Friday, April 28, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 4: Three cities

The plan on Saturday had been like the plan on Friday - go to Somerville for the animated shorts at noon, hang around there all day, following the schedule I'd mapped out days before, then head to the Coolidge for a midnight show and walk home. Because this is a festival, specifically the IFFB, things didn't go according to plan.

Good reason, though - a whole bunch of people wanted to see Chalk, so it got moved from one of the small downstairs theaters to the big main screen. This meant a forty-five minute delay, which means in collides with plans for other films. So once I get out of that, I head back to Cambridge for Wordplay at the Brattle, then quickly back to Somerville for Abduction.

Happily, all four of the features were very good to excellent. To re-iterate what I said right after seeing it, Abduction is a fantastic documentary that starts out as true crime and becomes an international spy story. It's going to be a big deal if it gets a release.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

It's not necessarily a good thing when folks who should know say a movie is dead on; my least favorite movies are the ones that capture something unexceptional perfectly. Still, when the teachers behind me said that Chalk pretty much nailed the experience of being relatively new at that job, I was glad to hear it. Nothing wrong with the movie making us think about how stressful a teacher's life can be, especially since it's so funny throughout.

Chalk is presented in the half-documentary format of television shows like Arrested Development and The Office: There's little indication that the characters are aware of a camera, and it seemed to have more coverage and close-ups than a real low-budget documentaries would probably have, but makes frequent use of "confessional" and post-shoot interview footage. It follows four teachers in an Austin high school: Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a first-year history teacher whose lack of self-confidence is countered by Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass), on his third year whose ambition is to win Teacher of the Year within his first five despite not really being that good at teaching history. The gym teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) would like us to know that despite having short hair and being a gym teacher (and kind of pushy), she is not gay; her friend Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) is starting her first year as an assistant principal after having been the chorus leader.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Wordplay is this year's big word-nerd documentary, following in the footsteps of Spellbound and Word Wars. As a member of that constituency, I'm pleased to see that the independent filmmakers of the world are catering to me in this way, and that they're not catering to me with crap, either. Wordplay continues the streak of these movies being highly entertaining.

(Obligatory Boston-based-guy complaint: The constant praise of the New York Times crossword as the gold standard got old for me fairly quickly. The Globe's daily crossword is not the greatest, but on Sundays they alternate between Henry Hook and Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon, who are in my humble opinion better than Shortz. Of course, since the Times owns the Globe, Shortz could very well be their editor.)

Yes, folks, people have favorite crossword puzzle constructors, although the vast majority of people who solve these puzzles probably don't give that much thought to how those puzzles come to be. It turns out that even before landing arguably the top job in American puzzledom, Shortz was a big name in the hobby: He created his own major and curriculum for "enigmatology" in college, and not long after was one of the organizers of the first National Crossword Puzzle Championship in Stamford, CT, which he still heads up today. When he took the job as the Times's puzzle editor in the early 1990s, it was a major shift in direction for the paper - his style of using fewer obscure words and more humor and pop culture was a big shift for the Times.

Read the rest at HBS.

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

I'm not doing the thing. I'm not saying that Abduction is one of the best movies I've seen in the past year, and certainly the best documentary, just because it has important subject matter. I hate when people do that, whether they be critics, award voters, or just plain snobs. I'm saying Abduction is a great film because it tells a fascinating story in a suspenseful, exciting way, delivering the kind of emotional gut punches we go to the movies for.

If you're going in cold, it starts out like a fairly straightforward cold-case kidnapping story. On November 15, 1977, thirteen year-old Megumi Yokota and her best friend were walking home from badminton practice and went their separate ways. The friend comes home safely; Megumi vanishes as if into thin air. She's initially thought to be a runaway, though her family is at a loss as to why she would leave home. A couple years later, a crime reporter gets a tip that something strange is happening along Japan's west coast: Young couples in their early twenties are disappearing, though one pair escapes. Megumi's abduction isn't thought to be connected, as it doesn't fit tte pattern. It's not until 1997 that the truth is confirmed: Megumi and the others were kidnapped by North Korean spies and shipped in tiny containers across the Sea of Japan to train NK agents to better impersonate Japanese.

Read the rest at HBS.

District B13 (Banlieue 13)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

There are two kinds of action movie in the world. There's the ones that make the audience ooh and ahh and whoop from an adrenaline rush, and then there's the ones like District 13, where you get some of that, but you as often wince, draw a sharp intake of breath, and kind of turn halfway from the screen. You lean over to the guy sitting next to you and whisper "that, mon ami... that has got to hurt."

It's to be expected. We're informed right off the bat that Paris's District 13 is a violent place, so bad that in 2010 it's been walled off from the rest of the city with the police pulling out to just let the riffraff kill each other. Still, there's one guy in there willing to fight for what's right: Leito (David Belle) has intercepted a suitcase full of heroin and is destroying it. This displeases gangster Taha (Bibi Naceri), so he sends henchman K2 (Tony D'Amario) to stop him. There's a big fight, Taha and K2 decide to kidnap Leito's sister Lola (Dany Verissimo), and there's another big fight. The film then skips six months and introduces us to Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), a crack undercover operative (via a big fight), who is sent undercover into B13 to retrieve a neutron bomb that has fallen into Taha's hands, with prisoner Leito as a guide. Big fights ensue.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Another screening heads-up for the weekend

Survive Style 5+ will be this Sunday's Eye Opener at the Brattle Theater. It's a colorful, crazy movie from Japan that hasn't gotten distribution in the U.S. yet, apparently in part due to music rights issues. I only saw it on a (VHS!) screener, so it'll be very nice to see it on the big screen.

