Monday, October 19, 2020

Netflix Movies in (Empty) Theaters: Rebecca '20 and Over the Moon

I don't know that I've got a whole lot of thoughts on the two movies I saw at the Kendall on Saturday themselves - they're both solidly acceptable if not exceptional despite coming from directors worth keeping tabs on - or more about the experience of seeing something in a theater in pandemic times than I've written previously. There were two of us in Rebecca and three or four in Over the Moon (none of us close to being the kids who are the movie's main audience). No food or drink, nobody took off their mask so far as I can tell. It feels pretty safe but it's likely that this is in large part due to the fact that there aren't more of out there for whom it feels pretty safe and because theaters are operating in ways that likely aren't sustainable in the long term (see all the stories about AMC likely running out of money early next year).

What is notable, I think, is just how much the streaming services are likely going to dominate the Oscars next year, whenever they get held, and not really because the Academy is opening things up to them in a way they wouldn't in more typical times. No, they seem to be the only people actually releasing award-quality movies in theaters right now, perhaps because they never saw the theatrical release as more than part of the promotions budget anyway. If Landmark is only taking in $450 from people seeing Rebecca at their Cambridge location opening weekend, that's not a disaster that wrecks Netflix's business, that's just their awards campaign doing less to pay for itself than usual. But the fact that they are doing this and, say, Warner Brothers and Searchlight are not, might mean that Rebecca gets consideration for more than just costume design, because there are not looking to be a whole lot of choices among nominees as everything else gets pushed back. Almost all the previews before these two movies were from Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

I was a bit disappointed that Over the Moon wasn't in 3D, as it's the sort of CGI animated movie that seems planned for it and the credits mention stereographers but not 3D conversion, so it was probably made to be shown that way and likely will be in in China. I wouldn't be completely shocked if it was high-frame-rate there, but I don't know. I doubt I'll be curious enough to order a 3D disc should one be released in Hong Kong, but I also wonder if Netflix is set up for side-by-side or native 3D streaming. It kind of makes the movie more weirdly homeless, made by Americans but set in China, produced in a format far more popular in one place than the other.

Rebecca inspired a stranger and maybe more sinister thought, though - as all the studios start consolidating their libraries onto services they own (Disney+/Hulu, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, Crackle), is Netflix, for example, going to start buying up rights to adapt the source material of classic films like Hitchcock's Rebecca (or dip into the public domain) where possible and just have their own versions available. Right now, MGM or whoever currently owns Rebecca (it has moved around!) doesn't have it available on any streaming platform in the USA; pretty soon, Netflix will have something if you hear it's a classic and then drop the name into their search, and it's not too bad.

I don't really think Netflix will go around making store-brand versions of movies that they figure they'll never be able to have on their service again, but I'm kind of worried that I don't really see the downside of them doing so. Does the Hammett estate say no if Netflix says "hey, we'd like to have David Fincher remake The Maltese Falcon for us"? Is this the way talking about art as "content" is heading?

Man, I hope not. But it's kind of a way that the relatively narrow filter of theatrical releases (and, once upon a time, just having a few television networks) can be useful, especially if we get to some silly point where every streaming service figures that they need their own Three Musketeers or Robin Hood and you might not even know about the others because you can only afford to subscribe to so much.

Rebecca '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

It's been long enough since I've seen the Alfred Hitchcock version of Rebecca that it's hard to compare it to Ben Wheatley's new adaptation directly, but just knowing it exists and remembering that it's brilliant makes this one feel unnecessary. Lavishly shot as it is and despite it seldom actually falling below "pretty good", the original version can't help but loom over every decision Wheatley and company make here. Kind of amusing, I guess, given that this is Rebecca we're talking about, and I almost wonder if that meta-narrative amused the filmmakers throughout.

After all, Rebecca takes its title from the perfect first wife of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), widowed a year when he arrives in Monte Carlo and makes the acquaintance of a fellow traveler's lady's companion. Soon, he and the girl are married and return to Manderley, the de Winter family estate, after a European honeymoon. It would be a major adjustment for the new Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) even if the memory of the late Rebecca didn't hang over the place from business manager Frank Crawley (Tom Goodman-Hill) to housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), with Maxim occasionally sleepwalking to the shuttered west wing and snapping at his bride when she wants to know more.

A new version of Rebecca need necessarily be unworthy or uninteresting, especially with Ben Wheatley at the helm. Outside of his television work, this is one of the first times he's seemingly been shooting someone else's project (neither he nor wife Amy Jump have writing and producing credits and it does not come from his Rook Films shingle), and it certainly doesn't feel like his sort of thing in obvious ways: It's polished and tony, prone to play things out rather than the way he usually pushes forward past the bland connective tissue. What he does bring is an uncanny sense of where the line is between a ghost story and something that feels like it could become a ghost story at any second, and maybe most importantly, a sense of what is specifically English or British about a story and how might mean a lot of things. There's a class-consciousness to this movie that many trying to shoot it might dance around or make universal. Where many might see the DeWinters and Manderley as aspirational, this group leans into how this system feels almost alien to their eyes 80 years later, just as it likely would for the new Mrs. de Winter herself.

It gives Lily James a lot to work with, despite her being pretty and elegant enough in the fine costumes that one wouldn't necessarily peg her as a serving-class girl who has married above her station; she manages to make her unnamed character uncomplicated and as such a little in awe of the world she's thrust into, the sort of awe that overlaps easily with frustration. She's good at connecting the clumsy maneuvers at the start with the more determined action at the end. She and Armie Hammer spend much of the movie reacting to each other as much as having conventional chemistry, but it works for this story - the pair know there's something good there but don't exactly know how to access it.

And then there's Kristin Scott Thomas, who shows up when the characters finally arrive at the great house and quietly announces that it's her movie now. She's fantastic and magnetic, doing more with reserve than many can do with grander melodrama. When "Dani" appears the villain, she's such a frighteningly assured one that Thomas doesn't have to underline it at all; when she's sympathetic, it's only a slight pivot that redirects the way the entire film comes across. It's a great performance that doesn't announce itself but is also never trying to hide.

Is it enough that I'll ever watch this movie again, what with the other version already being on my shelf? Doubtful. But right now, it looks like the Hitchcock isn't on any streaming service, and if this one is all you have access to, it's not exactly disappointing.

Also at eFilmCritic

Over the Moon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Glen Keane's job at Disney over three decades (most notably the 1990s) didn't exactly map to a specific one in live action, and you had to wait a little while to see his name in the credits but as the supervising animator and/or character designer for lead characters in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, he was in many ways as much the star of those movies as the more easily-referenced voice actors. Maybe that's why Over the Moon occasionally feels like an actor's first feature film as a director - the result of someone who has absorbed a lot by watching how others do it from his front row seat but still has that same focus - even though his old job is a much more direct overlap.

This first feature is built around Fei Fei (voice of Cathy Ang), a bright junior high schooler who has been hanging around her parents' moon pie stand her whole life, delighting in her mother's tales of Chang'e, the goddess who floated to the moon, saw her mortal love wither and pass, but remained faithful. Her mother died four years ago, and now her father (voice of John Cho) has brought Mrs. Zhong (voice of Sandra Oh) to the moon festival, who brings with her new recipes, her exceptionally annoying eight-year-old son Chin (voice of Robert G. Chiu), and a basic threat to the idea of true love lasting forever and knowing no substitute. There's only one thing for it - build a rocket to the moon, prove Chang'e exists, and have her father abide by her example. Chin is obviously going to stow away, of course, and Chang'e (voice of Phillipa Soo) may not be what Fei Fei expects.

