Thursday, March 30, 2006

Boston Underground Film Festival: Day 4

Saturday wound up being a pretty long day at the festival, since the 9:15pm showing of Let The Eat Rock! sold out, but they added a second show at 10:45. The bad news was that the short that was advertised didn't run with it, and we apparently just got the director rather than the band; the good news was that we got to see it in the HFA's main auditorium rather than room B04, which is not bad for a classroom used for screening, but not on the same level as the main room.

Sometime at the start of "Distress Management", I started to feel like I had had enough unpleasant stuff. 7pm had the choice of two nasty-sounding ones, and I wasn't originally going to see Let Them Eat Rock; it just suddenly seemed more appealing than Neighborhood Watch, which had a neat premise but a trailer that promised nastiness. Just got to be enough, you know? It seemed like all the narrative features were like that at a certain point.

The Barn

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

The Barn is an answer to the question "what's the most movie you can make with almost no resources?" For most of its eighty minutes, it gets by with two actors (who also wrote the script), one set, and one sheep. It is, therefore, a pretty fair accomplishment when the movie maintains the audience's interest, keeping the focus on escaping from the barn, as opposed to the theater.

We are trapped in the barn with two unnamed Americans, one skinny and excitable with curly brown hair (Jake Broder), the other bald and wearing glasses (Adam Long). They came to deliver a briefcase to two English gangsters (Gerard Kelly and Mel Radio). Displeased with the contents, the thugs get the drop on the couriers, locking them in the barn where the exchange took place and drive off, saying something vague about coming back to shoot them later. When the skinny one regains his senses, he becomes aware that the barn is solid brick, the door is locked, the windows are barred, and once you get past the dirt and hay, the floor is solid cement. How a sheep later appears while they sleep is a perplexity.

Read the rest at HBS.

Shorts Program 5: Just For Laughs

Seen 25 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive Room B04 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"Baby Pepper" - * ¾ - Oooh, you're so underground and edgy, you make jokes about pepper-spraying babies! If you'd made it funny, that'd be one thing, but for this, you're just a jerk.

"Monkey Walken" - * * - The form used (a monkey puppet with CGI eyes and mouth added) is kind of off-putting, and all the idea is amusing, the guy doing Monkey Walken's voice comes closer to Chris Rock than Christopher Walken.

"Fancy" - * * * ½ - Heh. This one's got a raunchy set-up: A young woman recounting her first visit to a scuzzy new male gynecologist to her roommate, and while it builds to a crude and funny punchline, it's better than a one-joke short, getting a lot of extra laughs in its quick four minute run-time.

"Frozen Food Section" - * * ¾ - The second Bukowski-inspired short of the festival (and better than "A Kind of Screaming"), it's pretty funny in its over-the-top reaction to a man groping a woman's bottom in the supermarket, although it only gets a laugh, rather than the guffaw something this broad is aiming for.

"Amateur" - * * * - A twenty minute short that could be expanded to feature length. The best part of this story about a guy who meets disaster trying to shoot a porn movie in Vegas is the NAME, the actress playing his little sister who fronts him her bat mitzvah money and clearly intimidates the heck out of her screw-up brother.

"Nick Price: Photobooth Detective" - * * * - A flagrantly silly bit showing a fedora'd detective beating a bunch of pulp villains in four photobooth shots each. Yeah, those stories really were that straightforward.

"Atomic Spitballs" - * * * ¼ - There's not a whole lot of milage to be gotten from spoofing 1950s sci-fi movies, but this one does a pretty good job by getting in and out within fifteen minutes, putting in funny visuals such as the girl who prefers a pipe to cigarettes, and having some pretty snazzy visual effects. I'm curious to see what director Brett Ansty could do with feature-type resources, even if the movie does sort of disintegrate at the end.

"Uso Justo" - * * * ½ - Frequently hilarious film made entirely with subtitling and editing. Coleman Miller takes a 1950s Spanish melodrama and remakes it as a story about a town looking forward to the shooting of an experimental film in their neighborhood, only to discover that they're merely found footage.

Shorts Program 4: Distress Management

Seen 25 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"Pretty Kitty" - * * - Have you ever watched a movie and gotten the idea that it's just looking to be generally unpleasant without really giving the audience anything to chew on. That, yeah, it makes a certain kind of sense, but why would you watch this for entertainment? This is like that, only it becomes almost completely nonsensical toward the end.