So, that's at the Brattle Theater, Sunday at 11am. $10 for drop-ins, $50 for the series of eight films ($30 for Clotrudis or Brattle members), three of which have already screened. Ivy leads a discussion afterwards. It's a good time and a great film you might not otherwise get a chance to see.

Saturday night (4/29) heads-up

Got an email yesterday mentioning a screening of Red Doors at the Museum of Fine Arts this coming Saturday night. Looks pretty good from the website. Tickets are on sale now.

Might be worth a look; I can't get to Tribeca this year (thought I was gong to have jury duty and I'm still working on my IFFB reviews), but this won some prizes there last year.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 3: Friday night at the Coolidge

One of the things I tried to do this year, at least initially, is try and stay in one place all day. Which meant wanting to see the movie with Julie Delpy and the new Quay Brothers thing (more on that in a couple days) locked me into the Coolidge for the night. Which was fine; I wasn't going to go for a midnight at Somerville, even though it meant Saturday's midnight would be in Brookline, too, as opposed to the easier-to-walk-home-from Brattle. It also got me into Brothers of the Head, which wasn't really on my list of stuff to check out; "conjoined twin punk rockers in the seventies" is the sort of thing that seems a little too odd for me.

The line and Q&A for Lucy Keyes was interesting; I'm looking at the description and seeing "horror movie", and then I'm standing in line with a whole bunch of kids. It turns out this was made locally, so a lot of families who knew the filmmaker came out, and I think some of the kids were friends of the child actors in the cast. I was fairly impressed with how it was a good family ghost story; it's not a genre people play in nowadays.

Of course, one of those kids saw my Press pass and asked if I wrote for the paper. I said "no, a website", and he didn't say another word. No respect.

Then a quick stop at The Upper Crust, where they were out of pepperoni slices. Now, if you've got cheese slices, can't you throw some pepperoni on them if you're going to be heating it anyway? Please? Ah, well. That was followed by Death Trance, which is a ton of fun. I was kind of dragging by this point; I'd gone in to work early so I could leave early, and I'd been writing stuff up between movies. Long. Day. And then I gave up on the bus too quickly, so had to walk home at 1:30am.

Still, it was the start of a very solid weekend.

Brothers of the Head

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe are documentarians by trade most known for films about show business like Lost in La Mancha. Thus, this adaptation of a Brain Aldiss novel takes on that form. It's not just a case where every problem looks like a nail when you're good with a hammer, though; it's a way to bring the audience into an unusual situation.

That situation is the lives of Tom and Barry Howe, a pair of conjoined twins raised in isolation until a musical impresario more or less purchases the seventeen-year-old brothers from their father in the mid-1970s. Rather than becoming the pop novelty act the man envisioned, the pair pick up a punk sensibility, as Barry's songs especially are suffused with anger and raw emotion; they are getting their first chance to express themselves to the outside world and they're not messing around. It's far from an easy or idyllic life, of course, as the house in which they life includes an intrusive documentarian, a "keeper" who locks them in their room and beats them, and a pretty graduate student studying them who quickly comes between the brothers.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Legend of Lucy Keyes

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

The best ghost stories aren't really about ghosts; a ghost is a concept to ill-defined to really work as the focus of a story that aims to have a real plot and play fair with its audience. Stick a ghost into another kind of story, though, and you can not only add a little extra suspense, but misdirect the audience into thinking they're watching a different sort of movie.

The Legend of Lucy Keyes looks like a horror movie; it gives us a family of of city folk moving out to tiny Prniceton, Massachusetts where father Guy Cooley (Justin Theroux) will hopefully be helping to build a windmill farm, while mother Jeanne (Julie Delpy) is mostly looking for a new start after seeing their youngest daughter killed by a car in a city street. Daughters Molly (Kathleen Regan) and Lucy (Cassidy Hinkle) are in tow. There's some weird people in town, from the too-cheerful woman spearheading the windmill campaign (Brooke Adams) to the creepy woman basically saying that disturbing that land will disturb restless spirits (Jamie Donnelly), to the grumpy farmer next door who fertilizes his crops with awful-smelling clam bellies. Jeanne eventually learns about another Lucy who disappeared some two hundred and fifty years earlier and the girl's mother who is said to haunt the woods

Read the rest at HBS.

Death Trance

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

A few years ago, a movie by the name of "Versus" came out of Japan. Almost revolutionary in its simplicity, it married old-school Hong Kong martial arts style - let there be many well-choreographed fights, and let them come at the drop of a hat - to modern Japanese willingness to throw genre into a blender, stuck a talented young director on it, and pretty much hit people square in the id. That director's gone on to bigger things; now that film's action director, Yuji Shimomura, has taken the big chair for the first time and refined the formula a little more.

