Saturday, April 30, 2016

IFFBoston 2016.01: The Hollars

First IFFBoston at the new apartment, which likely matters not a whit to anyone, but it was kind of nice to quickly drop my stuff off, head over to the Somerville Theatre and not only not be lugging stuff around, but be able to just head home and drop right afterward was really nice.

For an opening night, it was pretty low-key - Jon Bernhardt on the theremin, Brian Tamm thanking us for coming, and then right into the movie. I like this; I've been to a few festival openings where it seems the folks involved are trying to convince us that we didn't just make a good choice, but are doing something important beyond just seeing good movies.

The Hollars

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

That The Hollars is an independent film in this day and age is a sort of indictment on the film industry: Its story is neither complicated nor difficult to relate to, the style is far from experimental, and the cast is almost entirely made up of familiar names and faces (if not necessarily people that will draw a guaranteed audience on their own). It is quality mainstream entertainment, and it's kind of weird that the people involved had to make it outside of a system that was traditionally built on movies like this.

The set-up is pretty simple; the Hollar family lives somewhere in the Midwest and, like many, is kind of squeaking by: Divorced older son Ron (Sharlto Copley) has moved back in with parents Don (Richard Jenkins) and Sally (Margo Martindale), though Don's plumbing business is on the verge of bankruptcy. An awkward family moment ends with Sally having a seizure, and younger son John (John Krasinski) flies out from New York to be with them, with super-competent and very pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) seeing to everything.

Not that John is a dope or anything; though he's got a tendency to stumble through situations, it's generally material that has him looking a little goofy though basically harmless. Krasinski (who also directs) is pretty good at playing this sort of fallible straight man, especially since he's clever enough to avoid winking when the script has John tripped up by being honest about the things that usually causes romantic-comedy characters trouble because they don't mention it. It's kind of impressive that he gets quite a bit out of his scenes with Margo Martindale; she is also playing the sensible one, but the affection between this mother and son plays out as their own relationship as opposed to eye-rolling over what doofuses the people around them can be.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Hologram for the King

Couldn't get to this earlier because work kept me busy all weekend, which sort of stinks, but that's how I can afford to see movies, right?

It's kind of astonishing just how little notice this got - my sister-in-law who loved the book just wasn't aware of it at all when I mentioned it was good on social media, and I never saw a preview for it. I've seen suggestions that Roadside Attractions is even deliberately fumbling releases, which seems absurd, but I'm not sure how you get a movie with Tom Hanks directed by Tom Tykwer (even if most people don't know his name, they at least know his name should be familiar) to fly so far under the radar is something I don't know.

So, see it if it's near you, check it out (Lara, that would be the Nick - and you can take the girls to see April and the Extraordinary World there, too!). It's grown-up while still being fast-moving and funny, the sort of movie people often grumble about not being able to find in this fantasy-dominated age.

A Hologram for the King

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2016 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

The opening sequence of A Hologram for the King maybe isn't that clever - it's actually a pretty literal take on an on-the-nose pop song - but it hints at Tom Hanks in the sort of broadly comic performance that he mainly brings out for talk shows and the sort of energetic, unconventional filmmaking that got director Tom Tykwer international attention with Run Lola Run. That bit doesn't last, but it pushes the film into a differently odd place that makes for a smart, charming, funny film.

Literally a different place, as American executive Alan Clay (Hanks) is heading for Saudi Arabia to pitch the king on his company providing the new King's Metropolis of Energy and Technology ("KMET") with its IT infrastructure, apparently on the basis of having once met the king's nephew. He's off his game in ways beyond jet-lag, unfortunately, coming off an ugly divorce and not sure what to make of a lump on his back. He keeps missing his shuttle from Jedda to KMET and getting rides from Yousef (Alexander Black), a young man whose ancient car is a stark contrast to the opulent surroundings. Out there, Alan's team is in a tent without wifi or air conditioning, the man who can solve those problems is nowhere to be found, and for all anyone knows, it could be months before the king makes a visit.

