Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Boston Film Festival Day Two: Racing Dreams and In/Significant Others

In order to avoid saying more unkind things about the BFF (I think I said all I had to say about this day in the TWIT post) - and because actually getting the review of In/Significant Others finished seemed to take forever, let me just say that I really liked Racing Dreams. It's a fun documentary that should play well to almost any audience.

In fact, most of the docs at BFF looked pretty good; it's an odd irony of film festival scheduling that the documentaries almost always feel fresh and exciting, likely to show the festival-goers something they had never seen before, but are often shunted into smaller screens or less-convenient times. This holds true at the boutique theaters and on television, too. It's a shame more people don't take a chance on them. Not all docs are good, but I strongly suspect that the top 10% is better than the top 10% of fiction features.

Unrelated thought on this documentary... I hope that I don't have aunts and uncles stumble upon this and call me up asking how I couldn't have known about the WKA, because some cousin did that for three years. I don't think it's the case, but it's also not out of the question.

Racing Dreams

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

I admit that I don't give auto racing a whole lot of thought in general, but one aspect which I gave particularly little thought to was where new drivers come from. Make all the jokes about stock car racing being about putting one's foot to the floor and occasionally turning left, but driving a race car is a skill that can lead to fiery death without proper training. So where do these guys learn the ropes? Well, a lot of them start by racing go-karts (which can obtain speeds of up to 70mph) in the in the World Karting Association (WKA), and they start young.

How young? Well, Annabeth Barnes is 11 years old at the start of the film, and though she's just moving up to the junior circuit, she's already got a website to which she can point visitors to the WKA's annual convention. Also at that convention are two others kids that Marshall Curry's cameras will follow over the next year: 12-year-old Josh Hobson of Birch Run, MI is expected to be a force on the junior circuit; 13-year-old Brandon Warren (like Annabeth, hailing form North Carolina) is moving up to the senior circuit, though he has a reputation for rough driving. Their paths will cross at the five national races, but what they do in between is even more interesting: Brandon, who is being raised by his grandparents, has his father come back into his life; Annabeth starts to notice boys and regret how time spent racing comes at the expense of time with her friends; and Josh's family struggles with how to support what is a rather expensive and time-consuming hobby.

Oh, and Brandon thinks Annabeth is kind of cute. The feeling is mutual, and watching the two of them together (or talking on the phone, or talking about each other) is one of the many delights of the movie: They're a refreshingly honest pair of tweens, talking into the camera without reservation because they've got nothing to hide, but also not putting on a performance. Annabeth and Brandon make a nifty visual, too: Annabeth is tall while Brandon is short; she looks like a Disney Channel star whether she's in her racing gear or the pink she favors when hanging with her friends, while he's buzz-cut and has the look of a wild man about him. It's a fun little dynamic, and it doesn't take away from their individual stories.

Though Josh and Annabeth are racing against each other, Josh's story winds up being a different angle: While Brandon and Annabeth seem to be having fun first, saying they'd like to race cars when they grow up in the way enthusiastic kids do, Josh is serious and focused. He's not unpleasant or bratty - he seems like a thoroughly pleasant kid - but he has a level of concentration that allows him to ignore his parents' concerns about what this is costing, or to study and imitate every aspect of how real NASCAR racers act, right down to how they thank the sponsors. His consistent high finishes aren't joyless, but there is something inevitable about them.

The Hobsons aren't the only ones with concerns over the cost of racing, although they are the ones who talk most frankly about it, figuring that each national race costs about five thousand dollars, no small expense for a family from blue-collar Michigan. (It's amazing how racing maintains an image as a blue-collar sport, considering how corporate and expensive it is, even at this level!) Director Marshall Curry does a very good job of putting his subjects at ease on this and every other topic that comes up, which is especially impressive in the case of what goes on with Brandon's family, where grandfather Phil's worries about Brandon's father Bruce are illustrated in a way that isn't violent, but might make the audience wonder if the fact that he's on-camera means nothing to him. After all, even Brandon seems to be on his best behavior when the camera's rolling, for all the talk about suspensions from school, liking to fight, and perhaps being sent to military school. It's a credit to Curry that we still feel like we're getting a complete picture. He also does nifty things with Annabeth's solo story, letting us think about whether she's being stage-mothered without hitting us over the head with it.

All of this provides more than enough fodder for those with little interest in actual racing, but Curry captures that well, too. An early scene with Annabeth addressing the camera over a simple graphic elegantly describes the opposing forces that the driver has to balance, and then the action begins. Curry and his crew do an excellent job of capturing the action of all ten races (five for each of the two age levels), drawing the audience in even though who will be the points leaders at the end of the circuit is not very much in doubt after the second race or so. There's an attempt to inject some drama into the final race, but Curry and his co-editors maybe oversell it with some very heavy foreshadowing. The actual action of kids driving open-topped go-karts that can hit seventy miles per hour is more than enough.

As frightening as that sounds, we're reminded toward the end that karting is only the first step on the road to NASCAR stardom - the next is to start racing full-size cars... At the age of twelve.

Also at HBS.

In/Significant Others

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

In/Significant Others is the very definition of an average movie. No moment raises a flag - well, okay, some do, but they may be among the film's most interesting, at least in hindsight. No actors perform poorly. No scene seems to go on too long. And nothing ever catches fire to excite us.

And, really, something should. Writer/director John Schwert starts tossing his various intersecting plot-lines at us early: We've got Greg Rizzo (Mark Scarboro) trying his hand at stand-up comedy, trying to equal the success of his brother Jack (Brian Lafontaine). Greg left a steady job to do that, which is not making things easier for his wife Leslie (Ashlee Payne) and sick baby. We've barely had a chance to meet Iraq war vet Bruce Snow (Burgess Jenkins) before he's shot and killed a man, who had supposedly attacked his wife Salem (Tiffany Montgomery). It turns out, though, that it was Christina Ludum (Andrea Powell) - the woman Salem had been seeing while Bruce was away - who had a problem with him. Of course, Salem and Christina meet in the café where Jack's fiancée's sister (who, naturally, has addiction problems) works.

Just in case the film didn't seem to be covering all of its indie-drama bases, we spend some time seeing the characters interviewed documentary-style, which is at least sort of interesting because the person doing the interviews is terrible at his job. At first this seems like a strike against the film, until we get through a couple and realize that the interviewer (Brett Gentile) and his sound guy (Scott Miles) are going to be actual characters in the film. It's not pulled off perfectly - they aren't given the same depth as the other characters, but still get involved in the plot. Still, there were a couple of moments where I figured that these guys were the film's most original creations, and that there's an entertaining movie to be made about a guy who wants to be a documentary filmmaker but simply cannot form any sort of rapport with his subject.

The filmmakers form one of the main ties between the various stories, and it is honestly a very contrived way to bring the two stories together. Take the filmmakers away, and what's going on with the Snows and what's going on with the Rizzos connect only in the most tangential way. The themes of the two halves don't exactly complement each other, either: The story with Bruce, Salem, and Christina is a crime story built on guilt and manipulation, while Greg, Jack, Leslie, Susan, and Joanne are a story of family bonds and obligation. It feels more like two movies that happen to take place in Charlotte and have been edited together than a single film with multiple main characters.

If the film was split in two, each would have a pretty good cast. Brugess Jenkins is the standout; he presents Bruce to us without a great deal of outward torment, but also manages to keep us from seeing him as a sociopath or the villain of the film. Relative newcomer Tiffany Montgomery is similarly impressive as Salem; her frailty is evident despite the lack of hysterics. LaFontaine and Scarboro are very good as well, catching the vibe of brothers who know each other all too well perfectly. Lafontaine, especially, does a fine job of not shying away from the things that may make his character difficult to like.

Watch enough movies, and you'll see a lot that have quite a bit in common with In/Significant Others. Some are better, though many more aren't as good. Schwert and company manage to come up with some memorable characters and moments, which puts them ahead of the pack.

Also at HBS.

