Wednesday, October 07, 2015

This That Week In Tickets: 12 April 2015 - 18 April 2015

Busy week, between baseball season starting, the Somerville Theatre filling screens with special presentations before the festival start, and just going to see regular movies:

This Week in Tickets

First up was The Tales of Hoffman, a Technicolor opera from Powell & Pressburger, and while the digital presentation is not quite so eye-popping as having film to run, it's still a gorgeous thing to watch. Kind of a dull movie, though.

Monday was Opening Day at Fenway Park, which the Red Sox won against the Nationals, handily. It wasn't quite so close for Tuesday's game, but at least that one was exciting. The team was in first place after those games, and although it was pretty clear that a fair chunk of those victories were at least partially the result of other teams really not playing defense well at all, the drop that followed would be pretty severe.

In between, Kill Me Three Times, which must have been pretty close to the end of its run for me to choose a nine-thirty show, although hitting a barbecue place with some friends after the ballgame also contributed.

Thursday night was another end-of runner, Ned Rifle at the Brattle. It's the close of a trilogy that started nearly twenty years earlier with Henry Fool and continued with Fay Grim, although Hal Hartley's less-universal story probably keeps it from getting the attention of other long-running independent series like the ones which started with 7 Up and Before Sunrise.

Saturday, I got up early to head out to Revere because that's where the latest quick Korean import, Twenty, was running (kind of glad those are playing in the city now, despite the impressive concession stand out there). After that, the MBTA must have just gotten me back to Somerville for their brief run of The King and the Mockingbird, an outright peculiar animated film with a long, strange history to go with its odd story and visuals.

That meant I started and ended the week doing the same thing - afternoon repertory presentations in Davis Square. Symmetry!

Ned Rifle

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run/Henry Fool trilogy, DCP (?))

Hal Hartley has just never stuck with me; he's the sort of independent voice that seems to enjoy that designation a bit much at times, preferring to bask in the peculiarity of whatever he has thought up over doing a sensible thing where that could really hold the story together. Take, for instance, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) deciding to do a comedy vlog despite having no aptitude for it; the mannered performance and hyper-seriousness that would make it very funny with just the tiniest bit of motivation raises skepticism instead. There's a fair chunk of that in Ned Rifle - Hartley's got interesting ideas, but kind of counts on being an auteur with a dedicated audience a bit much.

It's not really crippling, though, in part because the idea he did have - the son of the vain, urban likes of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Fay Grim (Parker Posey) winding up adopted by humble churchgoing people in the country - winds up making for a fascinating contrast. The foster family of Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken) are the kind of people that New York-based independent filmmakers don't necessarily always get even when they're not trying to appear superior, and going that direction with Ned rather than have him take after his parents makes him the first protagonist of the series that the audience can really feel for from the start.

Because of that, the weird stuff around him - most notably Aubrey Plaza as a traveling companion and intended partner in crime who is simultaneously much more worldly and even more thoroughly damaged than the young man looking to kill his father for the way he has left his and his family's life a mess. Posey, Urbaniak, and Ryan, all reprising roles they've played since 1997, are all just as comfortable as you'd expect, but never complacent in bringing these odd, borderline absurd characters to life.

I'm still never really going to love Hal Hartley, I don't think, but I'll probably keep trying; he's at least eccentric in an interesting way.

Tales of HoffmanFenway Home OpenerKill Me Three TimesRed Sox Win!Ned RifleTwentyThe King and the Mockingbird

This Week In Tickets: 27 September 2015 - 3 October 2015

You'd think my birthday week would just be packed with movies, but there's other stuff to do too.

This Week in Tickets

Starting with baseball, specifically the Red Sox' last home game of the year. It was a weird day; my mother and her husband Bill won tickets in the bleachers, while I was up in the right field roof boxes, so we met up beforehand, got some curtains hung, went our separate ways at the game then met up back again afterward.

The Red Sox won, shutting out the Orioles for the entire weekend before going on to a sweep of the Yankees. It was Don Orsillo's last time doing play-by-play for the team at home (at least until the Padres visit next year and he's there for his new job), and the team did a nice tribute.

Gonna miss baseball; the playoffs just aren't the same, and I'm not just saying that because the Red Sox won't be a part of them.

The next night, I headed for Assembly Row to catch Everest on its last night on the Imax screens, because what's the point otherwise? Boston Common wasn't an option, either, since it was doing a preview of The Walk. Good looking, but not really built to be a movie.

Spent the next few evenings birthday shopping for my niece, because we share a birthday. I kind of wound up mostly getting her stuff I liked that I hoped nine-year-old girls might also go for - the first two Bandette graphic novels, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, what seemed like the only novel in the "Middle Readers" section of Porter Square Books that looked futuristic and had a young girl as a protagonist (comics seem to have it way over novels there), and the game Scotland Yard. While in Games People Play, I was pretty sure that I had purchased a copy at the SmarterKids warehouse when I worked there, and, yeah, I did. Moved twice without getting much chance to play it here since then. At least getting her a new copy meant I knew nothing was missing and it now apparently has beginner and two-player versions.

On the actual day of my birthday, I went to the new week's new Chinese movie, Saving Mr. Wu, which was pretty good. Then I tried to catch The Martian at the Somerville Theatre, but the 3D screening sold out. Saturday, I headed to Maine - my nieces are the cutest nieces - and then tried to catch the same movie after getting back. Nope.

But, when we get to next week...


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 September 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax 3D)

Say this about about Everest - its "holy crap, look at that!" game is tremendously strong. Director Baltasar Kormákur and cinematographer Mick Audsley, probably along with a gaggle of FX guys, puts the audience right on the top of a mountain. I haven't seen enough pictures of Everest specifically to be able to tell just how well the crew has mimicked distinctive features, but it feels like an impressive recreation, The effects work blends seamlessly with the aerial photography, and large-format screen and 3D are used very well. I wish I'd been able to make it out to Reading to see it on the six-story screen there.

