Friday, February 27, 2009

SF/34 ('Day Two")

"Day One", with the first six movies, can be found here.

You'd be inhuman if you didn't get a little cranky at some point during the marathon. The seats in the balcony of the Somerville Theater have even less leg room than those at Fenway Park (my two youngest brothers would be right out of luck), your circadian rhythms get thrown off, and you're probably eating stuff that's less than great for you. Heck, the last two combine - I had a master plan of ducking out for some sort of breakfast an hour or so into Transformers, but I bought a bag of Reese's Pieces at midnight, and it was filling enough to tide me over until 10am or so, when I wasn't missing I Married a Monster from Outer Space or Star Trek II.

Still, that's the part of the 'thon when I was tested. I wanted to ask the person three rows ahead of me a rude question about whether it was a tiny bladder or a disgusting nicotene addiction that causes one to get up and block my view of the screen 15-20 minutes before the end of each movie, for instance. There was also a narrator just over my right shoulder, and while I hate snapping at kids, I gave in somewhere during Killer Klowns. Amazingly, he actually thought I wanted clarification, and I had to make it clear that I wanted shutting up.

Ah, well. There's still no event quite like it, and I'll probably go again next year, even if I feel doubtful about it every year.

The Thing From Another World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Heading to midnight, and I found myself starting to nod off. It's been a while since I've seen this one, and I remember it being pretty decent - the byplay between Kenneth Tobey and Margaret Sheriden is a lot more fun than is typical for 50s sci-fi. I'm not quite sure how it got from the beginning to the end, but that end is pretty enjoyable.

I have to admit, I was a little amused that the guest who introduced kept attributing the original story to "Joseph Campbell", rather than "John W. Campbell". That's kind of embarrassing. Admittedly, I might not have caught it, but I recently bought myself a couple big boxes of Hard Case Crime books in an end-of-year closeout, and I found out they also have a sci-fi imprint... One of the $1 books was The Black Star Passes, a collection of his early books. They looked a lot bigger when I read them in junior high.

Repo Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Yeah, I just saw it a month ago, and though I was still drifting off at points during this showing (it did start at something like 12:30am), I did so at different times than I fell asleep at the Brattle. Between them, I think I've seen the entire movie.

It's one I like more the second time around. The first time, I didn't get much more out of it than "huh, that's weird". To be honest, I don't know that there's a whole lot more to get, but I think the characters are more fleshed out than I first thought. Similarly, I appreciate Emilio Estevez's performance a little more. It's not great, but it's not bad like I originally thought.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers '78

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I cannot (yet) speak for the 1993 Abel Ferrara version of the story, but there's an argument to be made that this is the best film version. It's not an argument you can win 100% of the time - oddly, one of the things running through my head after I recently saw a late-night screening of this version was how much I appreciated the 1956 edition - but I think this is easily the most memorable film based on the premise.

The basic premise is the same as it was twenty years earlier - spores from an alien world arrive on earth, growing into plants that duplicate people, down to every last detail and memory. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) is one of the first to see something amiss; her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is becoming emotionally distant. She confides in her friend and co-worker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who discusses it with friends Jason and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), as well as popular psychologist and author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Instead of being in isolated small-town America, though, this group of people is in San Francisco.

Though this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made post-Star Wars, writer W.D. Richter and director Philip Kaufman still give it something of the vibe of the "New Hollywood" seventies. The attraction between Matthew and Elizabeth is genuine and a little messy; the scenes where they confront Geoffrey would be interesting from an acting standpoint even without pod people thrown into the mix. There's a sense that the cast has been given room to act, investing their characters with more than what we've been given as exposition and what their function in the story is.

Indeed, part of what's interesting about this movie is that there's not really an expert or person of authority to be found. Sure, Bennell is a health inspector and Driscoll a lab tech, but it's not like they're the scientists, sheriffs, or military men that would traditionally populate this sort of movie; Kibner, the closest thing the film has to a voice of authority, spends most of the film suggesting that there's nothing to be concerned about. It's an unusual sci-fi movie in that it's not particularly concerned with problem-solving, but watching relatively ordinary people react to an apocalyptic situation.

It's an understated apocalypse, but still a striking one. Kaufman never really hides his alien plants, and never does a flashy display, and yet every time we see one with a partially-formed duplicate, they're more unnerving. The "creature" effects are just active enough to convince us they're a threat without making the plants particularly mobile, and the latter parts of the movie, where the pods have replaced enough people that they actually have a sort of infrastructure, is more chilling than it might seem out of context: We look at it and see that somehow, outside of our protagonists' view, the situation has gotten too big for them to handle, and seeing the scale of the threat is far scarier than creature effects, no matter how grotesque they were.

And, of course, there's the indelible last scene, although it's not nearly so effective the last time around; if you've seen the film before, you can see where Kaufman and Richter are setting you up. That's fine; re-watchability isn't everything, and there's something to be said for doing something so well that it imprints itself in the audience's memory that first time.

Also at EFC, with one other review.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Killer Klowns is a one-joke movie. It's perhaps the most obvious one-joke movie in the history of one-joke movies. It is also, perhaps, one of the greatest one-joke movies ever made; the Chiodo Brothers find a bunch of different ways to tell their joke, tell it well, and then get the heck out about five seconds before it threatens to get stale.

That one joke is, of course, that the people who are phobic about clowns and circuses have it exactly right: The damn things are evil, and the common perception that they are jolly and delightful is because we've done a Disney-style removal of all the murderous and threatening aspects since the last time those alien creatures with their tent-shaped ships stopped of on Earth for a bite to eat. So we get jokes about cotton candy, popcorn, balloon animals, little cars that hold dozens of people, etc., etc. Someone who has only heard the title could likely make up a checklist and tick each of them off. In that way, it's kind of predictable.

So are a lot of movies, of course. Not many of them do such a good job of setting them up and knocking them down. The Chiodos (Stephen Chiodo directs; brothers Charles, Edward, and Stephen write and produce) come up with a dozen or so clown-related gags, and for just about every one, they figure out how to execute it more or less perfectly: The timing would be off if any of them ran just a bit shorter or a second longer, for instance. The Klowns and their props are designed just right, as well, in a fun zone between cute and gross. That fun zone is pretty narrow - a little more cheery, and the mayhem becomes disturbing; a little nastier, and it's not funny. The Chiodos avoid repeating themselves in ways that would make us take any bit of insanity for granted, but tie everything together so that it feels like a story, not just a random assembly of gags.

The story, of course, could be constructed with the "Fifties Invasion Movie" version of Mad Libs: College kids Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) see a meteor crash land (so does redneck-type Gene (Royal Dano)), only to discover that it's a space ship from which aliens that look like clowns emerge. The local constabulary, Dave (John Allen Nelson) and Mooney (John Vernon) don't believe the reports of alien clowns, at least not until bodies start piling up. What's refreshing - and kind of surprising - is how straight they play it. For all the Sam Raimi-style "splatstick" going on, you will never once see a character wink at the camera or act like they know that they're in a movie. We know this stuff is funny, but the human characters act like they're in a dead-serious horror movie.

They're pretty competent as well. Most of the cast had undistinguished later careers - TV guest star roles and direct-to-video movies, though Christopher Titus would get his own show twelve years later (and I couldn't pick him out in this movie even with a prior trip to IMDB) - but none are exactly liabilities, either. The physical effects are also very smartly done; though the movie is low-budget, the Chiodos are able to write and direct to what they know they can accomplish, and that's quite a bit: The model work, makeup, set design, etc., is all very good.

In fact, it's so good that I've often wondered why the Chiodos never did another feature, instead doing effects, puppetry, and animation for others. They're good at that, sure, but this movie is both good enough and produced in such a sure-handed manner that you'd think someone in the past twenty years would have taken a chance with them.

