Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lightning round: February 2008

Stuff has started falling out the back of my brain, so it's time to do some capsules and then see which ones expand themselves into full reviews. President's Day weekend was kind of a cruncher - something like 11 films at the sci-fi marathon, the Academy Award shorts, and three other features. My brain just can't store that many details about that many movies.

Evil Dead 2

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc)

At last count, I think I've purchased something like four copies of this movie - one on VHS, two on DVD, and this one on Blu-ray Disc. I knew from reading reviews of the disc that it probably doesn't look as great as it could, so there's a good chance that copy #5 could be in the future when Anchor Bay inevitably issues another edition. It doesn't look bad - far from it! - but the quality of the transfer is a bit wonky. There are some sections which look too bright, with the result that it looks more like a set than a real place. Not that I'll likely go back to the DVD very often, but it's a tad disappointing.

I'll probably watch it again sometime in the next few months because watching it again reminded me that this is a really weird movie. Army of Darkness, the musical, the comics that have played up the comedy, and the whole Monty Python-ish cult that has sprung up around this movie makes one tend to think of it as funny, but the first half hour to forty-five minutes plays the absurdity as much as a descent into madness as slapstick, especially considering how it is, for the most part, just Bruce Campbell in the cabin. The parallel universe version of this film is Ash as a murderous, hallucinating madman, and you wouldn't have to change the first half of the movie very much at all to get it.

The rest of the movie is more straight-ahead, and it's amazing to see how good Sam Raimi was at action and comedy, and how to mix the two without either of them suffering, so early in his career. It really is amazing how many different styles and approaches Raimi used in this movie, and it's the mark of a fine, under-appreciated director that he fuses them into his own style rather than making it feel like a jumbled mess.

Let's Get Lost

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I suspect a biopic with Nick Nolte playing Chet Baker would be a huge hit in Europe. This documentary does a lot of the basics - the humble beginnings, the testimonials from fellow musicians, the stories of drug abuse and infidelity. What makes it unusual, I think, is the way it so baldly portrays the tremendous, sometimes humiliating loyalty that genius inspires in people.

Because there's no redemptive portion here. Baker's death came soon after Let's Get Lost was shot, but more than that, there's a gut punch about a half an hour or so into the film, when a former mistress talks for a while about Chet, clearly still very fond of him, and then finishes it off by flatly saying what a selfish bastard he is. Then there's the ex-wife, a former English beauty queen, living in Baker's native Oklahoma with their kids, blithely acting like Baker will be back someday.

Then there's Baker himself, his face and body imploded from years of indulgence and self-destruction. He still has admirers and talent, but there's not much else of him left. Even the music chosen to score the film is lonely, as he switches between trumpet and raspy vocals.

And yet, the women in his life still pine for him, despite everything.

Night Moves

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (Arthur Penn in person)

I first heard of Night Moves in GAMES magazine, which used it to introduce a chess puzzle similar to the game that Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby studies at various points in the film. He's looking at it as being about missed opportunities and not being able to see what's in front of one's own face as his marriage falls apart and the full facts of the case he's working on are often just out of reach.

Night Moves is a nifty little crime story with a few extra things going on. Part of what's really neat about it is the way it shifts back and forth between detection and drama. We follow a trail with Moseby as he tracks down a missing girl, but then we watch them for a bit as the crime story simmers in the background before it bursts back into the foreground. During the discussion, director Arthur Penn mentioned how proud he was of the finale, which eschews exposition for showing the audience the answers visually, and it is a very welcome change.

The movie also has a fantastic cast - Gene Hackman had a number of great roles during the seventies, and this is right up there. Jennifer Warren is similarly terrific as the mystery woman he meets while looking for a missing girl. We also get early roles from Melanie Griffith and James Woods, which is extra fun, in part because of how James Woods has always been James Woods; even back in his mid-twenties, he had the sort of scuzzy, sarcastic persona figured out.

