Saturday, December 23, 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower

Punting another bunch of reviews. Other projects, like work, have sucked up a whole bunch of my time and I haven't gotten to write nearly as much of this as I would like. --sigh--

Without much further ado, because I've got Christmas shopping to finish and wrapping to do, the review:

Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2006 at Landmar Kendall Square #2 (Preview)

Those coming to Curse of the Golden Flower expecting a martial arts epic akin to director Zhang Yimou's previous wuxia films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, may well be disappointed. A relatively short amount of time is spent on fighting, but that time has tremendous import because of the film's art-house pedigree: Zhang is working with long-time leading lady Gong Li for the first time in ten years, and that's almost all the film needs.

Gong Li plays the Empress in this film set predominately in the Forbidden City during the Tang Dynasty. She is the second wife of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat); a lover to his oldest son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye); and mother of First Brother Jai (Jay Chou), who has just returned from three years at the frontier, and Second Brother Yu (Qin Junjie), who seeks more responsibilities. Ten days ago, the Emperor instructed the court physician (Ni Dahong) to have his daughter (and Wan's lover) Chan (Man Li) secretly add black fungus to the Empress's anemia medicine. The formulation will destroy the Empress's mental faculties within two months. The Empress can already see the poison's effects, though, and has set her own plans for revenge into place - if her designs are correct, her son will be Emperor in mere days, after the Chrysanthemum Festival.

It's perfectly clear that Gong Li is going to be this film's central attraction form the start, even as the ornate and colorful production design threatens to swallow her and the rest of the cast. She carries herself like royalty, acting as though the legions of servants that follow her everywhere are her due, even as she relaxes when alone with the princes. The character never verbally acknowledges the tremor in her hand, but the reactions that play across the actress's face are captivating: There's some embarrassment, because an Empress cannot be allowed to show weakness, but also frustration and anger. What's most impressive is how Li makes us believe in the Empress as calculating but also passionate. There's fierce, angry intelligence on display when she plots and reveals her secrets, but also genuine care for her princes. The performance is riveting; Li makes the Empress a compelling monster.

The rest, as always, at HBS.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

2 of the 8 Films to Die For

Well, I suppose I could fit a third in there, as I saw The Gravedancers at Fantasia back in July. I might have seen more, but there was other stuff going on this weekend - Matt was in a play at Northeastern, so the parents were down and needed entertaining. Not a bad play, but long: Three hours broken into seven scenes, each of which is one long conversation. Which actually makes a nice contrast to the horror movies, where people don't necessarily talk a lot but do make with the bleeding.

I liked Reincarnation quite a bit, although I'm not quite sure the story actually works. If someone is the reincarnation of a previous life, why are they being chased by the other victims - it sort of suggests that the spirits are two places at once. That is, I suppose, the sort of thing a horror movie that's kind of dumb like Wicked Little Things can get away with, but Takashi Shimizu's style is to tell the story in a way that engages the viewer's mind, which raises the bar for comprehensibility.

Hopefully, After Dark will do this thing again, although I do sort of wonder how profitable it is to strike hundreds of prints for movies that will play, at most, two days (really, only about six show times per location). The idea, I guess, is that not being tagged direct to video will give these films a little more cachet when they do show up on DVD in a few months, boosting sales and rentals. It's a nice theory, and it results in me getting to see the new Shimizu film on the big screen, so I hope it works out well enough to be repeated.

One thing that is worth noting is that here in Cambridge, these films ran in theater #3 of Fresh Pond Cinemas, which Entertainment Cinemas took over from AMC/Loews earlier this year. The previous owners had let the place get pretty run-down, but Entertainment has done a pretty decent job freshening the place up. The lobby feels a little smaller, although that may just be the result of there actually being people in it. The films screened in one of the upstairs screens, which are the best the plex has to offer, despite their center aisles where the best seats should be. The prices were pretty decent, too - $7.75 on Friday night and $5.75 Sunday afternoon. Entertainment needs to get themselves a website that doesn't outright suck - not only can you not buy tickets online, but the films in this series weren't even listed - but other than that, they seem to have made Fresh Pond a place where I'd at least consider seeing a movie, especially on a cheap Tuesday night.

Reincarnation (Rinne)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #3 (8 Films to Die For)

It's easy and popular to bust on Takashi Shimizu for how much he and producer Takashige Ichise have gone to the same well with their various iterations of the Ju-on franchise, and to be quite honest they don't stray too far from the basic template: You've got a father killing his family, a creepy kid, and a crime scene that should be avoided, even years later. Despite all that, Reincarnation has a very different feel from the Ju-on movies; if he's a one-trick pony, he at least knows a few variations on that trick.

This time around, we're told of a spree killing that happened in the early 1970s, where a university professor on vacation at a hotel in the Tokyo suburbs killed not only his wife and two children, but the hotel staff and the rest of the guests for good measure before killing himself. Now, thirty years later, Ikuo Matusmura (Kippei Shiina) is making a film based upon the crime. He casts inexperienced actress Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) as the professor's daughter (and final victim) Chisato, noting that the six-year-old girl has been rewritten as a teenager. In casting Nagisa, he passes over Yuka Morita (Marika Matsumoto), who feels strongly that she was murdered in a past life. Soon, Nagisa is seeing an apparition of a tiny girl towing her favorite doll around, occasionally passing out on set (which strikes her castmates as unprofessional). Meanwhile, college student Yayoi Kinoshita (Karina) is having strange dreams of her own. Her boyfriend introduces her to Yuka, and both sense a connection to the hotel murders. When the director has the cast visit the hotel, it soon becomes clear that the past (and past lives) still have a strong connection to the present.

It's a decent enough set-up for a ghost story, and Shimizu does a fine job of creating a foreboding atmosphere despite going out of his way to remind audiences that it's only a movie. Take Yuka's too-earnest comments about her past lives, or how the picture will occasionally get downright procedural in showing the audience how a movie is made - rehearsals, bits of sets being disassembled so that a camera can follow the star around a corner, mundane gossip off to the side. You may wonder just how many of the scenes in the "real" hotel are shot on the film-within-a-film's hotel set. The film establishes enough of a sense of the ordinary that the strange things that happen wind up feeling a little stranger, especially when the movie picks up speed toward the end.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wicked Little Things

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #3 (8 Films to Die For)

Horror filmmakers have come up with some pretty lame excuses for vengeful spirits over the years, but just as often, it's not really the idea that's weak, but the implementation. Wicked Little Things has all the makings of a good ghost story; the trouble is that it wants gore as opposed to shivers.

The prologue gives us good reason for a haunting, as a group of small children working in a Pennsylvania coal mine at the turn of the twentieth century are trapped during a cave-in. Ninety years later, Karen Tunny (Lori Heuring) and her two girls, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz) have inherited a house near the tapped mine from Sarah's late husband. It needs a lot of work, and teenage Sarah hates being out in the middle of nowhere. There are other complications - a weird neighbor (Ben Cross), and the descendant of the mine owner is telling them to vacate the house because the Tunny's "miner's deed" is only good while the mine was open, and he's looking to develop the mountain into a ski resort. And, of course, few of the other dead children are nearly as nice as Emma's new imaginary friend.

Creepy ghost kids haunting the adult descendants of the people who made them work and die in a mine, I'm down for. It's a great idea. What's not so great an idea is having them crave raw flesh (although they'll generally shy away from eating family). It raises the inevitable question of just how much of the surrounding livestock and population has been eaten if the little buggers have shown up every night for the past ninety years, or, alternately, why they're showing up now. It's probably related to the mine-owner's descendant being in town, but one of the locals certainly seems to be fairly used to dealing with zombie kids. But even then, what's a penchant for eating the living got to do with being killed in a cave-in? If they were tunneling underneath things and planting explosives, yeah, that would be fitting and scary, but having them just sink their teeth into something alive is just pedestrian.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Boston Fantastic Film Festival 2006

I don't worry about other festivals the way I do this one. I probably shouldn't be worrying, since it seems like something Ned and the rest of the crew at the Brattle love doing and will for as long as they can. The festival was back up to five nights this time, having been just four last year, although the original schedule had it as six. I think that as long as the Brattle is safe, the festival is safe. That's by no means assured, but the progress meter in the Brattle lobby gives me some measure of hope.

To tell the truth, as much as I used to worry, I'm also a little envious. I see coverage of Austin's Fantastic Fest and Toronto After Dark online, and I see them as things that take place at around the same time as the BFFF, but started later, and despite being relatively new, have huge, amazing line-ups - and meanwhile, I'm doing math to figure out whether there are enough movies to make buying a pass worthwhile as opposed to buying individual tickets.

It was an interesting festival - all movies I hadn't seen, the musical thing was interesting (although it would have been nice to be able to understand the lyrics). It seemed very strange to go to a festival like this and have nothing from Japan, or any official midnight movies. Saturday's performance by Claw Job didn't start until almost midnight, but that's because concerts never start on time.

