Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oculus

I bumped into my friend Chris Hallock before this movie; he was there to host a screening in the Somerville Theatre's micro-cinema and also catch Klute afterward, but he was also really excited about this one, having binged on director Mike Flanagan's work in order to do an interview for Diabolique magazine. That meant he had already watched it twice before opening day (but not the short which inspired it) and wanted to hear what others made of it, especially since a few folks he though would dig it didn't care for it at all. I'm going to have to pick up a copy to read his piece, just to see if the trends I'm noticing in Flanagan's film's (mostly for the better) are deliberate or just me seeing things.

Of course, you've got to talk about the end for that, which (as usual) will be after the main review.

Oculus

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

I likely won't actually have the time to sit down and plot out what the characters are doing to check and see if it all fits together when Oculus is released on video, but I'd kind of like to do so. While one does not really need an excuse to watch a fine horror movie again, there's something especially admirable about the ones which take pride in their intricate construction, especially when they are still able to provide legitimate jumps.

This one starts, more or less, with 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from the mental institution where he has spent half of his life since the death of his father (Rory Cochrane). Back then, young Tim and his sister Kaylie (Garrett Ryan & Annalise Basso) said a haunted mirror was behind what happened to their father and mother (Katee Sackhofff), but Tim has put that delusion behind him and is anxious to see his sister again. As for Kaylie (Karen Gillan), she thinks Tim was released just in time - she has found the mirror and wants Tim to help her kill it.

The believer/skeptic pairing has been a part of stories about the paranormal for about as long as there has been science to suggest that the things that go bump on the night are products of our imaginations, but it's almost never as well-deployed as what director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard do here. Most of the time, one is set up to look foolish, and frustratingly for me, it's usually the man of science being taken down a peg for trying to approach a question rationally. And while something like that must inevitably happen here, it's built so that Kaylie and Tim are both, in their ways, highly rational, coming at the situation in ways that make perfect sense from their own experiences. That Flanagan & Howard opt to invert some of the usual tropes and have believer Kaylie be the tougher older sister of the presumably fragile skeptic Tim is a fun bonus.

Full review at EFC

SPOILERS!

I mentioned thati would have liked to see the setup used as a film noir rather than a horror movie when I saw Absentia at Fantasia a couple years ago, and while I might not necessarily go that far with Oculus, I couldn't help but notice that there's potentially a great movie about dealing with heritable mental illness hiding within it. Sometimes that disguise is barely there, but it makes me kind of curious about the shape of Flanagan's career going forward. For supernatural horror movies, both Absentia and Oculus have unusually well-developed and specific relationships between the core characters and monsters that only rarely step into the foreground. That could just be less-is-more storytelling, or it could be a hint that they aren't really what he wants to talk about, but jumps and mythology get the genre audience's attention, and it's only fair to give the viewer what they paid to see.

Similarly, I notice that both movies are built around characters recovering from an emotional trauma in their past, be it a husband who vanished into thin air or a horrific way to lose one parents. Lots of movies do this, of course - it's a quick way to make characters interesting - but there's a pattern here: Paperwork to put something in the past, a reunion with one's sister, and, generally the situation dragging the protagonists back, even if one just wants to move on and the other is just trying to be helpful. Recovery seems to be a central theme in Flanagan's film's, not just the hook needed to give the main character an arc because folks look down on your spooky story if it doesn't feature personal growth.

Heck, I'm arguably one of those people; it certainly plays into why I initially found the end of both movies kind of disappointing. What are horror stories about, after all, if not facing one's past and triumphing over it? That means I tend to find "one last scare" moments or characters not being able to literally slay their demons unsatisfying; its usually a last-minute swerve meant to be unpredictable rather than feeling like the summation of all that has happened. So I didn't like Tim "ironically" ending up right where he started, especially as I was still feeling a bit of "you can't kill Amy Pond!" anger. A little bit of thought later, and it thematically fits much better, especially when you consider that image of Kaylie quite literally stuck to the object of her obsession with an anchor: Her consuming mania didn't just drag her down, but him as well - by not leaving her behind he got pulled back to where he was. I still don't love the ending - I want the one where they are literally and figuratively able to see clearly, walk away from the house, and let the mechanisms they've constructed do their jobs - but I do see its merits.

!SRELIOPS

On the plus side, I loved that young Tim and Kaylie played with what looked like Atari Lynxes in the flashbacks. Aside from being a reminder that Atari existed, the units being connected in a way that Game Boys weren't at the time (and a Wi-Fi connection doesn't get the same point across as a cord) helps subtly reinforce that the siblings are connected as well. I suspect that there's a lot of little stuff like that going on that a second viewing will reveal, and I love that the filmmakers have taken that sort of care.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sunday Double Feature: Dom Hemingway, Finding Vivian Maier

I've made some comments in recent posts about trying to get caught up on stuff before IFFBoston, and that's what Sunday was about - seeing what might or might not make it to next week, but which might not make it to the one after that. Dom Hemingway was already down to half-days, and since I wanted to watch the Red Sox game that night, it was the 11:20am show, which wound up getting out just in time to get me into Finding Vivian Maier. It was that or Under the Skin, which I opted to save for Monday night.

Two pretty good movies, although I kind of wish Dom Hemingway had managed to keep the crazy stuff going on a bit longer. I did get a chance to confirm that I can get through a large soda per movie, but a small popcorn can get me through two.

Dom Hemingway

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

Dom Hemingway feels like he's the sort of character Jude Law could settle into and play for a while, so perhaps it's only fitting that the movie itself plays like a couple episodes of a TV show that have been edited together and released as a feature. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it also feels like the producers were given notes between the first and second episodes of this hypothetical program to tone things down and make it more grounded and relatable, even though the madness was what made it fun.

