Friday, October 21, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 October 2016 - 27 October 2016

I promise not to beat "IFFBoston 2016½" jokes into the ground over the next week, but, honestly, it's hard, because the city's best festival's second annual preview of what's great this fall is going to have me living at the theater, more than likely.

  • That would be The Brattle Theatre, who actually open the weekend with the last film I saw at this summer's Fantasia Festival, On the Silver Globe. I'll be honest - I napped a lot, because a long, surreal Polish science fiction film which has to elide over any spot where you might expect special effects sequences is a tough sit at 10pm on day 21 of the festival. It is, however, remarkable enough that I will be giving it another shot this weekend. Incompletely-shot in the 1970s, reconstructed a decade later, and recently restored, you haven't seen much like it. That's Friday and Saturday, with Sunday's matinees given over to anime feature Kizumonogatari Part 2: Nekketsu, a weird-looking vampire thing that is popular enough that the 2pm show sold out, though there are still tickets at 4pm.

    That evening, the IFFBoston Fall Focus begins with Moonlight, the too-long-awaited second feature from filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who made the terrific Medicine for Melancholy and has, by all accounts, made something far more ambitious here. Admission for that one is free (with pass, first-come-first-serve), and composer Nick Britell will be on hand. There's a DocYard screening on Monday, with director Anna Roussillon introducing I Am the People, which shows the recent Egyptian revolution from a rural point of view. The Fall Focus resumes on Tuesday with Chan Wook-park's newest, erotic thriller The Handmaiden, and then continues on Wednesday I Am Not Your Negro, a reimagining of James Baldwin's final unfinished book. On Thursday, they make up for lost time with Hriokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm at 7pm and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the first English-language film from Trollhunter director André Øvredal, at 9:30pm. The final screening will be on Friday the 28th, with Jeff Nichols's much-anticipated Loving.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens two other anticipated films this weekend: Aquarius, Brazil's Oscar submission which features Sonia Braga as a retiree who is the last inhabitant of an apartment building scheduled for demolition, and her stubborn insistence on remaining there gives her the chance to reflect on her life. It also opens at the Kendall, and Braga will be making appearances at both places - Saturday night in Cambridge, Sunday afternoon in Brookline.

    They also open American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor's directorial debut, in which he stars as a man who was a big deal in high school but finds his world turned upside down in the 1960s when his daughter disappears after getting involved with radicals. It also plays at Kendall Square, West Newton, and Boston Common.

    They go off-site for part of their Halloween programming, with an 8pm "Cabin of Horror" double feature at the Rocky Woods Reservation, with Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead and Drew Goddard's fantastic deconstruction of those movies, Cabin in the Woods. There is more conventional Halloween programming back at the theater, with the original Poltergeist playing on 35mm at midnight on both Friday and Saturday Sunday, and one last screening of the restored The Pit at midnight Saturday. Monday's Cinema Jukebox is a 35mm print of Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, the annual screening of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (with Johnny Lee Miller as the Doctor and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature; it also screens at Revere that night). There's also a Thursday night screening of the Lon Chaney The Phantom of the Opera with music by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.
  • In addition to Sonia Braga, Kendall Square will also welcome actress Rebecca Hall, who plays the title role in Christine, a drama about awoman trying to make it as a television reporter when it was very much a man's world in the 1970s. She'll be taking questions from Boston Globe journalist Mark Shanahan on Saturday evening.

    It is, really, a very lady-centric week, as on top of that and Aquarius, there are two others. Certain Women is the latest by Kelly Reichardt, with Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Laura Dern each taking the lead in one of three intersecting stories. They also get the exceptionally strong animated film Miss Hokusai, which tells the story of the daughter of legendary Japanese artist Hokusai, a talent in her own right often tasked with supporting her father. The afternoon shows feature an English-language dub, while the evening screenings are subtitled.

    And, if you (like me) missed Shin Godzilla because nearly all of its Boston shows sold out well in advance, there will be final screenings on Saturday - noon at the Kendall, 3:45pm at Fenway. I've got my tickets, finally!
  • The biggest opening at the multiplexes is Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, which brings back Tom Cruise as the one man army of the title, this time looking to clear the name of a former sister-in-arms, although this time with Edward Zwick rather than Chritopher McQuarrie adapting a novel by Lee Turner. Still, it will be all over the place on most of the biggest screens, playing the Capitol, Jordan's Furniture (in Imax), Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax), Assembly Row (including Imax), Fenway (including RPX), Revere, and the SuperLux. More comedic action is on tap in Keeping Up with the Joneses, with Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher (an all-time schlub-and-hottie pairing) as a couple who get pulled into the adventures of the spies next door played by Jon Hamm and Isla Fisher. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Two Halloween-oriented movies pop up in theaters as well: Somehow, the Ouija movie from a couple years ago gets a follow-up, but Ouija: Origins of Evil has an entirely new cast and crew, and writer-director Mike Flanagan has a strong track record. It's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, Revere, and the Superlux. Again, those looking more for comedy may want to go for Boo! A Madea Halloween, the latest from Tyler Perry featuring his alter ego being herself on the holiday. That one's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    Revere also has I'm Not Ashamed, a film about the first victim in the Columbine focusing on how she was a devout Christian. They will also be running The Shining on Sunday and Wednesday. Boston Common also brings back Operation Mekong for those looking for some impressive action.
  • The Boston Asian American Film Festival will be at the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount from Friday to Sunday, with all three days featuring shorts programs and a number of features - Front Cover, Right-Footed, Comfort, Bad Rap, Breathin': The Eddie Zheng Story, and The Tiger Hunter
  • The Somerville Theatre continues their fall repertory programming with a Gene Kelly 35mm double feature on Friday, screening An American in Paris & Summer Stock. On Saturday they once again screen Chatty Catties, alocally-shot indie comedy with hearing-impaired actors giving voice to cats in a world where they can talk. Sunday's double feature focuses on Virginia Mayo, with White Heat & The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on 35mm. They then hand things off to their sister cinema in Arlington, The Capitol, who will have Jeff Rapsis on hand to accompany Tod Browning's The Unholy Three.
  • The Harvard Film Archive will be having free screenings of Tsukiji Wonderland on Friday and Saturday afternoon with director Naotaro Endo and others who worked on the film in attendance; it's a fond look at Tokyo's Tsukiji 80-year-old fish market on the eve of its relocation.