"Disposer" - * * * - Lots of times, trying to get funny from gory just doesn't work, but this one does because one of the characters is able to go from being vaguely creepy and pathetic to being a good straight man.

"Dead" - * * ¾ - A stylish music-video type short that chronicles a bullet passing through a man's brain in super amazing ultra slow back-and-forth cutting motion. I imagine there is a lot of second-guessing during that split-second.

"Slice of Heaven" - * * * - Is this movie trying to say something? Probably. Damned if I know what, but the contrast of the lush, beautifully green plants and happy domesticity and the creepy secret beneath it is a bit unnerving.

"Laundromancer" - * * ¼ - Wait... No... Let me guess... The guy talking to his sister on the phone about the girl he sees at the laundermat every night is more sinister than he appears!

"Blackout" - * * - Ah, weird "was there a crime or is he being messed with" short subjects. What would a film festival be without them.

"Legion: The Word Made Flesh" - * * * ¼ - A pretty complete miniature horror movie, complete with a prologue and a finale that leaves stuff open for a sequel. Solid exorcism-and-possession stuff, with good characters and a genuinely creepy feel.

"The Working Stiff" - * * * - Nifty little zombie movie with a slightly humorous hook - another corpse at the crematorium is walking around - that darkens up nicely as it goes along.

"Tea Break" - * ¾ - Ooh, I get it! We're combining grotesque violence with utter mundanity! How droll!

"Monsters" - * * * - Creepy kids. Nothing makes a body uneasy like kids with real, unvarnished hostility.

Let Them Eat Rock

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival)

How can you tell that Boston/Cambridge is an academically-oriented town? Well, there's the way the population swells by around half a million people when school is in session, but how many other places would give rise to a band like The Upper Crust - a serviceable enough group of hard rockers that take the stage in pantaloons, make-up, and powdered wigs to sing about the travails of being idle English gentlemen in the mid-eighteenth century? You get novelty acts everywhere, but seldom ones as relatively popular and nerdy.

We meet the band in 1995, as they're just starting to break out. At the moment, they're playing venues like The Middle East in Cambridge, but in a few weeks they're booked for an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The middle section deliberately recalls A Hard Day's Night, as the band members get ready for their big show. But first, we've got to get to know the members, and they're an interestingly diverse group.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Boston Underground Film Festival: Day 3

Hey, BUFF - you cost yourself six bucks giving us more than advertised!

See, before the Friday night screening of East of Euclid, instead of just saying that "My Father is 100 Years Old" would be playing the next night at the Coolidge as part of Short Program 1, they went and showed it. The thing is, it's fifteen minutes long, and I only had fifteen minutes of wiggle room between Euclid at the Brattle and Pony Trouble at the Harvard Film Archive, so I totally would have seen that, which means I'm using up one more punch on my 10-film ticket, which means that by the time Sunday comes around I'm buying one more individual ticket.

But, nope. Instead, I'm not out of the Brattle until 9:40. I suppose I could have turned around and seen Psychopathia Sexualis, but I wasn't really feeling that. Plus, it was the end of the week, so I was tired, and I hadn't eaten since lunch. It wasn't until Saturday that "edginess fatigue" would start to set in, but that's a topic for the Day 4 posting.

East of Euclid

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

A lot of cities have their own distinctive art scene or music scene. But not many have their own film scene, or at least, not one that outsiders would necessarily recognize. Winnipeg may be on the road to becoming one of those cities, as Jeff Solylo, the production designer for some of Guy Maddin's early films, has made a film of his own, which is similar enough to note influences but has a sensibility of its own.

East of Euclid is set in Winnipeg's North End in the early 1970s, and takes its cues more from film noir than silents. This slavic enclave is home to Villosh The Gambler, a former KGB assassin and (very) small-time gangster who dreams of making enough money to go to Atlantic City and test his luck against the gamblers there. Elsewhere, gossip columnist Natalia (Daina Leitold) romances her paper's ace photographer, Valeri (Brent Neale), who becomes smitten with Villosh's mistress Alexandria (Maria Lamont) at a party. The picture Valeri takes of Villosh there prompts him and his henchmen to deliver Valeri a savage beating. Villosh also kidnaps the star local hockey player, Veli-Pekka (Miles Boiselle).