Though Keane was instrumental in making the movies of the Disney Renaissance whose popularity immediately spanned generations, he doesn't bring that broad appeal with him to this. Instead, it's one of those animated features that spends most its time hitting targets square on the nose in a way that may bore adult fans of animation but may work really well for the kids it targets. And that's fine, because there's a big space there for kids' movies that don't treat dead parents as a storytelling convenience but something that's at the center of a kid's life, with neither Keane nor writer Audrey Wells seeming afraid to be uncomfortably honest about that. It's direct and straightforward, but that may go over very well with kids the same age as Fei Fei and Chin.

Will they be as impressed with the rest of the film, which as you might expect seems eager to mmic the 1990s Disney formula in the way that all the other studios tried to do at the time before finding their own styles? Maybe not. Cathy Ang and Hamilton's Phillipa Soo have the voices for the requisite songs, but the songs themselves don't have the clever wordplay or the tunes that can carry a bit of visual comedy that the Disney movies featured. The animation of the earthbound action looks okay if a bit bland, pushing a fair amount of pixels but not having a lot of personality; the splashy, colorful look of the lunar city sometimes may be a way to simplify the animation, but it's at least fun to look at. There are some nifty bits, although they're not always consistent. I don't think it gets nearly as much out of imagining its goddess as a pop diva as it could, for instance, especially when the film immediately takes a more traditional track as soon as that's tricky to work with.

It's worth noting that the film is a production of Pearl studios, the former DreamWorks venture now wholly owned by their Chinese partners. They produced last year's Abominable and this has the same sort of feel that comes from American creators making a film very much set in modern China and drawing on that culture, with the idea of having it be a hit on both sides of the Pacific. It doesn't exactly feel clumsy on that account - the filmmakers don't stop everything to explain moon pies to foreign audiences, for instance - although I do wonder a bit if a "biker chicks" pun translates into Mandarin/Putonghua at all. It doesn't seem like anything that should trip a western kid up, especially since almost all will be watching it on Netflix and likely have a tablet or laptop handy to look up something they don't know, but I'd be curious how authentic it feels to Chinese or Chinese-American audiences.

Over the Moon doesn't have what it takes to stand aside the Disney classics to which it is clearly related, a disappointment considering that Keane already has an Oscar for short "Dear Basketball". But, then, it's not for me, and I don't have my nieces around to fill me in on how well it works for them. It's got a fair amount that should connect well to its young audience, but probably isn't one parents will be excited to watch alongside their kids.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, October 16, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 16 October 2020 - 22 October 2020

The theatrical world is upside down, what with the new movie that likely would be direct-to-video if Liam Neeson wasn't in it at the Kendall and the French comedy at Boston Common. Madness.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre adds Martin Eden to its virtual offerings, a bit of a curiosity in that it's an Italian adaptation of an American novel by Jack London, which seems against the usual tide. They also pick up documentary Belly of the Beast, about the discovery and fight against a program of involuntary sterilization in women's prisons, and a Big Small Screen Classic run of Ganja & Hess, which is incidentally part of the "Black Horror" online class that began Wednesday but whose Sunday sessions may still have some spaces left. They also continue Totally Under Control, Aggie, Major Arcana, The Disrupted, and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. They also head out to the Medfield State Hospital for drive-in screenings of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on Friday and Saturday, and later kick off a "Wednesdays with Wiseman" series with The Ballet on the 21st. For that last one, in addition to a nearly three-hour documentary, there will be a conversation between Wiseman and Free Solo filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

    Though Ganja & Hess is technically a vampire film, it's not generally considered to be in the same category as their other Halloween programming. For that, the After Midnite crew continues their "Quattro Di Bava" series with Baron Blood, streaming Friday through Sunday. They've also rescheduled one of their rained-out John Carpenter double feature programs of The Thing & They Live at the Medfield State Hospital for Sunday, with tickets still available. Tickets are also available for their Halloween Rocky Woods shows, with Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead remake on the 30th and 12 hours of werewolf pictures on the 31st, and they'll also be returning there in mid-November 13th, because a little pandemic isn't going to stop Friday the 13th on Friday the 13th, with this iteration featuring The Final Chapter and Jason Lives.
  • The Brattle Theatre opens White Riot, which looks at the late-1970s birth of Rock Against Racism in the United Kingdom, and a restoration of Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine, which takes place in the volatile multi-racial Paris suburbs in the mid-1990s. Also continuing are Once Upon a River, Native Son, The Myth of a Colorblind France, Dead, and The Hole. Faust and Vinyl Nation still have live links, but were scheduled to end on Thursday.
  • Honest Thief is probably the biggest mainstream release since Tenet and maybe through the end of the year, featuring Liam Neeson as a retired bank robber who aims to return his horde in exchange for a reduced sentence so that he can be with his new love without anything hanging over him, only to have the agents he's surrendering to double-cross him. It's at West Newton, Kendall Square, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), Watertown (including CWX), Chestnut Hill, and Revere (including XPlus).

    In smaller releases, The Kid Detective features Adam Brody as a 32-year-old who was an Encyclopedia Brown type in school and kind of got stuck there, only to be thrust into the big leagues when a young woman brings him the case of her murdered boyfriend. It's at Boston Common and Revere. Also playing is 2 Hearts, which follows two parallel romances in different decades and whose trailer sure does a bad job of hiding an obvious twist. That one has screens at Boston Common, South Bay, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    I'm not sure if Conjuring-in-order is actually just Annabelle-in-order, but Boston Common has Annabelle: Creation, South Bay has Annabelle Comes Home, and Revere has The Nun and Annabelle Comes Home. This week's AMC DreamWorks feature is The Croods, playing Boston Common and South Bay; the Disney Halloween picture is The Nightmare Before Christmas at Boston Common (in 3D), South Bay (in 3D), Watertown, and Revere (in 3D). Fandango has a "4D" note for the 3D showings of that one, but I'd be pretty shocked if they installed motion seats or other gimmicks right now (I'd actually bet against 3D as well, even if the glasses are pre-wrapped). Revere has It, with the second part presumably playing next week.

    Lupin III: The First, the latest screen adaptation of the Monkey Punch manga about a gentleman thief (this one CGI), plays Sunday afternoon at Boston Common & South Bay and Wednesday evening at those two plus Revere. Boston Common and Revere also have Bong Joon-Ho's Memories of Murder on Monday and Tuesday. Revere has PJ Masks: Halloween Tricksters on Saturday and Sunday, The Shining on Saturday/Tuesday/Thursday, anime feature Aura: Koga Maryuni's Last War on Monday, and Sense & Sensibility on Tuesday. South Bay has The Big Chill on Sunday.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square fills other screens with a couple of Netflix productions this weekend, both kind of interesting: Rebecca is a new adaptation of the novel that brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood, directed by Ben Wheatley, who is mostly known for less tony productions, here working with a cast that includes Armie Hammer, Lily James, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Over the Moon also has a noteworthy director in Glen Keane, who won an Oscar for "Dear Basketball" and was the primary character animators for Disney during their renaissance period, making his feature directing debut with an adventure about a girl who builds a rocketship to travel to the moon and meet the goddess thereof.

