Tuesday, October 16, 2018

All About Nina

This was not entirely a movie chosen on the basis of start time, although that factored into it - I could have seen Bad Times at the El Royale at 7pm in a couple places passed on the way, but that would have meant waiting, whereas continuing on the Red Line to Kendall got me to this one just in time for it to start. In my defense, it was raining just enough to make the wait or walk less than ideal at the Capitol and Apple. On the other hand, this had the look of something that was only going to last a week at the Kendall with a large chunk of that week unavailable (as in, I'm writing this on a plane to Texas), so see the indie movie with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common while you can.

Not, ultimately, the greatest decision, but more low-grade disappointment than regret. I know that movies about the entertainment world are generally not my thing - probably going to have to be dragged into A Star Is Born - and this want exactly riding a wave of critical acclaim. I like both stars, but they've only rarely found parts where they can really shine rather than be the best part of an ensemble. That sort of thing. This isn't as completely blindered a movie as you sometimes see from the genre, but it is the sort that makes me wonder if the people making it have relatively narrow experiences to draw upon.

All About Nina

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2018 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, digital)

All About Nina is the sort of movie where you think, fifteen minutes in, that there's got to be some sort of really cruel sledgehammer blow coming, because otherwise it's just a movie about a stand-up comic who is not very funny and is kind of an awful person to be around besides. Sure, a lot of filmmakers will blithely make that sort of semi-autobiographical thing without realizing that is insufferable and dull, but even with a quality lead, there's a filter that prevents them from making their way to theaters.

So you spend the first half-hour or so of this movie waiting for the person who is going to draw something pleasant out of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Nina Geld, whose routine includes gems like how she gets really bad diarrhea with her period and who doesn't really date so much as she has a thing with a married cop that she feels she must flee because he won't break it off - good thing there's an opportunity in L.A.! And, man, do things brighten up when Common appears on-screen and charms the heck out of everyone as Rafe, a contractor who usually doesn't go to comedy clubs but is recently divorced and likes the honesty she's showing on stage. He is basically perfect until the exact moment when the film requires him to be just selfish enough to make things a little bit harder, but not so much that it can't be walked back. It's calculated as can be, just enough to make the story not quite a complete fantasy.

There are times when the film itself resembles the most hackneyed stand-up comedy bits and inside baseball imaginable, with large chunks of the first act basically playing as extended "men are like this and so are women but they've got to pretend to be like that" and "wow, California is different from New York" bits. There's a laugh or two in them but it's so trite that it's hard not to wonder just why Nina is considered such a rising star. Writer/director Eva Vives doesn't seem to put a whole lot more into Nina's story than her comedy, either; she's just dropped into a much nicer living situation than she had back home, complete with eccentric but protective housemate, with no signs of needing a day job. A terrific boyfriend just walks up and introduces himself, and the big audition that drew her out goes pretty darn smoothly, especially since her post-set vomiting quickly became a running joke rather than something treated with real concern. It's maybe not quite easy, but between the cinema audience not laughing nearly as hard at her material as the people on-screen (or at all) and how demanding Nina can be, it begins to feel rather painfully self-indulgent.

Full review at EFC.FL

Monday, October 15, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 8 October 2018 - 14 October 2018

There was baseball and a birthday party this week, so this happened:

This Week in Tickets

There was a night or two when I might have been able to sneak something in there, but it was too rainy to hang around, waiting for the movie to start. So, yeah, nothing until Sunday afternoon, when Lost, Found slotted in right before the ballgame.

Don't know that I'll be adding entries to my Letterboxd much this week - there's a work trip that, at this writing, seems really pointless, and the playoffs aren't over yet - but attempts will be made.

Zhao dao ni (Lost, Found)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Though the listings suggest that Lost, Found is a drama built around divorce, it's actually a thriller that becomes a social-justice story, and it's just as confused as it sounds. It plays like the filmmakers only realized who the interesting characters were halfway through and had a heck of a time giving them the focus they deserved while also making the film they originally set out to make.

That would be a movie about successful lawyer Li Jie (Yao Chen), who came home from court and a work outing to find her daughter Duoduo and nanny Sun Fang (Ma Yili) have vanished. Divorced and in the middle of a custody fight, the irony is that she spent the day representing a husband who is trying to gain sole custody of his own child from a desperate mother and has taught junior associates that physical possession of the children creates leverage. That doesn't seem to be the case here, though - ex-husband Tian Ning (Mickey Yuan Wenkang) and his mother seem just as panicked as Jie, and it quickly becomes clear that she didn't know nearly enough about Sun Fang when hiring her.

The audience sees this unfold from Jie's perspective, and told that way, Lost, Found is a mystery story. It's not a particularly well-built one, unfortunately; writer Qin Haiyan throws the audience a bunch of red herrings early on but never actually uses them to deflect suspicion or misdirect for very long. That Jie will be victimized by things akin to her own aggressions and privilege is good material, but few threads actually come back to her, and other things are dismissed, little more than a momentary jolt. It works as well as it does because Yao Chen is fully committed to her part, never faltering as the career woman run ragged and plunged deeper into horror. She does a good job of landing on the spot where Li Jie can seem kind of callous but not actually cruel enough for this to play as some sort of comeuppance in flashbacks, with her harried moment of weakness that leads to hiring Sun Fang feeling different than the present-day parts of the movie, where a too-wide smile contorts into anguish and her determination becomes frightening.

Full review at EFilmCritic


Lost, Found

Friday, October 12, 2018

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 12 October 2018 - 18 October 2018

You know what would be awesome? If the Aquarium were still running full-length features in the Simons Imax theater. I don't know whether it's because Boston Common can claim exclusivity or if they just don't think it's worth doing, but while it would be great in general, it would be huge this week.

  • That's because part of First Man was shot using genuine horizontally-fed 65mm IMAX, and the scenes where it maximizes that stuff is supposed to be even more amazing when projected on film compared to the digital Imax. Still, I suspect that Damien Chazelle's story of NASA's question to put a man on the moon, with Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, will look amazing no matter what. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), West Newton, Boston Common (including Imax), Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Revere, and the SuperLux.

    It doesn't leave much room for Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween to have fancy screens like the first did, and it doesn't seem to have many people who worked on both, and even Jack Black seems to be barely in it. Still looks like fun in the same way the first looked like fun, and can be found at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. For a somewhat older audience, there's The Hate U Give, an adaptation of the acclaimed young-adult novel about an African-American teenager at a mostly white school reacting to a police shooting in her area. It's at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row (West Newton and Fenway next week).

    There's also Bad Times at the El Royale, the new film from Drew Goddard which serves as an entry in the "seven strangers meet in an out-of-the-way location but aren't what they seem genre", with the requisite all-star cast. It plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Revere. A number of places also pick up Free Solo in wider release - the mountain-climbing documentary opened at the Coolidge last week, and expands to West Newton, Boston Common, the Seaport, and Revere. Boston Common also has Bigger, which stars Tyler Hoechlin as Joe Weider, who was one of the fathers of modern fitness and bodybuilding.

