Friday, May 30, 2008

A lot of catching up to do.

Two festivals, some previews, and needing to write about Indiana Jones has got me way behind. But, it's summer, which means I can actually slow down movie watching a little, since the studios start sort of staying out of each other's way. In the meantime, let's see how the stuff I've watched over the past three months holds up:

The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

This one's a fun, pleasant little movie that throws together a few likable characters and watches what happens. An Egyptian police band scheduled to play at a cultural center in Israel winds up in a small town with a name similar to where they're supposed to be going and hangs around while waiting for the next bus - which is a day away. There is some expected hostility, but also some new friendships.

It's a small story, with a simple message of realizing that one probably has more in common with one's neighbors than previously suspected, but that's why it works. Eran Kolirin doesn't add excess melodrama or twisty backstory. The joy of the film is in the very randomness of its events, and how there's not a simple, obvious lesson to be taken from them.

Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

It's hard to believe that this sweet little film got censored by Thai authorities but some of the really nasty horror films that get shot there apparently have no trouble. It was probably at least partially targeted for being peculiar; like a lot of Thai art films, Syndromes seems to emphasize mood over actual storytelling, and is often so abstract that I could see censors wondering if the filmmaker was trying to get something past them.

The central conceit is an interesting one - filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has taken the story of how his parents met and told it from both perspectives - but where his mother's half is set in the past, his father's is set in the present. It's a fascinating demonstration of how times have changed but people have remained more or less the same. I was charmed by the characters - both the leads and the supporting cast - and the photography is as beautiful as I'm coming to expect from Thailand.

Romulus, My Father

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye-Opener)

Man, that poor kid.

Over the course of Romulus, My Father, pretty much every bad thing that could happen to Raimond Gaita's family does. His mother (Franka Potente) is mentally ill in a time when such afflictions didn't earn much sympathy; his father is a German immigrant in over his head, getting injured in car accidents, the farm is failing... Truth be told, the sheer weight of what happens is often too much; you have to remind yourself that this is based on a true story, and that the boy survives and attains some measure of wisdom for his experiences; it's not just an exercise in unrelenting, tragic misery.

It's at least got some very nice acting; Eric Bana is wonderful as the title character, larger than life and projecting more warmth than would seem humanly possible, just as a young boy would see his father in the outback. Potente is good, too; she seduces us into thinking that maybe this return and reconciliation will be different, just as she does her boy. And little Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as young Raimond, growing up and growing wary.

The movie is a relentless downer, but it is also beautiful and feels true in a way that doesn't just mean accurate.

One review at HBS.

The Bank Job

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run)

Ah, right. That's why I like Jason Statham, and heist movies in general. Statham is a guy who keeps busy, but often with crud, and heist movies can be very formulaic, but this one is a corker. It's zippy and fast-paced, with a bunch of colorful crooks executing a meticulously laid out plan, and a couple other factions making things difficult. Things twist and turn as deviously as you could want, and when things make the jump from laid-back to deadly serious, the stakes go up, but it doesn't stop being fun.

I'm looking forward to seeing this one on Blu-ray disc; it was shot digitally and unlike a lot of other movies shot that way, it doesn't really try to look like film. The slick look even looked good in digital projection, and though it's pointedly set in the early 1970s, it still feels very current.

One review at HBS.

Paranoid Park

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

Here's the thing about me and Gus Van Sant: Most of the movies of his that I've seen, I've liked: to Die For, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, even Gerry. But there are a lot of others where I've seen the preview or the capsule description and just said no, not a chance, I'm not touching that. In my mind, they're all like his brutal segment of Paris, je t'aime, grimy and airy with nothing happening.

Paranoid Park is kind of like that (and I probably wouldn't have seen it if it hadn't been part of the Eye Opener series), but it's not as bad as all that. There is a good mystery plot to it, and I like Gabe Nevins and Lauren McKinney in it. Christopher Doyle shoots, so it looks significantly less muddy than it might have otherwise. But it can also be maddening as the timeline loops back on itself, showing us the same thing three times in some cases without necessarily adding anything new to it. It's a short movie that still seems bloated.

Overall, I'm glad I saw it, but certainly wouldn't have sought it out, and I don't figure on seeing it again.

One review at HBS.

Flash Gordon

* * (out of four)
Seen 12 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (The 80s Rock!)

So, now when I see "FLASH! Ah-ahhhh! He'll save every one of us!" thrown in whenever someone in a fannish setting mentions Flash Gordon, I'll know of what they speak. That's nice, I suppose. It's not cool to be ignorant.

But, geez, this is not a good movie. The Buster Crabbe serials weren't good, either, but they're more enjoyable, because they're bad in an honest effort. For all its manic energy, it's so busy giggling at how tacky it is that it completely misses the gee-whiz fun of the character thrown into a crazy situation. It's not joyless, not at all, but I have a hard time understanding why so many people seem to love a movie so intent at looking down on itself.

Four reviews at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run)

Huh, I could have sword I did a full review for this at the time. Ah, I did a post on the Sci-Fi Marathon message board that no-one responded to. As I'm lazy, I will just repost it here:

I have to admit, I was initially a bit disappointed with Doomsday; I was expecting big things from Neil Marshall with his follow-up to Dog Soldiers and (especially) The Descent. It takes a bit of time to get going, and it seems a little standard-issue: Tough chick leads a team into the middle of a wasteland because it may hold the key to the plague threatening them back in civilization.

The thing is: Neil Marshall doesn't do things halfway. When the movie gets to Edinburgh, it goes into full-on Mad Max mode. You don't just get punks with open shirts, funky hairdos, and crazy tattoos - you get cannibal punks with etc., etc. And they're at war with people living in a castle and dressing like they're in a renaissance fair. There are chases involving trains and horses. And everything ends with an absolutely crazy over-the-top car chase. There's blood, decapitations, and other mayhem galore, Malcolm MacDowell chewing scenery, Adrian Lester being cooler than I thought he was capable of, and then more blood and mayhem. Bob Hoskins is awesome in his smallish role. Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine is the Prime Minister. If you don't mind the hard R, it's a real blast.

It's also Marshall's first relatively big-budget film, and he zips the camera all over the place, spends some money on special effects to give us Scotland burning and empty, and some nasty gore. It's a very different style from The Descent (much more like Dog Soldiers), but one that winds up working well for this movie.

Five reviews at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at Somerville Theatre #1 (Alloy Orchestra)

Ah, I do love the Alloy Orchestra - there's nothing like seeing a spiffily restored silent print with live accompaniment, even if it's moodier than the percussive scores they do for the likes of Buster Keaton. It also may be indicative of Paramount starting to pay more attention to its film library - their home video department has been content to cycle through the same catalog titles (and in ten years of DVD, still no The African Queen!), but now they're starting to license the deep catalog stuff to other distributors, and one can only hope that this attention to their silents - the AO is supposedly working on another von Sternberg silent for next year (The Last Command, I think) - indicates that something will be done with it.

The movie itself is pretty darn good. These silents are sometimes like proto-movies; you couldn't film the same script (even updated to work as a talkie) today because it would seem sort of generic. But as one of the first gangster films, it's new territory, and works pretty well with that in mind.

Sea Monsters 3-D

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first-run)

Sometimes they seem to be making movies just for me: Cool science, nifty special effects, and 3-D? Give me. Ancient aquatic dinosaurs that make quick work of great white sharks are just a bunch of fun.

What's especially impressive is the way writer Mose Richards and director Sean MacLeod Philips build narratives to go along with their flashy images, both in the present day and in prehistoric times. Sea Monsters is anything but dry, even though it's chock full of fun information.

(And it's apparently available on Blu-ray. No 3-D that way, but pretty...)

Dolphins and Whales 3-D: Tribes of the Ocean

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first-run)

In contrast, this IMAX doc that I saw as part of a double feature with Sea Monsters is kind of a chore. It's the kind of documentary about the natural world that isn't content to show us how interesting or amazing something is, but seems to feel the need to say that these whales or dolphins are better than human beings. Which isn't hard, because, you know, we're evil for how these other noble creatures are suffering thanks to our careless regard for our environment. That's a valid and important part of the situation being documented, of course, but it often feels artificial, like the filmmakers are straining to make that point even when it's not especially interesting.