Also at EFC, with two other reviews.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I could spend a whole lot of time talking about Transformers, but it's not like EFC needs another review of that one (heck, even Matt contributed a well-deserved slam!). I will say that it is somewhat less migraine-inducing when viewed from the middle of the Somerville Theater's balcony than my usual spot close to the front of the theater, but it is still the kind of terrible script that makes me really worry that its writers are the same ones who did the screenplay for the new Star Trek movie. I guess one must just hope that J.J. Abrams brings out the best in them, since Alias, Fringe, and Mission: Impossible 3 are pretty darn good.

I will, in the interests of full disclosure, admit that I do own a copy of this movie on HD DVD becaue some of the opening desert action scenes are pretty darn cool. In my defense, I didn't buy it the week of release, but this past December when HD DVD had been dead for much of the year and iNet Video was offering a special $1 sale to blow out their HD DVD stock.

I may have overpaid.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Very few lists of the great science fiction movies will include I Married a Monster From Outer Space, even if one narrows the criteria down to just alien invasion movies, movies from the 1950s, black-and-white movies, movies where dogs can tell something is wrong, or even some combination of two or more those categories. And they shouldn't, it's not a great movie. It is, however, unusual, and unusual in a way that's not just code for "bizarre".

Like many invasion movies, aliens have arrived on Earth and are able to take the form of human beings. The first to be duplicated is Bill Farrell (Tom Tyron), abducted on his way back from his bachelor party. It is thus an alien who marries lovely Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott) the next day, and soon start replacing many of the men in their small town. By the time Marge is able to put together all the things that ring false during the subsequent year, it's difficult to know who to trust.

Even more than it is today, science fiction fifty years ago, especially filmed science fiction, was very much a boy's club: It was all about action, things blowing up in a more spectacular way than mere earthbound objects, and even when the writers tried to give the subject matter some heft, it was political rather than personal. Women, when present at all, were objects to be rescued, eye candy for the older boys and dangerous temptations for all. That's not the case here; although Tom Tyron is credited first, this movie is about Gloria Talbott's Marge, highly unusual for the time period.

What's unusual is not just that the film has a female protagonist, but that it addresses traditionally feminine topics. I Married a Monster from Outer Space, despite the pulpy title (it really only lacks an exclamation point, doesn't it?), is closer in spirit to a Sirkian domestic melodrama than the traditional monster movie. Rather than the aliens being a metaphor for paranoia about communist infiltration, they instead reflect the idea that sometimes men change after marriage, or the romance disappears. It does so in a manner that's more adult than the title might suggest, too; although the restrictions of the times prevent it from mentioning sex directly, it's never far from the surface: A girl in the bar mentions that she's getting much less action than she used to, and Marge winds up going to the doctor to find out why she's not pregnant yet, after a year of marriage.

Not everything about this movie is good enough for it to qualify for "forgotten classic" status, of course. As much as the movie is Marge's story, she's reduced to a fairly passive part when the time to actually confront the aliens comes; that's still men's work, apparently. Keeping track of who is replaced when is kind of daunting, and leads to some blind alleys - drinking buddies noticing how dull their friends have gotten, and then dropping it as the aliens take their form. The supporting cast isn't great, either.

The two leads aren't bad, though. Gloria Talbott is somewhat wide-eyed and perpetually shocked as Marge, but Tom Tyron is kind of impressive as Bill. Early on, he's the usual stiff, wooden alien who does-not-under-stand-hu-man-e-mo-tions, but as the movie goes on he does seem to get some grasp of them, even while retaining his otherness. Director Gene Fowler Jr. does a good job working around the film's low budget while still coming up with some memorable sequences - the lightning strike illuminating the alien's true face in particular.

It's not enough to make I Married a Monster from Space a great film, but it's an interesting one: Superficially like many others, but with a more adult and female-focused perspective.

Also at EFC.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I could go on about this for a while, but to be quite honest, it's been a week and a half since I saw it at the 'thon and I need my memory refreshed a bit. It's not quite the masterpiece everyone remembers, but it's still a pretty entertaining space opera. I must admit that I find myself a little annoyed by the "maturity" that the movie series (and, really, science fiction in the media as a whole since) displays: As much as a little thematic heft is nice, I miss the youthful exuberance of the original Star Trek. The original series was all about the universe being filled with amazing things - dangerous, yes, but worth the risk - while the movies tend to boil down to "man, getting old is a cast-iron bitch."

Still, I would be remiss not to include this, a reminder of just how much fun the movie could be and of how things on the internet last forever.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 16 February 2009 to 22 February 2009

Tired from the Oscars. Shocked how disappointed I found myself feeling, considering how evenly matched I felt most of the categories were.

This Week In Tickets!

First 11 hours of SF/34
Final 13 hours of SF/34

Seriously, best adapted screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire? I loved quite a bit about that movie, but decide on one framing device and stick to it!

And Penelope Cruz? I love her, but the award is for Best Acting, not Most acting!

9th Annual Chlotrudis Short Film Festival

N/A (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2009 at the Boston Public Library (special engagement)

A fun event; if you're reading this within a couple of days and would like to see this year's program, it's playing 24 February 2009 at Screening Room #2 at the Massachusetts College of Art. In brief:

"Lucky Numbers" - The first of the festival is probably the weakest, a cute enough idea but it's basically a single joke, with the setup extended well past the length of time that the punchline can justify.

"Parallel Adele" - Nice little documentary piece about "hapas", mixed-race people, generally used by those of asian descent. Not a huge amount of information here, but glimpses at what it's like to be neither one thing nor the other.

"Mind the Gap" - Nice locally-produced story of how there is more than one victim when someone commits suicide on the train tracks. I particularly love the angry way the conductor's daughter describes the person who committed suicide.

"Victoria" - One of the movies I voted as award-worthy, this is a nifty little documentary piece about a piano located in a homeless shelter that shows us how such a thing restores dignity to both those who play it and those who listen to it.

"Gaining Ground" - A nice story of Ukranian illegals living in Germany. Well-told for the most part, although some of the moments ring a bit false.

"Well-Founded Concerns" - My favorite of the program, a delightfully pitch-black comedy about germaphobes who find love and vindication.

"Entropy and Me" - Looking around my living room, I fear I am closer to the subject of this unnerving piece about a student with a frighteningly messy room than I would like to be.

"Space" - The third one I voted for. Quite honestly, this vote maybe should have gone to "Mind the Gap", but this colorful, bouncy take on "The Gift of the Magi" set on earth and an orbiting space station could be made just for me.

It Happened One Night

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2009 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

It actually happens over three nights, but who's counting? Effortlessly charming, one of the few movies that can convince us that two people can fall in love in such a short time, especially when they start off so much at odds. A thorough delight.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

That this film had such a fight to get released in its intended form seems crazy: It's neither a great film nor a poor one; I honestly don't see how any changes the Weinstein Company could have made would have changed it from an also-ran to a hit.

It's a funny movie, funnier still if you get the jokes, but they're not exactly obscure ones; for all that Star Wars fans may argue over minutia, Star Wars is pretty darn universal. Granted, some of the best jokes are kind of inside - they lean on THX 1138 a lot more than one might expect, and the Kevin Smith bit, which was maybe the funniest in the movie, nearly caught me by surprise because I didn't recognize the other guy.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (the Uncanny Cinema of William Friedkin)

Definitely a movie you watch, as it contains very little dialogue but plenty of "holy crap, did you just see that?" It's not often that traveling 218 miles at 15 mph can be this tense.

Mr. Friedkin was there, and had a number of amusing stories. I was kind of surprised to hear just how much he liked digital distribution; I kind of expect to hear people of his generation talk about how much they love film, but Friedkin not only loves digital, but he had the archive project The French Connection off Blu-ray rather than 35mm.

Azur & Asmar

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2009 at the Museum of Fine Arts (Film for the Family)

There's a bit in the credits of Azur & Asmar that says the film was made in Paris by people of many different cultures who all got along well. It's the obvious moral of the story, but Michel Ocelot tells it with such sincerity that it's hard to feel patronized. It's just a sweet, sweet movie.

