Monday, October 26, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 19 October 2009 to 25 October 2009

Not a big week here, although I don't particularly feel like I'm missing a lot. Of course, some of it just doesn't show up here:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Wednesday's screening of nine sci-fi shorts that are candidates to appear in February's expanded Boston Science Fiction Film Festival; a Fantastic Fest screener for A Town Called Panic on Friday; showing off my home theater for Mom & Bill with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls on Saturday; and the Brattle's Sunday Eye-Opener of The Good Soldier.

I vacillate between very excited and very worried about the 7-9 days of festival screenings that are being attached to the venerable sci-fi marathon. On the one hand, I want it to succeed badly, and I think it might be in a better position to do so than the Brattle's late and lamented (by me, at least) Boston Fantastic Film Festival. It's attached to an event with an existing following, and should cross-promote easily with Arisia and Boskone. On the other hand... Well, the premieres at SF/x have been terrible for the ten or so years I've been going. Even if they're only programming one a night, how far down the well of direct to video crud are they going to have to go? Especially if they're going to be reliant on submissions, because the guys doing awesome stuff in Japan aren't looking for small festivals.

I'm not sure how much it's appropriate for me to say about the nine films I saw; so I'll just talk up the good stuff. The highlights were "Lifeline", an animated short that struck me as the offspring between 2001 and Bill Plympton, and "Under God", a somewhat heavy-handed but extremely well-produced tale of President Eisenhower seeing UNIVAC for the first time.

Astro Boy

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2009 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

Astro Boy isn't a bad idea, either from a storytelling or pragmatic sense. Mighty Atom (as the character is known in Japan) is much beloved by audiences on multiple continents, but doesn't really have a fleshed-out origin story, so there's the opportunity to go Batman Begins/Casino Royale/Star Trek on it, and new animation studio Imagi stands a good chance of making a profit rather than having their first ambitious project put them in the red.

In a lot of ways, they do right by Tezuka's best-known creation. The animation is gorgeous and filled with playful designs, evoking Tezuka's cartoony style while still being solid and three-dimensional. The moments when Atom realizes he can fly are just absolutely perfect, and the filmmakers don't shy away from just how painful a lot of the story that introduces Atom is: He would later become an upbeat character, but there's a tragic core to him. Director David Bowers and his co-writer Timothy Harris do a good job of balancing that with goofy stuff.

And yet, so much of the movie just falls flat. There's messages of non-violence and environmentalism in there, and the opening sequence has a satirical sting, but mostly just vague nods in the direction. And as much fun as the big robot fighting sequence in the middle is, it's not clear why it's okay for Atom to blow up a bunch of other robots.

The Good Soldier

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Huh, has it been three and a half years since seeing Sir! No Sir! at the Eye-Opener? It honestly seems like it was more recent. The Good Soldier has the same basic message - soldiers turning toward peace activism after seeing the horrors of war first-hand, although The Good Soldier widens its focus from Vietnam to sixty years of armed conflict, and is more interested in ideals than events.

And, good for it. It's good information, and filmmakers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys do a nice job of not making the film into a polemic. Indeed, this is one of the first movies of the sort, clearly made partially in response to the Iraq war, that that I think could be shown to people with varying opinions on the war and have them maybe find some common ground. It's not perfect, but that's remarkable in and of itself.

A Serious Man

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2009 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (first-run)

The Coens' latest is one of their most peculiar - it starts with a fable set far in the past, then jumps to the 1960s for a story that frustratingly refuses to provide any sort of release. As quirky as their other movies have been, they went somewhere; this one just seems to stop.

But that's the point, isn't it? At no point is any given person's story over, and it can't be fully understood. A marvelous recurring theme of the movie is uncertainty: The opening segment with us not knowing whether or not Fyvush Finkel's character is a dybbuk or not; Michael Stuhlbarg's physics professor character lectures on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Schroedinger's Cat, and is himself deviled by a paradoxical threat made by a student's father, who encourages him to embrace the mystery about it rather than think too hard. He's caught flat-footed by his wife's desire for a divorce, has nightmares about possible outcomes, and becomes frantic about not being able to get a simple answer.

Stuhlbarg is great in this role, a reasonable man buffeted by forces outside his control. It's a performance that will probably be undersold come awards time because it's very funny, but it's also amazing in how Stuhlbarg and the Coens make an everyman into something that seems like a wholly original creation.
Astro BoyA Serious Man

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 12 October 2009 to 18 October 2009

Yes, I've been using computers since I started playing with the school's TRS-80 Model 1 in the second grade, and I work in the field, but I've been slow about following certain online trends. So, I've spent the past couple of weeks catching up, a little: Here's me on Twitter and me on Facebook.

Here's me at the movies:

This Week In Tickets!

I can't claim I'll friend everybody on the latter or reciprocate with everybody who follows me on the former; past a certain point, all it does is make it harder to follow the people I do want to keep track of because they're swamped in a sea of folks you sort of knew back in high school.

And all they'd get is me complaining about baseball officiating and telling stories about how I scored a mini-jackpot on Saturday - my ticket to Paranormal Activity not only pushed me over the Regal points threshold for a free movie ticket, but also happened to be in one of the big rooms without my even checking.

(And, yes, sometimes when I go to the Fenway theater and I'm not sure exactly which movie I'm going to see or if it's playing on more than one screen, I'll check and see which ones are running on screens 12 and 13. Hey, they all cost the same, so you might as well get the most bang for your buck!)

The Boys are Back

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The basic idea behind The Boys Are Back is kind of a chestnut: Newly widowed father has to take care of his two sons, only, get this, in many ways he's still more a boy than a man himself. It's not bad at that, although it doesn't exactly break a whole lot of new ground. Clive Owen continues to make a good case that he is, in fact, an actor, rather than a guy who has benefited from choosing roles that fit his on-screen persona well. Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay are good as the sons, and Emma Booth is good as the woman who enters his life.

