Friday, January 15, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 15 January 2021 - 21 January 2021

How long's it been and how long have we got? One local theater is re-aligning their streaming platform, presumably because they've outgrown what they were doing and are in it for the long haul, and one of the things they're opening is only just now finding distribution or has been waiting for a slot for a while..
  • That would be the good folks at The Brattle Theatre, whose "Brattlite" soft-launched earlier this week with Shadow in the Cloud and opens for real with two new releases: Spoor has actually been kicking around a while - I saw it at Fantasia back in 2017 - but it's a terrifically eerie and unconventional thriller from Agnieszka Holland with a terrific performance by Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka as a woman who thinks normally-docile creatures are taking out local hunters (and is pretty much okay with it). They also open Acasa, My Home; that one also hails from Eastern Europe - Romania, to be precise - and offers up a family that has been living off the grid who are brought into the city when the land where they have been squatting becomes a national park.

    They also have something more like repertory series, with four by Federico Fellini. La Dolce Vita is only available through Sunday, and this is apparently the only place it can be streamed right now; Variety Lights, Il Bidone, and Intervista will be available through the 28th. Members get $3 off regular price, so there's more reason to renew your membership. They also continue to offer To the Ends of the Earth, Another Round, and City Hall, though those are not served by the Brattlite.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre brings a couple of documentaries that played Emerson's Bright Light series to their virtual room. Some Kind of Heaven takes a look at The Villages, a huge retirement community in Florida, with filmmaker Lance Oppenheim joining a live Q&A on Sunday afternoon. Through the Night looks at the other end of life and comfort, with filmmaker Loira Limbal following three working mothers who meet (at least in passing) at a 24-hour day care center. Limbral and two of the subjects will also call in for a "Panorama" Q&A on Monday evening. They join The Reason I Jump, I Blame Society, Love Sarah, Another Round, 76 Days, City Hall, and Martin Eden in the virtual theater.

    The weekly Coolidge Education seminar is The Thin Blue Line, with critic Nicolas Rapold leading discussion of Errol Morris's documentary on Thursday evening. Register, watch the introduction, and stream it from your service of choice before then.
  • The Japanese Embassy's "New Year Japanese Film" series continues this weekend with Wood Job!, which stars Shota Sometani as a recent high school graduate who, not getting into college, decides to become a lumberjack, though he's not exactly the outdoorsy type and the village he winds up in is way off the beaten path. Nice supporting cast, too, with Masami Nagasawa, Hideaki Ito, and Nana Seino.

    Closer to home, Belmont World Film brings their annual Family Film Festival online this year, with most of the films available through the 24th, although documentary Forward is only available from 7pm Saturday to 7pm Sunday, while Fahim, the Little Chess Piece is there from 10am Saturday to 10am Monday, while the "Hungry Bear Tales" shorts are there from 10am Saturday to 10am Tuesday. There's also a Junior Film Critic's workshop on Saturday and Sunday, and modeling workshops with folks from Aardman next Saturday (giving folks time to get some materials)

    The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival hasn't yet placed their complete lineup on sale, but it starts on 10 February and tickets are on sale for both the 6-day festival (with, so far, 6 features, 2 short programs, and 2 panels on sale) and the 24-hour marathon.
  • Global Arts Live is offering a free stream of documentary Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion on Saturday evening at 8pm, followed by a conversation with director Ron Wyman. Though the film started as a general look at the Taureg nomads of northwest Africa, it soon focused on musician Omara "Bambino" Moctar.
  • It looks like the Majestic 7 in Watertown is going into hibernation after a few days of playing Indian films, so if you want to see something on the big screen, your closest and most T-accessible spots are in Newton, with the Showcase SuperLux in Chestnut Hill only showing times through Tuesday at the moment. The new release there is The Marksman, with Liam Neeson as a rancher on the Mexican border who takes in a kid fleeing from a drug cartel.
  • Elsewhere in Newton, The West Newton Cinema is open through Monday with Wonder Woman 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and matinees of The Keeper. No afternoon shows on Friday, no evening shows on Monday
  • The Somerville Theatre is still closed but The Slutcracker: The Movie still appears to be available. Ice cream and other goodies available at The Capitol, their sister theater in Arlington still appears to be selling ice cream.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through the end of February for both Moviehouse II and the screening room, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I'm streaming Wood Job! at the very least, and once again trying to use some spare time to write up the backlog of stuff I've streamed from various festivals.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 8 January 2021 - 14 January 2021

January's gonna be really quiet, isn't it? It would be even if Boston hadn't announced its theaters would be closed through the 27th, but it seems like we're multiplying "January is slow anyway" by "nothing has been shooting" and by "everywhere is shut down" to get a super-slow movie month.