    The last presentation of the Disney "Dream Big, Princess" series is the recent live-action Cinderella, playing twice a day at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. There's a TCM presentation of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at Fenway and Assembly Row on Sunday & Tuesday. A 12-episode binge of anime series Yur!!! On Ice plays Fenway Saturday, and Franco-Japanese animated sci-fi action movie MFKZ plays Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Tuesday.
  • Kendall Square has a busy week, opening three movies. All About Nina is the fictional feature, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a stand-up comic trying to keep her life from falling apart. They also have two documentaries about artists in different media: Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, as you might expect, tells the story of a groundbreaking street photographer, while Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. profiles the refugee-turned-pop star. There's also a third, with The Public Image Is Rotten playing one show on Wednesday evening. Their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, is actually keeping Netflix movies Private Life and 22 July around for a second week.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps the same mix of films but shuffles them around screens some. They also have a busy "midnight" schedule, kicking off with an outdoor presentation of the 1990 miniseries of It at the Rocky Woods Resort at 8pm on Friday before The Exorcist plays the main screen that midnight and the screening room on Saturday, shifted there by a 35mm "Queen of Halloween" show of Scream and star Greg Sestero hosting Best F(r)iends Vol. 2. "Science on Screen" keeps things spooky with Shaun of the Dead on Monday, featuring a lecture by Professor Colin Adams of Williams College on how calculus can help one survive the apocalypse.
  • Boston Common continues both Chinese Memorial Day movies from last week but flips the frequency, with Chow Yun-fat thriller Project Gutenberg getting full days and comedy Hello, Mrs. Money splitting a screen with Lost, Found, which features Yao Chen as a divorcing lawyer and Ma Yili as the babysitter looking after the kids caught in the custody battle.

    Apple Fresh Pond continues Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava, 96, also opening Tamil serial-killer thriller Raatchasan. Malayalam-language adventure Kayamkulam Kochunni plays once on Saturday afternoon, and Tamil crime movie Vada Chennai opens on Tuesday.
  • GlobeDocs mostly moves over to the The Brattle Theatre for the weekend, with a full slate from Friday to Sunday, though they do close out with two at the Coolidge for closing night, including Lobster War.

    They fill the week out with a number of special presentations: Free screenings of documentary Jews Step Forward with filmmakers in person on Monday, Trash Night on Tuesday, The Eyeslicer Halloween Special on Wednesday (a limited theatrical release before a limited VHS release), and then a special opening night Boston Asian-American Film Festival presentation, The Joy Luck Club with star Rosalind Chao in attendance.
  • The Harvard Film Archive (note the new, faster address, although the website looks pretty much the way it did before) wraps up their Documentary Educational Resource, 50 Years Later series on Friday with two presentations: "Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family" & "The Phans of Jersey City" (16mm) at 7pm and Sailing a Sinking Sea (shown with 16mm short "Blue, A Tlingit Odyssey") at 9:15pm. $5 gets you a 35mm matinee of Jurassic Park on Saturday, and they wrap up the quick Alice Rohracher retrospective with her debut feature, Corpo Celeste, on 35mm that evening. They also finish Bergman 100 with a 35mm print of From the Life of Marionettes on Sunday afternoon, and start an Albertina Carri series at 7pm with Géminis on 35mm film. They have a free screening of Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes on Monday evening, with Xu delivering a lecture at Radcliffe the next afternoon.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts is almost all about Let the Devil In: 50 Years of British Horror this week, screening Don't Look Now (Friday/Saturday), The Omen (Friday/Wednesday), Symptoms (Saturday), Peeping Tom (Sunday), and The Innocents (Sunday/Wednesday). They also have an 11am show of 306 Hollywood on Saturday
  • This week's Emerson Bright Lights presentations (in the Bright Screening room at the Paramount) are documentary Recovery Boys with director Elaine McMillion Sheldon on Tuesday and the terrific First Reformed (with faculty discussion) on Thursday. Free and open to the public as always.
  • The Regent Theatre welcomes Victoria Price to talk about her father on Sunday afternoon, with her presentation "Vincent Price: Master of Menace, Lover of Life" including a screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. They also serve as a stop for the Women's Adventure Film Tour on Thursday.
  • The Capitol plays the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on Thursday, accompanied by Jeff Rapsis on the organ.
  • Cinema Salem continues "The History of Halloween" and Mandy while also continuing to host Salem Horror Fest through Sunday (it's "Weekend of the Witch"), though if you want more, animator Ben Wickey hosts two of his shorts at The House of the Seven Gables (including one by that name) on Tuesday


Busy weekend - a niece's birthday party, important baseball, and an annoying detour to Texas for work - so I don't know how much I'll get to. Probably Bad Times at the El Royale and maybe The Hate U Give, Free Solo, and/or All About Nina. Plus, I should probably watch the original Halloween before the new one comes out next week.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 1 October 2018 - 7 October 2018

Averaging a movie a day even with playoff baseball going on, the sort of schedule that kind of makes my scrapbook grateful they didn't send my a physical ticket.

This Week in Tickets

It was a good week to catch up with some of the stuff that has been getting good reviews, starting with BlacKkKlansman, the new one from Spike Lee. I liked it quite a bit - not quite the live wire of Malcolm X (which played the Somerville's 70mm/Widescreen fest a week earlier), but covering a lot of the same territory and winding up another reminder that Lee is ambitious and with some art-house-y impulses but makes awfully entertaining movies. Tuesday night I was considering splurging for my birthday, and then the fancy theater goes and charges $5 a ticket for their deluxe screen. Not strictly necessary for A Simple Favor, which never really has a handle on how to be properly nuts.

Also this week: A lot of Agile sprint planning at work, which meant a lot of time listening to other people talk on the phone - and on top of that, it got shifted to central time at the last minute, pushing the day an hour later, making it harder to get to certain things downtown. Fortunately for me, the Imax 3D preview of Venom was at a convenient time on Thursday and I kind of liked it. Not a good movie by any means, but fun.

Friday night was for watching the first game of the ALDS on TV (win!), which set Saturday up for a sort-of double feature of Chinese movies about faking something for greed: Hello, Mrs. Money and Project Gutenberg were both worth anticipating and catching, though a comedy from the Mahua troupe and a Chow Yun-fat action-thriller are an unusual pairing. It's not really a double feature if there's two hours between the end of one movie and the start of the next, I suppose, but that's how AMC scheduled it. Kind of a nuisance, that.

The second let out just in time to get me to Fenway Park for Game 2, and, well, that one wasn't nearly as fun as Games 1 & 3 for a Red Sox fan (not going to jinx Game 4 as I watch it). Let's move on.

I actually had a completely different plan for Sunday than what actually happened, planning on a double feature at the Coolidge, but when I made it to Park Street, the next C train was going to be 12 minutes and that doesn't get me to the theater on time, so I checked out what was playing nearby and decided to check out Monsters and Men, which got better on the train ride but wasn't necessarily grabbing me in the room. It was short enough that getting out to Brookline for Free Solo shouldn't have been an issue, but either they sold out screen #2 or I was confused about which movie was playing on what screen when, so I turned around and decided I might as well see something else, going for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which is kind of a blast, though I don't know if my nieces would go for it, since it's actually scary at points. I am enjoying this run of Cate Blanchett having fun in big movies.

Next week should be slower between baseball and a belated birthday party for my niece, but I'll be updating my Letterboxd when I do see something.

BlacKkKlansman

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2018 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

Spike Lee does not have the patience for subtlety these days, if he ever did, and I wish more people were as entertaining when just laying it out there as he is. He makes this unlikely but based-on-actual-events story into a blend of police procedural and absurdist humor, because it almost has to be: Racists are dangerous and ridiculous in equal measure, and you can't confront them unless you acknowledge that.

For all that he hammers this home in the plainest possible terms, there's something just as impressive about the way he takes his time in some ways. He lets people speak even when the speech could be compacted, and lets other scenes play out to get a sense of who people are when their guard is down. There's pure beauty to Ron and Patrice and a whole club not just dancing but singing along, casual and heartfelt community. He ties a century and a half of white supremacist violence together, but resists making it monolithic. He's got style but isn't showy this time around.