It's also beautiful; Ocelot had designed an absolutely beautiful world for his characters to inhabit, with beautiful Arabic designs, palm trees, and colorful, intricate backgrounds. Just a delight to look at.

The Brink's Job

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (the Uncanny Cinema of William Friedkin)

A nifty little movie about a 1950 robbery called the crime of the century. It's a charming and funny little film, kind of not what one might expect from the man who wrote The Wild Bunch and Sorcerer and Friedkin. My only real complaint is that Peter Falk, while turning in an amusing performance, sometimes seems to be in a completely different movie from the rest of the cast; he plays it much broader, almost clownishly, and I don't know that it exactly works.
SF/34Chlotrudis Short Film FestivalIt Happened One NightFanboysSorcererAzur & AsmarThe Brink's Job

Sunday, February 22, 2009

SF/34 ('Day One")

Despite the relatively low scores below, I had a pretty good time at this year's Boston Sci-Fi Marathon. Believe it or not, this is actually a pretty good batch of new films for the 'thon. Finding good new movies isn't really what they do there - it's not Fantasia, or even the late, lamented Boston Fantastic Film Festival, as much as I often wish it was - but it's a fun place to see a bunch of movies.

The six movies below were seen on Sunday afternoon and evening; the stuff after midnight will come a bit later (I'm actually looking forward to writing about Killer Klowns and I Married a Monster From Outer Space!).

EDIT: Second half reviews!

Alien Trespass

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

If you go to enough genre-oriented film festivals or keep an eye out for would-be cult films, you will probably feel like you see a new movie like Alien Trespass every month or two - a fifties sci-fi pastiche that is described as either homage or parody. Most are awful. Alien Trespass is pretty decent, and probably as good as these things get.

After a mildly amusing bit of newsreel footage that tells us how one of the biggest-budget sci-fi films of the 1950s never got released (and was thought destroyed) because of a contract dispute between the studio head and star Merrick McCormack (the fictional actor who is a dead ringer for grandson Erik McCormack), we get to the film proper. An asteroid has crashed out in the desert, observed by astronomer Ted Lewis (McCormack) and his wife Lana (Jody Thompson). A dangerous alien Ghota has escaped, and the ship's pilot Urp takes over Ted's body to pursue it before it eats enough people to divide. He's assisted by local waitress Tammy (Jenni Baird); also in the mix are the three teenagers who saw the crash (Sarah Smyth, Andrew Dunbar, and Sage Brocklebank); the local cops (Dan Lauria, Robert Patrick, and Aaron Brooks), and a couple not-so-bright farmhands (Johnathan Young and Michael Roberds).

What separates Alien Trespass from the vast majority of retro-sci-fi is that it almost never goes for the cheap laugh of "look how bad this is/was!" (which often seems to be all the comedic inspiration these movies have). The alien is not top-of-the-line CGI, but instead looks like something that would have been impressive in 1957. After all, not every old sci-fi movie looks terrible; when people complain about CGi, after all, one of the typical arguments is that the old stuff still has more character. The Ghota visually owes much to the creatures from It Came From Outer Space (as does a good chunk of the plot), and if the filmmakers occasionally err on the side of making it unusually mobile and otherwise modern enough to seem a little threatening, I'm okay with that.

The other area where these movies often point and snicker is in the acting department, and while this movie does make its jabs at the sorts of clichés that inhabited those movies, it does so by letting its cast of solid character actors use their solid comic timing rather than having them pretend to be bad actors. Robert Patrick, in particular, wrings the maximum laughs from just about every line he's given, as does Dan Lauria as his boss. Eric McCormack is pretty funny as well, playing the differences between Ted and Urp much less broadly than many others might.

The film does get a few jabs at fifties pop culture in, but it's actually a lot more general and well-executed than it often is. The gigantic steaks that Ted puts on the grill is a detail other filmmakers might have missed, and the filmmakers actually go for something resembling subtlety when the time comes for the inevitable joke about how married couples arranged their bedrooms in 1950s movies and television. Director R.W. Goodwin and writers James Swift and Steven P. Fisher put a few good jokes in, including one that had the audience groan in a good, "should have seen that coming" way.

For as much as Alien Trespass is as good as this sort of movie gets, that's not the highest bar to set. It's slick, and competently done, but it's much harder to capture the soul than the surface. There are some good bits, sure, but what's between them just the work of a gifted mimic. The monster loose in the movie theater, for instance, just reminds one of other movies where that was a fun gag. There's a lot of filler, where the filmmakers are putting things in because the plot needs them or because the character type is expected, but it's uninspired, even bland at times.

Saying Alien Trespass is better than most movies like it isn't damning with faint praise. Its affection for 50s sci-fi seems much more sincere than most parody-homages, and while it could be a little sharper and more clever without losing that good feeling (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is perhaps the best recent example of that), the feeling is still generally positive.

Also at EFC.

It Came From Outer Space

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I reviewed this one a couple years ago when it played a 3-D festival at the Coolidge, and my opinion is more or less unchanged - it's technically fairly nicely done, although it's plain to see they reused certain shots in order to save some money. The 3-D is done well. Unfortunately, it's built upon an idiot plot that would infect many other high-minded movies - that the aliens are highly advanced, not only technologically superior to us, but morally more advanced... And they express this by doing numerous hostile and stupid things.

It was amusing to see just how much Alien Trespass borrowed from this movie by playing them back to back, although I don't know how intentional that was.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Some bad movies are interesting to watch as a sort of game - where, exactly, did things go wrong? After all, very few people set out to create a movie that stinks; it's just the unfortunate end result. Chrysalis is not one of those; things were too obviously doomed from the start, when filmmaker Tony Baez Milan decided to adapt a Ray Bradbury short story and decided that a movie whose main subject just sits there would be terribly engrossing.

It's one of those futures where the environment is wrecked and the consolidated nations of the world are engaged in a war of attrition. Dr. Hartley (John Klemantaski) is doing plant research in an underground bunker, assisted by McGuire (Corey Landis) and Smith (Glen Vaughan). Smith is close to cracking up when one day he collapses, and the others find a green growth on him. It eventually envelops him, becoming a hard shell, and Hartley reluctantly calls hospital colleague Rockwell (Darren Kendrick) and Rockwell's assistant Murphy (Danny Cameron) in. Mondragon (Larry Dirk), a gung-ho military type, also interjects himself as the scientists try to answer the question of what's going on with Smith and what should be done with him?

The large and obvious problem with this set-up is that it's not very conducive to things actually happening. The middle of the movie is what seems like an hour of people standing around Smith, re-iterating that they really don't know what's going on. Hartley becomes more paranoid and hostile, frightened of what will emerge from Smith's chrysalis. Rockwell becomes obsessed with the apparent healing properties of a fluid he has extracted from it. McGuire and Murphy stand around rather interchangeably, and Mondragon wanders off when he realizes that he really doesn't have anything to do. The scientists "debate", if by that you mean exchanging wild hypotheses based on the scant information they have. There's news footage of the outside world that is utterly irrelevant to the story in the bunker.

That's just one way the filmmakers try to stretch the story out, by the way - it has some of the slowest fade-outs and fade-ins I've ever seen. Of course, given the environment I saw it in, I was thankful for that, as the festival/marathon crowd would cheer with each fade out, only to make a collective groan of disappointment when the movie failed to end. You make your own fun in these situations.

There is, after all, precious little of it to be had elsewhere. Chrysalis isn't even entertainingly awful; the cast is bland but not generally inept. The make-up effects for the chrysalis actually look kind of good, and as cheap as everything looks, it's not the kind of cheap where you can see shoddy workmanship. The ending is terrible - it's not quite out of nowhere, but it's also not something that's been set up beyond the wild theorizing. The movie doesn't end the way it does because of any particular actions of the characters or any outside force that has any meaning to us.

So, even when something big happens, it feels like nothing has happened. You can get away with that in a short story (and I suspect that Bradbury's original story was very short indeed), but in an 85-minute film, it's a form of torture.

Also at EFC.