    They also kick off Say It Loud: A Black Cinema Revolution on Friday night, with Shaft and Super Fly, both preceded by a 16mm short. They also continue their Martin Khutsiev series, with I Am Twenty (a version of Ilyich's Gate cut by 17 minutes down to three hours) on Saturday and Epilogue on Monday. In between, Sunday featuers the work of a much earlier Soviet filmmaker, Boris Barnet - silent comedy The House on Trubnaya Square with accompaniment by Donald Sosin at 5pm and early talkie Outskirts at 7pm. All features but Tsukiji Wonderland are 35mm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues the Boston Palestine Film Festival with two screenings of The Idol (Friday & Saturday), as well as short docs "Pop Palestine" (including Q&A) & "Epicly Palestine'd: The Birth of Skateboarding in the West Bank" on Saturday and Yallah! Underground on Sunday. The festival will also have a live storytelling program at the Oberon on Sunday; co-present Tuesday's free Bright Lights program at the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount Theater being The Occupation of the American Mind, with directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp appearing with their documentary on how Israel works hard to be looked at favorably in the U.S..
  • , and screen Oriented (in collaboration with the Boston LGBT Film Festival) at the Somerville on Thursday. Also on Thursday, the museum will be joining with the DocYard and UMass Boston Film Series to present Joe Berlinger with his classic documentary Brother's Keeper.

  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond keeps M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (subtitled), opening Telugu action flick Ism and finding spots for adventure film Pulimurugan and comedy Central Jail (both Malayalam) over the weekend.
  • The Regent Theatre will pair two films on Thursday - Children of the Streets at 7pm (with an associated book release party and Boston2Philly at 9pm, with writer/director/star Ralph Celestin on hand with other members of the cast for a Q&A.

My plans include Godzilla, a bunch of the Fall Focus, and, sure, I'll probably give Ouija and Jack Reacher looks. Probably get to Silver Globe as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Queen of Katwe

Another week spent in Frisco, another week of there really just being nothing else to do after work than hit the theater at a nearby mall. Honestly, I have no idea what my co-workers do; there is an awful lot of nothing here. Anyway, unlike last time, when there was a movie or two that didn't make it to Boston, the pickings here are pretty much in line with what is playing back home.

Which is fine; the move and a bunch of special movie events have me behind on the mainstream stuff. Stuff like Queen of Katwe, which deserves a fair bit more recognition than it got, if only because it's a relatively rare release from Disney that is not some branding juggernaut but the company making a quality movie that can be shown to young people without trying to sell them more than a chess set or the original book.

Given that it's a big Disney movie, I'm very impressed that, aside from Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, it seems to have an almost entirely Ugandan and South African cast. Part of that is because I suspect that is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that "Wakaliwood" is the entirety of what Uganda makes for movies, especially since they just got a signal boost from one of their flicks playing Fantastic Fest, but there's apparently enough talent there to fill this cast out well, and in part because it is often easy to lump all of Africa together, and while one movie likely won't have me recognizing the difference between Ugandan and Nigerian accents, it's a start on seeing the world a little more clearly and specifically. It's also worth mentioning that the one white character of any note, a Canadian girl who is the first opponent to really challenge Phiona, does not actually have any lines. It would be tempting, I think, to try and put someone in the movie that could be shown in the trailer, but beyond that probably not being true to life, it keeps this movie as something about pushing one's self up as opposed to being picked from bad circumstances by an outsider.

Anyway, I liked it, and it's worth sticking through the credits - aside from an unusually delightful montage of where everyone is now (beyond standing next to the actor portraying them), there's a fun ending-credit music video akin to those in Indian movies. I don't know how much Indian style Mira Nair brought to this one - a lot of the colorful visuals and non-Western music choices likely came straight from the African seeing, even if they often felt like Bollywood - but that bit definitely is Indian, and kind of delightful.

Queen of Katwe

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2016 in AMC Stonebriar #3 (first-run, DCP)

I suspect that even writers and directors who most want to be known for their complex, non-mainstream works would secretly like to have something like Queen of Katwe on their IMDB page, because it does feel good to make others feel good and to hear that you've given someone hope, even if this sort of victorious-underdog story isn't your usual thing. There are probably hundreds of scripts along those lines floating around Hollywood at any given time, but not many attract the likes of Mira Nair and this film's talented cast and become something quite so terrific.

In 2007, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is eleven years old, one of four children of widow Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) living in the Ugandan slums of Katwe, striving to make ends meet by selling vegetables in the street. Elsewhere in the town, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is unable to secure an engineering job and so starts to work part-time coaching kids at soccer for a local miniature - and for the kids who don't play soccer, he starts a chess club. Phiona and her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) initially are drawn in by the porridge Robert serves - and are shunned for being dirty and smelly even by local standards - but Phiona soon starts beating everyone with sophisticated techniques. When Robert learns that she's illiterate and this couldn't have been reading his books, he realizes that he has a prodigy on his hands, and helping her reach her potential will be a much larger task.

Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (adapting a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers) lay what a young audience can get out of this movie out very clearly during the lessons: A small pawn that makes its way through the gauntlet to the other end of the board, despite having little power, can become a queen, and more generally, success comes in large part by anticipation and planning. That's not the entirety of the story, but even if it were, the filmmakers make it go down easy by making sure that the kids are in large part teaching each other with enthusiasm rather than receiving lectures, the whole premise being to actively respect the kids' intelligence. That extends to not giving a complete primer on the game beyond the bits that will be important symbolically, and trusting that the viewer can process the often rapid-fire exchanges of pieces for their meaning, rather than stopping to explain.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Boston TerrorThon 2016.02: Found Footage 3D

So, full disclosure - Scott Weinberg, one of the co-producers of this film who also has a small part playing himself, is probably a big part of why folks are reading this blog: He encouraged me when I was mainly posting movie reviews to the Home Theater Forum, was one of the Senior Editors at eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitch-Slap when they started letting me contribute, and has been pretty cool on the occasions I've actually met him in person. So I've actually been kind of nervous ever since he started talking the film up after coming on board a few years ago, because my attempt to write at least a couple paragraphs about every single thing I see means that, if it turned out to be Not Very Good, I'd probably say so. I hate writing bad reviews for small independent films anyway, mostly trying to focus on what does work and how the folks involved can improve next time around, but not liking this one would suck.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case; it's a fun movie, surprisingly likable via its relatively understated character work and with a few very good scares. As a person who actually does like 3D (though not enough to shell out the cash to do a serious 3D upgrade for the TV yet), I liked the way they used it,exaggerated, but it a way that emphasized how the characters were kind of amateurs.

Kind of frustrated with the actual screening, though - it was originally scheduled for the first day of the "TerrorThon" (which is something between a rep program and a festival, seemingly a joint production between the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and the Somerville Theatre). I actually worked from home on Thursday so that I could walk to the Somerville Theatre for the 5pm screening of Bad Blood: The Movie... I get there and it's off, as is the 9:45pm screening of this. The 7pm show, The Master Cleanse, is something I've already seen. Well, okay, I've got laundry to do, and Found Footage 3D will be shown the next night.

I get there at 7pm, figuring I'll do a triple feature of Egomaniac, Attack of the Lederhosenzombies, and FF3D (which has been given a tough 10:45pm slot). Egomaniac is off, replaced with The Master Cleanse, which I'd recommend to most, but having already seen it, I'm not sure about dropping $15 to see it again. So, back to the apartment, and at that point I decide, you know what, I won't bother with Attack of the Lederhosenzombies, because why should I believe that this will go off fine and not just have technical problems rear their ugly head at the last moment? That's what happens when a festival/event doesn't have their stuff together - they don't just lose money from the actual shows missed, but the ones people don't bother with because of lack of faith.

Found Footage 3D

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2016 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Boston TerrorThon, RealD 3D DCP)

Half the joke with Found Footage 3D is that if one half of the title doesn't represent what you think is wrong with horror movies today, the other probably does, and combining them should make a film that pleases nobody. Of course, doing so indicates a self-aware spoof, which is kind of another thing horror doesn't need more of, and while this may all seem to indicate that pulling it all together is a bad, inherently doomed idea, it's also opportunity for a clever filmmaker to pull what works from all of this together into a fun project that pulls what works from each of those elements.

It presents itself as the behind-the-scenes material shot during the making of Spectre of Death, conceived as a found-footage horror movie written by and starring Derek (Carter Roy) and Amy (Alena von Stroheim) as a couple whose marriage was already on the brink of collapse before they went on vacation in a creepy old cabin that the locals tell them to avoid... And whose marriage collapsed in between raising the crowdfunding money and going to shoot in a creepy old cabin that the locals tell them to avoid. But the show must go on, so to the woods they go, along with Andrew (Tom Saporito), the director that Derek sprang the 3D cameras on at the last minute; Carl the sound guy (Scott Allen Perry); Lily (Jessica Perrin), the cute production assistant without any experience Derek found at a party; and Mark (Chris O'Brien), Derek's brother who is shooting a making-of thing and is quite happy to see Amy again.

Though the description is full of red flags that this movie may be too much about itself and similar movies that don't necessarily bear that much examination, one of the first things that grabs the audience is how quickly it sketches out characters who are worth the audience's interest. They're a simple group, to be sure, but they're quickly established as more than just their jobs and obvious functions in the story. Some of it is paying against type, making Andrew kind of ineffectual as the director when that guy would normally be trying to dominate every scene. Sometimes it's how, even though Mark is holding the camera, you can tell that both he and Amy perk up a bit when she sees him. And if Lily is the cute young thing that Derek is trying to rub in Amy's face, that's never the first thing she is to the audience. It's an unusually well-balanced ensemble without a weak link in the cast.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Fantasia Daily 2016.11 (24 July 2016): Holy Flame of the Martial World, Fragments of Asia, Lazy Hazy Crazy, and If Cats Disappeared from the World

Thought I'd just given up, didn't you? That would be the sensible thing, but I've got notes, I want other film festivals I apply to for credentials to take me seriously, and, honestly, I don't want to feel like I was a freeloader for the second half of the fest.

This was a pretty enjoyable Sunday, though - it started off with the always enjoyable 35mm Shaw Brothers classic, with the obligatory crazy trailer. Relatively few of those this year, at least for me, as two of the Hong Kong movies screened had already played Boston and that's where they show up.

I would hang around De Seve for the rest of the afternoon for what would prove to be an all-Asian day, continuing with the "Fragments of Asia" shorts program. Before that started, the programmers excitedly announced a special addition to the program, as Takashi Miike had given them a copy of his animated short to show during his visit. They even got to name it, in French at least, because it hadn't shown outside of Japan.

Next up, King-wei Chu introducing Lazy Hazy Crazy writer/director Jody Luk Yee-sum, a Hong Kong filmmaker who worked on the scripts for several of Pang Ho-cheung's movies and talked about how he'd been very encouraging about her making one of her own, almost frighteningly so, as she didn't initially think she was ready when she got the chance, although confidence built as she went along.