    Their website is not currently showing any times for Monday and Tuesday, and I wonder if they'd be down to weekends-only if they hadn't already sold tickets for the Stevie Nicks: 24 Karat Gold concert film on Wednesday (it also shows at Boston Common, Chestnut Hill, and Revere that night). The musically inclined can also watch Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, which focuses on his activism as much as his music.
  • The mainstream foreign film getting a theatrical release this week actually comes from France, with Mermaid in Paris a fair-sized hit there and delivering enough French whimsy to maybe collapse under its own weight. For Chinese film fans, My People, My Homeland and Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification continue at Boston Common; Korean film Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is still at Revere.
  • The Boston Women's Film Festival runs through Sunday; I liked Proxima when I saw it at the Sci-Fi festival in February. The virtual festival run doesn't stop there, though, as the Boston Asian American Film Festival kicks off with Definition Please on Wednesday (one night only, limited to MA/NH/ME/RI) and Keep Saray Home, which is available through the end of the festival on 25 October. After that, Independent Film Festival Boston is taking their annual "Fall Focus" online from the 29th to 2 November, and A HREF="https://www.bostonjfilm.org/">Boston Jewish Film picks things up a couple days later to run from 4 to 15 November.
  • The Regent Theatre has up to 50 seats available for their premiere of Come Together, a concert film featuring frequent guests The Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra, on Friday evening. They are apparently also opening doors for the first night of the Screaming Ostrich International Film Festival, which promises a festival of short films as eccentric as its name.

    In between, they'll be streaming a live concert with Go Now! Playing the music of the Moody Blues in London on Saturday afternoon, and switching up their weekly streaming concert from Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats to The Hitmen on Tuesday They also still have Chet's Last Call and Herb Alpert Is… available to stream through the end of the month.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open Friday through Sunday this week, adding A Rainy Day in New York to their offerings (and Honest Thief, according to Fandango, but it's not on the theater's site). The rest of the lineup includes The Keeper, Lolita, The Bridges of Madison County (Saturday/Sunday), RBG (Friday), The Maltese Falcon (Friday/Saturday), Citizen Kane (Saturday), Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Saturday), and Casablanca (SaturdaySunday), with curbside popcorn pick-up as available on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays.

    They've also got a special preview of locally-shot A Ring for Christmas on Sunday, one of those cable-destined holiday romances, this one centered on a trust fund kid who returns home to seduce her old high-school boyfriend by Christmas because she will inherit a substantial sum if she marries.
  • Thursday's Bright Lights at Home presentation is Code of the Freaks, a documentary on how disabled people have been portrayed on film. Reservations start at noon, the stream begins at 7pm, and the post-film discussion will include producers Susan Nussbaum and Carrie Sandahl
  • The Somerville Theatre is still dark and not updating their virtual screening room listings which still include The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice (no more discount); and a dead link. The Capitol is selling snacks, but their virtual theater is basically empty, with the link to The Surrogate still live but the coupon no longer valid.
  • The Capitol has joined the Brattle, the Coolidge, The Lexington Venue, and West Newton in also offering private rentals for small-size groups, with information on their websites (which often include other fundraising links) or by contacting them directly. The Coolidge has online booking through the 30th and the Brattle currently shows all available slots as filled.
Plenty of good reason to stay in, but I may try to catch the Netflix stuff at the Kendall; The Kid Detective and Lupin III are tempting as well. And as always, if you haven't yet, go to Save Your Cinema to send a letter to your Congresspeople.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Leap

Obligatory eerily-empty multiplex picture:

The fact that all those mini-marquees just say "AMC Theatres" rather than the film playing and its showtime doesn't mean that they're empty; the place at Boston Common has just been doing that for the past year or so. It's kind of annoying, especially since the app doesn't have the big number on it the way a printed ticket stub does (seriously, movie ticketing apps: put the screen number and seat assignment in big, easy-to read characters), but it's not like it's ever kept me from finding my theater, so probably no big deal. I just kind of wonder why. Were so many people theater-hopping that management figured this would make it a little harder so they might as well?

Anyway, I was alone in theater #12, which probably means that the demand from Chinatown has tapered off and that's why it leaves town after tonight. Pretty good three-week run, though, especially since it seems like the Chinese equivalent of New Mutants - the movie that opened up a week before the really big entries to sort of prime the pump and maybe let theaters see if people would come back. Especially when you consider that it was probably also originally keyed to release right around the Olympics. You've got a couple hours to reserve a ticket, because who knows if this kinda-decent movie will make its way to US television screens anytime soon.

Duo Guan (Leap)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2020 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Sports movies have the same problem as sports broadcasting in a lot of ways - particularly, in how both too much desire to make the results a reflection of one's chosen narrative and too much worship of the tough-love coach. Pair that up with a story meant to get the audience waving flags, and you can wind up with something deceptive and even damaging to young athletes looking for heroes. There are moments in Leap when the filmmakers seem very well aware of these shackles, even if they can't quite see their way from escaping them entirely. And it's not like they have to, because most sports stories worth telling have a great final stretch built-in.

This one opens at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where two juggernauts in the sport of women's volleyball - the People's Republic of China and the United States - will face off, with there being a little extra excitement because Team USA coach Lang Ping (Gong Li), known as "The Iron Hammer", is a Chinese sports icon and longtime friends with China's coach Chen Zhonghe (Huang Bo). The two are longtime friends, going back to 1979, when Lang Ping (Lydia Bai Lang) was an 18-year-old newly-recruited to the national team - though coach Yuan Weimin (Wu Gang) won't let her actually practice with a ball until she builds up her strength - and Chen (Peng Yuchang) is a former player just brought on as a "hitting partner" to help mimic the play of specific opponents.

The first half of the film is an often-impressive-looking slog, as director Peter Chan Ho-Sun and writer Zhang Ji follow the patriotic sports story template almost to a fault, with the harsh coach, the unrefined athlete who needs to work harder than everyone else, the timely injury that gives that newcomer a chance to shine, and the opposite-sex supporting character whom one would probably surmise was a love interest if the movie ended with the 1981 World Cup. It's utterly predictable even if one doesn't know the outcome and even if Chan doesn't drench it in nationalist posturing as thoroughly as some might - there's a bit of a wink to how the propaganda posters that show up in the background influence the style where he could be unironically sincere about it. There's been enough money spent that the period details look great, both in terms of bright 1980s colors and how the Japanese team they face in the finals all seem to have nicer uniforms and hairstyles to highlight China's attempt to be taken seriously. It doesn't necessarily help that while Lang Ping's real-life daughter Lydia is a fine athlete in her own right, she's clearly a first-time actress and doesn't click as playing the same person as Gong Li in the same way that Peng Yuchang does in sharing the same role as Huang Bo.

A lot of the material that frustrates in the first half is improved immensely in the second, if not necessarily to the extent one might hope. Consider, for instance, how the fast-forward between 1981 and 2008 is kind of insane, spending absolutely zero time on why Lang Ping would choose to come to America in the late 1980s when it sure seems like that should be a major part of her story, along with how competing in that decade put so much wear on her body that it becomes something regularly mentioned later. The second half often feels like a reaction to the first in terms of how Lang is seemingly determined that the next generation of Chinese athletes has a different experience than she did - best exemplified by how, unless the subtitles deceive me, Lang Ping is the only character who gets a name in 1979, with the other players referred to by their uniform number by "coach" and "hitting partner", while everyone gets a little attention in 2013 - but between the time jump and lack of introspection in the first half, it seldom comes across as two parts of the same story. Instead, it often seems like the filmmakers simultaneously want to make a film about how to improve on a previous era's shortcomings but can't actually admit that that era had faults because, after all, it's still China. It's a tricky line that they don't quite manage to walk, even with Gong Li and Huang Bo on board and giving enough to their characters that one can easily pick up what they're not saying.