As much fun as Versus was, it wore the audience out and then hit us with convoluted backstory. Shimomura and his co-writers know that we're here to see butts kicked, and never loses sight of that. There's story, but it's doled out in manageable pieces between the action scenes. It's also not complicated enough that we feel the need to keep track of a whole bunch of elements to get something out of the action - each revelation means that someone's going to try and get possession of the coffin that serves as the movie's MacGuffin, the guy who has possession will fight him, and then the chase is on again. It's shallow, sure, but the fight scenes are good, and we learn enough to have a rooting interest even though we're given more than two sides, not always easily labeled "good" and "evil". And even if the story often seems like "just enough to get ninety minutes of movie out of fifty minutes of violence", it's also enough to get us to lean forward in our seats a little in the last act when the MacGuffin's about to start MacGuffing.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

No sleep tonight - Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

This is just critic-hostile scheduling. You show a movie at 8:30 Saturday night, with the next show at Sunday noon, and I'm supposed to get a review written in time for it to be useful? Even if I wasn't going to try and see a midnight movie afterward, and taking for granted that probably no other member of the press attending is committed to helping their younger brother move the next morning, that's what you call a tight deadline. I know, that's what daily newspaper reporters and actual conscientious bloggers have to manage every day, but I'm just an enthusiastic amateur with a day job.

--sigh-- Damn that press pass and that excellent movie for creating a sense of obligation to push this thing. Because it's a really fantastic film, and on top of that, the IFFB screenings have not just the directors, but the brothers of two of the abductees mentioned in the movie who have stopped in Boston on the way to testify before Congress about North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens. So there's the opportunity for a truly great Q&A here, as well.

Anyway - Coolidge Corner, 12pm. Be there if you can.

And now, the full review as posted on HBS/EFC:

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

I'm not doing the thing. I'm not saying that Abduction is one of the best movies I've seen in the past year, and certainly the best documentary, just because it has important subject matter. I hate when people do that, whether they be critics, award voters, or just plain snobs. I'm saying Abduction is a great film because it tells a fascinating story in a suspenseful, exciting way, delivering the kind of emotional gut punches we go to the movies for.

If you're going in cold, it starts out like a fairly straightforward cold-case kidnapping story. On November 15, 1977, thirteen year-old Megumi Yokota and her best friend were walking home from badminton practice and went their separate ways. The friend comes home safely; Megumi vanishes as if into thin air. She's initially thought to be a runaway, though her family is at a loss as to why she would leave home. A couple years later, a crime reporter gets a tip that something strange is happening along Japan's west coast: Young couples in their early twenties are disappearing, though one pair escapes. Megumi's abduction isn't thought to be connected, as it doesn't fit tte pattern. It's not until 1997 that the truth is confirmed: Megumi and the others were kidnapped by North Korean spies and shipped in tiny containers across the Sea of Japan to train NK agents to better impersonate Japanese.

This sounds like the fanciful stuff of spy dramas, but it's very real. We hear from An, a North Korean defector who met Megumi in 1989, and it becomes a huge story in Japanese politics, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi eventually pressed into cutting off humanitarian aid to North Korea unless the abductees are acknowledged and returned. It's strongly suggested that it would be grounds for a military strike if such things weren't forbidden by the Japanese constitution.

Although heads of state and defectors and other spies obviously play big roles in this story, filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim focus on the stories of those left behind. This is, after all, billed as "The Megumi Yokota Story", so we spend a lot of time with her parents, Shigeru and Sakie. They are ordinary people - a banker and a housewife with two younger children, and as torturous as losing one's thirteen-year-old daughter is under any circumstances, the revelation of the circumstances behind her kidnapping thrust them into the public eye in the late 1990s, a time when they should have been enjoying their retirement rather than campaigning for the government to search out their daughter. Sukie becomes religious, finding inspiration in the book of Job, while Shigeru has the opposite reaction; how could a benevolent God allow such things to happen? The mother of another abductee has a complete nervous breakdown, and though we're given relatively brief glances of her and her husband (who was also in very ill health by the time this film was in production, and died during its filming), it's very unsettling to see what a horrific effect the disappearance of a child, even a grown one, can have on a parent's life. And then there's Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister Rumiko disappeared along with her boyfriend in 1978, who eventually quits his job to devote himself full-time to searching for her, even running for Parliament to try and force the issue. We feel terrible for all those left behind, and understand why they can't let go, even when it would be the sensible way to spend what time they have left.

We understand this because Kim and Sheridan are almost cruel in how they slowly dole out information. Though this film runs a short eighty-five minutes, it feels much longer. They jump back and forth in time to give the audience a sense of the scale of the story, and draw out the listing of the names and fates of the victims with suspenseful music to work the audience's nerves, and then, even though it feels like the film has gone on an hour and a half and the credits should be about to roll, there's more movie left than you might expect - after all, to believe that this is a definitive ending would involve accepting what North Korea says, and would you trust Kim Jong-Il if it was your missing family member? Didn't think so. Still, it means that the last act is so full of acting against the evidence as to almost be painful - we almost want Matsumoto and the others to drop it and get on with their own lives, but suspect (hope) that we'd be just as determined in their situation.

