Wednesday, April 29, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Three: Johny Cash at Folsom Prison, In The Loop, and Pontypool

Given a chance for a do-over, I'd probably trade Johnny Cash for Kim Jong-Il, at least for the festival. Well, I probably would in real life, if it meant Johnny Cash alive and playing music as opposed to Kim Jong-Il alive and presiding over North Korea like some sort of dynastic communist cult leader. The Cash doc wasn't bad, but it's already on video, sort of (included with the deluxe CD of Live at Folsom Prison.

In the Loop was a ton of fun, and I imagine it would be even more so for those who've seen Ianucci's BBC series The Thick of It. Certainly, I'm going to have to find out if that's available here in Region 1 (apparently not. Disappointing). Ianucci had a pretty entertaining Q&A, making the first of the roughly fifty prison references I heard over the course of the festival about the Liberty Hotel.

Pontypool was also quite entertaining, and not just to the guys I know with a Canadian film fetish. It is a sign of how I not only drink, but generally don't go places where people are drinking, that I failed to recognize that the producers were drunk off their asses during the Q&A. I basically need to see someone sober for comparison purposes, because for all I know these guys were just excitable.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Johnny Cash never did time, but his name will forever be associated with California's Folsom State Prison; a great song and a great album will do that. The Folsom Prison concert is a definitive moment in Cash's career, but as with all events, that moment has a lead-up and a postscript, as well as import to people beyond Johnny Cash. To call Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison the untold story of the concert would be overstating the case, but it is an interesting telling of what went on around it.

There's not necessarily a great deal said about Johnny Cash that fans don't already know and others wouldn't have learned from recent biographical film Walk the Line, but it is interesting to see it presented (compared to that movie) in less obvious service to a romantic or redemptive storyline. A fair amount comes from Cash himself, in a voiceover taken from a 1990s radio interview. He talks about his time in Germany transcribing Russian Morse code with a bit of pride, and describes his first prison show as being in the middle of a downpour at a prison rodeo. We also get some nifty insights into the writing of "Folsom Prison Blues" from the surviving musicians, including how the melody was "adapted" from "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins.

Cash and his band weren't the only people in the room, of course, and we get a number of stories from the audience. There's a guard by the name of Jim Brown, as well as a pair of inmates. Millard Dedmond doesn't seem to have any particular connection to Johnny Cash aside from having been in the audience, but Glen Sherley attracts Cash's attention. Cash sees a kindred spirit in Serley - the filmmakers take pains to show that their initial creative processes are very similar - and playing a song written by the inmate during the concert, later going to bat for him with the penal system and giving him a place on the tour when he's released. We also hear from Merle Haggard, a country and western star who, as he points out, had lived what Cash sang about.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

In the Loop

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In the Loop is sharp satire, likely sharp enough to draw blood whenever it makes the attempt. Given how divisive politics have become, that's probably enough to put off those who align themselves with the targets being skewered, which is sort of a shame, as I suspect many of them might enjoy its constant barrage of mean humor.

The film opens with the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), flipping his lid because a government minister said that a situation in the Middle East escalating to war was "unforeseeable", a dangerously absolute phrase at the best of times and likely soon to be off-message. He calls this Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) on the carpet and tries to squelch it, but Foster just proceeds to make things worse every time he opens his mouth, especially in a meeting with American Undersecretary Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). A paper written by her assistant, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), which states that the benefits of war are far outstripped by the risks and costs, has started to circulate within the US State Department, much to the chagrin of Clarke's boss, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). Tucker tasks Foster and his new assistant Toby Wright (Chris Addison) with damage control, but these things are tricky.

The plot is tangled - the above description does not include James Gandolfini as an American general who, having seen war, is none to keen to see any more, or that Weld and Wright met in college/university, or an absurd subplot featuring Steve Coogan about a crumbling wall in Foster's home district. That is how it should be, of course - even though we often visualize government as a top-down hierarchy, it is a complex web where the links and relationships between people are often more personal than ideological, and what those people do is often strangely disconnected from their stated purpose. Director Armando Ianucci and his co-writers do a good job of making their story feel more complex than it actually is: They avoid unnecessary details that would further complicate matters and do a good job of making sure the audience understands what they need to without slowing down the pace.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

Pontypool

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

Pontypool is adapted from a small part of the novel Pontypool Changes Everything - according to the producers taking part in the Q&A, a tiny part. Paragraphs, supposedly. That's actually a really nifty idea - zoom in a large-scale story to find one that is just as big to the people caught up in it.

This is the story from the perspective of Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a radio announcer who has the morning shift on a low-power station operating out of the basement of a church in Pontypool, Ontario. It's a stripped-down operation, with just producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) in the studio with him, and Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) calling in with traffic updates. Mazzy's a pro but it's boring most of the time, so he jumps at the opportunity to talk about something more exciting when reports start trickling in at a riot in and around a local doctor's office - a riot that turns out to be something out of a George Romero movie.

Pontypool has two somewhat unique features, one executed very well and one more of a mixed bag. The excellent one is the way that, once Mazzy arrives at the station, the camera never looks outside. Everything we know about the situation out there comes from callers and news reports, and even those are often filtered in that they're Laurel Ann reading from the wire rather than first-hand. This gives writer Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald time to let us get to make the first half of the movie about Mazzy and his ego without the audience feeling either like we're waiting for something to happen or that he's a one-dimensional jerk for thinking of his career despite immediate danger. What's going on is real and scary but not yet immediately so, so we can wait a while for this to turn into a siege movie. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of giving us a personal stake in what's going on with Ken Loney, even though he never actually appears on screen.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

Monday, April 27, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 20 April 2009 to 26 April 2009

Festivals collide! I had high hopes of finishing my SXSW reviews before starting IFFB, but a rained-out Red Sox game on Tuesday led to me rising early to work from home before heading to the rescheduled game on Wednesday, depriving me that distraction-free hour on the bus where most of the work gets done. Still, two more:

* The Way We Get By
* The Slammin' Salmon

This Week In Tickets!