The thing is, sports are built to be involving, and when the filmmakers get what works, they can be so much fun that even when a movie is generally a mess, it's hard not to get into a hyped-up Big Game. Chan and Zhang are kind of clever in structuring the movie so that this one climaxes in the quarterfinal match of the 2016 Olympics, because that's where they played Brazil on their home turf, thus making the second half's finale parallel the match against Japan in Tokyo that ended the first. They also appear to have recruited a large portion of the actual 2016 teams to play themselves before recreating their game (and, presumably, other talented players beyond Lydia Bai for the first half), which means that there's no need for doubling or deceptive camera angles; the audience is just seeing the game played by world-class athletes, to the extent that when Chan and his editors sometimes get in the way, it's frustrating because the game they've done well to set up is engrossing on its own.

Overall, I do like the movie well enough when it's being pure sports, and admire the attempt by the filmmakers to honor Lang and her original teammates, especially when it pushes back against familiar toxic coach tropes. I feel like the filmmakers might have really had something had they concentrated on the later years and used flashbacks to inform that; the movie as it is winds up being bloated and a fair bit too timid, especially removed from its home audience.

Also at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Nightstream 2020.01: Run

I'm not quite going to say that the scariest thing about this genre film festival was entering the data for it into the eFilmCritic database and pausing over whether to include "2020" in the title. Like, are we still going to be in a situation where we do this again next October, or maybe just looking to do a smaller one as things are getting back to normal in only a few early fests have had to be cancelled, or might this just be an annual thing where a bunch of festivals bring genre movies to the people who maybe don't live near one?

It's at least been a successful enough event that it could be the latter - the back-end went off without a hitch from what I've read and experienced, and running the whole thing through Eventive meant that my Roku handled it without issue, aside from needing to use the laptop for the Q&A things. Much smoother than NYAFF, at least, among the ones I've "attended", and it was scheduled pretty nicely - a few things (like Run) were only available at set times, and a few things (like the shorts packages) were online at the start, but the rollout of various films throughout the weekend created a bit of a feeling that we're watching it together and making schedules, especially for those who want to sync to the Q&As live, and while it's not perfectly flexible, there's a little something to trying to make this more than just a block of movies available for a limited time.

Speaking of Q&As, the one for Run was fun; the filmmakers talked about how doing these sort of small-scale thrillers was a good way to break into features, and how part of the challenge they were enjoying was finding new things to do within that niche every time, with the one they are working on now a heist movie. One thing that didn't particularly come up that I found was interesting is that star Kiera Allen uses a wheelchair to get around (based on what I've read online), and it's cool that they're not doing a victory lap on representation even though they're clearly making more of an effort than a lot of movies that don't even have the excuse of wanting to do flashbacks do. She's a fun young actor I hope to see more of, especially as she talked about how part of the audition video she sent it was showing how pumped she was for the stunt scene, and how it wound up being half her in a studio and half a stuntwoman on location. It was her first big production, so she was excited by doing stuff like that, or learning how the director would say to look at some counterintuitive point because just looking at her co-star wouldn't necessarily seem right on film. She also was really excited to work with Sarah Paulson, who I've liked since Jack & Jill and has seemed to attain "That Guy" status in recent years - in a lot, sometimes as the lead, but even then not really a star whose name casts a shadow on the production.

Anyway! It was fun, and I'm kind of sad that this wound up going to Hulu instead of theaters, especially since I figure it's the sort of thing theaters could use right now: Short, enough name recognition to get people's interest rather than just looking like opportunistic material, good enough to get good word of mouth and maybe keep playing for a few weeks. Maybe it will get some play - there is a lot of "what the heck, why not play the streaming stuff" at Landmark Kendall Square, after all - but it seems kind of funny that Searching did pretty darn okay in theaters when it was far more built for home screens than this!

Run (2020)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

A couple years ago, director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian made what is probably the best of the recent group of movies presented entirely as what appears on various characters's screens in Searching, and for their follow-up, they don't necessarily entirely go the opposite way, but one of the more suspenseful scenes in Run is built around its heroine trying to do some pre-internet-style search. It's a nifty bit in a film that's got a few of them, packed into a tight little package.

Diane Sherman's baby was born premature with arrhythmia, asthma, diabetes, and lower-body paralysis, with the implication it was because she was a mess 18 years ago. Now, though, Diane (Sarah Paulson) has really gotten herself together, remarkably self-sufficient in her small-town Washington State home, occasionally subbing at the high school, and telling her home-schooling support group that she's excited for her smart, super-competent daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) to go off to college, so they can both really get started on a real life. That acceptance letter from the university seems awfully slow in coming, though, and Chloe briefly spots that her new medication has her mother's name on the bottle, rather than hers.

One way to approach this thriller would be to play coy, choosing one's shots and moments to highlight how normal things seem, and the filmmakers do some clever sleight-of-hand in that regard; because Chloe is in a wheelchair, Chaganty spends a fair amount of the opening act getting the audience up to speed on things that non-disabled people might be familiar with. While noting that set of accomodations, some may be inclined to lump other things in with it, feeding the engine that makes everything function: Certain things aren't "normal" but there's not really any way for the people involved to notice that when it has always been that way.

The filmmakers do that, but they also realize that they can only string it along for so long and that a bunch of reversals which will later get reversed themselves will just make Chloe look foolish when taken altogether even if they seem individually sensible. So they start to tip their hand fairly early, counting on the audience's instincts to carry some weight (and maybe suggest a familiar alternate explanation) even as they build a set of increasingly gnarly situations for Chloe. They might not be showstoppers in other movies, but in this one, they're extremely effective because of how precisely they are deployed: Chloe's attempts to get information that might be otherwise much easier to come by highlight just how strictly parents can sometimes control a kid's life, on the one hand, and on the other, there's a terrific sequence where she's got to MacGyver her way through a house that is far less handicapped-accessible than it was. It feels like a big action scene even if it doesn't particularly suffer from the film losing its big-screen release because it's 2020.

They're all great showcases for Kiera Allen, who is good enough in her feature debut that other filmmakers will hopefully be rewriting characters not originally conceived as disabled to accommodate casting her. She's quickly able to establish Chloe as everything Diane brags about her being at the top but also dive into how she can be abrasive in her desperation and righteously angry. Something that both she and Sarah Paulson tap into that doesn't always come across is that most people aren't really practiced at lying or other forms of deception, and even the big ones tend to rely on people not questioning them. Diane has been lying to herself as well Chloe, and Paulson seldom plays it as clever or convincing as opposed to increasingly desperate.

This lets Chaganty and company go hard with the homestretch, which has a few nifty individual bits but isn't quite up to what came before, one of those cases where switching locations highlights a character's ability to think on her feet at the expense of her being surrounded by things with meaning to her and the audience. There aren't a lot of other missteps here, though, and I'm very excited to see what this group has up their sleeve for their next movie.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, October 09, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 9 October 2020 - 15 October 2020

Time flies. In just the last week, Regal has re-closed their theaters, the studios have pushed even more into next year (or streaming), and Showcase has announced that they will be closing their cinema in Revere, which is being demolished for an Amazon facility, and paired with the closing of the theater in Salem, just devastates movies in the North Shore.