It starts out plenty larger-than-life, with safecracker Dom the cock of the walk in prison before getting the call that he is being released after twelve years. After a quick detour to deliver a beating to the man who took up with his late wife while he was inside, he heads to the pub with another old mate, Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant), who delivers him to the south of France so that Dom can get what he's owed for not ratting. After that adventure, it's back to London to look for more work and hopefully reconnect with his daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke).

If Dom Hemingway is an actively good person in any way, it's buried rather deeply; in fact, he's actively malicious at times. The audience is going to want to spend time with him anyway, though, because he's one of those characters who is made almost entirely out of self-confidence, from his sartorial choices to the way he bellows. While a good portion of the movie's humor comes from how he smashes his way into trouble like with his dumb thick skull, he's never so stupid that any good fortune that comes his way seems like pure luck, and there is some small but of humanity under the ego. But most importantly, he's played by Jude Law, who seems to be having a grand time playing to the rafters even while making sure that he's actually only being as grandiose as Dom would be to that character at that time. Sure, we know that eventually he's going to show some sign off not being a complete jackass where Evelyn is concerned, but in the meantime, Law is going to hit every joke he's given, injecting a surprising amount of average-Joe disbelief at the world around Dom into the character's own peculiarity to make him a surprisingly enjoyable presence in just about every scene.

Full review at EFC

Finding Vivian Maier

* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run, DCP)

The recently-discovered photography of Vivian Maier is striking, impressive enough that even those of us with no particular expertise in what makes a good picture can look at one and recognize something special without some sort of hook. They've got one, though, and Finding Vivian Maier is an intriguing look at the photographer's story.

Maier did not work as a photographer; she spent most of her life as a nanny, although she always carried her Rolleiflex camera with her. She took thousands of rolls of black-and-white and color film (as well as 8mm and 16mm home movies) over the course of her life, and John Maloof bought a tub's worth after she died, needing pictures for another project. Once he realizes that he's stumbled onto something special, he seeks to learn more about Maier. That's easier in some ways than others; she was a hoarder where physical things were concerned, but just as obsessively anonymous and private in her personal life.

That tendency of Maier to hide herself behind locked doors in other people's houses presents a challenge for Maloof and his co-director Charlie Siskel: They must, inevitably, deal with not being able to answer some of the questions they present to the audience. I suspect that many projects of this sort are either abandoned our delayed a long time as the filmmakers try to find the interview, document, or other missing piece that will fit in perfectly at the end of the movie, pulling everything together. Where some parts of the story are concerned, they just don't have that, and it strikes me that it is probably much more difficult to make a movie that doesn't let the audience down as it teases blind alleys that it can't fully explore than one that builds to a startling revelation while the later will be much more appreciated. Maloof & Siskel (and editor Aaron Wickenden) seldom put the movie together in a way that leaves the audience feeling disappointed, and deserve a fair amount of credit for that accomplishment.

Full review at EFC

Monday, April 21, 2014

Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.5: Ten, Emotional Incontinence, Love Eternal, The Congress, Blue Ruin

Ugh, three weeks to get BUFF finished up. It's too long, and now I've got bits of it falling out the back of my brain and IFFBoston starts Wednesday and it's pretty screwy to feel "behind" on a hobby.

"Ten" filmmakers photo DSCN00781_zps4173dcc2.jpg

On the other hand, taking this long means that Michael Epstein (on the left, with Sophia Cacciola in the center and BUFF's Kevin Monahan on the right), who followed me on Twitter a day or two after the festival, might not be looking for BUFF-related tweets about his movie, which I really didn't like much at all. On the one hand, I don't want to judge it too harshly; early afternoon on Sunday is often a good place to put movies by folks that the programmers and want to encourage (and who can maybe bring a crowd with them). It's almost not fair to review it alongside the closer-to-professional stuff.

Still, there were things in the Q&A that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, where it seemed like the cart was leading the horse: They talked about how they liked movies that switched genres midway through, and there was one moment where they seemed really proud of a joke that really wasn't funny at all. It really pointed up how they pieced this movie together out of a lot of vague ideas, but didn't have a great story. They did at least have some interesting stories of shooting in a cool-looking mansion.

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Next up: the "Emotional Incontinence" block. Left to right, that's Gabriel Laks of "Goosey's Big Movie", Parker Winans of "Sunshine for Breakfast", and James Feeney of "Killer Kart". Nice folks.

I pondered hitting Tasty Burger or someplace else for something to eat during Love Eternal, but I was curious and glad of it; it's probably one of my favorite films of the festival. It was, however, the only chance I was going to have to get something other than popcorn, ice cream, or candy to eat before eleven or so: The festival had been scheduled tight all week, to the point where films starting fifteen minutes late was about the best you could expect even without a Q&A, but when the 122-minute The Congress is on the schedule for 6:15 and the next film is at 8:30... Yeah, that's not going to happen.

BLUE RUIN's Jeremy Saulnier

That led to Blue Ruin and a Q&A with director Jeremy Saulnier, who talked some about how easy it is to get pigeonholed, since his previous film Murder Party was a certain type of horror comedy, and while that can get you a fair amount of cult fandom, it's just as hard to get funding for another movie like that if it doesn't break huge or a different sort of movie, which is why Blue Ruin was shot quickly in the cast and crew's own homes.

Anyway, when Kevin introduced the movie, he said that they were lucky Saulnier was able to push the studio to let them show it so far in advance of the opening... Which is Friday. So, this post has been a while in coming, but I'm glad it ends with a pretty great movie.