So, pretty crazy week for a person who likes baseball and movies. Naturally, I was outside and exposed to the elements at Fenway Park on the days when the whether was cold, windy, and rainy; the weekend of the festival, when I was inside apart from waiting in line, were ridiculously beautiful for April. At least I wasn't having to choose between them, which is always a peril.

(Like in a couple weeks, where I have tickets for both games against the Rays on the weekend when the new Star Trek opens in IMAX. Oooowwwww.)

So far, I've seen 14 movies at IFFB, with three more on tap for the next couple of days. I figure you can max out this year's schedule at 20 movies, but that basically means camping out at the Brattle on Saturday and Sunday, and I'd already seen 4 of those movies and was less than enthusiastic about a couple others. The final schedule wound up as:

22 April 2009 (Wednesday): The Brothers Bloom
23 April 2009 (Thursday): Children of Invention, The Missing Person
24 April 2009 (Friday): Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, In The Loop, Pontypool
25 April 2009 (Saturday): Still Walking, Nollywood Babylon, Lost Son of Havana, Grace
26 April 2009 (Sunday): Herb and Dorothy, Helen, Unmistaken Child, The Escapist
27 April 2009 (Monday): For the Love of Movies, Art & Copy
28 April 2009 (Tuesday): World's Greatest Dad

I must say, if I weren't also working a real job on the weekdays, that bell-curve shape would make IFFB one of the more relaxing festivals I do, with the build and slow tailing off, in stark comparison to, say, SXSW, which slams you from start to finish all week (see how much more "square" a similar list here is).

State of Play

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2009 at Regal Fenway #2 (first-run)

I am reasonably sure that I would have an easier time writing reviews for movies I saw a month ago at SXSW than this one, and not just because IFFB has more or less overwhelmed my short-term memory; this is a decent-enough thriller that nevertheless fails to make much of an impression. It's not obviously cut down from a longer miniseries, but it still feels kind of half-baked. No-one actually yells "stop the presses!", but the last act has enough "stop the presses!" moments that I was giggling by the last one. Despite personally believing that Blackwater is a scary organization, I'm not sure I need to see another thinly disguised analog used as a villain any time soon, unless a writer comes up with a really interesting take on the private army. And for all the odes to newspapers this film has inspired, it really doesn't have much of a take on the old-media/new-media conflict at all - Rachel McAdams's Della Frye seems less like a blogger whose style and methods clash with Russell Crowe's character than a character invented to do all the physical activity that Crowe is at the wrong extreme of his eating disorder to do.

PatriotsDayState of PlayWednesday AfternoonThe Brothers BloomIFFBLost Son of Havana

IFFB 2009 Day Two: Children of Invention and The Missing Person

The IFFB looks to be a little less hectic in some ways this year - in '08, there were films running on seven screens stretching from Davis Square to Coolidge Corner for five of the seven days; this year, the Coolidge doesn't come into play until closing night and Monday is given over to the ICA. On the one hand, that's a lot less overwhelming - I have had some crazy days going from Somerville to Brookline and back to Cambridge.

For better or worse, though, the reduction in the total number of screenings seems to have mostly by eliminating repeat showings, which means tough decisions. I'd already had to choose Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison over Kimjongilia with my second movie, and Saturday's line-up was absolutely brutal.

Children of Invention

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I am certain that there is no shortage of bad independent films which focus on kids; after all, there are plenty in the mainstream. Having to contend with boutique cinema and festival programmers looking to please grown-up audiences without a studio marketing division to shove them down our throats, they tend to be the victims of savage attrition, leaving only the very good or the material with local or topical interest. Children of Invention was shot here, but it's also pretty darn good.

The film opens with Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) being evicted from her Quincy house along with children Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). They've got a place to stay for a few months - the realtor Elaine works for is letting them squat in an unrented apartment - but even though Elaine is studying for her real estate license (and her ex-husband isn't sending his child support from Hong Kong), she wants to get out form under faster, and signs up for a multi-level marketing scheme. One day, she goes out to talk to the person who recruited her and doesn't come back, leaving Raymond and Tina alone in an apartment with no food, no money, no phone, and no idea what to do next.

Though director Tze Chun doesn't reference it in obvious ways, it's based upon his own life in the early 90s, explaining why characters get tripped up by things like pagers and pay phones. Locals may also peg it as not being set in the present by how the characters refer to Somerville as a somewhat disdained suburb. They may also get a laugh from how Raymond solemnly calls Information to ask for directions to Chinatown from Downtown Crossing; I think you can see buildings with Chinese signage from that spot. That's not a blooper, but an illustration of how unprepared Raymond is for this sort of situation, although you've got to know the city a bit to fully get the gag - more than you need to know about being Chinese-American at any point.

Full review at EFC.

The Missing Person

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Missing Person suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, which is only fitting, as it parallels that of the main character. Its jumps between mystery and parody don't do it many favors, even if it has some very good moments of each.

John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is an ex-cop from New York now working as a private detective in Chicago. Well, it's what would be on his business cards if he were the business-card type; he's not doing much of anything, really. He gets a call about a job, with details delivered by one Miss Charley (Amy Ryan). It turns out to be following one Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood) on a train to Los Angeles, but things are more than they seem: There's a couple of federal agents (Liza Weil and Daniel Franzese) following Harold as well, and Harold's got a kid with him.