And just a year ago, the Boston Underground Film Festival teamed up with the Irish FIlm Festival of Boston to present Extra Ordinary as part of Buff-o-Ween, incidentally mentioning that they were co-ordinating to not have their events happen during the same weekend in March.

(Here comes the 2020 irony!)

  • The weekend's big event is Nightstream, with The Boston Underground Film Festival one of five festivals pooling their resources to make a fun, nationwide online horror festival including BUFF's five short film programs plus 15 others, 42 features, special events, and more. I saw Bleed with Me, Detention, Dinner in America, Hunted, and Lapsis at Fantasia and most are pretty good. I'll be using my BUFF badge to see short packages "Highly Illogical" & "Far Gone and Out"; features Run, The Doorman, Come True, The Boys from County Hell, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, Lucky, Frank & Zed, & Mandibles; and a special event with Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead showing their early films. Limited "seating" is available, and while the festival is rolling out films over the weekend with Mandibles "closing" it on Sunday, many will be available into next week.

    The Irish Film Festival goes a different route, with their top two selections playing as a pop-up drive-in event at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton on Friday and Saturday nights. It looks like a good time, with music, pub food, and food trucks setting up shop before the movie.

    The GlobeDocs Film Festival is also currently happening online, running through the 12th, with many films available throughout but some timed (or featuring live Q&As); the Boston Women's Film Festival also started on Thursday, and I can vouch for Proxima, which played the Sci-Fi festival in February; there are 13 other features and three short packages, all available through their website through Sunday the 18th.
  • The Brattle Theatre has both Nighstream and BWFF on their home screen (as they would be hosting the non-virtual events) and also open Once Upon a River, about a Native American teenager who flees her hometown after a pair of violent attacks to seek her estranged mother, meeting various people as she navigates the Stark River in her canoe. It joins Native Son, The Myth of a Colorblind France, Dead (apparently held over for a second week!), Faust, Vinyl Nation, and The Hole.

    They also have a special "Cinema '62 A-Go-Go" event on Saturday evening. It's a multi-media variety show to promote and expand upon Stephen Farber & Michael McClellan's new book Cinema '62: The Greatest Year at the Movies, with special guests, film clips, music, and more.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre overlaps a bit with some of that online festival action, as Nightstream's Pelican Blood is held over for a second weekend in partnership with Goethe-Institut Boston and BWFF selection Aggie opens in their virtual room. That one is a documentary about Agnes Gund, an art collector who famously sold an expensive piece of art and used the proceeds to create the Art For Justice fund, which supports reform of the American criminal justice system. It's directed by Gund's Emmy-winning daughter Catherine.

    They also open Major Arcana, about a carpenter who returns to his Vermont hometown to build a log cabin, reconnecting with someone whose past is entwined with his. Director Josh Melrod will dial in for a Q&A on Tuesday evening. The also continue to host I Am Woman, The Keeper, The Disrupted, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, and Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. Totally Under Control, a documentary from directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, joins the line-up on Tuesday; it investigates America's disastrous pandemic response which, well, has places like theaters closed even though many other parts of the world are re-opening.

    There are two options for spooky cinema this weekend, with a John Carpenter double feature of The Thing & They Live at the Medfield State Hospital on Friday and Saturday and the first of four Bava films, A Bay of Blood, streaming through Sunday. The Coolidge Education series is also in Halloween mode, with After Midnite programmer Mark Anastasio doing a seminar on An American Werewolf in London (sign up now to get the intro, then rent the movie on your own and come back for the Zoom discussion Thursday). They're also hosting a "Black Horror" series taught by Kyéra Sterling; though the Wednesday evening sessions starting on the 14th are sold out, there are still spots for the Sunday morning editions starting on the 18th. They've also been able to add more seats their Halloween Rocky Woods shows, with Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead remake on the 30th and 12 hours of werewolf pictures on the 31st. There's also tickets on sale for next weekend's screenings of E.T. at the Medfield State Hospital; maybe it's not really a horror movie but it freaked some kids out back in the day.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square and Watertown get Time a week ahead of Amazon Prime, and it looks like a good one, pulling from twenty years of footage and contemporary shooting to tell the story of Fox Rich, who has spent much of that time working to free her husband from jail, where he is serving 60 years for armed robbery. The Kendall also got the new Woody Allen thing, A Rainy Day in New York, which has been on the shelf for a couple of years and from the looks of the trailer I saw twice last weekend, deserves that fate.
  • Say what you will about the studios yanking everything from the schedule, but I don't know if something like Yellow Rose, with Eva Noblezada as a Filipina teenager in Texas who dreams of being a country music star, gets this wide a release in other circumstances. Good for it! It's at Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere. Also opening is The War with Grandpa, based on a bit of kid-lit about a boy resentful of said grandfather taking his room when he moves into the family home, which has been gathering dust even longer than the Allen thing, despite a similarly name-filled cast that includes Robert De Niro, Oakes Fegley, Uma Thurman, Cheech Marin, Christopher Walken, and Jane Seymour It's at Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    Disney re-releases Coco, which plays Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and Revere, while Imax presents matinees of Michael Jordan to the Max on the big screens at Boston Common and South Bay. Lights Out comes back at Boston Common and South Bay, while Revere's Halloween catalog-diving includes the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and Beetlejuice. The DreamWorks first-movie at AMC this week is Shrek, playing Boston Common and South Bay. The chronological Conjouring series is up to Annabelle at Boston Common, that and Annabelle: Creation at South Bay, and Annabelle Comes Home in Revere. Psycho plays Revere Sunday & Monday; they also have Call Me By Your Name on Sunday, Love, Hunibyo & Other Delusions The Movie: Take on Me for Monday's anime show, and Eat Pray Love on Tuesday.
  • My People, My Homeland was apparently a massive hit in China this past weekend, with the state-backed anthology film overseen by Ning Hao, who directed one of its segments which are broadly about rural life and fighting poverty. It's at Boston Common, where it joins fellow Chinese hits Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification and Leap; Jing Ziya also opens in Revere.