Monday, September 28, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 21 September 2009 to 27 September 2009

Before reviewing last week's tickets, a couple notes on series going on and screenings coming up here in the Boston area:

* The Brattle will be hosting a preview screening of Whip It tonight (28 September 2009) at 7pm; doors open at 6pm; it's open to the general public but Brattle members get to go in first. Up until Saturday, I was planning to go; then my brother IMed me to say he had an extra ticket for tonight's game atop the wall. So, hey, I'll catch up with Whip It in regular theaters sometime.

* The Brattle and The Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film kicked off the semi-annual Sunday Eye Opener series yesterday; though anyone who wasn't there has missed the first, it's still a pretty good deal to see films early or without distribution: $50 for the general public, $30 for members of either organization, $20 for members of both. Individual screenings will run $10.

* 826 Boston is hosting a fund-raising screening of Where the Wild Things Are on Monday, 5 October. It's bit pricey - $30 general admission, $100 VIP - but screenwriter David Eggers will be there for a Q&A. The VIP tickets not only get you seats in the section that is usually roped off, but also admission into a pre-screening cocktail party with Eggers at the Ritz-Carlton. Proceeds help 826's mission to help kids write.

This Week In Tickets!

Not a lot going on during the week, and didn't really want to go out on a rainy Sunday. Surrogates was the thing I was most excited about this weekend, as I had greatly enjoyed the comics and was especially tickled to find that they were shooting in Boston last year. I don't know how many folks in the audience were aware of it, but everybody seemed to get a kick out of seeing scenes take place just a block or two away from the theater.

A little CGI or set dressing to fill in an empty storefront in Downtown Crossing might have been appreciated, though. It looks like that Barnes & Noble that closed down a couple years ago will never find a new tenant, and will be across from a big hole in the ground for a couple years.

(Another bummer: I had to turn around and tell people to shut up, and should have done so much earlier. The theater is not your living room, people, and I didn't pay for my ticket so I could listen to you!)

The Informant!

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2009 at AMC Boston Common #11 (First-run)

The Informant! feels a little bit like a movie that's a victim of being based on a true story. The first half or so is the bouncy, very funny movie that the previews have been selling, and it's a treat. Soderbergh and company do a really quite exceptional job of making something that could be very dry - an investigation into price-fixing of corn by-products - and build a very amusing comedy out of it, with fine performances by Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, and Scott Bakula.

The trouble is, Damon's character was more complicated than that, and while we'd seen some of his odd way of thinking with the tangents his mind goes off on while other stuff is happening on screen, we suddenly get a lot more of it. We get scenes suggesting that the pathological lying has a physiological route, but no follow-up, and a jump forward that includes some weirdly expository dialogue (although that may also just be the way this guy talks). It feels like an odd break.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2009 at AMC Boston Common #18 (First-run)

Surrogates should have been a better movie - it's got an interesting sci-fi premise, the right star in Bruce Willis, and a good director in Jonathan Mostow. The action is pretty good, and it's even clever at times - I love a scene where the cops are questioning a group of corporate flacks, and there's maybe a little extra stiffness to how Radha Mitchell walks. Even in a future where everyone can present themselves as Hollywood-beautiful, you can see the differences between the haves and have-nots.

That's why the moments when Surrogates isn't inventive are so frustrating. that scene ends on a crude line from Willis's Tom Greer that deflates it a little, and the movie ultimately falls back on saying that this new technology is bad/wrong/etc. in a very black and white way. The final minutes, especially, leave no time to explore the shades of gray and interesting questions about the trade-offs that made the rest more interesting than the average action movie.

To be fair, that may come from the original comics - I'll have to pull my copy out and give it a look - but it's still disappointing, either way.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

The description of this movie in the Brattle's calendar contains an unusually candid phrase, that Suspiria is "almost solely responsible for Argento's canonization into the pantheon of legendary horror directors". I don't know that it's even actually a good movie itself, but it is at least a memorable one: The lush colors of the gorgeous settings pop off the screen, especially on the Technicolor print that the Brattle ran. The soundtrack is bold electronica by The Gremlins, and the story is crazy events piled one on top of the other.

It is beautiful, though. Utter nonsense, but striking enough that it doesn't really matter.
The Informant!SurrogatesSuspiria

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Boston Film Festival Day One: Motherhood

Even before new management took over the Boston Film Festival, it always had a hard time getting great guests, and used a familiar scheme to attract one per festival: The award. One studio film which would be getting a major release would be given a notable timeslot - often the Monday at 7pm - there would be no second screening in that theater afterward, and a big star would be given an award, make a little speech, and conduct a Q&A after the movie. I think you paid a bit more for that screening - $15 as opposed to $10 - and you were well advised to buy in advance, both because there were a lot of VIP seats and because folks really dug the idea of seeing a movie with Steve Martin or Kevin Kline.

Now, they still give the award, and there's a Q&A for the featured movie, but if you want to see the award presentation and speech, it's $150. In my less charitable moments, I tend to think that the $150/person party is the festival's entire reason for being now: It gives people a chance to hang out with a movie star, and just enough movies are booked around it to make the thing look legitimate. I doubt that's actually the case, but it's one of those theories that fits the facts too well to dismiss.

Anyway, this year's guest was Uma Thurman, with Motherhood's writer/director, Katherine Kieckmann, also in attendance. They certainly seemed nice enough, and although it wasn't one of the all-time great Q&As - for me, it's hard to beat the raw enthusiasm you see at Fantasia, where the audience is better-prepared than most junket tables and the filmmakers seem like they'd generally be happy to talk genre films all night long - give credit to the audience for paying Ms. Dieckmann as much attention as Ms. Thurman. Host Sara Edwards (a TV critic, I think working for Comcast these days) seemed to be favoring Thurman at the start, but shifted her focus pretty quickly. Yay us!

Something I just thought of: The dates on the calendars in this movie are pointedly May, same as Mother's Day. It is, of course, being released in October.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

Mothers and fathers have a demanding job, and anybody who denies this is a fool. I don't think many would deny that, even in today's modern world, motherhood is more demanding than fatherhood, and probably always will be. That's why I think that Katherine Dieckmann's film named "Motherhood" is a bit of a disappointment: It tells you that motherhood is a big deal, but mainly shows it to us as a sequence of annoyances.

Eliza Welsh (Uma Thurman) is a stay-at-home mom with two kids - Lucas (David & Matthew Schallipp), who is 2, and Clara (Daisy Tahan), who turns six tomorrow. Her husband (Anthony Edwards) is a somewhat scatterbrained fellow who fills their apartment and car with books, and her best friend Sheila (Minnie Driver) has had her husband leave her despite her pregnancy. Today promises to be a hectic day, as Eliza has a birthday party to throw for Clara, the film crew that has taken over her block has towed her car, and she's just found out about a writing contest for a parenting magazine whose deadline just happens to be that night.

I don't think Motherhood means to be a whiny movie - in fact, I think it's often aware of just how annoying it could be in that regard - but sometimes it seems like it just can't help itself. In one scene, for instance, Eliza has to mention unbidden that she's got two apartments in her building. That's just the most obvious example, but this is at times the sort of movie where people who are incredibly fortunate recognize their good fortune but spend a lot of time complaining anyway. We repeatedly watch Eliza flipping out over things that, individually, don't merit such a strong reaction.

The other side to this is that those little things can be pretty funny. Dieckmann has collected plenty of funny anecdotes from her own experiences, and there is something satisfying about watching Eliza act out when confronted with things that the rest of us grin and bear. The crazy Manhattan parents she encounters in the park may seem exaggerated, but they certainly work as jokes. She also gives nice, specific touches to many of her characters - how Eliza looks out for her elderly neighbor, how she labels the pictures she takes of her kids, or how Clara wants everything to be purple. There's an especially fun scene early on where Clara is just utterly immune to her neighbor's snobbishness.

Heck, little Daisy Tahan may be giving the movie's best performance during that scene; aside from being adorable, it completely establishes what kind of kid Clara is. Many of the other members of the cast don't get a chance to create a character that specific; Anthony Edwards and Minnie Driver are well-done variations on the absent-minded dad and best friend, for instance, doing well by that, but never quite add enough to them that they could seem to exist as something other than adjuncts to Eliza. Alice Drummond and Arjun Gupta fare a little better as characters with just one or two scenes where they get to explain themselves. Uma Thurman is good most of the time, especially when Eliza is just going about her business; when the script requires her to get a little farther-out, she has a little trouble bringing it back down to Earth.

