Monday, April 30, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Sunday

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Sunday: Twisted: A Balloonamentary, Strange Culture, Comrades in Dreams, On Broadway

Was hoping to add it before it ran yesterday, but I ran out of time: Review of Monkey Warfare

I didn't intend for Sunday to be almost all documentaries, but it worked out that way because I foolishly opted to wait for the bus between Coolidge Corner and Harvard Square - the time I waited plus a more direct route minus traffic meant I could have made it to the Brattle on foot in time for Day Night Day Night; instead I headed to Somerville just in time to catch Strange Culture. Maybe if I'd waited fifteen or thirty minutes, one of the other things playing would have been better nad not left me with a big gap before Comrades in Dreams on a chilly day.

Glad I got to Twisted, though - it's a fun little doc and I made a balloon dog. It's also worth noting that the balloon twisters were out in force all weekend. It's normal for these special-interest docs to bring out an audience of enthusiasts (and the Coolidge's main screen was packed), but all Friday and Saturday, there were people twisting balloons in front of the Somerville and Brattle (and probably the Coolidge, but yesterday was the first time I made it out there), and the Somerville had a balloon "sculpture" up and balloons perched in odd places. I hope someone picks this up.

Today's plan: Work, then if I can bolt early enough, Time and Tide at the Coolidge and Rumbo a la Grandes Lignes in Somerville. Probably just the latter, though, since Big Papi is rumored to be there with the Sox having an off-day. I want to make sure I get there and I was a little late to work.

Twisted: A Baloonamentary

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2007 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Making a balloon dog is pretty easy - it took about a minute for a whole theater full of us to learn how after watching Twisted. Sure, it will take me some practice to learn how to do it well or quickly enough to amuse my niece at her birthday party, but there's just a few basic maneuvers to master. That's part of what the film's tag of "once you can make a balloon dog, you can do anything" means, although it's obviously meant to imply much more.

That tagline looks corny on the poster and threatens to be even more so when it shows up in the movie, but it's delivered by Vera Stalker, who can get away with it because she's not trying to be inspirational. The directors mentioned in the Q&A that she wasn't even going to be in the movie except for their cameraman having a crush on her - then they (and we) learned about the neighbor in the trailer park who loaned her sixty dollars to take a class, the pitching her services to family restaurants from the age of sixteen, the success there that has put her through college and will hopefully do the same for medical school. What's particularly endearing is that Vera acts like this is nothing particularly special - it's something anyone can learn to do, and after that it's just a matter of doing it.

Twister David Grist is similarly low-key about how he started out and achieved success, although almost everyone interviewed holds him in something just short of awe - the jovial, roly-poly Englishman is one of the acknowledged masters of the art, with many twisters introduced as his students. John, a born-again Christian "gospel twister" and James, an African-American clown from Atlanta, are more cognizant of their good fortune, and much of their efforts go toward trying to uplift the people around them.

Full review at HBS.

Strange Culture

* * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2007 at the Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I can't speak for "real" critics who get paid and all, but this is the kind of movie I hate reviewing the most. It's a documentary with its heart in the right place, and a subject of genuine import. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to make the wrong decision at every conceivable point. They manage to make me dislike their protagonist, they go off on tangents, and they manage to get up to a whole seventy-five minutes of running time in part by self-congratulatory fourth-wall breaking.

The story of David Kurtz is a good one, which the public probably needs to know about; it touches on both worries about bad science and law enforcement's abuse of powers. Unfortunately, the story deserves a much better movie than this one.

Full review at HBS.

Comrades in Dreams

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2007 at the Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Comrades in Dreams, meanwhile, is somewhat lightweight but at least not inept like Strange Cultures. A German production about cinema operators in rural America, Burkina Faso, North Korea, and India, it's a nice, pleasant portrait of a subject that's of some interest to festival-goers. It's also the fourth-longest documentary at the festival despite not really having 102 minutes of substance.

What's kind of frustrating for me is that it really doesn't deliver either of the things I really like to get from documentaries: There's not a lot to satisfy my process-junkie leanings about what needs to be done to run a theater under these circumstances, nor is there a really interesting narrative arc. There are tantalizing glimpses of both, but in a way that only makes it more frustrating.

Still, North Korea remains fascinating. It's like a cult that has the status of a sovereign nation. Someday, hopefully someday soon, that last bit of the Iron Curtain is going to fall and there's going to be massive culture shock.

Full review at HBS.

On Broadway

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2007 at the Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I'll review this more fully later on, but for now, a few observations:

* I'll bet Joey McIntyre is really good on-stage, but he really doesn't seem suited to film.

* I don't drink, but I've been in the Skellig with co-workers. It's in Waltham, not Jamaica Plain. That said, I was pleased when a shot of McIntyre exiting the Copley T station was actually followed up by a shot of him in Copley Square and not, oh, Toronto, or even Southie. Having the geography of one's hometown screwed up is so expected when seeing a movie set there that seeing people get it right is a pleasant surprise.

* Writer/director Dave McLaughlin is lucky to know Will Arnett - there's about five spots in this movie where Arnett makes the scene roughly ten times funnier than it would be otherwise.

Full review at HBS.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Saturday

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Saturday: Year of the Fish, The Cats of Mirikitani, Row Hard No Excuses, The Ten, and Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell

Heading out the door right now - hopefully I'll be able to post some more later, if I can get the internet stuff on my phone to work. Don't know how likely that is, as I often have a hard time getting the phone stuff on it to work.

