Friday, December 04, 2009

These Weeks In Tickets: 2 November 2009 to 29 November 2009

Is this thing on? It has been a weird month, what with Google's automated routines apparently deciding that my blog has the characteristics of a spam blog and shutting access off. Naturally, they did that on a Friday afternoon, so my response that no, I'm a real person creating real content probably wasn't even going to get looked at until Monday.

Another weird thing happened on that Saturday, when I received the latest issue of weekly British comic 2000 AD in the mail, despite the fact that I neither ordered it nor subscribed to it. At first I thought it was a gift subscription, which brings the question of who the heck knows I like that and will pay to have it airmailed to me every week - while a lot of people know I like comics, 2000 AD is pretty esoteric in the U.S. But then none came in later weeks, so it was an apparent one-off, which just seems even more random.

And then on Monday, I had to put a picture on the intranet at work, so I stuck it on Facebook and Twitter. I now hate my camera on multiple levels - it's a heavy 2 megapixel job from 2001 with a cruddy 2x optical zoom, but it won't do me the favor of breaking so I can replace it with a clear conscience - it's just too rugged to explode when I drop it. Plus, I hate having my picture taken, and self-portraiture is even worse - I got acutely nervous taking that stupid shot.

On top of that, the flash apparently brings out the gray in my hair. Wonderful.

(Since writing that, I've purchased a phone that appears to be a better camera than that old thing, in addition to being an MP3 player and handheld internet device)

The blog being offline means it hasn't been a useful tool to raise money for and report progress on my entry in the Brattle's 2009 Movie Watch-a-Thon. More or less the entire tally is visible below, aside from an Eye-Opener entry on 1 November and a couple at the Kendall on 30 November and 1 December. So the final tally is 5 at the Brattle (which are supposed to count double), 25 elsewhere, and 2 screenings for the BSFFF selection committee (which you can choose to count or not, as they were events I was invited to). If you want to donate/retroactively sponsor - and you do, the Brattle is a cause worth supporting if you like movies, especially if you're in the Boston area - you can do so through this page.

So, a lot of movies to get through. Let's hit these guys week-by-week:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Welcome to Academia (8 November, 11am, Brattle)

The Damned United

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2009 at Landmark Embassy #3 (first-run-ish)

One often hears talk of frequent collaborations between actors and directors, or maybe actors and producers, or writers and directors, but the frequent pairing of actor Michael Sheen and writer Peter Morgan, as near as I can tell always in fact-based dramas with Sheen playing some actual figure, is unique in cinema. Perhaps there's nothing more too it than Morgan having an interest in this type of story and Sheen being the sort of chameleonic actor who sort of resembles a lot of people, but it works. As much as I loved The Queen, I love The Damned United almost as much.

As befitting a topic that causes as much enthusiasm as English Football (soccer for us colonials), The Damned United is a far more raucous, foul-mouthed movie than The Queen and Frost/Nixon; most of its characters still have one foot solidly in the working-class lives from which they came.. And as much as I hate discussing a sports movie and saying "but it's not really about sports" - I mean, nobody feels obligated to say something like "but Bright Star isn't really about poetry" to establish the story as being worth telling - there's very little actual footie in the movie, and even someone as unfamiliar as I with the nuances of "the beautiful game" can see what the filmmakers are trying to prove there.

No, The Damned United is a nigh-brilliant example of Greek tragedy, where Brian Clough's obsession with a perceived slight by Leeds coach Don Revie (Colm Meany, who invests the role with a passive-aggressive combination of sophistication and spite) drives him to push his team and himself to incredible heights - and, just as surely, set himself up for a massive fall. It is a splendid study of the almost psychotic drive that people in highly competitive fields like sport, politics, and, yes, show business require to succeed, even though they are almost always self-destructive in the end.

And it does so without ever getting introspective and navel-gazing about it. It's an exciting, entertaining way to tell that story.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2009 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

This should have been funnier, I think. It's got a top-notch cast, including a couple in George Clooney and Kevin Spacey who truly excel at the sort of deadpan comedy that is this film's bread and butter. Jeff Bridges is a kick. Ewan McGregor isn't bad at all, but the "what's a Jedi Knight?" shtick gets old fast. It's almost as if the movie becomes constrained by its reality - it can be funny, absurd, and crazy, but not enough where the astral projecting, telepathic soldiers are ever going to be truly real to McGregor's character, or us.