Like Up, though, The Boys Are Back distinguishes itself in its tragic set-up. Director Scott Hicks and screenwriter Allan Cubitt take just ten or fifteen minutes to discover wife Katy's cancer and have it run its course, but it's gut-wrenching, managing to communicate both how quick it can happen and how painful and drawn-out the process can feel. Then there's the way younger son Artie reacts to it, which made me feel a sort of weird frustration that he didn't seem to understand just what the situation was. And how sons Harry and Artie, who have been raised on different sides of the world, aren't sure how to react to having a brother in their lives.

So, nice, and refreshingly aware of how complex family relations in the twenty-first century can be.

Paranormal Activity

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2009 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

Paranormal Activity is without question working from the Blair Witch Project playbook, but does so with great effectiveness. Like that predecessor, it's built on not showing the audience too much, knowing that no matter how creative visual effects guys get, they'll never be able to create a single image that scares everybody. Let us imagine our worst nightmare, though...

The flip side, though, is that what makes this movie work is how much it shows. Writer/director Oren Peli lets us get familiar with the house where everything takes place and holds the camera steady - in fact, the characters trying to capture their haunting even have the courtesy of mounting it on a tripod. Some very well-timed and seamless practical effects show us that something is going on, but are likely simple enough that the audience doesn't disengage and wonder how the filmmakers did it.

And, the two characters we spend the most time with are able to keep from wearing out their welcome. They like each other but can still be irritated by each other's foibles. Micah Sloat in particular manages a nice balance: His enthusiasm about investigating this mystery is thoroughly understandable - how many of us wouldn't be excited about something so out of the ordinary in our lives - even as we realize it is really dumb for a character in a horror movie.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2009 at AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run)

Even if Zombieland were executed really well, it would probably rub me the wrong way, at least a little: I kind of like my horror movies to be scary, and this one isn't, not even a little. Sure, it's not actually a horror story, rather a coming of age comedy that uses a zombie apocalypse as a metaphor (don't go through life as a zombie!), but it's not a very good one. Jesse Eisenberg's character is annoying even without the constant narration, and neither Woody Harrelson nor Emma Stone is much more interesting. Abigail Breslin, at least, is a unique entry, the 12-year-old scam artist who bounces off both Stone and Harrelson quite well.

Unfortunately, the movie just isn't very funny. It's the sort of thing marketed to movie fans that relies heavily on familiarity with in-jokes about how to survive zombie movies or the like, and I get them, but that's not actually funny. The most egregious is when a certain actor whom I absolutely love shows up playing himself midway through, and the movie just thinks having him there will lead to spontaneous laughter, but even he is just not that funny on his own. Thus, Zombieland makes one appreciate the occasionally clever writing in Space Jam, which did the same thing, only much better.

The killer is, the movie undermines even that by having Breslin look blankly at the characters having their little in-jokes and actually say "I don't know what you are talking about" - the movie actually acknowledges that this stuff isn't funny on its own!

New York, I Love You

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Paris, Je T'Aime had 18 segments directed by an amazing selection of directors from around the world, with a similarly high-profile cast. New York, I Love You has ten, and one of the directors is Brett Ratner.

I kid; Ratner's is actually one of the more entertaining, telling a tight little story with a fun appearance by James Caan. It's far from perfect, but it does have a beginning, middle, and end, with a bit of a twist, and memorable performances from Caan, Anton Yelchin, and Olivia Thirlby. The same can't really be said for any of the other shorts, though: Yes, some of the directors are folks whose name gets me interested - Allen Hughes, Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur (pinch-hitting for the late Anthony Minghella), maybe Yvan Attal, and the cast is full of stars. Only Ratner, Josha Marston, and Hughes really seem to do what they set out to, though; the rest just seem somewhat inert. And Marston has Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach, which means he starts out way ahead of everyone else.

Adding insult to injury, IMDB's trivia page for the movie says that two segments were cut entirely - one directed by Scarlett Johansson and starring Kevin Bacon, another directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev and starring Carla Gugino. Those had better show up on the Blu-ray.
Witchfinder General / The Oblong BoxFall of the House of Usher x2The Boys Are BackParanormal ActivityZombielandNew York, I Love You

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Poe & Price for Halloween

I wish I had been able to get to more of the Edgar Allan Poe series at the Brattle - other plans and being a bit worn down managed to cut into that. The idea really wasn't to concentrate on the Price/Corman stuff, although that turned out to be fun. It wound up being just those and silents, though

Pit and the Pendulum

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Remember, always check to see whether the film you're looking to see is actually screening. I was expecting some silent-era avant garde versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher", and instead got this Roger Corman film. Which, of the several Corman/Poe films with Vincent Price that have shown during the series, is easily the least impressive. It has long stretches where nothing really happens, and the gulf of skill and charm between Price and the rest of the cast is vast. Corman does some nice things with his low budget, but it's not quite enough.

(Of course, it may be all the better that the "Usher"s were delayed to the 14th; I went to the 9:30 show after being sucked into the Tigers-Twins play-in game, and don't know if I was totally capable of the concentration necessary for a silent.)

The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Though not a direct adaptation of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, D.W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience nevertheless displays his influence proudly. One of the main characters is shown reading Poe, bits from several stories are included in the plot, and the poem "Annabel Lee" is used to frame most of the affair.

It's the story of a young man (Henry B. Walthall), raised by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) since infancy, when his parents died. Now, he's in love with a girl (Blanche Sweet), but his uncle doesn't approve, insisting he spend more time working on the accounts for their business. Eventually, this Uncle is going to have to go, but a troublesome detective (Ralph Lewis) soon gets curious about the man's disappearance.