Today's plan: Twisted: A Balloonamentary, Day Night Day Night, Comrades in Dreams, and On Broadway

Year of the Fish

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

You can cover a fair amount of limitations with animation. Take Year of the Fish, for instance - its extensive rotoscoping not only lets it stand out from the crowd, but it has practical benefits for the filmmaker (during the Q&A, director David Kaplan mentioned producing an HD master without shooting in HD and not having to worry about tricky lighting setups on location). It also introduces just enough unreality that Kaplan can combine the simplicity of a fairy-tale story with a distinctly modern setting.

Year of the Fish transplants the Ye Xian fable, one of the oldest known versions of the Cinderella story, to contemporary New York City's Chinatown. Ye Xian (An Nguyen) arrives in America with the intention of supporting her ailing father by working in his cousin "Ma" Su's supposed beauty salon - where, of course, massages and happy endings are the actual featured attraction. Ye Xian can't bring herself to give a stranger a blow job, so Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin) makes her do everything else. In other parts of Chinatown, musician Johnny Pan (Ken Leung) is having trouble with his white girlfriend and paying off his bandmates when $50 each becomes $50 for the trio, while fortuneteller/mystic/sweatshop owner Auntie Yaga lurks.

Some of the trappings of a traditional Western version of Cinderella are absent, and the whole thing has been grittied up a bit, but it doesn't take a class in comparative folklore to recognize what is going on. Sure, one of the stepsisters (Corrinne Hong Wu) is significantly less wicked than the other (Hettienne Park), and Prince Charming is not exactly heir to a kingdom, and I don't remember the sketchy massage parlor from the Disney version, but I'm not spoiling too much when I say that the plot doesn't do a major swerve away from what the audience is used to. Kaplan probably stays a lot closer than he really needs to. The film probably could have done away with all the trappings of magic and the special, pretty dress, hiding its fairy-tale origins underneath a story about how people who come to America to find work are often exploited and used sexually, but that could have been cheap in its own way. It takes a much finer touch to let the children's-story origins be seen without giving the audience much chance to snicker at how the adult content is added.

Full review at HBS.

The Cats of Mirikitani

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

When filmmaker Linda Hattendorf met homeless artist Tsumoto "Jimmy" Mirikitani on January 1st, 2001, he was at the start of his ninth decade of living a rough life.

How rough, you ask? He was born in Sacramento, CA, in 1920, though raised in Japan from the age of three. Returning to the United States as a young man because he, as an artist, did not believe in the war, he was placed in the Tule Lake interment camp for his trouble. There, he was separated from his sister, saw the his closest friend in the camp die of dysentery, pushed into renouncing his American citizenship, and used as slave labor. Most of his family in Japan was killed when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. It's little wonder that when Linda's camera captures a jet slamming into the World Trade Center during an interview, he just keeps working on what he was drawing. Nothing has changed, the world still sucks.

Things do change, though, both in what kind of film Linda is making and in Jimmy's life. With the air in Manhattan becoming unbreathable, Linda invites Jimmy to sleep in her home, and rather than just trying to bring attention to Jimmy with her film, hoping that it will inspire the world to help him and others like him, she starts researching how to secure him Social Security benefits, hunting down other possible members of his family, and otherwise getting directly involved in his life. She tries to avoid showing herself on camera - her cat probably gets more screen time - but the relationship between Linda and Jimmy becomes a central part of the film. He worries about her staying out late, she confronts the difficulties of finding good elder care.

Full review at HBS.

Row Hard No Excuses

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Atlantic Rowing Challenge is a race for the extremely hard-core: Two people in a rowboat, rowing from the Canary Islands to Barbados. $19,000 to enter, and all entries must supply their own roughly $150,000 kit boat. The only prize is a trophy. If you call the support yacht to leave the race, you're required to burn your boat so that it doesn't clog up the shipping lanes. It's an event for those who crave an adventure and are willing to pay for it - financially, physically, and emotionally.

Row Hard No Excuses primarily follows two middle-aged Americans, Tom Maihot and John Zeigler, as they attempt to win the 2001 edition. Assembled partly from footage they and the other racers took during the race and partly from documentary work on the ground before and after the race, it's alternately beautiful and brutal, as images of the ocean alternate with sights of the sores, sunburn, and other physical tolls taken on the racers, especially guys in their forties and fifties like Tom & John who are somewhat past their prime.

Coming out, the audience is amazed at what's possible, but probably also wonders what the heck is wrong with these people. It's extreme sports in the truest sense of the word.

Full review at HBS.

The Ten

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2007 at the Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Once or twice, while watching The Ten, I wondered if the film started out as sketches about the Ten Commandments, or whether that theme came about as the filmmakers sat around and asked themselves the question: "What would get us the most free publicity of people trying to ban us?" and then seeing a news story about the Commandments being posted in government buildings. Jackpot!

Whatever the process, they came up with something pretty darn funny. Jeff Reigert (Paul Rudd) is our host for the ten sketches, but let's just say that he's not speaking from a position of moral authority, as wife Gretchen (Famke Janssen) will happily inform the audience. The bits start out as fairly ridiculous - "Thou shall not have any gods before me" revolves around a kid (Adam Brody) lodged in the ground after a skydiving accident who becomes a sitcom star - and stay there, ending with "Thou shalt honor the Sabbath", where a group of men skip church to hang around naked and compare '70s easy listening songs. It gets plenty bizarre in the middle, with notable bits about a woman (Winona Ryder) who becomes obsessed with a ventriloquist's dummy, another (Gretchen Mol) who literally finds Jesus (Justin Theroux) while on vacation in Mexico, and one about, uh, prison adultery.