Logan's Run

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

It's no surprise that there's a remake of Logan's Run being worked on; what's surprising is that it hasn't happened sooner. It's got the three things that make it prime remake material: A name people remember, a premise that seems like it might be worth another shot, and enough shortcomings that it could clearly be done better.

Logan 5 (Michael York) lives in a domed city where everything is taken care of by the machines that run it and no-one has to work. Well, few except those like Logan and his friend Francis 7 (Richard Jordan) who work as "Sandmen", hunting down those who refuse to die on their 30th birthday - the only way, we're told, for the city to sustain itself. Logan has just been given a new assignment - infiltrate the would-be runners to find their "Sanctuary", and destroy it. He starts with Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), who had expressed some misgivings about the way things work, but soon finds himself on the run from Francis, who hasn't been told about Logan's undercover assignment, and toward a destination that isn't what any of them believed it to be.

Logan's Run starts out pretty well - it's visually eye-popping, with a miniature city that actually looks active in the establishing shots (in large part from the moving elevated trains). It works well close-up, too; what we see of the city looks like the center of a large shopping mall or a luxury hotel lobby, though not so much that the audience is completely aware of it. We get a feeling of what this world is like, the state of innocence and grace that its inhabitants live in, even as we're shown that they don't have the same values as the audience. The "carousel" sequence is remarkable, both for how it is staged and how it shows us how completely right dying at 30 seems for the people in this world.

And then the story starts and things go straight to heck. The powers that be give Logan information that might affect his loyalty just as he's starting an undercover assignment, and one would really think they'd give instructions for Francis to make it look good rather than have him go off like a loose cannon and jeopardize that. The first encounter with the outside world is even more mind-bogglingly stupid, though after that it simply becomes tiresome. It turns out that all the film's clever ideas were back in the city, and what's left is simply having the characters come across as morons as they re-learn about the family unit and other twentieth-century ideas. The finale is also pretty ludicrous - sure, it's a tradition that things will fail catastrophically at the least provocation, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

It's not all bad - the cast is actually pretty nice. I'm not just talking about the fact that Jenny Agutter is in her prime and nobody in this city appears to wear underwear - she's more capable than a lot of other young women cast as eye candy in this sort of movie. Michael York is similarly good as Logan, at least to start; like Agutter, he's got the ability to project innocence without being stupid. It doesn't work quite so well once they're out, especially once York is called upon to sincerely orate. Peter Ustinov is sort of bizarre when he shows up later on, but that kind of works for this movie.

Maybe, when it comes right down to it, Logan's Run isn't as clever an idea as it seems - all the opportunities for satire and wit are in the supposedly utopian society of the beginning, and thus the really interesting bits are lost once Logan actually runs. Those pieces are worth a look, though, and maybe the next people to take a stab at this will figure out how to make the rest work.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

It's surprising, twenty-five years later, how well Runaway has aged. Not because it is anything close to prescient in its vision of the future, or because it is so well-executed technically that it stands ahead of its contemporaries. Instead, Michael Crichton's movie about cops chasing robots run amok holds up is because, despite its low-fi trappings, it manages to put together a world the audience can believe in.

Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is a Chicago Police Department officer assigned to handling robots. It's not glamorous work, more like animal control than anything else, but he's gotten to be the best in the department at it. He and new partner Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) are called in to deal with a malfunctioning domestic robot, and an extra chip inside leads them to Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons) and Jackie Rogers (Kirstie Alley), who may have the answers behind a rash of robot-related incidents.

Michael Crichton writes and directs, and he makes the choice of not setting the film too far in the future (as seen from 1984). Cars, hairstyles, clothing, etc., are thus all from the mid-eighties, rather than anything particularly futuristic (which generally means, the current time period only more so!); Ramsay mentions that one of the older robots they corral is still running on an 8088-series processor (the kind the then-current IBM PCs used; the IBM PC AT with its 80286 chip had just been introduced). Give Chrichton credit for not having robotics technology make the immediate leap to self-aware androids, but the robots themselves do often look cobbled-together, not so much like a mass-produced product.

That's the big problem with Runaway: Even for 1984, it looks cheap. Crichton's got good ideas, but the execution is kind of shoddy, and not just in special effects. Crichton piles a cute kid, two potential love interests, guilt over a dead hostage, and crippling vertigo onto Ramsay. It's a bit much at times, even though it's seldom overwhelming.

Part of that's because Tom Selleck is good at selling it; it's surprising he never had much of a career outside of Magnum, P.I., because he does a fine job of making the unreal or potentially trite believable. Gene Simmons is suitably crazed as the villain. Cynthia Rhodes is likable enough as Selleck's partner, though Kirstie Alley is kind of annoying as the woman they recruit to help bring down Simmons.

Despite all its faults, Runaway holds together. It shouldn't; it should seem incredibly dated and tacky. Instead, it has a sort of understated charm.

Also at EFC.

Alien Raiders

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

By now, people attending this event sort of expect the "premieres" to be nothing to write home about, and this year was no exception; though Alien Trespass was a notch above average, the other two were as bad as usual. What's interesting (at least, if one is of an analytical bent) is that these two movies were terrible in completely opposite ways: Where Chrysalis was austere and boring despite having more ideas than it knew what to do with, Alien Raiders is frantic, grimy, and more or less bereft of a single original thought.

Much of the action takes place in Hastings' Supermarket, located in the quiet Arizona town of Buck Lake. Around closing time, stockboy Benny (Jeffrey Licon) is flirting with cashier Whitney (Samantha Streets), whose stepfather Seth (Mathew St. Patrick) is the new chief of police. A few customers are still milling about when Aaron Ritter (Carlos Bernard) and his paramilitary team arrive, locking the place down because they believe that someone in the building has an alien slug wrapping itself around their cerebral cortex. One of the customers is an off-duty cop, who gets a few shots off, thus preventing Ritter from exterminating his alien quickly and quietly.

Alien Raiders is, believe it or not, even more generic than its name suggests. The main body of it is a standard hostage drama, with Ritter riding herd over a clashing team and Seth trying to get background on them while worrying about his stepdaughter. The other 25% of the movie is similarly familiar "the alien could be anyone!" paranoia. On paper, that sounds like a good combination, but it doesn't work that way. Ritter's team are too professional to be worried about their hostages; the hostages are too scared of Ritter to entertain the notion of a parasitic alien.

The standoff plotline is even more lifeless. Where most movies built on that line have some intrigue coming from the hostage-takers' plans, there's none of that here; heck, I'm not sure Ritter even has an exit strategy. Tension fails to materialize between Ritter's group and his hostages; sure, they try to escape, and there are tests to try and determine which may be aliens, but it's never the sort of situation where something we learn may become important later, and nobody ever does anything unexpected. In addition, Bernard and St. Patrick do not make compelling adversaries, both of their characters are too level-headed.

That doesn't mean that things don't happen. Plenty happens; the action is fast-paced, bloody, and what we see is handled competently enough. Much of the action happens in dark rooms, and we never get a really good look at how the humans are mutated after the aliens completely take them over. There's a needlessly gruesome method of detecting alien possession (a blood test wouldn't work just as well because...?). There's plenty of going on, but it's all stuff we've seen before, and done better.

That's Alien Raiders in a nutshell. It's filler, stuff cranked out so that the Sci-Fi channel can have new programming on Saturday nights or so that Blockbuster can rotate a new bit of sci-fi action onto the new-release shelves every few months. It doesn't hurt to watch it, but there's so much actually good stuff out there, why bother?

Also at EFC.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 9 February 2009 to 15 February 2009

Getting this up a little early, since I'm going to the sci-fi marathon starting at noon. Looks like a pretty good one, with only Transformers as a major stinker and three premieres, though of direct-to-video features. (The ticket will probably show up on next week's TWIT, unless I decide to bail in the next hour or so).

This Week In Tickets!