The script is more than a bit rickety, though I'm not sure whether it's inherent in the writing or more because certain attitudes don't just look quaint or dated 95 years later, but downright alien. The nephew and his sweetheart, both adults, seem to cave into the uncle's demands with relatively little resistance. Some attitudes are potentially a bit ugly - none of the characters have names, so having the thug be referred to as "The Italian" says something about the attitudes of the day. There's a subplot about a maid flirting with a grocery boy that doesn't tie in with the rest of the story much at all. And even in 1914, the ending may have been a silly cliché.

For all those things that may make a modern audience look somewhat askance, though, the movie is nicely put together. Once you're used to the silent acting style, the performances come across very well. Griffith uses intertitles to regularly cut to "Annabel Lee" in a way that probably wouldn't work in a talkie, and his editing style is very modern and fast-paced. The double-exposed "ghost" effects shots looks pretty good for the period. Griffith does throw some odd stuff into the end - a rather literal reading of the end of the poem - but at that point, the surrealism works.

The version shown was the version on the Kino DVD, which clocks in at just about an hour, with a soundtrack by NAME. It probably wouldn't gain much from being much longer (although IMDB has it as running 78 minutes at some point); as great a story as "The Tell-Tale Heart" is - and that's the most obvious influence on this film - it would likely be diluted if expanded to something much larger.

The Tomb of Ligeia

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Roger Corman and Vincent Price made seven films based upon the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the 1960s, of widely varying quality and fidelity to the original works. My knowledge of Poe is incomplete and rusty enough that I can't say how closely The Tomb of Ligeia adapts the original story, but I can say that it is one of the most entertaining of the group.

Years ago, Verden Fell (Vincent Price) buried his beloved Ligeia in his family plot despite the objections of the local clergy to her pagan beliefs. Now, the abbey where they lived is a crumbling ruin that the Lady Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd) and her friend Christopher (John Westbrook) happen upon during a fox hunt. Verden has long been a recluse, but sparks soon fly between him and Rowena, and they are married. Ligeia's presence dominates the abbey - but is it just in Rowena's head? Or is there something sinister to the black cat that wanders the grounds? Or perhaps Fell is insane?

The Tomb of Ligeia is a handsome film, with Corman and company venturing out onto location much more than usual. Aside from the English countryside just plain looking nicer than a set built on a soundstage, the openness makes Rowena's adventurousness a nice counterpoint to Verden's tendency to shut himself in. The interiors of the abbey is nicely realized, too, giving the characters plenty of room to maneuver. A lot of horror movies, especially in the budget range where Corman tended to work, look like they're trying to cut corners, but this one almost never does.

Corman turns in a fine job directing. Working from a screenplay by Robert Towne, he spends just enough time on setting the scene to get us to believe in the movie's world, but never gets mired in minutia. Corman and Towne, in adapting the short story, don't over-complicate things - for example, while Christopher's obvious feelings for Rowena are never far from the audience's thoughts during Westbrook's scenes, the filmmakers don't let the potential triangle among the living elbow the one that involves the dead out of the way. They do a nice job of keeping just what is going on vague without being frustrating, so that there's plenty of genuine tension in the last act with potential sources in both the supernatural and human madness.

The cast is very good as well; one of the best in the series. Price gets one of his better roles as Fell, able to play forbidding, romantic, worried, and mad in turn. Price became a horror icon perhaps even more for his charm than for his ability to be ferocious, and he puts that charm to good use here while only occasionally seeming fangless. Elizabeth Shepherd is a nice complement as Rowena, intelligent and fairly sure of herself, in a way that is not undercut when circumstances call on her to scream. John Westbrook, Derek Francis, Oliver Johnston et al fill out the cast without creating a dip in quality.

And that can happen in relatively low-budget films. There are certainly times when it's clear that Corman didn't have a whole lot of money to throw around. Bits of the finale look to be recycled directly from House of Usher, for instance, and as well-done as most of the film is, there are still moments when you might think that one more take or run through the script might have helped.

They're relatively minor, though, and for the most part Corman and company do a good job of telling a gothic romance without overdoing the atmosphere. This is the sort of movie that could easily become a parody of itself, but instead manages some genuine scares.

House of Usher

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

After the past week I could probably set some sort of site record by having reviews of four different versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher", if I really wanted to - this, a pair of 1928 silents, and a modern version that hit video with little fanfare a couple years ago. For now, though, let's stick with this film directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, the first of their seven collaborations on Edgar Allen Poe stories, and one of their best.

Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the titular house seeking his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who recently left Boston without a word. The butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) tells him that the mistress is not well, but Phillip pushes his way in to confront the man of the house, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price). Roderick tries his best to push Phillip away, saying that Madeline suffers from a family malady - though perhaps that is not the Usher legacy which should concern them!

House of Usher created a template that at least half of the later entries in the Poe "series" would follow - outsider comes to a mansion inhabited primarily by Price's character and a servant, is initially rebuffed by Price, and has his or her persistence rewarded by insanity and inevitable destruction, along with certain other recurring motifs. Perhaps for Halloween, I'll pick up a copy of Poe's stories to see whether this comes from him or whether Corman found a formula that worked and exploited it for as long as it sold tickets. Of course, screenwriter Richard Matheson's expansion of the story to feature-length didn't create these tropes - they are familiar elements of gothic horror stories going back decades if not centuries.

The question, then, is execution, and Corman and company do pretty well. It's a bit rough at times - for instance, at one point the audience this writer sat in laughed at something that looked like an error, something that would have been an "aha!" moment if the movie were firing on all cylinders. Aside from that, though, it's mostly fairly smooth sailing: Corman builds things up quickly, but things don't get frantic until the end. He gets shocks without a whole lot of blood and guts, and brings things to a nice climax.