I doubt that either this film or the David Eggers novel that Tykwer adapts gives anything close to a true portrait of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - it's too big a place to fit - but it's probably a fair impression of how confounding the place must seem to an American. As seen here, it's a paradoxical mix of rigorous, exclusive tradition and a concerted effort to build a modern nation that is part of a larger world from nothing. Tykwer has a sharp eye for large, empty spaces nested inside one another - the vast desert will surround palatial buildings, which themselves contain vast reception areas or, in a hospital, a blindingly white operating theater with a tiny-seeming bed in the center. The newness of everything else is a sharp contrast to Yousef's beat-up old car, as is the westernized look of much in the cities compared to Yousef's homestead.

Full review on EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 April 2016 - 5 May 2016

IFFBoston - where it's at at three or four places.

  • Independent Film Festival Boston started Wednesday the 27th, and runs through Wednesday the 2nd. It's at the Somerville and Brattle through Monday - with highlights including Morris From America, Under the Shadow, Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and a retrospective screening of High on Crack Street. On Tuesday, it moves to the Coolidge, with Little Man and Don't Think Twice on that day and Clea DuVal on hand with her directorial debut The Intervention for the closing night.

    That means that The Somerville Theatre technically opens Green Room (which also expands to Fenway & Revere while already showing at the Kendall & Boston Common) and Everybody Wants Some!!, even though you won't be able to see them there until Tuesday or Wednesday.
  • Not part of the festival but doing some fest-like programming is Kendall Square, which will have The Man Who Knew Infinity writer/director Matthew Brown on hand for select shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; he'll be joined by Robert Kanigel (whose biography of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar served as his source material) all weekend and mathematician Stephen Wolfram on Friday. They also have a one-week booking of the new one by Asghar Farhadi, Fireworks Wednesday. Their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, also joins them and the Coolidge in running Sing Street.
  • Semi-quiet week at the multiplexes as they make time before cleaning house for Captain America next week. They do get Keanu, in which Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele pretend to be killers to find their adorable catnapped kitten. They are funny people and the word is that this is an extremely entertaining movie. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Also looking for funny: Mother's Day, the latest overlapping-stories ensemble comedy based around a holiday from director Garry Marshall. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, the Lexington Venue, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux. There's also Ratchet and Clank, a 3D animated movie based upon the game, which looks like it might still be kind of fun for kids. It's at Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    For smaller releases, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is the first Hollywood feature shot there in decades, and features Giovanni Ribisi as a journalist who becomes friends with the author during the Cuban Revolution; it's at West Newton, Boston Common, and Revere. This year's DisneyNature documentary is an old-school Imax documentary (a 45-minute science featurette) made up of lots of huge 3D photography and narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, A Beautiful Planet, and plays matinees at Jordan's and Boston Common, not really displacing The Jungle Book (and, oddly, not playing either the Aquarium or Museum of Science just yet). And after a really quick booking at AMC Boston Common last week, Purple Rain expands to Apple Fresh Pond and Fenway.
  • The West Newton Cinema is the only place in the area opening Dough, which has an old Jewish baker (Jonathan Pryce) taking on a young Muslim apprentice (Jerome Holder), and then having wackiness ensue when the kid's marijuana stash gets mixed into the flour and suddenly the place becomes really popular. Holder will visit for Q&As after some shows on Friday & Saturday.
  • With much of their audience at the festival this week, The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps things pretty quiet, mainly opening Colliding Dreams, a documentary on the history of the quest for and reality of a Jewish state from the mid-19th century forward; co-director Oren Rudavsky will be on hand for a Sunday afternoon screening. The weekend's midnight film is a 35mm print of David Lynch's Mullholland Drive, and Monday's "Sounds of Silents" is the newly-restored Varieté, starring Emil Jannings and accompanied by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.
  • Boo, Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond, for abruptly cancelling all the "Rotten to the Core" shows! I only got to one, but it was fun, and they seemed to be gaining momentum. I guess they're refocusing on the Indian stuff for special programming, and they've got a lot of that this week, with Bollywood action film Baaghi: A Rebel for Love opening with subtitles and King Liar (Malayalam), Raja Cheyyi Vesthe (Telugu), and Chakravyuha (Kannada) apparently without. The subtitled Hindi-language Fan also sticks around.