The reason it's not interesting is because, unlike Sea Monsters, these guys don't make a particularly engrossing movie. It feels like they've got an outline, and rather than building a narrative, they just run down the list of sea creatures they have footage of, listing habitat, social characteristics, and how endangered they are. Even when the material itself is interesting, the presentation is dull.

In Bruges

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

It's good to see Colin Farrell choosing better movies. He's a talented guy who all too often chose boring projects in Hollywood, but getting back to his roots seems to agree with him. He's exactly what this movie needs, a brusque and crude hitman on a forced vacation in a pretty city that he has no use for. He's funny and grouchy and surprisingly disarming when it's revealed that he does, in fact, have a heart.

Brendan Gleeson is nearly as good as his partner, but the surprise is Ralph Fiennes, who has played so many upper-class roles that it's jarring to see him as a snarling, vicious gangster. His Harry has a strict moral code of his own, making him a bully with principles. The three of them connecting in the third act shifts In Bruges from a drama with dark comedy to something a bit more action-oriented, but it works because the action winds up being the collision of what three very flawed people think is the most right thing to do.

Three reviews at HBS.

Live-in Maid (Cama Adentro)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (DVD rental)

How lazy am I? I just sent this back to the Chlotrudis screener archive last week. That's not so bad as the Blockbuster Online rentals of the same vintage which I have actually been paying to have sit on my coffee table, though.

It's a nice little movie with good performances from its two lead actresses: Norma Aleandro as an upper-class woman falling on hard times as a result of Argentina's recent economic crisis and Norma Argentina as the live-in maid she can no longer afford to pay. It's an intriguing relationship that often shows up in the background of other films, a life-long intertwining of lives that is not that of family or friends, but is too close to simply be employer and employee.

One review at HBS.

Yo-Yo Girl Cop (Sukeban Deka: Kôdo nêmu = Asamiya Saki)

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (I Actually Bought This)

As much as this isn't really a good movie, I do admire the spirit of absolute insanity that goes into making this sort of thing. The very premise is absurd - a top secret police agency that trains juvenile delinquents as supercops and sends them undercover with a custom yo-yo as a weapon. Then there's the opening salvo, where Saki (pop star Aya Matsuura) is established as a badass, her recruiter (Riki Takeuchi) is shown to be part of a shadowy agency, and the bad guys are shown to be really bad. It's nutty, but it's full-speed-ahead nutty, the sort that gets the audience caught up in its exaggerated story.

And then, Saki gets to her new school, and it sputters. It's just high school, and she befriends a girl who is getting bullied, and there's a guy who has a crush on her. There's a ticking clock that keeps any comedy about this tough girl being unimpressed with the kids' commonplace problems from happening and a convoluted plot, so by the time the movie gets back to the crazy, with leather-clad teenage hotties fighting with tricked-out razor-sharp yo-yos, well, the wave has broken and it's not quite as much fun as it was an hour and a half ago..

One review at HBS.

Chop Shop

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

This starts at the Brattle on Friday and is well worth a look if you like this kind of almost-documentary. It feels extremely authentic; most of the people in the audience will be hard-pressed to figure out which of the people on-screen are actors and which are just people in the area that filmmaker Ramin Bahrani thought would make good characters. It's set in a very specific neighborhood, the iron triangle near Shea Stadium.

Alejandro Polanco's Ale is entrancing; the kid is intense, having to grow up fast but still only obtaining wisdom at the normal rate. There's tragedy in how hard he's gotten already, although the movie is less a lament than a demonstration of how misfortune can become learning experiences.

Married Life

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first run)

I wanted more from this movie. It's got a cast full of great people - Chris Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Patricia Clarkson, and Pierce Brosnan. Every colorful, hyper-detailed frame is a thing of beauty. And yet, despite all the loving attention filmmaker Ira sachs pays to period detail, I couldn't quite get into its 1940s frame of mind, where divorce is such a humiliating prospect that a man could convince himself that murder is a more palatable alternative and women seem to exist mainly as an adjunct to their men.

Beyond that, it's still kind of a mixed bag. Cooper and Clarkson are fantastic, especially Cooper, who becomes quietly monstrous as the film goes on. Still, this is a movie that states its premise fairly early and then plays it out in methodical fashion, without much in the way of surprise or any particularly interesting observations. It's glossy, but not a whole lot more.

Youth Without Youth

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves)

Francis Ford Coppola's first film in years is a strange one. It's clearly the work of an aging artist with death on his mind: It stars Tim Roth as Dominic, an old man miraculously made younger; it also features themes of reincarnation and death and old age coming prematurely, death accelerated for a kind person while refusing to touch someone perhaps less worthy. It's about the hungry desire for more life even when still being around will perpetually brand one as an outsider.

It's a strange but beautiful film to watch; the images are exquisite and though the movie constantly moves into new and more bizarre realms of the fantastic, it never gets caught up in the strangeness for its own sake - the mysteries are a reason to examine Dominic and how he reacts to a strange world.

Two reviews at HBS.

Snow Angels

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first run)

I liked this one quite a bit, although the Chlotrudis folks I saw it with didn't seem that impressed. There were some comments about this being a fairly conventional film for screenwriter/director David Gordon Green, and it is rather less abstract and more commercial than the one film of his I'd previously seen (All the Real Girls). That shouldn't be taken as a knock on it, though - it just shows that Green can tell a story just as well as he can create a mood.

One review at HBS.

Body of War

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

You know, I think I'm going to avoid seeing any more Iraq war documentaries until after it's all over or the film promises something really new to say. It's not that they're bad movies, it's that they seem so pointless right now. None of them are going to convince their audience to change their opinions because nobody who is pro-war is going to actually pay for a ticket to the likes of Body of War, and vice versa (though I don't know what a pro-war example would be). It is, in its way, as much a regurgitation of talking points as the Congressional speeches it takes to task.

You could see it in the post-film discussion for this one at the Brattle - the audience there is generally liberal (as a registered Libertarian, I may be the most politically right-of-center person there), and people generally tended to pick out and comment upon the bits that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs. It got crazy in some points - one audience member went on for some time about how it just confirmed his belief that the military is just institutionalized child abuse, and claimed that what we saw of subject Tomas Young's family suggested his mother was in an abusive marriage because she wasn't the dittohead Republican her husband was and it's just impossible for them to actually get along!

The movie itself is decent enough, although it has its flaws. It's probably at its strongest when it focuses on Tomas, showing his rehabilitation. The nuts and bolts of how a young man has to cope with the type of paralysis he has is more affecting than all the facts directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro can muster. They do a very good job of presenting Young as flawed, rather than just a misguided young man turned noble activist, and the editing of the segments that show Senator Robert Byrd as the voice of opposition to a well-planned attack is effective despite not being at all subtle. It's a shame that the bit in the end where the two meet is so staged and self-congratulatory; the movie is pretty good before giving in to that impulse toward smugness.

The Ruins

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2008 at Regal Fenway #8 (first-run)

A pretty darn good horror movie as such things go. It is what Roger Ebert calls a Dead Teenager movie, but a taut and suspenseful one. Scott B. Smith's screenplay (adapted from his own novel) contrives to put its characters in a tight spot early and then do everything it possibly can to make the situation even more difficult. There is something paranormal afoot, but there's a certain logic to everything; once the fantastic premise is in place, everything follows in a fairly logical progression.

The Ruins feels a lot nastier than many horror movies because, especially in the early going, it is content to wound - rather than taking characters out to show it means business, Smith and director Carter Smith (presumably no relation) will instead hit them with a nasty injury. This results in more tension, as the characters' options are limited by the injured parties' mobility and those folks aren't necessarily making the best decisions.

And yet, sadly, this didn't do that great while any number of weaker horror movies stick around.

Six reviews at HBS.

Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener)

Pieter-Dirk Uys was in Cambridge when the Brattle played this as the Sunday Eye Opener, doing his one-man show at the A.R.T. He introduced the film, though he wasn't around to take questions afterward. He did mention that the film's director, Julian Shaw, was very young - the Australian saw one of Uys's performances as a teenager and said he would make a movie about the South African satirist. Uys brushed it off, until the kid showed up in South Africa a year later to document Uys's AIDS education/entertainment programs.

That's an interesting project in itself; AIDS is an epidemic in Africa, and Uys will tell you that the behavior of his nation's government is criminal. Feeling that the only way to make any dent is to speak directly to children and teenagers, he travels to city and village schools using the best tool at his disposal - a quick and sharp wit - to get through. It's not the first time he's taken on such targets; we see archive footage of how he skewered the government during the apartheid era.