Mickey One

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (Arthur Penn in person)

Mickey One was the second part of the Archive's Arthur Penn double feature, and it was... different. Warren Beatty plays a Detroit comedian who runs afoul of the mob, escapes to Chicago, but finds himself unable to resist getting back on stage, even though that leads to fears of the Detroit mob finding him again...

It's an interesting movie, sort of avant-garde, and Beatty and Alexandra Stewart are both pretty good in it. It does get kind of jumpy in the second half, blurring the line between what's actually happening and Mickey's fears, and the illogic of Mickey's dilemma is hard to escape. Beautiful black and white cinematography, though.

Also on the program: A short film from the 1972 Olympics ("The Hightest", part of Visions of Eight) about pole-vaulting. You never know, until you've seen it in slow motion, just how specific and non-transferable to anything else pole-vaulting skills are.

The Pursuit of Happyness

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray Disc)

If Will Smith ever runs for President, I'll probably vote for him. I don't think he has yet taken on a project he couldn't handle - even his bad movies are generally bad in spite of him, rather than because of him - even when people are underestimating him. It's a quality that serves him well in Pursuit of Happyness as he drops his cool and cocky personas to play a father trying to hold it together for his son without much in the way of resources. The film wears its aspirations to inspiration on its sleeve, but Smith's a guy with the knack for making the audience believe in him, so it's pretty easy to believe in what we're seeing.

27 Dresses

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2008 at Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

... or "what I hadn't seen the night of the Super Bowl".

I like Katherine Heigl. She's built herself a solid on-screen persona; ever since Roswell she's been playing smart, excessively organized young women who are still fun to be around, and her role in 27 Dresses fits that to a tee. It's got a clever hook for a story, decent-enough actors in the supporting roles, and a fun opening sequence.

What it doesn't have, sadly, is much in the way of jokes. It's not a heavy movie, by any means, but that's not really enough to qualify as a really good romantic comedy; such a movie should probably make me laugh a lot more often than it did. And I'm not trying to pull "it's called romantic comedy" the way others pull "it's called science fiction"; having the characters make us laugh would make us root for them to end up together more.

Brothers Sklandowsky (aka A Trick of the Light)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2008 at the Harvard Film Archive (VES free screenings)

This one was a feature presentation to go with a bunch of early silents, all of them screened on DVD, which was kind of disappointing. You'd think the HFA would have a copy of something like "Une Voyage dans la Lune", at the very least, but apparently those don't get broken out for what are basically classroom screenings to which the general public is invited.

I did rather love Wim Wenders's story of a German clan who built a motion picture camera at around the same time Edison and the Lumiere did. He and his students take plenty of liberties with the story at times, and note that they've done so, but this is really a joyous little film - the silent film pastiche is a great deal of fun, and the interview with the nonagenarian daughter of one of the brothers is one of those awe-inspiring bits where you realize just how much happened in the course of the twentieth century, over the course of just one human life. There's a kind of melancholy to it, too, as one realizes how the stories she tells will just become facts and history after she passes, rather than an experience that shaped a person and that she cherishes.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD/Chlotrudis "Buried Treasure" nominee)

More buried than treasure, I think. It's not a bad movie by any means, and it's one where I hope i'm not falling into the common documentary trap of judging a film by the importance of its subject matter rather than its own merit when I dismiss it. It is, after all, a very small film, focusing mainly on one mariachi playing for tips in San Francisco. And it does a nice enough job of that, giving voice to him and his partner in music, teaching us things we may not have known.

It doesn't take it to that next level, though, where we the audience get emotionally invested in their lives. Things that are good and bad for them are interesting, but there's never the reaction that something is particularly unjust or fortunate or surprising. Things are just how they are.

Of course, I may not have given it the fairest shake; I watched it kind of late on a Sunday evening and felt myself drifting off at times. It was also pretty clearly shot on either video or lesser film stock, and one of my first clear indications that while my Toshiba HD-A1 can make a good looking DVD look pretty decent on my HDTV, it won't do much to help a bad-looking one, and might even aggravate the situation.