It's got a pretty nice ensemble, too - there are a lot of characters who may not have the strongest of arcs, but during the extended "getting to know you" phase, they make a good impression: Jason Clarke as the expedition leader, John Hawkes as the underdog postman, Josh Brolin as the Texan who may be a little too sure of himself, and then you dig into the supporting cast and find Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, Jake Gyllenhaal... It's kind of ridiculous.

Why, then, does it become a little underwhelming? Perhaps because Kormákur and writers William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy embrace the randomness of the true story more than most narrative films do: Terrible things happen on this expedition, and there is a very obvious lesson about not trying to commodify the extremes as these people have - not everybody can climb Everest, not even among the upper echelon of skilled and enthusiastic mountaineers, and trying to make a regular business out of it is hubris. It's a distributed one, tough, spread out among too many characters as disaster adds up, and when you combine that with the conditions it happens in, the last act has a lot of middle-aged white guys with mostly-covered faces. It's tough to connect to that emotionally, and once the camera is getting in tight enough to give you an expression that can later be seen in a living room, you lose a bit of the spectacle.

Red Sox win last home game
Saving Mr. Wu

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Hell and Back

There are a lot of people who really like writing negative reviews, but I'm not one of them, and I sometimes wonder if people look at my blog or my reviews on eFilmCritic and think I'm a soft touch rather than someone who just does a pretty good job at choosing what I want to see. Maybe I'm a little reluctant to give the lowest rating out because it's rare to find a film I can't say anything good about.

Yeah, this one's pretty bad.

And, for as much as I don't relish writing negative reviews, I must admit to being kind of curious if Nick Swarsdon is still touchy about critics and eFilmCritic in particular, because lots of folks reported getting harassed by the guy after panning his stuff. I don't want angry emails, but who wants to be left out?

On a positive note: Mila Kunis is in this, probably the biggest draw aside from the rarity of animated movies for adults in the United States, at least hitting theaters, and she's pretty much the best thing in it. Her voice acting is a lot of fun and it strikes me that her voice is always going to be a lot of fun, and while she is getting the sexy roles while she can, you can sort of tell that she'll probably be playing great sarcastic grandmas in forty years; she's got the persona and tone for it.

Hell and Back

* (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2015 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

There's a running gag in Hell & Back, arguably the funniest thing in the movie, where a demon voiced by John Farley subjects souls to various mildly annoying situations (stopped escalators, a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell that has no pizza, etc.) and zings them with "welcome to Hell!" Naturally, I doubt that any of these "tortures" can come close to being the crew of stop-motion animators spending weeks on end moving plasticene models and changing their poses bit by bit to give this nearly witless film some illusion of life. Spending days moving a mouth up and down so that it syncs up with a bored-sounding Nick Swarsdon delivering a line that uses the word "fuck" like a comma must crush a soul like nothing else.

Swarsdon plays Remy, a barker at the extremely run-down amusement park where he spent much of his childhood, now working there along with lifelong friends Augie (voice of T.J. Miller), who is constantly kept busy fixing things, and Curt (voice of Rob Riggle), now the assistant manager. When the fortune teller's magic book and a trivial blood oath suck Curt into a portal to Hell, Augie and Remy follow, only to discover that the demons intend to sacrifice Curt. Hearing that Orpheus (voice of Danny McBride) is the guy you talk to when you want to bust someone out of Hell, they go looking for him along with sexy half-demon Deema (voice of Mila Kunis), while the Devil (voice of Bob Odenkirk) chases them in the hopes of impressing Barb (voice of Susan Sarandon), the angel he's had a crush on for centuries.

Trips to Hell have been used as a means to comedic and satiric ends for millennia, but in the hands of writers Tom Gianas, Zeb Wells, and Hugh Sterbakov, this fertile ground is used mainly for weak stand-up jokes, pounding away at minor irritants and shrugging off the truly dark material. Sometimes that inversion can work, especially if the writers have a point to make about the characters' priorities, but not here. Instead, it mostly comes across as mean-spirited and misplaced, crass without being lively. It tries to be self-deprecating at points, but if you can't pull back the curtain and reveal something clever behind your idiocy, that doesn't gain much.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, October 05, 2015

This That Week In Tickets: 5 April 2015 - 11 April 2015

Skipping another few weeks because it looks like another document that I need to catch up without rewriting a bunch of stuff is only on my tablet, and the part that the guy needs to fix it doesn't seem to have made it over from China/Korea yet. Folks, do not drop your tablet, and after that, don't dawdle in getting it repaired. I have a case waiting so that it will be protected in the future, but that's hardly ideal right now, is it?

This Week in Tickets

This week got started early, as for some reason The Gunman was only playing at 10:10am for its last weekend in town. It got finished in plenty of time to get me over to Somerville for the monthly silent show, this time the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments.

If I remember correctly, I tried to get to Lexington on Monday, but catching the bus there from Alewife is a tricky thing. So, instead, I rushed to Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond to catch Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!", a surprisingly entertaining Bollywood film that wound up playing much more as a WWII mystery than a pulpy action piece. The next day, I was abe to catch the bus and make it to the Venue for one of the last screenings of '71, a pretty strong thriller set in Belfast during the Troubles.

Last chances to see things were a big part of the week, as I think I caught Focus on the last day it was in town. Saturday, at least, I got to see something new, with the really terrific White God.

The Ten Commandments (1923)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please, 35mm)

Cecil B. DeMille did two versions of The Ten Commandments, one silent and one years later with sound, but who ever remembers that the Biblical part of the first was just the prologue, with the story of Moses giving way halfway through to the story of a mother distraught over how one of her two sons isn't being a good boy and following the Commandments, with the way of selfishness inevitably leading to a fall.

