himself in the grasp of a mad scientist, spun in a bizarre centrifuge, and then he wakes up fifteen years in the future, amnesiac, and wouldn't you know it, it's almost "Zebra Time" - the five minutes at 5am and 5pm in Zebra City (the former Tokyo) when all crime is legal and even encouraged. He's found riddled with bullets by Junpei Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka), an actor who used to play Zebraman on TV, and taken to a clinic run by Kohei Asano (Masahiro Inoue), one of his former students. There he's told that mad scientist Kozo Aihara (Guadalcanal Taka) is mayor and his daughter Yui (Riisa Naka) is the city's mascot, a pop-star "Zebra Queen". Ichikawa and Yui are connected somehow, and the latter is looking for Sumire (Mei Nagano), a little girl who still has one of the green alien parasites Zebraman defeated fifteen years ago inside her.

It's not hard to see where Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo (who also wrote the first) are going with this, because they are not shy about dropping dialogue about needing to balance black and white, or separating evil elements from good, throughout the entire movie. It's not a bad way to go with the idea, especially with Ichikawa having an all-white costume while Yui is in black for much of the movie, but it's something that probably has to be given a bit more thought than color choices which themselves are more or less abandoned in the last act so that Zebraman can have a cool black costume rather than the deliberately silly but memorable one from the first movie. It's the sort of superhero-movie philosophy that sounds kind of weighty - you can scratch your chin and say, yes, Kudo and Miike are trying to say something here - but is actually kind of an inch deep and jettisoned when it comes time to actually examine how Zebra Time supposedly decreases overall crime or when some other shiny object crosses their paths.

Full review at EFC

Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong (The Monkey King)

* * (out of four)
Seen on 3-4 February 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, 3D Blu-ray)

I'm not sure whether Monkey King Sun Wukong has been more ubiquitous as an on-screen character in recent years or if it's just a matter of more Chinese films coming to international audiences' attention and the guy suddenly seeming to show up every six months. That seems more likely, because one would think this film being a DC-movie type disaster (not well-liked but making too much at the box office to be considered a failure) would otherwise put the kibosh on not just Cheang Pou-soi's planned trilogy but other planned takes on the story; instead, everybody else kept going while Cheang found a way to make The Monkey King 2 but basically start from scratch. It's certainly not hard to see why the filmmakers more or less discarded everything about this movie before making its two sequels; this version of The Monkey King just does not work and even though some of its most visible elements aren't really the problem, you kind of need to show that you're making changes rather than doing it quietly.

This one starts out well before the "Havoc in Heaven" part of the Monkey King mythology, with a war between deities and demons that the former eventually wins, with the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) casting would-be usurper the Buffalo Demon King (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) down into a fiery hellscape. Heaven has been so damaged, though, that goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) changes herself to crystal in order to pull it back together, with one fragment falling to Earth and birthing a powerful demigod with the form of the monkeys in the area. Seeing the potential for both virtue and vice in this Monkey King (Donnie Yen Ji-dan), the sage Master Puti (Hai Yitian) takes him on as a pupil, naming him "Sun Wukong". Still alternately egotistical and naive, Wukong is able to be convinced by the Buffalo Demon King to demand his place in Heaven, which would give disaffected guardian Erlangshen (Peter Ho Yun-tung) a chance to lower the defenses and let the demons attack again.

The star would be the most visible change when the sequel came out, but it's worth mentioning that Donnie Yen doesn't really make a bad Sun Wukong here. He's buried under a ton of prosthetics, but he nails the childish combination of innocence and petulance that the Havoc In Heaven phase of this character needs, and his emoting through all the latex and fur sells the film's last act. He doesn't really get a chance to show off his martial arts prowess as well as one would hope, despite being both star and action director - the movie is so larger-than-life and full of CGI and wire work that it's tough to see choreography in the fights - but his physicality works for the character. It's not hard to justify switching him out for Aaron Kwok in later movies, since Kwok's Buffalo Demon King is the best thing inn this one, projecting self-assurance and righteousness as he tricks Wukong and recites his grievances even while still maintaining the sneer that makes him clearly the film's villain.

(It ultimately worked out for the best; Kwok played a more mature, hardened Wukong well in #2, and maybe if Yen is making Monkey King movies, he doesn't do Rogue One, and who'd want that?)

Full review at EFC

Xiao shi de xiong shou (The Vanished Murderer)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen on 5-6 February 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, Blu-ray)

The Bullet Vanishes was a nifty little period mystery that featured the most entertaining variation on "she stabbed him with an icicle" to come about in a while, and it seemed to draw a decent crowd, so it was something of a surprise when this sequel - from the same creative team and looking just as slick - didn't also open in North America the way its predecessor did. Finally watching it, the reason why is clear - the new film is wall-to-wall nonsense, and only rarely the impressively bizarre sort.

It opens with former guard Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wan) being called back to prison to investigate the escape of Fuyuan (Jiang Yiyan), who apparently left the smitten detective with a nifty puzzle when she decided to escape custody, then sending him a letter saying she's in the city of Xiang and to come find her. The unusual arrest - he finds her at the grave of a family friend and then she takes him to watch Professor Huo Hua (Lam Ka-tung) lecture on philosophy - is cut short when a man jumps to his death in front of them, his shirt carrying a message protesting businessman Gao Minxiong (Guo Xiaodong). Fuyuan takes that opportunity to escape, but constable Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan) finds Donglu and the one-time fiancee he met on the train, Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), standing over the body. Donglu sees something suspicious about the whole set-up, leading the three to work together to investigate the connection this apparent suicide has to both other crimes and Fuyuan.

Screenwriter Yeung Sin-ling does seem to have a pretty solid idea of how this all fits together; what she doesn't seem to have is a coherent plan for Donglu and his team to actually figure it out and do something about it. A whole lot of weight is carried to letters and number puzzles from Fuyuan that contain secret clues as far as the plot is concerned, and there is a sudden interest in hypnosis at one point so that the history Songlu and Sheng Chang share can come out all at once rather than being teased or revealing itself as it becomes relevant. And it's not even that the movie director Law Chi-leung makes of Yeung's script often jumps from point A to point E without what seem like fairly necessary stops in between; the film actually has multiple levels of dumb: It is possible to spend so much time annoyed that the movie never offers a solution to the problem of how Fuyuan got out of her cell when the tunnel she dug proved to be a red herring that it doesn't occur to the viewer to wonder just how the heck she was digging a tunnel from an upper floor in the first place.

Full review at EFC