John is a throwback to the private eyes of the old pulp and film noirs, sometimes to the point where the audience might wonder if there's a deleted subplot about him being trapped in some sort of cryonic freeze for forty or fifty years. Would an ex-cop in 2008 really be so astounded that you can take pictures with mobile phones and then send them to other people? There are fun bits as well, mostly based on his coming off like a blunt object but either thinking he's smarter than that or maybe actually being so. Michael Shannon doesn't take the character completely over the top into caricature, so the feeling is a little more along the lines of this sort of guy never dying out most of the time.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, April 24, 2009

IFFB 2009 Opening Night: The Brothers Bloom

Wednesday was an outright crazy day, in large part because of Tuesday. I had tickets for Tuesday night's Sox game, you see, but it got rained out and rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Walking away from the park with Matt (who got out of work just in time to see the game called off), I hit upon the idea of getting up very early, doing the telecommuting thing until about noon, and then walking down to the ballpark. Sure, I'd miss a meeting, and I knew the IFFB was starting at the other end of the day, but (a) it's a meeting that lasts five minutes when things are going right, and (b) it'd be a one-movie day! And the alternative is paying a hundred bucks to do nothing but eat a ballpark sausage in the rain (note: price does not include sausage and $4 Coke). And screw that!

So, I got on my computer at 6:15-ish, and plugged through til roughly noon, surprisingly getting things done (normally, when I work from home, I feel like the only way you can call the day productive is if you measure in terms of laundry). I got to the park in the middle of the first, saw a pretty great game, and then spent forty-five minutes hemming and hawing about whether to stay during the rain delay. I left a little after 3:30, wound up taking the green line because, on days when the Sox have a day game, the #47 bus never comes, and had just enough time to stop at the Million Year Picnic for the week's comics before hopping the #96 bus to Davis Square, picking up my press pass, and then getting into a line that probably would have wrapped all the way around the Somerville Theatre's building back to where it started if it had turned that last corner.

Fortunately, I had no trouble getting a seat, though I wound up abandoning my second row center spot to sit with some other folks. It turned out to be a great night - the IFFB folks are right up there with the Fantasia crew in terms of getting the crowd psyched for the festival, the movie itself was fantastic, and Rian Johnson gave a lively Q&A. I haven't seen Brick, but it looks like I'm going to have to. I'm also fairly psyched to hear he's working on a science fiction film next; it's always great when guys with a unique vision do that.

As usual, I wish I'd hit IMDB before seeing the movie, because my eyes went pretty wide at the list of Rinko Kikuchi's credits. Yes, she's got an Oscar nomination for Babel, and she was great there, but she apparently shows up in small roles in The Taste of Tea, Funky Forest, Survive Style 5+, and Arch Angels. She's in a few movies that I'm really curious to see - Mamoru Oshii's Kill! anthology, the Japanese version of Sideways, and Shanghai. She's got voice-acting credits for Genius Party and Sky Crawlers; ironic, given that she's near-silent in this one. Everyone else, I knew they'd been in stuff I liked, but I hadn't realized just how great her filmography was.

Recommendations and Plans for Friday & Saturday

I'm not sure how often I'll be able to post during this festival, but I hope I can keep to just running a couple days behind. Anyway, here's what I've seen (either earlier or at other festivals) and what I plan to see:

Friday: Children of Invention is very nice, with the director getting some nice performances from some very cute kids. Also, if you're from the Boston area, there's some moments that may amuse you more than outsiders (like the kid standing in Downtown Crossing, calling information to ask how to get to Chinatown). Make Out With Violence was one of my favorites at SXSW; my EFC review is here. I plan to see Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, In the Loop, and Pontypool.

Saturday: Mine is a good little documentary about the pets scattered to the four winds by Hurricane Katrina (EFC review here); Monsters from the Id is well-intentioned but ultimately kind of scattershot (EFC review here). From Inside rubbed me the wrong was at Fantasia last year (EFC review here), just too dark for dark's sake for my tastes. Best Worst Movie is a ton of fun with just a couple of bits I would have left out, and both the Brattle Theater and former staff member Caitlin Crowley show up, which is fun. The animated shorts package includes "I Am So Proud of You", Don Hertzfeldt's follow-up to "Everything Will Be OK" (it's funnier than "OK", but not as scary), and a new PES short, which is always fun.

As to what I'll see... Man, I've got no idea. I have 12 or 13 films I want to see, none of them play later, and I'm going to max out at 5. Plan A is Crude, Automorphosis, The Burning Plain, Last Son of Havana, (maybe) Animated Shorts, and Grace. Plan B is Still Walking, Nollywood Babylon, The Vicious Kind, Bronson, and Grace. Plan C is The Answer Man, La Mission, I Need That Record, the Animated Shorts, and Grace. Or some combination thereof.

That's a bunch of great movies, anyway; if you're in Boston, try and catch a few.

The Brothers Bloom

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Brothers Bloom is a magic trick of a movie, done close-up by a magician who has not only shown that there is nothing up his sleeves, but who is in fact only wearing a vest so as to make the whole question moot. It brazenly informs the audience how it will end just as it's getting started, and happily declares that everything the to follow will be slight-of-hand and trickery, but manages to amuse and delight for all that.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are con artists, and have been for a quarter-century, when they were (respectively) thirteen and ten; a delightful prelude with Max Records and Zachary Gordon playing the brothers as children shows Stephen discovering his skill at planning an intricate con using Bloom as the leading man. Now, though, Bloom is wondering whether he has been playing parts so long as to no longer know who he is, and quits. Stephen tracks him down and asks him to help scam one more mark: Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a pretty heiress from New Jersey who, due to her unusual upbringing, is something of a hermit in her castle-like mansion. As usual, their assistant Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) is along to assist with logistics; they also run into a couple other con artists, a Belgian calling himself The Curator (Robbie Coltrane) and their one-time mentor, Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell).