It is, frankly, kind of weird; it means that all the stunning spectacle will be before the intermission and the kitchen-sink drama afterward, which even back in 1923 must have been against the conventional wisdom of how to build a film. Yes, the "main" section does have a pretty impressive climax itself as a building constructed with shoddy materials falls apart, but I suspect that moviegoers might have been tempted to head home at the midway point. That second half is ironically more memorable that the first to me in part because I've seen a few different adaptations of Exodus, and slapping a present-day story onto it is thus different in a way that sticks in the head.

It's still not the better part, though, especially seen from ninety years later. Apparently old people have always been whining about how the young don't take their superstition seriously, with DeMille and writer Jeanie Macperson setting up a rigged game that equates being nonreligious with being jerks. It's also worth noting that while the Israelites in Egypt are noble, persecuted people, Sally Lung is described as "a Eurasian" and treated as a sinister foreigner tempting one of the McTavish boys away from all that is right and good.

DeMille always did spectacle well, and when he concentrates on that here, there's no denying he built something worth buying a ticket to see. His skills as a dramatist are sketchier, though, and that makes this version of The Ten Commandments sillier than perhaps it should have been.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2015 in Lexington Venue #2 (second-run, DCP)

I suspect that '71 is one of this year's more unfairly-overlooked releases in America I don't know how many theaters it got into outside the big cities, it doesn't have the big names in the cast that might pop out at people, and The Troubles are this moral quagmire that Americans tend to avoid thinking of unless they strongly identify as Irish Catholic because neither side truly feels like an "other". It shouldn't fall between the cracks, though, because it's a nifty little thriller.

Of course, I suspect that Roadside Attractions was expecting star Jack O'Connell to be something of a bigger deal after starring in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, but that one came and went very quickly and quietly. This isn't necessarily a star-making performance, either, because his Gary Hook is meant to be sort of typical of young men sent off to fight in a war in the modern era - backed into the army more out of the lack of better options than patriotic zeal and tending to expect tension more than real danger. He's not exceptional, and he doesn't really drive the story except out of circumstance; often Gary is badly wounded or concussed enough that he's stumbling blindly. He winds up giving the sort of strong performance that's almost invisible, but one without which the film would fall apart.

The situation writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Damange have him stumble through is tense and fascinating in a similarly low-key way. Burke presents a situation full of characters who, despite mostly wanting something close to the same thing, have rivalries and differing agendas that make Gary an asset and a liability. That's presented very clearly, but the film also doesn't just become a game of strategy with human pieces, it's also a look at how people struggle with the conflict between the basic urge to be decent to a fellow human being and the well-earned fear (and nurtured hate) that might prevent them from doing so. There aren't any ruminations on the foolishness of war in general or this conflict in particular, but this concussed soldier means they've got to play it out with their actions.

As they do so, Demange builds a strong action thriller. Coincidence has me writing this the day after seeing Sicario, which also gets right into the muck by just showing it rather than talking, although the level of cynicism is different. Demange goes in for a little more clarity, presenting military objectives and letting the audience understand geography and goals more as the film goes along - the opening may get us turned around along with Gary, but the audience's fog is allowed to lift. From there the violence is properly ugly but exciting because the audience is invested in the outcome without necessarily rooting for a side.

It's a heck of a thriller, and I wish I'd been able to do a little more to help it get the audience it deserved.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #11 (first-run, DCP)

When Focus popped up on the schedule of movies getting an Imax release, I wasn't sure why; it didn't exactly look like the grand spectacle that usually rates such screens, and Will Smith hasn't been the draw that makes theaters salivate at an automatic extra five bucks per ticket in a while. After seeing it at the end of its run, I still didn't get it; even as a movie that takes place in some photogenic locations, it's got very little "wow" to offer.

That's true of the story, a con game that manages to feel bogged down despite not having that many moving pieces - it's a love triangle where there's no strong indication of any sort of genuine affection and a scam where a bunch of suspicious folks count on everybody being much more trustworthy than makes sense. It's focused on race car engine minutiae that won't make for an exciting race. There's an entertaining final twist, mainly because one of the supporting actors, Gerald McRaney, has become a surprisingly effective force considering the bland TV material his career started with.

And speaking of guys who aren't what they were at the start of their careers, consider Will Smith. The only time in the last ten years when he was the sort of effortlessly charming that guy that made him a star was Men in Black 3 (and I'm probably in the minority there), and you can see him trying here, when he really needs to be able to seduce the audience as easily as the other characters, but... well, you can see him trying. Margot Robbie is certainly pretty enough and gives great aw-shucks as the newbie, but isn't much of anything when she's supposed to be more of a veteran.

It goes down fairly smooth, but it's bland. I hope that Smith & Robbie are a lot more fun in Suicide Squad.

The GunmanThe Ten Commandments (1923)'71Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!FocusWhite God

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saving Mr. Wu

After writing up a review of Lost in Hong Kong last week, I noticed a few tweets saying that the lack of reporting on its box office was a sign of how the movie business and those reporting on it were being blinded by certain prejudices, and it took a little digging to find that its success in China was huge - $100M for a comedy in September, which is more or less unheard of anywhere, with success at that order of magnitude generally only being found by Hollywood pictures in America. One thing noted by many of those articles, though, was that it might not have a long run as the sole juggernaut at the top of the charts because of some things arriving the next week, like Saving Mr. Wu.

If the turnout in China mirrors that in Boston, then it's not a huge threat; the crowd was decent, but not the "holy crap, this is selling theaters out like a massive Hollywood hit" of the previous week. Still, it's starting to feel weird copying the reviews of these movies to a mailing list about independent film; they may fit that group's definition of small releases, but they're big mainstream hits in a country with three times America's population.

I initially mentioned a certain inside joke within the review, but wound up removing that because I wasn't entirely sure it was as clever as I thought it might be and because speculating might give something away, though I can still do it here while warning of...