There didn't seem to be much middle ground in the audience's reaction to the film: Those who enjoyed it laughed long and loud; a good number of the rest walked out. Count me in the first group; although I can't claim to have loved every segment, better than half didn't just work, but worked very well indeed. Director David Wain and his co-writer Ken Marino start us off with fourth-wall breaking absurdity even as Jeff is introducing the movie, and it sets a tone that the film only wavers from in degree. They're almost gleeful in their crudity; grinning ever-wider as they seem to ask the audience just who this bit of blasphemy is hurting.

Full review at HBS.

Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFB After Dark)

Fair warning - five movies in one day is where I hit the wall, and at times this one didn't amuse me enough to keep me awake. That said, I'd really like to see what Kevin Wheatley can do with an actual good b-movie script, as he's got a Jack Black-like charm that makes his Tex Kennedy character watchable even when the rest of the mess really isn't.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Friday Night: Quiet City, Monkey Warfare, and Black Sheep

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Friday Night: Quiet City, Monkey Warfare, and Black Sheep

Just capsules until later - not enough time between one movie ending at two thirty and another starting at noon. The crowd for Black Sheep (and accompanying short "Death Trike") was really into it, which is always fun to see.

Quiet City

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

There were a number of films to choose from in this slot in the festival. I landed in Quiet City in part through process of elimination: This one got out too late to make the next one, that one was at another theater, that one would play again later. Once it was down to two or three choices, I chose Quiet City because the description read a lot like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. I liked that movie a lot, and I couldn't help but wonder why more independent filmmakers don't try to do something like it.

After all, it seems straightforward enough - you just need a boy and a girl and a city. In this case, the girl is Jamie (Erin Fisher), who just flew into New York City from Atlanta to meet an old friend. The boy is Charlie (Cris Lankenau), who she asks for directions in the subway. He takes her to the diner where Jamie's friend Sam said they'd meet, but Sam doesn't show and doesn't answer her phone. So Jamie crashes in Charlie's apartment and they spend the next day wandering around the city, looking for Sam and killing some time before going to an art show that Robin (Sarah Hellman), another friend of Jamie's, has going.

It seems logistically simple enough, but the very simplicity of it means that if the one crucial element fails, the whole thing becomes a disaster. Here, we've got to enjoy watching Jamie and Charlie together, because there's almost nothing else: No mystery to figure out, no ironies to savor, no action to dazzle. They are good company, though: Charlie's a scruffy but not ickily so, and he's not quite sure what to make of having this pretty girl attach herself to him. Jamie's playful, enjoying a break from her adult responsibilities, cute without being anything close to high-maintenance about it. They've both got a sense that they've stumbled onto something good, but aren't going to jinx it by mentioning it or making the first move.

Full review at HBS.

Monkey Warfare

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

A description of Monkey Warfare reads as something a little zanier than the reality - aging hippies meet a young would-be radical when they need to find a new pot dealer, and find that they don't necessarily share the same values. And while it is a very funny movie, it's not the Cheech & Chong caper the audience may be expecting.

Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright) have been living off the grid in Toronto for fifteen years, collecting garbage and hitting yard sales for items that can be resold for more money. Their relationship is distant, and getting along without the weed looks like it could be a real chore. Dan, at least, thinks he might have found help on both counts in the form of Susan (Nadia Litz), a very pretty, very young girl whose supply of B.C. organic is soon matched by her interest in the radical past that Dan & Linda know far more of than she does - though they're only willing to share so much.

The characters talk a great deal about sticking it to the man or being anti-establishment in general ways, but writer/director Reginald Harkema doesn't spend much time having them pontificate on specific issues - indeed, Dan actually gets uncomfortable when Linda mentions she's doing some volunteer work. This is partly because there likely wouldn't be much debate or interesting disagreement; Dan, Linda, and Susan all believe pretty close to the same thing. The interesting differences come from how the generational differences effect them - Dan's starting to look at fighting the good fight (and the associated music and history) as things of nostalgia (and also thinking about how the bohemian lifestyle doesn't provide retirement benefits), while he and Linda are more than a bit taken aback by the younger girl's cynicism. She, of course, doesn't understand their aversion to direct action.

Full review at HBS.

Black Sheep

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFB After Dark)

Black Sheep is a whole ton of fun. It's not really scary in the least, of course, but it's got more genuine laughs than most comedic "horror" films, and is well-polished to boot.

Nathan Meister stars as Henry Oldfield, who is phobic about sheep - no wonder, considering what happened to his father when he and brother Angus (Peter Feeney) were kids. Henry is selling Angus his interest in the family farm, but while that's happening, Angus is preparing to debut a genetically engineered uber-sheep created by controversial scientist Dr. Rush (Tandi Wright) to foreign investors, while environmentalists Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason) are looking to gather evidence that Angus and Rush are doing something highly unethical. Between Rush's lax protocols for waste disposal and Grant's being an idiot, this research makes its way into the wild, turning sheep carnivorous and turning those that they bite (but don't devour) into mad were-sheep with a similar taste for human flesh.

The basic absurdity of the concept, of course, is that sheep are some of the most docile herbivores on earth; they're fuzzy and lack even what might be considered useful aggression. Imagining that the flocks of sheep which I believe outnumber human beings in the film's setting of New Zealand could turn on their masters is an easy idea to come up with, but might be difficult to sustain over even ninety minutes. Writer/director Jonathan King and the visual effects team at the WETA workshop manage it in part by letting their sheep more or less be sheep - they don't have faces permanently contorted into anthropomorphic rage, and they don't appear to be bigger or more muscular. They look like regular sheep until they get close, narrow their eyes, open a mouth full of blood-soaked teeth and strike. A stampeding herd of sheep looks comical because it's so incongruous.