That's in large part because Dieckmann is trying to cram everything into one hectic day, and that doesn't always work. A large part of the movie is Eliza claiming that it's the cumulative effect that wears on her, and we wind up having to take her word for that since we don't see her outside this particular day. The writing-contest deadline is artificial, meant to give the movie a ticking clock but not ever shown as urgent. Some of what Eliza does is just absurdly overdramatic, and the end feels too much like a windfall cop-out.

The funny and charming moments outnumber the cringe-worthy ones, though. The movie sometimes seems to have a difficult time deciding on whether it wants to focus on "motherhood" or Eliza's specific issues, but generally does well by both.

Also at EFC.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 14 September 2009 to 20 September 2009

Before getting to the customary page from my calendar, let's look at a page from the program of the Boston Film Festival:

BFF Program

Now, keep in mind, they only have one screen at Kendall Square this week. Obviously, that page is a pretty spectacular misprint. That is, sadly, what I've come to expect from the BFF lately. Unfortunately, I don't have a phone with a camera, and didn't have my battered-but-still-functional six-plus-year-old 2MP brick with me this weekend, or I would have been able to take a picture of the thing that really annoyed me beyond all reason - the signs on the festival's table that said the other two films supposedly playing Tuesday night had had their times "changed".

Look, folks make mistakes. I'm occasionally embarrassed to come back to reviews a few weeks later, find some missing word that would have been caught if I'd been using a real word processor rather than a text editor or just been paying closer attention. Just be honest and admit you've made a mistake. Stick a photocopied erratum into the program, calling it an error. Don't put up signs that imply that the times in the program were at one point accurate, because that doesn't make you look more competent, it makes you look both incompetent and insincere.

That's a pretty small error to complain about, I admit. But it just seems so typical of the BFF experience, especially compared to just about every other film festival I've visited. The old BFF, even though the people running it were more or less invisible, was at least professional. Here, though, every single film I saw was greeted with the exact same amount of mild enthusiasm.

And that's why, when you look at this:

This Week In Tickets!

... you only see three tickets from the festival, rather than a patchwork where I try to figure out how to cram all eight I'd originally planned to see over the weekend in. As much as I liked Racing Dreams, I just couldn't bring myself to stay after In/Significant Others. It was a thoroughly bland movie that thought it was clever, and looking over the rest of the schedule, the rest seemed to be more of the same: Nothing that promised excitement or invention, but which would prompt an identical "wasn't that awesome?" from our hosts afterward.

Congratulations, guys. You've killed my enthusiasm for the first festival I went to and enjoyed. Thank goodness for the Archive, eh?

Waterloo Bridge

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

One of James Whale's first movies, and it's not bad as pre-Code melodramas go. It's kind of charming, in that they just don't make movies that are this earnest any more. It's got Mae Clarke as a fallen dancer who is reduced to streetwalking to support herself, and not doing that well, but who still has the requisite Heart Of Gold, especially when she meets a kindly fellow American in London, and he is so Good that she is inspired to become the better person that she always has been.

To be honest, I don't know if you could make a movie like this any more. It's just as simple as it sounds, but that works for it, most of the time. There's familiar supporting characters with broad accents. And there's an ending which just strikes me as empty irony. Maybe it was devastating once upon a time, but now it's just the sort of anti-cliché that is no longer surprising.

Impatient Maiden

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

A year later, Whale re-teamed with Mae Clarke for a third film - she was also Elizabeth in Frankenstein - and I liked it a bit better than Waterloo Bridge. It's a bit more comedic, recognizing that its set-up is kind of contrived, and the broadly-sketched supporting characters (Whale never met a thick accent he didn't like, it seems) are a bit funnier. It's more than a little overwrought - I think Lew Ayres's character decides he is basically done with Clarke's after she says she's not thinking marriage after one date.

This one is hypocritically moralizing in its own way - failure for a girl of nineteen to settle down with the first nice man that comes along leads to being ostracized, a burst appendix, and potentially death, while the man who didn't trust her has no loss of standing. The characters are charming and there are a number of funny bits, and Clarke is able to rise above the way her character is seen by outsiders.
Waterloo Bridge & Impatient MaidenHappy FlightMotherhoodIn/Significant OthersRacing Dreams

Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy Flight

This was one of the more odd screenings I've been to. I received word about it in the Independent Film Festival of Boston newsletter, which certainly made it look like the start of a series of Boston screenings of Japanese films by New York-Tokyo; a quick look at this blog should indicate that's something I'd be all over. I did find it kind of odd that there didn't seem to be any mention of other screenings in the series, and it didn't even appear on the Coolidge's schedule.

As it turns out, the whole thing seemed to be a pitch for All Nippon Airways (ANA), and it was pretty nifty as those pitches go: When I walked into the Coolidge, they had the visiting pilot and cabin attendants lined up to guide the audience to the screen, much like when boarding an airplane. We were handed a copy of ANA's in-flight magazine as we entered, and presented with videos extolling trips to Japan before the introduction. That intro was a reasonably polite bit of salesmanship followed by a video describing the amenities of their various price levels - those first class seats are like private relaxation pods, apparently. We got a good chuckle out of the folks from ANA talking about how it was nice to be in Boston - Matsuzaka's "hometown", and isn't it great to see him back?

Afterward, we were given sturdy-looking bags containing schedules for ANA's flights between New York and Tokyo. It worth mentioning that the hosts claimed that ANA being featured in the movie was not a product-placement deal, but that the filmmakers came to them. That may be the case, although corporate sponsorship of features is often much more prominent in Asia than it is in America (the flier has the film "supported by" ANA). Even if they didn't pay for their prominence, they certainly show plenty of willingness to use the film like an ad.

On the plus side, they showed us a fairly entertaining movie, on film, for free. I'm hoping, since they got my email address to send me a confirmation, that they'll be using it to send word of regular screenings, but I suspect that won't be the case; although there does seem to be a regular series in New York, the Boston and Pittsburgh screenings of Happy Flight seemed to be one-offs. Here's hoping otherwise.

Happy Flight

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2009 at Coolidge Corder Theatre #1 (Nippon Eiga)

Commercial air travel has become common enough that even those of us who do not fly very often take it for granted. We should and we shouldn't: Life in the 21st century demands relying on complex systems that it is the job of other people to fully understand, just as they don't understand what others do for them. Still, it doesn't hurt to remember that when you get on a plane, there is a whole host of mechanical, logistical, and professional complexity at work to get you there, and every human cog in that machine has its own story and challenges. Happy Flight is not a documentary, but it is nonetheless a chronicle of a day in the life of such a system.

The film chronicles ANA flight #1800 from Tokyo to Honolulu from the perspective of the crew, both on the plane and in the airport. In the cockpit, co-pilot Kazuhiro Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) is being evaluated by imposing captain Noriyoshi Harada (Saburo Tokito) to determine whether Suzuki will be promoted to captain himself. In the cabin, Etsuko Saito (Haruka Ayase) is working her first international flight, and chief purser Reiko Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima) has a reputation for being not just strict, but mean, with inexperienced crew members. At the gate, customer service representative Natsumi Kimura (Tomoko Tabata) is ready to quit, but is charged with training new hire Yoshida (Kami Hiraiwa) before she goes. Shoji Takahashi (Ittoku Kishibe) runs the control room. Mechanic Nakamura (Ryu Morioka) provides a last-minute tune-up before the 747 takes off, although he usually works out of the hangar.

There are plenty of other characters running around, too: Air traffic controllers, Natsumi's boss, other air hostesses, mechanics, civilian airplane enthusiasts, the guy who clears birds away from the runways, and several passengers. The passengers, tellingly, are almost all nameless. This is a workplace comedy, but one with unusual attention to detail; writer/director Shinobu Yaguchi spent a great deal of time researching his subject and had extensive co-operation with the airline. Interestingly, this close collaboration does not result in a whitewashed feel; while it allows Yaguchi to include plentiful technical and procedural detail, he also picks up on frictions between departments, and also shows the employees as fallible, with seemingly minor mistakes potentially causing big problems.