Even more impressive is that the filmmakers don't really have that much material to work with where their title character is concerned. 1977 is before there were many consumer video cameras, so we're working from grainy stills, mainly, and not very many. We get reminiscences from her family and friends, and a tape of her singing a solo in the school choir during her elementary school graduation ceremony. We see even less of the other abductees. And yet we do get an idea of what Megumi's like, and what her disappearance means to those who loved her. It's a lot done with relatively little.

Which is part of what makes this film so great - as big a deal as these abductions are, and how much information is out there, there's relatively little ready-made footage for a film, so it's a good job to see it put together like this. Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan make a big, sprawling story affecting on a personal, emotional level - and isn't that the best thing a documentary can do?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 2: The Giant Buddhas, Before the Music Dies

Thursday's movies were an interesting example of the conflicting requirements to make a good documentary: You need to present interesting information, on the one hand, but the how of what you present is just as important as the what. The Giant Buddhas has an intriguing subject, but terribly dry presentation. Before the Music Dies tells me little I didn't know before, but does it in an entertaining, exciting way.

One thing I wonder about the second is how well music distribution over the internet will really work for new bands. That's the new model, giving the music away online and supporting oneself off deluxe CDs, live performances, and the like. It seems to work OK for webcomics, but a thousand fans of a musician distributed across the country aren't likely to go to a concert or gig the way a thousand fans in the Boston area area will.

The Giant Buddhas

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

The giant Buddha statues carved out of cliffs at Bamiyan were not, according to Thomas Byron, particularly magnificent works of art. He describes them as ugly works created by monks who could barely be called craftsmen. Even if one agrees with that assessment, they were still remarkable in their dimensions - fifty-three meters tall and hundreds of years old. That they were deliberately destroyed by a government looking to eradicate evidence of other cultures is an obscenity, a point which filmmaker Christian Frei makes repeatedly but yet, somehow, never quite forcefully.

It's not quite clear what got Frei fixated on these two statues, which the Taliban destroyed five years ago. The narration is structured initially as letters to Nelofer Pazira, a one-time Afghani refugee living in Toronto, who later tells us she'd seen first them in pictures her father took on his travels, but it isn't really important. What matters is that it sends him around the world, from Bamiyan where he speaks to a man whose family lived in the caves Paris, where a professor of archeology is preparing an expedition to find other Buddhist monuments in the areas. There are also stops in Toronto, China (where he speaks to Buddhist monk scholars and attempts to view a replica), Kabul, and Qatar, where he meets the al-Jazeera reporter who covered the statues' demolition.

Read the rest at HBS.

Before the Music Dies

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

I strongly suspect that for many people in the audience, Before the Music Dies isn't saying much they don't already know. What passes for mainstream pop music is manufactured pap whose performers don't have the skills for performing live. Relaxation (nearly to the point of elimination) of ownership regulations has sucked much of the life out of commercial radio. Record companies being owned by large media corporations has made artist development and management all about short-term returns. It could very easily become the rantings of a cranky old man put on the big screen, but filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rassmussen are a little more optimistic than that.

Starting this project after each lost a music-loving sibling who had been very concerned about the direction of the music industry, they start from their home base in Austin, Texas and criss-cross the country talking to musicians, executives, fans, journalists, and others to survey the state of music in America. The underlying message is clear: The traditional infrastructure of the industry has become rigid and corporatized to the point where it no longer serves musicians or enthusiasts very well, but the internet has picked up much of the slack, giving proactive fans and artists the chance to connect like never before.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 1: Half Nelson

My second experience attending a film festival as a member of the recognized media is thus far a bit smoother than the first: The IFFB organizers got me a pass quickly, even though I only arrived about 20-25 minutes before Half Nelson was scheduled to start. Sure, it was a blank one, but handled much more quickly than a similar situation was at Fantasia (that the people at the desk and I spoke the same primary language was probably immensely helpful). It was also a huge difference from my attempt to attend the IFFB's opening night show last year: Mingling in the Somerville Theater lobby, having people come up and ask if I need anything when they saw the badge around my neck, as opposed to standing in the rain for an hour only to be told that I wasn't getting tickets.

Yes, I resented the people with passes last year. I'm a total hypocrite.

Half Nelson wound up being a pretty good way to start the festival. It's kind of documentary-style, with us just sort of meeting and following the characters, not worrying about plot twists or a whole lot of foreshadowing. The filmmakers have a documentary background - they've been to IFFB with both documentary shorts and features before - so this is probably natural for them.

Actaully, it's kind of amusing - this is the fourth IFFB, and filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have come with a documentary short, a narrative short, a documentary feature, and a narrative feature. I think their options for next year are doing something with animation, a lecture, or a midnight movie. They also did an entertaining Q&A - Fleck's got a great, dry sense of humor, and they played off their sixteen-year-old star very well. Ms. Boden's from Newton, and I think their local ties and history with the festival made for a cool, laid-back opening night.

This could be a very fun festival; I can't remember going to one that handed out raffle tickets on the way into the theater before. I just hope I can escape from the day job early enough for two movies tonight.