Still, there are bits that are absolutely worth taking away from the movie. There's a moment I absolutely love where Clooney's character sincerely apologizes to an Iraqi man who has suffered at the hands of both Americans and his own countrymen, and it delivers a one-two punch of seeming strange followed by the realization that there is something deeply wrong with the world if that sort of humility and decency is unusual. The movie is peppered with other bits and asides that are much funnier, Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style, but that's probably the one which will stick with me.

The Box

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2009 at AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run)

I saw this one in a surprisingly packed auditorium considering how it sort of died at the box office, and it wasn't the greatest audience. I've never liked Chris Parry's idea of using pennies to discourage talkers, but I would have been up for it if I thought my aim was good enough to put a ding in the phone of the guy a couple rows in front and a few seats to my left. Still, I can't completely complain about the audience not sitting with church-like reverence, since the girl who said, about three-quarters through the movie, that it was "fucking creepy as fuck" pretty much nailed it.

Richard Matheson's story "Button, Button" is a great little morality tale, and when he adapted it for the 1980s edition of The Twilight Zone, he reconsidered the ending so that it ended on a perfect little ironic zinger. Richard Kelley preserves the core of it, but he fills in the world around it - honestly, to excess; a perfect short story is buried under explanation and elaboration. But, for a good long chunk of the movie, that's okay, because Kelly really does have a knack for finding the most unnerving way to do it. There's barely a moment in it where you think, well, there could be a perfectly logical explanation for that. Nope, the characters are adrift in a world both out to test their virtue and make every memory of normalcy seem out of reach. Pretty much the whole movie is one long, intriguing, disturbing, tingly feeling.

Now, Kelly overreaches, just as he did in the Director's Cut of Donnie Darko and in Southland Tales, and finally pushes us just a bit too far at the very end, but if you like freaky movies, he has banked a heck of a lot of credit by then.

Welcome to Academia

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye-Opener)

I'll be portions of this movie are a riot if you've ever been involved in faculty politics, either as a participant or as a hapless grad student caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, it often seems to require very specific familiarity, because as just things that are (apparently) typical of that environment, well, it's not very funny. There's two or three jokes that are returned to over and over again, and they don't really build. For instance, Callie Thorne as the man-hating womyns' studies professor is just about as crazy at the start as she's going to be, when a slow burn might have worked much better.

The big problem is that James LeGros, as the character unexpectedly promoted to Dead over others who covet the job, and is supposed to be the sane center of the film, almost never does anything. He's not more clever than expected, or humorously put upon. He's just there, when the movie needs him to either be Job or an active participant in the story. Jess Weixler fares a little better as his favorite grad student who suddenly becomes the proxy target for other jealous faculty, but just as she's established a good comedy vibe, the movie gets serious on her.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Slimed (11 November, 9-ish, Somerville Video Room), The New Year Parade (15 November, 11am, Brattle)


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2009 in the Somerville Theater Video Room (SF/35 selection group screenings)

I'm not sure how much it's appropriate to talk about these films, but since I'm pretty sure that this one won't get chosen for the festival, I feel pretty good about giving it a thumbs-down. Admittedly, I'm the guy in the room who has just about lost all tolerance for deliberate camp unless it's done very well, but even the folks who liked that seemed to hate this one. It's stupid and lazy, and seems to think it's a virtue.

What's almost frustrating about it is that somewhere about halfway through, they seem to discover comic timing, and the occasional bit starts working. Hopefully this group's second movie will reflect that experience, but there's no need to subject people to what they went through to gain it.

Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Tsai Ming-liang: Then and Now)

I formulated a theory about Tsai as I watched this movie: All the discussion of him as a highly-intellectual auteur, and his presentation as such, is a smokescreen. He's just a guy trying to make silent/burlesque-style comedy, and has an extremely weird sense of humor. That plays even less well commercially than art-house films, so he disguises his goofy productions as art pieces.