Full review at HBS.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Thursday Night: Congorama and The Great World of Sound

Since so much of the IFFB is at the Somerville Theater, I am my selection of what films I see is in part motivated by getting home. I can easily walk home from the Brattle, and while the Coolidge is a little more of a hike, I've done it before and will likely do it again. Five of the seven screens that might be running films at any given time are at the Somerville, and though it's right on the T, this is Boston. The puritan values that founded this city say that if you're up past midnight, you're probably sinning, and they feel no need to help you with that. So, if a film at the Somerville looks like it might go past midnight (based upon starting half an hour late), it's out.

That's part of why when making plans for the festival, I generally start from the late shows and work my way back. Great World of Sound and Gretchen both looked most likely to finish while the subway was still running, and I'm not terribly excited about misfit teen movies right now. So Great World it was, and then Congorama almost by default. I liked Congorama, though - I'm a sucker for interesting engineer characters, and although the sharply dilineated parallel structure may sap the revelations of some surprise, it's a niftily plotted movie.

Tonight: Quiet City, Monkey Warfare, and Black Sheep.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

As I said, I liked Congorama quite a bit - it did the thing where it showes Michel's story, then backs up to show Louis's and how they intersect, which makes for a weird effect - what happens to Louis is more or less a foregon conclusion, but also serves to highlight how we know things that the characters don't. It also allows for their stories to be told in parallel without their similarities being too crushingly obvious.

More on this later, when I can go back and revisit things that aren't getting other runs at the festival.

Great World of Sound

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I've been encountering evidence that we need more sub-ninety minute movies for a few months now, whether it be in the form of (mostly older) movies that are just tight as heck with the short running time or others that seem to be stretched out to give the filmgoer the appearance of value for money. It saddens me to report that Great World of Sound falls firmly into the latter category: An idea that's not bad but which would be much more effective if it was told more efficiently.

The good idea is a movie about song-sharking, the predatory practice of so-called music producers arranging auditions in which they convince would-be professional musicians that they will help them put out an album, although the artist has to put up 30%. The album, of course, never materializes. In Great World of Sound, the people selling this bill of goods are Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday), although they to are initially duped into thinking they've been hired by a successful producer. It doesn't take very long before they realize what they're involved in, but they need the money and are able to convince themselves that there's at least some effort being made to follow through.

Pat Healy and Kene Holliday working together could form the basis of a very good buddy picture. Aside from being opposites physically - Healy is a young, scrawny, pasty Caucasian with a receding hairline; Holliday is black, middle-aged and kind of burly - they work their characters' contrasting personalities of each other very well. Healy makes Martin nervous, a little naïve, and indecisive; he's a good partner for Clarence because his lack of ability to do the hard sell makes the operation look more credible. Clarence is, of course, very good at the hard sell; Holliday makes him a graduate of the school of hard knocks whose larger-than-life personality fills whatever room he's in almost to overflowing. They do a lot of regognizable bits - Clarence making a race-related comment that makes Martin uncomfortable followed by a big laugh and "I'm just kidding" and Martin joining the laugh nervously, for instance - but they do them with a believable lack of polish. Holliday doesn't seem to be trying to project a cool image when he does his thing, and Martin's squirmy enough to be genuinely uncomfortable.

Full review at HBS.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Opening Night: Fay Grim

Showed up, picked up my press pass, and stopped at Mr. Crepe to get some sustenance, and settled into the second row with plenty of time before the film was scheduled to start, which means roughly an hour before it actually started. I complain about this every year, I know, and I really should get over it, so I'm at least trying to build this year's watching schedule around the same screen - even if they don't let you camp out, the waiting past the listed start time won't have me gritting my teeth as much, worrying about whether or not I'll be able catch the next film if it (against all odds) is starting on time.

So, one mmo down. I'm thinking Congorama or The Killer Within and Great World of Sound tonight, although I'd also like to see On Broadway with a big chunk of cast & crew in attendence.

Fay Grim

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2007 at the Someville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Sequels don't sound like a very independent film sort of thing, and they accordingly don't happen very often. After all, most independent films that do well enough to get a sequel financed wind up in the hands of a studio. But sometimes a filmmaker does get a chance to revisit characters a few years later... By which time the crowd at the boutique cinemas and festivals has had a lot of turnover, so it might as well be a completely new film.

Fortunately, the opening scenes of Hal Hartley'sFay Grim have enough exposition that even those of us who have only vaguely heard of Henry Fool can get relatively caught up: Nine years ago, urban poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) helped his friend and brother-in-law Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) flee the country, leaving behind wife Fay (Parker Posey) and son Ned (Liam Aiken). This has landed Simon in prison, although royalties from his books support Fay and Ned. Simon's publisher Angus James (Chuck Montgomery) suggests that there might be some money to be made in publishing Henry's notebooks, once dismissed as an unreadable mess, but now possibly of interest. It turns out that they're not just of interest to those interested in reading the works of a man who influenced Simon Grim, but to the international intelligence community: CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and his assistant Carl Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) show up at Fay's door, and would like for her to travel to Paris and retrieve two of Henry's eight notebooks, which they believe France is planning to use to blackmail the United States.

The first half of Fay Grim plays as a comedy, both because of the gleeful absurdity of the plot devices and the deliciously off-center performances. Every new bit of information we learn about Henry's past makes him seem less like a man and more like a tall tale, as Henry's journals jump from Santiago to Afghanistan and point in between, alternately describing him as a university janitor with ambitions to become chief librarian and someone whose knowledge of the Israeli nuclear weapons program could cause a planet-wide crisis. Fay's trip to Paris is a never-ending series of awkward bits of tradecraft, with nearly everyone she meets involved in the caper in one way or another.

