Monday, September 01, 2014

Raja Natwarlal

If you asked me what the biggest eventual side effect of having MoviePass would be when I first signed up, "seeing a couple Bollywood movies a month" probably would not have been on my top ten list. I don't think Fenway was even getting them occasionally then, though, and they were tough to find on Fresh Pond's schedule under previous ownership. Still, as much as I try to see all kinds of movies, I never saw this becoming a habit.

Of course, not only going when it's something that would be more in my wheelhouse - sci-fi/superhero/martial arts type things - means I'm seeing a few more conventional (by masala standards) movies. This one, for example, has a lot of The Sting in its DNA, and although it's not as though The Sting is unique, this version doesn't seem to have the Indian equivalent of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the starring roles or George Roy Hill's precise execution. It's a reminder that quite often, the thing you think is cooler than the standard Hollywood that you're used to - whether it be Bollywood, independent film, foreign film, etc. - is often the result of how you (or the folks curating/booking such things) select what you see.

Raja Natwarlal

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2014 in Regal Fenway #6 (first-run, DCP)

If you're inclined to see Indian movies as "a Bollywood take on X", then Raja Natwarlal is starting in a pretty good place, because "a Bollywood take on The Sting" sounds like a lot of fun. Of course, The Sting doesn't exactly have a monopoly on this basic storyline, and this is still a serviceable enough take.

Raja (Emraan Hashmi) and Raghav (Deepak Tijori) are small time con artists, though Raghav is a family man and fairly responsible with the money he "earns". Raja, though, runs through it quickly at the dance hall where his girlfriend Zia (Humaima Malik) performs, and that's why when he hears about a big score, he convinces Raghav to join him. It turns out that you don't steal that kind of money from just anyone, and when Raghav is killed, Raja flees Mumbai to seek out "Victor Singh Khan" (Paresh Rawal) - real name Yogi - in Dharamshala to help him plan a con that will get him revenge on the man responsible: Varda Yadav (Kay Kay Menon), a cricket-obsessed expatriate in South Africa who built his fortune on swindling the poor.

Con-game movies are tricky beasts - they require heroes who are diabolically clever liars but not, from a certain point of view, bad people, and villains monstrous enough that the audience wants to see them get taken for a ride, but not so capable that they can't be conned (although not so blind that it's hard to see why they deserve to be targets). And, of course, it's traditional to try and con the audience as well, so anybody watching these movies now pays close attention to just what is not being show, and for whom the characters might be putting on a show. Raja Natwarlal does all right by this; when the inevitable flashbacks-with-blanks-filled-in happen at the end, it seems fairly reasonable and fairly satisfying, story-wise.

Full review at EFC

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and another week of Fantasia catch-up

This is the third Korean movie I've gone to Revere to see this year, and I suspect I'm not done yet - Well Go appears to have included a preview for The Pirates with this movie's DCP (incidentally, I originally typed "attached a trailer to the print", which just sounds so much better). Most of the time, I find myself wondering if maybe there's a sizable Korean community in Revere that I don't know about, but I kind of suspect that this isn't the case, if only because when I got off the 108 bus, so did eight college-age Korean/Korean-American kids clutching printouts from Google Maps; they wound up making up a bit more than half of the audience in the pretty huge theater Kundo wound up in.

Now, I'm not saying the theaters actually inside Boston should book this movie because at least nine people spent an hour on transit each way to get to Kundo, but it strikes me that there's probably an order of magnitude somewhat less committed to seeing a new movie from Korea that might go if it didn't involve two subway lines, a bus, a walk, and snaking one's way through a flea market to do so. Just a hunch, albeit a totally self-serving one.

Anyway, it looks like this is becoming a regular enough trip that it's worth adding a Showcase Cinemas rewards card to my wallet, along with the ones for AMC, Regal, the Brattle, the Coolidge, Chlotrudis, IFFBoston, the Harvard Film Archive, and MoviePass. Anyone who ever picks my pocket may not get much cash, but they will save a crap-ton of money on movies.

At least it played here; it's one of the movies I opted not to see at Fantasia based upon knowing it would get an actual theatrical release. In the interim, I've fleshed out another 8 things written up quickly for "Fantasia Daily" to be full entries on eFilmCritic: Giovanni's Island, The White Storm, The Midnight Swim, The Man in the Orange Jacket, The Seventh Code, The Creeping Garden, Hana-Dama: The Origins, and Guardian.

Twenty to go. I'm starting to think it's going to be a really near thing to get Fantasia finished before Fantastic Fest..

Kundo: Minranui Sidae (Kundo: Age of the Rampant)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2014 in Showcase Cinemas de Lux Revere #10 (first-run, DCP)

Sometimes, a movie spends so long introducing itself that it barely has time to do anything, which feels like the case for Kundo: Age of the Rampant. I think it's because this movie wants so badly to be a Western, but while it takes place in the right era, the place isn't right, and trying to force it means the filmmakers have to explain a lot in a genre that is, at its best, almost instinctive.

It is 1862, a time of famine and plague in the Joseon kingdom, and instead of helping the people, governor Choi (Kim Jong-goo) is throwing himself a lavish sixtieth birthday party, one about to be crashed by the Chusul Clan of Mount Jiri, an outlaw clan that does a little more than rob the rich and give to the poor, including captain Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min), scholar Lee Tae-gi (Cho Jin-woong), doctor Ma-hyang (Yoon Ji-hye), and "The Vicious Monk" (Lee Kyoung-young). What they don't foresee is how their actions will result in Jo Yoon (Gang Dong-won), a ruthlessly ambitious bastard son of a former nobleman, rising to power, although Jo's cruelty gains them a new recruit in butcher Dol Moo Chi (Ha Jung-woo), later known as "Dolchi".

Director Yoon Jong-bin and co-writer Jun Chul-hong divide the film into five acts that each have their own titles and narration, and while it's not a complete stop-and-start each time, it slows the pace down; when the viewer is still getting background information late in the game, there's only so much time for the filmmakers to have things happen against that background. After hitting the ground running with the caper at Choi's mansion, Kundo detours into an extended origin story for Yoon that leads into introducing Dolchi, and then following him for a while before catching back up with Yoon, and by the time that's all done, the team introduced at the start is so far in the background that one wonders why they were given the introduction that they were.

Full review at EFC

Jobanni no shima (Giovanni's Island)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, DCP)

There's a whiff of nostalgia to the start of Giovanni's Island, although it's more for childhood in general than the yearning for simpler, presumably better times that can often infect Japanese cinema, but that passes. Indeed, it's hard not to have Grave of the Fireflies in one's head at some points during the latter half of this one, though it's fortunately not anywhere close to as sad as that spirit-crushing masterpiece. What does share with Fireflies is a knack for telling a story from a child's point if view that would be impressive in live action or animation.