Uys is a compelling subject; he's devastatingly funny and a fine mimic, but he's also deadly serious: He is not the sort of impressionist who laughs about how idiots in government give him steady work; there is genuine hatred in his voice for the people he mocks. The film gives the impression that he is famous in his native land, but he is able to live fairly anonymously in his hometown of Darling because he is most known for a drag performance where he's buried under makeup.

Shaw is probably able to get more honest responses from the teenagers he interviews as he is that age himself, and he's either a natural talent with the camera or he is working with some very good producers and editors. Either way, this is a fairly solidly put-together movie; it'll be interesting to see what Shaw comes up with if he keeps at it.

Smart People

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2008 at Regal Fenway #9 (first run)

So, how much of its success does this film owe Juno? This isn't really Ellen Page's movie; it mostly focuses on Jeff Daniels's character and how the others relate to him. He's a bit of a refugee from a Noah Baumbach film, arrogant despite his greatest successes being firmly in the rear-view mirror. It's kept from being The Squid and the Whale, though, by a lot of characters being played somewhat more broadly - Page's straight-laced daughter, Thomas Haden Church's laid-back (adopted) brother. There's also evidence of an actual heart, since he's mourning a long-dead wife rather than in an acrimonious divorce.

So it's a process of watching the Grinch's heart grow a couple sizes. That's a bit uneven; there's a lot of "try a little, fail spectacularly" until the script has Sarah Jessica Parker's character pull out the ultimate ultimatum, so to speak. In the meantime, Church carries a lot of the movie on his shoulders; he's got great comic timing and is able to comment on how screwed-up the family is without being smugly superior. He and Page play well off each other, in particular.

Two reviews at HBS.

Contempt (Le Mépris)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

We've all got embarrassing lists of great movies (or entries in some other medium) that we haven't seen, as in "how can you discuss film with even a modicum of intelligence unless you've seen this?" I can now cross Contempt off mine and say I enjoyed the experience.

I must admit, though, that I don't really care for the gotcha ending. The whole movie had been about Brigite Bardot's Camille and Michel Piccoli's Paul falling out of love, treating each other badly as a result of Paul trying to curry favor with an American movie producer. And then, the end... It just doesn't seem to follow for me. Maybe if I see it again, it'll seem more tied in, but right now, it just seems discordant for the sake of being discordant.

My Blueberry Nights

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Wong Kar-wai makes beautiful movies, and My Blueberry Nights is no exception just because he made it in America, in the English language. It's really a wonderful little film, I think, with a more charming than usual performance from Jude Law and a very nice supporting turn from David Strathairn.

One of my favorite things about the film, though, is Norah Jones in the starring role. I'm ignorant enough about music that she's got no baggage for me, and I think a lot of the criticism coming her way is knee-jerk based on other musicians who haven't impressed on film. To a certain extent, I think performance is performance, and it's worth noting that in China, performers have a much easier time moving between media. I do like Jones in this movie specifically, though; as great as the more seasoned folks are, many of them, especially Strathairn and Rachel Weisz, are clearly acting, while the lack of expected punctuation gives Jones a real everywoman quality.

Apropos of nothing: We don't get many food movies made with American cuisine at the center of it, but both My Blueberry Nights and Waitress (and the beautifully-shot TV show Pushing Daisies, now that I think of it) focus a lot of loving attention on pies. I love pie - I went up to Maine for a Memorial Day cookout at my brothers in part on the promise of homemade pie - but I'd never really thought of them as the most beautiful food in America, although there may be something to it.

Tow reviews at HBS.

The Life Before Her Eyes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

(A little spoilery, so quit here if you're considering watching this cold)

Is it late enough in this film's life cycle for me to say this without being a hypocrite? See, my experience with this movie was affected by knowing that something was going on, although I only knew that something was going on because of a blog entry I read debating director Vadim Perelman's decision to let it be known that something was going on before the movie came out. I wonder if not knowing that would have made me less attentive during the movie, so I would have missed certain clues. Would that make it seem like a better movie, because the things that stood out would have seemed more clever than obvious? Or a worse one because it seemed to take a lot of character development and minimized it in the service of a twist?

Who can tell? I did wind up liking the movie - it's hard for me not to like a movie that stars Uma Thurman, and she's pretty darn good here. The writing is fairly elegant, and I liked Evan Rachel Wood as the younger version of Thurman's character, the Bad Girl Who Really Isn't That Bad.

Aaaand, I've worked my way through my wad of ticket stubs all the way to the arbitrary cutoff of Iron Man. I also want to give the Nikkatsu Action films a separate post, even though I may not be able to give them as much individual attention as I might have liked.

One review at HBS.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I haven't done a midnight preview for a while, and I wasn't going to do it for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, either. I'd patiently wait for Saturday and see it at a 10am or 11am show rather than pay full price, deal with lines, and maybe not be able to find a good seat. And if it had opened on Friday as usual, I might have done that. But it opened Thursday, which means the midnight show was Wednesday night. On Wednesdays, I tend to hang out at the comic shop (The Million Year Picnic) until it closes at 10pm; one of the last customers was searching for the first issue of Dark Horse's adaptation, the question of the midnight came up, and, hey, it's playing at the Harvard Square Cinema on Church Street rather than someplace where it might be more difficult to get home at 2am...

So, yeah, I caved. I wound up being a wreck at work the next day, but the opening night crowd was worth it. Folks were singing the Raider's March by the time the "no cell phones" message was playing, I didn't even hear Indy's first line because of all the cheering when Harrison Ford showed his face, and even though a lot of folks didn't quite buy into the fifties-style dangers in this movie versus in the previous three, there wasn't any snotty "well, that wasn't very good" noise heard afterward. There were still folks whistling the music on the way back.

While posting by review on HBS/EFC, I couldn't help but notice that I wasn't the only one that wrote an extra-long one - part of it's nostalgia, but folks seem to want to talk about it, and writing a long review might be harder than expected, since even the opening gambit goes into territory that we all chose not to spoil.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21/22 May 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

I'm lucky; walk a couple miles in two different directions from my house and you'll find theaters that run Raiders of the Lost Ark on film, on the big screen, in front of a packed house, at least once a year, and you bet I take advantage of that. Sitting down in a sold-out theater to watch a new Indiana Jones movie is an altogether different experience - as it must be, nearly twenty years after the last - but one I'm quite thankful for.

We start off in familiar territory - Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), rough-and-tumble archaeologist, finder of lost antiquities, and expert on the occult, finds himself searching for a lost treasure with bad guys breathing down his throat. This time the treasure is hidden in Area 51 and the villains are Soviets led by Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who more-than-hints at having actual psychic abilities to go with her intelligence and ruthlessness. Indy will, of course, escape and return to his day job as a university professor, only to be recruited on another treasure hunt - this time by greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who says he is the son of one of Indy's old colleagues and was told that he needed Jones's help finding a crystal skull in South America.

The template is similar, but much has changed in the nineteen years that has passed both for Jones and the audience. Ford and Jones not only have quite a few gray hairs, but they don't move as quickly, and there's not close to the same respect paid to him. Noting that his father and a previous supporter have passed on, he and new Assistant Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) note that they've reached the age where the world stops giving them things and starts taking them away. Naturally, of course, he says this before Mutt enters his life to drag him on an adventure that will reunite him with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the love of his life, leading to wonders that arguably make his previous quests for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail see somewhat ordinary.

The nature of that quest has leaked out, of course, although the filmmakers have done an admirable job of keeping it out of the previews aside from one teasing image. In some ways, it's a drastic shift in the franchise's tone and flavor, but on a certain level that sort of change makes a ton of sense: Not only do the characters age, but the cinema world they live in does as well. The original three movies were throwbacks to the energetic, swashbuckling adventures of the thirties, which by the fifties had ceded the matinees to paranoid science fiction where nuclear apocalypse could be right around the corner. That's the world Indiana Jones finds himself in now, and though he can handle it - he's Indiana Jones, after all! - some of the audience might not want to accept it.