Full review at HBS.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Before BUFF, the Hot Fuzztival (et alia)

Here's the stuff I saw before going into festival-posting mode for the Boston Underground Film Festival. Hopefully I'll be able to get caught up by the time I'm seriously into festival mode again for the IFFB, but no guarantees.

Surprising: Some fairly obvious movies at the Hot Fuzztival are just not available on video right now - who would believe that Dead & Buried can be purchased, but neither Dirty Harry nor Hard-Boiled can. I've heard that The Winstein Company will be releasing either Hard-Boiled or The Killer as part of their Dragon Dynasty series, but it seems like these suckers should be available. Maybe they're about to be released in HD. That would be very nice indeed.

Also: The Most Dangerous Game, Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

Grand Prix

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (HD DVD)

Grand Prix is one part fast cars and two parts soap opera. That's not a bad recipe for a movie, although one highly dependent on the quality of the ingredients and preparation. Good thing, then, that John Frankenheimer is the chef, and he's mixing in a fine cast from around the world.

The movie starts in Monaco, where we're briefly introduced to many of the players: American Pete Aron (James Garner) and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) drive for Jordan-BRM; Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) and Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) for Ferrari. Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter) is there, as is Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a photographer from an American fashion magazine, and Lisa (Françoise Hardy), a groupie who soon attaches herself to Nino. During the race, the Jordan-BRM team is involved in a spectacular wreck, hospitalizing Scott and getting Aron kicked off the team. He tries broadcasting for a bit, but when Japanese auto manufacturer Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) offers him a a place on his team, Pete jumps at the chance. Soon Scott is back on the circuit, racing like he's fueled by bitterness and rage.

The film is just short of three hours long, and even if there weren't an intermission in the middle, it would logically divide into two halves anyway. The first half, though bookended by a pair of exceptional racing sequences, spends most of its time off the track. It's not quite an hour and a half of exposition, but the characters spend a fair chunk of it giving their life stories and making observations about each other. It's here we learn about Scott's dead brother, who was also a driver and held up as a standard that Scott can never quite meet. It's here we see romance bloom between Louise and Sarti, even though Sarti is married (the fire there is long extinguished). It's here that Pat moves away from her wounded husband and toward Pete. People picking this movie up for racing action are almost certain to get a little fidgety before by the break; for a movie that has speed as one of its draws, it moves at a deliberate pace.

Full review at HBS.

Dirty Harry

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

It was a bit odd to watch this knowing that Zodiac was playing in theaters and I'd be seeing it sometime soon. There's an obvious bit of wish-fulfillment going on here, as Clint's Harry Callahan tracks down "Scorpio", an obvious surrogate for the real Zodiac killer; some of the incidents are obvious parallels. Of course, Harry manages to cut through a lot of the frustration the real officers must have felt, with a few good action scenes thrown in.

It remains a pretty darn good cop movie, although it seems oddly subdued compared to later imitators. Harry doesn't shout, and while the character's sneer has become a popular object of parody, one can see the later Eastwood there too - even at that relatively young age, there's wisdom and world-weariness there.

The French Connection

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

The famous car chasing the subway, to be honest, has never been what sticks with me for this movie. It's all about watching Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle become more and more obsessed, while Fernando Rey deftly counters nearly every move with a twinkle in his eye.

It's one of the great police procedurals, set at a time when police procedure still routinely included blatant intimidation and shakedowns. It's gritty, nasty work, and Hackman makes Doyle an unpleasant protagonist, but one who is extremely compelling to watch. Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman opt to show us just the right amount of the criminal operation run by Rey's Alain Charnier and Tony Lo Bianco's Sal Boca: We see just enough for it to play as a chess match, but enough is kept hidden so that we can feel the frustration of Doyle and his partner.

Classic stuff.

Maxed Out

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener)

There are a lot of true things said in Maxed Out, and the people it calls out deserve to get called out. I can't deny that the film accomplishes its goals: It communicates information to its audience in a clear, entertaining way. Still, anybody who has ever racked up a buch of credit card debt and lived to tell the tale can't help but notice what part director James Scurlock leaves out.

Before getting there, it is good practice to focus on what Maxed Out is versus what it is not. The film is a good primer on how credit card companies target the people least likely to pay them back in a timely fashion and then leverage their debt to create a steady but increasing income stream. When their clients fall too far behind, they package their debt as a commodity that can be sold in packages to debt collectors while lobbying politicians to make it harder to declare bankruptcy. Right now, the film points out, they've they've got a particularly sympathetic government: The Bush administration allowed MBNA to write the new bankruptcy law, appointed a credit card company executive who presided over massive fraud to a key administration position, and leads by example with massive deficit spending.

All of this is true, and Scurlock is good at putting it in front of an audience. He has knowledgeable people testify as to how the banking industry has changed (a former banker talks about how today's bank employees are expected to be salesmen, rather than investors) and also illustrates it with amusing footage from an old educational film on credit, pointing out how it was described as something to be earned in the 1950s as opposed to being given to college freshmen with a free t-shirt. He illustrates his points by building characters, whether it be the cartoonishly scummy men operating a collections company or the family devastated by their wife/mother's disappearance after the credit companies come calling.

Full review at HBS.

Hard-Boiled (Laat sau sen taan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

Ah, John Woo and Chow Yun-fat at their most outrageously and maybe even grotesquely over the top. It starts out with a set of cop-movie clichés which are especially popular in Hong Kong - the dead partner, the cop (Chow) with a soulful side to complement his spectacular skill with the violence, the female superior officer on whom he has a crush, the complicated underworld dealings and betrayals. At times, a viewer might almost be tempted to snicker at how ham-fisted it is.