It's interesting for me to see this just a week or so after Malcolm X, and not just because Lee was really smart to get Denzel Washington to clone himself right around that time so that Denzel 2.0 (going by the name "John David"). There's a lot of the same thoughts kicking around both, and the flag motifs on the credits feel like bookends. Lee has maybe mellowed a bit in the intervening quarter-century, but he's still sharp and focused as anybody.

Venom

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Venom is a pretty dumb movie, but maybe it's just the right sort of stupid. It doesn't over-complicate things, and that's a strength more often than it's a weakness. It's weirder and funnier than it might have been, and seems self-aware without being too winky and silly.

And it's got Tom Hardy, who may not be the surly Eddie Brock of the comics to the point where the characters basically just have the same name, but who makes this one a fairly likable loser and does some pretty darn good physical comedy. He's not necessarily as good as, say, Bruce Campbell or Jackie Chan doing the same sort of thing, but he'll remind you of them. It's not typical action/superhero material - and it's much more slaptick than this character usually given - but fits well with relatively modest ambitions and is always entertaining.

Somewhere along the line, the filmmakers decided to play the symbiotes as being kind of goofy rather than just dark and badass, and that may not sit well with some fans (you can feel the movie steering away from its horror potential fairly often). It works for me, though, especially since the effects guys seem to be consciously referencing Todd Macfarlane's art style at times, and that tends to come across as exaggerated and over-noodly now even if it was the height of cool back in the 80s and 90s. That seems to be the filmmakers' approach throughout, recognizing just how quickly this style of comics became self-parody and maybe not leaning into it so hard that the fans feel attacked, but letting the silly stuff get a laugh.

It's a bit of a mess, the sort of thing where it's almost certain that nobody involved really feels like they made the movie they wanted to make. It uses Michelle Williams too much and Jenny Slate too little, alternates delightfully goofy action sequences with others cut to ribbons trying to avoid an R rating. It's kind of entertaining anyway, somehow, and probably not in a way that could have been achieved deliberately.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

For all the jokes made about gorehound Eli Roth directing a kids' movie, The House with a Clock in Its Walls works as well as it does because he's not actually resisting all his horror-movie impulses as much as you might think. This thing has done genuinely creepy demons and disturbing moments, and that willingness to let his young audience have a nightmare or two is kind of terrific. A few genuine thrills are good for a kid, and I'm not sure anyone at a major Hollywood studio has really gone for it in this way since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

But, don't misunderstand, this is still a very kid-friendly movie, with Jack Black Jack Blacking it up in every possible scene, CGI creatures that allow for the cleanest possible poop jokes, and charmingly goofy fantasy and slapstick. It's got a wonderfully dry Cate Blanchett who both classes the whole thing up and plays directly to the eight-year-old kids in the audience. It never gets scary or self-aware in a way that leaves the kids behind.

It's a weird combination, enough that I may have to retire my jokes about what Takashi Miike directing kids' movies is like because a major studio has gone and done it, and rough in spots (Roth doesn't really know how to use effects for wonder as well as he does for action or scares). But it's fun, and things working when they really shouldn't only makes the more delightful.


BlacKkKlansman
A Simple Favor
Venom
Hello, Mrs. Money
Project Gutenberg
Yankees 6, Red Sox 2
Monsters and Men
The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Monsters and Men

This wound up being a second choice - the signs at Park Street made it clear that I wouldn't get to Coolidge in time for what was playing there, so let's see what's playing at this T stop - but certainly a better one than most movies chosen based on "what's playing right now". It was also basically free - MoviePass is one of the presenters, and they're counting it as a bonus movie, so if you haven't abandoned that program yet, you can catch it without it counting against your three for the month.

Coincidentally, the last time I used that card/app was for BlacKkKlansman, and watching this one in relatively close proximity, I've gone from believing that John David Washington is a secret clone that Spike Lee had made from Denzel's DNA so that he could have the same star forever to thinking that there's just a strong family resemblance, although it's going to take a lot for me to not see him as Denzel Washington Jr. It's sometimes not so much that they look and sound a lot alike at times, but that the son has picked up some of his father's mannerisms, like how his character sounds when irritated here. That's no bad thing, though - there are far worse legacies to live up to!

I do kind of wonder if my feelings of ambivalence watching this had to do with the fact that a trailer for The Hate U Give played before it, which appears to cover the same subject (community fallout from a police shooting) but with a more specific, singular perspective. If nothing else, curiosity about that being the case has put that movie a little higher on my list for this weekend.

Monsters and Men

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, digital)

I'm trying to get better about not judging movies exclusively on how effectively they tell a story, since the medium can do more, as well as just trying to absorb when shown things outside my own experience, no matter what the medium. It's a hard habit to break, or even bend, because Monsters and Men still had me fidgeting, like there's not much to it. It feels well-intentioned but unfocused, like the filmmakers had an idea but not a hook for the audience.

It doesn't open in a bad situation, introducing the audience to Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), a street hustler in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City, although he's trying for something a little more stable so he can provide for his girlfriend Marisol (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their daughter. He's either in the right or wrong place at the wrong time when he sees some cops arresting Darius "Big D" Larson (Samel Edwards) while he's selling individual cigarettes, recording the incident on his phone and racing home when the shot is fired. He knows he'll have the police on his back if he posts it, but Big D was a neighborhood fixture and it wasn't right. The fallout from that decision is felt by everyone in the neighborhood, including Officer Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an African-American policeman in the 74th precinct who knows full well that not everyone is treated equally and has a hard time reconciling his ideals and practical considerations. Then there's Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high-school baseball phenom who walks past the memorial to Big D on the way home, and while he knows it's probably wise to keep his head down, it eats at him, until he asks an activist classmate (Chanté Adams) what he can do to help.

Each of these stories takes up roughly a third of the movie, with writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green moving from one point of view to another with hand-offs that emphasize how relatively isolated these stories are from each other (although it's also worth mentioning that both changes in perspective involve Dennis as a passive observer, something of a quiet indictment of how much good cops can or will do). It allows all three protagonists to take center stage for a while, all displaying an impressive ability to let the audience see their minds work. Anthony Ramos is especially interesting to watch as Manny; he seems more in flux from the start, his charisma and confidence tested in ways that the other characters aren't, hints of panic making him feel a little more threatened and unpredictable. It's a more active sort of performance, admittedly, than John David Washington and Kelvin Harrison Jr., but Washington does good work as the cop who oscillating between quietly and tensely holding his tongue, while Harrison and Chanté Adams capture the cool determination of the new generation of activist teens.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Chinese Counterfeits: Hello, Mrs. Money and Project Gutenberg

I was initially a bit grumpy when looking at the bookings for this weekend's Chinese movies, surprised at how few screenings there were for Project Gutenberg, which has been getting trailers for a while and which was looking like Chow Yun-fat doing what he does best (crime), compared to something I literally had never heard of until Wednesday in Hello, Mrs. Money. It made a little more sense when I saw the cast list for that other movie - it's the latest from the Mahua troupe, who made the very funny hits Goodbye, Mr. Loser and Never Say Die, both of which had Chinese National Memorial Day premieres as well. Yeah, bet on that one, I guess.

That doesn't necessarily seem to be how attendance worked out, though - the 12:30pm show of Hello, Mrs. Money was not bad for a matinee, but Project Gutenberg was in one of the 'plex's largest screens and was packed enough that latecomers wound up sitting in front of me, which isn't always easy to do given my fondness for using my peripheral vision. Sure, it may have been packed because there were fewer screenings (just 4:30pm and 9pm), but still, it's been a while since I've seen Chinese movies this crowded, and the theater would be putting an extra show on the schedule for Sunday.