"Legitimate"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I gave Izzy Lee's "Legitimate" a look when she first had it going out to festivals back on September, and it's grown on me somewhat on this second viewing, at least in part because it is much more fun to watch a movie that is going for a visceral reaction in a crowded theater than on a laptop screen in your living room.

Like Izzy's other film in the festival, "Picket", this is a compact, angry reaction to something that justifiably ticked her off in the news, and sometimes the storytelling isn't quite on my wavelength (even in a six-minute short, I kind of want that demon embryo explained), but I'm glad that a Republican idiot got Izzy angry enough to dive into making stuff, as she'll probably get to interesting places as she evolves.

Ten (2014)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

By the time Ten is over, it has maybe managed to beat its story into making some kind of sense, or at least into the kind of nonsense that the audience can sort of work with. That's probably not the sort of reaction filmmakers Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein had in mind - it's unusual enough to be the result of some ambition - but the rookie filmmakers seem to have set themselves a task that's more they can handle just yet.

After an opening scene that establishes that there's something not right about the place, ten women arrive at a mansion on an island off he coast of New England in the 1970s. They all seem to be strangers with nothing in common, which means that after the last ferry leaves, a storm will naturally kick up, trapping them together in the house while some butcher-themed slasher goes after these "ten little piggies".

Why are these ten women here? An answer is presented in the last act, and while it technically explains some things, it is the very definition of an explanation that exists entirely to brace the structure after the fact as opposed to being things that reasonably intelligent people would actually do when starting from zero. Even taking all the behind-the-scenes machinations into effect, the first two-thirds of the movie are tremendously frustrating; even when people die, it doesn't feel like anything is happening. Plus, not only does the viewer feel like he or she is missing some very basic information, but none of the characters ever seem to react to various nasty murders the way actual human beings would. Heck, they don't even react like thin stereotypes would.

Full review at EFC

Emotional Incontinence

Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Described as the "comedy block" at the start, which was not exactly what I got from the description. I did laugh, of course, and not just because I find puppets in an unusual context pretty funny.

"Welcome to Dignity Pastures" - A neat little one-joke short, and I half-wonder if it could be stretched a little further than the three minutes it has here. Without giving too much away, I think doing so would take away from the basics of the joke (unforseen result of a horror premise) and make it a sitcom thing, which isn't bad itself, but not the same kind of funny.

"Sad Monster" - Man, it hits under-bed monsters hard when little girls stop being scared of them. Kurt Dettbarn's short is another one whose premise is easy to state, but he does a good job of telling a story and hitting a lot of funny beats within it. Nice song, too.

"Liebe" - Cameron Macgowan's is a quick one as well, but suffers a bit because its gotcha isn't really as funny as Brian Lonano's or Kurt Dettbarn's. I do kind of wonder where this sort of joke will evolve, though; is the joke of the monster being attracted to the guy homophobic, funny for being unexpected, or basically the same joke as it would be if a girl were involved?

"Killer Kart" - James Feeney's short is the first in the block that really had room to stretch, and he has fun with it. It is a horror movie with an absurd monster played straight, but that's part of the fun: The audience gets to laugh at just how ridiculous the idea of a killer shopping cart is, but also at how cleverly he makes it work. Stretch it much longer than this fifteen minutes, and in might not be as funny, but it works pretty well at this length.

"Mémorable Moi" - Heh. Jean-François Asselin throws a gag into his short about a man who will fade away if people don't think about him constantly about trolling people by pretending to be a Bruins fan (it's made/set in Montreal), which is maybe a little funnier to folks involved in the rivalry. It's a fun scenario, and most of the time the jokes are funny rather than just gross, which is what it needs.

"Goosey's Big Movie" - So, you say Pee-wee's Playhouse was just not weird enough for you? Gabriel Laks takes that as a starting point and builds an increasingly surreal story about a former children's entertainer trying to find regular work and the psychotic puppets who share his apartment. Like the previous one, it gets into twisted territory at times, but it wouldn't be BUFF otherwise, and most of the jokes are pretty funny.

"Sunshine for Breakfast" - Well, you've got to have one or two that are just kind of unpleasantly weird, and that'd be this thing by Parker Winans.

"Mr. Lamb" - One or two. This one is a little more amusing, but it kind of left me cold. It's one of a couple things at the festival that had clear Twin Peaks inspiration, and, man, that show just doesn't do anything for me. It's tough to spoof and tough to capture, and its own story isn't really entertaining enough to hang on its own.

"Foam Drive Renegades" - I liked Adam DeViller's short when I saw it at Fantasia last summer, and still like it now. It would probably be pretty funny if the screw-up who messes up a group of small-time crooks' plans was not a puppet, but since puppets make everything funnier... Laughs happened.

"Shinju-Kitan" ("The Tale of Love Suicide")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Ken Hirata's short starts out with a fair amount of explanation of its title, which is not necessarily the best sign, but it fits here as Hirata merge a highly declarative Japanese theatrical style with nice, lush visuals to tell its simple, poignant story.

Even with the setup, the short is still kind of tough to figure, going for ambiguity despite working so hard to make sure the audience knows where it starts from. There's an impressive sadness in both the ending and all of the deliberate moments leading to it, though, and it certainly makes for a good thing to pair with Love Eternal.

Love Eternal

* * * 3/4 (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I didn't quite avoid Love Eternal when it played at another festival last year, but I certainly didn't have much trouble choosing what was on the other screen whenever the Irish death-fetish film was playing. I'm not saying that was a mistake - I liked the other movies I saw at Fantasia - but I was quite pleasantly surprised at how much I wound up enjoying this one.