The film was introduced as being somewhat autobiographical, which raised some eyebrows when she came out for Q&A afterward, saying that it being based on her life as a bit exaggerated, though she certainly knew a lot of people involved in "compensated dating" and the like. She also talked about how she and the three young co-stars wound up bunking together for some time before the movie actually started, in order to get familiar and comfortable with each other.

After that, across the street for If Cats Disappeared from the World, a pretty charming little movie that the audience really seemed to be into. Then, I had a choice between Superpowerless and In Search of the Ultra-Sex, and opted for "none of the above" - it would be nearly an hour until the first started (with another show the next day) and the second was a thing made from cutting other movies together, and that's not really my thing. So did I go back to the apartment, get some sleep, and be ready to go early? No! I headed down to the Forum to see For a Few Bullets, because clearly what you need at the midway point of Fantasia is a way to cram more Chinese movies in.

Wu lin sheng huo jin (Holy Flame of the Martial World)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016, 35mm)

The Shaw Brothers kung fu movies of the 1980s got pretty strange - between the competition from Golden Harvest with their new young stars like Jackie Chan on one side and the western sci-fi/fantasy movies like Star Wars being imported to Hong Kong on the other, the venerable studio had to make some pretty crazy things to stand out. Holy Flame of the Martial World is not the most insane thing to come out in Shawscope during that time, it's unusual in that it plays as a pretty good movie when a lot were gluing fight scenes and special effects together and hoping that something entertaining came about.

Some eighteen years ago, a pair of married warriors (Wong Man-yee & Siao Yuk) were on the run, attempting to make sure that their martial-arts manual didn't fall into the wrong hands. Though defeated at the hands of a cabal led by Chief Tsing Yin of the O-Mei Clan (Leanne Lau Suet-wah) and Chief Ku Pan-kuai (Jason Pai Piao), their master Yama Elder (Phillip Kwok Chung-fung) beat them back and took the couple's son to raise on his own, challenging the others to a battle in twenty years time. What the elder did not realize was that the couple had twins, and Tsing Yin would find the daughter. Two decades later, Yin Tien-chu (Max Mok Siu-chung) has grown to be a master of "Devil Swordplay" and Tan Feng (Yeung Jing-jing) is a loyal part of the O-Mei clan, but with the time for the challenge Yama issued coming near, all are trying to find the magical swords hidden by Tien-chu's and Feng's parents while Tsing and Ku consolidate their power.

The quest for a secret manual or weapon is well-enough worn plot for a martial-arts movie that this doesn't sound particularly strange, but it's the crazy but weirdly consistent details that make the actual film a lot of fun: Yama's "ghostly cry", where he laughs his opponents away, is incredibly over-the-top but tremendously entertaining, but for all the silliness of this and some of the other techniques, writer/director Tony Liu Chun-ku and action directors Phillip Kwok Chung-fung and Yuen Tak are very good at staging their wire-heavy action so that the viewer laughs at the staging but enjoys the execution. It's silly, sure, but it's generally slapstick that makes the characters look formidable, rather than inept.

Full review on EFC.

"Korogashiya no Pun" ("Keep on Rolling!")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, HD)

Takashi Miike always finds some way to surprise at Fantasia. Sometimes it's turning out a great family film, sometimes it's doing something as conventional as Shield of Straw. This time, it's not just adding a cartoon to the Asian Shorts block at the last minute, but having it be the most upbeat, charming thing on the list.

It's a cute little stop-motion short about a dung beetle who really likes rolling stuff around well beyond being a dung beetle and that sort of being their thing, leading to a lot of slapstick as he attacks other round things, meeting his match in a giant (by his scale) hamster. It leaves him to "pooped" to pay baseball with his other insect friends. I've got no idea whether this short is connected to something else (the Fantasia website says it's a tribute to Puchi Puchi Anime, but it must be some sort of side characters if so), but it's a fun group of creatures doing amusing things, with Miike and his collaborators sticking just enough jokes into five minutes to let it be cute rather than frantic and get genuine laughs from each one.

"Report About Death"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

This short film looks like the sort of thing that your better-informed friend might share on social media to explain a difficult concept or advocate a position on same, and I mean that as a compliment: If that's what filmmaker Kim Jin-a was going for, she hits the target squarely, perfectly capturing the infographic-like visual style and quick but not rushed pacing, making sure that there's a poppy moving picture with every fact delivered with great assurance.

The gag, then, is that she's talking about the most universal subject of all, albeit in a way that we almost never do - matter-of-factly, whether discussing the biological and chemical processes involved or the various belief systems and rituals that have sprung up around it, and we are not used to that. Cho Hyun-ji's voiceover is instructive and never sarcastic but not cold or condescending, and while Kim's visuals can easily swing to morbid or darkly comic, they are generally entertaining without making her film a gross-out piece or a satirical attack.

You'll learn something, you'll smile, you'll generally enjoy yourself. It may be the weirdest praise I'll ever give a short, but if I ever find out that I've got something terminal, this will probably be one of two things I'm certain to post on Facebook in the lead-up (along with a request that anybody with the intent of saying "I'll pray for you" donate a dollar to cancer research and do a hundred times as much good). It's not the sort of thing we should need an animated short for, even if we kind of do.

"I Can See You"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

A spiffy little animation from Gu Jie that starts building tension almost immediately as a skilled archer practices seemingly much longer than anyone else... or is he?

Gu does some nifty things here, finding ways to create a jittery live-action feel that lets the camera take a quick peek over the shoulder while also using the abstraction of animation to make the world shift under his feet. There's a nervous energy to the film that the music and sound design adds to, along with the very simple design that initially hints at there being nowhere to hide until a little bit of shifting perspective suggests that there is, in fact, a bit more. The red streaks that show up later are striking.