The script for The Brothers Bloom is self-referential enough to not just wink at the audience, but to wink at itself winking at the audience. Early on, it sets up a clever in-joke that is likely to sail right past much of the audience, except that writer/director Rian Johnson has a character pick up on it and blurt it out, and then ends the scene on a perfectly in-character joke rather than by patting himself on the back about how clever it is. The movie proper starts by showing us the end of one of Stephen's novelistic plots, not just foreshadowing how the next one will play out but reminding us how reference in movies and literature plays on the audience's expectations. The opening scene is narrated by famed con artistry expert/magician Ricky Jay, a fitting choice for that sort of fairy tale. All of the characters are constantly fiddling with playing cards, whether it be practicing card tricks or playing a variation of solitaire where all the cards are face-up.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, April 20, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 13 April 2009 to 19 April 2009

The week nearly had a "name of the city in the title" thing going on, but the film in the BIFF session did not actually include "Boston" or "Southie" in the name.

This Week In Tickets!

More SXSW reviews:

* The Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey
* Make-Out with Violence
* Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love
* The Eyes of Me

With luck, I should have the last of them finished up just in time for the whole process to start up again with The Independent Film Festival of Boston on Wednesday. It's looking like a pretty good line-up (including the above-linked Make-Out With Violence, which I liked rather a lot). My ridiculously overbooked schedule can be seen there, but I'm not sure how to share it properly. Everybody's using B-Side for these things nowadays, so I'm going to have to wrap my brain around it eventually.

Between IFFB and a cluster of Red Sox games, I'm going to wind up not seeing more than the opening night selection at the Boston International Film Festival, which is more than I've done in the past. BIFF seems to fly completely under the radar; the only sort of advertising I've ever seen for them is one poster at the Boston Common theater each year. This year, they pushed it up to April so that it overlaps with IFFB, which just strikes me as dumb - they started at about the same time, but IFFB has done a much better job of growing into something very good, while BIFF...

In a Herald article, they said they didn't bother to check for competing festivals when moving to April, which can be taken a bunch of ways, none good. They could be foolhardy - yes, there is something every week, as the organizers said, but some weeks are obviously less competitive than others. Or they could be trying to compete, but I don't think it'll do much good.

Anyway, saw one movie there. Won't see another this year, as IFFB starts in two days.

Faubourg 36 (aka Paris 36)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Not really my sort of movie, in general - I tend to get my back up at these sort of movies that basically point one's head at some sort of nostalgic art form and basically say "love musical theater! LOVE IT!!!" Fortunately, this one doesn't get quite so heavy-handed with that. It's got a nice enough cast, especially Gerard Jugnot and Nora Arnezeder, and the musical numbers aren't bad.

It may have played better in France; there's a lot of detail that seems like it would play out better for those familiar with it. At any rate, it's a pleasant enough two hours at the theater.

What Doesn't Kill You

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2009 at AMC Boston Common #2 (Boston International Film Festival)

Though this movie takes place in Southie, at least parts of it were filmed in Brighton - the armored car robbery shown in the opening is being perpetrated at a building that was a K-Mart up until a year or two ago, part of a shopping plaza owned (I believe) by Harvard University that has been steadily emptying out with no new tenants appearing - all that's left is a supermarket that I stop at once a week or so because it's on the 70A route between my work and home. I think some of the interiors may have been shot there, too, as the closed-up Fashion Warehouse next door had what looked like a house and other sets built inside. It was neat to see what had been shooting there.

The movie itself isn't bad; it's a well-acted bit of true crime. It's tough to go far wrong with Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo in the lead roles as lifelong friends who graduate from petty to organized crime, and there's good supporting work from Amanda Peet, Donnie Wahlberg, and others.

La Frontière de l'aube (aka Frontier of Dawn)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Yet another precisely-crafted film that is, at times, a bit of a tough slog to get through. On the whole, I like it more than I don't; the things that seem contrived and fake at least seem to feel that way for a reason. The way Laura Smet always seems to be posing looks like bad acting, but it's also kind of amusing. Maybe not quite enough to offset how dour the rest of the movie is - it is one of those extremely French movies where people sit around, talking about pretentious intellectual foofery, and it really skates the line between self-parody and being an occasionally painful example of what it's parodying.
Paris 36Tokyo!What Doesn't Kill YouFrontier of DawnSaturday's Game

Tokyo!

In an odd bit of synchronicity, I was writing about "Interior Design" earlier this evening (last evening, I guess - good thing I'm taking the day off to go to the Red Sox game!) when I got the local comic store's email mentioning that a hardcover version of the graphic novella that inspired it is arriving at the shop this Wednesday. I may just have to pick it up, to see where Michel Gondry has gone with it.

I do admit that I was somewhat disappointed when I realized that the movie wasn't really about Tokyo itself the way that Paris, je t'aime is about Paris and New York, I Love You will presumably be about NYC when it finally shows up. Its actual subject - or at least, the one I wound up perceiving - is just as interesting, even though I'd like to think that it doesn't apply to me so much: The way big cities can intimidate.

It is, in fact, oddly fascinating to me because I observe it with my family and friends. I grew up in a small town in southern Maine, a second-ring suburb (or, as I'd occasionally joke, "supra-rural"), and even though I've been living in Boston for ten years, I still don't think my mom quite understands how I can stand it. My best friend from high school (and before) moved back to that small town as soon as he could. Heck, one time my brother Matt (who will surely correct me on how I remember it) once told me on a trip to New York that as nice as it is to visit occasionally, he couldn't imagine doing it for an extended period; Boston was about his ceiling (oddly enough, he likes Vegas; go figure). I joked that if Manhattan was too much, he probably doesn't want to get near Tokyo.

Which brings us full circle - to Tokyo!.

Tokyo!

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (First-run)

Typically, anthology films like Tokyo! will focus on looking at a subject, whether that be an idea or (as in recent projects like Paris, je t'aime) a city from multiple angles to see it as a whole, generally with some amount of affection. Tokyo!, by contrast, finds all three directors apparently so struck by the enormity of the city that they are forced to resort to surrealism to describe what the place is like.