Of course, it's not like those characters are really screw-ups. They're mostly pleasant folks, with the less-experienced characters tending toward nervousness. Tanabe, Ayase, and Hiraiwa are all funny in how they stumble, finding their own ways to do it: Tanabe's Suzuki through self-consciousness, Hiraiwa creating the image of someone who needs prompting, and Ayase showing Etsuko as having the sort of bad day that leads to slapstick. They all find a good way to sell jokes based on screwing up without giving the impression that these are foolish or incapable people.

The mentor characters are, in their own way, just as interesting creations. Saburo Tokito's Captain Harada is tall and confident, but there's something very amusing about how his attempts to make jokes just don't mesh with his projecting of authority (unusual in that the authority doesn't suffer, though the jokes come off as peculiar). Shinobu Terajima has authority, too, but after we hear about her scary reputation, her crisp efficiency is a pleasant surprise. Tomoko Tabata makes Natsumi kind of grumpy, but also less intimidating to her charge. And Ittoku Kishibe racks up yet another nifty supporting role as the eccentric man in charge of watching the weather and handling the runways.

This is not just a story of a cheerful flight with some zany characters; complications will force things to take a turn toward the melodramatic. It's impressive how well that works out; while many comedies will awkwardly stop and get serious, Yaguchi manages to smoothly tone the broader comedy down, and as the situation unveils itself, the audience can clearly see how both the problem and the solution have their roots in the amusing little bits that had been sprinkled throughout the movie. It's a remarkably skilled bit of work, implicitly tying everything together without the need for the montage of flashbacks that many other films would use.

Some may complain that the film is lightweight, and they wouldn't exactly be wrong. The characters are fairly simple and don't have tremendously complicated stories. That's a part of the movie's charm, rather than a negative: It doesn't need backstories or conflict to make its subject interesting. Happy Flight is an eventful day in the life of its subjects, to be sure, but it points out how you can make an entertaining film from an interesting topic without a bunch of soap opera.

Also at EFC.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #06: You Might As Well Live, Battle League, Crawler, Rough Cut, Embodiment, Breathless

This will, thankfully, be the last batch of reviews I try to do from weeks-old memory. The rest of my Fantasia reviewage will be stuff I have screeners for, either to refresh my memory or to watch for the first time. I generally don't reach back this far, but I do feel a bit of an obligation to review all the movies I see for free on a festival pass (it's the unspoken deal between festivals and critics - you give us free movies, we give you word of mouth, good or bad).

It is, obviously, kind of tough - I generally only take notes during foreign-language films, as they're less likely to have character names listed on IMDB, so I'm working from memory. That's not particularly trustworthy, as evinced by all the people who ask me how I can keep them straight when I nonchalantly say I saw roughly 20-30 films a week on a festival binge. My response is usually that the festival programmers and my personal tendencies don't generate schedules where things run together. So on the 24th, I saw a low-budget Canadian gross-out comedy, a Japanese sci-fi romantic comedy, a Japanese fantasy, a Korean relationship drama, and a Quebeçois creature feature. Those things don't really run together, and it's a tribute to the Fantasia programmers that most of what they ran, even when it wasn't particularly good, was memorable.

That aside, there is some benefit to having a little delay; when I write about these movies six weeks later, then the stuff I can talk about because it's stuck with me is probably the stuff that's worth talking about. The trick, I guess, is to punt when you really don't have anything to say, and don't completely override your first impressions. Those initial reactions are important; the person who is reading what you write is more likely than not going to see the movie to get first impressions, after all.

You Might as Well Live

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival - Flirting with Chaos)

You Might as Well Live is a solid moron movie - the type where the lead character's quite astounding stupidity is just balanced with his innocence in such a way that we can laugh at him while still rooting for him somewhat. It's a precarious balance, because this film's Robert Mutt has a really stunning amount of stupidity that needs countering (to the point where the innocence starts resembling even more stupidity), but the movie careens from one hugely crude joke to another just well enough that it only fitfully becomes tiresome.

Mutt (Joshua Peace) is making another unsuccessful suicide attempt as the film opens, and this time it gets him committed to the loony bin. It winds up being the first place that he ever fits in, but a new doctor (Julian Richings) uses this to prove that he's capable of surviving on the outside. Of course, when he does get home, he finds that his neighbor Fred Seinke (Stephen McHattie) has the whole neighborhood thinking he's a pedophile. His friend Hershey (Dov Tiefenbach) and Hershey's girlfriend Cookie (Kristen Hager) take him in, and just when it looks like Mutt has every reason to give up hope, he has an alcohol-related vision of Clinton Manitoba (Michael Madsen), the one-time star player of the local independent-league baseball team, who tells him that all he needs to be someone is a girl, some money, and a championship ring. So now he has a goal!

So, if you're making a little independent Canadian comedy, how do you stand out from the big budget competition pumped out by Hollywood? You could go for smart, black comedy filled with biting satire... Or, alternately, you could amp the crudity up a couple notches. You Might as Well Live , as you may have guessed, goes the second route, with suicide attempts played as goofy slapstick, an unobstructed view of Mutt being chased through town naked, and, because it seems like even PG-rated movies are showing folks vomiting nowadays, we get to watch Peace drop trou and take a crap (truly, I don't want to think of what the next frontier is for gross-out comedy).

Full review at EFC.

Kamogawa Horumo: Battle League in Kyoto

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

You know, if someone had told me right after Kill Bill that the girl who played Gogo Yubari would find her niche in comedy, I don't know that I would have believed him. It's true, though - Chiaki Kuriyama is the best part of the underwhelming GS Wonderland, handled the funny bits of Hair Extensions fantastically, and now we see her co-starring in Kamogawa Horumo: Battle League in Kyoto, a charmingly silly little movie.

She's one of the freshmen who joins her university's Horumo team, the "Azure Dragon" club. Among the others are our narrator, Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada), who has been assured by outgoing club president Makoto Sugawara (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) that it's just a perfectly normal club. He's drawn in by another prospective member, the beautiful Kyoko Sawara (Sei Ashina). Other new recruits are Koichi Takamura (Gaku Hamada), who grew up in L.A. and is kind of clueless about his ancestral land, and Mitsuru Ashiya (Takuya Ishida), who has never failed at anything. What they soon find out is that Azure Dragon is not just a club that gets together for dinner; it turns out that Kyoto is overrun with little oni demons, invisible to most people, who battle to amuse the local spirits. In order to give the spirits a good show, the members of the four local colleges' Horumo clubs give the onis their marching orders.

And they do this by dancing.

Full review at EFC.

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Crawler is a dumb, poorly-acted horror movie, but by gum, it's a sincere dumb, poorly-acted horror movie. If it's engaging in self-parody, it's doing so with the straightest face imaginable. The cast and crew all seem to be completely earnest in their efforts to make the best damn "killer bulldozer that is actually some sort of otherworldly beast" movie that they can, and I applaud their effort, at least.

So, there's this equipment rental yard, from which a construction company is looking to rent an earth-moving machine. Sadly, the guy who was to pick it up arrives too late, and it's out on another job. But what about this one, he says, which says "do not rent under any circumstances?" Well, there's a reason for that, and while the two men are mutilated, the crawler shows up at the site on its own, where foreman Jimmy (Deke Richards), who is just returning to work after a fatal accident (fatal to someone else, in case that's not clear) and site manager Sandra (Heidi Hawkins) soon find that bad things happen to any crew member who gets near the metal yellow monster.

It may seem unsporting to make fun of the script to a killer-bulldozer movie, but is it my fault that director Sv Bell and his co-writer Robbie Ribspreader (who, admittedly, has the coolest filmmaker pseudonym this side of Olivier Megaton) put all those fish in that barrel? I think not. They are mighty big fish, too. It's not just that nobody in the film ever says or does anything particularly clever, or that the film is populated entirely by stock characters; it's that everything about the killer crawler seems made up on the spot. That it's got no backstory is maybe fine; a lack of explanation can make an implacable killing machine scarier. But the nature of the beast seems to change on the merest of whims; it can do (and is inclined to do) whatever is convenient to the story at this very moment. You can maybe get shocks that way, but you can't build suspense.

Full review at EFC.