Body Heat

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2008 at the Coolidge Corner #1 (Science on Screen)

Let met tell you, there's nothing that sets the stage for an erotic thriller quite like a lecture on ferret sexuality. I kid, a little; the lecture that accompanied the film as part of the Coolidge's Science on Screen series was interesting in its own right and didn't have me looking at what was going on too clinically.

The movie itself is a pretty good one; it's good old-fashioned noir set in the sweltering Florida sun. Kathleen Turner reeks of sex as the femme fatale whose body temperature runs a degree or two hotter than normal, while William Hurt hits all the right notes as the guy whose weak moral compass is completely thrown off by her. The folks in the supporting roles (notably Richard Crenna and a pre-CheersTed Danson) are also good. The plot is the sort where the audience knows what will and must happen, but the exact details are a fun surprise and likely still trashy fun even after the first viewing.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2008 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

The purpose behind this one was simple - it was the movie that I knew Paramount was attaching a trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to; I'd later get lucky and see it again with Jumper and Definitely Maybe, but I wanted to be sure.

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, especially if you've got a kid in tow. It was a little disconcerting for me to see Freddie Highmore speaking with an American accent, but that's my problem more than the film's. The story is the usual for a kids' fantasy: Kid from broken home discovers a hidden world where he gets to be strong and important, and he ultimately gets to show his family that he's not just a crazy troublemaker. The filmmakers do it well, and they've got some better-than-expected talent tagging along in the persons of David Strathairn and Nick Nolte. Some of the fantasy settings are unexpectedly beautiful, while others are enjoyable cartoony. I have to admit, I was happily taken aback to how Seth Rogen's hobgoblin fit into the final sequence.

Good fun. And Indiana Jones is back, too.

2007 Oscar-Animated Shorts

Seen 16 February 2008 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre Screening Room (special engagement)

On the one hand, I kind of miss when the Coolidge's "We've Got Oscar's Shorts!" program was a big, special deal; on the other, it's cool more people are getting the opportunity to see these. What I really miss are the nominated documentary feature screenings that don't seem to be happening anywhere in Boston any more.

The individual shorts:

"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" - A very pretty painted piece from Russia. It's kind of long and full of people thinking of doing things rather than actually acting for an animated piece, but very nice to look at.

"Même les Pigeons vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)" - I'm pretty sure I saw this somewhere else last year, but it's one I like: A CGI short that looks like stop-motion about a con man selling an old man a tip to heaven.

"I Met the Walrus" - Cute; it's at fun idea to illustrate a rambling conversation with John Lennon this way, and although the visuals are sometimes a little on-the-nose, it's a nicely active piece that doesn't wear out its welcome.

"Madame Tutli-Putli" - One of my favorites among the bunch, a dialogue-free horror piece that has a woman confronting various freaky occurances on a train. The stop-motion animation is quite nice, and the atmosphere of lurking nastiness out to get our heroine doesn't prevent some nicely comic bits.

"Peter & The Wolf" - A deserving winner, packed with drama, comedy, and thrills, along with some terrific animation and music. It's also the rare film where another animal surpasses the duck in terms of being the charmer (I loved the blue jay).

The Draughtsman's Contract

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

I might be tempted to bump this one up to three stars on a second viewing; I generally liked what I was seeing and Peter Greenaway has an absurdist sense of humor that can be a lot of fun. It was kind of a log day, though, and my mind was kind of wandering toward the end, and I really had no idea what was going on as it finished. That's probably more on me than the film.

A Zed and Two Noughts

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

But don't give that rating too much credence; I was tired by the time this started, and Greenaway demands alertness. That said, I don't think this would be my thing even under the best of circumstances. As a friend put it the other day, there's "quirky", and there's "random", and this thing is definitely random. It didn't even wind up being fun random for me, just unpleasant for the most part.

Whew. That just leaves a backlog of six plus a post for the marathon. Eminently doable, I think.

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