But is the movie saved by Woo pulling back from his excesses? Oh, no. Hard-Boiled takes it to the next level with a larger-than-life third act that has Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai infiltrating a secret triad base beneath a hospital that erupts into one of the greatest action scenes ever. There's gunfights, fires, and daring escapes out windows as SWAT teams climb the walls. It is, if one stops to think about it, entirely too much. The Triads are shooting at babies, for crying out loud... What's wrong with them? That's how well Woo plays us - they're lowering babies out windows wrapped in bullet-proof vests while the hospital burns around them and thousands of bullets fly.

Madness. But pure, delightful madness. This was Woo's last movie in Hong Kong before spending a decade in Hollywood, where he never had quite the same mojo. But in his Hong Kong heyday, man, he was something else.

The Fifth Element

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray)

I just got the Blu-ray Disc player and wanted to check it out, and this is the one I felt like watching when they came in. It was one of the first BD titles to come out, and partially responsible for BD's early reputation for not being as good as HD DVD. It's not that bad, although I'll certainly be sending in for the exchange once Sony Home Entertainment offers it. It looks more like a crappy print issue than anything intrinsic to getting it on disc, although that could be improved, too.

I love the movie, though, and I wish Luc Besson had done more movies like this (if he is, indeed, retired as he says). It's a fun space opera that combines French and American influences seamlessly (it seems much more like a Humanoids album than anything from America at times, but Bruce Willis is much more likable than the typical Jodorowsky protagonist). It's gorgeously designed, and opts for bright colors rather than the slick blacks that have infected American sci-fi. It follows the Besson template of rugged hero, almost childlike girl, and psychotic villain to a T, but it's a system that works for him.

And, yes, I love Chris Tucker in this movie. Comedian/actors must dream of roles where they have the opportunity to riff in character like Tucker does here, and the interaction between his hyperactive Ruby Rhod and Willis's irritated Korben Dallas is priceless.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2007 at AMC Boston Common #11 (Hot Fuzztival)

I am so glad that this wound up not being Seven.

Understand, I loved Seven, although it's one I've put off buying on DVD for a couple reasons - the original DVD had to be flipped, for one, and it's like Schindler's List in that I wasn't sure I was interested in putting myself through that kind of dark intensity many more times. But as good as Seven was, I didn't want to see Fincher doing another serial killer movie. He's a talented filmmaker, and has much more in him than serial killer movies. It's sad to see a director backed into a niche because he doesn't feel he can survive out of it, whether it be commercially or artistically.

So I was very glad to see that Zodiac was something very different. It's brighter, for one - Zodiac is an intruder into the generally pleasant 1970s California landscape (though Harry Callahan may disagree on that) while John Doe seemed like something that the would be inevitably born from the urban decay of Seven's unnamed metropolis. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt also get the lure of puzzles, and it lets us approach the task of finding the killer with a little excitement.

That's crucial, because it means we don't quite notice when Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith and company cross the line from dogged, noble pursuit to unhealthy obsession. It may be a personal thing for each person in the audience - I know I, for one, found myself still sympathizing with Graysmith for some time after people were telling him to let it drop; he's got hold of a tantalizing mystery and feels he can help, even if, in retrospect, he's gone of the deep end. Well done, there.

Letting the audience decide when Graysmith has gone too far may go hand in hand with different people being quite ready for it to end at different times. After a certain point, we're all with the film in terms of Graysmith being awfully far gone, and after that, each moment of him obsessing over the Zodiac without making much forward progress wears on us. We're ready for the film to end, but it's a story that spans decades, and Fincher doesn't seem to want to step ahead too far at once. I was more than a little worn out by the end.

Dead & Buried

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

I was going to write a full review, since there doesn't seem to be one on HBS, but writing the BUFF stuff and a few other things has given the details for this the chance to fall out of my head. Plus, it seemed like we saw a pretty cruddy print, no matter how much that other guy in the theater thought it was supposed to be that red.

It's a quality horror movie, with plenty of bloody action, a creepy mystery, and some pretty enjoyable performances. It's part of the Hot Fuzztival series because of how James Farentino's sheriff approaches what seems to be a zombie/slasher infestation with solid police work, even as his wife seems to be looking suspicious.

I liked it quite a bit; I'm tempted to pick up the DVD, just to see if it's really supposed to be that red.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Boston Underground Film Festival Sunday: ¡El Presidente! and Roman

There would be more than "just" BUFF stuff in this post, considering that the Brattle blessed me with a whole bunch of Hot Fuzz preview passes - one for coming to the Hot Fuzztival programs, another for being an Usher-level member in good standing, two more for being among the top finishers in the Watch-a-Thon - but doing the BUFF wound up more or less precluding seeing it: By the time I got out of ¡El Presidente! at about five o'clock, there was a line that went from the door, up the steps, and then wrapped around two sides of the building. I was able to cut in line a litte by finding my brother Matt, but by the time they finished letting people in, Matt and I still hadn't gotten to the stairs.

So we went to Uno's for pizza and then back home to watch a couple episodes of Spaced that were still on the DVR. Gotta get our Wright & Pegg fix somehow.

While waiting, we were treated to a wrestling show from B.L.O.W.W. (Boston League of Women Wrestlers) and La Lucha Negra. Matt's graduating with a theater degree next month, and I'll be every one of the ladies putting on the show wsa a theater major recently. I started to tease him about what kind of jobs would be available with his degree, but then I remembered they probably weren't getting paid.

They don't just hand out paying jobs for people in the arts, which makes what the filmmakers at BUFF achieved even more remarkable. Many of them are rough, and I readily admit that I probably wouldn't pay full price to most of them, but they made movies, and for the most part made them their way. Considering how many people and how much money making a movie can take, it's hard not to respect that.