It's looking like some places may wind up closed for a whole year - here's the frozen posters on display at the Somerville Theatre when I went to get a haircut last weekend:
Some of those movies feel like forever ago. I legitimately couldn't remember what The Way Back was.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre is the closest to an exception to it being quiet, adding two new films to its roster and the start and gets back to conversation as well. The Reason I Jump is part of both, with director Jerry Rothwell and several subjects joining a Panorama discussion on Sunday afternoon to discuss his documentary on non-verbal autistic people. They also add I Blame Society, about a filmmaker torn between becoming a successful documentary filmmaker and committing the perfect murder. They join Shadow in the Cloud, Love Sarah, "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" (new restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, Fallen Angels, Eros segment "The Hand" (from 48 to 56 minutes), and In the Mood for Love), The Emoji Story, Another Round, 76 Days, City Hall, and Martin Eden.

    They also have two other discussions where viewers must find the film on their own. On Wednesday, they begin a monthly "Shakespeare Reimagined" series in partnership with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, with the first entry Akira Kurosawa's Ran featuring documentarian Peter Grilli, stage actor Will Lyman, and professor Yu Jin Ko. On Thursday, the weekly seminar returns with critic Beatrice Loayza discussing Blue Velvet.
  • Over at The Brattle Theatre they add Shadow in the Cloud to To the Ends of the Earth, Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, and City Hall.
  • Amazon's giving One Night in Miami... a week in theaters before it hits Prime. Regina King's adaptation of Kemp Powers's play imagines Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) meeting and discussing where they stand as part of the civil rights movement. It plays Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and places further out in the suburbs. Note that Chestnut Hill only seems to be open through Sunday, re-opening for business with The Marksman (Liam Neeson's new one) on Thursday.

    Indian movies are apparently starting to see release again, with Telugu-language actioner Krack starring Ravi Teja and playing Watertown from Saturday to Monday.
  • The West Newton Cinema looks like just one screen showing Wonder Woman 1984 this weekend. Or maybe it's on as many screens they need depending how many tickets they sell, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad way to run things right now.
  • The Japanese Embassy in Washington apparently offers a "New Year Japanese Film" series in January, and it's online for the whole country this year, with a different movie for the next three weekends. It opens this with Masquerade Hotel streamable for free from Friday to Sunday; it's a fun cozy mystery that I liked when I watched it on a Hong Kong import disc back in April (and which, so far, is not available for American stream or purchase otherwise).

    After that, It's time to gear up for a few more local virtual festivals, with Belmont World Film kicking off a virtual edition of their annual Family Film Festival on the 15th (say that five times fast). The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival hasn't yet placed their complete lineup on sale, but it includes animated Korean horror movie Beauty Water (which has been tightly geolocked at other virtual festivals), the marathon, and a few other features.
  • The Somerville Theatre is basically pointing to the streaming version of The Slutcracker, which is apparently still available. The Capitol in Arlington still appears to be selling ice cream.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through January 31st for both Moviehouse II and the screening room, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, and Wolfwalkers available along with the option to bring your own disc. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
Time to make a dent in the shelf, and also remember not to delay too much on the stuff at the Brattle and Coolidge (I up and missed something because it ended earlier than I expected).

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Krasue: Inhuman Kiss

It's been roughly a year since I saw the cover of this movie on DDDHouse (not far off from what you see there), had the entirely reasonable reaction of "this looks insane and I must see it now", and that it took me this long is not entirely my fault: I had just made another order from the place and tend to wait until there are a lot of pre-orders/new releases because the cost of shipping from this Hong Kong merchant is "significant base amount plus smaller per-item amount", but when I did pull the trigger, HK Post stopped dealing with the USA entirely, and the merchant wouldn't start shipping again until months later, so they cancelled my order. I reordered and got the discs in October, by which point I was deep into how every film festival cancelled during the year was having online versions in sequence. So onto the shelf it goes, joined by a great many other things. In the meantime, I see it on Prime Video, but it's half an hour shorter than the runtime, and it's apparently one of those times where pirates put something up there and Amazon doesn't notice until someone threatens action - probably Netflix, since they've got most of the worldwide rights, but I don't have Netflix...