I'm mostly kidding about that but there's a nugget of truth to it, too: The Wayward Cloud is in fact a very funny movie, and while I await a future Criterion Blu-ray where I can go over it and extract nuance, I do think that the best way to experience it the first time is to just sit down and enjoy it as a comedy, because it really is extremely funny, rather than worry about parsing it for intent or meaning. That can come later, and maybe it will make the movie even better.

That said, I still think the "comedy made by a guy with a weird sense of humor" explains the last act best. Yes, there may be some meaning to what's going on, but I think it makes a lot more sense if Tsai is just kind of out there, giggling over something terribly inappropriate.

An Education

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2009 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (first-run)

I've long advocated that the Academy establish a Saul Bass award for outstanding opening credits, and An Education, with its upbeat music straight out of Charlie Brown specials and doodling over a peppily-edited montage that establishes just the barest hint of discontent, has one of the year's best. The movie that follows does a pretty good job of living up to it. Every single step of the story is easily predicted from the beginning, of course, but the cast is fantastic to a one. Star Carey Mulligan is just as good as promised, and Olivia Williams is particularly fine in her small role. It's a Sunday drive of a movie, familiar but still an enjoyable path to go down.

One odd thing that stuck out was the numerous references to the casual anti-semitism of the time. I'm sure that they're an accurate reflection, and when it first shows up, it reads as Alfred Molina's Jack trying to show that he's at least striving for his family to become more sophisticated (in that he says something "common" and then stumbles backing away from it), but when it reappears coming from the mouth of Emma Thompson's headmistress, well, then it's a thing.

Black Dynamite

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2009 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (midnight)

Huh, Michael Jai White is funny. Hilarious, even. Who knew?

The sort of parody that Black Dynamite engages in - replicating a genre that is less than stellar flaws and all (especially the flaws!) - is one I usually have pretty harsh words for. It's generally either the product of laziness (like Slimed and half the shorts we've screened for the BSFFF) or just seems disrespectful. The people who made those old movies that the parody's filmmakers often claim inspired them weren't trying to make something unintentionally hilarious, and if you're trying to honor their work, you really should do it by making the best movie you can. I'm talking to you, Larry Blamire.

Black Dynamite works because the filmmakers, as much as they're doing a warts-and-all recreation of seventies blaxploitation, don't ever use that as an excuse to slack off. When the characters talk, it's genuinely funny, and instead of trying to be bad actors, they're selling their lines with perfect comic timing. And for as ridiculously over-the-top as many of the action scenes are, they're actually shot better than the fight scenes in a lot of conventional action movies; White is a good enough screen fighter that he doesn't want to look bad.

Sure, maybe the last couple of segments are a little much, but I get the impression that the filmmakers knew they might never get another chance to make a movie like this, and made sure that they could cram every idea they had in there. And it's better for a movie like this to be overstuffed than have missed opportunities.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: The Foundling (18 November, Somerville Video Room, 7.30pm), an Eye-Opener they'd prefer I didn't mention by name or discuss since it's still a rough cut but which I didn't like all that much (22 November, Brattle Theatre, 11am)

The Foundling

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2009 in the Somerville Theater Video Room (SF/35 selection group screenings)

So, speaking of stuff that I should probably keep under my hat, I'm kind of worried about the line-up for the festival part of February's Boston Science Fiction Film Festival. I'm tending to be the wet blanket in the room because I don't like camp that much, but that's not the problem with The Foundling. It's serious but not very good, really in any facet, but it's one Izzy seemed to feel was borderline. Some others praised the acting, which I just can't see. It's one of those movies that folks shy away from saying sucked because the intentions are good, it's unusual to see either a science fiction film or a western centered around Asian-American women, and just looking at it, you can see that the filmmaker did the very best she could with limited resources.

Still... You're asking people to pay the same amount for this that they would for a "regular" movie. And while a regular festival audience may find learning about new filmmakers enough, I don't know that this sort of film festival is the sort where good intentions and perhaps being a filmmaker to watch are good enough for the audience. I think each entry really needs to do something well, and The Foundling doesn't have that.