At one point, Zhang Hua says that they originally thought they had kidnapped Andy Lau. Not only is Lau playing Mr. Wu, but I believe the Mr. Wu in question is playing the cop - in the subtitles, Wu's given name is scrupulously avoided, although another review I read points out that the actor abducted in 2004 was one Wu Ruofu, who is listed in the cast as one of the cops. Interesting that Wu didn't play himself, although in some ways I can't blame him - why put yourself through multiple takes of replicating the worst day of your life?

Or it could just be someone with a very similar name. If it is him, though, I wonder if that's something the Chinese audience might have found too cute, best appreciated when recognized after-the-fact. Heck of a resource for Lau to have on the same set if it is, though.


All in all, pretty good, and it's always nice to see the thrillers and action/adventure movies start to make it over here as fast as the romantic comedies and youth dramas are.

Jie jiu wu xian sheng (Saving Mr.Wu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2015 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

It's often said, by those longing for a past golden age, that the movies were better decades ago when filmmakers had to deal with restrictions, whether imposed by the industry or communities - from pressure, the argument goes, diamonds are formed. There's some merit to this line of thinking, but watching it being applied in China can be a bit disheartening, as the Hong Kong filmmakers with a great legacy of gritty, uncompromising crime stories must deal with a government edict that Crime Does Not Pay to get access to that billion-person mainland audience. If Saving Mr. Wu weren't based upon actual events, it would probably be frustrating to watch, because it often seems to be built around dealing with a foregone conclusion as much as telling the story in the most exciting way possible.

Mr. Wu (Andy Lau), in this case, is an actor from Hong Kong in Beijing to sign a contract to appear in a new movie. He's exiting a club when a man flashing a badge tells him that his car was involved in a hit-and-run, and would he please come down to the station to clear it up? Things get a little rough, and it's soon clear that this guy is no cop. Some days later, this Zhang Hua (Wang Qianyuan) is in a police station, restrained as investigators Xing (Liu Ye) and Cao (Wu Ruofu) interrogate him. They note that Hua is watching the clock, meaning his confederates probably have orders to kill Wu and another hostage, Xiao Dou (Cai Lu), if he has not contacted them by a certain time.

There are a number of reasons why writer/director Ding Sheng (an up-and-comer known for some of Jackie Chan's more notable recent films) might decide to present his story in non-linear fashion; for one thing, it keeps both Wu and the detectives in the film as constant presences, rather than having Xing and Cao push him to the background later on. Hua's capture by the police being inevitable, just part of the rules of the genre as far as Chinese cinema is concerned, probably figures into it at some level, though - if the audience knows something is going to happen, do it quick, so that the audience can spend some time wondering how things got from A to B and hopefully having the suspense from both tracks add up when one finally catches up with the other. Ding does okay by that, although what gets said in the interrogation room does make the road to it a bit less exciting on occasion, though the uncertainty about how things are lining up does give the finale a bit more pop.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, October 02, 2015

This Those Week In Tickets: 1 March 2015 - 14 March 2015

Today in plans I had before falling waaay behind: A fair-sized post or two reviewing the silent movies I caught locally before heading to San Francisco for even more.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

But, on the other hand, look at those pages - as much as I love silents, there is something to be said on a pure bread-buttering basis about getting reviews up for (relatively) wide releases of current movies and making sure eFilmCritic looks reasonably relevant. And, boy, was there a lot of that during these weeks.

It started on the first of the month, with the fairly great Song of the Sea, which has only escaped being a birthday present for my nieces because I try to go for stuff with little-girl protagonists, and Saoirse is fairly second-fiddle in this one. If Tomm Moore could give his next movie a female lead, that would be great.

Monday was the first of three different recurring silent series that wound up converging on the same week, with the Coolidge's "Sounds of Slients" featuring Charlie Chaplin's "The Adventurer" as an appetizer for John Ford's Upstream. Both were pretty good; the latter wasn't typical Ford material, but that just highlights what a great director he was.

Tuesday, I gave in to how apparently nobody else on the site was going to review The Lazarus Effect, because others apparently have better instincts than I. Waste of a good cast and potentially decent material, but short, and I haven't yet ruled out sequels involving a demonic Little Hobo or The Ray Wise Corporation. Thursday, I caught the early screening of Chappie, and though I liked it more than most, it had problems. Unfortunately, it was also interrupted by a fire alarm.

I'm not sure whether 12 Golden Ducks was one of the Chinese/Hong Kong movies that sold out like crazy, although I remember it having a pretty good crowd. And that I felt like an idiot afterward for not realizing that Sandra Ng was playing the lead male role despite that only making sense with her being top-billed and there being no really noteworthy female role to justify it. Got another chance to screw that sort of thing up the next day, when I saw Argentina's pretty great Wild Tales and forgot which actress was a friend on a co-worker. Not sure whether Emily ever got around to seeing that, actually.

From there, I went up the Red Line to the Somerville Theatre, where the Alloy Orchestra was making their annual visit to accompany Son of the Sheik, coming back for more silents the next day when the Somerville and Jeff Rapsis presented a W.C. Fields Double Feture of Sallly of the Sawdust and Running Wild. It's a funny thing, the folks at the theater noted, that they sold the place out for Alloy but not their own silent series, despite how the 35mm prints they show look much better than the disc-based media Alloy often brings.

After that, a short break from seeing movies every night, although I did catch the final night of what I believe was a two-day bookking of Hard to Be a God at the Brattle. Less overtly science-fictional than I might have really liked, but I did like it, and was surprised at the crowd. I'd catch another recent Russian movie on Saturday, dragging myself out to West Newton for Leviathan because I took too long seeing it in closer spots.

In between, I caught the opening night of Cinderella, which is well worth recommending to the nieces on the one hand - adventure without a great deal of violence and depicting the title character's kindness as a special kind of bravery - although on the other, there is a lot of parental death (and I kind of suspect that someone should find a way to modernize this fairy tale that finds a way to deal with step-folks in a more sympathetic way). Then, after getting back from West Newton on Saturday, I caught Run All Night, which isn't really a terrible action movie but is definitely the wrong thing to plug guys like Liam Neeson and Ed Harris into.