Yeong-hwa-neun Yeong-hwa-da (Rough Cut)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I've got to be honest here... I kind of wanted a different ending on this. Part of what's so much fun about Korean movies is that they don't seem obligated to take even familiar genre films in the same directions that either Hollywood or western indies do, but would that have been so bad here? After all, this premise is, oddly enough, not nearly as played-out as one might think.

After all, given the long-time, two-way love affair between gangsters and the movies, you'd think they'd have intersected this way more often. On the one hand, you've got Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-hwan), a popular actor whose volatile temper and tendency not to pull punches during action scenes is threatening his current movie, as he's put his co-star in the hospital. On the other, you've got Lee Kang-pae (So Ji-sub), an underboss who loves the movies, even once having a bit part in a film; he's serving as the conduit between the rest of the gang and Chairman Baek (Song Yong-tae), in jail awaiting trial. One night, Kang-pae and his men are having a meeting at the same restaurant as Soo-ta and the filmmakers, and the two meet, not getting off on the right foot. The odd result, though, is Kang-pae being offered the open part in Soo-ta's movie, which he accepts - on the condition that the fight scenes are real.

I'm curious about how the screenplay for this film evolved as it passed through the hands of three or four different writers. From what I gather, it started with famed (or infamous, depending on one's taste) auteur Kim Ki-duk, and ended with an extensive rewrite by director Jang Hoon to make it his own, with Ok Jin-gon and Oh Sei-yeon somewhere in between. So maybe it was never a simple comedy, or maybe Kim was looking to produce something conventional to fund his more offbeat films. Whatever the process, the film bears some of the marks of having had many hands touch it - there are subplots which may seem extraneous and odd shifts in tone. Jang does an exceptional job of pulling all of this together, making what could be dead ends into interesting character builders and keeping the audience on its toes.

Full review at EFC.

Encarnação do Demônio (Embodiment of Evil)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - José Mojica Marins)

If you've been waiting decades, or even just years, for José Mojica Marins to complete his trilogy of films about homicidal undertaker Zé do Caixão (aka "Coffin Joe"), don't let my negative review stand in your way. There's a good chance that it's everything you could hope for from Marins's long-awaited return to his signature character. But if you're new to the series, or just not particularly enamored of it, I fear that the semi-legendary status of Embodiment of Evil's forebears will work against it.

The long-time absence of Zé do Caixão (Marins) from movie screens is explained by saying that he has been in prison, doing the usual thing charismatic sociopaths do there - driving guards mad, maiming other inmates. But he has been freed by Lucy Pontes (Cristina Aché), a lawyer who found procedural erorrs in his prosecution. This incenses her husband Claudiomiro Pontes (Jece Valadão), who put Zé away, and his equally corrupt brother Oswaldo (Adriano Stuart). And, honestly, not playing strictly by the book would have been okay here, as it's not long before Zé is up to his old tricks, gathering disciples, killing those he considers his enemies, and searching for the woman who is worthy of being the mother of his child. Maybe it's favela girl Elena (Nara Sakarê), or biologist Hilda (Cleo de Paris). The Pontes brothers soon find themselves allied with Father Eugenio (Milhem Cortaz), a man of the cloth dedicated to Zé's destruction.

Those coming to a horror movie looking for a string of murders and mutilations will not be disappointed; Marins is working without censorship for the first time in his long career, and holds very little back. The blood and guts are plentiful, and while not played quite so grim as torture porn, it is something that the camera lingers on past the initial shock. Some of the shots, if my understanding of co-writer Dennison Ramalho's translation during the Q&A is correct, may be more authentic than is typical of horror movies - in addition to shooting in actual favelas (slums), Marins seemed to imply that they hired some body-modification guys so that, for instance, when you see someone suspended from the ceiling by hooks, that's not make-up and props. Marins has other visual tricks up his sleeve, too, including some rather trippy hallucinations.

Full review at EFC.

Ddongpari (Breathless)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Breathless is about the parts of South Korea that you typically don't see in the cinema. For all that the nation has a fine and varied film industry, even the gangsters often appear to be at least middle-class; the folks for whom life as a struggle and the neighborhoods they live in are fairly invisible. And then there's Yang Ik-joon, an actor who had mostly been in the background of TV dramas; here, he does everything he can to not be an invisible man any more.

Yang writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars in Breathless, making it outside the Korean studio system and shooting it on the streets. He's struck gold there, making a movie that frequently makes its audience uncomfortable but is oddly hopeful, and uses a string of events that simply seem almost random at times to build a tight story. As a result, he's gone from unseen actor to festival jury member, picking up awards along the way.

He plays Kim Sang-hoon, a man whose motto in life seems to be "just give me a reason". Sang-hoon makes a living as partner and chief enforcer for loan shark Man-sik (Jeong Man-shik), and, brother, you do not want to be late on your payments to them, because although Sang-hoon and Man-sik are sensible enough to know that crippling borrowers makes them unlikely to ever pay you back, Sang-hoon certainly looks like he can get carried away. The only crack in his armor (aside from, maybe, the mild-mannered Man-sik) appears to be neighborhood kid Hyun-in (Kim Hee-soo) and his mother Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon), whom he looks after and gives most of his money too. Even doing something good like chasing bullies away from schoolgirl Han Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi) may be followed by his smacking her for letting them bother her. Still, Yeon-hee latches on to him, as on the balance he's certainly done more for her than her alcoholic father and thuggish brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan) ever have.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, September 14, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 7 September 2009 to 13 September 2009

See, this is more like what I was hoping to see in terms of how I figured the tickets being laid out would look:

This Week In Tickets!

Despite the relatively low grades you'll see for some of these movies below, I am genuinely enjoying the James Whale series at the Harvard Film Archive. Whatever other flaws he had as a filmmaker, he did give us the first two brilliant Universal Frankenstein movies, and even the movies that don't work generally have something interesting in them.

I'm not sure how much of the rest of the series I'll see - The Boston Film Festival starts this coming Friday, and could knock out both Show Boat and the melodrama double feature on the 21st. Of course, it might just not, because the BFF frustrates me. I really hate to act like an entitled film critic, but name me one website that has covered the BFF more than eFilmCritic has over the past couple years. Would it have killed them to acknowledge the email I sent this year - relatively late in the game, I admit - and send me some information, let alone have my name on file from previous years?

It's frustrating. Anyway, I'm almost done with the movies I saw at Fantasia, and can get to their screeners and the ones I just got from Fantastic Fest soon. You know, guys who want coverage. In the meantime, some quick reviews of how I spent the past week.

Flammen & Citronen (Flame & Citron)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (First-run)

Flame & Citron tells the story of two members of the Danish Resistance during World War II - "Flame" (Thure Lindhardt), who takes assignments to assassinate collaborators, and "Citron" (Mads Mikkelsen), his driver. There are women in their lives - an attractive, older courier for Flame; a wife and daughter that Citron fears bringing too near his violent world. The opening act is a nice example of this sort of war story, gritty and procedural, but it's not until the middle that the good stuff starts.

That good stuff is playing with the idea that as soldiers, Flame & Citron really have no idea of the chain of command much more than one level above them, and can find themselves used for someone else's personal gain, or maybe they're doing some of the Nazis' dirty work for them. When the movie is playing up this delicious uncertainty, it's never less than engrossing, and I found myself not really wanting to know who was loyal and who was a traitor. The feeling of the moment was too good to replace with anything else.

It turned out that the discovery wasn't nearly as exciting as the wondering, and the big action scenes that follow are kind of a let-down. They're grandiose where so much of the rest of the film was tightly controlled. But at least the suspense was good while it lasted.

The Old Dark House

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

The Old Dark House was director James Whale's first horror film after Frankenstein, where he was apparently given somewhat free reign. If that's the case, it's evidence that Whale was more than a little nutty. A flooded-out road forces two groups of city-dwellers to take shelter in the dilapidated home of the peculiar Femm family - a group that would be off-putting enough even without a scarred, silent Boris Karloff as their butler.

I doubt that this is the first horror-comedy, but it is likely one of the first to fall into the trap of not exactly being a spoof, but just never actually working on scaring the audience. It winds up being an expression of Whale's own personal quirkiness, but neither funny nor suspenseful enough to be much more than kind of interesting.