    If you favor Korean films, K-Pop doc Break the Silence: The Movie and Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula hangs around for a show or two per day at Revere. The re-release of Akira continues at Boston Common and Revere for those looking to Japan.
  • The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston has their monthly online presentation this weekend, streaming documentary Run for Dream. It features Taiwanese ultramarathoner "Tommy" Chen Yen-Po, who in 2016 became the first Asian athlete to complete the 4-part Desert Race series, which sounds masochistic. Director Huang Mau-Sen will join a live forum on Sunday evening, which will be conducted in Mandarin but have simultaneous English translation.
  • This week's Thursday Bright Lights at Home presentation is The Fight, which follows ACLU lawyers working a number of recent cases. It starts at 7pm and will be followed by discussion with co-director Elyse Steinberg.
  • The Regent Theatre has their doors open most days this week, with a multimedia event celebrating what would have been John Lennon's 80th birthday on Friday; screenings of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival block on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday; and a concert by Addis Pablo and the Naya Rockers on Wednesday. All of them have up to 50 seats available (up from 25), and the concert events can also be streamed (I don't think they're actually live at the Regent, but it's unclear). They also still have Herb Alpert Is… available to stream through the end of the month.
  • The West Newton Cinema is at least open Friday through Monday this week, for those whose schools give them a day off for Canadian Thanksgiving (or some other holiday that falls on the second Monday of October), keeping the same lineup of The Keeper, A Fantastic Woman, Lolita, The Bridges of Madison County (Friday/Sunday/Monday), RBG (Sunday/Monday), The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane (Saturday/Sunday/Monday), Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Sunday/Monday), and Casablanca (Sunday/Monday), with curbside popcorn pick-up as available on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Hopefully it doesn't mean anything that the link to the Belmont Studio has been removed from their site and that theater is still just temporarily closed.
  • Dang, The Somerville Theatre still has a listing for the burlesque-and-movie tonight, although I'm guessing it's not happening. The virtual screening room still lists The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Pahokee, and Alice (no longer supporting the Somerville but still pretty good); the Cat Film Fest is now a dead link. The Capitol is open for ice cream and snacks, but their virtual theater is basically empty, with The Surrogate still live but the latter no longer paying out to the Capitol and the other three entries dead links.
  • The Lexington Venue is open this weekend with On the Rocks and The Way I See It, and you can also book a private screening for those movies, The Secrets We Keep, or any disc you bring (the site says DVD but hopefully they can handle Blu-ray!). The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton are also offering private rentals for small-sih groups, with information on their websites (which often include other fundraising links) or by contacting them directly. The Coolidge has online booking through the 30th and the Brattle currently shows all available slots as filled.


Nightstream all weekend, maybe some Chinese movies once I'm done with that (whether at the Common or by digging into the box of things on their way from Hong Kong). And as always, if you haven't yet, go to Save Your Cinema to send a letter to your Congresspeople.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Nightstream 2020.00: Pelican Blood

Well, technically, Day -04 of Nightstream, but let's not get too cute about this. The point is, one of the Nightstream movies was also a part of the Coolidge/Goethe-Institut series of German films, so I was able to get a head start on the festival and also find myself curious about how well it plays to each audience; they tend to draw from different groups of cinema fans. Obviously they intersect (see: me), but even taking that into account, this feels like a different movie if you approach it from one direction rather than the other, and one I definitely found less satisfying because of the way my preferences align, but which a more horror-friendly audience might really dig.

Anyway, it's always nice to have seen a film or three in a festival before the thing starts; these virtual substitutes don't have a lot of conflicts built in, but any flexibility helps at all. This is probably one I would have tried to include in the ten selections that my BUFF badge nets me, and since I'm not going to overload my weekend by paying for more (unless something catches my interest while the fest is going), I'm very happy to have a little extra space.

Pelikanblut (Pelican Blood)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Instiut German Film/Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

If you live in the Boston area (and maybe others), Pelican Blood is available for streaming via two separate routes: The Nightstream streaming film festival, a cooperative effort between five genre-oriented fests canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre's partnership with Goethe-Institut to present noteworthy German-language films, which is generally material perceived as classier than that. I'm curious as to which group finds it more satisfying; it is by turns exceptionally earnest and deeply weird, and does a better job of moving between the two than being both at once.

Wiebke Landau (Nina Hoss) is a gifted equestrian, helping to train mounted police while raising foster daughter Nikolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo). Things are going well - she's helping a policewoman bond with a reluctant animal; something seems to be passing between her and officer Benedikt (Murathan Muslu), who is getting close to silver-fox territory; and she's been approved to adopt another girl from a Bulgarian orphanage, Germany being reluctant to place girls with working single mothers. And while 5-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska) is adorable, she immediately starts not just testing the limits of Weibke's authority, but showing signs that the trauma of her early life has left an even greater mark upon her.

Nina Hoss and writer/director Katrin Gebbe are able to rapidly sketch out Wiebke as compassionate but not one for a lot of nonsense, the person you would want reassuring both skittish horses and children who might have abandonment issues, and a look around the house that she seems to be capably renovating as she and her girls discover a need fits in with how she's not particularly worried about finding a husband or the other things that society often declares as prerequisites to being a mother or business owner. As Raya reveals herself as being more than Wiebke had bargained for, Hoss has to show how Wiebke sees this as a threat to everything she is - her capability, her decency, and even her womanhood - without a whole lot of talk, because this is a person who explains things she knows well rather than asks for help, so it's all got to play out across her face.

That makes it in large part Hoss's show, and she's reliably excellent, but Gebbe and the rest of the cast do a very nice job of showing how her focus on Raya is causing the rest of her life to suffer, and what's especially smart is that the implication is not that Wiebke will bring everything around her crashing down but that the rest will cut her loose lest what's consuming her also swallows them. Murathan Muslu is there to play the love interest, but he plays Benedikt as clear-eyed and well-aware of just how much of his own stuff he has to worry about, while young Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo does a very nice job of showing Nikolina as having good instincts for someone her age without making her seem precocious or wise.

Gebbe takes the audience through some strange and unnerving territory on the way to where it's ultimately going - she makes damn sure that the audience can't dismiss Raya as just an extreme brat or doubt that Wiebke is going way beyond sensible or even unorthodox means of dealing with it - and it's fascinatingly transgressive without ever really treating that as a badge of honor. Even the detours into the more supernatural-adjacent material is interesting, circling back to the folktale that give the film its name and showing how a kid's inability to explain her own mind and an adult's desperation can meet. The last sequence or two seem to find her losing the plot, unfortunately - it's one thing to keep going after the film says, look, here's the lesson you've got to learn, because Wiebke may be just that stubborn, another to completely undercut everything the film has been building to, no matter how impressively staged that sequence might have been.

The thing is, that's the sequence that probably gets the movie booked at the genre festivals and seen at all outside German-speaking and foreign-film audiences, and there's certainly an audience that will appreciate the film coming from that direction. There's probably a clever way to make a film like Pelican Blood where the two halves being in conflict with each other creates interesting ambiguity, but this winds up closer to one diminishing the other.

Also at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Welcome Back to Kendall Square: Save Yourselves! and On the Rocks

It was my birthday earlier this weekend, and since it's 2020, treating myself to a double feature seems like an extreme indulgence. Landmark Kendall Square opened around the same time as everyone else, with Tenet, and it seems to be doing better than most of the more mainstream multiplexes keeping interesting things on the marquee, if not necessarily getting more butts in seats: There were two other people there for Save Yourselves!, and I saw On the Rocks in their main theater alone. Unlike AMC, Regal, and Showcase, they seem to have made a conscious decision to not worry about windows right now: On the Rocks will be on Apple TV+ soon, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a Netflix movie, Time will be on Prime soon after it opens, and Save Yourselves! hit theaters four days before video. They've always been a bit more flexible on this than the other multiplex chains, but have clearly decided that now is not a great time to stand on principle if it gets butts in seats, and people desperate for a reason to get out may, semi-ironically, be happy to pay for things they would otherwise point out can be seen cheaper at home.

How wise/safe is that? Well, here's how the seating looked for screen #3:

As someone who never loved reserved seating at theaters, I find myself a bit annoyed when places don't have it these days, so that I can see what sort of crowd I'm getting into. In the lobby, the box office has been moved to the end of the concession stand and everything before barricaded off, since Massachusetts isn't allowing snacks in theaters right now, which means you've got no excuse to take your mask off during the show. The man at the box office mentioned that ushers would be performing mask checks during the show, but I didn't see them. But, then again, I sit up front so I don't see much of what's going on in the aisles.