The Woods

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX/Sunday Eye Opener)

I'd alread seen this, on film even, at last year's Fantasia festival (HBS review here), and heard Lucky McKee do a Q&A for it. This time was a bit of a different experience - I knew a lot of the people in the audience, and knew most of what was coimng, which made it different for me. Also, I think that last year McKee was still too close to the project: He answered a lot of questions by just saying "studio/political bullshit" and really just seemed to want to move on. It had also been shot in Montreal, so maybe the place had bad memories for him, although I don't give that idea much credence.

For BUFF, he had almost another year behind him, and he'd done a couple of projects that were going over well since then. The Fantasia crowd is enthusiasts with questions like "how awesome was working with Bruce Campbell?!??!!", while the Chlotrudis folks had a few questions about production design and collaborators along with how awesome it was working with Bruce Campbell. I also think Roman helped him remember some of why he likes making films, and that you can do it without all the studio bullshit.

Although I have to admit, between the Q&As for The Woods and Roman, I found myself a little disappointed to realize that McKee would probably never do something as elaborate as The Woods, or even May, for quite some time, if ever again. He seems happy making small films as part of a collective with the other Mo-Freek people (Angela Bettis, Kevin Ford, and Eddie Steeples from the previous day's When Is Tomorrow were all part of Roman's cast and crew), and while some of his complaints about the production of The Woods did make me think MGM was a bunch of meddling jerks, some of the others didn't so much. He seemed genuinely shocked that one low-budget film with a cult following didn't mean he could bring most of May's cast and crew with him on a director-for-hire job.

It's kind of sad, I think, because he said part of what had to be cut for budget was some big CGI action scenes toward the end, so he's not a guy for whom big-budget filmmaking would be total anathema. But, if a guy's not comfortable with business's golden rule ("he with the gold makes the rules"), then it's probably a pretty good thing that he is content working on the indies, and that a good horror movie doesn't have to cost a lot.

¡El Presidente!

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

¡El Presidente! is probably not for you. Sure, that's true of most films that aren't built in a studio laboratory with the intention of selling it to as many people as possible. Even with that said, ¡El Presidente! seems to be made for a tiny audience - just how many fans of the Incredibly Strange Wrestling promotion are there, and how many of them are going to drop money on a DVD that is more story than action?

That story is fanciful: On the island of Cabo San Luchas (if that name doesn't amuse you a little, jump to the next review now), where pro wrestling is not just unscripted but a lifestyle, there is a city called Boys' Town where nearly the entire population is gay men. Boys' Town is about to elect a new Presidente, and the popular favorite is El Homo Loco. Upon seeing this news, The Oi Boy decides to run against him, aiming to expose him as a complete fairy, utterly failing to grasp that this is a huge part of his appeal. Still, he'll have help from unexpected quarters - Erika Kanine (Leanne Borghesi), the cackling wicked-witch type who lives on a castle on the hill, has a video that she claims will expose El Homo Loco as a complete fraud, while his new campaign manager, Jacqueline Smart (Beth Trifilo) is clearly in the special interests' pockets. And how does the secret romance between the assistant at Channel 69 (Jamin Barton) and Snackette #1 (Amber Clisura), one of the scantily-clad sidekicks of The Snackmaster (who resembles a giant frankfurter), fit into everything?

I don't follow even wrestling's more popular promotions very closely, let alone Incredible Strange Wrestling, so I don't know how or if ¡El Presidente! fits into ISW's storylines. There's something strangely logical about one of these outfits doing a movie; wrestling shows are basically soap operas whose plots turn on what goes on in the ring, so why not do the occasional story and invent a setting where the wrestling ring is an accepted means of dispute mediation? It's unusual, but not that strange idea.

Full review at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

I'd like to talk about Roman without mentioning May, for a number of reasons. First, I didn't particularly like May (which has gained a following despite my expressing disappointment to as many as a half-dozen people) and do like Roman. Second, I worry a little that doing so makes Roman look like just a gimmick film: Lucky McKee directed May with Angela Bettis as the title character, while Bettis directs McKee here. With McKee writing the script, it's very easy to think of Roman as McKee's follow-up to May and discount Bettis's contribution.

It's hard not to notice the similarities, of course - Roman (McKee) is a loner, spending the hours after he gets home from his work as a welder sitting in his apartment by himself, waiting for his pretty neighbor (Kristen Bell) to get her mail. One day they actually meet, and talk, and kind of hit it off, although not quite as much as Roman thinks and... well, it doesn't end well. Soon another young woman moves into the complex; Eva (Nectar Rose) is a quirky artist, similarly pretty but more inclined to pursue him. She's fascinated by death, which is sort of an uncomfortable subject for Roman right now.

As much as the themes of the two movies are similar, they're visually complete opposites. May was shot on film, with deep black shadows that a person could almost reach out and grab hold of. Roman is shot on digital video and looks it; especially under the harsh industrial lighting at Roman's place of employment. Daytime shots are bathed in California sunshine, penetrating Roman's spartan apartment through a a large picture window. Even nighttime shots seem clear and crisp. Bettis and Cinematographer Kevin Ford are very canny here, not using video as a budget-minded substitute for film but instead making use of is specific properties to make Roman feel very immediate and voyeuristic. The movie often seems like a disturbing home video, even when it's doing things like allowing Roman to narrate or letting us hear the whispers in his head and the images that go along with them.

Full review at HBS.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Boston Underground Film Festival Saturday: When Is Tomorrow?, Urban Explorers, and Viva

Ugh. I meant to get some of this up a week ago. Once I saw I wasn't going to have anything done before heading out to the Eye Opener Sunday morning, I decided to get full reviews written. Then I got hammered at work and started feeling like crap, so that took longer than expected.