Funny thing: I wound up liking the surprise more than the one I'd been anticipating for some time. Both have their flaws, but Hello is better at plowing past them while Gutenberg just lets them stick out until they'll be kind-of-explained. On the other hand, I'm kind of curious to see Gutenberg again - it may be an obvious bid to get the audience to see just how many hints they've dropped about an unreliable narrator, but that doesn't mean it's not effective.

Li Cha De Gu Ma (Hello, Mrs. Money)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, digital)

Hello, Mrs. Money is a classic cross-dressing farce, but it comes by that pedigree honestly - it's adapted from Brandon Thomas's stage comedy Charley's Aunt first performed in London back in 1892 and Broadway soon after. That its translation and adaptation from British play to Chinese play to Chinese movie to subtitling for worldwide release means that "Cha Li" gets referred to as "Richard" throughout the film is an amusing bit of extra trivia, but it's kind of fitting - the movie tends to find something funny even when it makes weird or screwy choices.

"Richard" (Song Yang) has come to Aman Island in Malaysia for a splashy engagement party where he'll officially propose to Lulu, the boss's daughter whom he's been seeing for five years. She's not enthusiastic, but father Andy Wang is having money trouble, and Richard has a rich but reclusive aunt who could make that go away. Also strapped for cash is Mr. Liang, the mentally unstable father of Richard's best friend Jerry (Allen Ai Lun), who also happens to be married to Lulu's sister Lily. He's ready to swim with the sharks so his son can get the insurance, but Jerry persuades him to try something else - there is a rich widow on the way, after all. That she apparently isn't could be disaster for everyone except maybe Huang Canghai (Huan Cailun), Jerry's assistant who takes the opportunity to crash in Aunt Monica's fabulous suite - until he's discovered and persuaded to impersonate the seldom-seen woman. This would probably be a bad plan even without the wild card where Monica (Celina Jade) has come ashore and disguised herself as a hotel maid to find out if Richard and Lulu are for real or just after her money.

It's a dumb plan, but it's the sort of dumb plan that makes for good farce, necessitating funny voices, trying to take a phone call from the other person in the room, being in two places at once, very much unwanted romantic attention, situations that look compromising because they're seen at the exact wrong moment, and all that good stuff. Writers Qian Chenguang and Wu Jinrong do an impressive job of taking all those building-block scenes and figuring out the way that they can stack up without collapsing, letting director Wu Yuhan and the talented cast play most of the movie fairly straight-ahead rather than twisting things around to keep them from falling apart. Sure, this story isn't exactly what one might call likely, but the unspoken assumption that people believe what they want or need to believe does a lot of work, as does just not having characters who could mess things up in a scene and letting the audience fill in why, if they care, rather than contorting things in a way that makes the viewer work.

Full review at EFC.

Mo seung (Project Gutenberg)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, digital)

Movie stars don't exactly age just like the rest of us - even the ones who don't go in for surgery have personal trainers and agents and paparazzi and on-screen persona who in some way give them a harder push one way or another than those of us who only gradually realize that we're not quite the way we see ourselves in our heads anymore. Some go gray and bulk up to become on-screen dads, some defy the aging process and keep doing what they're doing, and some, like one-time international superstar Chow Yun-fat, lose the soft features that made them baby-faced anti-heroes and become lean, weathered villains. It's a transformation that suits him for most of Project Gutenberg, although the rest of the film doesn't catch up to his comfort level until it's almost too late.

Chow plays Ng Fuk Seung, the head of an international counterfeiting syndicate known to law enforcement in the late 1990s only as "Painter", whose "Superdollar" is a replica of the U.S. hundred-dollar bill that is uncannily good despite the impressive new security measures that were added with its recent redesign. He's unknown in large part because everyone who worked with him has wound up dead, except for Lee Man (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing), currently rotting in a Thai prison, and he doesn't want to talk for fear Painter will kill them all. But Hong Kong detective Ho Wai-lan (Catherine Chu Ka-yee) is determined, and then there's Yuen Man (Zhang Jing-chu), an internationally famous artist whose fiancé was killed by Ng (as was Ho's boyfriend and colleague, in the same incident), but who was close to Lee back when they were starving artists in Vancouver and so offers to post bail. So, he begins there…

… and it's a strange, somewhat disjointed story that writer/director Felix Chong Man-keung has Lee Man tell, one which starts with art criticism and then dives into deep, likely fictitious detail about how one goes about counterfeiting a hundred-dollar bill before getting back to Painter's apparent obsession with making sure that Lee Man can reunite with Yuen Man, and then, just as the story is starting to catch up to the bloody events that made Painter a high-priority target all around the world, the story gets another wrinkle that is injected so casually that it's fair for the viewer to wonder if they missed something important in the middle of Painter's weird commentary on whether Lee has what it takes to be the leading man of his own story. It's a script that often seems much too crowded for its own good, with too much detail in some places and not enough in others.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Fantasia 2018 Catchup 01: Madeline's Madeline, Hanagatami, Unity of Heores, True Fiction, Buffalo Boys, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, Cold Skin, Relaxer, and Heavy Trip

Okay, this is taking longer than expected, but, to be fair, there is a lot of other stuff coming out that needs/wants writing up. Maybe I'll pick up speed writing while watching baseball and as it gets cooler out, but I really wasn't expecting to have 30-odd Fantasia movies left at the start of October.

On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder as I write these how much other people writing about film would like the luxury of being able to file their reviews without deadlines, with just a first draft and notes to go on. It's hard, sure, but it also makes you focus on what about the film is actually memorable. Plus, first impressions are important and true, but I found myself more impressed with some of the movies I didn't much like - Madeline's Madeline, Hanagatami, and Relaxer upon further reflection. I don't actually like any of the three now, understand, but it was easier to break down what was interesting about them, worth taking away.

I did like Heavy Trip, though, a lot, and am glad to see it's playing the Coolidge this weekend, although with two midnight shows in the screening room, not a lot of people will see it. Sell them out if you can, maybe it'll get another chance next week.

Madeline's Madeline

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Well, that's me done with Josephine Decker. I don't want to be. There are some terrific performances to be found in this movie, a pretty decent core story, and moments that feel like something approaching self-awareness. As with her previous work, I can see great talent and potential there. I want to say nice things. And the thing of it is, if I hadn't come into this movie with a chip on my shoulder about certain things from her previous films, I'd probably be a lot more impressed, although it's not like the things that put that chip there wouldn't still be big negatives.

Things start with 16-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) doing an exercise in an experimental theater program. She likes theater more than school, and it seems to be a good outlet for the things that had previously found her in psychiatric care. It's a situation that leads to her mother Regina (Miranda July) being rather high-strung, afraid of a relapse but worried about her daughter being swallowed by something she doesn't understand. Madeline, then, naturally gravitates toward Evangeline (Molly Parker), the troupe's leader who becomes fascinated by Madeline's story, moving a version of it closer to the center of the play that she's developing.

You can understand that; Madeline is a fascinating character given impressive life by Helena Howard. She has different faces for Madeline to present to her peers, her family, and her theater friends, but she connects them all with a desire to belong that both can have her shine dazzlingly bright when she sees a chance to connect and strongly suggests how dark her thoughts can get without actually showing her at her worst. She never shies from how Madeline is very much an adolescent, with both her impulsive and calculated actions showing a certain immaturity, so that even when she realizes something crucial and changes direction, it still feels like something where the consequences aren't completely considered; it's the actions of someone who is very bright but also troubled and who, even when she's figuring things out and focused, is still raw and clearly inexperienced. There can be a tendency to elevate the performances of young people that demonstrate maturity, but Howard's ability to show complexity without sacrificing Madeline being a teenager is something to watch for.

Full review at EFC.