    From the other end of Asia, Boston Common has Finding Mr. Right 2, the sequel to a movie where Tang Wei played a young woman sent to Seattle to have her illegitimate child where others couldn't see. From the credits, it appears that the working-class guy she fell for in that one has either had a name change or wu Xiubo is playing a different character (heck if I know; I missed the first for some reason or other.
  • The Brattle Theatre is IFFBoston's second home through Monday and then being used for a private screening on Tuesday, but on Wednesday they both start their "John Williams Scores" series and get a bit of that "May the 4th Be With You" action with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That got him his most recent Oscar nomination; the first came with Valley of the Dolls, which plays the next night.
  • The Harvard Film Archive has no public screenings on Friday and Saturday, but wraps up its Xie Jin series on Sunday afternoon with Legend of Tianyun Mountain on 35mm. They are also visited by Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj, who rpresents A Useful Life on 35mm Sunday evening (along with a pair of shorts) and his latest, The Apostate, on Monday.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues Aleksandr Sokurov's Francofonia: an Elegy for Europe on Friday, Wednesday, and Thursday. They'll also be screening thesis films Wednesday evening, and starting JewishFilm.2016 with the People vs. Fritz Bauer on Wednesday and Carvalho's Journey on Wednesay; both screenings will have guests.
  • The ICA has two film presentations this week: "Monsoon, Prayers and New Routes", is a group of short films by Muslim filmmakers from around the Indian Ocean, and plays Sunday afternoon with two filmmakers on-hand for a post-film Q&A. Then, on Thursday evening, filmmakers Marcie Begleiter and Karen Shapiro will present their documentary Eva Hesse, chronicling the life and career of one of the few woman artists to find success in a very male-dominated moviement in the 1960s.
  • The Belmont World Film Series has a sneak preview of Mountains May Depart, which follows the intertwined lives of three people who grew up in the same village, from 1999 to 2025, at the Belmont Studio Cinema on Monday.


I'm at wherever IFFBoston is on a given night, and likely torn between Valley of the Dolls and "doing anything else" on Thursday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.08: Projet-M & Reconnoiter

I don't know if "somewhat homemade but pretty decent" was an official theme for the night, but I gather that if I'd seen This Giant Papier-Maiche Boulder Is Really Heavy, it would have really firmed that up. But, aside from being a 5pm show, I don't do "spoofs of bad movies" any more, and I kind of don't care how many people say it was actually good.

The website says that the director of Projet-M was scheduled for a Q&A, but if he did one, it was in the other room and there wasn't a whole lot of time between them. I might have been curious to ask how well-known the cast was; just looking the up on IMDB doesn't necessarily tell you much, since there's both a decent local commercial film/TV industry there along with a strong homebrew scene (as the massive local shorts program at Fantasia indicates), so folks with a lot of credits may not actually be famous in Québèc, but busy.

Anyway... Behind like crazy on this, and it's a bummer that IFFBoston is starting just as I'm getting to writing about the good stuff.

Projet-M

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

The festival opened with a film (400 Days) that covers a lot of the same territory - global cataclysm happens while astronauts are undergoing long-term isolation trials - and this one is easily much better, despite having a lot of the same flaws. It's not that a somewhat handmade French-Canadian film is inherently better or more sincere than something made targeting the VOD market with familiar genre faces; it's that the folks making this one seem a lot more interested in their details, even if they don't quite seem sure of what they want the sum of those details to be.

The long-term mission is taking place on a Québèc Space Agency station in preparation for a potential manned mission to Europa. It's commanded by Vincent Kohler (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), the second man on Mars and a national hero. He, flight specialist Justine Roberval (Nadia Essadiqi), mission specialist Jonathan Laforest (Julien Deschamps Jolin), and medic Andrea Sakedaris (Julie Perreault) are scheduled to be up there for a thousand days, but nerves are already rather frayed by the time things start going very wrong in the early 900s.