Anyway, I'm curious about how often the people who do have Netflix have had this recommended to them, especially those who like horror. It's a genuinely weird movie - like I say below, it's a period coming-of-age romantic horror movie from Thailand - with a cast of young Thai actors, and I don't know what the Netflix algorithm grabs onto in order to get people who don't already know Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang (who has the most IMDB credits of anyone in the cast) to it. It's a pretty terrific little movie, but I have no idea how recommendation engines would find a path to it; for all that it's a lot of things different people like, it's only 25% any of them, after all.

And would people have known to go looking for it? From what I can tell, it was released in Thailand in March 2019, picked up by Netflix in May 2019, and made its way onto the service a month and change later, meaning it never hits NYAFF, Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, etc., where enthusiastic people like me might talk it up before it has another blip in October/November as Thailand's Oscar submission. As much as I doubt this was ever going to be any sort of theatrical hit, or sold gangbusters on Blu-ray, I don't notice any of my friends on Letterboxd having seen it and only one wanting to (which isn't necessarily a great proxy for awareness as I don't do watchlists myself), and some of them really, really like horror. It's a big-deal movie in its homeland that just becomes bulk for Netflix, so they can say they put so many "Netflix Originals" online over the course of a month. Shudder might have given it more individual attention, but then the potential audience is smaller.

(Truth be told, I'm kind of bummed I didn't get a Mitch Davis introduction for this at Fantasia. If he liked it, that would have been a treat!)

It's a huge shame, and I kind of wonder what other weird and delightful movies are falling out of view because a big service like Netflix or Prime scoops them up and figures it's not worth the manpower to both figure out what's worth promoting beyond the obvious audience and actually doing it, especially when it doesn't really matter to them whether you watch this or a few episodes of The Office.

Sang krasue (Krasue: Inhuman Kiss aka Inhuman Kiss)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

They say not to judge a book by it's cover, but take a second to look at the "cover" of Krasue: Inhuman Kiss - whether it's a poster, the slipcase for a DVD or Blu-ray, or the header image on a streaming service - and if that floating-head image doesn't get your attention, well, I'm not sure how. The point is, that image makes one heck of a promise, and amazingly enough, it delivers more. It is a period coming-of-age romantic horror ride the likes of which doesn't come around too often.

When they were kids, Jerd, Ting, Noi, and Sai went out in the woods playing hide and seek near a house said to hold a dead woman's spirit, with Sai reassuring Noi but coming upon something strange herself. Years later, they're teenagers, with Ting (Darina Boonchu) a young mother, Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) assisting at the local health center despite the doctors having been called to the fighting in Bangkok, and Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong) nursing a crush on her. He's a catch - handsome and from a rich family - but Sai still pines for Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang), whose family moved to Bangkok some years ago, but has returned just ahead of Tat (Surasak Wongthai), who describes himself as a krasue hunter. Krasue are said to be monster women whose heads detach from their body and spits into wells, with a woman who drinks from the same well becoming one herself and a man who does feeling incredible until the krasue eats his guts. But that doesn't sound like Sai at all.

Does that seem like giving a little too much away? It's not - Sai is obviously going to be at the center of things from the opening flashback - but even if it was, there is a lot to come. Director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri and screenwriter Chookiat Sakveerakul have moments that could serve as climaxes at roughly every quarter-mark, expanding and twisting the story in ways that feel natural while also meaning that the actual finale is full of things that are completely insane. It's a neat trick that they get there fairly, and are able to keep things moving at the right sort of pace that they can take a moment to regroup without things going completely back to normal, with some things happening mostly off-screen but the ways that it does appear getting things across.