It's too bad if they don't, because Steven Spielberg is quite comfortable there. He's got an occasionally-earned reputation for over-sentimentality, and that often makes people forget what a mean streak he can have. Some of the best bits in this movie are when he dives into the creep-and-gross-outs, whether it be nasty deaths by fire ants or all the creepy things to be found in a hidden crypt. Not many people can direct a chase better than Spielberg, either, and the film contains a couple of doozies, including a tour de force at the center of the movie that would destroy lesser directors: There are three vehicles trying to knock each other around, with conveniently open tops so that characters and artifacts can jump (or get knocked) between them. Spielberg makes the chase fast and clear, even as he sends characters on side-trips to make the the main fight easier to follow. Then he'll switch gears and give us whimsical little action beats.

Those come on top of the fun character beats, and nobody gets more of them than Harrison Ford. The part of Indy fits him like a glove, and his wry growl is still the right combination of cockiness and self-deprecation. To make things even better, he's got a couple of the series' best sidekicks to play off: Shia LaBeouf plays off Ford well; there's a natural chemistry between the two characters from the beginning. He also looks pretty good in the action scenes, handling one or two that might have been given to Ford ten years ago. Seeing Ford and Karen Allen together again turns out to be a joy we didn't know we'd been unfairly denied. Allen plays Marion as having maybe mellowed some since Raiders, and even when she's yelling at Indy for walking out on her twenty years earlier, the main thing that comes through is that these two are so damn happy to see each other again that the danger and craziness around them is no big deal.

There are other necessary characters, of course, though they don't grab the audience quite as well as those three. John Hurt's Professor Oxley has lost his mind from gazing into the skull, although he does a good job of making it look sad rather than ridiculous. Jim Broadbent is in the movie because Denholm Elliott can't be. Ray Winstone is there as a fellow treasure hunter, but doesn't spark off Indy the way the other characters do. Cate Blanchett, though, performs a minor miracle as Spalko; the script doesn't give her a whole lot to work with, but she somehow makes her into the series' best villain since Belloq in Raiders; by the end I was kind of hoping she would stick around to menace Indy in future installments.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't quite reach the same perfection that Raiders of the Lost Ark did - it requires a little time to get its legs under it. It's absolutely worth seeing for the plain novelty of being new Indiana Jones, but a day or two later, removed from the excited crowd, it is actually improving in my mind, when normally I might just be inclined to pick at it. And considering the story that George Lucas reportedly insisted upon, that's no mean feat - if it didn't work, we wouldn't be saying that Lucas, Ford, and Spielberg had lost their touch; we'd be saying they'd lost their minds.

Happily, that is not the case. The only disappointment is that after seeing how much fun Indy, Mutt, and Marion are in this new world... Would it be terribly greedy to want one more?

Also at HBS, along with eight other reviews.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

See 'em today or likely not at all: Redbelt and OSS 117

I'm pretty sure OSS 117 is on one of the one-week runs at the Kendall, and Redbelt, which opened the same weekend Iron Man was obliterating all comers, is already down to partial screens at the multiplexes (though it's likely still going at the Landmark for another week or so). Both of them are a bunch of fun, and I just wish I'd been more on-the-ball to tell people about them earlier in the week.

In the meantime, I'm probably posting this after seeing Indiana Jones. I was going to wait patiently until Saturday morning, but I was still in the comic shop at 10pm and they were playing it on screen #1 at Harvard Square. Anywhere else, and it's tough to get home afterward and to work the next day, but Harvard Square? Yeah, try and keep me away.

EDIT: That was fantastic.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2008 at Regal Fenway #6 (first-run)

Redbelt isn't quite a blender movie, where a filmmaker puts two generally unrelated genres together to see what happens. It is a nifty combination of David Mamet mystery and martial arts action, and it delivers on that DNA's promise: It creates the constant need to know what's going to happen next and makes things very exciting when it does come to a fight.

Mamet starts by introducing us to a few characters whose paths might not cross under other circumstances. There's Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor whose dojo is, as his dressmaker wife Sondra (Alice Braga) points out, barely scraping by as it is. That's before a busy night where Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) shows up at the close of business, high-strung and crashing from too many prescription drugs, getting into a thing with Joe Ryan (Max Martini), a cop who is Mike's star student, that gets his window shot out. Sondra sends him to her brother's bar to ask for a loan to get it fixed, and he winds up breaking it up when someone tries to pick a fight with movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). And then...

Well, more stuff happens, and there are even more characters involved in the story. For the first half of the movie or so, we know that Terry is going to be the story's main character, but we don't quite know what the story is. It could be about Terry getting sucked into the world of Hollywood; it could be something involving the Mixed Martial Arts promoters we meet. He could be sucked into whatever trouble Laura is in. Mamet doesn't just throw a bunch of situations out there and have them come together later - the story moves ahead like a snake's path, always toward its final destination but moving side to side in order to get there. The various story elements come together, but Terry's encounters with them are such that we're never quite sure what the next ten, twenty, or thirty minutes are going to hold.

Part of that is that we're not quite sure which characters are going to be significant. Mamet has assembled a quite frankly ridiculous cast, all giving pretty good performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is on screen for practically the entire film, and he makes a fine modern samurai. There's something about him that's almost infuriatingly calm; he's a man who has trained to handle every situation, and sometimes seems not to realize that the tenets he lives and trains by are not so easily attained for others. Ejiofor plays Terry as not always being a great teacher; he has patience but not always insight.

Terry probably doesn't think of himself in samurai terms, but Max Martini's Joe almost certainly does, there's an air of hero worship to him whenever he's in the same scene as Ejiofor, though not in a way that diminishes the character. Alice Braga shows us the strain of being married to someone so calm and impractical. Tim Allen is surprisingly good as Chet; there's a real sense that this guy is disillusioned and one false step from bringing his whole world crashing down around him. Emily Mortimer is pretty darn wonderful as as Laura; she's as nervous as Ejiofor is calm. The supporting performances are all good enough that it's not easy to guess who's going to be important, but we could easily see the parallel, interesting movies about the people Terry encounters. Mamet regulars Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer and Joe Mantegna are also hanging around, keeping things interesting.

Despite being set in the world of martial arts, there's only a few fight scenes, but they are nicely staged. This isn't like what you'd see in a Jackie Chan or even Donnie Yen movie; neither Mamet nor Terry has much use for fighting being pretty; what we see is all about getting the other guy down or teaching someone how to accomplish the same. Things may not be balletic, but Terry's general effectiveness is impressive, making the fights emotional experiences.

The emotion does run a bit high in the last few minutes, as much as it does seem to be earned for the characters we've come to like. Maybe the emotional payoff doesn't come as easily to him as the moment when we see how everything ties together. Even if that part of the end isn't subtle, though, the lead-up and payoff for both the intellectual and emotional sides are done well enough for the movie to be a delight.

Full review at HBS, along with three others.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire nid d'espions)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 May 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

Before Casino Royale was made into a big, modern movie with Daniel Craig, there were persistent rumors about Quentin Tarantino wanting to take a crack at it, but having it take place in the Cold War period when it was originally set. It had also previously been filmed as a garish parody of the phenomenon. With Cairo, Nest of Spies, Michel Hazanavicius does a bit of both of those approaches for Bond's similarly-numbered French equivalent, OSS 117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath - its period satire is more pointed than that of, say, Austin Powers, but still amiably silly.

We start in World War II, where OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) got his start fighting Nazis. Ten years later, he's on a mission to Cairo, where his fellow agent Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) has been murdered while investigating the disappearance of a Soviet freighter. Using a poultry business as a cover, he meets with Jeff's beautiful local assistant, Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo), and in addition to the recently deposed King's daughter (Aure Atika) and the Muslim fundamentalist society The Eagles of Keops, he finds that other local food companies also serve as fronts for British, German, and Soviet intelligence.

Cairo, Nest of Spies hits a lot of the standard targets for the spy spoof - the garish costumes, the obvious location captions, the way that the hero just sort of stumbles upon or is led to everything but has women throw themselves at him anyway. Hazanavicius makes sport of older films by amping up the homoerotic undertones any way he can, or having the camera discretely pan away from something only to catch it in a nearby mirror. He and co-writer Jean-François Halin show a bit more teeth by making de la Bath a casual racist and snob. Any audience nostalgia for simpler times that the film may summon is gleefully undercut by reminding the audience of the much more open disdain for different cultures in those simpler times.