Hanagatami

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

When Hanagatami starts making the next phases of its rounds - the film societies and art-house tours before the small specialty label gives it a home video or streaming release - take note of its length, and fortify yourself properly. As much as there is plenty striking in this intended farewell work by the director of House, and plenty to discuss, it is very much the sort of film that had festival-goers who saw it nodding to each afterward and agreeing that, whatever else it was, it was definitely 159 minutes long.

It follows the adventures of teenager Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) in a Japanese coastal town during the 1930s, before the United States had entered the war and it was mostly a somewhat distant concern. He has just arrived from Amsterdam, where his parents remain, and only really knows Mina Ema (Honoka Yahagi), a sickly girl whom it has been assumed he would marry since they were young. At school, he is making new acquaintances - class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto), monk-like Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), and ready-to-enlist Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) - and it turns out that Mina's friends AKine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) know the boys as well. And, indeed, there may be other darker forces in this quiet town besides the fact that most adult men are away at war.

Hanagatami is every bit as gorgeous as you might expect from Nobuhiko Obayashi, the director of not just House but a number of less-obviously insane but painterly productions he has made since - most notably, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, another WWII-set nostalgia piece. There's not a shot in this picture that isn't exquisite, and he's long proven himself quite adept at using both location and obviously-constructed rooms to create settings that feel simultaneously genuine and dreamlike. He's careful, here, not to drown the viewer in fond nostalgia, but rather to hint at how Toshihiko and Mina see the world from a bit of an remove. There is no special innocence or clarity here, but there is beauty as well as horror, even if there is more of the latter than initially expected.

Full review at EFC.

Unity of Heores

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

That Unity of Heroes was made for a Chinese streaming service is no big surprise when you watch it; it's a movie that feels like it was put together by an algorithm, looks just good enough for a high-definition screen but maybe not a full-size cinema, and is a revival (of sorts) of something with a loyal fanbase. As with many American internet productions, it's familiar enough to be comfortable most of the time with a few scenes that nevertheless make it worth the time.

Vincent Zhao Wenzhou returns to the role of Wong Fei-hung, the legendary 19th Century martial-arts master he played in Once Upon a Time in China IV & V as well as a follow-up TV show from the same producers, but this is not an official sequel, and probably legally can't be. But it should be familiar enough - Wong is respected enough to not seek confrontation with newly arrived kung fu master Wu (Michael Tong Man-lung), which leaves the latter feeling a bit slighted. Other recent arrivals include Miss Mo Shijun (Wei Ni), a young in-law of Wong's who has been in Europe long enough to be out of place, and Duke Vlad, who has opened a new, Western-style hospital in town - but what is going on underneath?

The material is nothing that fans of the genre aren't familiar with, in many cases close enough to previous Wong Fei-hung movies to make this feel like a remake. It's clumsier, at times - the filmmakers can't quite make Master Wu work as Wong's peer the way that the best rival teachers do when these movies are working, and a mainland production today is going to have a different take on the increasing Western influence on China at the time than a 1990s Hong Kong production (a sharper anti-colonial attitude is not a bad thing, although it does often result in Mo being played more as a fool than a foil). The filmmakers also tend to promise more of a tall tale than they deliver: This was the second movie in a row at the festival that felt like it could have been much improved by the vampires that were clearly hinted at (the Evil White Guy is even named "Vlad"), and you don't establish exploding heads early to not have them at the climax.

Full review at EFC.

Sal-in-so-seol (True Fiction)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The hardest part of writing this sort of thriller must be hitting the point where you feel like there's enough, the point where paying attention has been rewarded but where the audience has not yet said "screw this latest reversal, it doesn't matter, because none of what we've been told matters!" True Fiction unfortunately blows way past that second point in its last act, although by then it's established strength enough that it can avoid losing some.

It starts with Lee Kyung-suk (Oh Man-seok), an unassuming-looking guy who has been tapped by the local political machine as the next mayor of Daechung, an he certainly seems to fit the part: Young, telegenic, a loyal party member, married to novelist Yeom Ji-eun (Jo Eun-ji), who just happens to be the daughter of Senator Yeom Jung-gil (Kim Hak-cheol). It's Jung-gil who tasks him with transporting some money to the senator's lake house, which should be easy enough, except that he decides to make it a sort of working vacation by taking mistress Lee Ji-young (Lee Na-ra) along in his wife's car, and being distracted enough to hit a dog on the way. The dog, it turns out, belongs to Kim Soon-tae (Ji Hyun-woo), who introduces himself as the property's caretaker, demanding restitution on top of making it more difficult to carry out Kyung-suk's original job.

The first half of the movie is delightful, a rapid-fire series of selfish decisions blowing up combined with the delight of someone having got one over on people who really deserve a comeuppance. It's just as fun as it is suspenseful, serving up a satisfying slow burn that promises an enjoyable explosion. The soundtrack is playful, the audience feels like things are on their level, and what happens next could be anything for human reasons; you can see people trying to figure out how to get up on the other guy. Writer/director Kim Jin-mook gets a constant string of laughs, and if you maybe sneer a bit while giggling, it's okay Kyung-suk deserves it.

Full review at EFC.

Buffalo Boys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

Buffalo Boys is as loud and action-packed as you would hope for an Indonesian western to be considering just how enjoyably bone-crunching the country's bigger recent action movies have turned out. It goes big on the martial arts, gunfighting, and melodrama, and while it doesn't quite build itself into an all-time great of the genre, it's close to exactly what you would expect from that particular fusion.

It opens in the American west, circa 1860, where it turns out that at least a few of the "Chinese" fellows building the railroad actually hail from Java, and a spot of trouble involving a fight on a train has Arana (Tio Pakusadewo) thinking that maybe it's time he takes his nephews back to the land they haven't seen since they were children, their parents killed while fighting against the Dutch invaders. The man responsible, Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), is still there and running things, so brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) revenge on their mind, although they get a little distracted along the way, making their way to a village from which Van Trach is extorting tribute - which, naturally, include meeting a couple young ladies, pragmatic Sri (Mikha Tambayong) and rebellious Kiona (Pevita Eileen Pearce) - and learning there is more at stake than just their vengeance.

There are, admittedly, times when it could probably do to move it along; the story is simple enough that even with that prologue in California, some flashbacks, and the occasional side trip, director Mike Wiluan and co-writer Raymond Lee still have to pad it out a bit. Even taking that into account, once the brothers arrive in town, they seem to spend a lot of time waiting for an opportunity to get near Van Trach to present itself rather than really doing anything. There's a mean, cutthroat period before the final big action sequence that seems to be killing time rather than moving the story along.

Full review at EFC.

Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari (Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is a cute fantasy romance that does a pretty nice job of building a magical world around its laid-back setting, but which is maybe too slight for its finale. The filmmakers never quite build up the connection between its husband and wife enough to convince us that the revealed scale and the big, epic confrontation at the end is justified. Then again, maybe asking for justification is snobby - an elaborate fantasy doesn't need earth-shattering stakes to be a big deal for those involved.

That would be writer Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) and his new wife Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata), who have come to Masakazu's home in Kamakura after a whirlwind romance in Tokyo, Akiko not having been informed that the border with the spirit world is thin to non-existent in this quaint town, so the first water imp she sees causes her to freak out. Soon she has made friends with Kin (Tamao Nakamura), who has been working for the Isshiki for decades, as well as a friendly grim reaper (Sakura Ando), although it takes a while to learn what products humans should not buy from the Night Bazaar. Masakazu, it turns out, is something of an expert on local folklore, consulting with the police when crime appears to have a supernatural element and researching the work of mysterious fantasy author Istuhiro Kataki. These connections may come in handy when a few less-friendly supernatural entities take an interest in Akiko.