Maybe "pleasantly" is not quite the right adverb, given the subject matter. This is a movie about a young man who refused to leave his house after finding a classmate hanging from a tree, and responds to his mother's death by trying to commit suicide himself. That attempt is interrupted, but he winds up uncomfortably close to three more suicidal women. Well, maybe three isn't quite an accurate count - one has already died when he "meets" her.

You can see why a person may be put off. The placement of that part of the story is important, though; it's part of Ian's evolution and director Brendan Muldooney recognizes it as such, not particularly mining dark humor from it or building a suspense story out of whether his peculiar houseguest will be missed or discovered. It may not necessarily even be the segment of the film that will make a viewer the most queasy; the cheerful character played by Amanda Ryan whom Ian connects with on a message board that helps connect those who do not wish to leave the world alone, and how their encounter plays out, may be harder for some to wrap their heads around.

Full review at EFC

The Congress

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

The Congress divides fairly naturally into three or four parts, and the Futurological Congress which gives the film is name (and was presumably much more central to Stanislas Lem's original novel) is probably the least interesting despite having the most going on. One almost wonders why filmmaker Ari Folman didn't just make a movie with everything else and cite Lem as an inspiration, because that still leaves a heck of a smart, unusual science fiction film.

Actress Robin Wright was certainly not the protagonist of Lem's book, after all, though she fills that role here, not getting many parts twenty-five years after The Princess Bride but still kind of horrified when her agent (Harvey Keitel) delivers Hollywood's latest (and last) offer: They want to digitize her, making everything from her physical features to acting style their intellectual property, leaving any future performance she ever gives copyright infringement. Well, at least for twenty years, when she returns to Miramount Studios to negotiate a new deal and speak at the Futurological Congress.

Things go down at the Congress that are meant to be confusing - where the first and last parts of the movie are about Robin negotiating a strange new world, the middle has her spending much of her time as a witness to events that make the world even stranger. I'm not sure how chaotic Folman actually wanted it to be, because in a way it doesn't fit (it's the only time that Robin is far enough ahead of the audience that she doesn't need to discover things with us). Or perhaps this is the point, as Folman is covering humanity's anxieties toward the rapidly digitizing world: That computers might replace the job of even creative people and that electronic interaction will replace direct "real" human contact are easy to list and depict, but the Singularity where the rate of discovery and societal evolution excesses the human ability to process it is difficult to present by definition.

Full review at EFC

Blue Ruin

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, DCP)

Say this for Blue Ruin: It starts from a different place that many movies of its type, and that starting point means that even when it doesn't necessarily go in a unique direction, it still winds up in a new place. Going unexpected places in and of itself is certainly a good thing for a thriller like this, but it still needs some navigation, and writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is an impressively sure hand on the wheel.

That starting place is a beach in Maryland where Dwight (Macon Blair) lives out of his car, unless he can break into a house whose owners are on vacation. The police are familiar with him, but when one approaches him, it's not to arrest him for vagrancy, but to inform him that Carl Cleland (Brent Werzner), the man who killed his father, has been released from prison. This, apparently, is what Dwight needs to be shaken out of his slumber, but quests for vengeance seldom go unanswered, and the Clelands are a big, mean, redneck family while Dwight just has a sister (Amy Hargreaves) living a quiet middle class life.

Most people overlook homeless guys like the Dwight we meet at the beginning of the movie, maybe treating them with a little bit of wariness in case they suddenly turn violent and lash out randomly. Saulnier and actor Macon Blair do a fine job of simultaneously embracing and subverting that expectation, and in large part they do it without much more than Blair's eyes to work with, at least on the surface: With the bulk of Dwight's face hidden behind an unkempt beard, it's very easy to see the wild animal who has wandered into the human world in his eyes, afraid of everything around him but ready to activate the first part of the fight-or-flight reflex at a moment's notice. At other times, though, he projects the image of a boy who still hasn't been able to get over losing his father, and that helps to make him our homeless guy with just a loose connection to civilization. He's never going to be a true hero, but Blair makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in his shoes.

Full review at EFC

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mo Jing (That Demon Within)

I was actually getting a little nervous as I scanned the film listing sites last week: China Lion's Facebook page promised Boston Common as one of the places running That Demon Within, but Fandango, Google, and all the other listing sites said nothing about it, even once the full slate was up rather than just the first matinee and evening shows of the new releases. Heck, even on Friday, neither Google nor MoviePass was listing it; you had to go straight to the ticketing sites to see any evidence of it playing. Not sure why that was, but there was actually a pretty decent turn-out at the 5:15pm show on Friday, so I guess the word got out to Chinatown and Chinese students well enough.

It's a bit of a surprising release for China Lion, though, in that it is very much a Hong Kong film in Cantonese. They don't exactly avoid those movies (they did release Vulgaria, after all), but most of what they release is stuff from the Mainland in Mandarin, which is also something of a reflection of where the Chinese film industry is: A lot of the Hong Kong studios, wanting a piece of the billion-person audience to the north, will make sure that they play nice with the PRC's rules, which generally means Mandarin language and adhering to some strict self-censorship. That Demon Within, though, is a throwback to the heyday of John Woo-style Hong Kong action, taking place entirely in the former crown colony, with folks speaking Cantonese, and there being plenty of corrupt cops, a distinct no-no for China; the only real concession seems to be how it's pointed out that David started in the police force while Hong Kong was still under British control. I've read that there's been a certain amount of pushback by Hong Kong filmmakers and artists recently, attempting to re-assert their own identity as they see the mainland swallow them, and this is a pretty fantastic example of that if so.

Mo Jing (That Demon Within)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2014 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

You can tell from the opening moments of That Demon Within that it's not going to be your standard cops 'n robbers movie, and it's sure not going to stand out for how grounded and realistic it is. This is Hong Kong, and while they may not have invented the operatic crime drama, they do it like no-one else, and nobody is doing it bigger than Dante Lam right now. Like they say, bigger doesn't always mean better, but this is one case where going for it yields something pretty great.