It's still funny, though, in large part because Jean Dujardin makes that just one more facet of de la Bath being dim and inappropriate, while Bérénice Bejo responds with charm and grace while making it clear that Larmina wants to end each sentence with "you idiot". They're fun to watch together because they strike just the right balance of antagonism and attraction, with Bejo making a beautiful foil to Dujardin, who is suave and silly in equal measures. Aure Atika isn't bad as the more sexually aggressive princess, and there are plenty of others who are a lot of fun. One of the signs of a good comedy is that even minor characters generally have a chance to be funny, rather than mere plot-advancing filler.

The movie is a nice work of pastiche, seeming generally faithful to the spy adventures of the 1950s and 1960s (though how specifically faithful it is to that eras OSS 117 movies, I couldn't say), but not exaggerating that look too much for cheap "look! something old! isn't that hilarious?" laughs. The animated opening credits and brassy score are particularly fun in that regard. At certain points, the movie does seem to be going on a bit too long, never quite running out of jokes but not having any new ones; it also takes what was a funny moment and overuses it as plot fodder. I do appreciate that Hazanavicius and company make a pretty sick picture; even when it's embracing some of the limitations of its targets it takes care to look good.

It's a fun little movie, though with a sequel already on the way in France. It straddles the line between parody and pastiche well, and is funny enough to survive the loss of some wordplay in translation.

Full review at HBS.

Monday, May 12, 2008

IFFB Closing Night 2008: Encounters at the End of the World

I love Werner Herzog. I've previously described him as my favorite crazy person and as an utterly fantastic deadpan comedian, but I also love that he's got this adventurous spirit as well. He commits strange, unpredictable cinema. Even though he can tell a story with the best of them - last year's Rescue Dawn is a rock-solid narrative in addition to being visually arresting - but so many of his films seem to come from him getting an idea and seeing where it takes him. There may not be a story in going to Antarctica, but he's sure he can find interesting things to show the audience.

And with that, we pretty much reach the end of IFFB. I'm still waiting on a list of credits for Twelve (if you're making a movie in English, why wouldn't you put as much as you could in the IMDB as soon as possible?), and I've got a screener for another movie that played the festival. As usual, it was a ton of fun. It's amazing how fast and big the festival has grown in just a few years.

Encounters at the End of the World

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

A couple years ago, Werner Herzog made a peculiar little film called The Wild Blue Yonder, with Brad Dourif as an alien who has been marooned on Earth for some time. Herzog used photography taken under the ice shelves of Antarctica to create the alien's apparently unearthly home, and it was effective enough to make the audience wonder why some movies spend tens of millions of dollars on special effects. Now Herzog has gone to Antarctica himself, looking for and sometimes finding a land as strange as those where his fictional films have been set.

Herzog is unimpressed with McMurdo Base when he arrives; it has all the visual charm of a run-down mining community. He was expecting something like a frontier town, perhaps, something completely unlike the conventional world, but instead he finds "abominations" such as an aerobics center, yoga classes, and even an ATM machine. He is, as might be imagined, quite happy to get away from the base and visit some of the smaller camps where people are doing nifty science and there are interesting things to aim his camera at.

And there are amazing sights to see. He came in part on the suggestion of a friend who is a master diver, so the camera goes under the Ross ice shelf to see the strange creatures living there, including armored starfish with long, fleshy tentacles that would look quite at home in a science fiction film. We spend time on the lip of an active volcano, one of only three in the world with an exposed magma pool. There are penguins, of course, but also great seals, and the perfectly preserved cabin from Shackleton's doomed expedition. There are people with buckets on their heads to train for white-out conditions, and even the tightly-packed cargo plane from New Zealand excites Herzog's curiosity.

The encounters of the title aren't just with the local wildlife, of course; we also meet the people who live and work in Antarctica. Many are brilliant, among the best in the world in their chosen fields. Others tell tales of hitchhiking across Africa and South America, professional wanderers who may have come to Antarctica because they've been everywhere else. It's clear that ordinary people don't come to this place, and Herzog presents them in all their eccentricity. Herzog walks an interesting line with his cast of characters; the easy routes might be fetishizing their oddness or mocking them as freaks, but we're allowed to see them as singular folks who have found their way to the environment that best suits them. We get a lot of laughs at their expense; the scene of a half-dozen men, likely experts in their fields, wearing buckets on their heads and utterly failing to follow a rope back to their shed is brilliant comedy. There's always respect for their abilities, though, even if it is sometimes so specialized that Herzog has to ask if he's just witnessed a big moment.

All this talk of peculiar characters would be complete without mentioning director and narrator Werner Herzog himself as one of them. Herzog is a man who knows his reputation, and he doesn't shy away from playing on it. As weird a guy as he might actually be, I sort of doubt that his proposal to the National Science Foundation referenced The Lone Ranger, ants keeping other insects as slaves, and why chimpanzees don't ride goats. It makes a fantastic bit of narration for the beginning, and his dry, deadpan way of saying it combined with his reputation makes it seem possible. He transitions from one scene to another by stating that his interview subject's story seemed to go on forever. He asks questions of the penguin expert that the G-rated March of the Penguins overlooked. He idly muses on what an alien civilization would think of Earth if they found these installations.

Herzog portrays himself as a bit of a nut, but in some ways that serves as cover for the sort of pure, far-ranging curiosity that led him to join these scientists for a few weeks. Almost every detail can catch his eye, from the labels on the cans still sitting in the Shackleton cabin's shelf to a penguin wandering away from its flock, and he usually has something funny and interesting to say about it. As is usually the case with Herzog, what we see on screen is entrancing. He captures the strange and bizarre, but also makes interview segments interesting, veering into random subjects or holding a shot a second longer than usual to point out how odd the previous answer was rather than just letting it stand. Even the shots of McMurdo under his disgusted narration are hard to peel one's eyes from.

Very few of us are ever going to get to Antarctica, so Herzog's film is a delight just from the perspective of seeing new and different things. The documenting of its unusual community that makes it even more special; we're able to feel a kinship with them while still admiring what a different sort of person is drawn to that hostile, far-off land.

Also on EFC.

Friday, May 09, 2008

IFFB 2008: My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin is not a weirdo.

If you've seen his movies, that might be a bit of a surprise, but it's true. I expected him to be something like David Lynch, or what I imagine David Lynch must be like. But, no, he's an affable, funny, self-deprecating guy who took a bunch of questions after My Winnipeg, with a ready smile and joke. The Chlotrudis folks were excited to meet him, and he seemed sincere about wanting to come back to Boston more often. I suspect he'll be next year's Chlotrudis Awards honoree.

My Winnipeg

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Guy Maddin has long had a love-hate relationship with his home town of Winnipeg; most of his previous films have been set there and portrayed it as a place nearly as dreary as it is bizarre. My Winnipeg isn't very different from his purely fictional films in that respect. The affection comes across more clearly here than in those films, even as it is delivered with a kick.

Maddin describes My Winnipeg as "docu-fantasia", which is as good a term as any. He inserts himself into the film with a couple of peculiar devices - in one, he is on a train out of town hoping to escape before the hypnotic snow causes him to sleepwalk back home; in another, he is renting his childhood home and hiring actors to play his siblings so that he and his mother can re-enact crucial moments from his childhood in a scientific experiment to determine the cause of his neuroses (Darcy Fehr plays Maddin, noir actress Ann Savage plays his mother). He posits that not only do rail lines and rivers converge in in Winnipeg - "the forks", he repeats, like a dozy mantra - but so do the ley lines along which mystic energy flows. This is Maddin's world, after all, and therefore peculiar.

It's so peculiar that the audience has to wonder how far the tall tales Maddin tells have evolved from reality. Does Winnipeg really have an uncommonly high population of sleepwalkers, and if so, do the city laws requiring their accommodation actually exist? Was a team of horses flash-frozen in the river after a fire, their protruding heads forming a grotesque yet arousing backdrop for the locals' evening promenades? Did "What If?" Day, with its simulated Nazi invasion, actually panic the city? One could look such things up, but does it really matter? These legends may say more about the city and Maddin's relation with it than mere facts might, and the stories themselves are uniformly hilarious. There's a great collection of anecdotes here, and they absolutely make Winnipeg a memorable city.

Other sections of the movie focus on how the city has changed over the years, and there's something kind of universal about those segments. He talks about how the diminishing importance of river and rail transport have reduced Winnipeg's importance as a shipping hub. There's a section on the city's uniquely constructed public swimming pool. Local department stores close and are replaced with chains. But for all that, the real passion comes out when it comes time to discuss how the city's hockey fans have been treated. We hear how the Winnipeg Arena was a major part of Maddin's youth, and there's a certain satisfaction when the 2006 implosion only destroys the additions to the original structure. There's no such love for the MTS Centre that replaced it, which isn't even large enough to host an NHL team should the Jets be replaced.