One minor, funny thing: I went to Newbury Comics to buy an import copy of Election, because the closing night feature was what Tartan is calling "Triad Election", or Election 2. I watched it that night, and rather liked it... Only to find that FedEx had shipped the print of Election 2 to the wrong city. Ah, well. No reason to complain about seeing a good movie.

Anyway, generally a good festival with films worth recommending. As always, I hope for an even bigger one next year.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Terry Gilliam makes films about fractured realities; it's what he's good at. That's what Tideland is, and while it's possible to look at it and say he's a one-trick pony, he's also better at it than just about anybody else.

There probably isn't a really healthy mind to be found in any of the characters, although 10-year-old Joiza-Rose probably has the best shot at one. That's despite a pair of fairly scuzzy drug-addict parents: Her mother resents Rose, so she's much more fond of her father, who plays in a band and talks of someday moving the family to Jutland, where the Vikings came from... And also has his daughter prepare and administer the heroin he uses to go on his "vacations". After the mother's sudden death, he packs Joiza-Rose up and flees to Grandma's house. She's not there, though, and Joiza-Rose spends a great deal of time on her own, looking to next-door neighbors Dell and Dickens for company.

As good as Gilliam is at this kind of movie, it rises and falls based on the work of Jodelle Ferland, the child actress playing Joiza-Rose. Joiza-Rose is scrappy enough to mostly take care of herself when the adults in her life are basically useless, but despite that she doesn't fit the usual model of a kid forced to grow up too fast - as cute and imaginative as the character is, she can also be shockingly callous and prone to violent mood swings. The really neat trick that Miss Ferland does is to sell us on just how much denial and delusion Joiza-Rose is capable of without making her seem stupid. She doesn't overstate anything except for when a kid might - she's occasionally loud or annoying, but what kids aren't? There's no desperation for the audience's approval or love, just a kid looking like a normal kid even though she's cracking up.

Read the rest at HBS.

Dark Remains

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

If you're going to see or rent Dark Remains, you probably like horror movies and ghost stories. The thing is, if you like horror movies and ghost stories, you've probably seen something very much like Dark Remains more than a few times, and though worse iterations of this story have made it through the production process, it probably wouldn't be hard to hunt down better ones.

We start, of course, with bodies - a woman slitting her wrists, a man shooting himself, and, after the credits, a yuppie could finds their adorable daughter murdered in her own bed, despite there being no sign whatsoever of forced entry. Allen (Greg Thompson), a technical writer, and Julie (Cheri Christian), a fine-art photographer, cope with the loss by moving out to the country, leasing a house whose last tenants committed suicide. The town, naturally, has a history of suspicious deaths, including the mother of Jim (Scott Hodges), the creepy caretaker. There's also an abandoned prison that Julie is strangely drawn to, and the local sheriff (Jeff Evans) wants to keep an eye on Allen, what with the unsolved mystery of a child murdered in a house Julie claims had been locked up tight. And, of course, after one night in the house, their visiting friends high-tail it out of there and advise Allen and Julie to follow.

They don't, of course. There are dead people to briefly spot out of the corner of their eyes, old newspapers to search through, late-night visits to shuttered prisons to be made, local people to turn psychotic, and investigations that must get nowhere. And, of course, when developing pictures in her darkroom, Julie must occasionally think she sees her dead daughter. (This movie looked to be shot on digital video, and I wonder if at any point during these scenes writer/director/editor Brian Avenet-Bradley considered that ironic.) The script is remarkably thorough in compiling potential supernatural and conventional explanations for what's going on. That isn't necessarily a bad idea; uncertainty about the nature of the threat is often more effective than knowing exactly what one should be afraid of, especially early in a story. This movie is just a little too vague for a little too long.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I'm not sure what the method is for determining whether a horror movie plays theaters or goes straight to video in this country, but it needs refinement. A couple years ago, Christopher Smith's Creep showed up on the "fantastic festival" circuit and was an impressively intense outing that even had a recognizable lead; it went to video. Now he's back with Severance, almost as thrilling as Creep and funny besides, and I can only hope this one manages to see the inside of theaters.

In this one, a group of office mates from the UK branch of Palisades Defense are touring Eastern Europe in a bus, presumably selling weapons to people who really have enough, when they encounter a downed tree. Pompous Richard (Tim McInnerny) opts to take his co-workers down a road that cuts through the woods on foot rather than wait for the tree to be cleared. Clearly, none of the folks on the bus - sarcastic Harris (Toby Stephens), enthusiastic Gordon (Andy Nyman), sexy American Maggie (Laura Harris), mousy Jill (Claudie Blakley), weed-loving Steve (Danny Dyer), and shy Billy (Babou Ceesay) - have seen the opening scene, where a man and his two prostitutes are running through the woods only to be snagged by various traps. They do find a bunkhouse in the woods, but everyone except Richard has their doubts that this is the company lodge where their end-of-trip team-building exercise is supposed to be held.

I've mostly had good experiences at the various offices where I've worked, but I've never worked for a sprawling multinational doing work that feels either trivial or counter to making the world a better place. Apparently, it makes you snippy, quite willing to wander off in the woods of a strange country just to get away from the rest of the group, even after you know it's probably not safe. Smith and his co-writer Moran don't stop at that; as much as there are several lines you can draw between people who don't like each other, it's not a situation where the characters show callous disregard for one another, either. They're mostly decent enough human beings, which is important - as much as there's some good jokes to be made from people being awful to each other, the risk is the audience merely rooting for the characters to die in unusual ways.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I remember thinking, upon seeing Mothra for the first time, that it was cool to see someone making a movie with their radio-controlled toys. Now comes Automatons, which takes it a bit further, looking for all the world like a movie made with wind-up toys.

In the future, an unnamed young woman (Christine Spencer) lives in a bunker filled with robots. The world outside is a scarred wasteland, and the robots are her only friends even as she tinkers with them to make them more effective fighting machines. The only other human presences in her life are videotapes left to her by her teacher (Angus Scrimm), and occasional broadcasts from the leader of an enemy camp (Brenda Cooney) whose own robots occasionally attack and try to disrupt the girl's work.

Ah, the robots. Filmmaker James Felix McKenney clearly had a minuscule budget to work with, so when the robots clash, it's not an animated extravaganza featuring highly detailed machines fighting each other with meticulous attention detail. Rather, it's dozens of models a few inches tall being blown to bits on the floor of McKenney's apartment. Some digital work is used early on to remove strings, but by the end of the film, some of those are left in, too. That's not the huge issue it could be, and is (per the Q&A) deliberate: McKenney wanted the film to have a hand-made feel, but felt that audiences used to effects work where the main goal is transparency might need to be eased into a style that makes its technique visible. The ten-year-old part of me did, I must admit, get a big kick out of watching toy robots get blown up by firecrackers or set on fire. It doesn't look as seamlessly authentic as digital work, or even more elaborate stop/go-motion model work, but it does communicate something. This is, after all, the end of the world, with fighting machines put together from recycled scraps, and the less-sophisticated special effects reinforce that.

Read the rest at HBS.

Blood Tea and Red String

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Christiane Cegavske spent over a decade making Blood Tea and Red String, creating its meticulously realized world one frame at a time even as she moved from city to city. That extraordinary dedication pays dividends; her creation is a stop-motion fantasy that captures the audience in a way that few films have since The Dark Crystal.

In the film, an aristocratic mouse commissions an "Oak Dweller" craftsman to create a mouse-sized doll in the shape of a human girl (Oak Dwellers are birdlike, but furry). The elderly Oak Dweller does this, but cannot bear to part with his creation. He returns his payment, but that does not placate the mouse and his friends, who return in the dead of the night to steal her away. Upon discovering the theft, the craftman's family sets out on a quest to retrieve the doll - not only does the old man love his creation, but he has secreted an egg found by the river in its midsection.

Ms. Cegavske has created a world that feels remarkably real despite its lack of human beings - indeed, in part because of how they're missing. The Oak Dweller creates his effigy from a picture the mouse shows him, which greatly resembles the woman in the film's live-action bookends. Those segments are far stranger than the rest of the film, featuring an eerily silent woman in kabuki makeup serving a cake that disgorges spiders once she cuts it. In contrast, the animals' world seems almost familiar in comparison. It's a world out of fairy tales, where animals take on human behaviors such as wearing clothes or eating at tables with utensils but still remain true to their natures.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Host (Gwoemul)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

The Host is one of the great success stories of Korean cinema; it shattered box office records in its native land to the point where other filmmakers were grumbling about it being difficult to get bookings for their films. Great success comes after great risk, though, and The Host occasionally feels overstuffed, as if filmmaker Bong Joon-ho feared that he'd never get a chance to make another big sci-fi adventure and accordingly crammed everything he could into this one.