Half Nelson

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Movies about great teachers aren't unusual; they're almost standards in their way. Nearly as common are movies about great students. Often they're the same movie, with the two having a symbiotic relationship, keeping each other from being swallowed up by the pressures inside and outside the school. Half Nelson is that kind of movie, but it avoids being saccharine. Audiences may consider it inspirational, but in a very low-key way.

Our teacher is Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling); a white man teaching American History at a primarily black middle school in Brooklyn. He's not quite one of the great teachers, but he tries - he's writing a book, and he makes an effort to get his students to understand what history is and why it's worth studying rather than just filling them with the facts that will be on standardized tests. He also coaches the girl's JV basketball team, and both the team and his history class include Drey (Shareeka Epps), a thirteen year-old girl whose older brother is in jail, whose whose mother works long hours, and whose father is frustratingly absent. She's caught the interest of Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who had previously recruited her older brother Mike. Oh, and speaking of drugs? Dunne's got a big problem with the crack; Drey finds him all but passed out in the locker room after the game.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Animated doldrums: Ice Age 2 and The Wild

By now, I really should be over expecting Disney's animation work to be special. It's not Walt, it's not the nine old men, heck, it's not even the nineties group of Clements & Musker and Wise & Trousedale any more. And I suspect we really can't blame Disney for the crushing mediocrity that is The Wild, other than that they agreed, at some point in development, to acquire and distiribute it. Still, the opening plays with the logo, which just re-inforces that this is Disney's.

Should we care? After all, until the buyout of Pixar, Disney proper wasn't where good feature animation was happening. The really big hits and arguably high-quality stuff was coming out of DreamWorks/PDI and Pixar, with Fox's Blue Sky making a good showing and Paramount's Nickelodeon being the name kids cared about. Meanwhile, Disney has been further diluting their good name by sticking it on mediocrities like Valiant and The Wild.

Disney's a name that has the better part of a century of history behind it, and I think many of us would like to see that continuity. As distasteful as them swallowing Pixar whole might be for those of us who are fans of Pixar but not recent Disney, it's worth remembering that Pixar's story is intimately entangled with Disney, and completely severing the two probably wouldn't have done Pixar any favors. It is, I think, remarkable, that Disney has been able to revitalize itself twice in my lifetime, even if it's unfortunate that they had to.

As to the other film reviewed here, it's familiar and Fox is probably starting work on Ice Age 3. It's worth noting that none of the writers of the first Ice Age were involved with #2, and the original primary director is apparently off doing something else - Chris Wedge was probably still working on Robots when production on this started, since these things take a fair amount of time. The collaboration between Fox and Blue Sky is certainly working out well commercially, although each film has been less exciting than the one before.

But, these movies had previews for Over The Hedge, Happy Feet and Cars. Things look to be getting better before the year is out.

Ice Age: The Meltdown

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2006 at AMC Boston Common #2 (First-run)

The teaser for Ice Age 2 kicked around for about a year before the movie came out, and delivered pretty much everything I wanted from new "Ice Age" stuff, quite frankly: Wonderfully executed slapstick featuring Scrat, the sabertoothed squirrel-rat from the first movie who wants nothing more than to recover one of the few acorns left in the desolate landscape. There's about fifteen minutes of Scrat chasing his nut in The Meltdown, and it is by and large brilliant. The other hour-plus is more of a mixed bag.

The characters from the first movie - Scrat, Manny the mammoth (voice of Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (voice of John Leguizamo), and saber-toothed tiger Diego (voice of Denis Leary) have been living in an icy, but fairly temperate, valley. They soon discover that the dam that overlooks their home is about to burst, and soon they and the other residents are making their way to a boat that a vulture tells them is ready to take the residents of this basin to safety. On the way, they'll encounter melting icefields (Diego, like most cats, hates water and doesn't know how to swim); a crazy sloth cult; the first mammoth other than Manny that anyone has seen in a while, though Ellie (voice of Queen Latifah), however, was raised by opossums and doesn't realize she's a mammoth; and a pair of sea monsters, apparently frozen ages ago, that have thawed and are looking for fresh meat.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Wild

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2006 at AMC Fenway #5 (First-run)

The last time Disney feature animation was in such doldrums, there was no DreamWorks and no Blue Sky, so people could be forgiven for assuming that there was just no interest in animation as a medium. Now, though, when we see something as disappointing as The Wild, it's after sitting through trailers for Over the Hedge and Happy Feet, which makes it seem like everyone but Disney knows what they're doing. Even if this movie is an acquisition rather than something produced in-house, Disney's darn lucky to have John Lasseter around to play the same role Clements and Musker played in the late eighties/early nineties, because this just won't do.

There was a very similar movie last year by the name of Madagascar; here, the lion that serves as the New York Zoo's star attraction is Samson (voice of Keifer Sutherland). It's his son Ryan (voice of Greg Clipes) who wants to see the wild, and he winds up on a boat back to Africa, Samson and friends - streetwise squirrel Benny (voice of James Belushi), London-raised koala Nigel (voice of Eddie Izzard), dopey snake Larry (voice of Richard Kind), and the giraffe Benny has a biologically challenging crush on, Bridget (voice of Janeane Garofalo) - must rescue him. A boat is hijacked and runs aground, and the city animals find themselves confronted by a pack of crazy jungle beasts - here, wildebeests led by Kazar (voice of William Shatner), convinced that if he turns carnivore by eating a lion, he'll be king of the jungle.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Unknown White Male

I like the idea of identity as a malleable thing, at least as a story device. If it were to appear in my personal life, it would disturb me greatly. It's a theme I play with a lot in Transplated Life: We tend to think of our self as an atomic thing, changing shape over time, but not something breakable by outside forces. We really want to think of our brain as an interface device which our soul uses to interact with the physical world.