The pressure cooker is a tough thing for a film to pull off, and director Eric Piccoli seems to struggle with it; he and Mario J. Ramos (his co-writer/co-editor) establish a pattern of creating a little more friction between characters or developing a subplot, and then skipping ahead a few months to when it has dissipated. It's not quite frustrating, but it keeps the movie from picking up the sort of head of steam it's looking for, and even when there are fewer big jumps forward, they still seem anxious to get to the next thing, or a flashback, or something that's neat but a diversion. There are only a few moments when characters act less intelligent and professional than you'd expect of astronauts selected for this sort of mission, at least, and the film mostly works in the moment.

Full review on EFC.

Reconnoiter

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

A fair number of people with the name of "Rowe" appear in the credits for Reconnoiter multiple times each, driving home just how independent a production it was, bordering on trying to make a sort of pre-emptive defense of its smallness. There isn't much way to avoid that, although this one probably deserves more praise for what it achieves than excuses for where it falls short; it's small but intriguing, with the filmmakers getting good results from what they can do.

This particular recon mission is being carried out by a single pilot (Ian Rowe), although tons go just sideways enough that he winds up stranded on an uninhabited planet. Well, uninhabited by biological life forms; though there is evidence that such beings one lived there, all that roams the surface now are their machines, and most of the ones that take notice of the castaway are hostile. Still, these robots point him to a possible way to get a message home, if he can survive long enough.

It's a setting that doesn't need much physical material for much of the runtime, and director Neil Rowe and his crew are pretty excellent at making do. The countryside where they shoot is not likely to be mistaken for any place but rural England - the stone walls and other structures are fairly distinctive - but Rowe makes them feel alien. No bits of terrestrial fauna accidentally sneak into frame, and the noise of mechanical breathing permeates the soundtrack for much of the film's first half. For a small production, the visual and special effects work is quite strong; the robots are good and the abandoned (and occasionally grisly) remnants of this extinct civilization are also well-executed, not calling obvious attention to how much more involved putting those scenes together must have been.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 April 2016 - 28 April 2016

Wow, I feel like Independent Film Festival Boston just completely sneaked up on me. I feel like I'm going to be making a lot of choices while standing in line.

  • There's a few days to make plans, though, as Independent Film Festival Boston kicks off in the big room at the Somerville on Wednesday. There's some good stuff planned to show in that room, with The Hollars on opening night and High-Rise on Thursday, with the latter also having the pretty darn nifty Embers in the same room where I saw it during the Sci-Fi festival, and I can't remember anything hitting two festivals in the same city like that. Thursday is also the night things start at the Brattle along with a day of documentary films at UMass Boston.

    So what does The Somerville Theatre do before they clean house for the festival? They continue showing We the People: The Market Basket Effect once a night, but they also thread up the big film to show Vertigo in 70 beautiful millimeters on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre won't get into the festival until next week, but they are one of the places opening Sing Street, the new one by John Carney, who made Once and Begin Again (and Zonad, but that doesn't really fit the joy-through-music pattern). It takes place in 1980s Dublin and has a kid starting a band to impress a girl. It also plays at the Kendall.

    The midnight this weekend is The Final Girls, a fun horror parody made by Todd Strauss-Schulson, who will be Skyping in after the show. On Sunday afternoon, they'll have a special fundraiser where they screen Sound of Redemption, following it up with a live performance by featured saxophonist Grace Kelly (not the other one, obviously). Monday's big-screen classic is a 35mm print of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, while Tuesday's Science on Screen presentation is Embrace of the Serpent, with BU professor David Farb discussing the science of the film.
  • Kendall Square welcomes two guests Friday night, with two people featured in The First Monday in May taking questions after the 7:20pm show and the director of Older Than Ireland, Alex Fegan, talking about his look at Irish centenarians on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the country's independence.

    On top of that, they also open Green Room, a thriller from the makers of the excellent Blue Ruin featuring a villainous Patrick Stewart; it's also at Boston Common and will come to the Coolidge next week. The Kendall, the Embassy, and Boston Common also get Elvis & Nixon, with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey presenting the backstory beyond one of America's most famous photograph.

    The sleeper, though, may be A Hologram for the King, with Tom Hanks as an American businessman in Saudi Arabia to try and get the royal family to invest. It's directed by Tom Tykwer, who worked with Hanks on Cloud Atlas. It's also at The West Newton Cinema and Boston Common. There's also a Tugg screening of Paper Tigers at the Kendall on Thursday.
  • Aside from the indie-ish stuff opening at Boston Common, the multiplexes are basically going with The Huntsman: Winter's War, which is apparently a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron returning and Jessica Chastain & Emily Blunt joining in a story that draws from "The Snow Queen". It's at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the SuperLux.