That story starts on Shikotan, on 4 July 1945. Though many young men have gone off to fight, the war has left this small island north of Hokkaido relatively untouched, with brothers Junpei (voice of Kota Yokoyama) and Kanta (voice of Junya Taniai) Senou continuing to attend class in a one-room schoolhouse under the eye of Miss Sawako (voice of Yukie Nakama). Their father Tatsuo (voice of Masachika Ichimura), who named the boys after characters in Kenji Miyazawa's book Night on the Galactic Railroad, heads the island guard (pretty much just the fire brigade in practice), and grandfather Genzou (voice of Saburo Kitajima) continues to fish. Their ne'er-do-well uncle Hideo (voice of Yusuke Santamaria) returns right around the time the Soviets land, and while the boys soon find that they share a love of trains with new neighbor Tanya (voice of Polina Ilyushenko), the Soviet commander's daughter, that transcends the language barrier, it soon becomes clear that the Soviets do not intend this to be a temporary occupation.

Shikotan remains under Russian control to this day, so there is perhaps some logic and necessity to telling this story from the kids' point of view - there's nobody else to talk to who would remember these events. Writers Shigemichi Sugita & Yoshiki Sakurai and director Mizuho Nishikubo craft an interesting tale from these circumstances, one that starts out optimistic - the Japanese and Russian children become close no matter how their parents come into conflict, with a thoroughly charming scene of Tanya and the boys realizing that their model train sets are compatible and literally forming a connection through their walks. There's still a little edge to it - the scene where Tanya shows her room to Junpei and Kanta without seeming to fully realize that it was theirs before the occupiers took the house is going to feel beautifully ambivalent to adult viewers, though maybe not to the kids, while the scenes where Manta is picking Russian up easily will likely unnerve adults who can conceive of cultural assimilation much more. The film is full of little moments like that, and they make it feel real and lived-in.

Full review on EFC

Sou Duk (The White Storm)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Sometimes, it's not enough for someone to be shot in the chest. They have to fall off a cliff, and there have to be alligators in the river below. That is the attitude Benny Chan brings to The White Storm, and it's kind of a blast, a throwback to the operatic heyday of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, only with a couple of even bigger action scenes than Hong Kong could have pulled off back in those days.

Before we get to that, though, we see a Hong Kong drug bust, with rapidly rising detective Ma Ho-tin (Lau Ching-wan) and his lifelong friend Chen Wai-tzi (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) moving in based on information from a third friend, undercover agent So Kin-chow (Louis Koo Tin-lok). This should be it for Chow, but there's a chance to capture international drug supplier Wei Xing-gong (Lo Hai-pang), the "Eight-Faced Buddha" but it involves a perilous joint operation in Thailand. That's how everybody winds up drawing guns (and more!) above that cliff, with the aftermath putting everyone in a new place.

The script is far from perfect - the way they sideline one of the stars for much of the movie in favor of the other two and then make up for it big-time later on with a crazy plot device is a little goofy, and even though it drives the second half of the movie, I don't know if I ever buy into it. I appreciate what Chan and his co-writers are trying to do - it's a neat scenario - but it's a tough sell. But, man, when Chan is shooting things up or banging cars together, it is a ton of fun. The action is concentrated into some big, impressive pieces, with Chan and the action team led by Nicky Li doing some great stuff - there's a car chase/running battle that is as thrilling as it is gloriously over the top, shot beautifully even as some major damage is done. The ending battle is old-school bullet ballet, as good as you'll see.

Full review on EFC

The Midnight Swim

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Sarah Adina Smith's The Midnight Swim is one sort of movie in the sometimes ill-fitting skin of another, and I wonder if shedding that skin would allow it to be seen more clearly as a sharp tale of three sisters rather than a plodding story of the paranormal. There are two strong ideas at play here, and the film could have been something great if Smith could have forged a stronger connection between the two.

The three sisters are Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge), returned to their childhood home on Spirit Lake to mourn and put their mother's affairs in order. Not to bury her - marine scientist Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) never surfaced after diving in this unusually deep lake (as in the bottom has never actually been mapped) - but mostly top see each other. Middle child Isa initially tries to fix oldest sister Annie up with Josh (Ross Partridge), but winds up connecting with him herself, while June films everything, ostensibly for a documentary. That includes a tipsy late-night attempt to summon the "seven sisters" of local lore, which may or may not be connected to some of the strange events June captures on video.

The trick with slow-burn movies like The Midnight Swim, even more so with ones that take the form of found footage now that it's no longer a novelty, is to make the characters either outright fascinating or dole enough hints at a larger story out that the audience can overlook how not much is actually happening (presuming, of course, that they're like me and very much into things happening). Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith does fairly well on this account; the sisters are an intriguing group, especially with the missing mother in the background - what we see of Amelia suggests she was eccentric, and three different fathers are implied.

Full review on EFC

M.O.Zh. (The Man in the Orange Jacket)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Why, Fantasia (and other) programmers, do you insist on scheduling nearly-wordless movies for 10pm (or later)? I get that they're often enough of an acquired taste to keep out of prime time, but it can be rough on those of us already coming down after 8+ hours of movies.

Few movies work with this sort of exhaustion better than The Man in the Orange Jacket, though. It's a simple enough premise - man (Maxim Lazarev) kills rich guy (Aris Rozentals) who kind of has it coming, and slides into his house/life. Of course he soon finds that either he has a copycat/guy with the same idea coming after him or he's starting to crack - or both! At a mere 70 minutes, the lack of conventional action and fairly sparse plot is not going to tax the tired viewer much, and sometimes the hallucinatory bits work even better in that state of mind.

Writer/director Aik Karapetian moves everything forward at a relaxed but steady pace but also tends to circle around in surreal loops, and it's a combination that works well, keeping the viewer aware of how this man's mind can't help but return to the thing he's done but not keeping the story wholly internal. Karapetian wastes no time getting to the main events but still manages to set the stage cleanly, with a few lines of dialog plus the contrast between the victim's nice house and just-closed business delivering all the information one needs, along with the spark of rage needed to kick start what is sometimes a quiet, methodical sort of thriller.

Full review on EFC

Seventh Code

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Seventh Code is the sort of movie that can easily get lost in a career like like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's: It's a short thing produced alongside two large projects that sure looks like a promotional tool for its pop-star lead actress. If it is that sort of work-for-hire gig, then at least Kurosawa is using it as a chance to try some new things, shooting a lighter Hitchcockian caper outside of Japan.

This movie's unconventional heroine is Akiko (Atsuko Maeda), a flaky Tokyo girl who has chased Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki), a guy she met once in a club a month ago to Vladivostok based on a comment about wanting to see her again that he has completely forgotten. He says she should go home and it seems like good advice; her persistence gets her abducted and stranded there without a passport for her trouble. A more sensible girl would head to the consulate and home, but Akiko makes new friends - Japanese restauranteur Saito (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and his Chinese girlfriend Hsiao-yen (Aissy), and continues to follow Matsunaga even after it's clear that he's involved in something very shady.