Read the rest at HBS.

Three days behind already. I was so going to turn over a new leaf here. Stupid festivals with their bunches of movies to watch leaving a body little time to write about them.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Boston Underground Film Festival: Days 1-2

I think this is my first time at BUFF. It's always been interesting, but located in odd venues and jumping around the calendar. This year, they're partnering with the Brattle and having most of the screenings take place in easy walking distance. All three programs I've seen thus far have been at the little movie house on Brattle Street, but by the time it's over I'll likely hit shows at the Harvard Film Archive and Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

I'll be honest - I don't expect to love a lot of the features I'll be seeing. I'm fairly squeamish and don't have a lot of love for films that are really out to shock. Hence my only seeing one program last night (no way I go to Modify; it just sounds ga-ross). But, there looks to be a lot of good short films - including a program of silent sci-fi horror and what is apparently the U.S. premiere of Guy Maddin's latest. I love shorts and pounce on every chance to see the on the big screen that I can get.

Of course, by the time you read this, some of these won't be viewable again (Shorts Program One is playing Saturday Midnight at the Coolidge), so I've included links where I could find them.

Shorts Program One: Feast of the Bizarre and Insane

Seen 22 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"Christopher Ford Sees a Film" (video) - * * * * - At four minutes, this is a one-joke short. But it's a great joke. It's something we've all wanted to do after a terrible movie, with writer/actor Ford and director Jake Schreier timing everything perfectly, making good use of their cobbled-together props. No dialogue, but ends with a great gesture.

"Don't Fuck With Love" (video) - * * * ¾ - Very funny music video for a song by the Sad Little Stars, done up as an animated pop-up book. Funny cartoon stuff.

"The Fine Art of Poisoning" (video) - * * - An interesting-looking animated short by Bill Domonkos and Jill Tracy. Kind of pretty, but didn't make a great impression on me.

"Over Time" (video) - * * * - A thoroughly creepy CGI movie with a swarm of Kermit-like puppets playing around and mourning their creator in a way. I liked it, although there's something very odd about using CGI to animate pupets, beyond the pupil-less eyes the puppets have.

"Kinetoscope" (16mm) - * * * ½ - Fourth wall obliteration as a projectionist has a gruesome accident and winds up in the middle of the horror movie he's projecting. Lots of great fake-outs.

"Duck Children" (35mm) - * * ½ - Odd and off-putting, as a group of children in duck costumes perform in a school play, with one unable to keep in sync with the others. She notices there's something amiss, and then when a hunter with an eye dangling by a slinky shows up... Weird, and I'm not a big fan of sticking children in something like this.

"A Kind of Screaming" (35mm) - * * - Based on the works of Bukowski, a poet fights writer's block. Artsy, in that "I'm an artist and thus special" way.

"Los ABCs: Que vivan los muertos!" (35mm) - * * ¼ - Flash-animated looking thing as an undead mariachi band recites the alphabet, with each letter representing someone who died horribly. Some amuse, but somewhere around "N", I sort of had the point.

"Flesh" (35mm) - * ½ - I'm not going to be one of the guys who says 9/11 is some way off-limits, but I don't really get where the director's going with this, where planes crash into New York skyscrapers overlaid with naked women. Maybe something about how the city is perceived in to fundamentalist Muslims, but that makes it uncomfortably catchy.

"My Dad Is 100 Years Old" (35mm) - * * * ½ - The newest offering from eccentric Winnipeg director Guy Maddin is written by his Saddest Music In The World star Isabella Rossellini, who also stars as herself, David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin, and Ingrid Bergman as she reminisces about her father Roberto Rossellini. It contains all the usual Maddin flourishes, and the affection Ms. Rossellini has for her father comes through loud and clear. Of course, the way the film talks about prizing reality means I probably won't be interested in his films any time soon.

The French Guy

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

During the Q&A after the movie, filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming said she couldn't watch "icky" films. Which is fine, but it means that she was making The French Guy for reasons other than it being the sort of movie she would like to see. Which leads me to wonder - if someone doesn't particularly like this sort of black comedy as a genre, how are they to know when they've made a really good one?