It works in large part because so much of the movie is emotionally grounded in things the audience understands even if, as an outsider, the setting is not immediately recognizable as the mid-1940s because where the filmmakers can, they seem to skew modern in things like wardrobe, hairstyles, and dialogue (at least, to the extent I can tell from the English subtitles on a Blu-ray produced for the Hong Kong market). There's something very natural about how these young people play off each other, rather than overheated, with the filmmakers seldom holding anything back or making them larger-than-life for melodramatic purposes. Noi is probably not going to find a way out of the situation with science, but it never seems futile or unreasonable (and the fact that it's presented like a teenager's science experiment helps). The filmmakers are smart about how the idea of a teenager as more than a kid but less than an adult wasn't really an accepted thing until after this movie's setting even if they were always like that, leading to the characters fumbling about earnestly and the couple years Ting has on her school-age friends being appropriately life-changing.

Not that this movie is actually subtle - the young cast is good, but their performance is seldom particularly layered, with Surasak Wongthai going even bigger as Tat. The film isn't as heavily reliant on jump scares as Thai horror can be, but composer Chatchai Pongprapaphan isn't shy about putting a big crash in the score when they come or pushing the tension hard at other points There's a nice pastoral look to it, not taking the path of a suffocating jungle but understanding how secrets can quickly be buried in this place, with a lot of room for mystery to be uncovered even as the area is modernizing. And while the visual effects are not quite so polished as they might be if this movie came from the United States or China, they use what they've got to good advantage: Make-up effects feel like they could come from either fairy tales or monster movies, elemental if not entirely real-looking, and the CGI used to illustrate the krasue is horrific, ethereal, and a little silly all at once, enough to let a viewer feel the characters' disbelief at the situations they find themselves in.

It makes Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (currently a Netflix exclusive with the first word removed from the title in most of the world) an exceptionally odd movie, a crazy bit of folkloric horror that became Thailand's Oscar submission, though not a nominee. That it somehow manages to be a jaw-dropping genre film and a smartly observed coming-of-age story is a minor miracle - as out-there as advertised but honest enough to make a viewer believe in its madness.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, January 01, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 1 January 2021 - 7 January 2021

Happy New Year, a weekend where theaters traditionally tweak how many screens the Christmas releases are on, maybe opening something from Asia or some piece of dreck looking to say that, technically, it's a theatrical film rather than DTV junk. And while we technically can't say "ugh, 2020" any more, we're still probably going to be in lockdown through much of January at the very least.
  • Still, it looks like The Coolidge Corner Theatre has a fun-looking one opening, with Shadow in the Cloud starring ChloĆ« Grace Moretz as a soldier joining an all-male bomber crew during WWII and potentially having to fight a monster on board. It joins Love Sarah, "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" (new restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, Fallen Angels, Eros segment "The Hand" (from 48 to 56 minutes), and In the Mood for Love), Another Round, 76 Days, City Hall, and Martin Eden.
  • The Brattle Theatre thins their offerings out a bit, down to To the Ends of the Earth, Ikarie XB-1, Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Zappa, and City Hall. Maybe watch some Marx Brothers in their honor.
  • The multiplexes that are open - Watertown, Chestnut Hill, and West Newton are closest to the T - with The West Newton Cinema showing themselves as open through Sunday with one screen showing of Wonder Woman 1984. If you can make it out to the Liberty Tree Mall, they've got Alien in addition to the rest of the things released last week.
  • The Regent Theatre has three more hybrid performances of Jimmy Tingle's 2020 Vision (daily through Sunday), with the 60-minute film followed by stand-up comedy and Q&A. Some in-person seating is available, but it will also be live-streamed. They also continue to stream Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol through Sunday.
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but The Slutcracker is still streaming a version cut together from last year's performances; The Capitol in Arlington has the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing and Cambridge is locked down) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown), although it might be worth checking to see if any reservations made at the Brattle or Landmark Theatres Kendall Square are still active with the new restrictions. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through January 31st for both Moviehouse II and the screening room, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, Wolfwalkers, and Fleabag available along with the option to bring your own disc. The Brattle currently shows no open slots, even beyond Cambridge's restrictions. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
Definitely looking at Shadow in the Cloud and seeing what else can be caught up on.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Merry-ish Christmas from Kendall Square: News of the World, Promising Young Woman, and The Midnight Sky

I've kind of known that going to the movies on Christmas is a thing, beyond it just being a good week where a lot of people are off work, but never really did it. I've got a fair-sized extended family a couple hours away, and even though there are enough people with inlaws among them and snowbirds, it's rare that I'm not up there for at least the day, if not crashing in someone's spare room, and even when I get home in time for a movie, I'm pretty run-down and pretty much ready to be done.