The demon of the title is Hon Kong (Nick Cheung Ka-fai), an infamous and ruthless leader of a gang of armed robbers known as "The Demon King" and the obsession of soon-to-retire Inspector Mok (Dominc Lam Ka-wah), and whose latest score is a fortune in diamonds, the sort that gets crooks at each others' throats, even when their wounded leader is more trustworthy. Or is he? Uniformed policeman David Wong (Daniel Wu Yin-cho) is wracked with guilt over the fact that he gave Hon a blood transfusion in the hospital, and while his former academy classmate and new captain (Christie Chen Si-xuan) notes there isn't a blemish on Wong's record, those who worked with him say that his many transfers have been due to personality issues.

And, yes, David certainly has personality issues; he mentions in his opening narration that he appreciates the low-key nature of his job manning the police post in a hospital, and when he's on the other end of the transfusion tube from Hon, he sees the man as almost a monster - well before he has any reason to know he's a criminal. But just in case you miss that, Lam is going to make sure that you know that David is not all right with bombastic music, screens that take on a red cast, grainy flashbacks, and any other signal he can give. Oh, it ramps up, especially on the pressure on the officer grows, but whenever Lam and co-writer Jack Ng Wai-lun bring the audience inside David Wong's head, it's very clear that this is a place fraught with danger.

Full review at EFC

Friday, April 18, 2014

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 April 2014 - 24 April 2014

Man, I swore it wouldn't happen again this year, but, I've been so focused on BUFF that IFFBoston completely snuck up on me. Like, blew past every deadline and chance to buy film passes. I need more time between these things!

(Just kidding; cram the schedule as full of awesome film events as possible!)

  • As I said: Independent Film Festival Boston 2014 starts this week, on Wednesday the 23rd, with Beneath the Harvest Sky at the Somerville Theatre. It's a coming of age story that takes place in Maine's Aroostook County, the first fiction feature from the directors of the much-liked documentary The Way We Get By. Thursday has Fight Church on the main screen, though I'll probably be at the Brattle for Trap Street and Skeleton Twins. Thursday also includes a screening shared with the UMass Boston Film Series, Freedom Summer, a documentary about student volunteers fighting civil rights battles in the summer of 1964, with director Stanley Nelson there to discuss it. Umass will also have Uranium Drive-in, rescheduled from mid-February.

    Don't get IFFBoston confused with the Boston International Film Festival, which will be at Boston Common from Friday to Monday (the 21st). Again, interesting stuff, terrible website.
  • It's another churning week at the multiplex, with the big release being Transcendence, a sci-fi film with Johnny Depp as a researcher whose mind is uploaded into a computer he created. Nice cast (Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Kata Mara, Cillian Murphy), and it should look great as it's the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolans regular cinematographer. It's at Jordan's (Imax), the Capitol, Apple, Fenway (including RPX), Boston Common (including Imax), the Embassy, and the SuperLux. It's getting iffy reviews, though, so you may want to buy advance tickets to The Machine to see the idea really done well. Yeah, I'm gonna be a pest about this.

    Also opening wide: A Haunted House 2, the sequel to the Marlon Wayans spoof of Paranormal Activity-type movies, which looks like more of the same. It's at Apple, Fenway, and Boston Common. Those theaters also open Bears, the latest DisneyNature film to be released in conjunction with Earth Day. They've also had Heaven Is for Real since Wednesday.

    Boston Common sort of doubles down on Asian movies as well. They're getting That Demon Within the same day it opens in Beijing & Hong Kong, with Dante Lam directing Daniel Wu and Andy On in a crime/action piece about a cop going mad with guilt after saving the life of a crime boss. They've also got Make Your Move, which is produced by Korean film company CJ Entertainment and co-stars Korean pop star BoA as a dancer in New York in a sort of Romeo and Juliet thing with underground dance clubs. Her co-star, Derek Hough, is pretty popular for being on Dancing with the Stars. Oh, and they've got The Ten Commandments as an Easter special on Sunday.
  • Down the Green Line, Fenway has some Bollywood, 2 States, as does Apple Cinemas. Pretty standard material, with Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt playing lovers who met in London but have trouble convincing their parents to allow them to marry as they come from separate states. iMovieCafe also has Tamil-language comedy Thenaliraman, with Vadivelu in the title role, but there's no English subtitles on that one.
  • Kendall Square has three films opening, with The Railway Man also opening at West Newton. It features Colin Firth as a former World War II prisoner of war who learns that his captor is still alive. Nicole Kidman plays his wife, Hiroyuki Sanada the interpreter.