There's some great silent storytelling, too - without any dialogue, Gu gets across that the archer is exceptional enough that perhaps nobody could be targeting him but himself; it's all body language, glimpses of something seeming strange, and hints that nevertheless get this very specific idea across. That's in addition to just making the action fast-paced and tense, a nifty bit of work.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

Though I've watched a bunch of movies from South Korea over the years, there are a bunch of details about everyday life that I'll miss because they're either very specific or something kind of unpleasant that doesn't fit into entertainment, even if your entertainment is cynical crime dramas. "Retriever" has a couple of those, and while I'd seen how the homeless seem semi-officially allowed to shelter in Seoul's subway stations at night in Seoul Station a couple days earlier, I'd never heard of the Cho son jok, ethnic Koreans from China treated with suspicion and derision when they come to the ROK to find work.

That's where this short gets its protagonist, beaten up because other homeless people see him as lower-class and this a fair target, eventually hatching a scheme to find a dog at a rescue shelter and sell it to a disreputable butcher under the table. Of course, nor only is nine-year-old former guide dog Bori not really the sort that makes a good stew, but he just may unlock some sort of attachment in the hardened, desperate man.

Filmmaker Kim Joo-hwan has seemingly looked under a rock to find this story, choosing as his protagonist someone many in his audience might try Doubly hard to ignore, and neither the director nor star Moon Sun-yong does much to hint that there's any particular nobility hidden there. Through much of the movie, they do an impressive job of giving some low-level stimulation to the audience's instincts to look away and feel ashamed by it, showing injustice but making its victims unheroic, making sure his accent is thick and odd enough that even those of us who don't know Korean might get the idea that he sounds kind of illiterate. In some ways, it's easier to connect with the dog, a working animal kicked to the curb when no longer needed, racking up medical bills that can't be paid at the vet. Kim plays with the idea of them being outcasts in a thoroughly unsentimental manner, and in doing so earns every scrap of empathy that they eventually receive.

"Mu-jeo-gaeng" ("Throttled")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

Mermaid horror stories are a venerable genre, although in recent years they have become just ubiquitous enough that the surprise of something often considered cute and/or sexy being used for something potentially gruesome is gone (although that may be a fairly recent thing anyway). It's easy to see why, though - it's not hard to scrape the cheerful exterior away and see stories about men keeping and abusing a beautiful topless woman, not embarrassingly disfigured bit unable to do anything on her own while trapped in his bathtub or elsewhere with dry land on all sides.

"Throttled" is certainly along those lines, although it doesn't do much with how these fantasies often stay in a seemingly benign place with the man thinking he's being a good guy by rescuing the mermaid. Kim Je-hyeon's animated short makes her Intriguingly alien from the start, with obvious gills and the lower half of an octopus rather than a fish or dolphin, but it doesn't mess around with the fisherman who finds her, either; his curiosity is predatory, and the frequent stillness to the animation is pointedly unnerving, emphasizing people regarding each other rather than acting or connecting.

Things get ugly later on, of course, and Kim makes the sort jump into full horror enthusiastically, mixing the animation style up a little bit to show that the very environment is going to turn. The latter minutes aren't gleefully nasty, but they certainly don't hold back. This basic story has been told before, quite a bit, but Kim's commitment to the dark elements makes his fairly memorable.

"Keep Going"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

There's a line in the credits of "Keep Going" indicating that Kim Geon has done more with the post-apocalyptic setting and characters, although I have not yet followed up on that (see: the Facebook page). I probably should; for a student film, it's impressively stylish and, while open-ended, it tells its own tale without getting caught up in something bigger.

It is the tale of Yeon-hee and Margo, 40km from a border they need to cross in a land that has been devastated by the Robot Wars, a bad situation to be in because the pair are tethered to one another, Margo's power core keeping Yeon-hee's heart beating, and nobody else is terribly fond of robots. It's a simple way to get things moving, and Kim makes good use of it both in moments of contemplation, when the girl probably not old enough to remember what sort of cataclysm made people hate robots (they are, after all, so useful!), and in action. Staging a simple fight scene is not an option, as any distance the protagonists get from each other is dangerous even if not limited. Throw in how Chou Bae-young and her co-stars seem to know what they're doing, and things are in good shape.

It's also a good-looking movie; though ruined-future movie are popular among those with low budgets because locations aren't that hard to find and you don't need to build a lot (physically or virtually), Kim does better than most at making the most of what's available and making Margo and the other robots look good, crafted with an eye for aesthetics but also worn down. The picture looks dirty, but never careless; it's definitely the sort of short film that could bear expansion to feature length even while being satisfying as-is.

"Mitsuami no kamisama" ("Pigtails")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

The centerpiece of the "Fragments of Asia" piece in part by dint of being the longest, it would also have been the one that had the highest profile if not for the last-minute addition of something by Miike, as director Yoshimi Itazu has some pretty high-profile credits as one of the main animators of Miss Hokusai and The Wind Rises, and with Production I.G. behind it, "Pigtails" certainly has a head start on being sharp and polished. It's not necessarily a huge surprise that Itazu seems to have picked up some other skills as well.

He is, for instance, very good at not so much misdirecting the audience on where the story is going but in allowing it to get there by an unusual route. It starts off looking kind of traditional - the pretty young woman who nevertheless lives alone and isolated, the shy boy who delivers her mail but is too shy to speak - even if it is told from the point of view of various inanimate objects around her tiny house. There's a charm to those characters, seeing life through the lenses of what a hatrack experiences but devoted to the pigtailed girl of the title, and a sweetness to the girl and her only contact with the world, even after the camera pulls back a little more and things are revealed to be less idyllic.