One way, I suspect, is to ask yourself whether these characters would be entertaining if they were in a less repellent situation. If they're not, then you're probablly confusing shock value with genuine humor, and while there's nothing at all wrong with delivering a jolt, there's a good chance that it won't be as effective because we don't have the personal investment in these characters that would make it really shocking and horrific. That's a big issue for this film; it strings a series of weird and grotesque events together, but doesn't Fleming have the feel for the genre needed to really drive them home.

Read the rest at HBS.

Bill's Dirty Shorts

Seen 23 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival) (projected video)

It's tough to say much about these, since the typical Plympton short is composed of many smaller shorts. He tells a quick joke, executed perfectly with nifty hand-drawn art style.

Sadly, Plympton wasn't able to actually host as had been billed; his 89-year-old father is fighting cancer on the other side of the country. We wish them the best.

"Sex & Violence" - * * * ¾ - A collection of mini-shorts, mostly laugh-out-loud funny. "People Confused About Priorities" is my favorite recurring segment.

"The Exciting Life of a Tree" - * * * * - A tree defends itself against animals, loggers, and the like. Funny stuff, especially the tree which can't change its colors on cue and needs encouragement.

"More Sex and Violence" - * * * - A follow-up which isn't quite as good as the first, but still has several gut-splittingly funny bits.

"Can't Drag Race With Jesus" - * * * - A revival sings about how you can't beat Jesus at drag racin' or rock 'n roll. How Jesus wins is delightfully snort-worthy.

"Eat" - * * * ¼ - Some very beautiful bits, especially the lonely man imagining his date, but it ends on just nasty gross-out stuff.

"Parking" - * * * ¼ - A parking lot attendant fights a blade of grass. Ends on a happier note than most of his cartoons.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

So... Is it odd to watch Brokeback Mountain and come away most impressed with some of the women in it? Between this and The Baxter (which I didn't even particularly like), I'm growing quite fond of Michelle Williams. Backing off trying to be a traditional skinny blonde knockout is really working for her. Similarly, I was hugely pleased to see Kate Mara at the end; she made a great impression on me on Jack & Bobby. Sure, I'm partial to the freckly redheads anyway, but I'm still pretty sure she's something special.

This is one I put off seeing for a while - once I saw the Oscar nominations and realized I'd be spending a chunk of March working on moving, I realized that the usual Oscar catch-up wasn't going to happen this year. I also got stuck in the rut where I'd look at the schedules and it would be at an awkward time or I just really didn't feel like that kind of movie right then. I wound up with a MovieWatcher reward ticket that needed to be used that night and not wanting to get further from home than Harvard Square (there was, after all, the World Baseball Classic and 24 to see afterward) Hopefully passing on this to see Ultraviolet taught me a valuable lesson about how a good movie, even if it's not the particular genre or tone you're looking to see, is a better use of time and money than, well, crap.

One note to the folks at the Harvard Square theater: Change your trailers. There was a trailer for Cassanova on the front of this which, I think, has been, gone, and had its DVD release date announced. I think that there was one for Thank You For Smoking as well, and I think that came out this weekend (or is that just for New York/LA)?

Brokeback Mountain

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2006 at the AMC Harvard Square #1 (First-run)

Brokeback Mountain is a remarkable film, and I expect it will remain one even after its notoriety passes. There will come a time, twenty years or so from now, when love stories involving two men will appear in theaters unremarked upon, and when that time comes, I think this film will still be remembered as more than one of the first movies to focus on two men in love to solidly enter the mainstream consciousness; it will be remembered as a being noteworthy even outside the cultural context of 2005 America.

It focuses, as most probably know by now, on two cowboys who find themselves attracted to each other while herding sheep on an isolated mountain in 1963 Wyoming. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is an orphan and man of few words and little formal education; he dropped out of high school after a year to start working. He's due to get married in the fall. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is more gregarious, preferring rodeos to ranching. Over the course of the summer, mostly isolated from the world except for weekly grocery deliveries and an encounter with another flock, they grow close, and their relationship makes the jump from camaraderie to the physical when drink and weather prompts them to share the tent.

The job ends. Time passes. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), and they have two daughters. Jack eventually meets Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), marries her, going to work for her father and fathering a son of his own. He's still clearly looking at other guys, but Ennis doesn't seem to be. One could almost think Ennis had just been lonely on the mountaintop until Jack passes through town and suddenly Ennis is all over Jack before having time to think it might be a good idea to get where Alma can't accidentally see them. She does, but keeps quiet; it poisons their marriage, especially once Ennis and Jack get in the habit of meeting each other for "fishing trips" every few months.