Though the ultimate thrust of the plot is right there in the title, writer/director Takashi Yamazaki does not exactly push ahead with a singular focus, instead opting for an approach that likely comes from Ryohei Saigan's original manga, an episodic structure where smaller adventures have some useful bit of lore buried in them that will prove useful later. The main issue is that the most important ingredient, the True Perfect Love between the Isshikis that will inspire a unauthorized trip to the afterlife and which makes all the other romantic subplots resonate all the more, is kind of taken for granted. The audience never sees the love at first sight and courtship that brings Akiko to Kamakura, and much of the first half of the movie has Masakazu treating Akiko as something less than an equal, with unexplained rules about which rooms in the house she must not enter and the like. They're likable people, but this is the sort of movie and town that is filled with likable people, and this couple has a hard time becoming indivisible rather than individually nice.

Full review at EFC.

Cold Skin

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Cold Skin is maybe not quite as clever as it could be, but it's a nicely chilly/claustrophobic piece that holds up with two or three characters at a time - although its horror does involve a horde or ten. It's got a more literary feel than many horror movies, and the literature is that of a different era to boot. It does not always live up to its ambitions, but the attempt is usually interesting.

That era would be the early twentieth century, 1914, when a scientist named Friend (David Oakes) has accepted a post as "weather observer" on an Antarctic island, with months of recording the winds and tides and no company but the keeper of the lighthouse. That man, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), does not seem particularly friendly; he has not only decided not to greet his new neighbor but has made his tower a fortress. Why soon becomes clear, as an army of amphibious humanoids overruns Friend's station, forcing him into the lighthouse and an uneasy coexistence with Gruner. Which is to say, Gruner and Aneris (Aura Garrido), one of the creatures whom Gruner has captured, dressed in clothes, and treated as, well, a bit more than a pet.

But let us not use the euphemisms that Friend might have, should this story have been told in true Victorian fashion as entries in his diary - Gruner is having sex with that merwoman, even though he refuses to say that she is more than an animal. It allows the filmmakers (and, presumably, original novelist Albert Sánchez Piñol) to mash a number of high-minded themes together with traditional romantic structures in interesting ways, as the audience's growing belief that Aneris is, in fact, a thinking creature allows the hint of a love triangle to form, and although Friend is clearly preferable in that arrangement than Gruner, it also brings in all the baggage of colonial powers expanding into areas they see as populated by "savages" - the Gruners are clear in their desire to exploit or exterminate, sure, but the Friends can be at best patronizing, their professed love a chance to demonstrate their professed nobility and open-mindedness, which can certainly disappear when the natives decide they want no invaders on their island.

Full review at EFC.

Relaxer

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There is, I suppose, a good movie to be made about someone so dedicated to not being labeled a quitter that he just doesn't get off the couch until he has completed some sort of challenge, no matter how isolated it ultimately makes him, but this isn't it. It's just nasty and gross, never finding enough of its poor slob's ingenuity or enough pathos to make watching him interesting.

It starts in 1999, with Abbie (Joshua Burge) being bullied into a variation on the "drink a whole lot of milk" challenge by his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) while playing Nintendo; it ends about the way you'd think. Cam soon has another challenge for him: Finish Pac-Man, through the allegedly-impossible level 256, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. No leaving the couch until he's done! There's money on the line, and Abbie doesn't have much else going on, so he calls a friend (Andre Hyland) to bring him some orange soda and the magazine which should give him all the tips and tricks he needs, but otherwise, he's mostly oblivious to the rest of the world.

And… That's pretty much it. The film continues on with various episodes as Abbie has the occasional visitor or faces new challenges in trying to get by, and there's an interesting sort of absurdity in play - the situation becomes desperate and disgusting, though not to quite the extent that it logically should be given the amount of time said to pass. Some of these bits have the nugget of a good sketch of sorts inside them, and it's probably better that writer/director Joel Potrykus is more inclined to see there is nowhere left for a scene to go and just fade out before starting the next one than he is to keep milking it, but there's not much that's truly inspired. Though individual bits have an underground comix sort of feel to them - dialogue either absent or profane as Potrykus pounds away at making sure every moment is gross and nasty - the movie is built to drag: Even if Abbie realizes this whole thing is stupid, he doesn't have the will to break out of it.

Full review at EFC.

Hevi reissu (Heavy Trip)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Though the "trip" part of the movie only includes a fiercely funny last act, that's no disappointment; this Finnish heavy-metal comedy is pretty much a delight throughout, mostly because our never feels like its characters being both big metalheads and lovable dorks is any sort of conflict that has to be resolved. The filmmakers are well aware that some parts of this type of music (and almost any hobby) are kind of ridiculous even if very serious, but doesn't disrespect it for that.

Turo Moilanen (Johannes Holopainen) and his friends have been playing metal together for ten years, but have never actually gone so far as to actually book a gig and play for anyone else. An orderly at a retirement/rest home by day, his bandmates are Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio), the guitar player whose father's slaughterhouse provides a fitting, sound-proof practice area; Pasi (Max Ovaska), a librarian and bass player with a perfect memory searching for an original sound; and Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen), the drummer who throws himself so completely into whatever he sets his mind to that he's had to have his heart restarted twice. They're practicing when the organizer of a Norwegian music festival stops in to buy some reindeer meat, giving them his card, and when Mila (Minka Kuustonen) at the flower shop misinterprets this as the boys having landed a spot at the festival, Turo kind of rolls with it, especially since Jouni (Ville Tiihonen) - a used car salesman whose easy-listening band makes him a minor celebrity in town - is also around at the time.

The lie spins out of control, but the filmmakers are smart about this - though it's exposed a little later than perhaps it should be, it also doesn't last so long that the audience ever starts to turn on Turo. Part of it is that Jouni is the type of guy who can get under your skin without being truly evil, while Turo's impulse to impress Mila is initially more subconscious than deliberate, and the lack of ill intent helps a lot. On top of that, there's no denying that it motivates these guys to actually do something rather than be timid. It's the sort of storytelling that looks kind of cliched and not just effortless in a bad way but is actually just smart enough to keep things moving and let the filmmakers hang a lot of funny bits on the framework.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 5 October 2018 - 11 October 2018

There actually seems to be more potentially fun or interesting things coming out than you might expect this week, although some are clearly getting smothered by what I guess is the first thing really looking at both awards and box-office of the fall.

  • That would be A Star Is Born, the fourth official version of the story about a self-destructive star discovering and mentoring a young woman (and probably the hundredth with that basic plot), this time directed by star Bradley Cooper and featuring Lady Gaga as the ingenue. It's all over the place, playing The Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Somerville, Fresh Pond, West Newton, The Lexington Venue, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Revere, and the SuperLux.

    The Old Man and the Gun is probably aiming more for awards than box-office (and I'm kind of disappointed that the release strategy doesn't involve 35mm prints, but it looks pretty darn appealing, with David Lowery directing what is likely Robert Redford's finale film as an actor, playing a septuagenarian bank robber who romances Sissy Spacek while on the run. That one's at the Coolidge, the Kendall, and Boston Common.

    The Coolidge is also the only place in the area to catch Free Solo, the latest from directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, who tackle something similar to Meru, their last film together; this time, the climber they follow is Alex Honnold, whose quest is climbing the face of Yosemite's El Capitan without a rope, which is obviously incredibly dangerous. They'll actually be in town on Friday night, doing a Q&A after the 8pm show and introducing the 9:45pm.