The cast turns in good work, too: This is a prototype Vincent Price role, with Price carrying off a frail, aristocratic air while also being legitimately threatening. Mark Damon is a fine complement to him as Winthrop, quite physical and determined, making a virtue of his comparative simple-mindedness. Myrna Fahey hits the right note as Madeline, making her fragile but also implying that she could be otherwise under different circumstances. And character actor Harry Ellerbe makes the most of his part as the loyal Bristol, connecting with both Price and Damon and, as a result, the audience.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's more famous stories, so the audience likely has a good idea how it ends. The getting there is quite enjoyable, though, creepy but also just plain fun to watch.

The Raven

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Look at the credits for this. Price, Lorre, and Karloff. Jack Nicholson before he was JACK NICHOLSON. Richard Matheson writing what amounts to an original story, and Roger Corman directing. All of those people have done some shoddy movies in their time, sure, but they've all done impressive enough wok that you'd think someone would be on their game. That's not the case, though, and the result is almost no fun at all.

Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) is a sorceror, though he mostly keeps his sorcery to himself. One night, though, a raven flies in through his window and starts talking to him. It turns out to be Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transmogrified by another magician, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven wants no part of these wizard turf wars, though his mind changes when Bedlo claims to have seen Craven's late wife Lenore (Hazel Court) at Scarabus's castle. So, with Craven's daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo's son Rexford (Nicholson) in tow, they head out to confront Scarabus.

Deliberate camp is almost always always painful, and that's not just a recent phenomenon. Still, though everything in The Raven is done with a wink and a nudge, I'm not sure this film is really in the camp mode. Camp requires a certain amount of effort from the participants, and while the intent here is for the audience to laugh, the majority of the cast and crew appear to be mailing it in. Scenes which could be dry or limp almost invariably end up as the latter. Plot twists occur without thrilling or exciting; it's just something else that has happened as the film drunk-walks to the hour and a half mark.

By far the most obvious lack of effort comes from Peter Lorre. He quite frankly seems annoyed to be there, and I don't think he shows an actual emotion other than irritation throughout the film. He can't even muster the effort to be a sniveling coward, and if you can't get that from Peter Lorre, what's the point? Hazel Court and Olive Sturgess are unimpressive, respectively chewing scenery and being blandly winsome, and Karloff seems to be trying to be charming when he'd be much better off with intimidating. Jack Nicholson actually fares rather well as the square-jawed hero of the piece - oddly, the performance made me think it was a shame that he didn't do westerns in his early career. Price's light touch comes out looking the best.

Still not good, unfortunately - he doesn't have much in the way of quality material to work with. Matheson's story gives the feeling of being made up as he went along, with no goal other than ending on "quoth the Raven nevermore". Corman doesn't do much to help; like the rest of the cast and crew, he seems to be coasting along, unable to help his cast find the right rhythm for Matheson's words, which perhaps might have been fun with snappy delivery. It's as if all the money was spent on animation effects (which, for an enterprise this side, aren't that bad), leaving no margin for error with the rest.

I suppose movies like The Raven do the rest of moviekind a sort of service: It's better if everybody involved has their worst work in one place, rather than having the substandard work strewn over a half-dozen films.

Tales of Terror

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

I like the Idea of Roger Corman's Tales of Terror quite a bit, although I'm surprised it got made as a feature: Television anthology programs were enough of a going concern in the early 1960s that it would seem to make more sense to have Corman adapt various Edgar Allen Poe tales with Vincent Price there, rather than as an anthology feature. Of course, even a Corman production probably had more to work with than television at the time, and maybe the movie wouldn't have ended up with such a nifty cast.

The first story told is "Morella", in which a young woman by the name of Lenora (Maggie Pierce) visits her father Locke (Price) for the first time in twenty years, having spent her entire life at boarding schools and with relatives. She finds him still mourning - and haunted by - the loss of his wife Morella (Leona Gage), for which he blames his daughter.

Take out the "scary movie" elements, and this would still be a pretty good piece. Price's theatricality is there, and Corman is ever aware that he's not making a movie called "Tales of Awkward Reconciliation". Price and Pierce play the part of a wounded family very well, though, and it's a pleasure to see that even though Price's job description by a certain point was "being Vincent Price", he had range beyond the genial monster.

Next up is "The Black Cat", though it certainly has had "A Cask of Amontillado" poured into it. It centers around Montressor (Peter Lorre), once an officer during the Revolutionary War but now the town drunk, whose wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson) is pretty well fed up with him. Looking for a drink when thrown out of his usual bar, he comes upon a wine tasting where he meets expert oenophile Fortunato (Price), who is impressed not only with Montressor's expertise with the grape but also his sadly neglected wife.

Lorre is not quite so indifferent here as he was in The Raven, although he tends to have two modes in this role: Angry drunk and bitter wisecracker. Price, meanwhile, seems to get a kick out of his role, a genial fop who happily enters into an affair with Annabel but seems to have no issue with Montressor at all. It's an odd tone, a bit of light sandwiched between a couple grimmer tales, but it mostly works.

Finally, there's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", in which Price plays the title character, a man dying of an illness that leaves him in chronic pain - until he starts getting treatment from hypnotist Dr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone). The condition he attaches is that Valdemar must allow Carmichael to hypnotize him just before the moment of death, testing his theory that this will keep someone from passing on fully. Valdemar's wife Helene (Debra Paget) and doctor James (David Frankham) aren't thrilled with this, especially since Carmichael's intentions appear sinister.

Rathbone makes for a great villain; unfortunately, he's not given a whole lot to do. He's got the right attitude, and he makes a fine foil for Paget and Frankham in their scenes. Matheson just doesn't give him a lot to do; it's a very passive story. That changes quickly toward the end, with a fairly satisfying finale (and pretty nasty, for the period).