    If you head out to Revere, though, you can catch Compadres, a Mexican-America buddy comedy that teams a former Mexican cop with an American hacker. They also have Union Bound, a Civil War drama about a captured Union soldier heading north with the help of escaped slaves. They also have special TCM screenings of On the Waterfront on Sunday and Wednesday.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a Through Indian Eyes: Native American Cinema series this week, and it includes both some of the better and lesser-known works in the category: Smoke Signals on Friday (on 35mm); The Honour of All: Part 1, Itam Hakim, Hopiit, This May Be the Last Time, and Kissed by Lightning on Saturday; Atnarjuat: The Fast Runner, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, and Trudell on Sunday; Rhymes for Young Ghouls on Tuesday; and Drunktown's Finest and a 35mm print of Naturally Native to wrap things up on Wednesday.

    Alongside that, they've got a number of 35mm prints playing for the Cambridge Science Festival After Dark: Real Genius (Friday), The Adventures of Backaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (Saturday), and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Sunday). There's also a ten-year-anniversary presentation of Darkon for Monday's DocYard presentation, with directors Luke Meyer & Andrew Neel and composer Jonah Rapino on hand, and the monthly free Elements of Cinema screening on Tuesday is The Pope of Greenwich Village, which will be introduced by noted author Chuck Hogan. Then, Thursday, they become an IFFBoston venue.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond brings the Teseracte performers in at 10pm on Saturday for "The Rocky Horror Chiptune Show", which is apparently an 8-bit video game retelling of Rocky Horror. Thursday night's "Rotten to the Core" series is Manos, the Hands of Fate, but if you don't just want crap, they will have Big Trouble in Little China on the back end.

    Indian stuff includes Telugu-language action movie Sarrainodu and subtitled Bollywood flick Laal Rang, which looks like a farce set around an illegal blood bank. Theri and Fan also continue, with a screening of Malayalam film Jacobinte Swargarajy on Sunday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues to show the fims of Xie Jin for much of the weekend, with [Two] Stage Sisters (Friday 7pm), The Herdsman (Friday 9:30pm), Hibiscus Town (Saturday 7pm), and Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (Sunday 7pm). They wrap up "Three Hamlets" with Italy's One Hamlet Less at 5pm Sunday, and start another retrospective, this one for Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj, on Monday with his fim Acne All except Stage Sisters are 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts as the new film by Aleksandr Sokurov, Francofonia: an Elegy for Europe, which focuses on the Louvre. If that sounds familiar, remember that he also did Russian Ark, a single-shot film set in the Russian State Hermitage Museum; this looks to be similar. Both films play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; Francofonia also plays Wednesday.
  • The Regent Theatre celebrates its 100th birthday on Sunday with the movie that opened the place back in 1916 - Mary Pickford in Rags - with accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, along with a vaudville-inspired live show.
  • The Belmont World Film Series continues with Chevalier, the latest off-kilter satire from Greece, at the Belmont Studio Cinema on Monday.


I'm down for Vertigo, and will probably check out A Hologram for the King and one or two others before getting down to the serious work of attending the festival come Wednesday.

The Jungle Book '16

I grumbled about the getting to this movie a bit on social media over the weekend, but it can be kind of a frustrating hike to see something at the furniture store: For me, it often means hoping that both buses I have to take are late in sync, and by the time I get there, it's often sold out. Not a problem if you buy tickets online ahead of time, but even if paying the service fee for a movie ticket doesn't bother you on its own, if those buses don't line up, you've paid fifteen bucks for nothing and you've wasted an hour. It's worth the effort - even if the 4K laser projection at Jordan's Reading doesn't look as good as the actual IMAX film did, it's the best digital projection in the area.