On Video: Hunting Grounds

Another quiet week. As we ramp up to the Oscars, there's not a whole lot of new stuff out that looks worth seeing. Hopefully that will improve soon.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Great Romances IV)

Back in '96, when I was working more hours at the now-shuttered Showcase Cinemas Downtown Worcester than I was studying computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Bound was one of the movies playing there, at least for a week or two. I must have been more dilligent about my studies than usual that week, because I remember being darn amused by "f___in' dark in here!" but not actually seeing the movie later. I'm not sure why it took me this long to catch up with it.

Happily, it holds up. Between the Matrix films and Speed Racer, it's sort of become a footnote in the Wachowskis' joint career, but it's a real blast to watch. I got the same impression from it that I got from Midnight Meat Train last summer - the movies aren't really similar in any way, other than the fact that the directors of each knew that this was their calling card, their make-or-break moment, and they were determined that every instant be one that potentially sticks in the audience's memory. Bound is lurid pulp, but wonderfully so, a hugely entertaining twist on film noir roles. I'm glad I finally saw it.

To Live and Die in L.A.

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (The Uncanny Cinema of William Friedkin)

Here's another one I never got around to - the Brattle had a William Friedkin series or double-feature a couple years ago, but the movie was scheduled for 10pm and they had print problems, so it had to be shown off DVD, which at the time looked pretty lousy there. I conked out sometime early.

It turns out to be a kind of nasty bit of work, a hard-R combination of action movie and police procedural, with Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) obsessively chasing down master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). As one might expect, Friedkin throws one spectacular chase sequence in. He's great at getting the violence to jolt as well as titillate.

One thing that I always notice about these 70s/80s crime movies by the likes of Friedkin, Frankenheimer, and company is just how sparse they are. "Chance hunts down Masters" is pretty much the entire story, whereas later everything would get a lot more complicated: There'd be a half-dozen twists and turns, and as many progressively bigger action set pieces. Here, we spend a lot of time just watching Chance and Masters, even though they're not particularly complex characters or undergoing much in the way of personal transformation. It's an action movie that somehow becomes an actor's showcase.

The International

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #1 (first-run)

As you can see from looking at the page of tickets, The International ran me $8.50 for a matinee. There's an action sequence in the middle that's worth $4 or $5 of that, a running gunfight through New York's Guggenheim Museum that is absolutely jaw-dropping, both for the amount of ordinance expended and how clealry director Tom Tykwer stages it - no obfuscating editing or bad shot selection here; you know exactly what's going on. It's a tour de force of action filmmaking, something you'd expect to see from Johnnie To or John Woo on their best days.

Does the rest of the movie make up the difference? I'm not quite sure. It's frequently very dry, with lots of talk about what the various agencies are investigating the bank for and jurisdictional infighting. But it's also got Armin Mueller-Stahl as the bank's military consultant, and while it seems like a bit of wasted casting at the start, it certainly isn't by the end, especially when he has a nice, long sit-down with Clive Owen's character to talk about ideals and how circumstances cause one to fall short of them.
The ClassBoundTo Live and Die in L.A.The International

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Class

Stupid work keeping me a half hour later than I wanted so I couldn't go to both The Class and the Charles Stross signing at Pandemonium. I nearly bailed on the film, to be honest, but with the sci-fi marathon coming up this weekend, I didn't know just how much opportunity I'd have.

Entre les Murs (The Class)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

The Class does seem somewhat different from conventional teacher/student movies from the beginning, but it takes a while before the biggest reason why sinks in. Usually, the subject of a movie is exceptional in some way - that's why you make movies about them in particular. It's not until about midway through that the audience begins to realize what director Laurent Cantet is doing - not telling the story of a great teacher, or even an especially good one, but an average teacher.

That teacher is François Marin; he teaches French in a middle school that serves an ethnically diverse but not particularly prosperous section of Paris. He's been around long enough to be a class supervisor and not to feel the need to announce his service time when the faculty has their meet-and-greet at the start of the school year. Some of the students in the particular class that we follow have had him before; some are new. There's smart-aleck Esmerelda, who wants to be a cop when she grows up; Wey, a Chinese immigrant whose French is still a little rough; Khoumba, who has grown standoffish and angry over the summer; Louise, a class representative (along with Esmerelda); Soulemayne, a Malian boy who is disruptive when he does show up to class; and Carl, who transfers in after being expelled from another school. They are not especially gifted kids, but it's not a remedial class.

We follow Marin and his students over the course of a school year, from the first class to the last, with teacher meetings, parent/teacher conferences, and disciplinary hearings along the way. Cantet gives the film a documentary feel without ever specifically using documentary devices: There are no staged interviews or acknowledgment of the camera, no informational subtitles. There are cuts and close-ups within scenes that indicate multiple takes. On the other hand, it does have the "available footage" feel of a documentary; storylines dangle unresolved or happen off-screen. Amusing or instructive scenes that don't have much to do with anything else are thrown in. The plot develops late and is clearly subservient to giving us a look at this environment; much of the pleasure of The Class is, fittingly, that of learning something new rather than a story well-told.

Further blurring the line between narrative and documentary is the cast. M. Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, who worked on adapting the screenplay from his own book about his experiences as a teacher. As the credits scroll, one sees that the characters names match those of the actors; I would not be shocked if either the actual students from Bégaudeau's book were playing themselves, the cast was mainly amateurs instructed to just be themselves, or Cantet changed the character names to facilitate improvisation. Whatever the reason, the result is engrossing; we almost never see telltale signs of an actor performing. I suspect several cast member must be a ringers - Franck Keïta as Soulemayne, for instance, not just from the differing names but because they're too central to the last act to leave anything to chance - but it's almost impossible to tell with any certainty.

That Bégaudeau is playing, essentially, a version of himself makes the film's honesty somewhat surprising. It's not that the film neither indicts nor praises French public education - as with just about every story about teachers ever made, the system is shown as short of resources and having a hard time adapting to the day's youth. Though we're prepared early on to sympathize with M. Marin - he's contrasted against a less empathetic teacher and always argues benefit to the student over convenience to the faculty - it eventually becomes clear that he's pretty darn flawed: He can be confrontational and unwilling to admit that he's wrong. Most of the audience can likely pinpoint the exact moment when things get out of hand in the last act, and it can be laid squarely at his feet. Not solely - from that point forward, nobody comes out looking particularly righteous, and there's an extraneous bit of melodrama - but it's a shocking moment for the audience: Films about teachers have that mistake in the first act, not the last, and for a semi-autobiographical story, it's far from self-serving.

It doesn't make him into the villain of the piece, but the last act is a dash of cold water on what we're used to. It's a sobering thought, that even the dedicated teachers have blind spots and failures. Stories about those teachers and students probaby tell us more about the problems (and what works) with public schools than the inspirational ones.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hunting Grounds

Last night's screener was going to be Flick, but neither the HD DVD player nor Blu-ray player would touch it, and no way was I going to hook one more item up to the already-terrifying jumble around my TV to see if some other device would read the disc (the DVR was already misbehaving, and that was enough). Getting Hunting Grounds to play cemented the HD DVD player as my primary DVD player for the time being - though letterboxed, the disc is non-anamorphic, so the Blu-ray player stretched and distorted it.

As much as Hunting Grounds isn't really a good movie, I wish I had gotten to see it at the festival. The filmmakers were local, so they would have been there, and I have little doubt that it would have been enhanced by a sold-out crowd screaming en français. I really wanted to see Midnight Meat Train with Kitamura in attendance, so that took priority (though I would have run across the street if I'd been shut out of that, as nearly happened).

I'm less excited by the idea floated in the Fantasia program that this is the first of a series - I'd like to see filmmaker Eric Bilodeau do more, but this isn't quite good enough for me to want more of this.

Hunting Grounds

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2009 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screener DVD)

Every once in a while, I'll get an email from a fan or filmmaker angry that I've given a tiny independent film a bad grade, saying that these movies shouldn't be judged by the same criteria as studio films. I say that of course they should - they're getting the same ticket price and the same hour and a half of my time. Still, even if I can't say that Eric Bilodeau and company have made a good movie by any objective standard, I like the effort they're making.