None of the stories are great, but all of them are good. Three times good isn't quite qreat, but it's a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Witchfinder General

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Witchfinder General was programmed in the Brattle's October Edgar Allan Poe series because Roger Corman bought the American distribution rights, slapped some excerpts from the poem "The Conqueror Worm" on the front and back, and changed the name to match. Either way, it's the sort of horror that comes out of being based on actual ugly history.

It's the time of the English civil war. Lord Cromwell controls East Anglia, although fighting with Royalist forces is still fierce. Soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) has distinguished himself in Cromwell's army, and on a brief stop in his village, Father John Lowes (Rupert Davies) asks what his intentions are toward his niece Sarah (Hilary Dwyer). When he admits it is to leave farming, the vicar is actually pleased - he has heard that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) is on his way, supposedly to smoke out witches though he and his partner John Stearne (Robert Russell) are the type to use what they claim is the Lord's work to satisfy their own urges.

Witchfinder General is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, filled with all manner of nasty rape, torture, and murder. Women sell their bodies casually in some cases and out of a harsh practicality in others. Corruption is rampant, in no small part because the film often seems to lack specific ideals. Marshall is a good soldier for a cause that is frequently shown as questionable, Hopkins shows loyalty to nobody except himself, and there's not a drop of remorse to be found. Director Michael reeves knows how to shoot and cut his movie so that we see just enough for the movie to feel unflinching but also don't see enough that we might imagine the worse.

Exemplifying all this is Vincent Price in possibly the finest role of his career. There's not a drop of camp to be found in his Matthew Hopkins, just a cold cruelty to go along with a brutish intelligence. Price plays Hopkins as completely casual in hypocrisy, an implacable force that never gives hints of a righteous nature misdirected or particular pleasure taken in his power. He looks down at Stearne with disdain - and Russell does make the man into a particularly vile sociopath - but doesn't gain any measure of respect because of it.

The rest of the cast does fine work, as well. Ogilvy plays Marshall as quite capable but not a genius, sincere but not one to over-sell his point. That characterization is matched by Hilary Heath, who gets across that Sarah is good but not naive or foolish. Rupert Davies gets a bit less screen time as Sarah's uncle, but creates a solid connection to them in that time. And even the actors with the smallest roles turn in good work.

In a way, that's what makes the movie particularly horrifying; even the people working with Hopkins are played as utterly believable and ordinary. Reeves and the writers don't present us with a top-down hysteria driven by the likes of Hopkins and Stearne whipping people into a frenzy; there's a sense that most of this is ordinary people settling scores by vicious means because it's a vicious time. Marshall isn't that far from any of them; he just maybe hasn't been pushed quite as far yet. There's not much doubt that, should he catch up with Hopkins and Stearne, his revenge will be bloody indeed.

So while Vincent Price makes for an excellent villain here, it's not because he makes his character uniquely evil. He's just much better at the sort of ruthlessness that everybody is capable of tapping into.

The Oblong Box

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

This one, I fear, didn't do very much for me. Price plays a man who has had his disfigured brother locked in the attic for years. The brother fakes his death, is discovered by Christopher Lee's grave-robbing doctor, and goes on a killing spree. For most of the movie, the Markham brothers are kept entirely separate, and the bag over Edward's head just doesn't give him the sort of slasher-movie charisma that later mad killers would have.

Looks nice, but just didn't work for me; I think I actually dozed off during this second part of a double feature.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (this one)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Watching even the most accessible silent film often requires a level and type of concentration that we just don't train ourselves to have in the hundred years of sound cinema that have followed. Something like the version of "The Fall of the House of Usher" made by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber is another story entirely. If I hadn't seen the Corman version days earlier, I might have had no idea what was going on.

That's not necessarily a negative; Watson and Webber create an intriguingly photographed and designed work clearly inspired by Poe's story, rather than an actual adaptation. Seen in that light, it may be a particularly fine piece of art; I just don't know whether I was able to concentrate well enough to catch all, or even most, of it.

La Chute de la Maison de Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) (this one)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Over the years, adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" have taken various liberties. To a certain extent, it's necessary - it's not a long story, and requires bulking up to get to the hour mark. Doing that tends to mean fleshing out the characters, giving them solid ties to the narrator and the outside world. And that's kind of cool, actually - "Usher" has a structure well-known enough that people don'e mess with it too much, but it leaves filmmakers plenty of room to leave their own stamp on it, as Jean Epstein does in this silent version.

Here, the man who comes to visit the titular house is Allan (Charles Lamy), an old college friend of Sir Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt). Naturally, the local town folk don't want to take him near the actual house, although it doesn't seem outwardly dangerous. Once inside, Allan finds that Roderick has fallen victim to the Usher family curse, an obsession with painting the portrait of his wife, Madeline (Marguerite Gance). The portrait is an incredible likeness, seeming almost able to walk off the page, but there's something wrong - the real Madeline seems to grow weaker as Roderick paints, though he seems either unable to see the connection or powerless to stop it.

Collaborator Luis Buñuel quit the film over Epstein's decision to ignore much of the story, and only a few basic similarities remain - a character named Roderick Usher, and a house that is due for at least a figurative collapse due to the lack of an heir. In Poe's story and most adaptations, Madeline is Roderick's sister, and the obsessive portrait-painting is entirely Epstein's own invention. Still, Epstein retains the most important part: The sense of approaching doom.

What he adds is an interesting idea in its own right, that perhaps art should not be concerned so much with mere reproduction. In his movie, creating a perfect representation weakens the original, destroying that which the artist seeks to preserve. It's an obsession that we see even now, as computer graphics push visual effects closer to photorealism, to name only one example. This film was made as talking cinema became more and more of an inevitability, perhaps already sounding a death knell for the stylized joys of silent cinema.