It was Sunday, so I opted to walk. It takes roughly an hour to walk there from my apartment near Davis Square in Somerville, and it's a fairly pleasant walk - not particularly scenic, but level. I probably could have made it back home on foot, but the temperature had dropped a bit, so I took the T home (as you may recall from previous entries, I tend to feel more nervous about catching something during the 20-minute subway ride than the two-hour movie). It meant that I spotted this place as I was arriving:

It's a stupid thing, but I didn't get up to Montreal this summer and the poutine was a welcome birthday-ish treat. The gravy was relatively thin and the curds didn't quite make my teeth squeak compared to what I'm used to getting up north (still very good, with the fries just the right sort of crispiness to handle having that dumped on them). It's probably not going to be warm enough to sit outside and eat by the end of the month, but I suspect that I'll still stop there the next time I see a movie at the Kendall. There's a place that's opened up where the day care center used to be that sells ice cream, some mostly-vegetarian small plates, and booze, with orders placed via your phones and delivered to outdoor seating, and the set-up almost makes it feel like an outdoor concession stand, although I don't believe it and the theater are more than neighbors.

As always, it's hard not to note the paradoxes of going out to see movies right now, in that it's only really comfortable when there seemingly aren't enough people to make it a viable business, and because the state has probably put unfair restrictions on theaters: I'm not sure why restaurants and bars can have (limited) indoor food service but a movie theater can't sell sealed candies and drinks. I have no idea how much everyone pointed the same direction with taped-off seats keeping them separated mitigates possible spread rather than having folks facing each other and potentially eating off each other's plates helps, but it kind of feels like theaters are either getting a raw deal here or, alternately, are the only ones being held to sensible standards.

(It would be cool if theaters had signage or information on their website about whether they'd updated air circulation systems while they were closed or how safe they are, so folks could make more informed decisions. It's part of the things they talk about as part of their safety standards, but it's something that has been applied very unevenly!)

Anyway, I enjoyed seeing these two on the big screen, enjoyed my poutine, and hope I managed to be reasonably safe. Having now seen four movies in theaters in just over a week after just one over the previous six months, I worry that I'm talking myself into believing what I want in terms of safety rather than being sensible, but so long as it's just us die-hards who don't mind wearing a mask and not snacking, this probably isn't terribly high-risk.

Save Yourselves

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

Save Yourselves! is an enjoyable-enough bit of sci-fi-slash-millennial self parody that starts to run out of steam well before it hits the 90-minute "real feature" mark, but makes it there because of the on-screen pair being pretty likable despite being thin and basic types. A good high concept and a good idea of where one's target audience and the targets of one's jokes intersect can get a movie fairly far.

The pair are Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds), a Brooklyn couple starting to feel like they spend too much time scrolling separate devices in the same room. At an engagement party, they run into Jack's friend Raph (Ben Sinclair), who has chucked the rat race to do things like installing solar panels in South America and renovating his late grandfather's cabin upstate. The pair take him up on his offer to stay there a week, planning to turn off their phones for the duration - just as specks in the sky behind them start moving in an unnatural way.

The audience is in for an hour and a half with Sunita Mani and John Reynolds, and the good news is that they're enjoyable company. Filmmakers Alex Huston Fischer & Eleanor Wilson start from a familiar basis - Jack is the guy who is still kind of childish and hobby-obsessed in his mid-thirties, probably about ten years away from being the sitcom dad who just doesn't understand the things outside his wheelhouse, while Su is the sensible, focused partner who keeps him on track - but the filmmakers and cast are clever in how they go about it: Jack can't be nearly as dumb as he often looks, and Su's sensibility can easily become absurd in its own way. The pair play off each other extremely well, too - Reynolds gushes in a way that seems genuine rather than hammy, while Mani is able to counter that with withering looks and quick responses that hit even better because they are flailing and intense in their own way.

The movie works like that in general - take out the alien invasion, and there's a fairly decent "people in their thirties who haven't learned what used to be basic life skills yet" comedy there, and Wilson & Fischer have good instincts on when to let it roll as-is and when to add a little more kick by having something apocalyptic play out in the corner. By the time that stuff takes center stage, the audience likes these two enough to hope they somehow survive regardless, and seldom take any delight in them falling short. The lack of truly mean-spirited jokes makes the second half flow well, although not having some other element to push against makes things feel a little more random in the back half, like Fischer & Wilson don't quite have a place they want it to go.

Something that may seem small but which is the big thing that keeps it from falling apart is that the "pouffes" are the sort of thing that would have been good as classic Doctor Who villains, simple and practical but able to be threatening even when they should play as completely ridiculous. There's never a moment when the amount of CGI that this sort of independent film can afford becomes an impediment to believing what's on screen. Screw that up and it's a very different movie and a lot less fun.

But they don't, and while this isn't a movie that particularly has to worry about aging well - it's thoroughly contemporary, so who cares if it looks goofy in ten years? - it works very well in the current moment. Maybe it doesn't have any particular wisdom about that moment, but it's got plenty of jokes that hit without being cruel, and maybe you don't need a lot of wisdom when the world is often random and absurd anyway.

Also at eFilmCritic

On the Rocks

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

The viewer can't help but wonder just how much of Sofia Coppola's relationship with her own larger than life father is in this movie, but maybe said viewer will also wonder just how much she (like other people who were born into the arts and a certain amount of money) don't know about everyday life outside it, especially when she tries to have a character talk about their job and business and it sounds like stuff she's picked up from other movies. That's not really the point of this movie, but there are more than a few moments while watching it when one might wonder just what Marlon Wayans's Dean does, or if parents today really have to drop their kids off at school individually, leading to chatting with the same person waiting in line every day. Does this ring true?

Not that it really matters; the movie is about a father and daughter whose relationship is mostly pretty good but where his history of infidelity has both of them looking over their shoulder at when the other shoe may drop, while he's still trying to figure out how he relates to women as family. For a while, one might also wonder why it's coming from the daughter's point of view when Bill Murray is doing the most interesting work as the father, finding different ways to be semi-blank for a shallow flirtiness and for not understanding how to function in certain sorts of relationships, but his being disconnected and unknowable is half the point. He's fun to examine but you've got to be a little worried that there's not more below the charming surface, whereas Rashida Jones does a nice enough job of bringing Laura to life that the performance is, for better or worse, invisible; there's not the same door into something unusual and specific as there is with Murray most of the time.

The movie's slight, but still pretty charming. There's a bit in the middle that's kind of a great car chase despite not really being one at all, and the whole thing often becomes surprisingly earnest without that being any sort of gotcha. She and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd shoot on film and seem to capture the always-under-construction New York City better than most, finding neighborhoods and streets that look like people are moving in and out with stores opening, closing, and remodeling, and it makes the late-movie trip to Mexico hit different because it's all so manicured and finished aside from the brighter sun and sea colors.

In fun/weird credits: I've never seen an actor credited as having his own music supervisor before. What did Paul Schaeffer do here, advise Coppola on what sort of music an older but kind of hip guy like Murray's Felix would listen to or reference? Nice work to get your name into the main titles!

Short time in the Brattle's virtual screening room: Son of the White Mare and Dead

Both of these movies will be leaving The Brattle and its virtual screening room after Thursday (8 October 2020), so if you want to see them while kicking some money their way, do it now. They will be available elsewhere soon enough - Dead is already on Prime despite just coming out in New Zealand a few weeks ago and White Mare will almost certainly get a nice Blu-ray - but keep some money local, right?