Obviously, not getting on a train for a couple of hours this year even if I was cool with hanging around a dozen people who all have other people they've got. I'd figured on maybe seeing something on Christmas, and then using the week of vacation time I couldn't roll over hitting the occasional matinee - and then the City of Cambridge throws a monkey wrench in that plan by saying theaters have to close down starting the 26th for three weeks, with the theater saying they would open their new slate on Christmas and then close down the next day. So, to see some things on the big screen at the Kendall, you're looking at that date. Maybe the Boston places pick them up if they open after three weeks, maybe they've got other things to open. Though probably not.

(All the usual caveats of going to the movies right now apply - there haven't been many if any cases linked to theaters, Massachusetts isn't allowing concessions, the Kendall is being very careful about enforcing masking, I'm walking at least one way to avoid excess time on the subway, and I don't have anyone at home to bring it to. Change any of that, or even have more people realize that it's pretty safe, and maybe I'm not doing this nearly so much.)

It rained on the walk there, and there were a few people there for both the afternoon shows, but it kind of thinned out afterward. I hung around outside the theater for a bit then to suck down a candy bar and a soda that I'd brought from home, then it was just me, I think, for The Midnight Sky, since it's already on Netflix. It was quiet enough for people to notice that I was doing a triple.

Not a great day at the movies, all told - I probably should have found a slot for The Dissident once I saw what the situation was, since it seems to be the one least likely to be brought back at other theaters when they open.

So, around 9pm, I left, not knowing when I'd be back. Hopefully we'll be moving out of all this before some theaters have been closed a full year.

News of the World

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

There's ideas floating around News of the World that don't really have much opportunity to come together and amount to much more than some pretty scenery. Paul Greengrass and company want to talk about how stories can shape the world for people, or dig into how westerns are, as a genre, about people who know civilization in a place where it's weak, but they're unfocused, playing these themes up or ignoring that as is convenient. They've got a main story about returning a long-lost child to her relatives, but it doesn't really give the film a lot of structure or play into the themes directly.

It does have Tom Hanks, though, and he makes for as nice and solid an anchor as one could hope for. It's good use of Hanks as a movie star, letting the audience fill in the gaps in the character with what Tom Hanks would do without completely becoming stock. The shots of the West are beautiful, though, with cinematographer handling everything well even as Greengrass does a sort of Western sampler: There are a couple of gunfights, wagons stretching to the horizon, encounters with Natives with appropriately heavy undertones, and muddy townsfolk watching the outsiders with curiosity - and there's no part where they fare badly. It's wonderful to look at.

It's just not a lot more. It feels a lot like the folks involved wanted to make a western, or even to have made a western, just not any specific one, and it has to be a story that goes down relatively easy. News of the World is a fair example of that, but for something with a potentially unique hook, a talented star and director, and a potential ability to examine itself, it seems like it could have been far more.

Promising Young Woman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

Writer/director Emerald Fennell worked on Killing Eve, though not during its recent mess of a third season, her film has the same vibe of that show at its roughest: Kind of glib, more interested in having fun playing dress-up and playing around with broad characters than most anything else, but still fun even when it's not as clever as it thinks.

The good news is that Carey Mulligan sure seems to know what to do with every bit of the script, relishing the moments when her Cassandra flips from falling being out if it to fully aware, adding an appropriate snap to every line that could use it, finding the spots where we're supposed to buy into Cassie being potentially more or less stable and making them work and hinting at the deep hurt underneath her being seemingly capable and decisive. The movie doesn't work without her being less than terrific, and even if one doesn't believe in everything that Cassandra does, it's not hard to believe in who she is.