It winds up going to one of the two or three places where you'd expect - I can't say what Akiko finally gets into surprised me - but it's a good time getting there. Kurosawa plays things rather lighter than his horror movies and drama Tokyo Sonata, with a streamlined story and a disarming directness in how the characters approach each other, even when Kurosawa pulls the curtain back or events get more serious. Yusuke Hayashi contributes a playful score, the sort that instantly calls to mind people sneaking around. The international intrigue ambles along, but a fair amount of time is also spent on how these characters have come to Eastern Russia looking to establish themselves as something different, although Akiko and Saito are a bit behind Hsiao-yen in terms of actual ambition.

Full review on EFC

The Creeping Garden

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, HD)

I take a certain amount of pride in seeing/reviewing movies like this at festivals, and I half think it's why some issue me press passes - a lot of folks will be trying to get into the big Marvel movie, but he is down for the slime mold documentary! And you know what? These movies are often some of the most fascinating wherever they play, especially when they've got a level of polish and style to go along with their intriguing subject matter, as is the case with The Creeping Garden.

What is a slime mold? Is not an animal, plant, or fungus, though it has characteristics of all three. They most closely resemble the latter - hence the name - but they move (albeit very slowly, about an inch per day) and pulsate when seen on time-lapse. Though found everywhere on Earth, they are peculiar enough to freak people out or inspire curiosity when they turn up, as is the case in a bit of old network news footage that bookends the film, referring to strange blobs in Texas. But, as it turns out, slime molds and the history of public fascination with them is interesting beyond how they are biological oddities.

It's easy for me to list out the interesting bits in this movie, making the review nothing but a recap and perhaps discouraging people from actually seeing it because they've already heard the lecture, so to speak. Fortunately, I in addition to providing the expected information, directors Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp make a film that is really a year to watch. There is striking photography, including some time-lapse work that is almost too good, as it may give the impression that this throbbing and moving is happening in real time. A cool, unnerving score by Jim O'Rourke plays underneath, full of thrumming bass and bings & bongs out of a 1970s sci-fi movie. There are sharp-without-needless-adjournment bits of CGI and nice clips of microscopy to help the viewer visualize what may not be visible to the naked eye.

Full review on EFC

Hana-Dama

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Have you ever felt yourself gradually turn on a movie? It's something that can often be sense in an audience, as each member reaches a different point that ticks them off, and the feeling of the group shifts. The mounting feeling that Hana-Dama is getting further and further from good is something different, and can make it seem even more disappointing than a movie that sinks from the start.

Were introduced to Mizuki (Rina Sakuragi) cowering in a closet, locked in there by the other girls in her new class while her teacher turns a blind eye. She's been through worse, though, and has apparently grown into one of those teens who grit their teeth and count the days until graduation when she can get away from all this and her equally messed-up parents (Taro Suwa & Kei Fujiwara). Another bullied girl, Kirie (Maika Shimamura), isn't made of quite such stern stuff, and latches onto Mizuki for support. They join Shibanai (Syun Asada), a truant who has carved out a hiding hole on school grounds and whose problems come more from faculty than peers. Will that sort of support be enough to make it through a particularly cruel high school?

I don't know if I'd necessarily say I liked this movie for most of its running time, even beyond how it deals with the sort of cruelty that a viewer would rather not say he or she enjoyed, or if I'd call it "good", but I kind of admired its frankness about bullying, both among peer groups and institutionally. It's not the best-acted or most inventively written take on the idea, but I bought into it and sympathized with the characters, even when things were a little over-the-top. It had a moment I really liked, avoiding predictable, unsatisfying conflict. And even when the bullying becomes full-fledged sexual assault, I wanted to see how the characters either dug themselves out or served as a horrible object lesson.

Full review on EFC

Pengawal (Guardian)

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Keep your eyes on Dominique Agisca Diyose, action fans of the world. She's a looker from Indonesia, a good enough actress for the sort of material she's given here, and she certainly looks like she can throw down when the movie gives her a clear shot. Hook her up with a better movie and maybe a better director - maybe the next one from The Raid's team - and she can be a real star.

Guardian isn't the movie that gets her there, though - it's the one where you hope she stands out amid the godawful mess that is the rest of the movie, including a script that is just full to bursting of stupid. She plays Sara, a single mother who had been insisting her daughter learn martial arts all her life, although Marsya (Belinda Camesi) clearly hates it. But since Sara's husband Wisnu was killed when Marsha was just a baby, the idea that powerful criminal Oscar (Tio Pakusodewo) might someday want to finish the job is never far from Sara's mind - and that's not taking into account Paquita (Sarah Sanguin Carter) being broken out of jail by her old gang.

There are worse premises for an action movie, although this one is something kind of special in terms of its dumb script: It not only hinges on something that seems like it should have been dealt with ten years ago (maybe not easily, but it was kind of important enough to not allow it to go unattended for a decade), but it's also the aggravating sort of movie where nobody ever seems to do anything for any sort of reason that makes sense, whether it be the truly frustrating number of times when Sara could just tell Marsya what is going on and save what seems like a lot of the latter running off and getting other people shot at, even beyond how dumb running off unarmed is once the shooting starts anyway. And then there's the annoyingly myopic ending...

Full review on EFC

Saturday, August 30, 2014

As Above, So Below

Chosen last night so that I'd have something to watch before The 'Burbs and because EFC doesn't have a review, this one turned out surprisingly well. It is always an enjoyable surprise when a cast of mostly unknowns actually includes someone you actually know and like, in this case Perdita Weeks, younger sister of Foyle's War's Honeysuckle Weeks and with the same sort of charm. Didn't recognize François Civil from Frank until after I saw his name in the credits, but I liked him as well.

Anyway, I liked this one a lot more than I thought I would for a time-killer and place-filler. I do kind of wish, if it was going to use one contemporary horror gimmick, it would have been 3D rather than found-footage, as that works really well with these sorts of confined spaces. But, found-footage seems to be the Dowdle brothers' thing, so they went with what they know.

As Above, So Below

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 August 2014 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

A few minutes into As Above, So Below, I was snickering a bit as the heroine smashed an unspeakably old wall because she thought there might be something behind it, because that is some ridiculous Indiana Jones-style archaeology. This is immediately followed by the thought that mocking a movie for calling to mind some of one's favorites is pretty silly. This movie is kind of silly, too, but with a more enjoyably pulpy sensibility than the typical found-footage movie.

The archaeologist in question is Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), young but accomplished, and following in the footsteps of her father in the study of alchemists and the Philosopher's Stone. What she found in Iran could serve as a key to help her find it within Paris, although she needs the help of ex-boyfriend George (Ben Feldman) to translate. Once they have a location, they recruit a trio of urban explorers - Papillon (François Civil), Souxie (Marion Lambert), and Zed (Ali Marhyar) - to take them to where a hidden passage can be found. Tagging along is Benji (Edwin Hodge), who is shooting a documentary on Scarlett.