Anyway, fun movies in very different ways, and it was neat to see Michael Hurst in something again, if briefly, with what I assume is something closer to his actual accent than the "somewhere over the Pacific" one he did on Hercules and Xena back in the day, and was even more tickled to discover while poking around on IMDB afterwards that his wife on-screen is played by his real-life wife of 30+ years, Jennifer Ward-Lealand. She also appeared on those Sam Raimi-produced shows, and I almost want to dig in and see if it was cute pairings with Iolaus or just using every actor in New Zealand who could do a neutral (to Americans) accent.

Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (restoration reissue, Vimeo via Roku)

Son of the White Mare is folklore, which means that it's wild and often nonsensical, even if there's also something underneath that seems to resonate. It's also animation, where you have absolute freedom to go anywhere your mythology-fueled imagination can take you so long as you're willing to do the disciplined, painstaking work necessary. It's a cult classic because the one half of that seldom seems to interfere with the other, making something memorably, impressively surreal.

It opens with a gravid white mare fleeing something that looks like a fire, although the setting is trippy and metaphorical enough that it could be something else before she seemingly races through a portal to another world (or holes up in the hollow of a tree). She gives birth, and the foal transforms into a boy. A forest spirit tells him to have his mother nurse him for seven years (and then seven years more), before leaving to go on a quest to the underworld. "Treeshaker" soon discovers he has two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, and they soon find a hut, a gnome, and three castles with dragons and princesses.

The story doesn't particularly make sense - the mare fills Stonecrumbler in on how they wound up in that tree, but if this leads him to be seeking justice or revenge or liberation, that's not really where the brothers' quest takes them. Truth be told, Stonecutter drains his mother dry and barely looks back without it exactly being her sacrificing herself to avenge him, so the motivation is kind of wobbly throughout. On top of that, Treeshaker is kind of the most boring sort of mythological hero, too outrageously strong to ever face any sort of challenge, so confident and assured in most cases that his brothers' shortcomings highlight how he's got relatively little personality. Director Marcell Jankovics and co-writer László György commit to the rule of three to an almost absurd extent, making for a potentially very repetitive movie.

It never quite becomes that, though; the repeated elements may not vary that much, but they tend not to be drawn out; Jankovics, the editors, and the music department let it feel like ramping up and building momentum, letting Treeshaker's feats grow more superhuman but not having him pull a new trick out for every fight, and making him possibly feel out of control near the end, when he's spent the whole movie ramping up and may not be able to slow down for a misunderstanding. The simplicity of it heightens the feel of a world still forming, and the way this simple repetition will often give way to extended mind-bending visuals makes it more of a time of unsettled legend.

It's the sort of capable underpinning that enables one to brush a lot away by saying to just look at the pictures, because the film is visually amazing, probably looking as good as it has since its original 1981 release thanks to a back-to-the-negative 4K restoration. It is full of full-screen metamorphoses, geometric compositions in which a viewer can lose themselves at home (this must really be something on a big screen), and character animation that never particularly strives for realism but also avoids being childish or self-consciously envelope-pushing. It's not necessarily appropriate for children, though they'll probably only catch the seductive topless princess and dragon with the stone testes rather than the vaginal and phallic imagery throughout. The character design is especially clever, from how there's a lot of kinship between the brothers and sisters despite them being clearly identifiable, while the dragons are wonderfully anachronistic and symbolic of more pervasive violence and dehumanization. They're almost too creative to slay.

Of course, dig too deep into the symbolism and you get to benevolent god-kings ruling through some vague divine right, which isn't great, but it's the sort of movie whose abstraction is so extreme that viewers almost can't help but be hyper-aware of it even as the imagery is washing over them as just gorgeous. Here's hoping that when the sort of small theater that would show an animated movie from 1981 Hungary is re-opened, they'll have room for some late shows of this, because there's not much like it that's done nearly so well.

Also at eFilmCritic

Dead

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (first/limited-run, Vimeo via Roku)

Not a lot of movies simultaneously get right into things and immediately establish a fun, laid-back feel the way that Dead does, especially among the sort of supernatural comedies that most desperately want to pull that off. That confidence lets it dive into its goofy premise quickly enough to have time to explore and expand as well as fit in a bunch of gags despite running just 90 minutes. The group doesn't always make it look easy, but they give the audience a pretty entertaining film on the main.

Dave "Marbles" Malwich (Thomas Sainsbury) is an Auckland stoner who has, of late, discovered that by blending his weed with his late father's neurological meds, he can make something that, when injected, allows him to communicate with ghosts. Jason Tagg (Hayden J. Weal) is a young and enthusiastic uniformed cop who has been trying to find a serial killer for the past two years, but got too close and now is pretty lucky that he remembered Marbles saying something about his weird formulation the last time he detained the guy for possession. Marbles isn't interested at first - it sounds dangerous and he mostly just tries to help people move on before their spirits decay into ghouls- but his mother (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is planning to sell the family farm unless Marbles can buy it in a couple of days, and Tagg has life insurance that could cover it, if they find his missing corpse and get his foster sister Yana (Tomai Ihala) to sign off. Which might not be as hard as one thinks; she's an ex-lawyer with her own money and has been helping Tagg track the killer, as best she can with a GPS unit on her ankle after her fourth DWI.

Viewers have a pretty good idea of who Marbles and Tagg are from the first time they show up, and a large part of what makes them fun is that both are energetic and well-meaning in ways that make it absolutely believable when they get on each other's nerves without actually becoming nasty toward one another. Co-stars Thomas Sainsbury and Hayden J. Weal also write with Weal directing, and they've got a good handle all around on what they can bring to a certain kind of story, and despite the cheery seeming-obliviousness that Sainsbury gives Marbles to complement how Weal delivers the sort of dumber-than-he-realizes intensity that makes his playing almost the entire movie sans trousers work, they both handle the fact that these characters are in large part defined by their losses well, giving the pair a little weight without losing who they are. Tomai Ihala plays Yana as a bit more pointed as a contrast, and both she and Weal do a nice job of selling the sibling dynamic even when they can't directly interact for much of the film.

There are a lot of amusing bits, both from the quick looks at Marbles helping various people with their ghost problems and as they try to figure out where to start solving Tagg's murder, to make for a fine episodic comedy, including one of the more cheerful "straight guy in a gay bar" sequences. The filmmakers never take the weird part for granted, though, finding a natural way to put a time limit on the case and to switch things up later on. Even with all that going on, the film is still comedy first; there are mystery and horror elements to it, but the filmmakers seldom lose sight of what this particular film is built on in order to get lost going down a particular genre's path.

Things do eventually get kind of tight, because this is the sort of small independent film that can't really afford to waste characters on just one thing or have too many locations. As a result, there's sometimes a bit of a push and pull toward the end where the logic of two similar things being related bumps up against it making for an awfully small world, especially when Marbles's ex-girlfriend Henna (Jess Sayer) shows up after being mentioned in dialogue before but never quite fits once all is said and done, despite being kind of necessary to what's going on.

It's a fun little movie which may have a little trouble getting traction outside of New Zealand - it's all local talent and its North American release seems to be virtual bookings with individual theaters - but folks who dig this sort of thing could do worse than check it out. Weal, Sainsbury, and company have their eye on the supernatural-mystery-comedy ball and seldom stumble.

Also at eFilmCritic