I was kind of disappointed that the film wound up taking so many cues from the animated version, right down to the songs, although that's not really fair - building these live-action versions out of the animated versions has been Disney's method of attack ever since they started doing them with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland - modernizing them a certain amount, but leveraging the familiar imagery, structure, and songs is in some ways the point. It used to be, Disney would re-release the movies in theaters every few years, then they would allow the video releases to dry up before re-releasing them with great fanfare (especially if it was on a new format). I don't know how much of a return those get nowadays - there are a lot of people who don't see much improvement past DVD, and I think Blu-ray is the end of the line for most of us. Maybe there will be a 4K digital file someday, but HD is about the end of my visual acuity in someplace the size of my living room.

So, rather than re-release the movies, they use them as R&D, much the way Disney's Marvel film division has 75 years of story and design work that can be repurposed in part for its familiarity. I also wonder if it's a matter of some of the audience that traditionally went to their animated films just doesn't go for cel-style animation anymore, to the extent that the nostalgia that previously pulled people in doesn't work, so it has to be recreated with live-action and CGI.

If the latter part is true, then that's sort of weirdly ironic, because this verison of The Jungle Book is basically an animated movie with a live-action character or two inserted. Animation disguised as live-action, and as a result not having the same access to the amazing things animation can do.

The Jungle Book (2016)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2016 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, 3D Imax laser projection)

What folks who hasn't cleared out of the theater by the end of the credits for this version of The Jungle Book snickered a bit when the line "Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles" came up, though the fact that this is nearly as much an animated film as the 1967 version from which it takes a number of cues may ultimately be what's most noteworthy about it when we talk about Disney's evolution in the future. Not that the kids in that audience worry about that much now; they got an entertaining adventure that's funny and thrilling in the proper places, and what more could they want?

It is, as per usual, the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a "man-cub" found as an infant by the panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and raised by a clan of wolves. As Mowgli grows older, the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) is growing far less willing to let the boy live in peace, pushing him to flee to the closest human village. Moving out of his familiar environs, he will soon meet some of the jungle's other inhabitants: Hypnotic snake Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson); laid-back bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray); and King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who costs the humans' "red flower".

It's a bit surprising that director Jon Favreau opted to have all of the animal characters and much of the environment rendered digitally; he's said to have favored practical effects when directing Zathura and the first two Iron Man movies in part because he likes to give his cast a lot of room to interact and improvise, and is a different game when everything is added in post-production (to be truthful, what was done on-set with newcomer Neel Sethi is live-action elements to be inserted into an animated film). There is little doubt that this is the right call; the special-effects crew puts together a visually astonishing picture, not just seamless in how Mowgli is part of a seemingly-endless wilderness, but taking care that giant 3D screens will be filed but not overcrowded. The character animation is similarly excellent; the animals are photorealistic enough to bridge the uncanny valley (where effects work is just close enough that the mind rebels), but also given just enough in the way of human characteristics that a viewer can easily connect to them as people of a sort.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Criminal

I hate that I've given Batman v Superman enough space in my head to, at one point during Criminal, ask if we were really going to watch Pa Kent try to rape Wonder Woman.

On the other hand, that does explain why I found that chunks of the second half of this movie rubbed me the wrong way: As much as I buy that Gal Gadot's character might want to cling to whatever small piece of her husband is left, Jericho is pretty creepy and introduces himself in an especially monstrous way, and I don't know that her reaction to him is tilted far enough in the proper direction.

Criminal (2016)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2016 in AMC Assembly Row #7 (first-run, DCP)

The opening narration of Criminal lays out its premise and appeal rather plainly: "They messed with my brain... Even I don't know what I'm going to do next." There's bigger things than that going on - there's a high-stakes storyline that wouldn't be out of place in an old-school James Bond movie - but when it works, it does so because it's genuinely fun to watch Kevin Costner play a "hero" who is so nuts that anything can happen next.

That the fate of literally the entire world is made into something that happens in the background while Costner's Jericho Stewart crashes through the London area handling his own concerns is a bit strange, to be honest. The script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg is hardly the first time that this sort of that is made secondary to a main character with more individual concerns, but there are times when it seems like the filmmakers aren't quite sure how to go about it. Getting Jericho on his own requires a fair amount of impatience and incompetence on the part of the CIA whole moving the story forward means cutting away to seemingly omnipotent villains. Making the movie all about Jericho isn't a bad idea, but it is often executed in clumsy fashion.