    The other two new films are documentaries. Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a nanny who took thousands of fantastic photographs but was an utter recluse, her work not discovered until after her death. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden tells the tale of Europeans expatriates who settled in those islands in the early twentieth century and had a story that grew into soap opera and murder. It's scheduled for just one week despite its great voice cast.
  • The Coolidge picks two documentaries up from the Kendall, Anita and Jodorowsky's Dune, to play in the Screening Room and GoldScreen. One of the midnights is a popular new release, though, Cheap Thrills. I found this story of Pat Healy and Ethan Embry doing rapidly-escalating dares for money okay, but not as excellent as much of the blogosphere did (though David Koechner is pretty great in it). The other midnight is a 35mm print of 1976 oddity The Devil's Express (aka Gang Wars), wherein Harlem martial artists go to Hong Kong to train and bring a 50,000 year demon back with them, which takes up residence in the subways. There's also a special "The Sounds of Silents" presentation of The Mark of Zorro on Tuesday, with the Not So Silent Orchestra in town to accompany it.
  • It's school vacation week in Massachusetts next week, so the Brattle is doing a Kids' Movies Not Just for Kids series from Friday to Wednesday. A subtitled Hayao Miyazaki double feature of Spirited Away (35mm) and My Neighbor Totoro plays Friday and Saturday (with the Saturday matinee of Totoro dubbed in English). A 35mm double feature of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal plays Sunday, while Marathon Monday is also Muppet Monday, with The Muppet Movie (35mm), The Great Muppet Caper (35mm), and The Muppets Take Manhattan playing as a triple feature. Tuesday has a special John Hubley Centennial program, with new 35mm prints of short films by the famous animator (who began a bit of a dynasty). Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are plays Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure on Wednesday evening. Thursday, IFFBoston takes the place over.
  • The Somerville Theatre will also be turning its screens over to the festival, but will be screening great 35mm prints until then. The weekend double features start with Rain Man & Raging Bull on Friday, E.T. & Gandhi on Saturday, and The Princess Bride & Beetlejuice on Sunday. It's singles afterward, with The Silence of the Lambs on Monday and what manager Ian Judge described as a really excellent print of Jurassic Park on Tuesday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive starts things off with Claire Denis's most recent, Bastards, on Friday night. They also begin a new retrospective, Jan Němec and the Cinema of the Golden Sixties, about the an experimental Czech filmmaker (from back when his naive land was Czechosolvakia), with A Report on the Party and the Guests on Saturday evening (preceded by "Oratorio for Prague"). The rest of the weekend is Frank Capra, with A Hole in the Head Saturday night, Ladies of Leisure Sunday afternoon, It Happened One Night Sunday evening, and American Madness on Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Artscontinues screening When I Saw You and In Bloom on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with When I Saw You also playing Thursday afternoon. There are also two special programs: Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America will screen Wednesday with a discussion following, while Thursday's monthly "Mind Bending Movie" is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Yep, more Lynch.
  • This week's entry in the Belmont World Film Series is Wajma: An Afghan Love Story, which I saw a few months back and found pretty darn good. Star Wajma Bahar will participate via Skype, while the other speaker, author Qais Akbar Omar (who worked with Bahar on another project in Kabul) will be present at the Studio Cinema in Belmont.
  • Emerson's Bright Lights program will have a screening of Her in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room on Tuesday, but it'll be a tough squeeze to make it to the Brattle in time to do a Spike Jonze double feature. On Thursday, they will show New York in Motion with director (and Emerson alum) Graham Elliot there to discuss his documentary on the city's "motion graphics" industry.


My plans? The Demon Within, The Devil's Express, Transcendence, and whatever else I can catch up on before IFFBoston. Having a hard time choosing between Hubley and Zorro on Tuesday, though.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.4: Crimes Against Humanity, American Jesus, Starry Eyes, about half of EDSA XXX

Some year, I'm going to be up and about early enough for BUFF's Saturday Morning Cartoons program, although maybe it's better that I don't. As much as I think I've got a pretty good attitude about not getting wrapped up in nostalgia or romanticizing my youth, seeing a bunch of folks half my age enjoying the stuff I loved wholeheartedly as a kid ironically will move me toward years and/or rage. Yes, that means I'm feeling my age, which also means that I don't mind skipping the music video program that comes afterward to have a festival day that starts at 5pm and doesn't follow a full day of work.

"Crimes Against Humanity" filmmakers

First up: Crimes Against Humanity, with director Jerzy Rose and company on hand. It's a gleefully black comedy set partly in academia, which got maybe a little more play than it should have. It's a fairly universal comedy of terrible things happening to the people who don't go out of their way to be jerks to each other, although the environment of a college campus does have some unique features. More importantly, though, Rose had that sort of "assistant to the dean" job at one point and at least noted that there was some absurdity to be mined from it.

Frank Schaeffer Jr. of American Jesus

There was no guest planned for American Jesus, but Frank Schaeffer Jr. showed up, and it sounded more like he realized that a documentary that he was interviewed for was playing near his home and decided to show up than the festival folks hearing that one of the people involved was local and calling him up. I may have that wrong, but it certainly seemed like there was that kind of confusion going on.

At least it turned out that Schaeffer had an interesting background and was in a good position to converse on the entire sweep of the film rather than just his involvement as a result: He was raised by what now would be considered a very unusual evangelical family in Europe, promoted the cause as a filmmaker during its first jump forward in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then fell away from it as his politics and outlook changed while the movement itself grew more fortified. So, yes, he had thoughts about America's many brand of self-defined Christianity, and often appears on talk shows to discuss them.

He also mentioned that he doesn't hold much truck with the militant atheists, and these days attends Greek Orthodox services, but stopped short of identifying himself as still being a believe. He said he was drawn to the mysticism of the Orthodox Church, which is admittedly weird to me; I tend to think that once you've become fed up with the hypocrisy and twisting the world to suit your dogma of a religion, you might as well follow that all the way down and rip out the roots rather than search for a branch you like better, but I guess when a certain thing speaks to you, it speaks to you.

Almost completely unrelated: This had the logo of Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix on it, and he was listed as a producer. Just another reminder that despite being a guy best known for directing horror movies, he certainly has his hands in a while bunch of interesting things.

 photo DSCN00721_zpsa527fa84.jpg

Now, there's something you don't see at every film festival, especially before a movie filled with cynicism and blood. But, then, that's part of what makes festivals like this awesome; there is a community here, so if you're going to have a whole bunch of friends in a room anyway, why not say some vows? Sure, you've also got a whole bunch of random people like me in there, but by this point in the festival, we've got a bunch of affection for Nicole and Evrim too, and our congratulations are far from obligatory.