That moment Ennis and Jack embrace after a four year absence comes, what, a half hour into the movie but it's the most important scene. The recklessness of it is passionate and alarming; at that moment it stops being this abstract gay-cowboy movie and about these two. It suddenly becomes heartfelt and real, but this is also when we see that their lives have changed since the summer they spent herding sheep. Before, their love was dangerous because it meant being ostracized or threatened; now, they've also got the quite conventional problem of potentially hurting the people who love them.

One thing that director Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana (working from an Annie Proulx short story) do is show time passing. The film opens with a title card indicating it's April 1963, but the jumps forward (eventually arriving in 1983) tend to be introduced by a date being mentioned on a radio or television in the background. One thing that's thankfully avoided is the use of noticeable old-age makeup; Ledger and Gyllenhaal look a little older than nineteen at the start and don't quite seem to be pushing forty at the end, but the actors show the burden of experience. Even as they stay much the same, the background changes - it's initially kind of jarring to see Linda Cardellini, done up in seventies hair and fashions, flirting with Ledger's character after having mostly seen him in very Norman Rockwell-esque environs. At least four young actresses play Ennis's daughter Alma Jr., but casting has matched them well enough to make her a singular character. I also like how Ennis's second daughter, Jenny, sort of disappears midway through the movie, suggesting but not explicitly stating that the girls found out why their parents' marriage failed and that Alma Jr. is more forgiving than Jenny.

Ledger and Gyllenhaal have to carry the first half-hour or so of the movie by themselves, and it's almost surprising how well they're up to the task. Jake Gyllenhaal has the flashier part as Jack, and it's trickier that it looks - he gets to shout and run his mouth and kind of give off a vibe, but he's not ever allowed to be flamboyant in a way that would shout "gay" out of this context. Ledger, on the other hand, is given a much deeper closet. He speaks in at-times incomprehensible mumble that indicates both a rugged man-of-few-words masculinity and guardedness. There's something in his past that keeps him from pushing his luck like Jack - compare a Thanksgiving dinner where Jack explodes at his father-in-law with the guilt and shame Ennis seems to feel around his daughters.

Though Ledger and Gyllenhaal are the stars, the rest of the cast is rock-solid. In fact, it's Michelle Williams as Alma who actually makes your heart break. She's the one who gets dumped on with very little to do about it, and her reactions are a perfectly-performed mix of sadness, anger, and incomprehension. She's come a long way in the past few years, from being "the other girl on Dawson's Creek", to seeming out of place in The Station Agent, to being among the best parts of this and The Baxter. Anne Hathaway doesn't get quite so meaty a role - this is more Ennis's story than Jack's, anyway, we mostly see her grow distant, retreating into a cold beauty. She's initially just as exuberant as Gyllenhaal, so we notice this and it almost makes us dislike her: She's the wronged party, but we'd rather see her Lureen act on it like Alma does.

A lot of talent shows up for just a few scenes. Randy Quaid is in his close-cropped hardass mode here, as the domineering owner of the livestock Ennis and Jack tend. Linda Cardellini shows up in the 1970s as a waitress who takes an interest in the lonely Ennis, with David Harbour taking an interest in Jack (Anna Faris is his spazz of a wife, a characterization she's really nailed by now). Kate Mara is the last actress to play Alma Jr., and while she doesn't really resemble the younger girls who had played the role, she gets a great scene with Ledger (as does the prior actress, Cheyenne Hill).

Brokeback Mountain is longer than typical, especially for a story that does not have a particularly large cast of characters, but there aren't many minutes that don't work, and work extremely well. The half-hour we spend just getting to know Jack and Ennis at the beginning is important; it not only lets us get to know them, but it establishes their blue-collar credentials and prevents any gay stereotypes from entering our heads. The cinematography is exceptionally beautiful on its own, but it also emphasizes how Jack and Ennis can only be their true, natural selves when they get away from settled places, and other people. Ennis gets more palpably tense the more he's constrained; the trailer park he inhabits toward the end feels like a prison. Lee hasn't really made a Western here, despite the film occasionally being described as one, but he knows how to use the American (or Canadian, as the case may be) West to communicate freedom and both the joy and danger of being outside the reach of law and standards.