It's kind of a shame that the material she and those around her have to work with is generally kind of a mess, loving to imply that Cassandra is up to something really deranged or sinister but cutting away before a scene can climax. It's admittedly important by the end that she is primarily only putting herself in danger, but Fennell never does anything that works as the sort of convincing misdirection that is actually laying a foundation in retrospect*, instead giving the audience a bunch of episodes that fizzle individually but getting to the next one fast enough for one to miss it. It leads to a finale built in a way that requires her to be both absurdly reckless and downright diabolical. It's a movie that is built to feel satisfying even if you don't really believe a word of it, and it's just the right sort of polished to be fun in a way, but I don't know that it will hold up.

* At least, not to a man in his mid-forties who was never really adjacent to these sorts of situations even when younger; maybe a 30-ish woman will say that it's the sort of flying close to the sun you have to do to have any fun.

The Midnight Sky

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The folks doing visual effects on The Midnight Sky are amazingly good at putting things I love looking at on-screen - like, right up there next to The Expanse even without the same rigorous attention to scientific detail. There were plenty of moments during this film when I just beamed, even after it had gone on a while.

The trouble is, there really doesn't seem to be any limit to how far movie-makers will go to turn the exciting challenges of exploring the universe into mincemeat to tell a story of estranged parents; there's this sort of writing disease that holds that the key to making respectable science fiction is to emphasize the importance of a familiar human relationship, and it can not only suggest that the people involved not only can't imagine things beyond their own experiences, it causes them to trivialize the stakes of the story if they don't make the themes that compelling. More or less all of humanity has died by the time that The Midnight Sky really hits its groove, and it never does anything to earn that scale, to say that what is animating Augustine's stubborn will to continue to do his job to the very end is that operatic (director George Clooney's capable but unremarkable old-man shuffle as the dying physicist doesn't exactly help), and the whole thing is building up to a finale that doesn't pack nearly the surprise it's supposed to.

Meanwhile, between Jupiter and Earth, all sorts of ridiculous but meaningless things are happening to keep a pretty decent cast busy, with the whole thing starting from an impossibly inhabitable moon of Jupiter (apparently we've just missed this one in 400 years of Westerners observing the planet and discovering almost 80 with some less than a kilometer wide) and becoming more conventionally absurd after that. They don't mean anything, and just underline that ultimately apparently nothing other than one family matters.

(It also contains a sequence whose inanity is almost sublime, one which is roughly the equivalent of me and my co-workers deciding to bust out a song from 1940 during a life-or-death operation and only the youngest Gen-Z-er not getting the appeal, which I admittedly kind of love because I am a New Englander and the Red Sox have made "Sweet Caroline" part of my DNA.)

I don't hate The Midnight Sky the way I really should; Clooney has banked a lot of goodwill and it looks good enough that I am glad that I used one of three precious slots on the last day I could see movies on the big screen for a while to see it that way. Honestly, I kind of wonder what this is actually like as a Netflix movie - is the reduction in spectacle made up for by how many people are doing something else? It's not a good movie, and it is in fact a lot of the things I hate about people who don't love science fiction hijacking the genre, but the people involved do enough of what they're good at to make up for a large chunk of where they are way off base.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Curveball

This has a second weekend in The Coolidge's Virtual Screening Room through Sunday, and it's pretty good! I think I've said that the Goethe-Institut's presentations at the Coolidge have long been one of the theater's hidden gems - back before the virus, they were like $5 but you had to be there at 11am on a Sunday - and the larger window they've had has been pretty nice, even with the cost up to $12 (still pretty reasonable).

It's a real shame that it's pretty much the entire chance we get to see some of these movies, since they're not exactly arcane or difficult to get into. Curveball, for instance, has large chunks in English, tells a story that is fairly relevant to American lives, and is genuinely funny in ways that don't exactly require getting into a different cultural headspace. It could be an outsider critique of the USA, but isn't, really. But I've got no idea how well it will get on people's radar. They may or may not get U.S. distribution, and that distributor may not be able to get a slot on the various services. Heck, near as I can tell, the film that director Johannes Naber and star Sebastian Blomberg did five years earlier, Age of Cannibals, never got a particularly US-friendly release, and it really looks like something I'd enjoy seeing.