Hunting Grounds takes place a generation or so from now, when to help rebuild the environment, human habitation is confined to walled cities. Much human interaction is confined to a virtual reality system called the "Alternet", and while that's fine for some, Quebec City's Paul Austin (Patrice LeBlanc) yearns to hunt actual game from his family's cabin. He and girlfriend Lexa Monroe (Marie-Eve Lemire) have only met each other online, but friend Sebastien Mathieu (Luc Rivard) knows how to sneak out. Also in the party are tracker Simon Roy (Patrick Baby), who wants out even more than Paul, and Francine Hudon (Valerie Tremblay), who suddenly finds herself feeling acutely agoraphobic when confronted with the real world. Of course, what they don't know is that near Paul's cabin is a secret military installation, where Lt. Aria Palmer (Emilie Gilbert-Gagnon) is involved in one of those experiments for healing injured tissue that winds up reanimating the dead.

I admire Bilodeau's ambition. Many, many people have made zombie movies in their backyard, and that's hard enough. Eric Bilodeau, on the other hand, is going to take his twenty thousand Canadian dollars and not only is he going to do gore effects, but he's going to do some digital backlot shooting and a fair amount of digital effects. It's rough at times - very rough indeed - and sometimes I found myself thinking about the tradeoffs a lot: For instance, when someone shoots a pistol, the CGI muzzle flash and sparks look kind of fake compared to traditional blanks and squibs, but there can be little doubt that they are far safer and reduce the need for (expensive) stuntpeople and other experts on the set. That can be huge for a production this size. And even if some of the effects look like they were only rendered at standard video definition, the concepts are good: The floating holographic computer interfaces are well-realized, and the last act does give us a zombie running around with large bits missing that is only upright because it's wearing an exoskeleton. That's good stuff; there are films that expend a lot more resources executing lesser ideas less impressively.

It can be a real chore getting to the good stuff, though. Some of it seems to be concessions to what needs to be done to try and make any money off it: Many people will discount a film that is shorter than ninety minutes, so this one stretches to break the hour-and-a-half mark. It takes the hunting party thirty of the film's minutes to get out of the city; many scenes run in conversational circles, pile on extraneous exposition, and are otherwise redundant, but they fill time. I also strongly suspect that the cast and crew aren't doing themselves many favors by having the vast majority of the dialogue be in English, but I gather that's the reality of making independent films in Quebec: French doesn't export nearly as well as English, not even to the rest of Canada or to other Francophone countries, so unless you're sure you can break even at home, you shoot in English. It's pretty clear from the accents and stilted delivery that this is not the native language of most of the cast (especially compared to the scenes when the characters speak French), and it makes everyone look like worse actors than they likely are.

Commercial considerations aren't entirely to blame; Eric Bilodeau is credited with at least nine jobs on the film, and he's not great at every one of them. In particular, he could use the assistance of a good editor; Hunting Grounds doesn't build up much of a head of steam until late in the game, and then rushes the big confrontations without giving us the opportunity to get excited for them. Audio could also use some work; we'll occasionally get a gory visual without any corresponding disgusting sound. The way some excess characters are eliminated is pretty disappointing, and, hey, don't have zombies chase our heroes through a machine shop just loaded with power tools - including a conspicuously placed chainsaw - without a little more mayhem.

Still, as cheapo horror movies go, Hunting Grounds is just below-average, not terrible: Terrible movies don't get me shouting advice to the screen, after all. Bilodeau has done more with less than a lot of would-be filmmakers, and even if I'm not likely to re-watch this movie again, I find myself hoping that he gets a chance to step up to the next level.

Also at HBS.

Monday, February 09, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 2 February 2009 to 8 February 2009

The weekend got a little busy, but not so much the week itself:

This Week In Tickets!

On Video: No Mercy for the Rude

I had a pass to see the preview of Push on Tuesday, but despite arriving at the theater an hour before the start time, didn't make it. There wasn't much else I hadn't seen playing at around 6:30 at Boston Common, so I wound up taking the T to Fenway to use up a pass before it expired Thursday. The express bus from Central Square, Waltham to Downtown Boston took $5.00 off my CharlieCard, and the green line from Boylston to Fenway station was $1.70, so it cost me $6.70 to see a free movie that night. Oddly, that's still not a bad deal for seeing a mid-week movie in this city; note that the second-run theater out in Arlington (the sort of place that I believe is still referred to as a "dollar theater" in other parts of the country) cost me $7.00 on Thursday night.

I saw Frozen River that night, which gets me pretty close to having seen all the major nominations for the Academy Awards - I'm missing Richard Jenkins in The Visitor and Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (which I own on Blu-ray). It wouldn't be too much effort to find a copy of The Visitor on video (though I don't have memberships with any rental services right now), so I'll probably be good there. I don't know about the Chlotrudis Awards - I've seen a good chunk of those, but I've only seen one of the Buried Treasure nominees, and I just can't see myself making the effort to see four of the other five (especially when the arguments for one of the films advanced at the nominating meeting put me off wanting to see it). It's just no fun seeing movies out of a sense of obligation, after all.

Gran Torino

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #5 (first-run)

I like Clint Eastwood, a lot, although most of what I've seen him in is the older, somewhat mellowed Clint. You know he's become a fine director, and his laid-back approach as a filmmaker has somewhat affected his on-screen persona - it's difficult not to see him as the wise old man these days. So considering Gran Torino is likely his swan song as an actor is kind of odd to me: As much as I know that much of his early work is the sort of tough guy who might age into this movie's Walt Kowalski, that's not how I picture him. I guess that speaks to Eastwood's exceptionally long career, in that as much as this is how he was perceived for a long time, he's been able to evolve into quite a bit more.

The movie itself isn't bad. Clint Eastwood is not hanging up his spurs on a masterpiece, and this likely won't be a role he's long-remembered for, but it's a solid, well-made picture.

Frozen River

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2009 at FEI Capitol #2 (second-run)

Another movie mainly getting attention for a notable performance, in this case Melissa Leo's Oscar-and-many-other-awards-nominated performance. Which is pretty good, but which I think may also be getting a little bit of notice for being one where the star lets herself look like hell. It's a nice performance, nothing wrong with it at all, but I didn't find Leo's Ray Eddy particularly captivating.

The story itself is, though. Writer/director Courtney Hunt has come up with a nifty and unique premise - human smuggling where Mohawk lands straddle the U.S./Canada border - and stuck a handful of interesting characters into it. I was most interested in Misty Upham as Lila, the Mohawk woman who involves Ray in her operation. She just as desperate as Ray, but there's something about the way she carries herself that makes her interesting. I've seen people like Ray before, but Lila seemed a much more original creation.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2009 at AMC Boston Common #8 (first run; digital projection)

Ah, Luc Besson, don't ever change. Even if you do stick with this decision to only direct new Arthur et les Minimoys films, keep writing and producing quality action movies, mentoring new directors like this film's Pierre Morel. Some may argue that they aren't great art, but they most assuredly are great entertainment.

Liam Neeson is this film's far-from-secret weapon, of course. He's not the martial arts star that many of Besson's other leading men have been, but the script is tailored to him: It takes great advantage of him being tall and imposing, and will often have him dispatch enemies with a single blow rather than a drawn out fight sequence; he's a guy who knows how to handle himself. It's no wonder, seeing this movie, that he was almost cast as James Bond twice (allegedly the first choice of the Broccoli's for GoldenEye and when Columbia tried to set up a competing Bond franchise by purchasing the sequel rights to Never Say Never Again); he embodies the fierce ruthlessness of that character.

The Besson and Neeson's performance were why I sat through this often-brutal action movie with a smile on my face: It's an example of something that is often done poorly, without care, being done well.