That's why Brokeback Mountain is an exceptional movie, and possibly a great one. It's made by people who not only have something to say, but wit hthe craftsmanship to say it in a way that doesn't rely on rattling the audience. That's why this film will be remembered well after the jokes of the past six months are forgotten.

(Formerly at EFC) Next up: Night One of the Boston Underground Film Festival, which, thanks to the fun of writing without an internet connection, will be in the books by the time I post this.

(But I'll back date this to 7:05 pm, when I finished writing it offline. Because I'd be sneaky if I didn't insist on typing things like the preceeding paragraph.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Used one of my free tickets to see this Saturday night. The integration of AMC and Loews is so far showing a few benefits, in that all the TV ads seem to be moved back before the advertised start time, and now the MovieWatcher card is usable in a whole lot more places so I can get rewards faster, but the folks at Loews theaters still don't seem to know how to react when confronted with MovieWatcher reward tickets. The guy at the ticket counter had to call a manager.

Not that this is unique; I remember people scurrying to figure out what was up with the late, lamented "Weekday Escape" tickets when presented with them.

Anyway, not a great movie, but it piqued my interest for Day Watch and Dusk Watch. Kind of the same reaction I had to Chronicles of Riddick - I can really take that movie or leave it, but it ended at a point that made me earnestly want to see where Twohy was going. I hear the director of Night Watch is attached to The Red Star, and I like hearing that. An Russian director spending a lot of American money on that property is sort of ideal. And it was a nice way to relax after a frustrating day of looking for shelves and stools for the new house and not finding anything that fit my needs and budget.

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2006 at the AMC Boston Common #3 (First-run)

I'm not sure what to think about movies like Night Watch. I don't really find them satisfying while sitting in the theater, but when the film reaches its end, I really want to see what's going to happen next. I suppose that makes the film a successful "part one", if we assume that the commercial goal of a first installment is to make part two an even bigger hit.

Night Watch spends a fair amount of time setting up the story's world. It posits that people with supernatural powers, the "Others", exist in secret within the more mundane world. Hundreds of years ago, they prepared to meet in battle, but seeing that the armies were evenly matched, Geser (Vladimir Menshov), the leader of the Light faction, and his Dark counterpart Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky) struck a truce, Night and Day Watches to police the opposing factions. Flash forward to 1992, where we meet Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), whose attempt to hire the services of a sorceress reveals him as an Other. He chooses Light and joins the Night Watch. Twelve years later, while chasing a pair of vampires stalking a young boy (Dmitri Martynov), he stumbles upon Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), a young woman struck with a curse rapidly growing toward the apocalyptic. To make matters worse, the Day Watch becomes involved when he kills one of the vampires, despite his claims of self-defense.

Read the rest at HBS.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Game 6

Ouch. $9.75 for a movie? I so seldom pay full price that it's a surprise when I do - during the week, I tend to go to the Brattle, Coolidge, or HFA, or maybe a second-run place, saving first-run features for weekend matinees. This one was only playing a week at one theater, though, and I missed it over the weekend. So, ouch. The really annoying thing is I have two AMC passes that have to be used by Monday, but they're not good for "special engagments" (basically, a film's first ten days), so pay up.

I suppose some at AMC might consider that cosmic justice for my exploiting a glitch in the MovieWatcher system to get two passes instead of one, though.

Anyway, not a great movie. There were only about a dozen people there, and one guy just had to applaud at every mention of the Red Sox. Hey, I'm a fan too, and I've even advocated the audience singing along with "Sweet Caroline" (bum bum bum) during Fever Pitch, but you're being like that guy at the Brattle who doesn't just applaud names in the credits, but leans forward and fully extends his arms to make sure we all see him applauding. I bet when he goes to the ballpark, he repeatedly tries to start the wave when no-one else is interested.

Game 6

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2006 at the AMC Boston Common #10 (First-run)

I must admire writer Don DeLillo's restraint. He wrote a movie that spends a great deal of time on both the Boston Red Sox and the New York theater, and never once mentions Henry Frazee. It's surprising, not just because he seems to buy into a whole lot of other pre-2004 rubbish about Red Sox fans, but because it would be a way to link the horrific event of the title to the theater-related events that actually comprise the bulk of the story.