Happily, the film is not simply throwing out monster movie clichés as viewed through a Korean lens. The opening scenes are wonderful twists on how these things usually play out: First, a darkly comic prologue (inspired by true events) where an American army technician orders his Korean assistant to pour noxious chemicals down a sink that drains directly into the Han River, and the camera pans past a truly astonishing number of empty bottles. After that, Bong wastes no time unleashing the monster upon the city of Seoul, but he's almost low-key in the way he does it. You almost have to squint to see it hanging off a bridge, and the filmmakers opt not to break out the shaky-cam or bombastic music as the creature emerrges from the water and starts making things very unpleasant for anybody near the riverbank. Even as people start fleeing for their lives, the movie doesn't go into full, majestic shots meant to show the effects off or quick cuts and zooms meant to tell the audience that this situation is chaotic or that this detail is important. And by not dialing things up like that, he actually makes the situation even more tense and confusing - the way this first act is shot reinforces the environment's normalcy, except for that monster that keeps chasing people, making it more of a dangerous, frightening incursion.

Bong keeps that up right until the moment when slacker Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) grabs the wrong girl's hand, and turns back in horror to see a tentacle wrap around his 12-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) and pull her away in slow motion. But for all it breaks out the action-movie theatrics, that moment also underscores what makes The Host different from the standard kaiju film (to steal a term from across the Sea of Japan) - the focus is not going to be on how scientists and soldiers combine to take the creature down - it's how the Park family struggles to rescue its youngest member in spite of the roadblocks thrown up by the military, who especially want Kang-du isolated, since the creature is believed to be a carrier for a deadly virus - the American soldier whom he helped try to hold off the creature has died a gruesome death.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival/Eye-Opener)

It would be easy for Darkon to be a movie that points and sneers; it is, after all, a film about grown men who fight mock wars with foam rubber weapons. It does occasionally provoke some laughs out of people who role-play with gusto, but every community has people who fit an unpopular stereotype. It's still worth remembering that "weird" correlates well with "interesting".

Darkon, the film tells us, is an evolving fantasy world; participants take on a character and role-play that persona on weekends. Those role-playing sessions may involve negotiations, palace intrigue, or combat. Though the activities take place in parks and soccer fields in the Baltimore area, they represent battles over hexagonal spaces on a map. The game has been active for twenty years, with players joining up and leaving during that time. The mechanisms of play are only given a little explanation, though, as it's the players that interest the filmmakers most.

Our primary focus is on Kenyon "Keldar" Wells and Skip "Bannor" Lipman, long-time players who have risen to be leaders of their realms. Keldar's kingdom Mordom has been constantly expanding and occupies nearly half the game board; Bannor's Laconia is aligned, but as the film begins, he announces plans to break away and tries to rally other groups to his cause. In game terms, this will involve capturing Keldar and bringing him before a war-crimes tribunal, a difficult task with the armies and allies he commands.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Five [Deadly] Venoms (Wu Du)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival/Eye-Opener)

We all have guilty pleasures - or, for those mature enough not to feel guilt about things which bring them happiness without doing any harm, simply entertainment we love even though we know they aren't in the same category of quality as some of our other favorites Fortunately, it's not just individuals that indulge those impulses, and thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration program, The Five Venoms, which became famous with poorly-dubbed nth-generation prints on late night television, is now available in a clean, subtitled theatrical print.

Of course, the new translation doesn't go a long way toward making its set-up less unlikely: Yang Tieh (Shang Chiang), the last disciple of a dying martial arts master, is instructed to seek out the five previous disciples, who are converging on a small city to seek out the clan's lost treasure. Each has deadly martial arts skills inspired by a different venomous animal, while Yang Tieh knows a bit of each. The bad news is that the Venoms trained in masks, so Yang Tieh has no description to work from other than fighting styles. It soon becomes clear that a local constable, He Yuan-xin (Philip Kwok) is the wall-climbing Gecko and likely one of the good guys, while wealthy merchant Qi Dong (Pai Wei) is the greedy Snake. We soon see which side Toad-style fighter Liang Shen (Meng Lo) and Centipede-style Zhang Yiao-tian (Feng Lu) are on, but Scorpion remains an unknown wild card.

As silly as the story is, it is still notable among Shaw Brothers films in that it actually works fairly well. All too often kung fu movies, even today, are thirty minutes of fights and sixty minutes of perfunctory scenes meant to weakly justify the fights while keeping the seperate. Or they just seem that way because the plots involve some piece of intrigue between royal houses and rival martial arts styles that are highly confusing for Westerners and probably at least somewhat arcane for Chinese audiences. The Five Venoms offers mysteries to solve and alliances to scrutinize, but it's all contained within this single story, with no outside knowledge required. Big chunks of that story seem to defy common sense - Yang Tieh is spectacularly unhelpful (practically absent!) when Liang Shen is framed for murder, for instance - but despite that, there is a story worth grabbing on to.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Boston Film Festival Day 2006, Day Eight: The House of Usher

-- sigh -- I could have been a few blocks away, in Chinatown, watching Stephen Chow in God of Cookery. Or in Somerville, checking out the Chuck Norris Film Festival. Instead, I see this thing, which is just not good. I want to resist being too mean, because the basic idea they're playing with is inherently creepy, it was shot locally, and the screenplay is credited to someone named "Collin Chang"... I knew a lady by that name freshman year of college. I mean, I love when movies that start with my city's skyline. Roughly half the theater, it seemed, was people connected with the production and their families.

But, this is just pretty bad. Lots of flat acting, an ending that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, a timeframe that wasn't communicated at all - in the Q&A, the director and producer said it took place over months rather than what felt like just a couple of weeks. Also, while it will probably look OK on DVD where it will eventually land - I think they mentioned it shooting on HD - sitting up close in the theater, it looked pretty bad.

Speaking of the Q&A - I would have loved to see someone ask Izabella Miko if she wore a bra at any point during filming. It seems like almost every change of clothing put her in something with a pretty darn low-cut neckline. It's the sort of thing you're thankful for in a bad movie, since it gives you something to pay attention to other than the film's badness.

So, what to think about the BFF? Certainly better than last year, although nothing I saw really bowled me over. Also, I think this falls a little short of being worthy of the name "festival"; for that, you need multiple venues or a program which attracts people from out of town. The old BFF had that, even if was just two Loews theaters playing something of a subset of the Toronto program.

Of course, by that definition, the next thing on my festival calendar isn't really a festival - The Bosotn Fantastic Film Festival is pretty much an extra-spiffy Brattle program. But, man, that's at least got something to get excited about.

Catch-up: Review up on HBS for The Hidden Blade. I can't believe no-one else reviewed that.

The House of Usher

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

Festival movies that don't work for you stink worse than ordinary bad movies, not just because there's a higher expectation of quality, but because you're in the room with the cast and crew, their friends and family, and maybe even their small, adorable children. The guy next to you gives you the stink-eye if you don't applaud, and when Q&A time comes, most of us don't have the guts to ask something like "so, at what point in the process did you realize you weren't making a good movie?"

Then, of course, there's that moment toward the end, when they start with the whole "there's this website called eye-em-dee-bee-dot-com, and all the people in Hollywood read it, so if you post your opinions there it can really help us" deal. It makes them seem like friendly, regular folks, but the truth of the matter is, they're probably not talking to you.

So it is with The House of Usher, a "modern retelling of Poe's classic story from a female perspective". What makes this movie not being very good hurt all the worse is that director Hayley Cloake and writers Collin Chang (screenplay) and Boyd Hancock (story) have hit upon a pretty good way to go about this. Here, the nameless male narrator of Poe's story is replaced by Jill Michaelson (Izabella Miko), a former girlfriend of Roderick Usher (Austin Nichols) who counted his twin sister Madeline as her best friend until both Ushers vanished from her life three years ago. Now, she returns to the titular mansion for Madeline's funeral, and though family retainer Mrs. Thatcher (Beth Grant) makes every effort to send her home quickly, Roderick wants her to at least stay through the weekend, to help him get through the twins' upcoming birthday...

Read the rest at HBS.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Boston Film Festival 2006 Day Six: Ways of the Flesh

Missed days five and seven, both days when the cable company's annoying refusal to schedule around when I could be home caused me to work from the house. I don't know about other folks, but I have a hard time getting work done when I'm home, and not just because the VPN connection and power supply have a knack for choosing terrible half-seconds to not work. And, yesterday, there was a query kicking my butt. Fortunately, most of the movies shown during the days I missed already have release dates scheduled (heck, I missed The Last Kiss on Tuesday and it opens today), and the others are ones I'm okay with missing. I'd rather not, but I can deal.

Which left Ways of the Flesh as my mid-week getaway to the film festival. Not a bad movie, not a great one. I probably wouldn't give it many second thoughts if it wasn't part of a festival program, but since it's independently produced and chosen to screen by people I assume know something about film, I'm more likely to give it a chance than I would if it were just film #8 on the multiplex's marquee.