It can be taken as a given that this crew's going to get lost, and the filmmakers probably actually do the thing where folks think they're walking in a straight line but wind up back where they started a bit earlier than the audience might expect. In a lot of ways, the presentation is kind of standard; this is at least the third first-person horror film that director John Erick Dowdle and co-writer/producer/brother Drew Dowdle have made, and it may not be the best choice for this material; the fact that everything is caught on video means that there's no wiggle room between "manifestations" and "hallucinations", and there is little excitement in feeling an audience staring at a dark screen (when the lighting is not unrealistically good) or watching everything shake as people run. The one bit of style that seems a little off the first-person standard - something akin to a videogame speedrun - seems a bit jammed in.

Full review at EFC

Friday, August 29, 2014

The November Man, starring Pierce Brosnan as Not James Bond

I suspect that if you looked at the filmographies of the other actors who played James Bond, you'd find a much higher ratio of "parts which play off having played James Bond" to "time spent playing James Bond" than Pierce Brosnan has. George Lazenby practically makes that a division by zero error, after all. It doesn't seem that way, though - this really seems to be Brosnan's thing, enough that when I started seeing posters for The November Man, my first thought was "again?", which by a strictly numeric perspective was kind of unfair.

Part of it, I think, is timing. Brosnan being replaced in the role coincides fairly well with the big rise in populist movie criticism that blogging, podcasting, and the like made possible. There are a lot of us (you are reading the scribblings of a database developer with spare time, after all) writing about pop culture that would like some hits, which has us writing about material less highbrow than would have made it into film criticism journals back when print was king, and both the writers' and readers' tastes are much more mainstream, and as hobbyists, we're not doing a while lot to educate ourselves on what happened before we were born/watching movies, especially if we went to school to study computers rather than film and/or writing.

That said, I do think that more people spending more time writing about movies, and reading about the ones they love, has made some smarter, more thoughtful movie fans and changed the way studios make movies, at least a little. In decades past, a producer wanting to make The November Man a box-office hit might have shied away from Brosnan, not wanting to confuse the mainstream audience; now they figure that there are viewers for whom this subversion is a selling point, and a cottage industry of folks willing to explain why it's cool to whoever might have been confused.

On other hand, Brosnan's position among the actors to play the role is unique. Sean Connery originated the role, and to a large extent, it is what he made it. Connery subverting expectations would almost have been dishonest and a betrayal, like there was nothing genuine to the part in the first place. Besides, Bond made Sean Connery into SEAN CONNERY, a superstar whose own image was as big as that of the character, and just as much a topic of any subtext.

After that, you have George Lazenby, who does a straight-faced wink at the audience in his first scene and is basically a stand-in. It's unfair, as he made one of the best movies of the series which could have had an impact on the character, but his one-off-ness and sparse later career makes him and On Her Majesty's Secret Service something to be referenced, not commented upon.

As for Roger Moore - well, he's not James Bond. I jest, a bit, as I've been a bit outspoken about not caring for him in the role, but for a while, he was as much The Saint as Bond, and when memory of that TV series faded, his Bond became such an outlier compared to the less campy takes on either side. Him referencing his time as Bond feels second-hand, a spoof of a spoof, and he even described it in those terms himself. Plus, he aged out of playing Bond-like characters rather quickly, it seems.

Timothy Dalton's an interesting case, because his tenure was short and undeservedly unpopular, and I think it took some time for him to be appreciated, and by the time he was, he'd aged out of Bond-ish roles himself and gained a somewhat separate fandom for material like Flash Gordon and The Rocketeer which are rather different from his cool take on 007. So when he does up on Chuck in a Bond-derived role, it's as much about how Timothy Dalton is funny and makes everything better as playing against type.

Brosnan, though, is an interesting case in that his emergence in the part came after enough of a period of inactivity that he could be James Bond to a new generation, defining it without being seen as a reaction to what came before in a way that Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton couldn't, but not winding up bigger than the role like Connery (the same applies to Daniel Craig, but it's early to talk about his legacy). circumstances had him being compared and contrasted to Bond before he ever dawned the tux, as he was originally expected to take the part for The Living Daylights, but was under contract to NBC, making Remington Steele arguably his first meta-Bond.

I think he's got more of a bone to pick with the part, though. I'm not a particular fan of his run, but he's got some great moments in them that suggest he would really have liked to get Daniel Craig's scripts; if memory serves me, he tended to play the part ever-straighter as the movies got more ridiculous. He actually did The Tailor of Panama, a John le Carré spy story, before he was done playing Bond, and there were persistent [overblown] rumors that he and Quentin Tarantino would do a by-the-book adaptation of Casino Royale before MGM locked down the rights. He eventually did The Matador and now this.

So, why is all this prologue worth talking about? Basically, because The November Man does serve as sort of a response to the Bond series, especially as they were when Brosnan was in the lead. His tenure lasted roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, so while his movies were more serious in time than some of what came before, it was a matter of taste. Espionage movies were escapist and abstract, with terrorism a local problem rather than a global one, and the Tom Clancy stuff we saw on TV during the gulf war seeming cool. Everything else was bubbling up under the surface, but we didn't see it.

Even by the end of the century, perceptions were starting to change - real spies were not nearly so capable as 007, apparently, nor nearly as gentlemanly. And while Devereaux is still quite the super-spy, he's ever trait we may not like about James Bond turned up to 11 - dismissive, cruel, willing to use his license to kill indiscriminately - close to a psychopath let loose on the world. And he knows it -

SPOILERS!

When administering the coup de grace, he isn't taking about ethics, doing things the right way and avoiding the death of innocent people. He's protecting the world he knows and understands, even if it is a screwed-up system teetering on the brink. There's no place for him in a peaceful world, or even one like the religiously-aligned conflict the villain describes.

!SRELIOPS

It's an impressively cynical take on the genre, and probably nearly as far from Bill Granger's series as it is from Bond. But it's at least executed well-enough, despite its rough patches, that I wouldn't mind seeing another, especially if they keep this one's time.

The November Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 August 2014 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The November Man is, at times, an impressively taut spy thriller, clearly owing a debt to James Bond even if you put star Pierce Brosnan aside, though it plays up the murky, cynical aspects much better. But while it's pretty good, it's also a movie where the title can seem unclear even after someone has a line that starts with "we called you 'the November man' because". The filmmakers tends to use ambiguity for good more often than bad, and that's the line between an enjoyably nasty thriller and a potential classic of the genre.

Five years ago, CIA operative Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) retired after after an operation he and protege Mason (Luke Bracey) carried out had an ugly ending despite being technically successful. There's always one last job, though, and in this case it's extracting Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), a source he developed in Moscow years ago who has explosive information on Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), expected to be the next president of Russia, at the behest of old friend Hanley (Bill Smitrovich). The operation is another mess, and soon Devereaux is back in Belgrade with Mason hunting him on behalf of sinister CIA official Perry Weinstein (Will Patton), Federov's assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) trying to erase everyone who knows the details of his past, and everybody trying to get local caseworker Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) to help find Mira Filipova (Nina Mrdja), the Chechen refugee who can burst everything wide open.