Next up: I've got to do some catch-up before doing this bit of catch-up. Don't fall behind on stuff, folks.

"The Adventurer"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2015 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sounds of Silents, digital (?))

The nifty thing about things old enough to be in the public domain - it's easy and legal to find them online to refresh your memory when you forget what a 20-minute short you saw seven months ago was like (although the soundtrack on is not nearly as good as the one Donald Sosin & Joanna Seaton provided in person). The verdict: It's a good one.

Though described as a "Tramp" short, this last Mutual has Chaplin as a jailbird who, after escaping, winds up rescuing and winning the heart of an heiress (Edna Purviance), though gaining the enmity of her suitor (Eric Campbell). This, naturally, involves a lot of slapstick and a party disrupted in cheerfully disreputable manner. It's a trouble-making Chaplin rather than the down-on-his-luck tramp with pathos, and he proves quite adept at that, as you might expect from him being a comedy genius.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2015 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sounds of Silents, digital (?))

Upstream is the sort of film that reminds you that no all films thought lost were classics, but they can still be pretty good and just as intriguing for the picture they paint as their narrative. It centers on a boarding house populated by theater people, mostly has-beens and never-will-bes, including the least talented member of a famous acting family. Naturally, he's the one who gets the call to play Hamlet in London, though he owes what talent he has to his housemates and forgets them when he's gone.

This is an unabashedly theatrical movie; though silent film was carving out an identity separate from the stage, Ford makes sure that these theatrical and vaudeville performers are big off the screen as well, and while it's a style that modern audiences may have some trouble with, it does give their personalities some pop, a little extra dignity or foolishness as the case may be. I don't believe it's a cast filled with stars (future or faded), but it is full of fine work.

The biggest issue, in some ways, is the size of the film. It clocks in at about sixty minutes, which is fine considering how thin the story is in most spots but doesn't really give Brashingham's return to the house the room it needs, either for enough time to pass that things have changed or for a potential change of heart in the last act. Thirty years later (with twice the running time), Ford would nail something like that with The Searchers, but though he'd been around Hollywood for over ten years at this point, it would take the talkies and a little breathing room for him to really hit his stride.

The Son of the Sheik

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Alloy Orchestra, digital)

Famous in large part because star Rudolph Valentino died young before the release of this sequel to the movie which solidified him as one of the first matinee idols (and started a string of him starring as "exotic" romantic heroes), The Son of the Sheik is still an entertaining movie, although one where one must make certain allowances for early-twentieth-century exoticism, where a fascination with a foreign culture is paired with a drastic oversimplification of it.

That still survives today, though less for Middle-Eastern cultures, as does the occasional romance-novel plot of a woman falling in love with a man who, let's be frank, rapes her on their first meeting. Obviously, it's meant to come across as Ahmed just being too masculine to resist, but there's also a weird "making her know her place" vibe to it, and ugh. It's a tribute to how Valentino and Vilma Banky, playing a dance-hall girl who is also the daughter of the French bandit robbing the sheik's people, have excellent chemistry that the film works as a romantic adventure after that.

It really does, too - for all that the plot runs on melodramatic misunderstandings, director George Fitzmaurice and the various writers build something that moves nicely (especially with good musical accompaniment) and has a good deal of swashbuckling adventure. When Valentino and his original The Sheik co-star Agnes Ayres reprise their roles from the first film later, it might work better for those who aren't starting with the sequel, but the visual effects to give the audience twice the Valentino are pretty fair for 1927.

Sally of the Sawdust

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm)

That W.C. Fields made a number of silent movies seems rather strange in retrospect; he's a guy known more for his vocal delivery than anything else. And yet, here he is working in a medium that requires something else entirely. Show business is weird sometimes.

It's still entertaining, though, especially as he plays a sort of secondary part to Carol Dempster, a young woman raised in the circus after her high-society mother eloped with one of the performers. A downturn in the business has much of her troupe scattering and the man who has looked after her since her parents died, "Professor" Eustance McGargle (Fields), bringing her "home", although maybe holding back some information about her origins while (a) seeing if her grandparents are respectable in more than position and (b) working the local fair and maybe cooking up a scam.

D.W. Griffith directs, so while it's a fairly funny movie that has a healthy dollop of romance - of course Judge Foster's neighbor has a handsome son of about the right age! - there's no denying that he's most comfortable with melodrama, so while Fields certainly amuses as McGargle, the film often seems more committed when focusing on sorrow or injustice; that's Griffith's wheelhouse. Still, it's not going to be entirely dour with Dempster's Sally at the center; even if she does often wind up being one of those characters whom things wind up happening around rather than one whose decisions drive the action, despite her not actually being passive. Fields is well-used too; even through captions and body language, his faux-sophisticated bluster is a good match for a circus barker without making one doubt his genuine affection for Sally.

Griffith and Fields aren't a natural match, but the result isn't bad at all - that it's mostly forgotten isn't surprising, but it has its modest charms.

Running Wild

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm)

Running Wild runs just over an hour, and you could probably pull what amounts to one reel out of it - writer/director Gregory La Cava has what amounts to one basic type of joke here, and spends enough time setting it up that the first half of the film becomes a bit wearing. Fortunately that joke - W.C. Fields's Elmer Finch - declaring "I'm a lion!" and recklessly attacking every situation after having previously being established as meek and bullied - is a good one.

Fields, after all, would later be known on film (and was probably already known on stage) for his ability to milk a line, or play up an exaggerated persona, and that's what he does in the movie's back end: Even if you can't hear his actual voice, the way he turns to the camera and declares his leonine state with gusto suggests it, and being under hypnosis gives him free reign to exaggerate rather than try and act natural. He's a comedian who is free to just be that, even if other actors might go with something more naturalistic.