That's probably not the case, or if it is, it seems likely that souls are plain, generic things. Drinking will change "who we are", temporarily, as will any number of psychoactive drugs. Surgery can do it more permanently. And then there are cases like Doug Bruce in Unknown White Male, where something causes him to lose his memory, leading to personality changes subtle and gross.

The idea of that really terrifies me. I may be able to articulate the concept that I, as a human being, respond to my environment because of rules based on imperfectly recorded experiences, but I don't like it. But that's the sort of thing this movie makes you confront, that who you are can be changed by external factors - and that afterward, you'd think of that new version of yourself as normal, because you really don't have any other frame of reference.

I don't know about you, but that sort of idea can keep me awake at night.

Unknown White Male

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (First-run)

Total amnesia shows up in the movies much more than it does in real life, for which we should be immensely grateful. After all, something which is a source of compelling drama is almost by definition something we don't want happening to us. And while amnesia is a fantastic set-up for a story of mystery and suspense, a backstory is not a requirement for the disease. That doesn't necessarily make it a less interesting subject; in fact, stripped of a plot, that type of memory loss allows one to really investigate the concept of identity.

There's no dramatic reason for Douglas Bruce's memory loss. The story begins with him coming out of a fugue state on a train to Coney Island; he doesn't realize that he's lost his memory until somebody his name. Not knowing, he turns to the police and eventually a hospital, who call the phone number on a piece of paper in his pocket (he is carrying no ID). The woman who answers doesn't know him, but her daughter does. He eventually finds out where he lives, that he used to be a stockbroker but retired young and now studies photography. He's got a father living in Spain, two sisters, and an ex-girlfriend who shares his apartment when she's not travelling. He's also got a tiny tumor on his pituitary gland, but it seems unlikely to be the cause of his problem.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Two from Korea: The President's Last Bang and The Brotherhood of War

I haven't been reading nearly as much as I want to lately, and I've got a pile of stuff to go through, but I'd like to find a good book about Korean history in the twentieth century, if only because what I've seen on film the past few years is fascinating. Tragic, more often than not, though it seems to be turning out all right in the end, at least for South Korea: Like Japan before them, they've got a strong economy and their export goods are gaining a better reputation. They've got one of the most vibrant national cinemas going, too.

Which is kind of amazing, really. Up until about fifteen years ago, South Korea was mostly a democracy in name only; it just looked good because it was located next to North Korea on a map, where Kim Il-Sung basically made himself a communist king and his son maintains just as firm a grip. It's easy to look like the good guys next to that, but in the South, Park Chun-hee declared martial law and remained President for eighteen years before the assassination attempt chronicled in The President's Last Bang, but his death didn't change much; Memories of Murder opens by informing us that ten years later, the country was under the rule of a military dictatorship; Ma Vie en Rose describes how dissidents evaded the government's curfew by hiding out in all-night comic book rental shops.

Crazy. Absolutely crazy, and somehow, it's all working out for South Korea. One just hopes that eventually, the two Koreas will be able to reunite as the two Germanies did. The Korean people have earned itself some happiness and prosperity, although I must admit to being glad that they've been able to turn their darker years into some damn good movies.

The President's Last Bang (Geuddae geusaramdeul)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

History is stranger than fiction.

In October, 1979, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency assassinated President Park Chun-hee. This is a matter of historical fact, but Im Sang-soo isn't interested in delivering a dry lecture. So he makes The President's Last Bang a comedy. After all, most Koreans know the names and events; what Im does is provide surprising motivations and highlight how an act this audacious will have moments a morbid humor.

President Park, we're informed, has been in office for eighteen years, and though the fiction of democracy is maintained via an opposition party, he is a venal and corrupt dictator. Idle and arrogant in his power, he decides to have a "meeting" (more of a party) at a KCIA safe house. In attendance will be the President, Chief Bodyguard Cha (Jeong Won-jung), Chief Secretary Yang (Kwun Byung-gil), two young and pretty women, and KCIA chief Kim (Baek Yun-shik). After a series of particularly ugly comments by Cha, Kim excuses himself to speak with one Chief Agent Ju (Han Suk-kyu): "We do it tonight." What about...? "The President is the primary target. Killing Cha is just a bonus."

Read the rest at HBS.

The Brotherhood of War (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Korean War on Film)

The Korean War is overlooked in the United States; the world was much the same at its end as at its beginning, and it never became the unending quagmire that Vietnam or Iraq did. The Communist witch-hunts and later Vietnam became much more interesting stories. In Korea, though, it was one of the century's defining events, and here serves as the backdrop for an intense, if occasionally melodramatic, war movie.