Gran TorinoFrozen RiverPushCoralineTaken

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Double Dose of Dakota: Push & Coraline

As much as young Ms. Fanning being in both movies I saw Saturday wound up being the theme of the day, I had honestly forgot that she was providing the title character's voice in Coraline, if indeed I ever chanced upon the information. I think it goes to show what her strengths as a child actress are. She's not really needed in Coraline, as most of the performance is in Selick's puppetry, while anyone who can sound like a little girl could arguably have done the voice. She winds up being the best thing about Push, though - oftentimes the way she stands or rolls her eyes in the background of a scene does a heck of a lot more to make her interesting than the silly crap the script calls upon her to say.

And, man, is there a lot of silly crap in the Push script. I suppose, if I want to be generous, I can thank it for being a piece of junk in that noticing just how much was unappealing about it sort of crystallized my feelings about what's not fun about superheroes in a variety of media right now. Push is kind of the logical endpoint of a number of trends that have been draining the fun out of what should be one of the most enjoyable genres in the world: As I mention in the review proper, superheroes used to put on colorful costumes and help people; now they just fight among themselves. You can see that in stories like Push, or Heroes, or what The 4400 became before it was cut short. Heck, I'll throw the likes of Harry Potter in, with its magical people sequestering themselves off from the regular world and having their little civil wars. Even in comics, this sort of infighting has been the backbone of the Marvel Universe for years - "House of M", "Civil War", "World War Hulk", "Secret Invasion", and now "Dark Reign" are all turf wars in one way or another; DC's doing the same with Superman and Batman this year, and their big events lately have been about defining and describing minutia of their mythology, not telling great stories of people with great power trying to make the world a better place against opposition.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

Remember a time, not so long ago, when superheroes had ideals as lofty as their powers were amazing and their costumes were colorful, and fought for the greater good, rather than just turf wars among themselves? When those amazing powers were actually amazing and special, rather than so common as to be taken for granted? Those days seem far away watching Push, and even those who feel that that kind of superhero story is best left in the past will be hard-pressed to find much to like about this movie.

Oh, there's some. Johnnie To's Milky Way Image Company will probably be able to produce one or two really good crime films based on the money they made handling the Hong Kong production of this turd. Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans continue to demonstrate an uncanny ability to be very good despite being surrounded on all sides by an otherwise terrible movie. But that's just about it.

This particular terrible movie, after a couple scenes and an exposition dump to set up some of the backdrop, tells the story of Nick Gant (Evans), a young man (currently in Hong Kong) who can move things with his mind, although he's not very good at it. A pair of American "Division" agents working for Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), the man who killed Nick's father, pay him a visit to let him know he's being watched, and they're followed by Cassie Holmes (Fanning), a 13-year-old "watcher" who can see the future; both she and the agents are looking for Kira (Camilla Belle), an old girlfriend of Nick's who escaped from Division and can "push" thoughts into people's minds.

Push is a dreary affair, the sort of science fiction that has no room for wonder, relying on mythology to grab the audience's interest. It's not a particularly interesting mythology - for crying out loud, writer David Bourla doesn't even come up with catchy acronyms for the agencies chasing the powered people down! - and the script keeps one of the most important players off the screen for more or less the entire length of the movie (probably with the thought of having a free hand in casting the character in a sequel). None of the factions are given particularly compelling motivations, and even the protagonists fall into a kill-or-be-killed mindset fairly quickly.

Director Paul McGuigan's last film was the similarly convoluted and amoral Lucky Number Slevin, and he juggles the story well enough until the last act, when somewhere between Bourla's script and McGuigan's direction, the last act winds up making not a lot of sense - it sounds clever in concept, but falls apart with the application of a little logic. The action is quick-cut and confusing, and none of the superpowers have a particularly memorable visual associated with them.

The most memorable thing about Slevin was an enjoyably against-type performance by a cheerful Lucy Liu, and Push is similar, with Dakota Fanning as a cranky and sarcastic psychic; she also sells the one moment where these people actually seem like human beings. Chris Evans and Cliff Curtis are able enough in their parts, but Camilla Belle is pathetically flat as the character at the center of the action, while Djimon Hounsou and Ming-Na sleepwalk through their roles.

Push is probably more competent than most other films bad enough to earn a one-star rating, but it's ugly, right down to the last frame. It's just no fun, and doesn't offer any sort of originality or cleverness to make up for it.

Also at HBS with three other reviews.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #10 (first-run, digital 3-D)

Coraline is a dark delight, although, honestly, more delightful than dark. Filmmaker Harry Selick has found a match for his sensibilities in author Neil Gaiman, and has made fantastic use of the opportunities that today's 3-D technology gives him.

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning), we're told, is a young girl from Michigan whose parents (voices of Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have just uprooted her to Oklahoma, to live in an apartment house that is shared with a pair of retired actresses (voices of comedy duo Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders) below and a one-time circus person (voice of Ian McShane) above. The only other kid in the neighborhood is nerdy and annoying Wyborn "Wybie" Lovat (voice of Robert Bailey Jr.). The place his not entirely without interest; Wybie has found an old doll with a curious resemblance to Coraline, down to her blue hair and yellow boots, and there's a tiny painted-over door in the apartment that opens to a brick wall. Except, sometimes, it opens into a tunnel, and on the other side of that tunnel is a house just like Coraline's - except what is boring at home is magical there, and everyone has buttons for eyes. She can stay there forever - provided, of course, she lets her "other mother" sew those buttons on her face.

The lesson to be learned hear is obvious, of course: "Things that look too good to be true generally are". But what delights there are! Selick gives us several spiffy set pieces, and while some of the character designs are on the grotesque side, the ones we see the most are fantastic. I love just looking at Coraline, with her blue hair and big feet, and simple facial features that are nonetheless very expressive. What's most impressive is how flexible the design of Coraline's mother is - she goes from irritated mother to fantasy mom to monster with just a few alterations.

Selick's work as an animator is nearly flawless. His characters aren't just designed well, but have personality to their movements, enough that they can often communicate silently. Given the opportunity to shoot in three dimensions, he and director of photography Pete Kozachik make great use of the depth offered by the format. Most of the time the animation is very smooth, but sometimes it isn't, in a way that makes everything perhaps deliberately signals to the audience that this is a film mostly made of things people held in their hands, as opposed to existing entirely in the digital realm. I love the way the filmmakers warp space at times, from the tunnel that was made for 3-D viewing to how a fantasy world ends once it is explored too much.

The screenplay is well-balanced as well. Not having read the original novella, I don't know how much of that is Selick and how much is Gaiman's original work, but the film does a fine job of communicating its mythology without pounding upon the audience with the details. It's a little scary for young kids, to be sure, but kids like being scared in moderation, and the movie gives the audience moments to feel safe before plunging Coraline into the next scary situation. She's nicely balanced between being given enough help to not be Supergirl but also triumphing in large part by being brave and smart and good-hearted, even if adults will recognize some of how she acts as being things kids do to drive their parents nuts.

Dakota Fanning is fine as the voice of Coraline, although mostly as a somewhat generic little-girl voice (as good a young actress as she is, animation doesn't let her communicate with facial expressions and body language). Teri Hatcher is pretty great giving voice to Coraline's mother and other mother, giving the latter too-sweet tones that set off alarm bells in the audience but would be decidedly appealing to Coraline. Keith David is the other standout voice, not quite fitting the stereotype that the phrase "cool cat" brings to mind but being enough in the neighborhood so that it works.

All those parts are pretty great, but its the way Selick fits them all together that makes Coraline a great film, and one that certainly shouldn't be missed while it's still playing in 3-D at some locations.

Also at HBS along with four other reviews.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No Mercy for the Rude

So, I've totally waited until now to start going through my Fantasia screeners because it's midway between Fantasia '08 and Fantasia '09.

Speaking of Fantasia, they've put something on their site stating that the festival will be running 16 July 2009 - 3 August 2009. On the one hand, it means I won't miss the Fourth this year, although if I do the whole thing this year, I'll have to unload a pair of Sox tickets (yeah, that'll be tough) and if I sublet an apartment again, it has to span the two months (again, rough).