Epstein uses those styles nicely, too. The film isn't abstract like the J.S. Watson/Melville Webber version that came out the same year, but there is something unreal about the Ushers' mansion. The acting is certainly nowhere near as naturalistic as modern viewers are used to, but it's also not particularly theatrical, either.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" has been told at least a dozen times on film. I'm not sure whether or not there has been a great or definitive one - this one does its own thing too much to be that - but the Epstein version is among the most interesting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 5 October 2009 to 11 October 2009

I started looking around Borders at potential calendars for next year this weekend. I'll probably get something with the same basic design, although if I could find something with a little more room, I'd like to. The main issue is that most Saturday and Sunday as smaller than normal, pretty much the opposite of what I need, as you can see below:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Summerhood (11am @ the Brattle) and the 7:30pm double feature of The Raven & Tales of Terror at the same place.

There will be links to the Edgar Allen Poe movies later in the week or next; I'm planning on waiting until the series is over and the big blog entry can be posted to do that.

Busy week at the movies, as I tried to see as much Poe as I could and wanted to see some favorites while they were hanging around. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I still loved Star Trek - I'd been worrying that my slobbering all over it was more a function of what it represented than its actual quality, but I had a darn good time at the Aquarium. There's a few flaws - with a better seat than when I saw it in May, it was easier to notice that Abrams isn't really a great action director, and the logic is at times iffy - but not enough, and it feels right.

(For the next film, I hope they find a way to say Rachel Nichols's character wasn't killed and is serving on the Enterprise, just because I love Rachel Nichols and it wouldn't hurt if Star Trek re-invented for the new millennium could use a few more women in the cast)

The Toy Story double feature was another great time revisiting old friends. It's kind of amazing to me that Joss Whedon's name in the credits to the first film surprised me, since he's kind of got a fanbase that won't let you forget anything he does well. Also, Woody was sort of a prick at first, wasn't he? Watching them back to back for the first time in a few years, I was surprised by how much better the second one really is, and the first is no slouch. "When She Loves Me" just absolutely kills me as soon as it starts up; it's almost worse than the gut-punch of hearing it the first time, knowing that it's coming.

So, the familiar stuff was as good as I remembered it. The Poe stuff wasn't bad. The rest had a certain "well, nice idea, but..." feel to it:

Jennifer's Body

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2009 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run)

The nice idea here is doing a horror movie for and about high school girls. A lot of slasher movies are certainly built around nubile your ladies, but that's clearly not the same thing; Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody are clearly working on something that's about how teenagers treat each other, which is frequently awful. It's fertile ground; during its early, best years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer did very well with it.

The thing is, for all she apparently tries to be, Diablo Cody just isn't Joss Whedon. It doesn't help that most of her more mannered dialog is given to Megan Fox, who just isn't up to making it sound something other than silly. The villains - both the demonic Jennifer and the creepy band guys - are also just not that scary. Loathsome, sure, but Cody and Kusama never manage to get us to think that there's hidden, dangerous evil to them.

Of course, the question of why there's so much obsession over the second-most attractive girl in the film comes up. Megan Fox is a plastic cartoon compared to Amanda Seyfried, and though the crew manages to downplay Ms. Seyfried's attractiveness somewhat, she's still ten times more interesting on screen. That's good in terms of being likable, but Jennifer needs to have more charisma than Fox can supply.

The Invention of Lying

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2009 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

Ricky Gervais and company start off with a concept that seems like its natural state is five minute chunks on a sketch comedy show - an alternate reality where deception is just not part of human nature. Not only are folks truthful, they're almost compulsively so, and when one of these people discovers the ability to say "something that isn't", he wreaks havoc.

On the one hand, it's really only fitfully funny. Though a good many of the jokes are barbed, they're kind of obvious. The fantasy premise sometimes seems like it hasn't been entirely thought through, too - a scene where a guy sends a bottle of wine back to make a girl think he's got high standards, and says he's doing so flat out, doesn't work because it's a bit you'd do with someone who has lost the ability to deceive, not someone who never had it.

On the other hand, though, it's a movie that gets in your head and invites you to consider the concepts that it is playing with. Early on, it's the idea of lies as social lubricant, but the big one comes with the accidental invention of religion as Gervais's character tries to reassure someone in her last moments. It's just a smaller part of the larger point, that we could think through even the things we know to be true. The most important scene, I think, is the one where Gervais's Mark asks Jennifer Garner's somewhat shallow Anna what she sees when she looks at certain people, and she gives glib answers until he prompts her to look closer. It's about how, even if you know something is true, like the people in this world, you should still ask questions and examine your beliefs.


* * (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

This print screened had a 2006 copyright at the end, so even though I sometimes feel a little gun-shy about saying too much about movies that might perhaps still be tinkered with, something that filmed over three years ago with child actors is probably not going to have reshoots. There could be re-editing that happens, but I kind of doubt it at this late date.

Why has it been sitting on the shelf that long? Well, in large part, because it's not very good. It's at least in part a comedy, but it was a very quiet audience; you want to hear people laughing. It's got both a ton of "clever" narration and kids who are too self-aware to provide much in the way of contrast. It jumps between the stories of the kids and the counselors without tying them together thematically. It reminds you that it is set in 1984 with a new music cue roughly every five minutes.

It's a nice cast of young actors, and actually looks pretty nice - the art direction guys made the summer camp look fantastically lived in. But I suspect that it will fall flat for most who don't have the same nostalgia for summer camp as the filmmakers.
Pit and the PendulumThe Avenging ConscienceJennifer's BodyTomb of Ligeia/House of UsherThe Invention of LyingToy Story Double FeatureStar Trek

Friday, October 09, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 28 September 2009 to 4 October 2009

This winds up being late and it hardly seems worth it, does it? A fair amount of baseball seen, and two previews for which I don't even have ticket stubs:

This Week In Tickets!