It's not immediately apparent that this is where Michel Gondry is going in "Interior Design" (based upon Gabrielle Bell's bande dessiné "Cecil and Jordan in New York"). Akira (Ryo Kase) and Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) have come to the city to play Akira's art-house science fiction film in a place that turns out to be an adult theater. Their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) tells them that they can stay at her tiny apartment while they look for a place of their own, but that turns out to be slow going; even a place as tiny as Akemi's is out of their price range. And when Hiroko finds out how happy Akemi really is to have them there...

Well, at that point things get strange. Not that they weren't before - Gondry has already given us a peculiar film within a film, a tour of the city's occasionally strange architecture, and workplace humor from Akira's new job wrapping packages at a department store ("they want me to wrap five boxes instead of four from a single sheet! It can't be done!") - but this is outright strange, with transformations and bizarre puppetry and special effects. It gets silly and absurd, but also sad. Ayako Fujitani is note-perfect as Hiroko, sad but also funny.

Leos Carax's "Merde" starts out strange from the get-go, as the title character (Denis Lavant), with his lightning-bolt beard, milky eye, and curved fingernails, crawls out of a manhole and starts harassing people on the streets of Tokyo before diving back into the sewers. Funny, until he finds a cache of WWII hand grenades and starts lobbing them around a train station. Only three people on Earth speak his language, one of them being Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer), the lawyer who comes in from France to defend him.

This is easily the zaniest of the shorts, and pretty funny if you like your humor dark and weird. Merde's language is gibberish, Voland is a bizarre mirror image of him, and the news coverage of the rampages and trials is deadpan perfect. As long as Carax is just going for black comedy, that works, but Carax opts to make Merde not just being an exemplar of extreme alienation or hostility, but something more. The short winds up ending as if presenting us with something profound, but for the life of me, I couldn't say what it was.

Finally, Bong Joon-ho brings us "Shaking Japan", featuring Teruyuki Kagawa as a nameless hikikomori (one who isolates himself in his home for months, if not years, at a time) who has not ventured outside in eleven years, and indeed has not even made eye-contact with the delivery people who bring his food for nearly as long. One day he does glance up at the pretty girl delivering his pizza (Yu Aoi), only to have her collapse in his entryway. He awakens her (by pushing a button marked "coma" tattooed on her skin), and looks forward to seeing her again, only to find out she has become hikikomori herself.

"Shaking Japan" is the most Japan-specific story of the anthology, and probably the sweetest. Kagawa's character narrates for us, and while he doesn't explain why he retreated from the world in the first place, he does a great job of showing us his confusion and determination to break out once he sees a reason. Bong is clever in how he portrays Tokyo here - not as overcrowded, but empty, emphasizing that all people have the impulse to become hikikomori, and that modern life may be driving us toward it.

It's perhaps telling that none of the three directors are Japanese - there is nothing like Satoshi Miki's Adrift in Tokyo which knows and celebrates the city as a native might. Instead, we see the city frightening people - Hiroko becoming something else to fit in, Merde lashing out in hatred, the hikikomori refusing to venture outside for a decade. For all that, the movie doesn't hate Tokyo; the segments form a story arc of coming to terms with the place: Retreat, attack, and rapprochement. All three stories are more or less the right length, telling a full but compact story, and none dominates the others enough for a given segment to feel diminished. The visuals are nifty, too, giving the audience tastes of the fantastic without completely disconnecting us from the real world.

As much as I'd still like to know what Carax was getting at with "Merde", I found the other two segments fairly delightful. Tokyo's a place I've long wanted to visit, and while I don't think Tokyo! tells me much about that far-off city, it will likely speak to anyone who has been been hit with the sort of culture shock that I imagine Tokyo as dishing out.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Monday, April 13, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 6 April 2009 to 12 April 2009

Not a lot of movies seen this week, as baseball started, and that's been getting a lot of my attention. Not that it's been a particularly great week to be a Red Sox fan - opening day rained out, the game I went to cold and miserable, neither pitchers nor hitters (not named Kevin Youkilis) looking very good.

On a baseball & movies note, Sugar is really good. The post may have been buried under this one, so it's worth noting. In the Boston, it's playing at the two Landmark Theaters and the Regal Fenway (given their location, they may as well fill screens with something baseball-related until the big guns start hitting in May (even if it does have subtitles).

This Week In Tickets!

Not a lot to talk about here, but I can direct you to a few more of my SXSW reviews on EFC:

* Sin Nombre
* Women in Trouble
* The 2 Bobs
* Observe and Report

That last one just in time for its regular release. Out of five reviews on EFC, I'm the only guy who doesn't like it. One thing I do find myself noticing, reading all the positive reviews: None of them make any sort of case that the movie is actually funny. It's daring and dark and edgy and uncompromising, but not much said about why it will make people laugh or entertain them. Humor's a subjective thing, I know, but was everybody just so stunned by what Jody Hill got Warner Brothers to pay him to do that whether or not it was actually funny was beside the point?

Sauna

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2009 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I didn't realize, going into the Eye Opener this week, that Sauna was made by the same team that had done Jade Warrior a couple years earlier. I don't know if that would have affected what I thought about Sauna, but I might have had something to add to the conversation afterward. It's an interesting body of work director Antti-Jussi Annila and writer Iiro Kuttner are putting together, as both movies take relatively obscure bits of Finnish culture and history (at least, obscure to us non-Finns!) and build perhaps unexpected genre films around them.

I don't know if it fully works with Sauna, although I certainly would be interested in watching it again with both a previous viewing under my belt and Jade Warrior in the back of my mind. It's a pretty darn engrossing film, if only for the relationship between the two brothers - one a warrior, one a scholar - as well as how they deal with the Russian team that they must work with in order to chart a border after a long war between Russia and Sweden (Finland being a part of Sweden at the time). Things start to get strange once they arrive at a village in the middle of a swamp, populated by the exact number of innocent souls warrior brother Erik (Ville Virtanen) has on his conscience, and academic Knut (Tommi Eronen, who starred in Jade Warrior) becomes obsessed with a sauna there which pre-dates any other settlement.