"Starry Eyes" filmmakers

There was, in fact, a movie playing in that slot, and Starry Eyes filmmakers Dennis Widmyer & Kevin Kölsch were there for a post-movie Q&A. Their movie was actually one that had me dancing around things in the review, because even if they were laid out in the festival program, they were far enough out of my head by the time they happened for me to be taken aback, and it seemed worth preserving the surprise. But, since you really can't talk about this movie without getting into the last act...

SPOILERS!

I wish I was able to formulate what I thought of a movie more quickly, because I'm kind of curious just how much of this movie was about literalizing casual statements like "I'm pulling out my hair" or "I'd kill/sell my soul for that part", and how many I missed. They do a pretty impressive job with it, building just enough of a backstory so that the metaphor doesn't seem entirely naked, and making it work from both ends. Yes, this is a story about a young woman selling herself for fame, but it also covers the flip side of the studios co-opting young talent and using that to destroy possible independent competition. I'm almost surprised that the movie didn't take things a step or two further and have Sarah played by a different actress at the end rather than just having a new look, although that's probably more my personal fondness for complete transformations, and more an Old Hollywood type of story anyway.

One thing they did talk about was really being excited by the idea of introducing an obvious heroine and seeing how long it took for the audience to realize that she was not actually a good person, but was in fact willing to take the shortcuts, betray her friend, and sell her soul for a piece of the big time rather than build something on her own. It's a nifty track we don't see that much of; even though Sarah goes bad pretty quickly here, it's very impressive how it happens right in front of our faces without feeling like a turn until there is absolutely no going back.

!SRELIOPS

Good, interesting Q&A, and between that and the pre-movie ceremonies, the hour between the end of Starry Eyes and the start of EDSA XXX on the schedule pretty much vanished, so I didn't have "well, I don't want to just hang around Harvard Square in the wet" as an excuse to bail on the midnight and get a couple hours more sleep in my bed. Shouldn't have needed the excuse, of course, as I wound up drifting off during that last film a lot, and, well, let's just say that I'm not going to be looking out for it on other festival schedules.

"Oui, Meu Amor" ("Hi, My Love")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Setup, obvious (at least in retrospect) punchline, roll credits. That's what you can do in four minutes, and director Robert G. Putka hits that target well.

It's not quite that simple, obviously; a big part of why this one works is because it is played completely straight, right up through the final gag, to the point where it doesn't even have to play like a comedy piece if that's not where the viewer's head is at that moment. That is actually pretty neat.

"Where Does It Go from Here?"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

This is the second short film directed by Robert G. Putka in the block before the rather short Crimes Against Humanity, although at thirteen minutes it's not quite the same sort of tight joke setup, and that hurts it a little bit, because the payoff is trying to recast much more material in a somewhat different light. Also, the gags leading up to it - man is just a general jerk in situations where a little tact might be advised - is kind of tricky. The short is building up the "he won't actually go there with his sick mother" bit, but it's barely ahead of the rate at which it's alienating the audience, and by the end, n the two are more or less neck-and-neck. I think the funny comes out ahead, but it's awfully close.

Crimes Against Humanity

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Even by black comedy standards, Crimes Against Humanity is kind of on the mean side. That's no knock; mean can work, especially in a movie like this that is more about tying jokes together than building to one thing - especially if it's got some pretty good jokes.

A lot of the rancor comes from Lewis Henry (Mike Lopez), whom we first meet passively-aggressively reminding his girlfriend Brownie (Lyra Hill) that he's off to work and maybe she should work on that. Said job is as an assistant to the dean at a local university, where he's having a grand time acting as a liaison to a private eye (Adam Paul) investigating something untoward in the ethnomusicology department. While he's doing that, Brownie has her first bit of just terrible luck, and while there may seem to be a silver lining in how it connects her with similarly-troubled Rory (Ted Temper), things are going to get much worse for her.

How bad? Well, that would be spoiling things, but make no mistake, writer/director Jerzy Rose has a cruel streak, and some of the indignities he and co-writer Halle Butler visit upon the cast are the actual literal epitomes of random ill fortune. They're still funny, though, in part because every character has had some trait or another exaggerated to the point where it is kind of annoying. Sure, it's kind of being a jerk for Lewis, but Brownie's tendency toward helplessness does make a dent in how sweet she can be. Even the straight men whose job it is to kind of talk sense to the lunatics around them push it too far, so it's kind of fun to see them take a literal or figurative beating, even if it is comically out of proportion.

Full review at EFC

American Jesus

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

As one of the many interviewees in this documentary notes, developed countries worldwide have generally seen a rise in the standard of living reflected by a decrease in strong religious faith, with the United States of America as an anomaly: As other nations grow more secular, vocal Christians grow ever more prominent in this nation. Why this is the case is just one of the questions Spanish director Aram Garriga asks, and even if he doesn't exactly answer any of them, what he finds along the way is generally interesting.

As the film starts, though, it feels less like a pointed investigation than a survey. The filmmakers travel the country, finding specialty churches all around: Hippie churches, surfer churches, mixed martial artists getting together to share their beliefs. Some seem to be commercially inspired (the MMA guy sells t-shirts), but most come across as fairly sincere. Eventually, the film gets to things like snake-handlers, mega-churches, and the birth of the modern evangelical movement in the 1970s.

Garriga and his team are, perhaps, building the film in the only way that makes sense; it's a very different movie if you start from the folks pushing a unified political agenda and then proceed outward to the eccentrics, and choppy if you go back and forth. The trouble is that the evangelicals are the most visible facet of American Christianity whether you're looking at the U.S. from inside or outside, so this movie initially seems to be dancing around the important stuff, and by the time it gets there, it is trying to juggle more topics than it can properly handle. And even with all that going on, it can still feel like it ignores the mainstream.