Anger fairly drips from Maddin's voice when he talks about the Jets leaving the city, a change from the whimsical or resigned tones he uses through much of the rest of the feature. It's a bit odd to hear Maddin's voice so directly; for as much as many of his films contain autobiographical material, he would distance himself by having an actor portray him, placing the stories in a fantastic context, and a visual style that suggests the first third of the twentieth century. That's all still there; My Winnipeg's black and white photography mostly looks like a long-lost movie, frequently grainy but sometimes sharp. The action itself is often silent, with just Jason Staczek's music and Madidn's narration, with the exception being the recreated scenes from Maddin's youth, where we get to enjoy femme fatale Ann Savage's first major role in fifty years.

To a certain extent, this verbiage is kind of unnecessary; this film is mainly going to appeal to those with an interest in Winnipeg and Guy Maddin's fans. If you're in the first group, remember that the title does promise that it's Maddin's Winnipeg and expect strangeness (although this may be Maddin's most mainstream film). For those in the second, well, enjoy. This is Maddin at his funniest and most playful.

Also on EFC.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

IFFB 2008: Frontrunner

I wish I was able to get my thoughts about something sorted out much quicker than I do. Whenever there's a Q&A or other discussion about a film right after seeing it, I find I have no questions. It took me a bit of time to figure out just why I didn't think that much of Frontrunner, although someone in the audience did ask just what Dr. Falal's platform was. That's when I found out that leaving such things out was a deliberate decision.

It makes sense, although I think it makes the film weaker. Ms. Williams said they wanted to focus on what it was like for a woman to be running for office in Afghanistan, and that's a laudable goal. I think we could have learned more from looking at this woman and her platform more closely. Put it this way - if a similar documentary were being made about the 2008 U.S. election, how compelling would we find Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama if their only apparent selling points were being female or black? Not very, right?

I also thought that this film presents a much tamer Afghanistan than Beyond Belief. I wonder if it's a matter of Frontrunner mostly being filmed in Kabul while Beyond Belief went to smaller villages; perhaps the cities are less conservative and more cosmopolitan.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The ending of Frontrunner is a matter of the public record, so I don't feel like I'm spoiling much of anything by saying that it does not have a triumphant fairy-tale ending: In Afghanistan's first democratic ever, after the ouster of the ouster of the Taliban, a woman is not elected president. But, to be blunt, we're not given a compelling case that she deserves to be.

That woman is Dr. Massouda Jalal; as the movie starts, we're shown that she was a surprising second-place finisher when a group of Afghani representatives got together to choose an interim president after the fall of the Taliban government. Four years later, she runs in the general election. She is the only woman on the nineteen-candidate ballot, and as such faces problems that the others don't, such as soldiers removing her campaign posters and religious leaders who flatly declares that the Koran forbids a woman from being in a position of authority over men, making her potential election sacreligious. Jalal points out other women who have led Muslim nations, but it's clear that some of her foes are not to be dissuaded, making it an uphill battle.

That Jalal is a woman running for president of a nation that until very recently had codified the oppression of women into law is remarkable, but it's far from the only remarkable thing going on. Consider that not only has this nation never had a democratic election before, but it has an extremely high rate of illiteracy. Experts from oversees have to be brought in to advise not only the candidates but the officials running the election. Ballots have to include pictures. The incumbent has an even greater advantage than usual; he appears on television every night, has international backing, and what seems like an almost unlimited budget compared to Jalal and others who are running their campaigns from their living rooms; Dr. Jalal's young children regularly running in and jumping on her lap during meetings. The election itself serves as a referendum on the very belief in democracy; hints of impropriety could cost the nation its faith in the process.

Where the film ultimately disappoints is in presenting Dr. Jalal's candidacy as much more than a novelty. She's an intelligent, capable person, but we never get a sense of what her individual accomplishments are such that she, rather than some of the other educated women we see, is a viable candidate for office. Director Virginia Williams takes great care to omit anything that would tell us about her platform or that of the other candidates. Her goal, I suppose, is to keep the focus on the challenges faced by a female candidate in this country, but it backfires; we wind up with "vote for the woman" and questionable logic along the lines of "well, men were in charge during the decades of war..." There's also something disheartening about her assertion that if she fails, she'll run again and again and again; it presents her as a candidate with no purpose other than running for office, which is hardly inspiring.

That's especially frustrating, because it's a very nicely made documentary otherwise. Williams has great access to her principle subject and the later parts of the film are very interesting: Voting irregularities start appearing, leading to Dr. Jalal having to engage in some politics in terms of how she'll react to the situation. It's the sort of in-the-trenches documentation of the nation's emerging political process that would have been much more interesting than the bland praise of her female-ness and motherliness we get.

Williams must have footage of that, but we rarely get to see anything that makes Dr. Jalal individual and interesting. That's not to diminish her accomplishment; even the 1.1% of the vote she did manage was remarkable. It might have seemed even more so if we'd gotten a chance to know her and her views a little better.

Also on EFC.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

IFFB 2008: Triangle and Severed Ways

At some point in any festival, unless you're made of sterner stuff than I, you're probably going to hit the wall. There's just a point where the running between theaters (whether in the same building or in three neighboring cities), waiting in line, going through the rigamarole of getting a full house crammed into the room, and sitting through movies which demand a bit more than the usual matinee fare becomes tiring, and you maybe can't write an honest review because there's a very good chance that you napped through fifteen or twenty minutes.

For Triangle, I'm placing the blame solidly on my decision to go home, eat something marginally closer to a balanced meal than Cherry Coke and Twizzlers, and watch the Red Sox postgame show in the time between the Q&A for Turn the River in Somerville and the start of Triangle in Brookline. I must have fooled my body into thinking I was done for the day, when, no, there was still an hour and a half of Hong Kong action to go. For Severed Ways (where I don't think I missed much important), there's still being tired from not getting home until two-thirty-ish, rushing to Somerville, and winding up in a seat so far toward the front that you have to lean back to see the picture, way closer than digital projection was meant to be seen.

I spent the next couple hours really wishing I had waited a bit and gone to see the jump-rope movie instead. People need to be warned about this turd. (Note that the review for Severed Ways contains coarser language than usual - not my usual, but it's the best words for the job.)

Speaking of projection, I must confess that by the time Triangle showed, I was starting to get a little cranky about the first "F" in "IFFB" being kind of inaccurate; I think the opening night showing of Transsiberian was the only thing I saw on actual film rather than digital video up to that point. It kind of surprised me when Triangle wound up not being digital. Apparently the American movies with people in attendence couldn't get a print shipped, but the one from Hong Kong could. It just doesn't figure.

Tie Saam Gok (Triangle)

N/A (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

I hope to get a chance to see Triangle again sometime soon, because the idea behind it is a lot of fun - getting three big-name action-adventure directors to make one film, handing the reins off to each other, allowing them to change styles to do what they do best... Well, that sounds like a lot of fun, and from the way the credits are arranged, it looks like each director had his own writers, too, and I know that's a lot of fun.

The story starts out as looking like a crime movie, as three down on their luck men are recruited for what initially looks like a robbery but either becomes a treasure hunt or was one all along (my subtitle comprehension does kind of go to heck after midnight). There's complications, of course, with one of the trio's wife having an affair with a corrupt cop who appears to be in on everything.

As it turns out, I think I missed the entire middle segment. I saw most of the set-up which led to the robbery, which is good, gritty crime; it could have been either Ringo Lam or Johnnie To. Then I missed the middle act, picking up for the end, which is much more a caper bit, as the getaway cars break down outside the city, the wife starts acting weird (she may just have one heck of a concussion), and there's a bunch of identical-looking bags, one containing rare coins, one smuggled guns, the other someone's dinner that keep getting mixed up. I'm pretty sure this leg is directed by Tsui Hark, if only because he's the one I most associate with being funny.

Taken on its own, that last act is a lot of goofy fun, but it might not play so well put together with two other acts that I assume are being played more or less straight. Hopefully I'll get a chance to find out soon; Magnolia's "Magnet" label seems to be putting it out sometime later this year.

Of course, they're also listed as distributor for...