University student Lee Jin-seok (Bin Won) and his older brother Jin-tae (Jang Dong-Kun) live just outside Soeul with Jin-tae's fiancée Young-shin (Lee Eun-ju) and their mother (Lee Yeong-ran). When North Korea invades and Souel is evacuated, Jin-seok is dragooned into the army, as is Jin-tae when he tries to extricate his brother, despite the rule about only one child per family. As they're assigned to the front lines, Jin-tae makes a deal with his superior officer to take dangerous assignments to keep his brother relatively safe, gaining a hero's reputation in the process. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Young-shin is considered a communist sympathizer because she attended meetings for the rice that was handed out - and as you can imagine, being considered a communist sympathizer is much worse in a Republic of Korea in the middle of a shooting war than Cold War America. When the family is reunited, the story takes a lurching (and improbable?) twist.

Read the rest at HBS

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Boston Underground Film Festival: Day 5

It's fitting that this entry took so long, because the day sort of dragged on for a while. It was one of those days where the films are staggered so that while I could have fit five in if I'd stayed at the Brattle, they weren't the five I really wanted to see. So while there was about half an hour between the silent shorts and Riot On!, I had an hour and a half after that before Camp Daze, then an hour and a half or so before the animated shorts. Good time for some poking around Harvard Square, and going home to get some supper, but not enough time to write things up or work through the backlog of stuff on the DVR.

It wound up being my favorite day at the BUFF, though. I like short films a lot, and these were the packages I was most interested in: Silent sci-fi and horror to start the day and animation to end it. There's not much money in short films - most are student films - so they tend to be done on the cheap. Using the silent aesthetic can let a director get away with a little, and the tools available to animators are getting more and more impressive, especially if they want to invest some time.

Will I see twelve feature and shorts programs at BUFF next year? I'm not sure. The same way that Fantasia hits everything I love, BUFF hits a lot of the things that leave me cold. I like the shorts, so I'll probably concentrate on that next year. Still, there were some fun features, and it comes just before Hollywood really starts gearing up.

Shorts Program Six: Silent Screams

Seen 26 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"The Last Woman on Earth" - * * * - Not a whole lot of story to this one, but it's presented like a lost silent movie looking at an even earlier type of moving picture. A man pulls out a mothballed box that, when properly prepped, shows a flip-book of a woman dancing. Pretty nifty, especially when we cut-away to see stop-motion animation of how the device works, with candles and mirrors and the like.

"Synthetic Bodies" - * * * - Oddly, festival Managing Director Anna Feder eschewed a Q&A after this program because she said only one short's director was around, but she wasn't including herself. Pity, because she makes a nifty silent pastiche here, with a scientist building himself a robot mate. The only frustrating thing is that her movie doesn't end so much as stop.

"The Fine Art of Poisoning" - * * ½ - An interesting-looking animated short by Bill Domonkos and Jill Tracy. Kind of pretty, but didn't make a great impression on me the first time. This second time through, I liked ths one a little more, but the story was still kind of muddled.

"The Muse" - * * ½ - This is one that I remember liking a great deal while watcihng it, but now that I try to write a review five days later, it's strangely vague. I remember it being charming and somewhat fanciful, and how, in the end, the film's subtitle about it being a girl's daydream held true. I'll have to watch it again.

"The Call of Cthulhu" - * * * ¾ - I can't say I'm a big fan of the Lovecraft mythos, and in some ways it's the sort of thing I've made some pains to avoid the past few years: A big, sprawling mythology that comprises multiple volumes and is so complicated as to spin off reference works. But there's obviously something there, for it to still have a following eighty years later, and one rabid enough to put together something like this.

Part of what's extraordinary is that this film is a labor of love, made by members of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society on digital video to resemble a three- or four-reel silent from 1926, the original novel's year of publication. Some modern digital effects and stop-motion is used, but the polish is deliberately held back a little, although in some cases shots of a bizarre, alien landscape which are obviously cheap CGI also look like abstract silent film sets. I don't know if you go this route with a book that isn't from and set in the silent era, but here the conceit works.

As was more common at the time, we get a sort of nested narrative - a man in some sort of hospital setting tells a story of how his inheritance from his great-uncle included a diary detailing his own investigations of the Cult of Cthulhu, and his own tale includes stories related by others. As fans know, Cthulhu and his brethren are Old Ones, alien beings of incredible power who came to Earth in the distant past who can drive men mad with a glance. Cthulhu has been hibernating and must not be wakened, but the very knowledge of his existence brings forth a powerful curiosity...

Lovecraft is known as much for how he wrote as what he wrote, and while screenwriter Sean Brannery and director Andrew Leman can only capture so much of the dense prose via intertitles and pointing the camera at words written in diaries, but they still do a good job in building a growing sense of wrongness, and when the good ship Alert reaches a deserted isle near New Zealand, it's grand pulp adventure. It's here that the film breaks out its special effects, and they look pretty good for a low-budget production. The monster is kept in the shadows, but, of course, that's for our protection - no good driving the audience mad.

The cast does all right mimicking the way silent movie actors performed without camping it up. To be honest, with a few exceptions, I sort of gave up on keeping track of them; there's a lot of characters in forty-five minutes of movie. The silent style can cover up much roughness from the budget cast, so it works out. The music is period-accurate and does a great job of setting the mood.