Remember Last Night?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

If I find the time between the end of the Fantasia stuff and the start of the BFF, I will probably add this bizarre fusion of The Thin Man and The Hangover to the HBS database and give it a full review, because the thing is so darn odd that it deserves wider notice, even if it is (sadly) not available on video.

Basically, it starts from the premise that three couples and a friend go on an incredible bender, to the point where not all wake up the next morning. One calls a policeman friend to help investigate, and they start tracking down the murderer. Naturally, bodies start piling up, but because this is the 1930s, this can happen without doing much to the generally cheerful vibe that the film gives off. It frequently makes no sense - while I can understand Det. Danny Harrison (Edward Arnold) being slow to suspect the guy he knows, having him participate with the investigation as much as he does seems a bit much.

Still, it works. While some of the other Whale films in the series didn't really do it for me, this one allows his love of quirky dark comedy free reign without undercutting the mood. Indeed, it seems more or less designed for his particular sense of humor. It's also a nice, but not ostentatious, showcase for how modern his style is compared to many of his contemporaries: He manages some nifty dolly/crane shots with a very mobile camera, and his editing is much more aggressive in some cases than the standard of the time.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2009 at Regal Fenway #7 (First-run, digital projection)

I've seen some reviews which really light into Whiteout, and not even from fans of the source material. In most cases, it doesn't even seem to be specific incompetence that triggers the anger, but that the movie is bland. They're not wrong about that; it's got a terribly nondescript cast, some pretty standard-issue flashbacks, and pedestrian direction that flops in several ways. I can't help but wonder what the first people attached to the project would have done with it. As much as I've had a crush on Kate Beckinsale since Cold Comfort Farm, I'm coming to accept that she's just never going to have a role that fits her quite so well as Flora Post again, and she just can't bring as much to a character as Reese Witherspoon can. And while Wolfgang Petersen probably wouldn't have made the Antarctic setting quite as mesmerizing as Werner Herzog did in Encounters at the End of the World, he would have done something interesting. Dominic Sena just isn't in the same league.

A few specific sequences come to mind, but the big one is the climactic chase through an evacuated South Pole base. It's kind of a tough sell to begin with - how much tension can you milk out of a chase where all participants diligently remember to unhook and re-hook their safety lines? - so it really needs Sena to be able to really push the danger of the environment as well as make sure the audience gets the geography. And while he gets the information across in an intellectual way, it's never there at a gut level.

That I was thinking this as the movie played is kind of damning; the analysis should come afterward. But I didn't really hold my detachment against the movie. I could see that there was an interesting story going on, I liked Tom Skerritt in his supporting role, and noting really felt poorly done. Just not nearly as good as it really should be.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2009 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

I've been looking forward to 9 ever since hearing that Shane Acker was going to expand his dialog-free short film about clockwork ragdolls in an apocalyptic future to feature length, though I admit I did get a little nervous when I started seeing talk about its voice cast. I almost wonder if having the dolls talk was the Acker made to get to do this at all - he seems to have the minimum voice-acting necessary, I think only John C. Reilly's 6 talks in a way that does more than give us needed exposition.

Acker also has a little trouble with filling the running time, even if the movie is a short 79 minutes (oddly, none of the theaters showing it here seem to be using that to fit an extra showing in). There's false endings, enough plot for the film to trip over itself, and pacing issues that just didn't show up in the crisp original. Maybe 9 in its ideal format would be 45-50 minutes, shown as part of a double bill with a featurette by another up-and-coming animator.

Still, there's no denying that the movie delivers in the "oh my god, just look at that" category. Acker's destroyed landscape is detailed without being fetishistic, the characters have a common design that allows for plenty of individuality, and the villains are mechanical monsters. There are moments that are genuinely creepy, like the first time The Machine sucks the soul out of a ragdoll's body, or when the other dolls place a coin on the eyes of the corpse and set it down the river.

It's beautiful, at the very least.

The Man in the Iron Mask

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

I have to admit, I liked the recent Leonardo DiCaprio version better. The thing that drove me absolutely nuts about the Whale version is that when it comes time for the swashbuckling, it is terrible. Sure, I've been spoiled by watching Hong Kong martial arts flicks, but this isn't close to Basil Rathbone demonstrating some fencing skills. It's just random swinging swords around.

It's also very deliberate for an adventure movie; as much as I liked some of the characters and performances, it's not very exciting at all. And this sort of movie just can't allow itself to be this dull.

The Invisible Man

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (James Whale: Of Monsters, Melodrama and the Production Code)

It's a good thing that the Harvard Film Archive gets very, very dark, because I might have fled when the movie was twenty minutes or so in. Why? Una O'Connor. She plays a character very similar to what she did in Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, an innkeeper who annoys people and then screams. Loudly. Shrilly. Unstoppably. Good lord, is she annoying.

The rest of the movie is, let's face it, not very good either. Now, it's going to hit two things that drive me crazy anyway: The "there are things man was not meant to know" idea, and invisible men, an idea which breaks down once you try to figure out how their eyes work. But worse than that, Claude Rains's character is just pointlessly crazy; it's not even an interesting or suggestive madness. It's not even a well-motivated villain.

Give it props for some impressive visual effects for 1933, though, and at least thinking out some of the side effects of invisibility, even if it couldn't afford to show them.
Flame and CitronPounding the OriolesThe Old Dark House & Remember Last Night?Whiteout9The Man in the Iron Mask & The Invisible Man

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Fantasia Catch-up #05: Samurai Princess, The Divine Weapon, Black, Yariman, Crazy Racer, and Cryptic

I see, that between the time I wrote the original review a month and a half ago and now, Samurai Princess has become available for pre-order in the U.S. That figures; it's likely the worst thing I saw at Fantasia this year, just pathetic pandering, but it gets distribution, whereas something like Cryptic, Crazy Racer, or even Yariman does not.

It's not even good pandering, for crying out loud! It's inept.

On the other hand, though it sometime takes a while, the good stuff does occasionally wind up making it over here. One of the movies I had the most fun at last year was X-Cross, and that's popping up in the U.S. this October. Now, that movie is a bunch of crazy, frantic fun with girls in trouble and grotesque villains and attempted dismemberment, but it sings. It creates the delightful feeling of wanting to know what's going to happen next, as opposed to when it's going to end.

Samurai purinsesu: Gedô-hime (Samurai Princess)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Why watch this crap? I ask not just because it's tacky exploitation that's bad for you, but because it's not even ably made bad exploitation. The acting is terrible, the director can't even frame a shot properly, and the action, for all the lovingly realized gore it leads to, is not exciting. Even if you've got very specific violent cinema fetishes, there's probably a movie or five out there that can serve them better.

Samurai Princess is one of those movies that functions mainly as a violence delivery system. There is a basic story, about a girl (Aino Kishi, whose character despite the title is neither a samurai nor a princess) hunting down the pair of cyborg lunatics who slaughtered her classmates to create "art", but she herself is being hunted by agents of some sort, as she herself has been made into a cyborg and that sort of body modification is illegal. Helping her is Gekko (Dai Mizuno), a guitar-toting ex-agent also looking to find the killers, ever since they murdered his sister, and willing to work with a cyborg to do it.

Yoshihiro Nishimura handles the the gore effects for Samurai Princess; from his recent ubiquity, he must be Japan's equivalent of KNB FX, providing services to movies as slick as L: Change the World and as slapdash as, well, Samurai Princess. Still, it should be no surprise that the blood, guts, and weaponized prostheses are some of the very best things that the movie has to offer. It's not his best work, but when director Kengo Kaji needs a gross-out, the scene is not likely to fall short for mechanical reasons. Those wanting to see the human body mutilated in a variety of creative and fantastical ways won't come away disappointed that there wasn't enough or that it was done inexpertly.

The problem, of course, is everything else.

Full review at EFC.

Shin ge jeon (The Divine Weapon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The Divine Weapon is an historical action/adventure that yearns to be an epic. To that end, it's got a lot of characters, runs north of two hours, and strives to tell the story of a pivotal moment in Korean history. The end result is bloated, of course, not quite so grand as the filmmakers would like it to be, but it's got some very impressive set-pieces and is amiable enough in between. By the end, it has certainly given the audience a big helping of what they want.