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2008 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Believe it or not, Severed Ways was one of the movies I was initially fairly excited about when the IFFB announced their roster of films. How many Viking movies do you get at the typical independent film festival, after all, and the fact that it wasn't banished to the "After Dark" segment of the program held out hope that it might be pretty good. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a miserable enough experience that I would have happily traded Vikings for the documentary about competitive jump-roping next door if I could have.

The text at the beginning sounds enticing - it sets up the backstory from the Vinland Sagas, telling us of a group of Norsemen who by 1007 AD had made a settlement in what is now Canada sending a further expedition south, only to be beset by "Skraelings" (the Abenaki) and driven back home. Two scouts, Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) were left behind and must survive off the land while they try to make their way back north, with hundreds of miles of wilderness, natives, and Christian missionaries between them and their goal.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed this movie a little more had it appeared at the Underground Film Festival rather than the Independent Film Festival. It would seem to fit there better; Severed Ways is very much a backyard film, which Tony Stone shot in Vermont and at Viking ruins in Newfoundland. Stone does practically everything, writing, directing, producing, and editing as well as starring in the picture. Costumes and props do look like they were made in his basement - probably more true to life than something from an elaborate Hollywood production, but still feeling like stuff they cobbled together out of what was lying around. It also feels a little underpopulated, as homemade movies tend to be.

Still, seeing it in a context where I'm more inclined to be generous would not have made it a good movie. Even discounting the question of what those Catholic missionaries are doing in the New World something like five hundred years too early, Stone makes a lot of decisions that maybe seemed to make sense at the time but don't quite work. The heavy metal soundtrack is a good idea, but actually showing Orn headbanging is weird. The actors speak in Greenlandic, apparently the closest thing going to ancient Norse, but it sounds stilted, and the subtitles are in idiomatic twenty-first century English ("we're toast if we stay here!"), further breaking the spell. The overblown chapter titles don't help, either - the small act of mayhem that follows the proclamation of "Conquest" is laughable.

A lot of that can be overcome, but Stone loses his audience pretty decisively early on. There are certain on-screen images you have to earn, and actual shit coming out of your ass is one of them. There was a palpable wave of revulsion that went through the audience at that, and smaller ones when Orn/Stone killed and dressed chickens and fish on-screen, and as much as you can try to defend that by saying it has documentary value, it just feels gratuitous, and no matter how much merit the rest of the film might have, there's no getting over that the audience just doesn't want any part of it any more.

That sort of thing throws the rest of the movie's faults into greater relief. Severed Ways runs nearly two hours but it's generally a slow, introspective 110 minutes, and the audience feels trapped by a performer who mistakenly thinks that every minute detail of his character's actions is just that fascinating. Stone isn't a good enough actor to pull it off, though, and the way he cavorts on screen makes the film seem like a sustained act of egotism. Which is too bad, because there is material for an interesting film here - the idea of being lost that far from home is powerful, as is Volnard's spiritual growth from encountering the Christian monks.

Maybe Stone is a guy to watch, even if his ambition greatly outstrips his resources and skill right now. Someday after working with and learning from the right people, he could become a decent filmmaker. In the meantime, though, I can't think of any good reason for someone to actually watch this movie.

Also on EFC.

Monday, May 05, 2008

IFFB 2008: Turn The River

Sunday afternoon, I was IMing Matt and mentioned that Famke Janssen was letting folks take pictures with her and signing autographs after the screening of Turn the River, but I didn't go in for that. I don't remember the exact conversation, but I believe the word "coward" was used.

It's apt; I've long been a fan, apparently since that guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, since I remember being disappointed that she was the bad Bond girl in GoldenEye, rather than the one that got all the screen time. To be fair, I was 18, a big sci-fi fan, and she was aptly cast as the ideal woman. It's not unreasonable that she could have made that sort of impression.

What I say in the first paragraph of the review below is totally true, though - The Brattle's Ivy Moylun gave me the "I know!" reaction when I mentioned it a couple days later, but look at her filmography on IMDB, and try to figure out exactly why we packed it in to see her (and Eigeman). She really has not had big parts in many movies that were both good and high-profile since GoldenEye aside from the X-Men flicks, and people talked about her being sort of wasted there.

Well, okay, there's Deep Rising, which I love unreservedly, but still...

Anyway, Turn the River was one of the things I made my festival plans around, since Janssen and Eigeman are folks I really like and seeing them in person was just too good to pass up.

Bonus festival fun: The line for Turn the River and American Teen was around the block at the Somerville Theater, and was being held up by Paramount Vantage insisting on a bunch of security for American Teen's print (aside - yes, something at the IFFB actually screened on film!), so the line got pretty long. I wound up waiting just around the second corner, and after about ten minutes, my line-mates and I were cracking up laughing every time someone would turn that corner, after having walked from the theater's door, past Mr. Crepe, and down the side of the building only to see that the line just kept going, letting out some "holy crap, are there even this many seats?" or "are we in Arlington yet?" comment. We weren't laughing at you, specifically, guys - just the waves of people making the same comment.

Turn the River

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

When talking to people waiting in line for Turn the River and at other screenings over the weekend, a certain consensus emerged: We loved Famke Janssen, but couldn't name very many movies she was in that were very good or where she was the lead. Chris Eigeman, apparently, was similarly perplexed by this situation after working with her in The Treatment; fortunately, he was able to write and direct Turn the River to remedy that.

The part Eigeman wrote for her is Kailey Sullivan, a small-time Long Island pool and card hustler who hates the city but makes trips in anyway because that's where her son Gully (Jaymie Dornan) lives with his father David (Matt Ross) and stepmother Ellen (Marin Hinkle). Kailey has only recently been a part of Gully's life, and she doesn't like what she's seeing - a private school he hates a domineering, hard-line Catholic grandmother (Lois Smith), and having to communicate with him by dropping letters off at a pool hall owned by Teddy Quinette (Rip Torn). Having been pressured into giving up custody when she and David divorced, there's only one thing Kailey can think of to do - win enough to pay for good papers, grab him, and head to Canada.

Put that way, it doesn't sound like the wisest decision. Kailey is a nomad without the kind of money her paper guy needs, and Gully doesn't exactly seem to be in danger at his home - Grandmother Abigail seems to relish making things uncomfortable and David makes it worse by being suspicious of everything Gully says (the fact that Gully is hiding something in this case makes it no less overbearing), but Ellen does seem to be trying to do well by him in her ineffectual way. There's something about those scenes in Gully's home that makes it seem like a set of pipes ready to burst, but we can't tell where the pressure is being relieved or where the explosion is going to come.

Then there's Kaylie. It was created specifically for Janssen, and unsurprisingly fits her like a glove. Kailey's tough but not quite hard, which is not quite the ideal it sounds like. This is not a lady who tears up, or ever seems to let her guard down, but Janssen still manages to convey her unconditional love for her son in her scenes with Dornan even when she's also looking over her shoulder. There's also this sad but wonderful cockiness to Kailey - as much as we see that she's barely able to keep her head above water, she's able to keep convincing both herself and the audience that she can come out ahead - even though it's pretty clear that she's overreaching, again.

Matt Ross is also quite good as David; the guy has to be both ground-down and a bit menacing, and he covers that divide nicely. Jaymie Dornan is good as Gully, too, especially toward the end. Terry Kinney brings some welcome comic relief as the guy getting fake passports for Kaylie. A couple of the most memorable performances come from veterans playing somewhat against type. Lois Smith, for instance, is quietly vicious as Abigail; she's only in three or four scenes, but makes such an impression in that brief time that the character is able to cast a large shadow over the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, Rip Torn is almost cuddly as Quinette, his growls something more like a protective papa bear than usual.

Chris Eigeman opts to stay mostly behind the camera in his first film as a writer and director, and it looks like he could make a pretty good living there if he chooses to continue. He's not particularly flashy, but he and his cinematographer do a nice job of making the film easy to follow even though a lot of it takes place in dark rooms and alleys. It's also good to see that even though he is known, as an actor, for playing talky, sarcastic roles, he doesn't fall into the trap of trying to get the same thing from his cast. He gives each member of that cast a character to can sink his or her teeth into, though, and the plotting is really nice - I love the last act, where we see just how fragile Kailey's plan is. Getting away with something is tough, after all, and it's in Kailey's nature to push it.