That it takes a fair amount of set-up for La Cava to get him to the point where he can do his thing is a bit frustrating, but also probably natural; he's got to establish norms in a fair amount of situations so that they can later be upended and make sure that the loser form of Elmer sticks in the mind. It could probably be done a bit more elegantly, but at least the second half is funny to the point where a slow start isn't resented.

Song of the SeaUpstream (and The Adventurer)The Lazarus EffectChappie12 Golden DucksWild TalesThe Son of the Sheik

Sally of the Sawdust & Running WildHard to Be a GodCinderellaLeviathanRun All Night

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 2 October 2015 - 8 October 2015

It's my birthday, and I've got the evening all planned out - gonna go to the fancy theater, buy a ticket for The Martian in 3D, sit back in a recliner and let them bring me a steak and then, half an hour later, a slice of chocolate cake. It will be...

Wait, what do you mean there's no room because they're still giving the Whitey Bulger movie half the screens? I'm reasonably sure that Bostonians like Matt Damon at least as much as Bulger!

  • Ah, well, other places are willing to take my money for Ridley Scott's movie about an astronaut presumed dead on the first manned mission to Mars, making for a heck of a hard-science tale of survival, which should look spectacular in 3D, as Scott's use of that technology was the most interesting thing about his last two films. The Martian opens in 2D and 3D at the Somerville, the Embassy, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Square, and Revere (including XPlus & MX4D).

    Another spectacular-looking picture opened earlier in the week on the deluxe screens, with Robert Zemeckis's The Walk playing in 3D at Jordan's (Imax), Fenway (RPX), Boston Common (Imax), and Assembly Row (Imax). An adaptation of the same material used for the excellent documentary Man on Wire, only with Zemeckis putting the audience on the high-wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the last act.

    There's also an outright oddity opening in Hell and Back, an R-rated animated comedy about friends looking to bust a buddy out of Hell. Probably not very good, but, how often does an adult-oriented animated movie come out in America?
  • The other big release this week is Sicario, with Emily Blunt as an FBI agent assigned to the Mexican border with Benicio Del Toro as a dangerous "consultant"; it's apparently right on the line between "morally complex drama" and "action/adventure", which is neat. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The Coolidge also has Attack on Titan - Part 1 at midnight on Friday & Saturday; it's a blast, although I'm glad Part 2 is coming quickly; it also gets encore screenings at the Kendall and Revere on Wednesday. The Coolidge's other midnight this weekend is a 35mm print of Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm), featuring Vincent Price as a particularly vicious zealot with a soldier seeking revenge. On Sunday, the Goethe-Institut selection for the month is not, as is usually the case, a new film, but a 35th-anniversary re-release of Solo Sunny, a sneakily subversive East German film about a would-be pop star.
  • Busy week at Kendall Square, which, along with West Newton, opens the first of the two Chinese films opening this week, Coming Home, this one another reunion between director Zhang Yimou and star Gong Li, who plays the wife of a political prisoner who loses all memory of him during the twenty years he is in prison. It's kind of weird to wait a year and a half for this to come to the US, isn't it? They also share the opening of 99 Homes with Boston Common, which features Andrew Carfield and Michael Shannon as the victim and head of a predatory real estate crew who aims to bring the former on-board.

    For exclusives, they also pick up three, starting wtih The Keeping Room, an IFFBoston alum starring Brit Marling as a woman left beind on a small farm during the Civil War. It's pretty good. There's also Time Out of Mind, with Richard Gere as a homeless man struggling to find a place to stay in a film by Oren Moverman. There's also the documentary Peace Officer, which looks at the militarization of America's police forces through the lens of a former sheriff who sees his son-in-law killed by the SWAT team he founded.
  • Hey, speaking of Gong Li and things that took a while to get to America, there's Shanghai, where she co-stars with John Cusack, Chow Yun-fat, Franka Potente, David Morse, and Ken Watanabe in the story of an expatriate returning to the title city soon before Pearl Harbor. It shot in 2008, was released in China in 2010, and because Weinsteins, it's just arriving here now, although it's only getting one screening daily at 5:55pm at The West Newton Cinema. Bizarre.
  • The other Chinese film opening this week is Saving Mr. Wu, featuring Andy Lau as a kidnapped actor in a thriller based upon a true story. It's at Boston Common, which also keeps Lost in Hong Kong around, because that made crazy money last week ($100M worldwide, even if only $600K was in the US, and a noticeable chunk of that there). In addition to that, have what I think is the first local day-and-date opening of a Filipino movie, Etiquette for Mistresses, about five successful women having affairs with the same married man.

    Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a busy week of Indian movies: Singh Is Bliing is a Hindi-language (subtitled) action/comedy starring Akshay Kumar, while Talvar is a thriller starring Irrfan Khan. There's also Shivam if you speak Telugu, Mr. Airavata if you speak Kannada, and Puli if you speak Tamil (with some screenings in Telugu).
  • The Brattle Theatre has guests on Saturday night as director Jamie Babbit and writer Karey Dornetto introduce and do Q&A for Addicted to Fresno, starring Judy Greer - yes, starring! her - and Natasha Lyonne as sisters who wind up needing to cover up a murder, as happens. It runs from Friday to Sunday.

    That's not all; there's also a 35mm "Real Weird Brattle: Animated Weirdness" screening at 11:30pm on Saturday of Ralph Bashki's Heavy Traffic, while Sunday night has writer/editor Kier-la Janisse doing a local booklaunch for Satani Panic by introducing a screenings of The 'Burbs. Monday's guest is director Robert Gordon, presenting his film Best of Enemies for The DocYard, and Tuesday's is Will Sheff, who will introduce his short film "Down Down the Deep River", as well as play some music, as that's what he does by trade with the band Okkervil River.