Annila seems to have cut his movie to the bone (it's 85 minutes including credits), and he maybe could have left a little more flesh on there. It's the sort of movie where the metaphor is fairly clear, but not as specific as it could be, and the mechanics are vague even beyond the point where being inexplicable adds to it being scary.

That said, there is a flat-out awesome make-up effect at the end, the sort of think Clive Barker would look at and nod approval of in terms of being messed up (but unlike his Cenobites, it's a pretty simple, straightforward design).
One ugly gameSugarSauna

Sugar

I really loved Sugar, intitial reservations as I watched the last act included. I met up with Gil & Amanda there, and I think we all came away pretty impressed with just how many things it does well. It's a very impressive movie that way.

I go on a bit in the review about how a major component of the movie is how a person reacts to the first time he's in a situation where he's not the best, because that certainly is how I connected to it. College killed me there - knowing computers and math better than any other kid in North Yarmouth/Cumberland, ME didn't mean a heck of a lot when I got to school and everybody there had been at the top of their class in those subjects, and I don't know that I dealt with it better than Miguel does in the film (in fact, I'm pretty darn sure I didn't work as hard as he did). It's probably a fairly common phenomenon, but one that lets all manner of people connect to a character who is otherwise pretty far outside their experience.

Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were there, as well as star Algenis Perez Soto, so it kind of functioned as a warm-up for The Independent Film Festival of Boston; Boden & Fleck have been there nearly every year since its inception, with narrative and documentary shorts as well as Half Nelson. I think the streak was actually broken last year because Sony Pictures Classics or HBO Films didn't allow it to show. (This year, Ms. Boden is the editor of IFFB selection Children of Invention)

This is roughly the 500th Q&A session where I couldn't think of a question afterward. As I was walking home, one half-formed in my mind about Jose Rijo, who was their baseball adviser in the Dominican and apparently has a small part in the film. He was the first to go in the Washington Nationals' recent purge of their front office, in no small part due to some tremendous ineptitude at their Dominican academy. I'm still not sure what I would have asked, though - "was Rijo distracted enough working with you to not get taken in by a player four years older than he claimed using a false name?" seems kind of tactless.

Sugar

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (first-run, filmmakers in attendance)

It's an oft-repeated joke that the Dominican Republic's chief exports are sugar and professional baseball players. I'm not sure whether that was in the mind of filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck when they named the title character of their engrossing new movie; I suspect they did. It's the sort of movie that reveals more with closer examination, and while that sometimes happens because things come together naturally, it's more often planned.

Miguel "Sucre" ("Sugar") Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a seventeen-year-old pitcher who signed with the Kansas City Knights a year or two earlier, and has been working hard at the team's Dominican baseball academy ever since. He's put on twenty pounds of muscle over the winter, and when a scout asks him to try a knuckle curve, he practices it obsessively until he masters it. That gets him an invitation to spring training, with the next stop the low minors in Iowa. For as much as everyone in the organization tells him that it's the same game he's played all his life, though, Iowa is a different world, where nobody speaks Spanish and even fellow rookies like Brad Johnson (Andre Holland) don't quite understand how much is riding on Miguel's shoulders.

Sugar starts out looking like a rags-to-riches movie, with the poor kid from the Dominican being overwhelmed by the promise of America, but that's not the direction it heads. He's still overwhelmed, of course, but it's by a world that he can't understand and seems utterly alien to him. It's also about how disposable we treat athletes and other entertainers, and places like the Dominican Republic in general And, if that seems a little too impersonal or political, it's also about something almost all of us must face - the moment when we first have to really compete, and how we respond.

Not everybody has that moment, or it may come earlier than we can remember. It may not be about something at the center of our lives. But it's certainly the engine that drives this movie's story, and that makes it a story we can relate to, rather than something like a lecture about what these other people go through for our entertainment. When we first see Miguel, it's apparent that he's both the most naturally talented and hardest worker in the academy, but by the time he gets to single-A, everybody is just as talented, determined, and hard-working. How he reacts to that situation is what spins the movie off in the direction it winds up taking.

That winds up being a bit uncomfortable at first - the transition point in the movie is so abrupt and unexplained that the audience may initially think that something else is going on, and the movie is taking a while to get back on track. I'm not sure whether that's a positive or a negative; the filmmakers had done such a good job up until that point of presenting what Miguel is thinking and feeling without resorting to things like narration or sounding board characters (the latter of which would have ruined the feeling of isolation). There are lots of great moments like that - especially notable are a series of scenes in an Arizona diner where he struggles to order breakfast and a long tracking shot that emphasizes the sensory overload of a hotel on the road.

And there's Algenis Perez Soto, a first-time actor who nevertheless gives a very impressive performance. Its main note is alienation and confusion, but of a reserved sort. During the early scenes in the Dominican, we also get a clear picture of the combination of cocky self-confidence and relentless hard work that are the minimum of what it takes to succeed in something like professional sports. He's surrounded by a variety of good but understated performances - Rayniel Rufino as the mentor on his way down, Andre Holland as the hyped American prospect who becomes Miguel's friend, Ann Whitney and Richard Bull as his host family in Iowa (and Ellery Porterfield as their attractive granddaughter), and Michael Gaston as the manager of the single-A team.

Boden and Fleck give Sugar the same matter-of-fact feel as their previous film, Half Nelson. Much of it is shot in actual Dominican, spring training, and minor league facilities, although we see much more of the clubhouses than game action. They avoid coming straight out and saying what they want the audience to learn directly, but show enough to get their points across. They avoid obvious side-by-side comparisons; for instance, the scene where a bunch of kids in the Dominican are taught the English words for various baseball terms is separated from them being unable to order in the diner that we don't consciously connect the two until later, when the true thrust of the film becomes clear.