Preview screenings for which I am stubless: Whip It on 1 October (7pm) and Good Hair on 4 October (11am)

That first game was not quite what one would call a miserable experience - yes, it was an ugly loss, and just as things were about to get better, the sky opened up and dumped a really remarkable amount of rain on our heads. Fortunately, there was a fair amount of shelter nearby, and we figured that if they restarted the game, we'd be able to grab actual Monster Seats, rather than Monster Standing Room. After about an hour, though, my brother Dan and his wife Lara decided they really should head back home to Maine, and Matt followed. I opted to stay until the end, which wasn't long - I think the game was called off before they reached their car or T stop. Still, it's the principle of the thing.

(Bummed me out, since the team was scoring runs when it ended and other games that Dan and I attended toether included this one and this one. I'm not saying our presense causes awesome comebacks, but it's not a bad sign!)

Friday was me impulse-buying a birthday gift for myself, and that was a lot more fun - beautiful night, great view of the game, Matsuzaka looking more trustworthy than Buchholz at this point. For what those pavilion box seats cost, though, they have what may be the longest line for food in the park.

As to the movies, seeing the game on Monday made me miss the Brattle's preview screening of Whip It, but the IFFB picked up a screening of their own later in the week. Cool, because I wanted to see it, there was a bunch of stuff coming out that weekend, and I knew Saturday was going to be given over to my niece's birthday party (yes, we have the same birthday. I have no excuse to forget hers ever). It's a fun little movie, though I don't know about "good enough to drop out of Drag Me To Hell for".

Whip It

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2009 at AMC Harvard Square #5 (Preview)

That title cries out for an exclamation mark, doesn't it? In a way, so does the movie. It's a pretty by-the-numbers teen girl coming of age thing, though funnier than most. It's got a nice cast, although they're better around the edges, where Daniel Stern, director Drew Barrymore, Zoe Bell, or even Michael Petrillo can take their characters and find some way to make them memorable and unique. Star Ellen Page really doesn't have a chance to do that; there is just nothing new or unique about Bliss Cavendar. That's not the result of a bad performance, but Bliss is almost never the most interesting person in a given scene: Okay, she beats Landon Pigg's completely generic Cute Musician Boyfriend. Maybe Marcia Gay Harden's stage-mothering character, although she gets more interesting once we see her in her postal service uniform.

And I'm kind of starting to suspect that Ellen Page is going to fall into the same category as Matt Frewer and Heather Graham: Good but not really impressive, but you don't realize it at first because they were so perfect in Max Headroom/Swingers/Juno. There were times while watching this that I couldn't help but wish it were made fifteen or so years earlier, when Barrymore could star rather than direct and steal scenes.

A couple weird things about the movie: Drew Barrymore looks like she has the makings of a pretty decent director, especially since she took on a project that would require dealing with fast-moving action as her first project and emerged unscathed. Well, not literally unscathed - she's the one that gets banged up when the script calls for someone to get banged up, which is kind of fun. The credits seemed to play up her contribution by cutting to her even for her directing and producing credits, which feels like they're playing up her on-screen presence more than it warrants.

Also, I snickered to myself about how this is a movie ready-made for the crowds at one of the Austin festivals (or just regular Austin dates) to go nuts over, because (a) Austinites frickin' love Austin, and aren't shy about letting you know this, and (b) this movie presents going to Austin as just a complete escape from everything Bliss doesn't like about her life, and hits all the hipster spots. I suspect that the "yaaah Austin woooooooooooooo!" factor could have driven me nuts (especially the scene in the Alamo Drafthouse).

As such, I was highly amused when I saw that most of the movie is Michigan doubling for Texas in the end credits. Are you no longer indie and cool when it's too expensive to shoot something like Whip It there?
It rains a lotHappy birthday

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Good Hair

I feel just a little silly having my opinion of Good Hair being one of the main ones eFilmCritic goes live with tomorrow; it's not as if I am close to its target audience. After all, I'm white, male, and my concern with hair care is minor at best: I buy whichever 2-in-1 shampoo is on sale at the supermarket when my previous bottle is empty, and I get a haircut when it starts getting in my eyes. I'm certainly in no position to tell anybody that this movie is important, though it is entertaining.

I can say that one thing about it amused me more than it might amuse others. When I was a kid, my mother operated a hairdresser's shop out of our basement, complete with chair, sink that had a lip designed for resting one's neck, and the works (it was a bit hard when her boys started paying for someone else to cut our hair, even if we were at college in Worcester or Syracuse). So I grew up with the smell of permanent waves in the house on a regular basis, and that was nasty. I didn't realize it was also painful, but the part that made me think "huh, that's odd" is that I'd always associated it with white people trying to get their straight hair curled - here, it's much more about black people getting their curly hair straightened.

Good Hair

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

There's a whole lot of interesting information in Good Hair, presented well, but it wouldn't be half the movie it is without its writer/producer/star, Chris Rock. Not just because the movie was his idea - someone else likely would have made a movie about what having "good hair" means in the African-American community - but because his personality turns out to be a perfect match for the material.

Early on, Rock explains that the film has its origins in one of his daughters asking him why she doesn't have "good hair", which turns out to have a specific meaning among African-Americans, especially women, that Rock hadn't fully grasped: Straight. Silky. Fine. Basically, like a white woman's. His curiosity piqued, he sets out to learn as much about the phenomenon as he can, going from the Bronner Brothers hair care convention in Atlanta, Georgia to a temple in India, talking to celebrities, businessmen, activists, and the crowd at the local barber shop to find out what good hair means to them.

What the film shows us is not necessarily anything that has been particularly hidden, but is certainly interesting when connected over the course of an hour and a half. The numbers are downplayed, so it's almost possible to miss the comment that though African Americans make up around one eighth of the population of the United States, they are responsible for the majority of the spending on hair care. Indeed, the economics of the industry are curious, as we see that women of relatively limited means often spend thousands of dollars on their hair weaves, and very few of the businesses catering to the market are actually black-owned. Al Sharpton has a point when he talks about the community putting their repression on their heads - and that's even without demonstrating how nasty the chemicals in "relaxers" and perms are.