Full review at EFC

"Hum"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

A basic horror short which doesn't do anything particularly wrong and actually manages a good, gritty authenticity, but while it's got a hook that seems like it could come to something genuinely creepy - a persistent sound one can't get rid of is identifiable and also potentially nightmarish - there actually doesn't turn out to be a whole lot you can do with it. It's horrible, sure, but there's no story there, and when director Iain Marcks tries to boost that, there's no time to get into what's going on.

Starry Eyes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I am going to guess that the makers of Starry Eyes have not necessarily always enjoyed their time trying to make it in L.A. Sure, just by having made this movie, they have managed to get further than their characters, but it's not hard to see the inspiration for this movie: Take everything people say in jest about what it takes to succeed in Hollywood, and mean it.

As things start, Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) is saying those things. She's pretty, young, tight-bodied, not untalented, and willing to spend almost every hour she's not working at a dinner with a kind of pervy dress code in acting class to improve her craft. But just when it looks like she has failed another audition for another crappy horror movie, a casting assistant makes note of the frustration and desperation that has her pulling out her hair in the ladies' room afterward and tells her to make use of that - one way or the other.

Sarah is not alone in this, of course - she's got a roommate in roughly the same situation and other friends with similar goals - but she's the one that's going to be tested, and there's dark territory to get through before anyone comes out on the other side. How dark? Enough that when things get really crazy toward the end, the audience is ready to accept this as the logical extension of everything else that has been going on, rather than the sudden and drastic shift in genres as which it might otherwise register. It's probably still going to lose some viewers, but more for the explicit way it goes about making this shift than the shift itself.

Full review at EFC

EDSA XXX

N/A (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

If there's another film by Khavn at Fantasia or the next Boston Underground, you might argue that whether or not I wind up seeing it is any kind of referendum on my ability to learn. The last film of his that I tried to see, Mondomanila, knocked me out mid-afternoon, and while I felt pretty good going into this midnight screening... Well, there are large chunks I never saw. I'm beginning to suspect that liking Son of God as much as I did is as much related to him having a co-director and making something that I could at least mistake for a regular documentary.

To be fair, I suspect that this one will fall somewhat flat for anybody without a connection to the Philippines. The satire is very specific, and those of us who haven't kept on the archipelago's history beyond vaguely remembering the awful absurdity of Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos will be lost to some extent. And as awesome as the idea of guys making movies with whatever they've got is, I think you've got to be a little more accessible for it to be worth cutting through the camp.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Joe

I was kind of surprised to see that Joe was only showing up on one screen in the metro Boston area, and that one a multiplex; this is a thing that has been getting great reviews, and while David Gordon Green's art-house productions can sometimes be an acquired taste, this is a movie with a marquee-worthy star and a pretty solid plot. It is, in short, really accessible, and i wondered why there wasn't more accessing being done.

Well, as it turns out, we were lucky to get this much, as it's getting a day-and-date release on demand, and the local theaters, for the most part, avoid those like the plague. I've heard it's actually policy at AMC and Regal, although it appears that AMC will make exceptions in a few cases - the big Veronica Mars buy by Warner Brothers, for instance, and I wouldn't be totally shocked if Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions offered the chain a good incentive to put this on the "AMC Independent" schedule, which at least included some posters hung in the lobby. I kind of hate the way that while on-demand services are generally a good thing in terms of getting a movie to a broad audience while people are still talking about it (after living in Portland, ME and Worcester, MA, I know what it's like for them to never make it near me until they're old news), that also pulls them out of theaters because they rightly or wrongly don't think they can compete with VOD.

Sad, if true - although I know a lot of folks who will say that they don't think the theatrical experience is important for movies like Joe which don't have a lot of big action and visual effects, I do think the big-screen environment helps it immensely. It was, admittedly, a small audience when i saw it, but that probably owed as much to it being a 10pm show (I had other things on the schedule) than lack of interest.

Anyway, I suspect Joe won't be long for the theaters it's in, but it's well worth seeing. It may just be my favorite thing David Gordon Green has done and one of Nicolas Cage's best performances.

Joe

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2014 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Look at Joe, and you see a couple of people who haven't necessarily done their best work for the past few years. Some will say director David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche was a return to form after a string of crude Hollywood comedies, but even those who liked it more than I can look at star Nicolas Cage's career and point out that just doing one good movie doesn't put things back on the right track; you've got to stick with it. And while there's no guarantee that this is the start of a good run for either, it's the best work either has done for some time, both working at the top of their game to make a terrific movie.

The title character, played by Cage, makes a living poisoning trees with his crew - the logic being that the land's owners are prevented from repurposing this land while healthy trees are there, but if they die, it can be developed or replanted with profitable pines (as you might expect, this is an off-the-books cash business). His path intersects in a couple of ways with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old boy whose family has drifted into town, chased away from their last squat by Gary's father Wade (Gary Poulter) getting into trouble again. Joe gives both jobs, but only Gary impresses. And while Joe may be a better role model for Gary than Wade, that is a low, low bar to clear.

We are told, early on, that Joe has had his problems, and he talks about how so many of his decisions are made as a deliberate attempt at restraint. Restraint is, safe to say, not what Cage is best known for, and both he and Green make some good use of this: Even behind a full beard, there's often a sign of something feral in his eyes and an ever-increasing tightness in how he speaks and holds himself. This holds up even when he's softening around Gary, and that he does so is not totally surprising; for as much as he makes Joe a dangerous, combustible guy, it never seems odd that the people of this small town mostly seem to like him, there's something earnest along with the danger.

Full review at EFC