Nicky Rogan (Michael Keaton) is many things: He's a playwright, a husband and father in denial over the collapse of his marriage, a former cabbie, and a Red Sox fan. His newest and most personal play is set to open despite obstacles like a star (Harris Yulin) whose memory is failing thanks to a brain parasite he picked up shooting a movie in Borneo. The movie covers the day leading up to opening night, as Nicky travels across town in a series of cabs, aiming to get a haircut before the show begins, but being sent in different directions by seeing his daughter Laurel (Ari Graynor) in the next taxi, a quick morning tryst with one of his play's backers (Bebe Neuwirth), meeting up with fellow dramatist Elliot Litvak (Griffin Dunne), an underground steam pipe rupturing and spewing forth a cloud of toxic asbestos, and trying to convince his father (Tom Aldrege) to either come to the play or blow it off and watch the game with him. Hovering over all of this is Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.), the city's newest theater critic with a reputation for being almost as brutal (Litvak unconsciously recites a scathing review Schwimmer gave him) as he is paranoid and eccentric - he lives off the grid for fear of being attacked by the targets of his criticism, maintains the image of a Tibetan monk, and not only goes to the theater in disguise, but goes armed.

One of the chief mistakes I think DeLillo and director Michael Hoffman make is overselling the Red Sox's tortured history leading up to the night of October 25, 1986. Though I was only thirteen at the time and just really becoming a baseball fan, I don't remember the dread Rogan speaks of; that would come later, as a result of the improbable events of that awful tenth inning (in 1986, no-one had heard of the so-called curse of the bambino). But, to be fair, it was my first baseball heartbreak; Rogan has Pesky not making the relay and Bucky Dent in his consciousness. And let's not forget, I'm a New Englander, and thus a Red Sox fan by default; a New Yorker who followed the Red Sox before 2004 is probably, to a certain extent, drawn to the tragic narrative. Even if it's accurate, though, it's still some pretty heavy-handed foreshadowing to give Keaton lines about how he's certain things will go wrong in the game. We also don't know him well enough, in those early segments, to get how his bland pronouncements of impending doom reflect his character.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Give Thanks for Bogart

Four months behind. That's just unconscionable. I've got excuses - this was the start of the Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon, where I piled up far more movies watched than reviewed in depth, then the SF marathon, then I was moving... Coming up is the Boston Underground Film Festival, and the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Seeing and writing about a lot of movies is hard work.

Anyway, back in November, the Brattle had a Bogart series. The usually play Casablanca around Thanksgiving weekend - the logic probably being that a lot of people are out of town , so rather than miss part of a rep series, they may as well go with a standard that brings the locals in. But, since it's far from a secret that they were hurting for money last year, so they programmed a lot of stuff that would bring people out. Who's going to say no to Bogie at the Brattle? If you want to support the theater, it's a lot easier to do that for these films than, say, Jacques Doillon.

(And, hey, they're not out of the woods yet, despite a one-year reprieve; if you can find your way to give them some extra money via ticket sales, donations, becoming a member, it would be appreciated.)

It's a pleasure, though. When To Have and Have Not is the weakest film in a series, you're doing better than all right. Nobody's perfect, and Bogart made some clunkers over the course of his career - think The Barefoot Contessa - but he was also involved in a really disproporitonate number of outright great movies.

That's the benefit of the studio system - you have Bogart working at Warner Brothers at the same time as John Huston, Howard Hawks, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, etc., so once there's a combination that works, they can put them together again in fairly short order. Today, with most talent free agents, everyone probably makes closer to what they merit in terms of what they bring in, but trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time can take years.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

There is not a whole lot to say about Casablanca that is new. I feel vaguely silly writing anything at all, because anyone likely to read this probably already knows that this film is an all-time classic. Here in Boston/Cambridge, the Brattle Theater runs it at least twice a year, often preceded for a month by a trailer that regulars have memorized ("but they're all trapped!"). People attending a "Great Romances" double feature February 13th were advised to arrive by four the next day if they wanted to get tickets to the annual Valentine's Day showings. And despite Theo's constructing the Red Sox team that finally won the World Series, that his grandfather Philip and great-uncle Julius wrote this classic screenplay may be the Epstein family's greatest claim to fame. This is a beloved, famous movie, and rightly so. Do people really need to be convinced to see this?