It's not the most complex spy story ever seen, but it is one with a lot of elements in play, so it's genuinely impressive how well director Roger Donaldson and the writers tell the story via action. That doesn't necessarily always mean violence or that people never talk to each other, but Donaldson and company seldom stop the characters actually doing things to stage a fight that's all spectacle or explain the situation to the audience. Everyone's skills, attitudes, and next steps are easy to pick up from what they're doing and how. It's something very gratifying to see in an action movie, and even when a scene is just people talking, there's push and pull so that there's still a feeling of motion. There aren't necessarily a lot of show-stopping "this must have been an expensive logistical nightmare to film" scenes, but there is a steady stream of God chases and shootouts, enough to say something about Devereaux and Mason.

Full review at EFC

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 August - 4 September 2014

For some reason, Labor Day just isn't a big movie weekend. The biggest release for this year's is thirty years old.

  • That'd be Ghostbusters, getting a one-week theatrical re-release for its thirtieth anniversary, just ahead of a special edition Blu-ray release in late September. It's at the Somerville, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. Some movies are just getting re-releases to try and boost the box office by the end of summer: How to Train Your Dragon 2 at Apple, Boston Common, Revere, and West Newton (although it may have been playing weekends since its original release); X-Men: Days of Future Past, at Boston Common and Revere; and Begin Again at Boston Common and West Newton. If you're on AMC's mailing list, you probably got a coupon for up to four free tickets to the latter, and that is what you call ridiculous value.

    For more recent releases, there are two thrillers hitting theaters. The November Man actually opened Wednesday, and it's a pretty good spy story, with Pierce Brosnan playing Not James Bond called out of retirement for one last, extremely dubious mission. It's at Capitol, Apple, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. Those who like their suspense more horror-oriented can hit As Above/So Below, with archaeologists looking for treasure in the Paris catacombs and finding trouble. It's at Somerville, Apple, Boton Common, Assembly Row, Fenway (in RPX), and Revere.

    In smaller opens, Mexico's Cantinflas opens at Boston Common and Revere; it's a biopic about the country's first big comedy film star, with Oscar Jaenada in the title role. This is about the time when Instructions Not Included opened last year, and I wonder if that plays into its release. And in Revere, another Korean historical action movie, Kundo: Age of the Rampant, opens alongside The Admiral, with Ha Jung-woo as the leader of vigilantes who rob from the rich and give to the poor. Boston Common also has Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor playing Sunday & Wednesday for $6.
  • Two good ones open at Kendall Square. The Trip to Italy is a fun sequel with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon that sends the actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves on a culinary tour of Italy; I liked it when it played IFFBoston. The one-week booking is A Letter to Momo, a pretty nifty animated film from Japan that I saw and greatly enjoyed at Fantasia in 2012. Both English-dubbed and subtitled versions play, depending on the time of day (check the website); I certainly liked the subtitled screening I saw in Montreal more than the dubbed trailers I've seen.
  • Apple Cinemas/iMovieCafe and Fenway both open Raja Natwarlal (aka Shaatir), a Hindi-language thriller with Emraan Hashmi as the title character, a con artist looking to avenge his partner by putting a team together and pulling a major swindle. I can get behind "Bollywood Ocean's Eleven", I think. Apple also has Telugu-language Rabhasha and Malayam-language Vikramadithyan, but I'm not sure what either is about.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens a movie I was pretty fond of at this year's Fantasia, The One I Love, but mostly on the GoldScreen with one 9:30pm show a day in the screening room, so get your tickets early. It's an off-beat fantasy starring Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, one I don't want to ruin at all.

    The midnight screenings this week conclude the "Postmortem" zombie series with the movie that does the best job of sending up the genre, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, incidentally also the movie that introduced much of America to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; that's the late night show in 35mm on Friday and Saturday. For Monday's Big Screen Classic, it's the Coolidge's turn to show a 35mm print of Jaws on their big screen, which also hosts the season's first "NT Theatre Live" on Thursday (Helen McCrory in Medea).
  • Summer's over, so the Brattle is back to the binge, with this weekend a salute to late cinematographer Gordon Willis, a Brattle Advisory Board member also known as "The Prince of Darkness" (the title of the series). Films include The Godfather (Part I Friday, a double feature of I & II Saturday); a Pakkula double feature of The Parallax View & Klute on Sunday; a Woody Allen double feature of Annie Hall & Manhattan on Monday & Wednesday, and Pennies from Heaven on Thursday; all are on 35mm except the Godfather movies (for shame, Paramount, for shame!). Tuesday, meanwhile, is Trash Night, with live mockery of bizarre Whoopi Goldberg fantasy Theodore Rex.
  • Summer is drawing to a close, so The Somerville Theatre has the last of their midnight specials, a 35mm print of Joe Dante's The 'Burbs, on Friday and Saturday..
  • The Harvard Film Archive has started a new summer tradition of having an overnighter on Labor Day weekend in the past few years, and this year's The Late Joan Crawford starts at 7pm Saturday and runs until roughly 1am, and tracks her career from 1949's Flamingo Road to 1970's Trog. The last one is on digital video, but ther rest are scheduled to be 35mm.

    The end of summer also marks the conclusion of their Complete Fritz Lang series, which includes his appearance in Godard's Contempt (Friday 7pm), an encore screening of Metropolis (Sunday 4pm), and his one French film, Liliom (Sunday 7pm). 35mm except for Metropolis.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues their run of Joanna Hogg's two-person drama Exhibition on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday; those same days also feature screenings of Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz's massive four-plus hour relocation of Crime and Punishment to the Philippines.
  • ArtsEmerson has two last screenings of Monty Python Live (Mostly) on Friday and Saturday, for us poor souls who missed it because we were in Canada or something.
  • The ICA has one final screening of Jim Hodges's Untitled film at 1pm on Sunday before wrapping their summer exhibition of Hodges's work.
  • Gathr still needs 50 tickets sold in the next two weeks for a screening of Who Is Dayani Crystal? (co-directed by Gael Garcia Bernal) at the Regent Theatre on 24 September. Tugg still needs 107 more pre-orders for a 16 September screening of Last Call at the Oasis at Kendall Square by the 5th, and 96 for an 18 September screening of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret by the 7th.
  • Joe's Calendar has most of the outdoor screenings ending with August, with notable screenings including West Side Story at the Boston Harbor Hotel & Wall-E at the milk bottle on Friday night, The Little Mermaid at the Prudential Center on Saturday, and The Royal Tennenbaums in Jamaica Plain on Thursday.


My plans? To Revere for Kundo, someplace closer for As Above/So Below, maybe try to do the Joan Crawford thing or The 'Burbs, and catch up with some stuff that really must be on borrowed time by now.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

This Week In Tickets: 18 August 2014 - 24 August 2014

Definition of middle age: Still wanting to see the midnight movie but wishing it also ran at 8:30pm or so.

This Week in Tickets

The week started off pretty well, though, with baseball from a pretty darn good seat. Of cours, it came toward the end of this slog of a season where even though the score was close, and Brandon Workman had an encouragingly good game, but sloppy defense just felt inevitable. This year can't be done soon enough.