The picture in the program was dark and reproduced in such a way that I didn't realize this was something aimed at the African-American audience. The story itself is hardly black-specific at all, although some of the execution left me not nearly as amused as it maybe ought to have. In a way, these African-American-oriented films have the same sort of effect on me as Bollywood - my brain just doesn't have the jacks to interface with them properly, and as much as I appreciate that they're made for someone with a different cultural background, that doesn't obligate me to really like them.

And yet, the writer/director looked nearly as white as me - I told Matt afterward that he reminded me of Wallace Shawn minus thirty years and plus a fair amount of hair. He had that kind of voice, and it's certainly not the voice you expect to hear going on about how studios don't know how to connect with the black audience outside of T&A-laden gangsta flicks. Which, of course, is absolutely true; it's just a bit tricky to accept someone who looks a lot more like me than that audience as the voice of authority on the subject.

Ways of the Flesh

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival)

The opening credits to Ways of the Flesh don't quite come out and say "based on a true story", although they imply it, and during the Q&A after the movie, writer/director Dennis Cooper never came close to talking about a real Dr. Zachary. Where these characters came from doesn't really matter; I'm just curious to know whether the muted feel of this movie is Cooper trying to show specific people or whole groups in a good light.

Inspired by a real person or not, Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris) is the film's narrator, constantly dictating material for his book and standup comedy routine into a tape recorder. He's doing some research on laughter as a palliative medicine, and also observing one of his new interns, Dr. Ray Howard (Brian J. White). Howard is a gifted Harvard graduate who has left Boston for Florida because of a woman (Mya), and comes with a well-deserved reputation as a player. Assisting Sidney with his literary endeavors is his girlfriend Donna (Zoe Saldana), an artist whose life he once saved; supporting cast includes arrogant department head Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin), his sycophant Dr. Propper (David S. Lee), and nervous intern Mitchell Kwan (Kenneth Choi).

All of this goes into Sidney's tape recorder and on-screen, and indeed the very beginning announces what kind of genre tropes we're in for: The mentor who has run-ins with an uncaring bureaucrat, the muse who inspires him, the cocky player who becomes a better man. And it's not so much the standard pieces that are the problem so much as their announcement; when the narrator neatly summarizes the movie up front, then what follows has to either cleverly subvert those expectations or be the best darn example of them that it can be (or at least be as good as an average episode of Grey's Anatomy). It doesn't help that Sidney, having chosen Ray as the subject of his book, occasionally discusses Ray's growth as a doctor and a person with Donna or Ray himself; it's elementary self-referentiality that doesn't make the movie seem any cleverer, even if one or two of the scenes are kind of cute. Similarly, I'm not sure how a story about someone making use of humor is, itself, funny - even when the jokes are on, the audience is a little too aware of the effort to make them funny.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Boston Film Festival, Day Four: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

I went back and forth over actually seeing Guide Monday night, since the work schedule this week might have made it difficult to get to, and besides, I've been seeing trailers for it, which means it will probably show up at the Kendall before the end of the month, where it will cost less than ten bucks. It's not like this is one of the screenings where, if you don't get to it at the festival, you might not see it at all.

I did go, although I would make the opposite decision with The Last Kiss on Tuesday. I think the festival was pulling the same trick to get a full house that they did for Guide; I'm pretty sure that they also had a bunch of people being let in for free as part of a screening ticket giveaway. I'm cool with that; it's a for-profit enterprise, sure, but it can't hurt to get a bunch of people in to listen to your spiel; maybe some come back for the remaining three or four days, or remember you next year. And I imagine Chazz Palminteri is going to go back to Hollywood with a much better impression of whether the festival is worth coming to than Amanda Detmer or Robin Tunney will. Maybe he tells folks that Boston's a fun little festival

As to the movie itself, well, I think the whole "nostalgia over growing up in a crappy neighborhood" genre is like musicals for me - I like them when it's done exceptionally well, but when it's something less than perfect... Well, my interest drops off in a non-linear fashion. So it was here; the movie isn't so much bad as it's not above average, which doesn't interest me here.

Admittedly, part of the problem is that so many have played as "real people live in the cities, while the suburbs are either dysfunctional or planned to the point of soullessness", which I (despite loving the city too much to consider moving back) take as an attack on my own childhood. So even movies like Saints, which don't get into that territory at all, annoy me by just being in the neighborhood. I probably ought to work on that.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 Septembe 2006 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

The program for the Boston Film Festival describes the origin and meaning of the film's title, as does most of the publicity I've seen for it. This is probably helpful, since I didn't catch anything about it in the actual film. Instead, it was a decent-enough collection of things that happen to and around Dito Montiel, but remarkably little that makes the story his own.

The film opens with Dito's mother Flori (Dianne Weist) calling him in the present day, asking him to come home because his father Monty (Chazz Palminteri) is sick. He's initially reluctant, but it causes him to think back twenty years, when he (played by Shia LaBeouf rather than Robert Downey Jr.) was finishing a hot summer of hanging around his friends Antonio (Channing Tatum), Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis), and Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo). He was sort of dating Laurie (Melonie Diaz) and making friends with Mick (Martin Compston). He's the nenew kind in class, a Scot with horizons beyond the city. Expanding his horizons may be a good thing for Dito to explore, since he and his friends appear to be the targets of an angry graffito.

Whenever someone adapts a book or a life to film, a certain amount of pruning is necessary to fit the story into a reasonable length and focus the narrative, but I think the real-life Dito Montiel (who wrote and directed the film based upon his own memoir) may have made some bad choices on that count. He doesn't exactly cut himself out of his own story, but he does seem to go out of his way to render himself a rather generic figure. The film's title, I'm told, comes from Montiel describing his ability to stay out of trouble to being watched over by the saints; this idea never shows up in the movie. Mick and Dito talk about earning money to start a band and go to California, but he never shows us whether the two have any musical ability, or whether playing is something that they only talk about vaguely without actually doing. Those are things that could make young Dito interesting, but Montiel is apparently more interested in making a movie about the environment where he grew up than one about him growing up.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Boston Film Festival 2006 Day Three: Shorts and Open Window

Two quotes summarize the day:

"Remember when there was a Boston Film Festival?" - overheard during the screening of Shorts Program #1, where the projectionist projected a short with lush backgrounds too dark to see them, played the supplemental features instead of the actual short, adjusted brightness and zoom/positioning while the audience was watching the film, etc.

"Wow, this looks much nicer than my MTV Movie Award for Best Fight" - Robin Tunney, after the screening of Open Window.

In between, during Shorts Program #2, we got to see the new Patrick Smith cartoon, "Puppet". I really do like Smith's work a lot; "Drink" was one that showed up in several festival programs an was always entertaining. "Puppet" is darn funny and also dark as heck, despite Smith's cute style.

Oh, and before we get to Open Window, Homie Spumoni is now complete in the previous entry.

Open Window

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival '06)

The days of one's town or neighborhood having one cinema (or the TV just having a few channels), are long gone, meaning someone is much less likely to go in blind and just take whatever comes. People seeing a movie generally have some idea of what kind of story they're getting themselves into. So if you opt to see Open Window, you know that when the first five minutes include a marriage proposition cutely delivered and eagerly accepted, the characters are being set up to be knocked over.

The hammer, in this case, comes in the form of Izzy (Robin Tunney) being raped in her own home photo studio. Pater (Joel Edgeron) finds her locked in a close and takes her to the hospital, but like many rape victims she declines to file a police report. Peter is supportive, but the situation soon puts a strain on their relationship, as an emotionally scarred Izzy becomes reclusive and Peter finds himself unable to do anything to help.

Robin Tunney has some tricky work to do, since for a good third of the movie, her character just won't get out of bed, which has the potential to make for some less-than-dynamic scenes. We initially empathize with her, but Mia Goldman's script isn't afraid to have Izzy make less-than-optimal decisions, right from the moment she opts not to file a police report. Tunney manages to keep the audience generally seeing Izzy in a positive light, but also keeps the character from appearing a faultless saint. She is a victim, and deserves the audience's empathy, but we also want someone to find a way to jolt her out of her self-pity, even as the former makes us feel guilty about the latter.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Boston Film Festival 2006 Day Two: Ice Kings, Homie Spumoni, Jam

None of these are in the HBS database yet, since they've been too busy with Toronto. Story of the BFF's life. Still, I'd like to get them posted if only to give folks a heads-up about Jam, which is playing again tonight and is pretty good.

Oh, and no "Day One" post because when I finally got off the bus last night, Homie Spumoni (the only thing playing) was sold out. No big deal, as it was the only thing playing during its time period today anyway.

Ice Kings

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

Sometimes, when producing a documentary about sustained greatness and achievement, it's necessary to wait a while, in order to have a proper ending. Every time Ice Kings pushed forward a few years with a montage of Mount St. Charles Academy winning state championship after state championship, I imagined filmmaker Craig Shapiro gritting his teeth, wishing they'd lose so his film could have a final act.