The year is 1430 and the situation on the Korean peninsula is tense. The Joseon dynasty is prosperous, but they are dominated by the Mings to the north, who are demanding increased tribute, including hundreds of eunuchs. Joseon's greatest weapons designer has created plans for a piece of artillery that could change the balance of power. The designer is killed but his daughter Hong-li (Han Eun-jeong) escapes. Chang-kang (Heo Jun-ho), a close adviser to King Sejong (Ahn Sung-kee) brings her to Sul-ju (Jeong Jae-yeong), a merchant who has plenty of issues with the court. The palace and the army are being watched closely, he explains, but perhaps Sul-ju's low profile and Hong-li's engineering genius will be enough to decipher her father's notes and construct the Singijeon while it can do some good.

The movie is crowded with other characters - villains, a monk who has ties to the court, a Japanese merchant lady, Hong-il's faithful servant, the various partners in Sul-ju's company, and then some. Most are sketched out well enough; even if they only seem to exist to fulfill a specific purpose in the movie, they're individual enough within this story. Even if they don't necessarily distinguish themselves from similar types in other movies, they make enough of an impression on the audience that it's a bit of a hit when one of them doesn't survive an action sequence.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I've seen Black at two different film festivals this year, and both times it was introduced as "blaxploitation" or in that tradition. I don't necessarily see it that way; certainly, there are moments that recall those 1970s films, and the cast is primarily dark-skinned, but it's a far more polished film than that moniker would imply. It's also crazier - out-there enough that I didn't review it at SXSW because I wasn't sure how much of what I recalled the morning after that midnight screening was actually part of the movie.

The film opens with an armored car robbery that ends badly enough that ringleader Black (MC Jean Gab'1) is considering not just laying low, but going straight. Well, briefly - that's before he gets a call from his cousin Lamine (Ibrahima Mbaye) in Dakar. There's a bunch of conflict diamonds in the poorly guarded bank where Lamine works as a guard - no problem for a Parisian crook like Black, right? Except that the bank's branch manager Kumassi (Michel B. Dupérial) has also told local arms dealer DeGrand (François Levantal) about it, and DeGrand needs money to appease soldier of fortune Viktor (Anton Yakovlev) - who, once he hears about it, figures he may as well cut out the middleman. And Kumassi's corruption is becoming a little too well-known, as Pamela N'Diyae (Carole Karemera) has been sent to the branch to keep an eye on things and tighten up security.

Oh, and have we mentioned that DeGrand's girlfriend is a witch-doctor, and before the heist at the start of the movie, Black was stopped by an African mystic saying that he was the lion and had to find the panther, whatever that means?

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival - Behind the Pink Curtain)

"A skin flick you can watch with your girlfriend!"

There was a story passed around this summer about how adult film actors were disappointed that the current trends in the industry was leading to their films being stripped down to their most base essentials, without even the pretense of plot to string the sex scenes together. Most of the time, the reaction has been mockery - what did they expect? The answer, likely, is something like Yariman - a movie that delivers the expected skin but also gives its cast a little room to act and elicit emotions other than arousal.

Arousal doesn't take a back seat, of course; the movie starts with Lemon Hazawa topless, as her character Miki is having a quickie with her boyfriend Ken (Yuichi Ishikawa) before work. Ken's eyes are starting to wander, though, and today they wander in an unexpected direction - that of an old girlfriend, Yoshiko (Yukari Sanada). This leads to more than just eye contact, of course, and a little post-coital weirdness. The chance to either get past that or put it behind them never comes, though, as Yoshiko is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Since Yoshiko had no family, Ken takes the responsibility of finding her family's grave-site and bringing her ashes there - with Miki along to help, no matter how awkward that is.

This is a "pink" film, so there will be other partners for both Ken and Miki, enough to fit five or six sex scenes into the film's sixty-five minutes. The cast is likable and attractive, with a variety of body types, and director Rei Sakamoto makes them getting it on reasonably arousing even when the movie's story is more filled with melancholy and regret than raw hedonism. The sex stays within the bounds of softcore - plenty of bare breasts, but relatively discrete camera angles; no engorged organs or on-screen penetration. It does the job well enough, although those looking for wall-to-wall titillation with nothing left to the imagination would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

Full review at EFC.

Feng Kuang de Sai Che (Crazy Racer)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - Hong Kong Cinema 100 Years)

If I were to look over the reviews I've been writing over the past few weeks, I'd probably find I've used the word "crazy" a lot, and generally meant it as a compliment, which I hope comes through. China's Ning Hao is clearly trying to curry favor with me, as Crazy Racer (also known as Silver Medalist) is his follow-up to a film called Crazy Stone. And he's not failing.

We start a few years ago. Cyclist Geng Hao (Huang Bo) has just won a big race, but he takes a swig from a product he's endorsing made by Fala Li (Jiu Kong). Positive drug test! Forfeiture! Banned! Now, years later, he's driving a refrigerated truck, and his trainer has just died of a heart attack. Geng Hao decides Fala Li should pay for the funeral, but it's a bad time for this. The race is about to be run again, only a Thai drug dealer (Worapoj Thuantanon) has taken the place of one of the cyclists so that he can smuggle cocaine into the city inside the bike. He's meant to meet up with a couple gangsters (Rong Xiang and Jack Kao). Meanwhile, Fala Li is trying to kill his wife (Dong Lifan), but he's hired a couple of petty crooks (Xu Zheng and Yung Cheung) who aren't good at the big stuff - and have stolen Geng Hao's truck.

These stories are barely connected from the outset, but it's not long before Ning is taking these threads and weaving a quilt out of them, having this connect to him, him run into them, them pass that without realizing it, and that make this nearly impossible. This sort of rapid mixing and matching of story lines has become a regular feature of Western films, but maybe not so popular in China, where even films with complex plots (far more rare than complex characters or ideas) often present them in large, discrete chunks. At least, that's what crosses the Pacific. Crazy Racer, on the other hand, is frantic.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

I like to tell people, when recommending sci-fi stories in any medium, that if you don't find your head hurting a little during a time-travel story, or at least see the potential for that headache, then it's probably not a great idea for a time-travel story. That's just the idea, of course. The real key is whether the storytellers can make the mental gymnastics worth it, like John Weiner and Danny Kuchuck do here.

Little Jessie Graver (Jadin Gould) doesn't know it yet, but she's about to have the worst birthday a kid can have. Sure, she's received a neat present - her first cell phone - but later that night, her mother Sara (Jodi Thelen) will fall into a coma when a live electrical cable falls into the pool. She's taken off life support, and eight years later, Jessie (now played by Julie Carlson) is a sullen teenager who wants nothing to do with her father (Toby Huss), spending her time hanging out with her friend Damon (Johnny Pacar) and his girlfriend Mia (Brooke Vallone). While going through some of her old things, she finds that old phone, never used, and on a whim calls her old home phone number. A little girl answers, and she and Jessie seem to have a lot in common.

Now, we can all see the general direction Kuchuck and Weiner are going with this. This basic plot outline has been used by a number of films, but few of them handle it quite so elegantly as this one does. The key to that is the fine performances by Gould and Carlson. They're close enough in age that their strikingly similar appearance is crucial for the audience's belief - movies which posit a longer gap can get away with actors with more superficial similarities, but this film doesn't have that luxury. Fortunately, they also do a nearly-flawless job of portraying the same character. They've both got the same curious streak, the same way of talking, and the same skeptical outlook toward the unusual events occurring in their lives.

(Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know how Weiner and Kuchuck handle the potential paradoxes of their story.)

Full review at EFC.

Monday, September 07, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 31 August 2009 to 6 September 2009

Is it just me, or...

This Week In Tickets!

... are movie start times moving earlier? There was going to be another ticket on Thursday (Captain Abu Raed), but it started at 6:50, and it's pretty tough for me to get to Kendall Square from Waltham in less than an hour and a half. So, the 5:30 bus means I miss the first few minutes of the movie. It seems like there are a lot more movies at Kendall Square starting before 7 - where the first evening shows used to cluster between 7 and 8, now it seems to be between 6:30 and 7:30.