I'm sure fans of Lovecraft's original work can find things to nitpick with The Call of Cthulhu, and that's their prerogative - though I gather it gets more praise than derision. Fans of silent horror would find it to be a highly effective pastiche, maybe not good enough to be passed off as a film lost for eighty years, but good enough to be considered the real thing.

Riot On!

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Remember the dot-com boom? Ah, those were good times to be in computers. Swanky offices, the most recent version of every development tool you could possibly need available for the asking, high salaries, flexible working hours, investors just falling all over themselves wanting to give money to anyone with the ability to register a domain and describe a service that people might pay for. Good, good times. Where was I? Right, Riot On!. Anyway, as director Kim Finn is all too eager to tell you, some people didn't remember, and made the exact same mistakes when people promised the moon where mobile communication was concerned.

People like the founders of Riot-E. Like many of the first people to stake out a claim on the web, they were able to raise a great deal of money by tossing around ideas that were new and exciting, but were not only of little practical use, but often required technology that was years away (only one of the founders was any good with the technical stuff). Based on those ideas, they were able to secure major investment from the likes of Nokia and News Corporation and valuable licenses to Hollywood properties (such as Marvel comics and Lord of the Rings), which along with great marketing savvy kept them afloat for about two years, when they crashed and crashed hard.

Read the rest at HBS.

Camp Daze

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2006 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Know what's tiresome? "Jokes" about a previous decade's pop culture and fashions. Horror movie characters who are conversant in horror movie clichés. Stories that just don't make any sense when a couple seconds worth of thought. When a movie's got all that working against it, well, it had better have some quality sex and violence going for it. Camp Daze makes a valiant stab at making it work, but winds up being for gorehounds only.

After a teaser for what happened 24 years ago, we get horror movie set-up #3: Vade (Eric McIntire) is driving his sister Angela (Joanna Suhl) to an appointment in Boston, with friends Mario (Matt Dallas) and Jen (Anika C. McFall) in tow. They run out of gas in the Maine woods and get freaked out when a scene right out of a horror movie plays out in front of them. When they wake the next morning, though, nothing appears to have happened, and the teenagers from nearby Camp Hiawatha offer to help - looking like they've stepped straight out of a picture from 1981.

Read the rest at HBS.

Shorts Program Three: Highly Animated

Seen 26 March 2006 in Harvard Film Archive Room B04 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"Calories" - * * ½ - A cute enough animation that informs kids that one calorie is the heat required to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. It kind of falls between being a parody of "Schoolhouse Rock" type stuff and functioning as one.

"Bingo's Dream" - * * ¾ - A mother cat's dreams an ode to feeding her kitten. Very nicely drawn.

"Milton is a Shitbag" - * * * * - You seldom see cats portrayed as nice; they're either aloof or downright evil. Courtney's new pet Milton is evil. This is a heavily narration-based cartoon, but Courtney Davis's art style is charming without being overly cutesy, and the jokes are pleasantly absurd.

"The Revolution of the Crabs" - * * * * - A very french sort of cartoon; it starts positing a reasonable sounding premise that's revealed as absurd when pushed - crabs can only move side-to-side, so they're trapped walking along one path forever - has a crab spout some goofy philosophy and ends on mocking the idiots which are the majority. I like the subdued, black and white art, with the simple visuals a nifty contrast to the complicated mechanism the crabs use to move.

"Fish Head Fugue" - * * ¼ - "Hey, let's make weird-looking stuff move!"

"Depository Vacation" - * * * - A trip through the creative process. Funky looking, and the final joke about just where the inspiration is coming from is an amusing one.

"Little Dead Girl" - * * * ½ - I'm no fan of the whole gothy vibe, but this is a pretty spiffy CGI-animated music video of a recently decesaed teenager coming back to life to see a concert, and encountering the prejudice that the undead regularly face. The characters are expressive with slight gestures, and the gross-out humor is fun.

"The Guilt Trip, or The Vaticans Take a Holiday" - * * ¼ - The longest short in the collection, and it feels it. The illustrations on the walls of an abandoned church decide to come to life and hit the road, but a picture of Pope John Paul II doesn't like the idea much. Maybe it's funnier/edgier/more amusing if you're familiar with Catholic politics or feel strongly about Christianity in general.

"Bean with Bacon Soup" - * * * ½ - Nifty, well-animated "trash comes to life and walks around" CGI short. The flower that sprouts from the discarded can of the title is awful cute, with one root in a sneaker and the other stuck in the bean.

"Attack of the 50 Foot Fuckers" - * * * ¼ - Animated kaiju-type robot/monsters bust each other's balls while trashing London. The drawings are kind of crude, as is the humor, but it's fun to watch them bust on each other.

"She She She She's A Bombshell" - * * * ½ - This is the sort of thing Chuck Jones called "animated radio", featuring a guy in the backseat of a car going on and on and on about the girl he just met at the concert to the aggravation of the car's driver, who is desperately trying to drown him out but can't get the car's tape deck and her CD player to co-operate. It's animated radio, but good radio, as the animation style lets the driver's expression go over-the-top without it seeming like overacting.

And that's all for BUFF. Now to hopefully catch up before the IFFB (ha!), which I think will keep me behind the eight-ball until Fantasia...