Fortunately, the movie selection was pretty good! I went to A Most Wanted Man on Tuesday night, and once again felt chagrined that the only new Philip Seymour Hoffman movies we've got to look forward to are the Hunger Games sequels. It was neat to see Nina Hoss, though; I've liked the German movies she was in.

I meant to get to the midnight Die Hard on Friday, but just missed the train that would have gotten me there on time and there's not one coming just two minutes later at that time of night. Saturday, I spent drilling through the month-tall pile of comics I didn't read while in Montreal before going for the triple feature, which took a pretty long time despite being composed of short movies. Granted, part of this was me not doing them in the same theater, but the bloat of twenty minutes of previous and another twenty of preshow means that there is a lot of time between screenings. I got through the first two legs (Another Me and Land Ho!) okay - didn't much care for the first, very fond of the second - but hit the wall during 14 Blades and honestly didn't see much of it at all.

I kind of don't mind the money I spent on the ticket - I spend enough time agitating for Hong Kong movies, especially the ones with Donnie Yen, to play Boston that when one does, I want to support it with money, even if the Weinsteins are taking four years to release the thing like it's still the freaking mid-nineties rather than the twenty-first century when English-subtitled Region A Blu-rays are available eight weeks after a movie plays Beijing or Hong Kong. Hopefully my ten bucks helps convince theaters that this is worth doing and worth doing closer than Revere.

I spent much of Sunday writing and listening to baseball on the radio, then basically chose what to see that night via process of elimination, which led to Frank, which was darn good. Highly recommended.

I saw one of the other options two days later, and don't much regret missing the other, so that worked out pretty well.

Jin yi wei (14 Blades)

N/A (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (@fter Midnite: Fresh Blood, DCP)

I really wish I'd been able to stay awake for this one, because while it didn't seem to be anything terribly special plot-wise, there was some pretty good action whenever I was awake and alert, even if Sammo Hung seemed to be in a non-fighting cameo. There seemed to be a pretty charming little banter thing going on between Donnie Yen's General Qinlong and Wei Zhao as the girl he winds up travelning with. Generally nice-looking, too; I'll certainly be looking out for it when it comes out on video.

(Four years late!)

Another crummy Red Sox gameA Most Wanted ManAnother MeLand Ho!14 BladesFrank

Monday, August 25, 2014

Frank & Fantasia catch-up

I knew I was going to see something on Sunday evening, but was weighing various options, and wound up weighing them long enough for Frank to be the winner by default. I think it wound up being the right choice, though; it was one I had been looking to see at Fantasia but which wound up blocked by Fuku-Chan of Fuku-Fuku Flats on one day and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai and Thermae Rome II on the next. Since I was pretty sure it would play Boston later, I wasn't too broken up about missing it, but it's kind of a shame about the scheduling on that first one, since Michael Fassbender's unusual performance went right up against Miyuki Oshima's. Not quite ideal, but it happens.

Since this played Fantasia, it's probably as good a time as any to note the 7 reviews I've posted to EFC in an attempt to catch up with what I saw at Fantasia: Suburban Gothic, Zombie TV, The Zero Theorem, Heavenly Sword, Puzzle, Let Us Prey, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead.

And getting back to Frank but still speaking of festivals, I've got to admit that the tie-in that the movie has with South by Southwest is kind of weird. It's not the first film I've seen which includes the music festival as a part of the story and then played the film festival - heck, I was there for it once - but it's kind of a weird progression, one I'm not sure seems more incestuous or like a snake eating its own tale, even if there's no feeling that it's being done to curry favor. Then again, it may seem doubly weird because Frank seems to poke at SXSW in a way - that it's built around being welcoming to artists and very hip, but is actually more mainstream and popularity-driven than that cultivated reputation.

I'm actually kind of curious if Fantastic Fest will be as much like that as I fear. Less than a month to go to find out!

Frank

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Not being a drinker, I'm probably appropriating a terrible metaphor here, but this movie strikes me as being like a certain kind of binge: You start out down, but soon the alcohol gets you and everything is crazy and funny and even when somebody clocks you, it doesn't feel like any real damage has been done until the uncomfortable truths start coming out. That's when you realize that the movie you had filled away as "the one where Michael Fassbender wears the papier-maché head" is going to leave you with something to chew on.

It starts with Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated songwriter working an office job that bores him, seeing a poster for the band "Soronprfbs", although they look like they're going to cancel their gig in his quiet Welsh town when the keyboardist tries to down himself. Jon offers his services to their manager Don (Scoot McNairy), and that's where he meets the rest of the band - drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French guitar player Baraque (François Civil), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the theremin, and front man Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his expressionless papier-maché head. That first concert is a disaster, but when Soronprfbs still needs a keyboard player for something in Ireland, he gives Jon a call.

It gets brilliantly absurd from there, because while Frank is an obvious goof on weird, experimental musicians (specifically, writer Jon Robson's friend Frank Sidebottom), it's a good-natured one, with Jon serving as the sort of straight man more prone to be drawn into the weird goings-on than look down upon them. Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan come up with a ton of jokes that go well beyond the innate oddity of Frank's head - an impressive mix of the verbal, visual, and musical, actually - that director Lenny Abrahamson and the cast execute in nearly-perfect fashion. There's a good chance that the audience will be laughing continually enough to miss the setup being done for a darker second half in some of the more pointed gags.

Full review at EFC

Suburban Gothic

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

According to the post-movie Q&A, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. initially couldn't get any projects off the ground after Excision, in part because that movie, despite garnering many positive reviews and festival awards, was just absurdly dark. So for his next one, he bounced back with something still kind of freaky and gross but also aggressively light. Suburban Gothic is about a guy who can see ghosts and who must help one find her final rest Or Else, but there's barely a moment without something enjoyable goofy going on.

It starts out with a not-uncommon scene for young people today - Raymond (Matthew a Gary Gubler) has earned an MBA, but there are no satisfactory jobs to be found, leading him to move back in with his parents (Ray Wise & Barbara Niven). Home is everything he remembers from high school and worse, from his belittling, intolerant father to the bullies who have grown up into angry alcoholics. The sole positive would seem to be that cute bartender Becca (Kat Dennings), seemingly the only cool person from back then who hasn't left, seems to like him enough to go along when he starts to see ghosts.

The spooky stuff isn't quite an afterthought in Suburban Gothic, but there's a good chance that it won't be what the audience remembers above other things over the movie ends. In some ways the ghosts and other supernatural elements serve to reflect and amplify the idea that there's a sort of rot in communities like this, withered dreams and barely-hidden prejudices that take on a life of their own and continue to exert an influence after the initial incident is long past. That comes through in the ghost story, but because there needs to be some mystery there, it's not as clearly communicated as it is in the more mundane parts, where it's right there to see.

Full review on EFC

Zombie TV

* (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japanese makeup/special effects artist extraordinaire (and decent director as schlock goes), loves himself some zombies, and got a couple of other directors to go in with him making this riff on the things, resulting in 78 minutes of sketches purportedly coming from a network dedicated to zombie-oriented programming. It's as thin a concept as it sounds, especially getting the whole thing in one gulp.