In the hands of some filmmakers, this film would be wall-to-wall anger, but director Jeff Stilson (who co-wrote the film with Rock and two other credited writers) and his star don't go for a strident tone. Maybe they just don't see the value in calling a large part of their target audience foolish, though it need not be so calculated. While the filmmakers will frequently insert a barbed bit of commentary into the narration or captions, the scenes where Rock interviews or converses with his subjects are almost universally friendly. Certainly, you can tell where Chris Rock (and, by extension, the film) comes down on most subjects - he doesn't hide his delight when interviewing Maya Angelou, who has never had her hair relaxed, and he's obviously alarmed at things like toddlers getting perms - but the film doesn't give a very hard sell. Rather than telling the audience what to think, it's quite content to give the audience something to think about.

Chris Rock is a big reason why this goes down easy - aside from being funny on his own, he appears to be a good interviewer. It's not surprising that he can get Ice-T to tell a good story, but his talks with actresses Nia Long and Tracie Thoms are actual conversations rather than opportunities to perform. He's also good talking with businesspeople, hairdressers, and men on the street, often getting them to say interesting things without ever feeling like he's ambushing them or setting them up.

That's not all Rock, either - Stilson, the other writers, and editors Paul Marchand and Greg Nash do a good job of putting the film together. It's quite possible that the filmmakers knew exactly what what they wanted to do before they ever shot a frame, but they certainly do a good job of making it appear that they followed their curiosity: A comment about how few of the exhibitors at Bronner Brothers are black-owned leads to a visit to the makers of Dudley's Hair Relaxer; a visit to India to find the source of the hair in weaves has a similar jump-off. When Rock brings up how many black men are attracted to white women, and whether being able to run one's fingers through their hair without disturbing the weave was a factor, it seems like something that just occurred to him. That feeling of spontaneity gives the film credit when it hits bits that seem a little forced (a skit of Rock trying to sell genuine African-American hair to salons, a hairstyling competition) - or when people bust out the n-word, which is more or less guaranteed to cut some audience members' comfort in half.

Of course, the film arguably isn't for white males such as myself; it's about what the desire for "good hair" costs the African-American community culturally and financially. I can't say how well it does that, just that it does a good job of putting its information together and making the experience entertaining.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Ideas for theaters: The Multiplex Double Feature

So, my scans and write-ups for This Week In Tickets are stuck on an SD card, and my card reader crapped out today. I apparently have terrible luck with those; I've got a flash drive that died in a similar way, a couple MP3 players that just fritzed out, etc. It's like I've inherited my mother's ability to kill digital watches by wearing them, except it applies to small storage devices with USB ports.

What really annoys me is that I like this card reader - my last one got beat up and this was nicely compact. I guess this teaches me about being cheap.

One of the things stuck there is a half-written piece from March about what Austin's Alamo Drafthouse gets right that so many other theaters get wrong. Not that I think theaters should follow the Alamo's model (although give me a couple million or so to renovate either the empty Polaroid building in Cambridge's Central Square or the Circle Cinema in Brookline...), but I'm interested in things that might get more people in theaters.

So, I was reading this on Cinematical, and although the idea of encouraging theater-hopping is fabulously wrong-headed, it does give me another idea: Double feature pricing.

When I worked at theaters, the big thing management tried to have us do was up-selling. You know - someone asks for a small soda, and a medium is only a quarter more. So, why not take that to the box office - you buy a ticket for one show, a second is just two dollars more? There would be some restrictions, of course - I figure the second movie would have to be a non-new release so that the studio doesn't freak out about pricing. The double feature would have to be done in one purchase, so that you don't have people selling their ticket stub outside for a couple bucks. And maybe you have a time limit on how long can pass between the end of the first show and the start of the second. The idea is that the guy buying the ticket is in the theater for four or five hours instead of two, and thus more likely to spend money on popcorn, soda, hot dogs, pizza, etc.

Clearly, this would benefit the theaters. It wouldn't be a huge win for distributors, and they'd probably need a lot of convincing, considering how the entertainment industry usually thinks. After all, they tend to look at piracy as their losing the full value of a sale, rather than acknowledging that not every pirate would have paid full price and that the money lost from someone who would otherwise purchase is potentially made up for in people sampling and buying copies and merchandise. Here, they would need to be convinced that they are not losing their share of the difference in price between a "second feature" ticket and a regular ticket, but gaining their share of a ticket that would never have been purchased if not for the low price, and gaining a more likely DVD/Blu-ray sale down the line because the person buying the ticket decides he likes this movie that he otherwise wouldn't have seen.

Heck, the smaller distributors (or the boutique arms of larger ones) might find a way to make their niche as B-movies in the original use of the term work: Offer a discount if paired with another feature by the same studio, or waive the 10-day rule if you figure that doing so will multiply the number of people who see the movie. If you're making the same number of prints, you might be better off getting 10 people to pay $2 each than 2 to pay $10 a pop - it's that many more people who will be looking for it when it comes out on video, for one, and it may actually get theaters to program those movies, giving them the cachet of a theatrical run rather than being seen as just direct-to-video.

And I'll readily admit, the part I like most of all is people seeing movies that may be a little outside their usual fare, but why not do it for $2? Maybe they'll realize that it's not just action movies that benefit from being seen on the big screen, or they'll take their chances on that foreign-language, documentary, or independent film that they might not have tried otherwise.

There may be a whole bunch of reasons why this wouldn't work, contractually or structurally. Still, I think it would be a great way to add value to the theatrical experience without adding a ton of overhead, and exhibitors can only benefit by having people see the movies as potentially a really good deal.