As an aside, part of how it's US-friendly is that it has a number of moments when it cuts to what people in power were doing publicly at the time - once even making it clear that this is a thing the characters were watching - and one of them was Colin Powell, whom my employers had breathlessly engaged to speak to us in as part of a monthly "town hall" conference call, and for as much as it seemed worthy of a little suspicion then - it was the sort of "I came from humble beginnings and made it this high, so obviously the system works in general" pep talk that you should probably expect from large corporations - it looks a bit worse when you're reminded what he was a part of, and how little consequences the people most responsible faced.

Curveball

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Instiut German Film/Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

There must be an entry in Ebert's Little Movie Glossary about the way movies like Curveball start, with a little bit outside the main film's setting that isn't entirely dispensable but certainly shows what's about to happen at a larger scale in microcosm. Here, it's German chemical weapons inspector Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg) letting his American colleague Leslie (Virginia Kull) believe that he was married rather than a widower because he thought she was looking for an affair as they searched for WMDs in 1997 Iraq. Even without hindsight, we'd know that something like this was about to be writ large; fortunately, the movie knows how to hit those notes even if they won't be a surprise.

It picks up two years later, when Dr. Wolf is working in a BND lab outside Munich; as the department's foremost expert on anthrax production, he's tasked by his superior officer Schatz (Thorsten Merten) to aid agent Retzlaff (Michael Wittenborn) in debriefing refugee Rafid Alwan (Dar Salim), a 34-year-old chemical engineer who claims to have witnessed tests personally. Alwan is canny enough to keep details close to the vest until he has an apartment and promises of protection, but the BND is eager to find out what he knows - they are a small player in the global intelligence community, and might be able to trade this information to the Americans for Stasi files they have been guarding since the end of the Cold War. It's the sort of information that becomes extremely valuable after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., because even if it's not reliable, it certainly fits the narrative that some in the Bush Administration want to sell.

For as cynical as the story being told is, there's something oddly gentle about the way director Johannes Naber and his co-writer Oliver Keidel go about telling it. Wolf and most of the people in his immediate orbit aren't really that ambitious - he's got a job he wants to do well, Rafid just wants to be safe in a new home, and everyone has a very human reluctance to admit when they've made a mistake, not really thinking about how those feelings can be weaponized. Even the people who wind up falling into the category of villain are human despite their amorality, personable enough that one might grasp for reasons they can be redeemed and not the bureaucratic idiots that become the targets of easy satire.

There's still a lot of dark humor to be mined from the situation, which starts out as a kind of goofily absurdist look at the BND: For all I know, the real-life Retzlaff does smoke an actual pipe, and their offices circa 1999 really did look fifteen or twenty years out of date, but it's kind of delightfully anti-James Bond in the way it goes the other extreme in how it embraces just how relatively irrelevant this one-time great power can sometimes seem, a second-class shop whose internal politics are petty still seeing itself as competing with the superpowers. As the film reaches 2001 and beyond, it becomes cheerfully ridiculous, with a car chase so silly it would make one laugh out loud even without the genuinely funny, important twist to it. The sheer enormity of the jigsaw puzzle Wolf is solving after being dismissed feels like self-parody without winking at the audience too much.

It's a line the film often has to be careful of with Dr. Wolf, but Sebastian Blomberg is on top of it, doing a very impressive job of making him believably one of the top men in his field but also just right when taken away from his area of expertise, impressive because the script calls for him to be aware of how he's in over his head some places but blindsided in others, and it never feels off. He's got a nice chemistry with Virginia Kull that lingers after Leslie turns out to be different from how he (and through him the audience) initially sees her, and she does nice work in not making those scenes feel like flipping a switch. Dar Salim is nifty as Rafid as well - fairly transparent to the audience, but just credible enough that folks who are invested in his story might believe him, and genuinely funny when he gets into ridiculous situations later on.