There are some serialized bits - "I Want to Be a Zombie", in which survivors of the outbreak ponder whether they're better off letting themselves be turned off they can go out screwing the scantily clad zombie girls outside their hiding space, and "Zombie God", in which a woman (Miyuki Torii, able enough to stand out) becomes a zombie but retains her intellect - but most of the rest are jokes that recur or very simple one-off gags. Given how there's a "station identification" logo and voiceover between segments, I suspect that this was originally developed for the web or some other medium and stitched together into a movie.

That would explain a lot, there's a cheap chuckle to be found in a few of these three- out four-minute segments, and if only one in five or ten works when they pops up on a YouTube channel every few days, no big deal, you're only out a bit of time. String more than an hour of them together, though, and the one-joke premise becomes even less - it's one bit of incongruity that could serve as the basis for a joke, except that the folks involved are not really that funny, with just a few rare exceptions. Part of that may just be humor being subjective, bit often the gag will just be crude or bloody but not well-timed or playing against expectations.

Full review on EFC

The Zero Theorem

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Paradigm Shifters, DCP)

I wonder if writer Pat Rushin ever thought something along the lines of "this script is so screwed if we don't get Terry Gilliam" when writing The Zero Theorem. There are other directors who would dive into the weirdness of its world, but the material seems so perfectly matched that Gilliam passing on it or expressing interest and getting bogged down in development hell or the million other things that can seemingly go wrong when Gilliam makes a movie seem like they would have killed any chances to see this.

That would have been unfortunate; for all that it has a couple of stumbles, particularly in the final scenes, it's a clever movie, filled with life even if it's about a character who initially tries to retreat from it. The filmmakers handle what are superficially big questions with the sort of wink that says they're not important at all in favor of a middle path between spirituality and pure economics that says to just have a good life, and for as much as that may sound like simple common sense, it can often be useful to manually remind oneself of such basic ideas, especially in a world that not only offers dazzling detail and distraction, both via technology and philosophy.

Consider the setting where the audience first meets Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz); this highly neurotic man is employed by a titanic corporation whose work floor has all the forced whimsy of a dozen internet-bubble tech forms but the dehumanizing pressure on all sides of a cubicle farm or sweatshop. He's an "entity-cruncher", solving complicated modeling problems represented as visual puzzles, and believes he could work better from home, where he could wait for a potentially life-changing phone call. His supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) cannot authorize it, at least until Management (Matt Damon) recruits him to work on a theorem that has burnt out everyone else who had been charged with it. Soon, he is working in blissful solitude - at least until interrupted by pubescent IT guy Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a very persistent girl he meets the one time he accepts an invitation to a party.

Full review on EFC

Heavenly Sword

* (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It was bad enough for Heavenly Sword to be terrible, but for it to be the second and more egregious bad movie I saw from the same category is annoying. It makes me regret my Bayonetta review, because I fear that even though I may not have used all my "how movies from video games are generally terrible" material on that, I kind of feel like I'm slagging a whole broad category of movies more than I want to, when the actual situation is that the festival booked two real stinkers, probably because they are predictable in terms of decent tickets sales.

This one takes place in a pseudo-Japanese fantasy kingdom, positing a sword of incredible power sent from above for an ancient battle but which is now guarded by a nomadic tribe, as it is too powerful and corrupting to use for any but the men of the chief's line. The current leader, Shan, has only a daughter, Nariko (voice of Anna Torv), though she is likely an equal to the clan's best male warrior, Kyo. Thus, evil king Johan (voice of Alfred Molina) sees an opportunity - if he can wipe or the weapon's protectors, he can turn the sword to darkness. And while Nariko, Kyo, and crazy-girl founding Kai escape and discover Shan has an illegitimate son, this unsuspecting Loki (voice of Thomas Jane) happens to be working the center of Bohan's citadel.

I don't think it's impossible to make a good movie from a video game, but I think it's somewhat telling that the most successful game-to-film franchise, Resident Evil, is quite far from slavish toward its source material. Games and films have different narrative needs, even in the action scenes, although they're getting closer. This one really is laughable, though, with a backstory that can exist for no other purpose than to set this particular sorry up and characters with no life beyond their designated purpose. There are sequences that seem to exist entirely to reflect game mechanics, such as a surprisingly dull but that involves fighting while sliding down massive suspension cables. The plot is full of empty reversals entirely because that sort of random redirection can serve a game well - you, as a player, get to do something new! - even if it is dramatically unsatisfying in a movie.

Full review on EFC

Puzzle

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I'm sure that the title of Puzzle was supposed to describe the sensation of watching it to a certain extent, although there were several times that I think filmmaker Eisuke Naito may not necessarily have meant to set the degree of difficulty quite so high. Some of that may be down to subtitling, though, and if that's the case, Naoto has made and even better murder-by-remote-control movie than I thought - and I'm pretty fond of this one already.

The plot is an old standby - deathtraps set to deliver a gruesome death or injury unless the mastermind's instructions, generally to solve a puzzle in a limited time frame, are followed. The gimmick within the story is that this that it is built around high school students, including bullied-but-resourceful Shigeo Yuasa (Shuhei Nomura) and failed suicide Azusa Nakamura (Kaho), as well as faculty like pregnant teacher Ms. Yasuda (Kokone Sasaki) and Chairman Yakai (Ryuzo Tanaka). Lead investigator is Detective Hitome (Baku Ohwada), despite his son initially being a suspect.

Or is Naoya Hitome a potential victim? Naito and his co-writers, adapting a novel by Yusuke Yamada, spend a lot of time blurring the line between perpetrators and victims, whether through misdirection when introducing characters, having former victims seek revenge, or varying the perspective from which the audience watches things play out. It's an impressive job of showing how almost all people, even in an extreme situation like this, have the capacity for both good and evil. I do think that the fractured narrative, which randomizes which facets of the characters the audience sees at any given time, makes it more confusing than it needs to be. Hiding the character arc like that requires some greater clarity in the pieces, and it's not initially clear whether the various "X days earlier" are all from a specific zero point or relative to each other, while some sequences need to be communicated batter (Azusa's attempted suicide initially looks successful and I'm not sure how Shigeo wound up with the other guys), and I wonder if it was that way in the book.

Full review on EFC

Let Us Prey

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

After seeing this, a festival buddy suggested that part of the reason this fell flat for her was that we'd just seen another over-the-top revenge piece in Puzzle. I didn't have quite the same reaction; where she was bored, I was actually pretty well sucked in for most l of it, from the "Hell is coming" opening titles to much of the big standoff, but afterward I sort of shrugged, said it was a movie I had seen, and moved on.