Well, sure, maybe. People aren't born having seen it, and even if they have absorbed the plot and some of the greatest lines through osmosis, there's still plenty of delights to be found from actually watching the movie. There's a great cast on hand, so they can get introduced to some of the finest stars and supporting characters of classic Hollywood all at once. They can assure themselves that Humphrey Bogart does not, in fact, use the line "play it again, Sam". And they can witness just how a fantastic cast and crew can make a flawed story into a classic, and what a delight it is when that happens.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

Nasty thing, greed. It's in every one of us, lying dormant while we have nothing, waiting for us to get a taste of prosperity before flaming up and convincing us that it's not enough. That's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a nutshell, and few if any have played that theme as well as director John Huston and his cast.

As the film starts, we see Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) homeless in Tampico, Mexico, begging money off American tourists. After hitting the same American up for money three or four times, he's directed to Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), who's offering work. There he meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and after they convince McCormick to actually pay them rather than running off, they meet an old-timer named Howard (Walter Huston), who convinces them to re-invest their earnings in a gold-mining venture. It's hard, at first, but that difficulty is nothing compared to what happens when the mine pans out, and each is worrying about the others coming after his hoard.

Read the rest at HBS.

To Have and Have Not

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

So, it's World War II. Humphrey Bogart is playing an expatriate American running a small business in an occupied French colony, more or less minding his own business until an important resistance figure and his wife show up and turn his world upside down. This sounds awful familiar, but the action takes place not in Morocco, but Martinique.

Truthfully, To Have and Have Not really only resembles Casablanca in broad outline. Bogart's Harry Morgan operates a small fishing boat, and business isn't nearly so good as it is at Rick's Café. His first mate Eddie (Walter Brennan) drinks most of the profits, and his most recent customer (Walter Sande) refuses to pay up. The beautiful Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall) arrives on the island just as the war starts to come in earnest - a trip to secretly transport de Gaule lieutenant Paul de Bursac (Walter Szurovy) and his wife Hellene (Dolores Moran) ends with de Bursac wounded and the authorities hot on their trail.

Read the review at HBS.

The Big Sleep

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

The Big Sleep isn't confusing; it's rich. Its plot is too convoluted for many to fully grasp in one viewing, but where that could be seen as a negative for many films, it's a delight for this one. Depending on the type of person you are, it either gives you an excuse to re-watch it (and experience all the bon mots and pretty ladies again), or it will allow the film's stature to build when you watch it again for all the great lines.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate the blackmail of his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Before he can leave the Sternwood mansion, though, older sister Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) is looking to take control of the situation. Good luck with that; every rock Marlowe turns over reveals some new crime, be it blackmail, drugs, gambling, or murder. And when the person initially blackmailing the Sternwoods is found dead, that doesn't mean their problems are over - it just means there's more (and more dangerous) people involved than had originally been thought.

Read the rest at HBS.

Key Largo

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

Key Largo was one of four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall did together, and as such it's tempting to make them the central focus of the review. But I've already written a couple bits about them recently, so let's talk about Edward G. Robinson.

If you compare stars of yesteryear to those of today, Edward G. Robinson might be said to be his era's Christopher Walken. He was ubiquitous, showing up in a lot of supporting roles. He had an instantly recognizable voice, look, and persona that he carried between films, so that when he showed up, it didn't take more than a few moments to know what this guy was about. He played a lot of bad guys, and bounced freely between A and B movies. He was a famous enough name to be prominently displayed on the poster, but his presence alone probably didn't put a lot of butts in seats. People were glad to see him more than they went looking for him.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Maltese Falcon

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Give Thanks for Bogart)

The Maltese Falcon straddles the line between pulp fiction and film noir like few other films. The black statue of the title is a fantastical target for the film's motley crew of thieves and scoundrels, and ancient treasure suggesting far-off places and high adventure. It's not in some mysterious European vault, though; it's in Los Angeles, and none of the people involved in the caper are particularly high-minded.

Certainly not Miles Archer, a private detective who is putty in the hands of a woman (Mary Astor) who claims to be seeking her missing sister. The next morning, though, Archer's dead, and even as his business partner Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is unceremoniously having the office door re-stenciled, he aims to find out why. The trail leads to a pair of hoods (Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.) and a collector of rare antiquities (Sydney Greenstreet), all looking for a black statuette originally belonging to the Knights Templar.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: Probably Game 6, as I try to balance reviewing stuff while it's fresh in my mind with working down the backlog.