It probably didn't happen that way, but it could have; "The Mount" won twenty-six consecutive Rhode Island state hockey championships from 1978 to 2003, making that program the most successful high school athletic program in the country. A streat that long, and the history leading up to it, provides Shapiro with an excellent framework with which to examine R.I. high school hockey - and its fandom - in general.

And why not? After all, its popularity rivals football in Texas. Ah, you might say, but Texas is a region of the country unto itself, while geographers are currently considering reclassifying Rhode Island as a "dwarf state". In some ways, that makes what it has produced even more impressive; when on high school finals features a half-dozen future pros, that's got to count for something.

The film spends some time at the start giving the audience a little background on the state's general history, quirks, and accent (you're in for eighty minutes of it) before starting to focus on hockey. Starting with the enormously popular minor league Rhode Island Reds (just a notch below the NHL's Original Six at the time, before "minor league" and "farm system" were synonymous), we see Rhode Island's hockey mania and large number of French-Canadian immigrants feed on each other, as Reds players settle in mill towns like Mount St. Charles's Woonsocket and help create the next generation of fans and players. This provides a nice segue to Mount St. Charles's first dynasty, built on the backs of players imported from Quebec as ringers.

One story of a legendary student athlete who chose not to go pro later, the film is ready to focus on the Mount's quarter-century on top. Much as the story of a high school dynasty must, Ice Kings focuses less on the players (after all, the team roster turns completely over six to eight times over the course of the run) than on the coaches nad opponents who would try to topple them. The coach is a personable enough character - Bill Belisle played for the Mount as a teenager, and after a stint in the army worked a series of blue-collar jobs that culminated in his position as the Academy's rink manager. Made coach after a last-place finish, he institutes a rigorous practice schedule that emphasizes quality skating (his own forte as a player). Despite perhaps coming off as a harsh taskmaster in the interviews with former players, the impression he leaves is of a serious but low-key instructor, a tough old french guy who seems about a decade younger than his seventy-five years. We also meet his son, Dave, who took over temporarily after Bill took a puck to the head and has been his assistant (Bill running practices, Dave running games) for the twenty years since.

The challengers are interesting stories themselves; we meet Don Armstrong, who was the coach of another hockey powerhouse, Bishop Hendricken, during the eighties, and Sarah Costa, the female goalie (and future Olympian) hwose Toll Gate High Titans team nearly ended the streak in '95. Star players from Mount St. Charles are also represented, including Brian Lawton, the first American ever to be an NHL #1 draft pick.

One of the things Shapiro does very well is to pull threads that don't necessarily seem to have anything to do with the main story and tie them in; the "and they got married and had many children..." ending to the segment about Joe Cavanagh opting not to turn pro initially seems like bloat but is, in fact, important later on. He also does a very good job of keeping the Mount from becoming villains of the piece - aside from being obvious overdogs, the film hints that they exploit a real home-rink advantage in underhanded ways (caroms only they know about, overheating the visiting locker-room). The film also avoids explicit mention of whether Mount St. Charles is public, private, or parochial, although mention is made for the other schools - that the Titans are a public school is considered a special victory when they play the Mounties. It's also sometimes difficult to tell what relationship the person currently being interviewed has to Mount St. Charles; a lot of ex-hockey players are interviewed, and a caption stating someone was on the San Jose Sharks from 1992 to 1994 isn't always helpful if you don't remember how that guy was introduced a half-hour earlier.

One thing that is a lot of fun to see is several decades of hockey footage, from the early years of the Reds to the present. There's a lot of talking heads, and that breaks it up nicely. Very little else looks like old sports footage, and even the more recent clips, being locally-produced broadcasts of high school games, don't have the slick, over-produced look of many professional sportscasts. The archival footage is also in great condition.

I'm not much of a hockey fan - baseball and basketball have tended to rule in Seaver households - so a lot of the hockey-specific details may have flown right past me. It's a nifty story, though, even for non-fans, and I expect hockey fans may appreciate it even more.

Homie Spumoni

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

I'd call Homie Spumoni cringe-worthy, except that it strikes me as the type of movie that would take that description as a badge of honor. The idea, after all, is to get a rise and a laugh out of pervasive but not malevolent racism. Like most of the characters, it's got a good heart that belies the crudity of its exterior.

The film opens with a flashback, as childless Italian couple Enzo (Alvaro D'Antonio) and Angelina (Michelle Arvizu) discover a baby floating down a nearby river in a basket. Since the bambino is black, they fear the reaction of their small town, and so set out for America. Twenty-five years later, the family is settled in Providence, where Renato (Donald Faison) works in Enzo's deli and volunteers at the animal shelter. It's there he meets Ally (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) when she's looking for a dog. The usual comic hijinks ensue because her mother has a nice jewish doctor picked out for her, but what really causes trouble is when Thelma (Whoopi Goldberg) and George (Paul Mooney) show up, claiming Renato is their long-lost "Leroy" - and they'd like him to come with them to Baltimore to get to know them and his older brother Dana (Tony Rock). This really throws Renato for a loop, since he had never been told that he was adopted, as opposed to being an unusually dark-skinned Italian immigrant.

The premise sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but holds up well enough once you figure Renato isn't likely to question his happy, loving family. Besides kicking the story into gear, it enables a very funny performance form Donald Faison. When you get right down to it, there's probably nothing extraordinarily difficult about the basic Italian-American city kid (who, having grown up in Providence, likes hockey far more than basketball) that Faison essays; it's just unusual for someone of Faison's skin color, so the audience is more likely to notice any slips (which Faison doesn't make). Faison deserves credit for more than pulling off a stock role without a hitch, though - he gives Renato kindness to go with his frequent crudity, and there's palpable hurt when Renato's world collapses around him.

Director Mike Cerrone (co-writing with his brother Steven and Glenn Ciano) seems to be trying to take the same approach as another set of Rhode Island filmmakers, the Farrellys (the Cerrones also wrote Me, Myself, and Irene), by telling jokes that could easily come off as nothing more than crass and offensive if it weren't abundantly clear how their hearts are in the right place. The filmmakers do manage this trick at a somewhat better than break-even pace, although they don't often manage to be really creatively appalling. A cop with a thick Irish accent using terms like "stovepipe" and "dago" isn't exactly cutting-edge satire, especially when nothing much is done to subvert it.

The support cast is also kind of hit-and-miss. Joey Fatone's best friend character Buddy suffers a bit since (per the Q&A) a running joke build around a certain bit of boorish behviour got cut for length, leaving a payoff without quite enough setup. Whoopi Goldberg, on the other hand, is funnier than I can ever remember her being before. She puts Thelma on the border of heartwarming and psychotic in her devotion to "Leroy", generally going over the top in just the right way. Tony Rock is fairly entertaining as Renato's brother, trying to school him in the ways of blackness. It's a shame Jamie-Lynn DiScala isn't on Faison's level in terms of charm; they're a mismatch, but not a great one. The duet between the two that the film builds to is seriously underwhelming.

One thing that's interesting to note is how much more some of the casually racist comments make the audience wince when said on-screen than they might in real life. It's as if we can forgive a bad habit, but saying the same thing in a movie is the result of planning and effort. Indeed, the outtakes shown over the end credits are often nastier, but also funnier, if only because they're spontaneous.

The film does, as mentioned, do better than break-even on a high concept that seems like more than a bit of a long shot. It's also a nice spotlight for Faison, a funny guy who hasn't gotten nearly the boost from the critics' Scrubs-love as his co-stars have.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2006 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival '06)

Before I saw this movie, I admit, I was ready to lead with a snarky "after a Crash inevitably comes a Jam" comment, which is just super-tacky because I haven't even seen Crash. Of course, Jam's producers probably aren't likely to complain too much about their film getting mentioned in the same sentence as an Oscar-winner.

It initially appears that Jam is going to spend a lot of time on race, too, as the auto accident that causes the titular traffic jam is between black cellist Lorraine (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and a white father/son pair, Ted (William Forsythe) and Josh (Dan Byrd). Soon after, dark-skinned hippie chick Lilac (Gina Torres) is given static by white yuppies Gary (Jonathan Silverman) and Judy (Julie Claire) while trying to find help for her extremely pregnant partner Rose (Mariah O'Brien). They eventually wind up in an RV stolen by Curt (Christopher Amitrano) and Jerry (David DeLuise). Also caught in the traffic jam are Dale (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his kids Robert (Skyler Gisondo) and Brianna (Marissa Blanchard), bride-to-be Amy (Amanda Detmer) and her bridesmaids Jen (Elizabeth Bogush) and Stephanie (Amanda Foreman), and older married couple Mick (Alex Rocco) and Ruby (Tess Harper).