Indeed, one can say that Sugar isn't really a baseball film (though doesn't that get said about every sports movie of any depth?), but rather a film about the exploitation of third-world countries; it just focuses on baseball because that will draw more people in than a movie about Miguel's mother and sister in the garment factory. It is, fortunately, well-constructed enough to be both, and a coming-of-age movie besides.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, April 06, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 30 March 2009 to 5 April 2009

Aaah... Spring. Today was just too nice to find another theater after the Brattle Eye-Opener show; instead, it was time to do some grocery shopping and get out the grill.

This Week In Tickets!

Not many great movies this week, though plenty of decent ones. The big surprise of the week is probably The Haunting in Connecticut, which I now kind of wish I'd seen at SXSW (I opted to let the big passholder line have a chance). It exceeded expectations by a little more than Duplicity fell below them, which made for an interesting Saturday at the movies: The gradual realization that Duplicity was just never going to be as much fun as the trailer, sort of feeling resigned as I left that to buy another ticket, and then gradually thinking "hey, this is pretty good" during Haunting.

Just goes to show you never can tell.

Sunshine Cleaning

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

This is a nice enough little movie, although it's the sort that fits the "popular indie" profile perhaps a little too well: A few notable actors, quirky characters, some messy emotional entanglements that don't get fully resolved, comedy that is funny but not so funny as to make the audience forget that this is a sophisticated, intelligent movie. It's better than okay at nearly everything, but not really exceptional at any.

Amusing thing: As the credits rolled, we noted that someone was credited as "Assistant to Mr. Spevack", Jason Spevack being the kid playing the eight-year-old son of Amy Adams's character. That's just got to be a weird job, personal assistant to an elementary school kid. It could suck under a whole lot of circumstances.

The Great Buck Howard

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Like Sunshine Cleaning, this one played Sundance in 2008 and has been looking for a release date since. In fact, I could swear that it popped up at the Arlington Capitol between then and now, maybe as some sort of test release; it showed up on the local Google Movie Showtimes page a couple times, although at least once it was a mistake, and it should have been The Great Debaters instead.

This one sort of bugged me early on with too much narration; Colin Hanks's Troy Gable keeps telling us things that, even as he's saying them, bring the "show, don't tell" dictum to mind - as in, "this is the exact sort of thing that should be shown and not told". It has a less severe case of indie-itis than Sunshine, but also isn't quite as good when it is good.

The best thing about it is John Malkovich as the title character. He is, in many ways, a broadly-played cartoon, but he's delightfully larger than life. When the film is about him finding and acknowledging his place in the world, it's much more interesting than when Hanks's Troy is at the center for the same reasons, if only because he's not constantly talking about it.

Duplicity

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2009 at AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run)

I try to make it a rule to judge movies based only on what they are, rather than what I expect or want them to be. Maybe, someday, I'll give this one another chance and find it to be an acceptable, if not exceptional, espionage thriller. It's hard, though, because the trailer promised a fast-paced, romantic caper, and the reality doesn't have nearly the sparkle that the preview did. It's got a fun question that it plays with - can spies ever truly find happiness when they're trained to be suspicious? - and in the last act, some light-heartedness does show up.

For the most part, though, it's a story of double- and triple-agents that would likely have seemed kind of dull back during the cold war, and while everyone is crisply efficient, there's very little differentiating them as interesting individuals. I also got the feeling that Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti really should have been stealing scenes as the feuding heads of the two drug companies, but after one over-the-top goofy moment in the beginning, nothing seems to come of it.

The Haunting in Connecticut

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2009 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

About six years ago, Peter Cornwell make an absolutely fantastic animated short film called "Ward 13". It won bunches of awards, absolutely floored me when it showed as part of Don Herzfeldt & Mike Judge's "Animation Show", and it's not a complete exaggeration to say I bought the first two volumes of "The Animation Show" on DVD just to have it - it's that good. On the other hand, I had absolutely no interest in The Haunting in Connecticut until I started flipping through the SXSW program, cross-referencing with the IMDB, and seeing that Cornwell was listed as the director. Suddenly, something that looked like just another "true ghost story" got interesting.

This movie takes its time getting started, and is maybe burdened with more characters than it really needs if it's not going to be going for a body count, but once it gets a head of steam going, it does pretty well. It's got a couple of fun jumps, and every once in a while I'd find myself genuinely interested in the story it was telling, even if it is kind of standard-issue. Cornwell and writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe do a pretty nice job of giving the horror elements a mythology that seems intuitively and symbolically solid, but not one that feels constrained by arbitrary rules. And by the time it gets to the end, I found myself pretty impressed at how well it was chugging along, and how the nasty stuff it came up with didn't feel like things I'd seen a dozen times before.

(Also, "Ward 13" does play on a TV during the movie, amusing at least one person in the audience. Include it in HD as a special feature, and I'll buy the Blu-ray.)

Til døden os skiller (With your Permission)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener) (screener DVD)

The Brattle was going to do a double feature of the two films that Danish actress Paprika Steen had directed in conjunction with her appearance at the Chlotrudis Awards Ceremony, but Ms. Steen caught ill and could not travel, so the shows were canceled. This one is interesting, a black comedy that amuses for a while before it gets serious enough to get us to reconsider our opinions of the characters but maybe fizzles a bit toward the end.