And it is kind of a shaggy-dog story of a movie, in which a billionaire anarchist (Jordi Mollà) hires a hacker (Michael Pitt) to take control of America's nuclear arsenal, the latter offers to sell this "wormhole" back to the CIA, but the agent (Ryan Reynolds) who his the hacker in London is tortured to death before telling anybody where he stayed the informant, leading the agent's handler (Gary Oldman) to fly in a scientist (Tommy Lee Jones) who has successfully transferred memories between mice, with Jericho chosen as the other half of this experiment because the damaged frontal lobe that makes him a psychopath also makes him a blank slate. If the science sounds dodgy, wait until Oldman's Quaker Wells decides to just dispense worth Jericho when thirty seconds of yelling at a thug who has just had experimental brain surgery doesn't immediately produce usable intelligence, followed by rather lax security considering that they've just potentially put the location of a bag full of untraceable money and the skills of Jason Bourne into the head of a man unable to tell right from wrong.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New York New York

Sort of ironic: Movie lovers spent a couple days going absolutely bonkers last week after the head of AMC Theaters floated the idea that they might consider allowing texting under certain circumstances, leading to a quick backtrack with a message that this was definitely off the table.

He says that, but I saw a movie at an AMC Theater on Friday night, and even sitting in the second row, there were a bunch of five-inch screens lit up in front of me and in the corner of my eyes, which means they were probably much more visible to the rest of the theater. Saying you're not going to allow this sort of thing means very little, AMC (and other theaters that aren't the Somerville) if you're not going to actually do anything about it.

Surprisingly decent movie, considering that I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about it, almost going in on the basis of seeing Chinese movies by default. One thing that I thought about on the way out, though, was that it effectively functions as the origin story for every Asian ice queen aide-de-camp that showed up in a 1990s crime movie. I wonder how intentional that was.

New York New York (2016)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2016 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

I wasn't really looking forward to New York New York; the trailer made it look like yet another nostalgic Chinese romance, and not a particularly involving one. And yet, once it gets past its opening flash-forward, maybe even before, it gets unexpectedly interesting: The filmmakers are going for a Wong Kar-wai-style melancholy, and while not up to that level of skill, they've sized upon a story that may intrigue audiences on both sides of the Pacific.

Here, "New York New York" refers not only to the American city but a nightclub in Shangai near the Gordon Hotel, where Lu Tu (Ethan Juan Jing-tien) is a concierge, promoted to captain at a young age and something of a mentor to "little brother" Kun (William Yang Xu-wen). Lu Tu takes a shine to tour guide Ruan Yujuan (Du Juan), a poor beauty whose mother is setting up introductions to increasingly distasteful men. But Shanghai is where China's increasing engagement with the West is being felt first in 1993, and Chinese-American guest Mr. Mi (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) is pitching a "Shanghai Grand Hotel" in Manhattan. He has 200 visas for potential staff, and wants Lu Tu. Unlike most of his colleagues, including "Juan", Lu Tu has no desire to go to New York, but might be willing to recruit for Mi.

If this film is any one thing before anything else, it is a love story, but a rather understated one where the audience watches two fairly reticent characters grow fonder of each other without ever having the no-doubt moment. Juan is practical; she knows her looks are a valuable commodity even if trading on them is not how she wants to live. Lu Tu is described as a player but has a certain rigid honesty to him. Theirs is never an all-consuming love, and in some ways that makes watching it play out on the actors' faces more intriguing: Du Juan spends a lot of time showing Juan as chafing at the idea of owing men or being defined by how she might be tied to them even as she plots a path through that minefield, implying hardness but not necessarily needing separate moments to imply that it's a shell (though the moments where the audience does get to see her cheerful or vulnerable go a long way). Ethan Juan, meanwhile, lets a fair amount of ego into Lu Tu's charm; it's not a surprise when he gets jealous, even if the actor does keep the audience inclined to like the guy.