I think this is the first time Janssen's has a bona fide starring role, and it's great to see that she's up to it. And that's not even taking into account what she and Eigeman told us in the double play - that the scene every pool movie has to have was shot in one take, without special effects. That probably doesn't change the quality of the movie any, but as cool bits of trivia goes, it's a nice one.

Also on EFC.

Friday, May 02, 2008

IFFB 2008: Medicine for Melancholy

Of all the filmmakers I saw doing Q&As at the festival (a bunch, especially considering The Twelve had eleven), I think Barry Jenkins has to be one of the most enjoyable to watch. The man was just excited to be at the festival, and from the way he described the writing and making of the Medicine for Melancholy, I wouldn't be surprised if he was that way on set, which must have been a great deal of fun for everyone involved.

Medicine for Melancholy

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The "getting to know you" movie is a vital part of the independent film scene. Aside from being something that can be shot on a budget - get a couple actors, some friendly locations, and a script with interesting things to say, and you're good to go. It certainly doesn't hurt that they often play against independent film type: Rather than trying to prove their sophistication by showing how screwed up relationships can become, they tend to be hopeful and positive, and try to photograph their beloved settings at their best.

With Medicine for Melancholy, the location is San Francisco, and the couple who discovers their chemistry after a random meeting is Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and JoAnn (Tracey Heggins). They awake from a drunken hookup at a party the night before with Micah far more smitten than Jo', who just wants to go home and forget the whole thing. Sharing a cab home doesn't get Micah any closer at first, but fate has her drop her wallet on the cab's floor. He tracks her down, and his persistence gets him a little more time to charm her. There's obstacles, of course - Micah finds Jo at her boyfriend's place, and his recent break-up has him not necessarily acting on the best motivations.

Jo', to her credit, picks up on it fairly quickly, wanting to know how much of Micah's interest is from who she is individually and how much is from both being black. Race is a constant factor, with Micah quick to point out that San Francisco has one of the smallest populations of African-Americans for a city its size, a number he discounts further by excluding folks who see themselves as part of some other group first (hipsters and the like) and then lamenting that when he does see another black person, he or she has an arm around a white person. It's interesting how writer/director Barry Jenkins presents the issue - as much as Micah's pride in his heritage is to be admired, his obsession with it is a little unnerving. It's not hard to see why, despite how charming and intelligent Micah is, his constant returns to the subject are anything but reassuring to Jo'.

Their African-American heritage also plays a role in which parts of San Francisco Jenkins highlights as the pair spend the day together; Micah turns his nose up at the museum Jo' suggests and instead brings them to MOAD (the Museum of the African Diaspora); other scenes take place among statues honoring the civil right movement. That is, however, just a portion of the city that we visit. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture it with sharp photography desaturated almost to the point of being black and white (except for a pair of segments), staying away from familiar landmarks but still capturing the hilly terrain and frequent juxtapositions of squeaky-clean and grimy neighborhoods that make the city unique. He also puts the characters on bicycles, keeping them in the open air without tying them to a limited area.

There's not a lot of talking to be done on bikes, and that's some of the best times to watch the characters enjoying themselves, free as only people moving under their own power can be. The actors playing the couple portray that simple pleasure beautifully, and are just as charming when they're interacting more directly. Cenac is a comedian by trade, and as expected can tell a story or deliver a story with the best. Even though there is an undercurrent of anger or hurt to a lot of his actions, he's genuinely charming and funny, and for all Micah's faults, Cenac is able to convince the audience that his anger at the city and the world comes from how much he loves it and expects better. Heggins makes Jo' optimistic in the places where Micah is jaded, and though she sometimes comes off as a little naïve, she's also more open to complexity and individuality than Micah. There's a nice chemistry between them, too, although it's neither instant nor perfect; one can see how they're drawn to each other but still need to feel each other out.

Jenkins doesn't just turn the camera on and expect this chemistry to do its thing; he chooses and creates little moments that ring true. I love when the driver of the cab Micah and Jo' share is surprised that Micah's stop is on the other side of town, and Micah gives him this "c'mon, why do you think I did this?" dismissal; I like the story of what Micah does for a living; I like the dealer-looking guys pushing hydration outside a club. He gives his characters interesting things to talk about, though sometimes he gets carried away with it (though the scene of advocates talking about the need for rent control isn't nearly as out of place as it could be).

Which makes getting to know Micah and Jo' a distinct pleasure.

Also on EFC.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

IFFB 2008: My Effortless Brilliance

Saturday was probably my favorite day at the IFFB this year - pretty nice day, which makes getting from home to the Brattle to Somerville to Brookline and back again less annoying, good movies from start to end, and entertaining guests. You really can't ask for a whole lot more than that.

I liked My Effortless Brilliance a lot, and it had probably my favorite short I saw at the festival playing before it - "Woman in Burka" is funny stuff, with a middle-eastern New York actress up for a role in what may be a drama and may be a horror movie while also worrying about her visa and other day-to-day issues that come up. Part of the fun is that most of the actors are playing versions of themselves, so the insider-y joke about how every actor in New York has done some Law & Order at some point is funnier when two of the other actresses up for the role were regulars on the shows at some point - which gave little impression that the actresses in question could be so funny; Samantha Buck, especially, is hilarious.

My Effortless Brilliance

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I suppose it speaks well of me and the people I know that I've never had a friendship end like in the beginning of My Effortless Brilliance. Sure, there's a long list of people I've fallen out of contact with once we weren't in the same place on a regular basis, but it's never been the break-up, where one person says "you're a terrible friend and I don't want to be around you any more."

That's how Lynn Shelton starts My Effortless Brilliance, but one "two years later" caption and cast-off Eric (Sean Nelson) is trying to reconnect. The East Coast writer is in Washington State on a book tour, and his stop in Walla Walla is near where Dylan (Basil Harris) is the editor of a community newspaper. Well, four and a half hours away, and he had to ask for the directions to the cabin in the woods where Dylan is living. And he didn't tell Dylan he was coming. Dylan's a little sarcastic and annoyed when he finally gets home, but offers to let Eric stay the night. Things do get a little weird when Dylan's new best friend Jim (Calvin Reeder) pops in; there's a fair amount of drinking leading up to the crew deciding to hunt the cougar that's been prowling around.

"Relationship" is a word with a general meaning (how two people or things effect each other) that is often assumed to have a more specific meaning (romantic or sexual). Shelton and her cast play with that dual usage while staying well back from confusing them. What goes on with Eric, Dylan, and Jim plays off the sorts of jealousies and emotions that frequently crop up among dating couples - it's not really that much different to wonder why an old pal has this guy for a best friend than to judge his new girlfriend harshly, and the parallel is amusing. It's a thin line, though, because one step too far and suddenly there's a weird subtext that might perhaps make for a good movie on its own but isn't what this one is about. Eric and Dylan and Dylan and Jim are friends, nothing more, even if they do occasionally do the same things couples do.

They're funny doing it, too. The film is mostly improvised - the cast members are also given writing credits - and most of the film is a stream of guy talk, one-liners that strike the characters as funny at the time. It rings truer than the guy talk we often get in movies - it's not just swearing, comments about women and their body parts, and pop-culture references. It's kind of random, sometimes alcohol-fueled, and generally seeks chuckles rather than guffaws. The only time it doesn't quite ring true is in a discussion of the merits of Charles Bukowski, which seems too obviously designed to show the continuum of personalities, from Eric's literary snobbishness to Jim's lack of concern with things other than the practical.

All three actors turn in nice work. Nelson gets the most broadly comic role, the somewhat overweight city boy who doesn't belong out in the woods, but plays him a bit short of ridiculous. Yes, he's a fish out of water, and kind of selfish, but also kind of lonely and frequently able to bring the genuinely funny line. Harris does what initially looks like a classic slow burn, irritated by Eric's unannounced presence and how ridiculous the guy is. He's got a bit of an edge to his voice sometimes; he looks like he belongs in this rural wooded cabin but is quite able to break out a shapr, sarcastic wit. Reeder makes Jim less sophisticated but good to share a drink with, smart in areas where the others are kind of ignorant, and amusingly jealous or at odds with the city folk at a certain point.

Friendship is probably the most common relationship that exists, to the point where most movies take it for granted. Lynn Shelton's got a nifty take on it here, and it's a nifty treat to see it treated as something dynamic and challenging as romance without being a gateway to the same.

Also on EFC.