Monday, June 29, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 22 June 2009 to 28 June 2009

It's a pretty good thing that Landmark and Kendall Square have been getting a steady stream of interesting-looking movies this summer, because the major studios have not been holding up their end of the bargain at the multiplex. The only June release that's gotten me in a theater is The Hangover, and I wasn't terribly impressed. It looks to get a little better this weekend, but I don't know if I'll be missing that much going to Montreal.

This Week In Tickets!

Sunday was spent back up in Maine, at the funeral for my father's wife's father, a nice old guy who I saw a couple times a year, when I went up for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I'll miss him a bit.

This upcoming week could be kind of crazy if I let it get that way. I'd really like to see The Hurt Locker at the HFA preview on Thursday, since it opens in the Boston area the day after my planned trip to Montreal, I missed it at SXSW, and though it looks like a big, exciting action movie, there hasn't been a successful Iraq War movie yet. I'm looking at going back up to Maine on Saturday for a Fourth of July cookout, although who knows what the weather will be like. After that, I am awful tempted to head back into NYC for the closing night of the New York Asian Film Festival, as most of its features don't look like they'll be repeated at Fantasia from the email I got today (which has me shocked, quite frankly - given that they had Shusuke Kaneko and Sion Sono as guests in the last couple of years, I figured Pride and Be Sure to Share would be shoo-ins).

Bonnie and Clyde

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (American Independents)

I often feel like there's something wrong with me in that I don't get bowled over by things like Bonnie and Clyde. I like it well enough, for sure, and was kind of tickled to see Genes Hackman and Wilder in relatively early roles. I can sort of see how it was a big deal, and recognize the quality of the work (though maybe not so much if I saw it in context).

It just doesn't speak to me, though. As much as I love crime, and will tear through Hard Case Crime paperbacks on my way to and from work, I have a hard time with movies that romanticize criminals. I just have a hard time get into Bonnie & Clyde as a romance, and the crime itself is often kind of random background. I do love the tension between Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, and Blanche, though; that holds up well even as the sidetracks seem unnecessary and the violence is no longer shocking.
The Last International PlayboyDepartures$9.99Bonnie and Clyde

NYAFF One day, six films (part two)

Even under the best situations, I tend to eat terribly when attending a film festival, but this was especially annoying. I knew, going in, that I wasn't going to sample much of what NYC has to offer the palate. I knew the day wasn't going to start well - some crud from McDonald's in South Station because I feared how long I might have to wait at Cosi for something closer to cooked to order, and then a popcorn at the theater during the first or second movie. Organic popcorn, of course, since this is a NYC art-house that charges $12.50/ticket even for not-fest programs, although I don't know that that makes it substantially better or worse than the alternative.

I'd pegged the hour and fifteen minutes between the end of The Longest Nite and K-20 for supper, and I hadn't even set the bar that high - I wanted to hit Peanut Butter & Company, just to say I did, and because I do really like peanut butter. However, the Q&A for the movie went on for almost an hour. And while a bunch of it was quite interesting, I was hungry and finding myself less and less fascinated by Wai Ka-fai's TVB work in the 90s. But, blocked in. By the time it was over, there was no time left between movies, so I got some Reese's Pieces. I probably could have grabbed a slice of pizza or something somewhere, but the candy left me full. Still should have gotten another soda for When the Full Moon Rises, though, so that the caffeine, need to hit the restroom, and repetitive action of taking a sip would help me keep going through movie number six.

As I mentioned back on Monday, that last one made me wonder if what makes for a good midnight movie versus a good midnight selection for a festival. It's okay for the former to be a kind of slow, silly, and, honestly, kind of cappy (whether through ineptitude or design); when you go to a midnight movie, you generally do it with a group, you've probably gotten a late start on the day, or been doing other things. The sixth movie of a festival is a different experience; the movie-watching part of your brain is worn out, the seats have become too comfortable, and it's just very difficult to stay alert. That's not even counting how you've probably had a day of seeing how "good" and "fun" have a big overlap, and trying to get real enjoyment out of bad filmmaking is just not going to be that effective.

Granted, I am not the biggest fan of manufactured cult/nostalgia filmmaking in the first place, and I don't get enough sleep under the best conditions, let alone when I'm trying to blitz a festival, but I really think there's something to this - good midnight movies don't necessarily make good festival midnights.

Um Fa (The Longest Nite)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at the IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

The vast majority of the time, a movie that gets taken away from its writer-director and extensively reworked by the studio is going to be a mess, and The Longest Nite isn't exactly the movie that bucks that trend. Of course, most of the time the studio has to fit more than five scenes into their new vision. And the fixers are seldom people on the same level as Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To.