Similarly, I didn't see more movies on the holiday weekend because I couldn't manage the early shows at the AMC theaters - everything I wanted to see seemed to start at 10:30am, and when you're trying to save money by seeing the $6 movies (and aren't really sure that there's much at the mainstream theaters you want to pay more than $6 for), that makes just sitting around the house seem like a decent alternative.

Hopefully, things start getting better soon. 9 starts this week, and I'm up for that.

Gake No Ue No Ponyo (Ponyo)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2009 at Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (First-run)

I haven't necessarily loved everything I've seen from animation grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki, but when he's on, as he is with Ponyo, then there's clearly a division between Miyazaki and everybody else. Ponyo turns out to be an example of everything that Miyazaki does well: It focuses on kids, a particular spot where Miyazaki excels (both in characterization and the way that they look); it has a strong environmental theme which doesn't seem preachy despite the fact that he is very direct about it; and it is filled with amazing imagery, both fantastical and coming from the natural world.

Take the opening sequence, which features jellyfish. Jellies are striking creatures, but their transparency makes them seem much more suitable for CGI than Miyazaki's classical cel-based animation. And yet, his simple designs for them are beautiful and immediately recognizable. His undersea vistas and fantastic creatures and machines are wonderful. And the way his environmental message is expressed is quite fascinating to me: He is clearly personifying it, and seeing something spiritual there, but he's also not equating nature and mysticism; there's bits of science in it, from how Ponyo's change from a fish to a human girl has this middle stage that looks, by turns, kind of froggy or like a fetus, both examples of moving from a liquid environment to the surface. When wild magic threatens to wipe humanity from the face of the earth, Miyazaki doesn't bring out fantasy creatures or claim that the world's natural state is just like it is, minus people, but brings out creatures from the Devonian and Cretaceous periods.

I must admit to also being impressed by the voice cast; as much as it might seem easy on the face of it to dub an animated film, it almost never seems right. The cast Disney/Pixar assembled for the English dub for the most part fits like a glove with the possible exception of Liam Neeson, who has one of the most recognizable voices and a ton of expository monologuing. Still, the vast majority seems to be a good approximation of what I imagine the original Japanese version sounds like.

Play the Game

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (First-run)

Play the Game is sort of an awkward, obvious movie. Watching it, you can catalog its faults pretty easily: The acting's not that great, the set-up is obvious at every level, Andy Griffith's character is written as ridiculously naive for a man of 80. The music choices are a little too on the nose (even if they do use one of my favorite tracks off Barenaked Ladies Are Me, "The Sound of Your Voice"). Writer/director Marc Fienberg really seems to be in over his head much of the time.

And yet, despite all that, it's tough not to like it. There is the occasional great line to be found - I loved Grandpa Joe saying that certain people at his retirement community "know a little too much about the Civil War". But most importantly, I think, is how the movie really can't bring itself to create a character of any consequence that the audience won't like. Paul Campbell's David really should start out a little more callow if the film is supposed to be about his personal growth, but there's something refreshing about a movie that is so upbeat that it sees the best in its characters.

Inglourious Basterds

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2009 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

If you like Tarantino, you'll probably like this; it's just full of Tarantino stuff. It's clearly made of other movies, it features a lot of long conversations that are more monologue than dialogue, a thoroughly self-aware foot fetish scene, nasty violence, and seemingly inappropriate humor. As I said last week, I wish I could love movies as much as he does; he can put them together better into something both derivative and original better than anybody.

It's a great cast... Christoph Waltz is fantastic as the Nazi colonel who serves as the primary adversary, and Melanie Laurent is similarly excellent. And Brad Pitt... The man can steal a scene with one word (especially if that word is "buongiorno!").

And I have to admit, the ending took me surprised. Spoilers ahead for why...

... Not so much that it ends with the entire Nazi brain trust being killed in a way that is in no way historically accurate. I mean, why not, if you're making a gung-ho WWII action movie? It's a work of fiction, we all know that, why not give it the ending we wish it could have?

Still, as soon as I heard Shoshana's plan, I figured he'd find another way out of it. I mean, really - it just doesn't seem like it would be in Tarantino's nature to incinerate all that nitrate film and blow up a movie theater. With all the scalpings, mutilations, murders, and other violence in the film, I wouldn't be surprised if that was the scene he found most horrifying to create.

PonyoPlay the GameInglourious Basterds

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 24 August 2009 to 30 August 2009


This Week In Tickets!

So, I've had the Sox tickets ever since January (or whenever the April/May/September tickets went on sale), and then, about a week before the game, I'm checking the website of Girls, Guns, and Glory and I see they've added a date in Allston for that day. My friend Justin plays bass for them (although they still haven't upgraded the stock photos), and the last couple times he's played in Boston, I've been elsewhere: New York for the NYAFF back in June, and Montreal for Fantasia in July. Fortunately, the show is scheduled for 9pm, and there are two other acts listed on the bill; I figure that if the game doesn't go extras, and the B line co-operates (stop laughing!), I can make it there in time for their set. Then something starts itching at the back of my mind, about the last weekend of August... Yep, Films at the Gate. Maybe what they're showing Saturday won't really interest me... Nope, Jackie Chan in Drunken Master. How do things cluster like that?

I works out, for me at least - I get to Harper's Ferry just as GG&G is about to go on, and the movie is canceled for rain. Which sucks, but I feel like I sort of lucky there. Self-centered of me, I know.

Explains why the weekend was relatively movie-less, though - rainy on Saturday, me up until 3am hanging with a friend after his show and thus sleeping late on Sunday.

Cold Souls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (First-run)

Most of the folks I saw the movie with seemed to really enjoy it, but I have to admit, it didn't do much for me. Writer/director Sophie Barthes has a clever urban fantasy idea - technology that allows people to remove and store their souls, or rent another person's - that places it in territory squarely between Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind. And yet, it lacks what made those movies exciting and clever. It drifts without a real story for its first half, and what it comes up with in the second is hurt by the other problem, that Barthes doesn't do a great job of communicating what it means to lose one's soul or gain another. It's a neat idea, but it's vague - it never reaches above "clever" to be surreal or horrifying like those two Charlie Kaufmann-penned films.

Shame, because the cast is nice. Giamatti is actually a little problematic - there's not really anything missing from him when his soul is removed; as much as I enjoy his patented freakouts, they seem out of place here (it strikes me that Dustin Hoffman could have killed in this role). Female lead Dina Korzun is much more interesting - she does seem somewhat empty, although the little bits of other souls that are accreting in her brain are countering that. David Strathairn steals just about every scene he's in as the guy running the soul-extraction business. It's just too bad they didn't have a better movie to be impressive in.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (First-run)

This is a fun little primer on Australian exploitation film from about 1969 forward; there wasn't much of a film industry down under before that. Director Mark Hartley, a pro at making behind-the-scenes documentaries, zips through a bunch of fun-looking "Ozploitation" movies, with tons of clips and plenty of talking-head interviews relaying crazy anecdotes from actors and filmmakers. The obligatory appearances by Quentin Tarantino are, of course, highly entertaining. As much as I love movies, I kind of wish I loved them like he does.

In some ways, it's almost too much; Hartley flies through dozens of movies in just over an hour and a half. There was a rumor early in the year that the Brattle or HFA was planning an Ozploitation series, and I certainly hope we get to see some of these flicks on the big screen soon.

Jing Wu Ying Xiong (Fist of Legend)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (First-run)

Jet Li punches and kicks people with fight choreography by Yeun Woo-ping. Not a whole lot more needs to be said. It delivers plenty of martial arts action, a message of tolerance that often doesn't go with films set in this time period, and a dose of crime and intrigue that is actually intriguing.

I don't know if it's as high up on my list of great martial arts films as it is for some; I suspect it's fairly popular because of the fine job it does in building the legend of Jet Li: In his early fights, he's obviously holding back, either toying with opponents or holding back so he doesn't hurt someone he has no real beef with; then there's the impressive display of technique with Yasuaki Kurata; and then, finally, the crazy, mammoth fight with Billy Chow. After all, nothing makes you look quite that amazing like making things entertaining while you wait for a real challenge to come along.
Cold SoulsNot Quite HollywoodFist of LegendClay BuchholzI Sell the Dead