    They also "open" one of my absolute favorites from this year's Fantasia Festival, Heavy Trip, in which a lie about a group of metal-loving friends who have never played a gig being booked in a big Norwegian festival takes on a life of its own, ending with a side-splitting road trip; unfortunately, it is only playing midnights Friday & Saturday and only in the screening room at that. They need the bigger screens for a 35mm print Terror Train on Friday - the first entry in a month-long tribute to Jamie Lee Curtis - and the first of four shows over three weekends of The Exorcist on Saturday. Sunday morning features a Goethe-Institut screening of A Dysfunctional Cat, the title character of which is just one of several obstacles in the arranged marriage of two Persian immigrants to Germany. The Alloy Orchestra visits on Monday to perform their latest score, accompanying Jean Epstein's silent The Faithful Heart. There's Open Screen on Tuesday, and then they play host to the GlobeDocs film festival with The Feeling of Being Watched on Tuesday and Personal Statement and Into the Okavango on Thursday (the festival actually opens on Tuesday, with Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum).
  • The other big opening this week is Venom, and, man, is this latest attempt for Sony to capitalize on having the rights to Marvel's Spider-Man characters beyond making movies with Spider-Man kind of fun, even if it's likely not the film anybody involved was looking to make. I enjoyed it, at least, if only for Tom Hardy being game for a lot of weird physical comedy. It's at the Somerville (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 2D/3D), the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax 2D), Fenway (including RPX 2D/3D), the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D and Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Revere (including MX4D, XPlus, and some Spanish-language screenings), and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Shine - a film about estranged salsa-dancing brothers who clash over development in Spanish Harlem years later - opens at Revere, while Science Fair hangs on for another week of matinees at Fenway.

    Moana is AMC's Disney Princess of the week at at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. Fenway has the last (dubbed) screening of My Hero Academia: Two Heroes on Saturday afternoon, and then anniversary screenings of Bullitt on Sunday and Tuesday. Mountain-climbing documentary The Dawn Wall plays Fenway, Assembly Row, and Revere on Monday, while the season premiere of Doctor Who plays Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere on Wednesday, with Boston Common and Fenway repeating it on Thursday. John Carpenter's original Halloween screens at the Kendall and in Revere on Wednesday. Franco-Japanese animated sci-fi action movie MFKZ plays Fenway and Revere on Thursday.
  • Kendall Square and Boston Common open The Sisters Brothers, a not-just-funny western about gunslinger siblings played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, the latter of whom dreams of going straight, especially when the current job seems ethically difficult. They also open Monsters and Men, which shows a community fracturing after a man is killed by police using excessive force. The Kendall and West Newton also open Tea with the Dames, a documentary featuring Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright having a forthright conversation about their lives and careers.

    Their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, opens Private Life; and since the movie featuring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple struggling with adoption and infertility is produced by Netflix, it's probably doing well to open there; same deal for Paul Greengrass's 22 July, which opens there on Wednesday. The Kendall also has a one-off show of documentary Living in the Future's Past on Tuesday.
  • Two movies that opened in China on Sunday make it to Boston Common starting on Friday: Hello, Mrs. Money looks to be the latest from the makers of Goodbye Mr. Loser and Never Say Die, this one a cross-dressing screwball farce about a poor man who tries to gain access to his rich aunt to impress a materialistic girlfriend. It gets a full slate while Project Gutenberg does not, which looks like a bummer, as it features Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok as counterfeiters, and what's better than Chow Yun-fat doing crime?

    Apple Fresh Pond continues Sui Dhaaga: Made in India and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, also opening Tamil romance 96 and Nota, which has showtimes in both Tamil and Telugu. Telugu action/adventure Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava opens Wednesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre is still under construction, but has the last entry in their Slaughterhouse Movie Club for the year on Friday, with "Slaughterhouse Family Values" starting with burlesque and finishing with Addams Family Values.
  • Harvard Square is Bergman 100 headquarters this week, with The Brattle Theatre playing The Seventh Seal on Friday (double feature with Bill & Ted's .Bogus Journey on 35mm) and Saturday (double Feature with The Virgin Spring), a double feature of Sawdust and Tinsel & Summer with Monika on Sunday, Smiles of a Summer Night on Monday, Prison & Thirst paired on Tuesday, and a twin bill of Secrets of Women & Dreams on Wednesday. At the other end of the square, the Harvard Film Archive plays Autumn Sonata (Friday 9:15pm), Through a Glass Darkly (Saturday 7pm), Winter Light (Saturday 9pm), The Silence (Sunday 5pm), and Cries and Whispers (Sunday 7pm). All of the HFA's shows are on 35mm, while the Brattle's are listed as DCP (except the screening of The Seventh Seal paired with Bill & Ted)

    On either side, The Harvard Film Archive has a pair of special events, with an international selection of Documentary Educational Resource films on Friday evening and Alice Rohrwacher visiting to present her new film Happy As Lazzaro on Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has their monthly "On the Fringe: Indie Film in the 90s" show on Friday, presenting Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66. They continue their runs of 306 Hollywood (Friday/Sunday/Wednesday), I Am Not a Witch (Saturday/Wednesday), and the 2019 Manhattan Short Film Festival (Saturday). Let the Devil In: 50 Years of British Horror continues with Symptoms and Peeping Tom on Sunday andA Field in England on Wednesday.
  • Bright Lights once again returns two IFFBoston alums this week: Black Memorabilia with director Chico Colvard plays on Tuesday, with Emerson graduate Heather Cassano presenting her film The Limits of My World on Thursday. Both are in the Bright Screening room at the Paramount, put on by Emerson but open to the public.
  • The Regent Theatre plays host to the Lonely Seal Film & Screenplay Festival on Friday and Saturday, with blocks both upstairs in the main theater and down in the Regent Underground on both days. They also play Best F[r]iends on Wednesday with co-star Greg Sestaro on-hand. I believe it is just Volume 1.
  • Cinema Salem does not mess around where Halloween is concerned, as you might expect. They've produced a new short 3-D documentary, "The History of Halloween", which will be running all month, they've still got Mandy kicking around, and they are one of the hosts of Salem Horror Fest, showing double features all month long. This week's theme is "Earthdoom", but they also have premieres and guests as well as other special events.


I've already done Venom, I'll check out both Chinese movies, Free Solo, The Old Man and the Gun, and maybe one or two more, but there's also important baseball going on.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 24 September 2018 - 30 September 2018

They're doing a lot of renovations downstairs at the Somerville, and let me tell you: If they replaced the Museum of Bad Art with a kitchen so that I didn't have popcorn for dinner on weeks like this, I would happily accept the tradeoff.

This Week in Tickets

But, in the meantime, they were showing the large-format film, and my schedule this week had me at the stuff shot big rather than blown up. Mostly. I gather Spartacus was in large part blown up because, as projectionist David Kornfeld pointed out before the screening, it kept getting cut down with each re-release until Richard Harris restored it from a variety of sources in the 2000s, including one scene without sound that required Anthony Hopkins to come in with a dead-on Laurence Olivier impersonation. I do believe this marks the first time I've made it through the movie in its three-hour entirety, not because it's dull, but because it always shows in the middle of a crush of things and keeps me sitting too long. Grabbing an extra candy bar at the concession stand and having it ready at the midway point is essential. Maybe not quite so much for Khartoum, which isn't quite so long but is rather more dry. Still, as the last thing shot in Ultra-Panavision before The Hateful Eight some 45 years later, it looks fantastic if nothing else.

Friday would be my last Red Sox game of the regular season, with all the expected mayhem of a season-ending series with the Yankees dispelled because the Sox were just too good this year, locking up the division a week or two earlier and not looking to really pad their record. They would wind up losing by a fair amount, but there was excitement, with a Steve Pearce grand slam and the Yankees' Zach Britton walking the ballpark in the 9th to the point where another looked not just possible but likely. Didn't happen, but oh well. Playoffs start Friday.