Yeui-Eomneun Geotdeul (No Mercy for the Rude)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2009 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screener DVD)

No Mercy for the Rude isn't exactly the movie its English-language title would imply. The name implies some sort of satire or that the rudeness is important, and that's not really where this movie's going. It's a much more conventional quirky hitman story, if that's not an oxymoron.

The hitman (Sin Ha-kyun), referred to only as "Killa", is a mute, saving up money for an operation to repair his abnormally short tongue. As such, he's something of a loner, his closest friend another assassin who used to be a ballet dancer (Killa dreams of being a bullfighter). That's about to change - a woman (Yun Ji-hye) who hangs around the same bar as he does has attached herself to him, and when he spots a homeless kid (Kang San) on the way back from a job, he takes the boy in. He's only a few jobs away from being able to pay for his surgery, but one botched job and a number of coincidences threaten to make things very difficult.

So, again, not a black comedy about killing rude or unpleasant people. In fact, the bit about only killing rude people is kind of throw-away, and not really involved in the plot at all until the last act, and not so much then (although, to be fair, "rude" may not be a perfect translation from Korean, either linguistically or culturally). Catchy title, though. That said, part of what makes No Mercy a fairly enjoyable example of the "not-so-bad hitman" genre is that it does have a nifty sense of humor. Killa may not be able to speak, but his narration has a nicely wry and sarcastic edge to it, and is cleverly self-referential in the beginning (and thankfully stops being so long before we'd get sick of it). The scenes with the hitmen are generally quite amusing: They're not cool, but they're not inept, and the comical interactions between them work. There's occasional meanness to the humor, but not to the extent it stops being funny. The flashback scenes are charming, too.

Those amusing bits do have a bit of an uphill battle against the main storylines, which aren't so much bad as they are either generic or nasty. Yun and Kang are good enough as the woman and kid who enter Killa's life, lively characters who earn their keep, but the relationships between the trio are kind of paint-by-numbers. The characters are each interesting, but they play familiar "guy meets girl/kid who like him no matter how he tries to push them away" beats. Writer/director Park Cheol-hie actually makes good use of coincidence to potentially kick story off early on, but piles too many other bits of happenstance on as the film moves to its conclusion, including having two storylines involving a mobster with a truly unpleasant sexual history intersect. Park also gets kind of sloppy toward the end, with Kang Sun's kid appearing and disappearing as is convenient.

The cast does what they can. Sin Ha-kyun has a nice split performance as Killa, hitting a good balance between the comic and the serious in his mute on-screen performance and emoting well enough without going over the top for his narration to be appreciated even through subtitles. Yun Ji-hie is good and dry in her funny scenes, although a bit overwrought in her dramatic ones. Kang San is a good kid actor, and the various assassins and gangsters are good, too.

No Mercy for the Rude is a nice-looking movie, and has plenty of little bits that make it memorable. It's also got a number of bits that are ordinary and others that are just too much. The good bits outnumber the bad ones, although they're not quite enough to live up to the promise of the title.

Also at HBS.

Monday, February 02, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 26 January 2009 to 1 February 2009

An unusually sparse week, especially for me:

This Week In Tickets!

I really just found myself running at half-speed all week. Thursday was a particular killer; I wasn't nodding off at work, but I never felt alert. I got home at six and then just collapsed on the bed for almost two hours before remembering I'd said I would drop something off in Harvard Square. Got back, went to bed at around nine-thirty after downing some TheraFlu, which knocked me out for four hours and left me unable to sleep all night. That cost me the chance to see The Passionate Friends from the Brattle's David Lean series.

On the weekend, I fully intended to see Frozen River before heading to the Chlotrudis Nominating Meeting (as of now, the liveblogged nominations should still be near the top of the Mewsings Blog), but thought it was at 11:40 rather than 11:30. Then the meeting took the entire rest of the day.

Today... Today I just feel lazy; there's no way I should have arrived at Fenway too late for the 4pm show of Taken when The Uninvited got out at 2:45. Sure, I spent time buying some boots with a gift card my brother Travis and his wife Jen got me for Christmas and trying to find some 3-D glasses for tomorrow night's Chuck (they just don't exist in the Boston area, it seems!), but still...

Wendy and Lucy

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Everyone discussing Wendy and Lucy is going to bring up Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt, as well they should, but let's take a moment to talk about Larry Fessenden. He's produced two of Reichardt's features and had a cameo in each; the one in this movie is memorable. He's sort of taken the position Roger Corman used to have, producing and directing low-budget horror films and using some of the money they make on art-house projects like Wendy and Lucy. Fessenden makes, from what I gather, pretty good horror - I liked The Last Winter, I've heard very good things about Wendigo - so perhaps it's not surprising that he does this sort of thing.

It's a very nice little movie, with a very fine performance at the center by Michelle Williams. She's very matter-of-fact as she goes about looking for her dog and getting her car fixed, powerless but trying to make things happen anyway. The scenes she shares with Wally Dalton (playing a security guard) are little delights; they're people who don't have much but can't ask for anything from each other. What matters is that they are connected by the respect they show to each other, which is not exactly something either is used to receiving.

Brief Encounter

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

Likely controversial for its time, as it shows an extra-marital affair without much in the way of judgment or justification - indeed, the home life of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is depicted as fairly idyllic - it seems quaint now, if not a bit stiff from the narration it all but drowns in. A shame, really, as Johnson's performance is good enough that there hardly seems to be anything more that words can add, even if they are Noel Coward's words.

It is, otherwise, a fine enough movie, with Johnson and Trevor Howard quite enjoyable as the couple who has the bad luck to meet and fall in love after they are already married to other people. Pretty tame by today's standards, but not laughably so; Lean and his cast do a fine job of showing how tempting (and later wrenching) this situation is.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

So how, exactly, is Sally Hawkins not up for an Academy Award for her performance here? There won't be many performances more memorable or more complete this year. It's just yet another example of how despair and misery seem more valued in art than optimism, which is a shame. Hawkins's Poppy is a wonderful character and just because she's frequently smiling doesn't mean she's a fool or easy to play - indeed, while the four performances I've seen frequently seem to have the actress locking her face and voice into a certain cast and then dramatically breaking out of it, Hawkins is reacting visibly to everything. Sometimes it may seem inappropriate, but it's always perfectly in keeping with her character, and by the end we can see that she's clearly not a one-note fool.

We also may wonder, why don't we see more Poppys, both on-screen and in real life? Although I imagine it must be exhausting to be as relentlessly positive as she is, what's to be gained by not trying in our own lives? And maybe it's evidence for just how great Hawkins's performance is that we do believe in Poppy, even though this sort of character appears seldom enough for us to be skeptical about her being for real.

The Uninvited

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2009 at AMC Boston Commone #1 (first-run)

It had been some time since I'd seen A Tale of Two Sisters, so watching The Uninvited was like watching an episode of Law & Order that I recorded because I wasn't sure from the description whether or not it was a rerun I had seen or one I hadn't, though I realize it fits in the "had" category soon enough. When that happens, I find myself paying more attention to the audience around me than usual. Most of them, after all, haven't seen the Korean original, so while I'm not going to be surprised, I can at least enjoy theirs vicariously.

Not the case here. While I could feel the theater react around me during The Departed or The Grudge, this one just seemed to bore the rest of the people there. I can't say I blame them; as much as the Guard Brothers may turn out to be decent filmmakers given time (or in their comedic shorts), neither they nor the three people who worked on the screenplay are close to being in Two Sisters director Kim Ji-woon's league. This version streamlines and simplifies the story of the original, and completely does away with all the atmosphere. Kim's movie was based upon a Korean fairy tale (the original Korean name, "Changhwa, Hongryon" references it directly), and found a way to straddle the line between a contemporary setting and the semi-mythic world of folklore; this is just the blandest teen story imaginable. The scare moments are also just not nearly as good - legitimately disturbing sequences aren't even good jump moments here.

Disappointing in the extreme. Not that I expected much, but with such great source material, you'd think they could manage better than this!
Wendy And LucyBrief EncounterHappy-Go-LuckyThe Uninvited