It's seemingly light for a movie about decisions that caused so much death and destruction, right down to the tagline incorporated into the opening titles ("A True Story, Unfortunately"). But there's a sort of terrible honesty in how both seemingly and actual reasonable people make these mistakes that can be seized upon by bad actors, and for all that Naber encourages us to laugh at the absurdity of it, the end result is never allowed to drift too far from the viewer's mind.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, December 25, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 25 December 2020 - 31 December 2020

Merry Christmas and welcome to the bizarre one of these things I've opted to write in this bizarre year. Stuff's crossing over between streaming services and theaters, one city has decided to shut theaters down for three weeks while another, just a few miles away, is saying "let's not be so hasty"; the extended Oscar deadline means that fewer heavy-hitters are opening when they usually would; the Coolidge isn't having one of those weird weeks where they're opening something that also plays the multiplexes and the Brattle isn't switching from holiday-adjacent stuff to a cool end-of-year repertory series. It's madness!
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre instead picks up Love Sarah, a charming-looking film with Shannon Tarbet as a 19-year-old woman who determines to open the bakery her late mother always wanted in London's Notting Hill neighborhood, roping her grandmother (Celia Imrie) and mother's best friend (Shelley Conn) in. Cute British film is a genre and this looks smack-dab in the middle of it, which may not be the worst thing for those stuck at home over Christmas break. They also continue "The World of Wong Kar-Wai" (new restorations of As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, Fallen Angels, Eros segment "The Hand" (from 48 to 56 minutes), and In the Mood for Love); plus The Emoji Story, Assassins, Sing Me a Song, Another Round, 76 Days, City Hall, and Martin Eden.

    As has often been the case, Goethe-Institut presentation Curveball gets held over (so to speak) for a second weekend; it's worth a look.
  • The Brattle Theatre hangs steady, continuing To the Ends of the Earth, Bright Future, Ikarie XB-1, Markie in Milwaukee, Another Round, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Mayor, Zappa, and City Hall.
  • I was planning to talk about how, because Landmark Theatres Kendall Square is winding up having to carry the load for the mainstream multiplexes that are open, it's a tight squeeze, but it turns out it's even tighter than that, because Cambridge is closing theaters for a planned three weeks on the 26th and Newton is re-opening them the same day. So the big Christmas movies like Wonder Woman 1984 are kind of a moving target. It's playing The West Newton Cinema (starting Saturday), Kendall Square (Friday only), Watertown (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill (starting Saturday); it's also the first of a number of movies Warner Brothers is playing simultaneously on HBO Max; shame it's not a more auspicious start to that deal.

    It's also opening weekend for News of the World, a western directed by Paul Greengrass featuring Tom Hanks as a man whose job is to bring said news to the frontier, who winds up paired with a young settler girl raised by Native Americans that he's charged with returning to her family. It's at Kendall Square (Friday only), Watertown, and Chestnut Hill (starting Saturday).

    There's also more award-targeted things opening this weekend, with Promising Young Woman, featuring Carey Mulligan as the lady in question who has turned to revenge after a college trauma, finally opening after a long delay at Kendall Square (Friday only) and Watertown. Documentary The Dissident looks at the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi and plays Kendall Square (Friday only). The most recent Italian adaptation of Pinocchio, this one featuring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto rather than the title character and plays Kendall Square (Friday only); there is apparently an English dub in theaters, but I'm not sure of the original Italian.

    Watertown has 25th Anniversary shows of Clueless on Sunday and Monday.
  • The Regent Theatre closes out the year with seven hybrid performances with Jimmy Tingle's 2020 Vision playing Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with the 60-minute film followed by stand-up comedy and Q&A. Some in-person seating is available, but it will also be live-streamed. They also continue to stream Insert Coin and Jefferson Mays's one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
  • The Somerville Theatre remains closed but The Slutcracker is still streaming a version cut together from last year's performances; The Capitol in Arlington has the concession stand and ice cream shop open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Brattle, the Coolidge, West Newtonthe Capitol, The Lexington Venue, the AMCs out in the suburbs, and the Majestic in Watertown for sure, and maybe Apple Fresh Pond (their site is confusing!) and the Belmont Studio (the rental page on their site is pre-lockdown), although it might be worth checking to see if any reservations made at the Brattle or Kendall are still active with the new restrictions. The Coolidge is showing slots available to reserve online through January 27th, and has added rental slots for the Screening Room as well as Moviehouse II, with "Premium Programming" including In the Mood for Love, Sound of Metal, Wolfwalkers, and Fleabag available along with the option to bring your own disc. The Brattle currently shows no open slots, even beyond Cambridge's restrictions. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out.
I may try to hit the Kendall on Christmas and also go for Love Sarah and others.