The 70mm schedule meant that the easiest way to fit a screening of Hong Kong action movie Golden Job in on Saturday was to go the the 11:30am screening, which is a bit early, but it turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. In some ways, basic direct-to-video action, but also an unabashed throwback to 1990s HK crime melodramas. Shame it's got no chance of sticking around.

It was short enough to get back to Davis for David's "70mm Odds and Ends" presentation, which was fairly educational and entertaining, if sometimes a bit technical. Faded as some of the clips and fragments he showed were, it absolutely hammered home just what sort of detail and clarity the format offers in the hands of people who know what they're doing, and it's a crying shame that the studios have chosen to change formats on the basis of cost control and easier workflow in recent years when the technology to capture and project the sort of picture even that new 4K televiion can't compete with is proven and robust. And that's without considering the examples of 30fps 70mm he was able to project, which was even smoother without having of the odd effects that the Hobbit movies and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk had at 48fps.

David talked with no small amount of irritation that, when facing competition from television in the 1950s, studios opted to go for something more spectacular, while the introduction of home video, cable, and streaming from the 1980s forward had them cutting costs to try and maintain the same profits. Though he obviously knows more about Hollywood history and exposition than I do, I think, there are other factors (as the studios used to own the theaters, they now own pieces of other channels and want to be able to easily repurpose media for all routes), but all the same - it's hard to look at things like that night's presentation of Patton and not feel as though they have given up a lot more in terms of quality for convenience.

On Sunday, they finally got to debut their new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which they commissioned last year but which was kind of held back while an "unrestored" version was released back in June. I missed that release, and was surprised to learn that there are apparently differences in the prints, although it's not a case where one is definitely better than the other in every area. The good news about that re-release is that apparently the sound mix from it was top-notch and the Somerville kept the DTS CDs in the hope that they would work with their new print. They do, and…. Well, I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of 2001 in Somerville in the coming years as they make that print pay for itself, and it will be worth it.

That would be a good way to wrap the week, but I was morbidly curious about the Sunday release of Fat Buddies. It turns out that the distributor wasn't trying to hide it from coverage but still get it out there; the 30th is a national holiday in China. I, well, I should probably have ended on a high note.

But, then again, weeks on a calendar page are arbitrary endpoints, and my Letterboxd should already show that I've seen good stuff since!.

Spartacus

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

Spartacus is the only sword-and-sandals movie a lot of folks see, and will thus form their entire impression of the genre, eventually leading them to wonder why attempts to capture the same magic aren't as good. It's not so much because they don't make 'em like they used to as much as this one getting screened in part because it shows up on other lists aside from that of its genre, and maybe gives a better impression of the genre than it should. Most don't have Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick, Laurence Olivier, and Dalton Trumbo to class things up.

This one does, though, and they attack this B-movie material with straight faces and utter sincerity, recognizing that the story isn't necessarily about Spartacus himself as much as the tenacity with which the powerful hang on to control. Douglas is charismatic and appealing, and turns in a fine lead performance, but it's the scenes with Olivier and Charles Laughton (with a comic assist from Peter Ustinov) that crackle with energy. They're smart and conniving, and since action needs some intrigue on the other side, they provide what makes it move.

Even when the focus is on the rebelling slaves, it's good enough to work, although I must admit, this is the first time I've made it all the way through - 3 hours is a lot of movie, and it's not exactly thrilling all the way through, especially when you consider that Spartacus doesn't show a whole initiative at certain points. The 70mm print looked awful nice, though.

Khartoum

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

Khartoum is a good-looking but dry would-be epic that has aged poorly even by the standards of the genre, with Laurence Olivier's Middle Eastern caricature far more uncomfortable to watch than Charlton Heston as a supposed Brit whose own arrogance is a big issue. It was colonialist nostalgia at the time and plays much worse 50 years later.

Worse, though, it's boring, almost always pulling the perspective away from where the action is, right down to having characters dispatched offscreen without much build-up toward the end. The filmmakers often don't have a handle on how to portray the tensions of a siege, never making it feel like there is death waiting just beyond the walls or giving much weight to the far-off efforts to free them. There is some intrigue here, but the filmmakers are not great at transforming those intellectual issues into cinematic action.

(An aside: As much as we romanticize these Hollywood epics, it's worth noting that China and Korea in recent years have gotten these sort of battle/political intrigue stories down to a science, enough to make even the great classics look a bit primitive at times. If we could marry the choreography and court intrigue of a Korean epic with the gorgeous photography/cast-of-thousands of these Technicolor blockbusters, we'd really have something.)

It is great-looking, though, especially during the parts where the camera can just wander around Egypt and the Sudan. The 70mm Ultra-Panavision print was terrific, and as with IMAX later, part of the joy with these large-format films was just being able to look in the screen and see something that you are likely never going to see in person as if you were just looking out a window. On that count, at least, Khartoum delivers.

Patton

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

To give Patton its due, the film plays as far more skeptical of its Asshole Genius than is typical. Part of that is just history - George S. Patton was passed over for promotions and sidelined at crucial points - but it's worth noting that the filmmakers almost always pass when given the opportunity to give him on-screen vindication: His promotion to four-star general happens offscreen, for instance, and after a certain point, the audience sees him beg rather than receive praise even when successful. That the film occasionally cuts to the Nazis seeming to have more admiration for him than the Allies is intriguing in some ways, a hint that this sort of leader is far more valued by those who do not regularly have to deal with him.

Still, the film seldom seems to truly be out of his corner, in large part owing to George C. Scott's performance. Scott takes Patton from dedicated hard-ass to entertaining eccentric, maintaining a thin veneer even when the screenplay explicitly has him revealing the monster who sees war as art (and himself an artist) underneath. The audience gets in that head, even if some part is horrified. It's a film that barely had room for anyone else, which probably makes what Karl Malden manages even more impressive: His Omar Bradley is positioned as sensible compared to Patton, which isn't always interesting or dramatic, but Malden is an impressive steadying force whenever he appears, exuding competence and fairness - the sort of fairness that can feel like a slap in the face to those used to accommodation - even though the audience gets to see him in action less than Patton.

And, speaking of action, this is as impressive a way movie as it is a biography. The fantastic 70mm photography makes this one of the most eye-popping films of the festival, but for all the explosions and gunfire, there's a smart sense of hollowness to the violence. The definitive part of a battle is seldom if ever shown, and the focus on mechanized divisions makes things feel impersonal at times, overwhelming at others: Individual soldiers are neither CGI blurs or too far in the background to register, but they are subsumed nonetheless.

That hollow feeling can make Patton a hard film to truly love, but there's nothing in it that you're supposed to love, even if the situation forces you to admit that wars and Pattons can be necessary.

2001: A Space Odyssey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 35mm)

This is not the year where I really get into writing about 2001, but given that the Somerville now has their own print, it's entirely possible I'll see it again soon enough.

I must admit, we're spoiled by how much the local theater likes playing this in 70, as I did kind of feel like I was taking it for granted this week, focusing on certain details rather than just letting the film wash over me. Not that this is a bad way to watch the movie - I absolutely love the utterly insane attention to detail during the docking sequence that could drive others batty, and the technical craftsmanship deserves that sort of solitary attention at times.

Still, I was pretty detached at other moments, so I suspect that maybe I'll give it a miss when the festival returns in May, or maybe try and watch it with some folks who haven't seen it before, just to get new perspectives.

What I wrote three years ago


Spartacus
Khartoum
Yankees 11, Red Sox 6
Golden Job
70mm Odds and Ends
Patton
2001: A Space Odyssey
Fat Buddies