Sadly, the original manga that this is adapting does not appear to be available in English, because it's a pretty great story, and Itazu, screenwriter Miho Maruo, and the cast & crew do a fantastic job of creating a yin-yang of sweet fantasy that has a seed of horror inside and vice versa over the course of the film. It's also very impressive how what seems like a clever but minor moment in the opening minutes of the film, and does it in a way that is not just crass irony or obvious restatement of a theme but an intriguing comment on how sometimes, rather than necessarily becoming desensitized to something terrible, we in the audience can be okay with it from the start, simply dependent upon our definition of personhood.

Tung baan tung hok (Lazy Hazy Crazy)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

Jody Luk Yee-sum has co-written some bawdy comedies in Hong Kong, so it's not surprising that one of the most memorable bits in Lazy Hazy Crazy is the one that comes off as a crude joke. It's not exactly representative, though, as the film as a whole turns out to be one of those coming-of-age films that seems kind of alarming to an older/male/foreign audience member like myself, even if the characters do seem more or less able to deal with what's thrown at them with fairly good humor.

It follows three teenage classmates, each neglected or unsupervised to a certain extent: Tall, confident Chloe (Koyi Mak Chi-yee) not so obviously, perhaps, especially in comparison to Alice (Fish Liew), whose parents have divorced and decamped for Bangkok and Ngai, leaving her working as a "hostess" at a karaoke bar and doing enough "compensated dating" that she's known around school by a fairly vulgar nickname. She may still be higher on the social totem pole than Tracy (Ashina Kwok Yik-sam), a bespectacled Filipina whom everyone expects will become a maid like her strict grandmother and most other immigrants from the Philippines. They're the sort of trio that has just enough in common to get lumped together, but that doesn't mean their friendship is easy or natural.

It is, in fact, often highlighted by cruelty; Chloe especially can be the sort that builds herself up by pushing those around her down at times, whether by reminding Tracy of her low position in the pecking order or treating the escort work Alice does to survive as something of a fun adventure. There are times when the operative message seems to be that kids need friends, so they must initially take what they can get even if it means that those friends actually thinking well of one another has to come later.

Full review on EFC.

Sekai kara neko ga kietanara (If Cats Disappeared from the World)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, HDs)

There probably is not quite the same philosophical divide between West and East - or more specifically, America and Japan - as there has been at other times in history, but the different priorities at the hearts of the cultures are a large part of what makes it so interesting for me as an outsider. It is, whether deliberately or not, an inversion of an American classic, although one need not get particularly analytical to enjoy it - it is a sweet movie that finds ways to charm despite its sad premise.

It opens by introducing us to a young man (Takeru Satoh), about thirty and delivering the mail for a living. While out on his route, he has a seizure, and the doctor gives him some bad news: He has a brain tumor, inoperable, and he doesn't have much time. But maybe he has more than he thinks - as he despaired of what to do next, a doppelganger appears and tells him that he can have another day, but something else musty new removed from the world to compensate each day. Telephones, for a start. But here's the rub: He met his first girlfriend (Aoi Miyazaki) because she called a wrong number, and everything else this devil takes to extend his life is going to take a chunk of his past.

The movie is, in this way, the flip side of It's a Wonderful Life, with the protagonist's continued presence in the world coming at a price, not just to himself, but to the whole world. The contrast in how the American film values a specific individual over the crowd is perhaps most visible in who makes the offer to change the world and keep them around - a man who claims to be a celestial being but needs the help of the self-doubting man and his exceptional goodness, versus his own mirror image, selfishly telling him to do whatever it takes to hang on. It's not a perfect comparison, but given how central movies are to the relationships between the younger characters - Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (apparently called "Buenos Aires" in Japan) play important parts - it's hard to believe the filmmakers and original novelist Genki Kawamura didn't make the connection at some point.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 October 2016 - 20 October 2016

Man, what do people without great repatory theaters in their towns do doing October. Nothing spooky or scary from the majors, but, fortunately, other places in Boston have us covered.

  • The Somerville Theatre does the most, continuing their Halloween Terror Thon through Sunday, mixing up new and old: Friday starts off with what may be the year's best horror movie, The Wailing, before grabbing Egomaniac, Attack of the Lederhosenzombies, and Found Footage 3D from the festival circuit and showing an archival 35mm print of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight with the Teseracte Players (Full Body Cast does their thing at Boston Common on Saturday). Sunday kicks off with a 70mm print of Ghostbusters before serving up the legit creepy The Eyes of My Mother, a short package curated by Izzy Lee that includes local filmmakers, Blood Hunters, and Clowntown. Sunday is 35mm classics, with a double feature of House of Usher and Tales of Terror in the afternoon and Jeff Rapsis accompanying The Unknown in the evening. Their sister cinema in Arlington, The Capitol, finishes "Before Vampires Sucked" on Throwback Thursday with Interview with the Vampire And, while not Halloween-related, the Somerville has a 35mm Muhammad Ali double feature that night, with When We Were Kings and The Greatest.
  • The Somerville is also one of the local theaters loading up on Ben Affleck in The Accountant, in which he plays a mob number-cruncher who is anti-social in a way that crosses from not interacting much to apparently throwing down quite well. It's also at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway (including RPX), Revere (including XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    There's also stand-up film Kevin Hart: What Now?, which I'm guessing probably has a lot more of Hart telling jokes than the crazy action/adventure antics which make up a bunch of the trailer (which is okay, because Hart is good at both). It's at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere. The other wide opening is Max Steel, with Mattel trying to get in on some of that Transformers money despite not really having a boy toy that translates into an adventure movie nearly as well. It's also at Apple Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Fenway, and Revere.