    Then, on Wednesday, they start a "75 Years of Noir" series so big hti has to be broken up into chunks. The first, Proto-Noir, is films from before what would later be codified as "film noir" that were clear influences, beginning with Fritz Lang's brilliant M and following it on Tuesday with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • The Harvard Film Archive starts continues their Guy Maddin series with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (Friday 7pm, preceded by short "The Dead Father" in 16mm), Archangel (Friday 9:30pm), and Keyhole (Saturday 7pm, DCP). The "A Matter of Life and Death" films about filmmaking series makes a return on Saturday with The Stunt Man, while the "5 O'Clock Shadows" on Sunday is a 16mm print of T-Men. Later that day, faculty fellow Valérie Massadian will present her film Nana and short film "America" (DCP), while Monday's "Furious and Furiouser" screening is Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably.
  • This week's silent film at The Somerville Theatre is Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which does not star Charlie Chaplin but Harry Langdon, with the forgotten silent star playing a man mistakenly entered into a cross-country hiking contest who keeps it up to impress a girl. As usual, it's in 35mm with Jeff Rapsis on the organ. They also pick up Goodnight Mommy, and have a variety of live shows in the main auditorium.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has a very brief film program this week, mostly just screenings of Mélanie Laurent's Breathe, with single shows on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday as part of "New French Cinema". Thursday does start another unusually specific program, with Museum Hours the first selection in "Dutch Paintings: A Cinematic Exploration".
  • The main Bright Lights screening at the Paramount this week is She's Beautiful When She's Angry, an oral history of the feminist movement, followed up by discussion with members of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

    Thursday's Stink!, meanwhile, is part of the GlobeDocs Film Festival, presented as part of "HubWeek" by the Boston Globe at various theaters: It starts at the Coolidge on Wednesday with Most Likely to Succeed, adding the Paramount and Kendall (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead) on Thursday, when the Coolidge will also have Circus Without Borders and In My Father's House. The event continues through the 10th
  • I missed listing the UMass Boston Film Series
  • starting last week (sorry!), but The Institute of Contemporary Artwill be co-presenting Here Come the Videofreex! at 7pm on Saturday at the ICA.

Since it's my birthday, it's also my niece's birthday, so we'll be doing the present/cake exchange this weekend. I'm planning to hit The Martian, Saving Mr. Wu, Hell and Back, Sicorio, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Coming Home, and 99 Homes, but am pretty sure some of those will fall by the wayside.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This Week In Tickets: 20 September 2015 - 26 September 2015

Hey, if I'm not doing these in order, I might as well do a this week rather than a that week.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Bite in the living room on Sunday; a Red Sox loss on Tuesday.

I really should mark down what else I did on these days when I didn't see a lot of movies, because it wasn't unpacking stuff at the apartment. For instance, I suspect that I was seeping in and then doing grocery shopping on Sunday, but it sort of looks like a wasted day before heading out to see Sleeping with Other People - an enjoyably crude romantic comedy - and then returning home to watch the last of my Fantasia Festival screeners, Bite, which, was passable but could have used a little extra effort in the story department.

Tuesday night, the MBTA tried to keep me from using the last game in my season ticket package (though not the last ticket of the season), a loss that seemed to start promisingly - the Red Sox pitcher perfect through four, the Rays' guy forced to throw 30 pitches in the first inning an not looking sharp - but it wound up turning, as can happen.

After working from home Thursday, I probably should have gone to the last screening of Ricki and the Flash in Arlington, but opted to get ahead of the weekend with the day-early show of The Intern instead (what do we call the now-ubiquitous shows the night before the official opening day, which were cooler when they were at midnight and only movies that had people really excited had them? I guess they're technically "previews", but that doesn't seem right). Mostly cute.

Friday I tried to catch Lost in Hong Kong, but it sold out like crazy and nothing that was starting at Boston Common at around the same time really grabbed me, so I went back home and watched what turned out to be a great baseball game. Saturday morning, I hemmed and hawed too long and wound up not able to catch the right bus/train to get to the furniture store's upgraded Imax theater for Everest, so I wound up watching Lost then.

After that, I went to Union Square in Somerville for the Fluff Festival, which is a real thing. For those who don't know - I have no idea how popular this stuff is outside of New England - Marshmallow Fluff is a sandwich spread that is usually combined with peanut butter to make what we call a "Fluffernutter" which has close to zero nutritive value but is really good, especially if you're eight. It was invented in that area, and the annual celebration had games, concerts, and, of course, different snacks. The longest line (though worth the wait) was at Union Square Donuts's table, where they filled one of their great donuts with peanut butter and had Fluff spread on top; while waiting in that line, I had a "strawberry fluffernutter smoothie" from a misplaced food truck with "keeping Boston healthy" on the side. Not bad, but didn't taste that different from any other strawberry/banana smoothie.

With my schedule thrown off by not getting to Reading, I was at least able to check out the Somerville Theatre's 70mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which remains pretty great. I don't know if it's the same print they had in February (this one dates from the mid-1990s), but it looked great from the front row, and sounded even better. Projectionist Dave Kornfeld pointed out that the print had five magnetic tracks for five speakers behind the screen, which Somerville has, as well as Dolby surround, which they also supported ("when I started this install, some called me mad!"). He also reiterated that they are planning a big 70mm festival for 2016, which should be epic.

The Intern

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2015 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Leading up to the release of The Intern, a couple of folks I tend to like were spewing hate and anger at this preview online, and I honestly can't comprehend why. The idea behind it - a 70-year-old widower takes a job at a start-up run by a young woman - and the two main parts are played by a pair of popular and charismatic actors (Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway) at their most pleasant and charming. This thing exists to be liked; indifference should be as negative a reaction as it gets.

And, to be fair, I can see where someone could walk out relatively unimpressed; writer/director Nancy Meyers sometimes seems to run from anything that could add conflict to the movie - De Niro's Ben Whittaker is not resistant to working for a woman half his age or learning new things at all, and while Hathaway's Jules Ostin may be kind of wired, she's not faking anything; she's a good boss, a good mother, a nice person. For a large chunk of the movie, this is enough - De Niro and Hathaway are good actors who seem to be enjoying a screenplay that calls upon them to play unambiguously nice people without falling into the trap of them being boring, as do Rene Russo and and the parade of younger actors joining the ensemble.