I forgot Lesson #1 about Film Festival Screening: Everything Is Always Late. Urban Explorers started very late, so when I got out of it and to the Brattle for The Hamster Cage, I was already fifteen minutes late, so I passed. I knew it was going to be close, anyway, so I was half-expecting it. Of course, when I was in line for Viva later on, I found out it was late because the earlier show had started twenty minutes after its scheduled time...

After seeing Viva, I kind of wondered if I had made a mistake, because it's the kind of painfully self-aware film that drives me nuts, while Fatality was playing down the road at the AMC. Why was I at this when there was a rotoscoped Russian sci-fi movie playing at the same time? Because Viva was on film and had a filmmaker present. By the end, I was justifying it by saying that BUFF's Kevin Monahan and Fantasia's Mitch Davis were obviously comparing notes, so there was a good chance I would see Fatality in Montreal this July.

Here's hoping, anyway.

When Is Tomorrow

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

This movie is about as indie as you get. Shot on digital video in Austin, Texas with a small crew (several doing double duty as members of the cast), it maintains a tight focus on its central characters and relationship at all times. It's the kind of story that independent films have no real disadvantage compared to studio projects, and may have an advantage, since dozens of people trying to contribute will probably only hurt it.

When Is Tomorrow has a starting point particularly popular in indie film and theater - two people who haven't seen each other in a while meeting for the first time in years, initially being glad to see each other, but soon being reminded why they parted ways. In this case, Ron (Eddie Steeples) has flown into Austin from New York for his old roommate Jake's wedding. In the five years since they saw each other last, Ron has become a successful poet while Jake (Kevin Ford) is mostly breaking even as a window washer. As bachelor parties go, Jake's desires are modest - hang out with Ron and smoke one of the great joints he used to roll, despite Ron's protests that he doesn't do that any more. But Jake is insistent, and has a way of wearing Ron down.

Many of us either have or have had someone like Jake in our lives. Jake is selfish, irresponsible, and inconsiderate; the likes of Ron put up with it because they don't detect any malice in it and because some small part of them envies the ability to live like that. Ford plays Jake as a guy who has never fully grown up, and there's more than a bit of monster in his man-child. He pushes Ron in ways that initially just seem to come from awkwardness, but eventually seem more calculated. Jake just doesn't get that he causes trouble and breeds resentment, even when he's doing it on purpose.

Read the rest at HBS.

Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

We've all wondered, at some point, just what was behind a closed door, especially if we had never seen anyone else use it. We don't really know, of course, since most of those doors say "keep out" and most of us are willing to follow those instructions. Urban explorers are the people who don't, instead seeing a potential adventure in every locked door, abandoned building, or manhole cover.

A montage of news reports about urban explorers who got caught - occasionally spending a few days in jail, since people loitering around abandoned buildings and infrastructure with caving equipment raise a red flag to law enforcement - suggests where Minneapolis-based filmmaker Melody Gilbert became aware of the phenomenon. She initially follows explorers in the Midwest, but soon branches out to other locales, such as Florida and Paris, with a stop at an explorers' convention in Glasgow along the way. The explorers in each area are loosely tied together via the internet, but certain ground rules are nearly universal: Theft and vandalism are frowned upon, and safety is important

Some of the places she takes her camera are very cool indeed. In Minnesota, we get to the tops of abandoned buildings and into sewer tunnels. We also go underground in Paris, to its famous catacombs. Scotland offers castles, churches, and abandoned mental hospitals, while Florida offers Xanadu, an abandoned "home of the future" (which now merely houses a vagrant), and most intriguingly, a former NASA test sight in the Everglades which houses a gigantic rocket engine. We're also given photos of trips that Gilbert didn't take, including a harrowing trip through Minneapolis's sewers where the members of the party nearly pass out from the fumes. Paris is a trip, as explorers camp out underground, run into other groups, and walk around bone-filled crypts.

Full review at HBS.


* * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

Anna Biller worked hard on Viva, and I must admit to admiring some of what she managed to accomplish. Where most auteurs would be content to write, direct, and star in their movies, Biller also had credits as producer, editor, production designer, and costume designer. It turns out that she's very good at those last two - the visuals are almost always striking. The rest of the work, unfortunately, runs the gamut between dull and excruciating.

Take the opening scene, where married couple Mark (Jared Sanford) and Sheila (Bridget Brno) trade inanities by the pool, guffawing at every uninteresting comment either makes. Their neighbor Barbi (Biller) soon joins them, wearing a dress with an absurd hemline and joining in the fun, commenting on how she and Sheila have better curves than the girls in Playboy and soon posing while Mark flashes away with his new camera. If you demand more from comedy than mocking recreation, this scene will seem to go on roughly forever. Relatively soon, though, Barbi and Sheila are on their own - Mark moves in with his brother and Barbi's husband Rick (Chad England) leaves on a month-long business trip. Soon, the two are involved in a prostitution/matchmaking operation, with Barbi using the name Viva because (dramatic pause) it means "to live" in Italian, and that's what she wants to do with the rest of her life... Live!

Biller's recreation of 1970s California goes beyond detailed to fetishistic. In the Q&A afterward, she said that the art direction was primarily based on advertisements in 1970s Playboy magazines, often posing the actors in such a way as to match the the models from the ads and incorporating the slogans into the dialog. The result is a world that seldom looks real, but does frequently feel familiar and complete. The costumes are similarly outrageous, with bright colors (lots of reds and yellows) and ridiculous cuts.

Full review at HBS.