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

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