    There's also an unusual number of one-off shows. Shin Godzilla continues through Tuesday, with showings Saturday (Kendall/Fenway/Revere), Sunday (Kendall), Monday (Kendall), and Tuesday (Fenway/Revere), though bunches are sold out. There are 40th Anniversary screenings of Taxi Driver on Sunday and Wednesday at Boston Common, Fenway, and Revere, Young Frankenstein on Tuesday at Fenway and Revere, and Rob Zombie's 31 at Fenway (Thursday) and Revere (Sunday and Thursday).
  • Kendall Square also picks up A Man Called Ove for a week. It's a Swedish film starring Rolf Lassgaard as a grumpy old man who hates everyone and everything, especially the loud new neighbors who have just moved in. Naturally, they'll be the ones who just may be able to bring him out of his shell.
  • The Brattle Theatre will welcome director David Schisgall for the 7pm screenings of Theo Who Lived on Friday and Saturday (it also plays Sunday). HIs film is a documentary about Theo Padnos, an American journalist who went to report on Syria in 2012 but was soon kidnapped by al Qaedaand was held prisoner for nearly two years.

    Another director, Bonni Cohen, will visit on Monday for a DocYard presentation of Audrie & Daisy, which tells the story of two teenagers who are assaulted after getting drunk at a party, awaking to a world where people they thought were their friends are passing around pictures and video of what happened. Tuesday is Trash Night, Wednesday is a private event, and then on Thursday they have the opening night of the Boston Asian American Film Festival; director Pamela Tom will be there to introduce her documentary Tyrus, a look at the life of 105-year-old visual artist Tyrus Wong, who in addition to being a fine artist was also a crucial contributor to many films, including Bambi.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre picks up Honey in its second week of release. They also double up on midnights, with Canuxploitation horror flick The Pit playing both Saturday and Sunday in new restoration. Downstairs in the main theater, they go with 35mm lychanthropes, with An American Werewolf in London playing Friday night and Oliver Reed in the less-screened Curse of the Werewolf on Saturday. There's a Talk Cinema screening Sunday morning, and then on Monday night they do a Science On Screen presentation of Chinatown, with Dr. Betsy Reilley discussing how to manage water as a resfource. Wednesday, director Stu Maddux will screen his documentary Reel in the Closet, and then on Thursday there's a Rewind! screening of Beetlejuice on 35mm, with a costume contest and an after-party across the street at Osaka.
  • After a week off, The Harvard Film Archive returns to their retrospective of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub on Friday with Chronicle of Anna Magdelena at 7pm and a pair of 35mm shorts, "Cézanne. Conversation with Joachim Gasquet" and "A Visit to the Louvre" at 9pm. The Marlen Khutsiev retrospective continues on Saturday with the massive Infinitas and Sunday afternoon with The Two Fedors, all on 35mm. The "Behind Potemkin" series of Soviet Silents continues that evening with Bertrand & Susan Laurence accompanying Bed and Sofa (35mm). On Monday, they welcome Brigid McCaffrey, screening three of her recent short films.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts starts the Boston Palestine Film Festival with a weekend featuring director Mai Masri, with her first narrative film (and Jordan's Oscar submission) 3000 Nights playing Friday (a sold out gala) and two documentary programs on Saturday. There's also Kamal Aljafari presenting Recollection Sunday afternoon and The Curve on Thursday, with the festival having a pair of free shows at the Brookline Public Library on Tuesday.

    In addition, part of their monthly overnight on Friday/Saturday is a screening of the Verhoeven/Schwarzeneggar Total Recall, part of a Philip K. Dick series. They also team with the Japan Society for a Wednesday-evening screening of Paper Lanterns with director Barry Frechette, telling the tale of a Hiroshima survivor who worked for decades to learn and reveal the identities of twelve American POWs who also perished when the bomb was dropped.
  • Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond has a special Halloween presentation on Friday night, as the Maine-made horror anthology series Damnationland collects some of the "Prime Cuts" from seven years of short films (the latest set will run in two weeks). They also add Kannada comedy Neer Dose to a rotating selection of Indian films including Hindi biography M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (subtitled), Telugu romance Premam, and Malayalam thriller Oppam.
  • Bright Lights welcomes Emerson alumnus Matthew Hashiguchi to the Paramount Theatre's Bright Screening Room on Tuesday forGood Luck Soup, his documentary on reconnecting with his Japanese heritage, starring his grandmother. On Tuesday, they've got the pretty terrific The Witch, with discussion to follow. As always, both are free and open to the public.
  • The Regent Theatre has 3 Weeks in Yerevan on Sunday afternoon, with filmmakers (and co-stars) Vahe Berberian and Vahik Pirhamzei on-hand to present their comedy about a pair of Armenian-American filmmakers who wind up in over their head when they try to shoot a movie in their homeland. There's also a free screening of Age of Champions, a look at the Senior Olympics, on Tuesday afternoon, hosted by the Arlington Council on Aging.

I figure on spending a fair chunk of time at the Terror-Thon, presuming there are no further problems with the schedule (two of Thursday's three films were canceled or rescheduled) and also catching Shin Godzilla before having to fly to Texas for work and basically hoping there's something worth seeing at the semi-close multiplex rather than attending well-intentioned efforts to try and do team-building by stealing even more of my day to be in a loud room with drinking co-workers.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mission Milano

I was really looking forward to this one; one of the fun things about how Chinese and Korean movies are playing the multiplexes is that often previews for movies show up a week or two ahead of time, so that even if you see as many movies as someone like me, there is no chance to go through a "cool, whatever, sick of it" progression. Nope, you just see the goofy trailer with Andy Lau in a slapstick comedy, get a little worried when it doesn't come out on the date in the preview, but excited about the next week.

And then it's not very good. That's doubly a bummer because I didn't get to it on time on Saturday, so I went to The Girl on the Train, and that suuuuuucked.

Still, I'll absolutely be down for it if The Invincible 12 plays American theaters. There is a crazy cast on his official 100th film.