It is, as Ivy pointed out in the post-film discussion, a very precisely crafted movie; I noted the unusual lack of windows on the outside of the main couple's house but did not fully comprehend what that meant in terms of it being a prison of sorts. I admire that sort of detail, but I also often find that, in these small Danish films, that sort of intimacy is also distancing: I find myself studying these characters, rather than really engaging with them.
Sunshine CleaningThe Great Buck HowardDuplicityThe Haunting in ConnecticutWith Your Permission

Friday, April 03, 2009

The "Interplanetary Era" (and a review of Moon from SXSW)

I don't know how many "catch-up" posts I'll do, but I did want to do one for Moon, specifically, because I love it. It's a solidly executed movie, with a very good performance from Sam Rockwell (which is good, because he doesn't share the screen with anybody else except for very brief moments). The folks with knee-jerk anti-CGI reactions will likely appreciate that much of the effects work is done with models, and it looks pretty good.

I've got a special affection for movie like Moon, though, because they take place in a part of future history that is both tantalizingly close and generally ignored. It was a staple of print science fiction for a long time, but never got a lot of serious play in film and television because. My parents, who watched Americans land on the Moon as teenagers, probably expected to live in it, and if they didn't, their kids certainly would.

Call it "the interplanetary era" - the period where we make permanent settlements on other planets and moons within our solar system, but before we've made the leap to being an interstellar civilization. We're arguably on the fringe right now, with our brief visits to the Moon and unmanned missions to Mars. Moon is not much further into the progression, showing us an outpost on the Moon which exists entirely to service Earth, populated by a single astronaut.

We don't see much of this period on the big and small screen, in large part because it's hard. Even if most of the action would likely take place in tight sets, that's not such an advantage, as you'd have to simulate microgravity. Sticklers for accuracy might want the horizon drawn in, sure, but it's making sure that everything on the moon falls at 1/6 normal speed that's the killer, even before figuring out what to do with the ground and the sky for exteriors (or how to make people in spacesuits active and visually interesting).

That's inconvenient, but I think we've got the tools to do it now. If someone wanted to set a movie on Europa, the computer guys could create an ice field that stretches to the near horizon with a dynamic Jupiter dominating the sky. Make it an action movie and set the fight choreographers loose to see what sort of wire-fu they'd come up with for a low-gravity world.

The trouble is, I think that many people are already beyond interplanetary, at least mentally. Despite being technically much further out, it's a lot easier to film something where we can quickly travel to other Earth-like planets. Look at the Stargate series, for instance; they're great fun, but their basis is that most planets in the galaxy (and, apparently, another galaxy or two) have roughly Earth's mass and atmosphere, and plant life that closely resembles that of western Canada. Stargate is doubly convenient, because it's also contemporary.

(This is why I kind of shake my fist at people who gripe about the time period of Enterprise or the new Star Trek movie, saying Trek should be about looking forward, not back. It's still the future, but it's a more challenging, exciting future than the sanitized, familiar, safe places of the TNG era.)

To a certain extent, I think this has hurt space exploration - in the popular imagination, everyone already has their sights set on things that are hundreds of years in the future, and the challenges of spreading through our solar system seem too prosaic compared to what people are used to. In the way that prosecutors have come to hate CSI for giving potential jurors unreasonable expectations of what forensic investigation can do, the public thinks Star Trek when they hear "space exploration", when in fact it will take NASA decades to get us to StarCops.

What, no-one remembers StarCops? A BBC series that ran for nine episodes back in 1987, then appeared on US Public Television a year or two later. It's very much a space detectives series, but it actually made an effort to show microgravity and had an international cast of characters. Smart writing and decent acting if I remember correctly; sadly, I haven't seen it in a while because it hasn't shown up on American airwaves recently, has never been released on Region 1 DVD, and (I think) even the R2 DVD is out of print.

Something you can find if you want a good look at this era is Planetes. It started life as a wonderful manga about outer-space salvage by Makoto Yukimura, and was adapted into a very good animated series, though unlike many comic-to-animation series in Japan, the animators change the structure a lot, introducing some characters earlier, others not at all, and adding new ones, to make it feel more like a TV series. The credits mention HD work, so I hope it gets a Blu-ray release. I'll happily buy it again.

Anyway, the film which got me on this line of thought is Moon. It's pretty great; hopefully Sony Pictures Classics gives it a good push in June. I think they will; Sony does seem to be pretty good about not sitting on the films they acquire, and even pushing them into more mainstream theaters when they can, although summer is competitive.

Moon

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

I will not lie to you; as soon as I read the description of Moon, I had mentally anointed it my favorite film of the festival, to the point where not only would another film have to blow me away, but this one would have to screw up. I like Sam Rockwell, good acting, nifty visuals, and I have a particular fondness for this particular, underappreciated part of future history (the "interplanetary era"). Well, as it turns out, a film or two did impress me a lot, but this one not only didn't screw up, but it wound up being one of the smartest, most well-rounded science fiction films in recent memory.

In the future, the energy crisis has been averted by cheap fusion, fueled by Helium-3. Lunar Industries maintains a mostly-automated base on the dark side of the moon to collect it, with astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) and base computer GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey) monitoring the four rolling drone refineries. He's nearing the end of his three-year tour, and it's a good thing; the isolation is starting to make him peculiar; it doesn't help that the relay satellite that would allow him to communicate with Earth in real time is busted. Days before his return trip, there's an accident when he takes his buggy out to retrieve the contents of one of the rovers; fortunately, there are failsafes in place and he wakes up back in the base. Something seems amiss, though; is GERTY hiding something?

There's a mystery at the center of Moon, of course, one that it would be terribly wrong of me to spoil. Thankfully, filmmaker Duncan Jones (director, author of the original story) and screenwriter Nathan Parker do not feel the need to keep things from the audience past the point where keeping secrets creates more plot holes than it does suspense. The keystone revelation comes fairly early, and though there is a surprise or three after that, nearly all of them fall under the heading of details. When Jones turns things on their head, he makes sure that both Sam and the audience has a chance to consider and react to it.

Full review at EFC.