The film opens with a chunk of exposition about the Triad situation in Macau - Mr. Hung is the more established boss, and he's been locked in conflict with Mr. K for some time. Mr. Lung feels this situation is bad for business, so he's coming into town to make them work together. There's a contract out on Mr. Hung, presumably from Mr. K, and a number of hitmen have converged on the island to execute it. This includes Tony (Lau Ching-wan), although he doesn't seem to be actively doing much aside from getting between Mr. K's son Mark (Mark Cheng) and Maggie (Maggie Siu), a waitress at one of the clubs. He's still drawing the attention of Sam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a corrupt cop on Mr. Lung's payroll.

If one looks too closely at the parts of the story that involve Triad hierarchy and who's paying who to do what, The Longest Nite's plot becomes a tangle to rival The Big Sleep, where the director and screenwriter famously had to phone Raymond Chandler to find out which character killed another (and got an ambiguous answer!). Like The Big Sleep, fortunately, the details of such things really don't matter so much. The plot is just there to give Tony a reason to skulk around Macao and Sam to chase after him, with various action stops along the way.

And, given that the film has Lau Ching-wan and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in the leads, it's generally going to be a lot of fun to watch. Both portray their characters as smart, capable people and worthy adversaries for one another. Lau does a great job of making Tony a guy who can vanish into a crowd but is also clearly the smartest guy in the room. He deadpans his way through a great many scenes, and at other times gives the blank face that says anything else would give it all away - but he's smirking on the inside. Leung's Sam doesn't display any of that sort of restraint, and he frequently plows scenes like a bull in a china shop. He's a burst of sometimes cocky, sometimes frustrated energy, gleefully sadistic, but never giving the impression that he's so out of control that he should be written off.

We'll never know what Patrick Yau's film would have looked like, but it seems fairly likely that To and Wai did not tone it down too much when they took over. An early scene has Sam enthusiastically smashing the fingers of a potential assassin to be sure he doesn't try anything - and then coming back to do it a little more, just in case. There's a naked, headless corpse in play, and Maggie is introduced vomiting on a customer for no particular reason. The over-the-top stuff doesn't take over the movie, but there's enough so that no particular incident makes the audience wonder what that was doing in this movie. The action direction in general is what we've come to expect from Johnnie To - not flashy, but you won't find many wrong steps. The action is also pretty good, especially when there are cars crashing into each other in a way that would make fans of 1970s vehicular mayhem smile.

The one exception to that is the climactic fight scene. In a Q&A afterward, Wai Ka-fai freely admitted that by the time it was shot, the budget was stretched and the film was running short (even with this sequence extended, the film clocks in at less than 85 minutes). It's got one quality bit of mayhem, but is otherwise an example of things not to do: The filmmakers deliberately make it difficult to tell the two characters from one another, and in fact shoot it in such a way that I wasn't sure whether or not Tony Leung Chiu-wai was ever on set, or just looped dialogue for his stunt double.

That winds up being a minor blot on what is otherwise a fine bit of Hong Kong crime. Not bad considering the rocky road it had to the screen. Unfortunately, it has also had a rough time getting on video; even ten years later, a rare festival screening like this is one of the only ways to see it.

Also at HBS.

K-20: Kaijin niju menso den (K-20: Legend of the Mask)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at the IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Even if 2009 weren't one of the most disappointing summer movie seasons in recent memory, I'd still wish that more foreign popcorn films got released here. I know subtitles can be a tough sell for movies aimed at a broad audience and dubbing can make even a great movie look terrible, but there's got to be some way to put a fun-for-the-whole-family adventure movie like K-20 in front of audiences that could appreciate its constant invention.

The invention starts from the first minute, when we hear a radio broadcast dated 8 December 1941, announcing... That Japan has signed a peace treaty with the United States and United Kingdom. Imperial Japan never falls, and as we open in 1949, there's a rigid class system still in place in the city of Teito. Master criminal K-20 (Kaijin Niju Menso Den, "The Fiend with Twenty Faces") tweaks the upper class, who devour coverage of Kogoro Akechi (Toru Nakamura), the police inspector assigned to catch K-20. A mysterious man hires poor circus acrobat Heikichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to photograph Akechi's engagement to Countess Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu), but that results in Endo being mistaken for K-20 and arrested. It becomes clear that the real K-20 has framed him, but why?

The world of K-20 can be called retro-futuristic, steampunk, or any number of other things. It's a world where police zeppelins serve as carriers for tiny whirlybird helicopters, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison shared a Nobel Prize, Tesla's ideas for wireless transmission of energy may be turned into a weapon, and Heikichi's friend Genji "the Gadget" (Jun Kunimura) can build amazing things out of scraps. It's a world out of the serials, akin to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, although not quite so mannered in its attempts to evoke a "futuristic forties" feel. The visual effects are maybe not quite so impressive as they might be in a similarly-conceived American picture, but they've got a consistent quality, and do their duty of impressing without overwhelming.