It's not just a love story, of course; to say that New York New York takes place against the background of people vying for new opportunities is denying how central that is to many of the characters. The movie puts most of its focus on Lu Tu, aligning itself with his vision of New York as a false dream that mainly returns boxes of ashes. Writers Ha Chi-chao and Lu Nei elaborate on his individual reasons for feeling this way, and director Luo Dong does a nice job of balancing this personal motivation with the larger truth. Still, it's not difficult to empathize with Juan and the many others who want to do more than slowly climb the local ladder; Michael Miu's Mr. Mi is tempting, Cecilia Yip's Ms. Jin is formidable, and even minor characters like Ms. Jin's snotty assistant played by Isabelle Huang offer an interesting look at people feeling the squeeze.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.06: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Putting my thoughts about this pretty crappy movie down, I couldn't help but think that if someone like local filmmaker Izzy Lee said she wanted to remake it, I would hit the appropriate crowd-finding site kind of hard; as much as she's much more of a horror person, doing something like this in a way that was funny and sexy around a core of righteous feminist anger seems like it would be right up her alley. Give her a horror rampage than the original, and she'd be right set.

That's a nicer thought than what a core it was to watch this movie. I've gone on about how the video projection in this room was pretty terrible when it was coming off a disc or laptop - you either can't plug those things into the serious professional model that the theater uses for regular programming (or Ian and Dave weren't letting the festival crew touch that equipment), so there was pretty terrible banding and artifacting on the image of everything that wasn't on a DCP. But this was billed as "Attack of the Warner Archive", and I was sure at one point that the Web site mentioned, if not 35mm prints, then new restorations.

No. From the menu screen that came up, it was the same sort of DVD-R that is manufactured when you buy the Warmer Archive edition on Amazon, and while that quality may be acceptable enough when watching at home, a compressed 480p image does not look great even on one of the smaller screens at the Somerville. It was a stunningly bad, "how dare you charge people money for this" presentation, and it certainly can't fave helped my appreciation for the movie at all.

It was part of a double feature, but given that I probably could have gotten better quality streaming the film of Amazon, I decided not to stock around for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Maybe that was a mistake; I see that one is actually available on Blu-ray, but it feels kind of good to cut your losses sometimes.

Note that this should not be taken as any sort of reason to skip the next event at The Somerville Theatre presented with the Sci-Fi Film Festival and Warner Archive; they'll be showing Forbidden Planet and The Searchers on Thursday 21 April 2016, and those will be in the big room on 35mm film. You should be all over that.

Next up: Skipping over Thursday (covered back here) for a pretty decent pair from Friday night.

Attack of the 50-Foot Woman

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DVD-R)

There is the germ of a great idea in Attack of the 50-Foot Woman that could have let it be fun, effective satire wrapped up in trashy pulp if anybody involved had felt like making a good movie was worth the effort. But, as is too often the case with the sci-fi B movies of the 1950s, this one seems to have been slapped together for an audience that the producers figured didn't care about quality, and that it remains reasonably well-known today says more about the power of an evocative title than the film itself.

There's potential in the idea of Nancy Fowler Archer (Allison Hayes) growing to nearly ten times her normal height and going on a rampage after an encounter with an alien craft while driving in the desert. According to some, she's already got outsize reach and a nervous disposition; she's an heiress, and local law enforcement humors her crazy story with a cursory search as a result. On the other hand, her husband Henry (William Hudson) is being none too subtle about his affair with young redhead Honey Parker (Yvette Vickers), to the point where Nancy is starting to feel like a long-term inconvenience. If the filmmakers play their cards right, it's a potent way to say that this is what may be coming when women who have treated like fools, told that their worth is in their looks and then tossed aside for younger models, and otherwise marginalized achieve the statue and power where they can neither be ignored nor slapped down.

It's a bit unfair to criticize Attack for not being that sort of movie; some folks just want the twin pleasures of a good-looking woman growing an order of magnitude too big for her clothes and a town being pulverized as by a giant monster - it doesn't need to be a feminist metaphor (or, I suppose, a cautionary tale about letting women get too much power if you're a neanderthal who identifies with Henry). But having that underpinning and really committing to it would add extra heft to the film without having to cut those visceral pleasures back, giving future audiences something to get from it when its special effects no longer impress.

Full review on EFC.