The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio cut)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2009 in Regal Fenway #5 (first-run)

I probably should have known to be a little wary when the preview for this movie, aside from changing its name from the nifty-sounding "The Boat That Rocked" to the generic "Pirate Radio", spent a good chunk of time announcing that it had music from a bunch of great classic rock groups on the soundtrack. That's nice and all, but the target audience has most of that stuff on CD, and the time period rules out much in the way of new stuff (if groups being broken up and artists being dead didn't do an even more thorough job). So, Universal was basically selling it on what a great job the people who did the music clearances did. And while I'm sure they worked hard, if that's what you're using to push a movie with this cast, it sort of suggests that the movie isn't nearly as funny or clever as a movie with this cast and pedigree should be.

And, sadly, it's not. It's never bad, especially when it pulls out weapons like Billy Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, and Emma Thompson, but the truly great moments have a little too much space between them, and director Richard Curtis never quite manages to communicate the excitement of the era and how playing rock & roll like this was such an act of rebellion. The heck of it is, with modern American radio becoming as soullessly corporate as the day's BBC was stodgy, this movie could have really said something to people, but doesn't quite get there. Not that I expect Brit Curtis to think in those terms, but if the energy had been there, it would have been a nice side-effect.

The movie was recut from the original UK version for its US release, since the lengths was apparently a factor in its disappointing performance across the pond (which, I guess, makes the name change a little more palatable). One thing I think might have gotten garbled in the cut is how Tom Sturridge's Carl, the teenager sent to apprentice on the boat, at one point suspects Nighy's character is his unknown father, not far from when he is being set up with said character's niece. Maybe this was re-ordered for the US release, or something was cut, but it seems like there should have been alarm bells going off for someone.

The Parallax View

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Gordon Willis: The Man Who Shot the Godfather)

Pretty darn decent as paranoid 1970s thrillers go. The action set-piece that plays out in the beginning is a bit of a classic, although jarring to modern sensibilities: It plays out with no music, and is actually over pretty quickly, although not in a "came out of nowhere" way. It's just understated, acknowledging that this sort of chase wouldn't necessarily last very long.

The rest isn't quite up to that level; Warren Beatty is decent but not great, although Hume Cronyn is a treat as his crusty newspaper editor. It does serve as an interesting time capsule about paranoia and attitudes then and now. People still seemed to really believe in the press as an important check on government and industry ambition. Somehow the secret organization at the center seems both tame and extremely unlikely. And, get this, a man could just walk onto the runway, get on a plane, and then buy a ticket in the air, like he was on the commuter rail.

Not bad, and as befits a film presented in a series about the cinematographer, it certainly looks nice.

This Week In Tickets!


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2009 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Let's talk promotion and trailers again. I saw Bronson listed in the IFFB catalog and the picture used was a reddish image of Tom Hardy, stripped to the waist and looking tough. I figured, okay, I'll give that a pass. Then I see the crazy, colorful preview and think, huh, that might be worth a look.

In the end, Bronson winds up a so-so story told rather well. It's eye-popping to look at, and having the title character narrate as a stage show proves compelling and surprising far more often than it seems gimmicky. It's still very simple - young man gets sent to jail, discovers he likes to fight and is good at it, and is so committed to it that the sentence of seven years (and likely out in four) winds up becoming over thirty years spent in solitary confinement. But it's entertaining to watch, even if that's not the sort of story one usually goes in for.

Precious (based upon the novel Push by Sapphire)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2009 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

At some point while watching Precious, I remarked to myself that watchiing the movie was remarkably like being repeatedly hit in the head with a hammer. That's not meant as a criticism; the life of Clarice "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is remarkably like being repeatedly hit in the head with a hammer, and she certainly starts the movie ignorant enough that her way of communicating her life would like be akin to... Well, you get the idea. So, to a certain extent, every ham-fisted symbol or device is evidence that director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher are doing a good job of capturing Precious's perspective. Still, there are times when it doesn't quite feel like cleverness as just fumbling.