Rather than spending the majority of its time on hot-button issues, Jam is mostly concerned with parent-child relationships. The film is set on Father's Day, and the stories include expectant parents, divorced parents on their custodial weekend, grown children missing a deceased parent, a father and son at odds, etc., etc. Even the thread about the bride with cold feet involves her wanting to start a family. It's a theme that holds the film together without being painfully obvious about it; nobody ever says "man, we've all got daddy issues!"

The cast is full of familiar faces, mostly from television, doing what they do best. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the calm, centering influence she has been ever since coming to American attention in Secrets & Lies; David DeLuise is the not-so-bright but affable guy he's come to specialize in. The trio of Amanda Detmer, Amanda Foreman, and Elizabeth Bogush play off each other very well, feeling like people so used to being friends that they don't realize how much they've grown to dislike each other. Detmer shares a number of scenes with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and they develop a nifty antagonistic chemistry right off the bat. Also of special note is Gina Torres, whom fans of action-oriented TV series have loved for nearly a decade and may, in Lilac, have finally found the role that grabs the attention of a wider audience.

Many of director (and producer/co-writer) Craig Serling's recent credits have been as an editor on various unscripted television programs. While it's easy to reflexively bash those shows, it actually turns out to be a solid training ground for an ensemble drama like this. Both jobs involve introducing the audience to a lot of people in very little time and then balanceing those characters evenly, trying to avoid repetition even though they're all doing more or less the same thing. Often in an ensemble piece, some characters are more equal than others or many seem like filler; Shipley, by and large, manages to avoid that.

What shortcomings the film has likely come about due to the tight shooting schedule. During the Q&A, Shipley seemed pround of how many scenes were shot in just one take, but sometimes that may have happened more out of necessity more than complete satisfaction. An independant film like this casts familiar faces by being able to get them in and out quickly, and if you've only got a central character for two or three days (how long Detmer said she was on set), you may just take what you can get. In particular, the Gary & Judy scenes don't really work, and Forsythe plays much better off Ms. Jean-Baptiste than he does off Dan Byrd.

It occurs to me that "Jam" may have a double meaning, in that aside from depicting a traffic jap, it's a chance for many fine character actors to get together and, well, jam. None really take the lead, but supporting each other is what these guys do best.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Two Duds And A Wedding: Crank and Edmond

Not quite so much movie-watching as I would have normally done on a holiday weekend, even if the holiday is Labor Day and thus packed with absolute crap to see. One happy reason is that my best friend from high school got himself married up in Freeport. So, after signing for a delivery, I headed up to Portland, met my mother for dinner in Freeport, then stayed in a nice hotel before getting picked up for the actual wedding the next day.

And, contrary to the impression Kent & Xan (and anyone else) may have received, I had a great time. I got to see a couple of folks I hadn't seen in way too long, met Tim's wife for the first time, and saw people generally enjoying myself. No dancing for me, since it's on the long list of social things I outright suck at, but I'm okay with that. No date, either, but see dancing. I don't really see myself throwing one of these things any time soon, but other people's are fun when the weather is nice.

The rest of the weekend got occupied by getting the new TV with all the HD goodies set up. I still need to find myself a calibration disc or something to get everything tweaked just right - the sharpness seems to be too high, making SD look awful and even HD a little too pixel-y, and some scenes in Serenity looked way too dark - but it's impressive. Before-and-after pictures will come after Comcast gets the CableCARDs installed properly, and I can put the shelving back in because I don't have to get behind it any more.

As an aside: The Boston Film Festival starts tonight, and... ugh. There will be rants, and not just because the year has gotten me accustomed to going to these things for free.

How you can call yourself a film festival without any sort of midnight show...

Catch-up: Monster House, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Who Killed the Electric Car?, A Sixth Part of the World, Sherlock Jr., The Captive City, and Witness to Murder


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2006 at AMC Boston Common #14 (Preview)

This just isn't good. I didn't really expect it to be, but Statham had Transporter 2 at this time last year, which wound up being a lot of fun. There's no Corey Yuen to punch up the action in this turd, though, and it becomes immensely frustrating: The plotline is a twenty-first-century X-treme update of D.O.A., with Statham's hitman character out to avenge his own murder, finding that adrenaline will keep him from dying.

The irony is that although the main character needs a constant rush to keep himself alive, the film never really bothers to provide any to the audience. It's wall-to-wall action that never raises the viewer's pulse. A few scenes are entertaining because of how casual they wind up being, but for the most part, the action is just obligatory, and even the absurdly over-the-top finale only provides a small boost.


* * (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2006 at the Landmark Kendall Square #5 (First-run)

Edmond is a pretty unpleasant movie, with the title character played by William H. Macy bouncing from spot to spot, repeatedly complaining that the price of sex-for-hire is too much before his tightly-wound anger explodes and we get a glimpse of just how much capability to be an unfeeling bastard such a nondescript person can actually have. It's got some impressive talent (or at least names) in small roles - Rebecca Pidgeon, Joe Mantegna, Denise Richards, Julia Stiles - and a bunch of chewy David Mamet dialogue. Director Stuart Gordon ties everything together visually with a lame tarot card device.

Still, I wasn't quite harrowed enough, and nothing after the police station seemed particularly new or interesting. I'd missed a couple of chances to see it at festivals, and now I'm glad I did - sure, I wound up spending $7 I might not have otherwise, but time is the most precious resource at a festival, and I'm almost certain I saw more interesting films at IFFB and Fantasia using the time that could otherwise have been spent on Edmond.

It did make me nervous in one sense: I think this is based on a play, and my brother's a film/theater major. That means there's a non-zero chance of seeing this story again if Matt ever lands a role in a production.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

En français: Fanfan la Tulipe et La Moustache

The past week was a slow one for watching movies; I went without on the weekend because Matt got us tickets to the Red Sox "Futures at Fenway" double header, and I spent time that could well have gone to seeing films spending more money than I'd like on a couple things that often seem of limited utility: A suit to wear to Kent's wedding on Saturday and a TV stand for the HDTV that should arrive tomorrow.

I don't get the suit thing. I understand wanting to look nice, but suit jackets are annoying to get into and out of, and it's not like a $100 pair of pants does anything that a $20 pair doesn't. I certainly don't feel better-looking wearing it. As to the TV stand, well, even if I'd bought a plasma or LCD, I wouldn't be allowed to hang it on the wall. The joys of renting. So I spent money on something which just sits there. It will let me tidy the living room up a little, but it was a pain to get home - it didn't quite fit in the cab properly, and then it was a good thing Matt was home to help me unload it. Since he's working tomorrow, I may have to devise an elaborate system of ropes, pulleys, and ramps to get the actual television in the house.

So, anyway, just the two movies in the past weeks, coincidentally French films from the opposite ends of the spectrum - Fanfan la Tulipe is old and light, straightforward period adventure; La Moustache is contemporary and arty. They're both pretty good at what they do, but I liked Fanfan a bit more - it's nonsense, but it's nonsense with a clear goal in mind, which it achieves. Moustache's nonsense probably achieves its goal, too, but I'm not sure that goal has merit. It's the sort of movie where I half-suspect the filmmaker is playing a practical joke on the audience - that the film has no greater purpose than to contradict itself, and the director is highly amused every time someone claims to find a theme or an explanation.

Also, one of these wasn't what I expected - Google's movie page pegged Fanfan as a 2003 remake with Vincent Perez and Penelope Cruz, rather than the early-50s monochrome version. I'm not complaining at all, though.

Ah, well. They're both short, under ninety minutes.

Fanfan la Tulipe

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Special Engagement)

This is sort of a fun, French Adventures of Robin Hood. Fanfan isn't out to rob the rich and give to the poor, though - he's a rogue who joins the army looking to avoid marrying the country girl he's defloured, and suckered in by a gypsy girl's claim that he'll marry the King's daughter. Gerard Philipe is a charmer as the title character, full of joie de vivre, impatient with things that might negatively impact his carefree lifestyle, but willing to jump headlong into danger. Gina Lollabrigida brings the sex appeal as the fake gypsy who falls for him, and a brace of supporting characters are memorable.

Fanfan reminds me of the Erroll Flynn Robin Hood, although it's shot in black and white rather than Robin Hood's bright colors. It's full of light-hearted derring-do, swordfighting, and athletic action pieces that may not be as polished as a latter-day Hong Kong picture, but are still exuberant. It features sly gallic wit, gently mocking kings who treat war as a game and deriving much more overt joy from Lollabrigida's pulchritude than an American family adventure of the time might.

Overall, a fun, frothy little morsel that fans of the swashbuckler should find delightful.

La Moustache

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

It's not often you actually feel yourself going back-and-forth during a movie. The opening of this one is playful and kind of sexy, though it quickly seems to become a sort of melodrama about how the need to be right can poison a relationship. That drags on for a bit, though, and I find myself starting to get impatient. Then things get interesting as Marc (Vincent London), who shaved the mustache he has always worn off only to have people claim he never had one, starts to suspect that he's losing his mind, and then something more sinister.