As pleasant as that is, it trips Meyers up a bit when it comes time for the movie to point itself toward an ending. As much as a moment where it looks like Ben is about to have a heart attack coming to nothing is a good decision - everyone sees that coming a mile away and it wouldn't fit into the story - the conflict she eventually introduces is just as hoary, and the actual resolution is so low-key that it feels like Jules has basically put disaster off for maybe a few weeks. There's perhaps an interesting movie to be made around that circumstance - that this pressure never ends, especially for women - but Meyers has soft-pedaled it too much by that point.

As a writer and critic, I must admit to being kind of fascinated by how the desire to get the right message out can strongly oppose what the film needs for drama. Myers seems to be keenly aware that Jules compromising her work because of the strain in her marriage (or vice versa) is bad symbolism, but it leaves the movie nowhere to go in the last act, even though it's pretty clearly set up as a story about how trying to do everything just isn't practical. Ideally, this movie probably best ends with Ben promoted from "intern" to an executive position (maybe a VP of Operations or something), but despite an awkward scene or two at the end that are right on the border of being mansplaining, Myers is so keen to avoid this being a movie where an older male sets a younger woman right - that she can't actually give the movie the end that it needs.

So, instead, Ben winds up becoming little more than an encouraging father figure, and it winds up highlighting a kind of weird decision - Meyers makes anyone else who could be any sort of authority over Jules invisible. Her mother is an impatient voice on the phone, while the various potential CEOs she interviews never show up on-screen. It's an unusual choice, and leaves the audience with a movie that seems to have much less than it could.

Still funny and pleasant, and maybe if that's all Meyers was going for, then the other things that pop up are interesting side ideas that don't really need filling out. A little more ambition would have been nice, but it's an amiable film regardless.

2001: A Space Odyssey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (special presentation, 70mm)

Confession: I don't know that my eyesight is quite good enough to really distinguish between 35mm and 70mm, even from the front row. Don't get me wrong, it looked fantastic, great enough to remind me why I sit close for film and a little further back for digital, and the sound was fantastic as well.

Of course, it's not just the visuals that put 2001 right at the top of the list of great science fiction films; the grand scope that Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke place around what could be a sort of standard "computer run amok" story (although those weren't hugely common in 1968). It's a grand story, but what the characters are doing between "The Dawn of Man" and "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" is pretty easy to grasp.

One thing that always strikes me as I watch it is just how abrupt Kurbrick's transitions are; he's got no particular interest in transitions designed to smooth things over. Plenty of exposition to help build the future world, but the audience can fill in the typical blanks themselves. In some ways, though, that brusque editing style serves to highlight just how harsh and unforgiving space may be.

I've got more to say about this; and I think I did in the SF marathon write-up. Hopefully I'll find that when my tablet is repaired.

Sleeping with Other PeopleThe InternLost in Hong Kong2001 in 70mm

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lost in Hong Kong

I don't think Lost in Thailand was one of the Chinese movies that drew crazy crowds beyond what I'd expected based upon how the audience for some previous releases were me and two or three other people, but it was also one which hit the United States three months or so after its Chinese release, and that is plenty of time for pirates to kill its expatriate market. Heck, legitimate Chinese DVDs might have been available for import by then.

This one, though - I was kept at work for twenty minutes longer than I'd planned, and by the time I'd arrived at Boston Common, the 7:10pm show was sold out and a second screen had been added - and by the time I quit dilly-dallying about whether I wanted to hang around for another hour, the 8:10pm show had sold out, as had the first of the 10pm round. When I did make it to the 1:30pm show the next day, the crowd filled in pretty darn well by the time the previews were over.

Speaking of previews, one of them was for Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, and I really hope that this one plays at the Coolidge or Somerville Theater specifically, because the preview was in Academy Ratio and looked a little less impressive in the widescreen presentation. Looks nifty, and it's probably good that Well Go doesn't seem to be dressing it up as more action-packed than reports are that it actually is.s

Gang Jiong (Lost in Hong Kong)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2015 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour made seven "Road to..." movies between 1940 and 1962, though this series was not sequels so much as a chance to make selling the audience similar plots on a regular basis a virtue beyond the proven chemistry. Xu Zheng is doing something similar with his "Lost in..." movies, although without the returning co-stars. So far, so good - Lost in Hong Kong is at least as funny as Lost in Thailand, a pretty decent madcap farce.

Though it takes a little while to get around to it, the situation is pretty clear: Xu Lai (Xu Zheng), an art student twenty years ago but now designing brassieres for his in-laws' company in Shanghai, is with those in-laws on a family vacation to Hong Kong, with wife "Spinach" Cai Bo (Vicki Zhao Wei) disturbingly focused on becoming pregnant with their first child and her younger brother Lala (Bao Bei-er) trying to shoot a documentary about the family, Xu Lai in particular. This is even more annoying than expected, because Xu Lai aims to sneak off for a rendez-vous with Yang Yi ("Jennifer" Du Juan), his first love who transferred schools during college and has since become a famous artist. And unbeknownst to any of them, Lala's camera caught a man falling out the window of the building across the street from the hotel, and the police would like to talk to them about it.

This is the sort of comedy - and Xu Lai the sort of character - where clearing certain things up early on could spare him and the audience a whole lot of aggravation. It's never really clear, for instance, whether Yang Yi is hoping to meet up with an old friend or whether she's got the same thoughts toward their unconsummated affair of twenty years ago that Xu Lai does. That's still the case when she actually enters the picture, leading to a few really weird scenes as Xu Zheng (who directs as well as stars) and writer Shu Huan try to straighten things out for the homestretch. This sort of ambiguity isn't in and of itself a terrible idea, but it's something that Xu doesn't quite seem ready for as a director who is making a movie about people getting bonked on the head.

Full review on EFC.