Wang pai dou wang pai (Mission Milano)

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

Wong Jing has made a truly staggering number of movies, pumping them out at such a rate that I can't tell whether the fact that the three I've seen most recently are disappointing is indicative of a trend or just bad luck. That number, unfortunately, includes Mission Milano, a spy spoof that never manages to show the sort of energy that an anything-goes script and a likable cast needs.

Swiss scientist Dr. Petersen (Xu Yazhou) has developed "The Seed of God", which can grow into any plant with just the smallest bit of soil and water, potentially ending famine forever. Interpol dispatches Agent 119, Hung Sampan (Andy Lau Tak-wah), to monitor the demonstration at Haotian Technology, a firm run by Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), the descendant of a family of robin-hood thieves that went straight in the last generation. Petersen is kidnapped by Crescent, a Japanese criminal organization headed by Snow (Xu Dongdong), with the intent to sell his invention to K-Max, another group that sees great potential to use it for the cultivation of cocaine. Interpol recruits Luo, his sister Ka-yan (Nana Ou-yang), and his friend Amon (Wong Cho-lam) to help in the case, and, intriguingly, when they run afoul of K-Max's Iron Hawk (Wu Yie), Cresent agent Phoenix (Michelle Hu Ran) secretly saves Louis's life.

Wong gives a hint of the best possible version of this movie in the opening, where Sampan survives an assassination attempt in Paris, and the backdrop is so obviously fake that the other ridiculous bits in it seem only natural, but the thing is, it's not all absurd - it makes a bathtub a fun part of a zippy action sequence that is both exciting and funny. Wong and action director Dion Lam Dik-on handle fight scenes well most of the time, even if Lau clearly doesn't seem to be able to match his younger co-stars. Wong's fondness for CGI-enhanced slapstick combines with a clear fondness for the more over-the-top James Bond adventures to give the audience sonic weapons, moments of genuine amazement when watching the Seed do its thing, and other amusingly goofy bits. It's a strong first twenty minutes or half hour.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton has had "Visionary Director" placed in front of his name so often that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a title or rank, like "Doctor" or "General", rather than a description of how he was once perceived. Still is, by some, but it's tough to be a visionary for long. Your vision gets realized, or the world moves on, and it's really tough to have a second vision.

And, I wonder, sometimes, if the world just expects guys like Burton to burn out, developing an ego that makes him impossible to work with, or having an unforgivable flop without having a next thing which may do well - and generally does, in Burton's case - already under way. It's curious and laudable that a guy as apparently eccentric as him never really had the disaster which made him a cautionary tale (but the sort we love, who made a few great movies and then something so spectacularly disastrous that it's interesting) or forced him to refocus and become something new as he aged. Instead, while he may not really have something that he really wants to say any more, he's got skills. He can make something look nice, especially in a certain sort of aesthetic, and for all that guys like me write that he's coasting, giving Johnny Depp new stupid haircuts because he knows that some in the audience will eat it up, it's tough to argue with what he puts on screen not being well-presented. He does what he's good at very well

As a guy who has worked the same job for twelve years, I appreciate that, even if I do wonder if he's one of the directors who need a strong producer looking over his shoulder, saying the script isn't ready or pointing out things he's too close to. I always thought Denise Di Novi was that person for him, but they actually only worked on a few movies together (although Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are generally considered his high point). Maybe someone like that could have helped him squeeze the potential out of Miss Peregrine, because with a legitimately great finale following a bunch of time where you can see potential being unfulfilled, it feels like he dove into the parts that interested him and got relatively lazy with the rest, even if there's no way for outsiders to know how it really went down.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

* * (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

There was a joke about Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children being "Tim Burton's X-Men" when the trailers started to appear, and while it was mostly about the veteran director's signature style, it's worth asking why Twentieth Century Fox, which by dint of a contract that Marvel Comics undoubtedly regrets has the rights to make movies with the real thing more or less in perpetuity, would bother with this mostly-bland adaptation of a young-adult novel. Burton (with an assist from Samuel L. Jackson) is able to jazz it up at the climax, but it's kind of dull otherwise.

The first child we met isn't particularly peculiar; Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is a thoroughly ordinary teenager in present-day Tampa, ignored by girls and harassed by his classmates He's closer to his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than his father, and comes running when the nonagenarian calls, in a fit of seeming dementia, saying that the monsters from the bedtime stories he used to tell Jake are attacking. Finding the man with his eyes gouged out suggests something horrible happened, and the quest to find out what leads Jake and father Franklin (Chris O'Dowd) to the village in Wales where Abe stayed as a Polish refugee before joining the British Army in World War II. Despite Abe still getting letters from headmistress Miss Peregrine, the orphanage was destroyed during the war. Well, sort of; Jake soon finds that Peregrine, (Eva Green) Abe's old friends Emma (Ella Purnell), Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), Olive (Lauren McCrostie), and several younger children are alive and well, having been in a time loop that repeated the day before the Manor was bombed ever since, and which also keeps them hidden from Barron (Jackson), an evil Peculiar whose immortality experiments have left him and his cohorts as monsters that only Jake can see.

It's a Tim Burton fantasy, so plenty of weirdness is to be expected, but it seems incredibly telling that all the weirdness is on the surface, with almost no indication that any sort of thought has been given to what is underneath the Burton-branded design. I'm curious how much more explicit the book is about Abe being a European Jew who fled and then fought the Nazis; a film pitched to an audience old enough to enjoy some gross-out moments wouldn't seem to need to pussyfoot around the way this one does despite having a villain who is literally rounding up members of a persecuted minority for extermination and experimentation. The filmmakers really don't seem to be into metaphor at all, with the Peculiars' super-powers often seeming to be assigned randomly, especially when folks have more than one, rather than being a way to amplify who they are as characters.

Full review on EFC.