And then, things go off the rails. The segment where he flies to Hong Kong, and then repeatedly rides the ferry back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon is just repetitive and mind-numbing. I stopped trying to make any sense of it here, because you just can't. It gets strange, and pretty much anything you might have thought the film was about is just rendered moot.

In the end, I'm not sure whether the first two thirds intrigued me more than the last frustrated me. That's not an uncommon reaction for me; I lost patience with Mulholland Drive the same way. It's not so much that a mystery requires a solution, but just wandering into other territory drives me nuts.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fantasia Screeners: Synesthesia

The plan for this Red Sox road trip was going to be watching a movie at eight and reviewing it during the game, thus knocking off my four remaining screeners in rapid succession. That'll teach me to make plans.

The screener was the first anamorphic VHS tape I've ever had. Messed me up as I tried to get started - first I've got the TV in zoomed-in "TheaterWide" mode, but it's clearly cutting off picture along with the subtitles, then in 4:3 mode, which doesn't look quite right. Fortunately, in an early scene one of the characters pulls out what looks like a box of Lucky Strikes, and I figure out that the circular logo is distorted. I bet that this thing must annoy critics who don't have a 16:9 display, but if you like movies enough to be a critic, you've probably got one.

Synesthesia (aka Gimmy Heaven, Synesthesia Divine Thriller)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screeners 2006)

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that can be described as sensory cross-chatter. A synesthete may see the letter "A" and process it as the color red; scrambled eggs may taste like triangles. If you did not know this before seeing Toru Matsuura's first movie, don't worry - you'll have it explained to you twice before the opening credits.

Even before that, though, we join Detective Shibata (Hiriji Kojima) at a murder investigation. Mari (Aoi Miyazaki), the adopted daughter of an electronics company's founder and chairman, finds him next to a peculiar stain on his floor with a knife in his back, and the police note that it's the third time her foster parent has been killed, though the police captured the previous killers. This crime scene isn't the only place where the symbol appears; while investigating something peculiar at one of the webcams he manages, Shinsuke Hayama (Yosuke Eguchi) spots it on on a bed and recognizes it as the mark of "Picasso", a mysterious internet figure who deals in snuff feeds and supposedly is able to induce murder and suicide with a hypnotic video game. A synesthete himself, Shin thinks the symbol is a message from one person with the disorder to another. It leads him to find Mari in an unlikely place, and while his best friend and business partner Takashi (Masanobu Ando) immediately falls for her, she has flashbacks that reveal a traumatic life even before her first foster parent was murdered.

Synesthesia is built from several intriguing premises, but is frequently frustrating in how it tells its story. We're told that Shin has synesthesia, and that the way synesthetes perceive the world makes them terribly lonely, but Shin seems far too well-adjusted most of the time. He's functional, lives with his understanding girlfriend, and doesn't even seem particularly eccentric. Matsuura opts not to show us anything obviously from Shin's perspective until the very end - at least, it seems that way on first viewing - so the concept remains very abstract. Making the disorder something we normal folks can't grasp may have been the intent, but if so, shouldn't it appear to have a more obvious effect on him; shouldn't he appear different?

There are also certain standard thriller deficiencies; the villain who seems omniscient, the storyline that seems to fall apart under a little bit of scrutiny, the unlikely master plan. The idea of a video game that drives people to murder is an old one, but it's probably implemented better here than in many other instances: The game itself looks kind of boring, the sort of repetitive thing that at least looks like it could induce a trance state. The use of web cameras starts out as an interesting hook, but the film goes a little too far with it after a certain point - why does the killer know to put cameras at a certain site?

And yet, the cast does a pretty fair job of winning us over. Yosuke Eguchi doesn't necessarily make his character's syndrome obvious, but his performance is at once human enough and generic enough to interpret as a veritable wall of coping mechanisms. He's got a nice, easy chemistry with Ando; they rag on each other like real best friends. Aoi Miyazaki's dialogue over the course of the film probably runs one or two pages max, but she manages to convey plenty of hurt and fear. We see her attraction to Shin even though she's not able to state anything directly. And when she does finally have some reason to smile, it's briefly uplifting, even if everything is going straight to hell around her. In smaller roles, Ryuhei Matsuda manages to be creepy as "Picasso", in part because he makes the audience wonder how much of his off-center behavior is legitimate and how much is affected, while Hiriji Kojima is a small pleasure as the investigating detective: her Shibata is attractive and has a distinct personality without being the tough chick or stuck in a romantic subplot. It doesn't sound like much, but it certainly seems rare enough to be worth noting. I think Konno, the yakuza investor in Shin & Takashi's business, is played by Minoru Torihada; whoever it is, it's an amusing performance that still implies danger.

Matsuura makes what seem like some questionable decisions, but the ones he gets right, he gets a hundred percent right. For example, there's a cut toward the end that tells a great deal of story in very little time.I like the way he has "Picasso"'s face quickly dip into view in one scene, eliminating the idea that he might be someone we've already seen, but still preserving the unease of not being able to look directly at him. And while he doesn't spend much time showing a synesthete's perceptions directly, he does find ways to play with our senses; for instance, he and cinematograper Kenji Takama find spots in the otherwise very busy Tokyo where large swaths of the landscape are a single color to unbalance the picture, or cut to a cityscape with lots of motion and images projected onto the sides of buildings after an explanation of synesthesia to suggest unrelated sensory input coming together.

When it comes right to it, though, I think the concept of synesthesia got away from Matsuura and writer Yuji Sakamoto. It seems like it should be a slam-dunk way to mess with the audience's mind, but the story winds up being rather ordinary, even as the cast and crew gives it their all.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Black & White @ The Brattle- Overlord and The Window

Doing the alpha-and-omega thing a little here, finishing up my reviews of the first night of the Brattle's "Rare Film Noir" program just after seeing the last in the series this Tuesday. For the most part, it's been a fun series, although it's a bit bummer for me as a fan of the theater to see attendence drop off between the start of the series and the end. Of course, part of that is likely becaues the last two weeks were single bills compared to the double features that started the series, so there could very well have been the same number of tickets sold, just distributed between multiple showtimes.

I think it was a pretty successful series; some of the movies weren't quite as good as others, but only one or two were really worth avoiding. Even those probably merit a video release just on the basis of their casts. There's got to be some way for the studios to step up their releases of old films on DVD (or the next-generation formats) and still make a profit.

Anyway, it's kind of fun in a perverse way to write reviews for HBS of movies that most people reading will have a hard time tracking down for themselves. So here's Pushover and Nightfall, which I saw back here. Enjoy.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

This one is kind of an oddity. It was produced in 1975, but shot in black and white in a style reminiscent of the 1940s; this allows the filmmakers to integrate documentary footage rather than try to recreate battle scenes with special effects. The result is a film that blends the line between reality and fiction as well as many before and since. This is due in part to the astonishingly clean footage from the Imperial War Museum - it's footage filmed under very difficult circumstances that looks nice enough to have been shot on a soundstage.

The actual film may not be for everybody; it's more than a little arty, spending a lot of time on the monotony of training as it follows far-from-worldly young Tommy from sign-up to the invasion of the title. A lot of the archive footage is presented as connected to Tommy's story through his dreams, and maybe not even that. There's two converging things going on, Tommy's life and the war, and when they connect, it's initially unsatisfying, but also the kind of kick in the pants the audience might need.

The Window

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

The film opens with a quote from Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", and that's what you're getting with this movie. Bobby Driscoll gives a very nice performance as nine-year-old Tommy Woodry, a kid with a penchant for tall tales who witnesses a real murder. The film then gives us a totally believable look at how nobody believes him.

One thing I really liked here is how Driscoll looks and acts like a real kid, or at least, how I tend to think of kids looking and acting. He's not a little adult, or precocious in any way. He's small and skinny and has his limbs flying all over the place when he runs. There's also some very nice effects at the end, as the killers chase Tommy through a condemned building, with multi-story drops and collapsing staircases looking a lot more convincing than they do in many films with this provenance.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The week in movies: Between Midnight and Dawn, The Illusionist, Snakes on a Plane

I meant to see more at the Brattle this past week, catching all three repatory series that are running down the calendar, but it didn't quite work out that way. I wound up hanging around the comic shop long enough to miss the beginning of The Phantom Tollbooth on Wednesday, and then stuck at work long enough that I would have been seeing Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion on an empty stomach, and it looked just long enough that I figured I would rather not. Weak, I know, especially when I planned my Saturday around Snakes on a Plane.