Still, the cast is top-notch. Gabourey Sidibe is excellent as Precious, as is Mo'Nique as her monstrous mother. Paula Patton and Mariah Carey provide good support, as do the group of actors playing Precious's friends. They're all quite natural, and no matter how awkward the storytelling sometimes may be, the acting is absolutely worth seeing the film for.

Mr. Skeffington

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2009 in the Brattle Theatre (Epstein Brothers)

The Epstein Brothers' most famous screenplay is, of course, Casablanca, but there's an argument to be made that the movie is fantastic in spite of the script, rather than because of it. After all, its events are absurd, but the acting and snappy dialog make up for it. Mr. Skeffington isn't quite so peppy, covering thirty years in its two and a half hours, and the star-crossed romance between Bette Davis's Fanny Trellis and Claude Rains's Job Skeffington is far from being Rick & Ilsa.

Still, it's not bad. Claude Rains, Walter Abel, and Marjorie Riordan are all charming in their parts, and there's a nice scope to it. Bette Davis, on the other hand... Well, Fanny soon becomes a singularly unpleasant character, and she gets saddled with some astonishingly horrific prosthetic makeup.

Red Cliff (edited from Chi bi and Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2009 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Surprisingly, considering that the American release of Red Cliff has been cut just about exactly in half from what it was in China (where it was released as two movies totaling five hours), it's not simply one action scene after another. That's not to say it's not action-packed - it is, with Woo staging a few battle scenes that are nothing short of breathless - but not at the expense of the story.

The main attraction, of course, is the action, and we know what we're getting into from the start, when a loyal general takes a baby prince from its dying mother, puts him in a sling, and starts hacking up members of Prime Minister Cao Cao's army; from the moment we see the sling, we know there's badassery ahead, and we'll have single men taking on armies, literally controlling the battlefield, and an entire armada set on fire. Woo works his repertoire into this wuxia film, right down to the doves.

I'm hoping that when Magnolia releases this on home video, the entire two-part film will be on the Blu-ray, because although Red Cliff is suitably epic as is, there are points that could definitely use some fleshing out; in particular, Takeshi Kaneshiro's master strategist tends to seem to be ahead of Zhang Feng-yi's Cao Cao too much of the time; hopefully the entire story contains more back-and-forth, and perhaps a bit more of a story arc for some of the other characters.

Ninja Assassin

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2009 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run)

It's good to see that fake fake blood technology has improved since the Zatoichi remake, because the folks in Ninja Assassin do plenty of slicing and dicing. There's plenty of real fake blood, too, and even the some of the CGI weapons look pretty good. It's not the same sort of awe-inspiring action seen in Red Cliff, but there is something nice about how director James McTeague and company aren't messing around - there's been little if any thought given to how this could possibly secure a PG-13. Ninja movies should be this bloody and violent.

And it's good that it has that going for it, because even if it's not quite rock-stupid, it is the sort of action movie where every moment where fake blood of one sort or another isn't spurting is pretty much filler to lead us to the next. The characters are thoroughly generic, and there isn't even an obvious twist toward the end. The ninjas seem to have some mild supernatural abilities when McTeague and company think it would look cool - although I argue that ninjas actually being stealthy rather than seeming to impossibly step out of shadows with a shimmer would actually be cooler.

Ninja Assassin also seems to suggest a corollary to the multiple-ninja rule - that is, although one ninja is an unstoppable, undetectable killing machine, an army of ninjas is basically cannon fodder. It's as though a given geographical area has a limited pool of awesomeness to be drawn upon, so when you have many ninjas, they only get a little awesome each. Ninja Assassin posits a much stronger awesome field than most movies, as even groups of ninjas prove to be pretty fierce, but it also suggests that the field is polarized, with positive and negative awesome. Rain's title character thus has an advantage because he's the only one using the positive awesome field, while all the other ninjas are splitting the negative.

35 Shots of RunThe CanyonIchiThe Damned UnitedThe Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Box
United Red ArmyMary and MaxThe Wayward CloudAn EducationBlack Dynamite(Untitled)
William Kunstler: Disturbing the UniverseBrief Interviews with Hideous MenThe Boat that RockedThe Parallax View
BronsonPreciousMr. SkeffingtonRed CliffVacationThe Magic HourCyborg SheNinja Assassin