It takes place over the course of one night, P.C. Rachel Heggie's first night on the job in a small Scottish town. Even before arriving at the station, she sees a speeding driver run a man down, and while the victim seems to vanish into thin air, she still brings the kid in, putting him in a cell next to a former teacher locked up for another domestic violence claim that will probably evaporate in the morning. It was looking like a rough night anyway, with cells filling up and uncompromising Rachel rubbing the other two constables the wrong way, and then the hit-and-run victim shows up, initially dazed and untalkative - although when he does start communicating, he has a knack for putting things on edge that may be supernatural.

Start with the good: Pollyanna McIntosh owns this movie as Rachel, with the hard-ass rookie cop absolutely holding her own against the other characters, all of whom are against her at various moments. She's a taut mass of determined body language but never becomes monotonous, in part because she's damn good at letting the audience see how much she's trying to look tougher than she fears she may be even while still being fairly formidable. McIntosh is complemented by Liam Cunningham, who is great as a sarcastic spirit of vengeance. Once "Six" reveals himself as not being the victim Rachel expected, Cunningham gets to spot gravelly, disdainful lines at the whole cast of characters in a way that's just barbed enough to get under their skin; is a sort of certainty and control that is obvious without announcing itself. They've got good support, too, with Bryan Larkin and Hanna Stanbridge playing partners in more ways than one, Douglas Russell taking a reserved character in eye-opening directions, and a jail full of folks rope for retribution.

Full review on EFC

Død Snø 2 (Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as I would tell many that Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkolka's Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was an underrated bit of high-concept fun, I was not the biggest fan of his first international hit. That's a bit of a problem by some definitions of what it takes to give a movie a fair shake, as this sequel was definitely made to give those who liked Dead Snow more of that thing that they liked. It is that, although I give Tommy Wirkola plenty of credit in pushing it into being a "next step" rather than just a repeat.

This new film picks up right where the last one left off, quickly putting sole survivor Martin (Vegar Hoel) under arrest on the hospital, since nobody is going to believe the body count at the ski lodge is the result of Nazi zombies. Realizing that Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) and his undead legion are still kicking, he escapes to confront them at a WWII museum, picking up tour guide Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen) as a sidekick, and Glenn discovers an American "zombie squad" online that they can alert - not realizing that it's one guy who still lives with his mother (Martin Starr) and his two nerd-girl friends (Jocelyn DeBoer & Ingrid Haas). Probably the only reason they're not totally doomed is that the doctors surgically reattached Herzog's arm to Martin's stump rather than his own, giving him some zombie Nazi superpowers.

My issues with this are sort of the same as the first, although a little experience and a somewhat higher budget helps to smooth some issues out a bit. Both Dead Snow movies are the type of horror-comedy hybrids where there's no real heft to the horror, which leaves the splatstick without the real zing it needs to be scary as well as a gross-out joke. There nothing wrong with these movies just being horror-villain mash-ups, but the ambition toward genuine satire or disturbance might have led to interesting places. The movie-geek stuff seems a bit lazier, easy recognition-based jokes and substitutes for personality rather than being part of one. We're often given information in a way that is a difficult balance between "how would they know that?" and "yay for getting us to the good stuff quicker!"

Full review on EFC

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Another Me and Land Ho!

I was originally going to write about a triple feature, but I can't really say much about the third movie and it wouldn't really fit the pattern anyway, so we'll hold that off until TWIT gets posted in a day or two.

Both of these movies, it turns out, are directed by people whose work I had enjoyed before even if I'm not specifically a fan; I recognized Isabel Coixet's name right off the bad for Another Me and at least thought Aaron Katz sounded familiar for Land Ho!, but it took not just trips to IMDB but quick looks back at my reviews for The Secret Life of Words, Quiet City, and Cold Weather to recognize just how much I'd liked their previous work. That's kind of a weird feeling, to be honest - shouldn't that genuine fondness have come back on its own?

I must admit, I recommend Land Ho! much more highly than Another Me, and it's not entirely because it uses the ending I didn't like in A Night of Nightmares a couple years ago. It's an ending a movie has to earn and give a bigger sense of its meaning than this one did.


One other, mildly amusing thing: As I was walking from the T station to the Kendall Square theater, but was still far enough away that it wasn't entirely clear where I was headed, a lady stopped me and mentioned she had just got out of Land Ho! and it was one of the best movies of the year. How the heck did she know what I was up to?


Another Me

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2014 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Another Me didn't look like much - a young-adult thriller that likely would have gone straight to video-on-demand but for a slow release week and the fact that the other line on star Sophie Turner's filmography is Game of Thrones - but Isabel Coixet as the person to adapt it to the screen is a strange enough choice to be interesting. Unfortunately, as much as the gamble of putting an art-house filmmaker in charge of a mainstream horror movie could pay off well, it can also turn out as dull and muddled as this one.

A year ago, Fay Delussey (Turner) had a seemingly perfect life, at least until the day that her father Don (Rhys Ifans) is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now, he's slowly wasting away, her mother Ann (Claire Forlani) is probably having an affair, and a girl at school (Charlotte Vega) is saying she only got the lead part in the school play because their drama teacher (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) feels sorry for her. Her photography is taking a decided turn for the macabre, but that may be fitting - Fay gets the feeling that someone is following her, and people are claiming to have seen her when she knows she was elsewhere.

I must admit, I feel a little foolish for not making the full connection about what's going on until after the movie - adapting a novel by Cathy MacPhail, Coixet has pieced together a few very familiar ghost-story bits into a story that hits upon some of the same themes as her My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words. The trouble with that is that it's Don's story, not Fay's, and being in a wheelchair means that he can't be a terribly active participant (although there's probably a pretty creepy horror movie to be made where the focus stays on Don).

Full review at EFC

Land Ho!

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

There is something to be said for filmmakers (or anyone) getting out of their comfort zone. Both directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens are known for certain types of movies - Katz for some of the better youth-oriented mumblecore to come out while that was a word people used and Stephens for films set in Kentucky. Neither seems likely to make a film following a couple of senior citizens to Iceland, but that''s what they've done working together, and it turns out to be a very good call.

The two men are Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), who became friends after marrying sisters but haven't seen each other much since the women left the picture (Mitch divorced, Colin was widowed). Mitch comes to visit Colin in Kentucky, and then springs a surprise on him - he's purchased two round-trip tickets to Iceland, and insists Colin come with him.

Why does Mitch want to go to Iceland specifically? In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, it is simply a matter of him never having been to Iceland and wanting to see the place. Katz & Stephens don't necessarily give the film much Icelandic character in terms of the people - there's nary a subtitle to be found, and almost every character who has a speaking part is also a tourist coming from the United States or Canada (Colin's originally Australian, but he's been in the U.S. for some time), and there's not much play give to how they're in a foreign land but still sticking to their own people. It does provide a fantastic backdrop visually, especially once the guys get outside their nice Reykjavik hotel. The black volcanic sand is a constant reminder that this isn't the average road trip, along with the steam rising from from hot springs surrounded by scrubby greenery. And some shots are just beautiful, with cinematographer Andrew Reed backing off the lo-fi look he used for the films he shot for Katz but not over-emphasizing digital sharpness.

Full review at EFC