I did stop in to get the new Brattle schedule on Saturday, though, and I like it. It's got Schwarzeneggar midnight shows, a week of Terry Gilliam, Mutual Appreciation, Azumi, Yellowbeard to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and Bruce Campbell introducing Bubba Ho-Tep. That last one may have to substitute for the traditional Halloween showing of Evil Dead 2, since at the end of the month, they're doing an almost-unheard of four-week series of new prints from the Janus Films library (Janus, remember, got its start at the Brattle).

The Boston Fantastic Film Festival is also back for its fourth year, and its six-week run may (I think) be its longest yet. The really good news is that a preview screening of Tideland has already been booked for it. I'm really hoping that it's six days because Ned & company feel momentum as opposed to a six-day hole in the schedule; I'd like this festival to get within an order of magnitude of Fantasia.

So, I've been a bit of a movie-viewing slacker this week, but to tell the truth, it's been a weak summer anyway. I had to toss one of my AMC reward tickets because I didn't find something I wanted to use it on before it expired.

Between Midnight and Dawn (aka Prowl Car)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

The film opens by almost fetishizing cops in their prowl cars, delighting in the code numbers that the dispatchers read to the various patrolling units. We follow one that gets involved in a shoot-out and then has trouble getting a store-owner to testify against a tough running a protection racket. It's the latter that sets off the chain of events that consumes most of the movie, as Edmond O'Brien's Dan Purvis becomes obsessed with taking down this gangster, even as a new guy moves in from the East Coast and sets of a gang war. Mark Stevens's Rocky Barnes has a more benign obsession; he's smitten with the dispatcher's sexy voice and sets out to woo her.

Between Midnight and Dawn would be considered a set-up for a TV series rather than a movie now; it spends a lot of time setting up situations that might seem more fitting playing out over the course of a season rather than in a film. It also seems to lose focus a little, as it starts out as a thing about the front-line cops responding to 911 calls, and then becomes a higher-level story, about two patrol copsversus the mob. It's decent at that, and the cutesy romance isn't bad, either, but it would almost be better if Purvis and Barnes weren't so personally involved - make it truly about the beat cops.

The Illusionist

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2006 at AMC Boston Common #4 (First-run)

You'll have a hard time finding somebody less snotty about the use of CGI in films than me, but even I've got a line to draw, and that line is at a story of a stage magician. It's one thing to show things disappearing into thin air when Paul Giamatti's character is recounting the semi-legendary story of the origins of Edward Norton's character, but when he's actually performing on-stage? If you can't do it in-camera, you shouldn't be doing it. Peiod, end of story, because otherwise there's no real limits on what can be done with the inevitable rest of the movie.

Also, everyone is doing a silly-sounding Austrian accent - although, as seems typical, pretty young girls have accents that are less thick than the rest. I say, let them use their real accents as in The Grey Zone - after all, the characters are not speaking accented English, they're speaking (relatively) unaccented German, so the logical translation is to have them speak clearly. Edward Norton sounded very silly. So did Paul Giamatti, but he sold it better.

Snakes on a Plane

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2006 at AMC Fenway #13 (First-run)

It's been a tremendously disappointing summer, but this little movie about snakes on a plane delivers the goods. It's a bunch of generic characters stitched together in something that would go direct to video without Samuel L. Jackson, but it's handled with wit and aplomb. And even if the vaunted marketing didn't put a whole lot of butts in seats, they were some of the most enthusiastic folks I've seen at a regular movie in a while.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Pre-Fantasia: À Double Tour, Lifeboat, and The Break-Up

It'd be tempting just to punt these three movies I saw before Fantasia and my new, more purely bloggish plan of making this a journal while HBS/EFC gets the full reviews. But, there's stuff that interests me here, even if I won't be writing about it directly - I noticed that À Double Tour was based on a novel by someone whose work was also adapted into a movie in the Brattle's Rare Noir series, I spotted that HBS does not have a review of Lifeboat... So I figured I'd try to catch up with these. Why not, right?

À Double Tour (aka Web of Passion)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight weeks of Film History)

As À Double Tour opens, the beauty coming from the Marcoux house is enough to make men trip over their own feet, so drawn are their eyes to the half-dressed girl in the window. Of course, as most have by now come to expect, it is just the trappings of their prosperous life that shine so brightly - Julie is not a member of the family, but the maid. So, in a way, the beautiful servant is just another extension of the beautiful garden outside the beautiful house; a trapping of Henri Marcoux's success that doesn't reflect the strain and dissatisfaction within.

Henri (Jacques Dacqmine), of course, has a mistress - a fabulous red-haired Italian girl named Léda (Antonella Lualdi) whose nearby home is filled with souvenirs from her life in the Orient. He's barely doing anything to conceal it, and his wife Thérèse (Madeline Robinson) is unwilling to divorce. Husband and wife both disapprove of Laszlo Kovacs (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the Czechoslovakian man their daughter Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie) has taken up with, especially since he has brought a friend (László Szabó) with him to their house - the friend is polite and seems uninterested in participating in Laszlo's freeloading, but it's the principle of the thing. Son Richard (André Jocelyn), meanwhile, is the kind of unfailingly polite young man that has to be hiding something, and his awkward attempts to flirt with Julie (Bernadette Lafont), the maid, might give the audience a good idea what it is.

This being a film by Claude Chabrol, there will be a murder, and a detective (André Dino) come to solve it. The detective, of course, will be largely irrelevant; this murder is a family matter, and the Marcoux family figures it doesn't have a whole lot of reason to be forthcoming. The prime suspect appears to be Julie's boyfriend, and for her sake they would like it to be someone else - especially if that someone else was Laszlo. Not that Thérèse and Henri plan to offer their daughter's fiancé up to the police on a silver platter - no, they must be more subtle.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight weeks of Film History)

As I write this in August of 2006, there don't seem to be many Gulf War II movies being made aside from documentaries, which strikes me as a bit odd, considering that films like Lifeboat sprung from World War II in real time. Is it because the country is currently too divided for a film to appeal to everybody, or because of something more practical (films take longer to create and change potentially coming much quicker)? Whatever the reason, it's a shame that the present conflict doesn't seem to be spawning any films as topical, intelligent, and gripping as this.

The film starts with a Liberty Ship sunk, and one survivor, award-winning photographer Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in the lifeboat of the title. Soon, others are fished out of the wreckage - sailors John (John Hodiak), Gus (William Bendix), who is wounded, "Sparks" (Hume Cronyn) and George (Canada Lee), the only black man in the boat; industrialist Charles "Ritt" Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); nurse Alice McKenzie (Mary Anderson), and pregnant Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Also saved from the sea is Willy (Walter Slezak), part of the crew of the German sub which was also sunk in the battle. Many think he should be thrown out of the boat, but Constance plays the "we'd be no better than them" card. Which initially seems fortunate, because he seems to be one of the most capable people on the boat.

Hitchcock made several films which took place in relatively confined spaces - consider Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes and Rope, but Lifeboat is easily the most constrained. The lifeboat doesn't give people a lot of room to move around, but it's not quite so tight as you might initially think. As factions form among the survivors, there's just enough room for them to separate a little, and maybe even hide things from the others. There’s not enough room for the camera to go anywhere, though, and there’s no easy way to remove a character from a scene for convenience’s sake. It’s quite a challenge Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling (working from a story by John Steinbeck) have set for themselves, but it’s one they meet with alacrity. There’s a bizarre combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia at play here, as the characters have neither room to move nor bounds to their world. Hitchcock is free to move his camera around, but the irony is that even if we’re not locked into one view, we’re still seeing much the same thing.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Break-Up

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2006 at AMC Boston Common #19 (First-run)

The Break-Up feels genuine because it is comfortable with a basic truth: Well-meaning people can be complete jerks. People being ugly is not necessarily the most enjoyable thing to watch in terms of being entertaining in a straightforward manner, but every once in a while it's nice to see a romantic comedy's wacky hijinks exposed as not being particularly wacky.

The film opens with Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke Meyers (Jennifer Aniston) meeting at a Cubs game. Brooke's there with someone else, but Gary's aggressive, making the point that if she's not really enjoying the date, why see it through to the end when she has the chance to do something that really makes her happy? The credits roll, a photo montage of the next three years of their lives as they go out and move in together. On the other end of the credits, though, things aren't so rosy, as Brooke's preparing for a dinner with her family and Gary's not helping the cause. The dinner is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and they're soon splitting, but unable to come to a decision over who should keep the condominium they purchased together.

At this point, we probably expect The Break-Up to go in the general direction of The Awful Truth, and certainly the advertising points in that direction. Indeed, at certain points it seems reasonable to assume that The Awful Truth is Brooke's plan, but as we all soon learn, part of the fun of screwball comedy is in just how divorced from reality it frequently is. Being broken up and in the same condo makes it almost impossible to see what they loved about each other; their interactions are a long series of finding new and familiar ways to irritate each other. Indeed, as the film goes on, we find ourselves more and more having to strain to remember that photo montage, as it gets harder and harder to visualize these two not just in love, but even liking each other.

Read the rest at HBS.