Populating this world with a group of enjoyable characters helps quite a bit. Takeshi Kaneshiro makes for a fun accidental swashbuckler; I'm not sure what kind of actual martial arts skills he has, but he and his stunt doubles sell the acrobatics while also providing plenty of amusing slapstick as he trains to master K-20's skills so that he can confront the man who framed him as an equal. He combines matinee idol looks with Jackie Chan charm. Takoko Matsu is a great leading lady for him; sure, we're telegraphed everything we need to know about Yoko in her first scene (asking a maid if an arranged marriage is really all a woman can look forward to), but she throws herself into that role with gusto, whether gleefully ripping her expensive wedding dress apart, acting spectacularly ignorant of the lower classes' living conditions, or being an excited accomplice later. She's as charming here as she was in The Hidden Blade, and her giddiness often spreads to the audience. Toru Nakamura does a nice job of making Akechi just a bit insufferable, but not foolish or worthy of disdain.

The rest of the cast is good, too: Young Yuki Imai avoids excessive mugging as Heikichi's "kid brother" Shinsuke, and Kanata Hongo hits the right notes as Akechi's young assistant Yoshio. Jun Kunimura has a good Q vibe going as Genji, and plays nicely off Reiko Takashima as his wife. Writer/director Shimako Soto works the cast's chemistry well, keeping things light between them. She doesn't have them wink at the audience, but right up until Big Confrontation time, the general feeling is of fun, rather than high tension.

That's not to say K-20 is not exciting. It's got a number of big action set pieces, including a highly creative escape, a couple clever break-ins, and a final showdown that is well worth the price of admission. The movie seems pitched for a family audience, and Sato keeps things pretty kid-friendly, keeping things at a manageable pace with most of the action being fairly bloodless even as it's clearly laid-out. Even though there are plenty of effects, she never lets them overwhelm the characters. Naoki Sato contributes a booming, John Williams-esque score which adds to the excitement.

That score makes me wonder if the production companies are looking for Western success (among other things - the print screened also had many of the main titles in English). Even if they don't pull off the unlikely feat of cracking that market, we'll hopefully get a sequel or two to import. After all, K-20 certainly beats a lot of the home-grown blockbusters.

Also at HBS

Thursday, June 25, 2009

$9.99

I may have to start looking for some of Etgar Keret's books; not only are his stories generally short enough that several can be sucked down in one gulp on the bus ride to work, but I dig his sense of humor, at least in the movies made from his work. I quite liked Wristcutters: A Love Story, and the stuff pulled together to form $9.99 is pretty entertaining.

(Also, this confirms that if there's a hell, I'm likely going there for how eating disorder jokes often get a laugh out of me. $9.99 has a good one.)

One thing that really confuses me is the way that several things I've read about this bring up the frontal male nudity in it. Sure, you don't necessarily see that often in the movies - an animated film especially - but, honestly, if that is what gives you the heebie-jeebies in that scene, you are creeped out by the wrong things.

$9.99

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

Movies made up of a group of intersecting stories often get downright peculiar. After all, one of the basic ideas is that the people passing in and out of our lives that we think of as background lead an existence just as complicated as we do. Maybe our lives are not quite as odd as those of the characters in $9.99, since living in an animated world allows things to get very strange, but it's not as far off as it may seem.

Start with the Peck family. Father Jim (voice of Anthony LaPaglia) normally frets about his underachieving kids, but an encounter with a homeless man (voice of Geoffrey Rush) carrying a gun leaves him shaken. Younger son Dave (Samuel Johnson) is unemployed in his mid-twenties, and still lives with his father, spending the day cooking (apparently no restaurants are hiring); he's just ordered a book from a catalog that will supposedly tell him the meaning of life. His older brother Lenny (voice of Samuel Johnson) works as a repossessor, and while he's moving a neighbor's things out, he meets someone moving in - Tanita (voice of Leeanna Walsman), a model who likes her men smooth. There's also Zack (voice of Jamie Katsamatsas), a kid who wants a toy soccer player but instead receives a piggy bank; Albert (voice of Barry Otto), a lonely old man who has been visited by a most disreputable angel; and Ron (voice of Joel Edgerton), whose girlfriend Michelle (voice of Claudia Karvan) has just left him and who seems to be imagining three lilliputian roommates even more immature than he is.

These characters mostly live in the same apartment building, and briefly encounter each other as neighbors do. Before appearing on screen, they were the cast of various short stories by Etgar Keret, who collaborated on the screenplay with director Tatia Rosenthal (and, in an amusing in-joke, is the author listed on the cover of the book that tells the meaning of life). Not having read them, I don't know whether these stories originally shared characters, but Keret and Rosenthal have left them reasonably discrete for the film: Some tie together, but for the most part, each contains its own beginning, middle, and end, with all five or six packed into a compact 78 minutes.

Rosenthal's animation style does take a little getting used to. The film is primarily stop-motion with the occasional computer assist - mostly for water, and presumably compositing and wire removal - and the character models often look well-used. Rosenthal will hold a tight close-up for long enough that the audience can see that the paint has peeled, the "skin" often seems stretched tight over an unyielding material, and when characters speak, the lips seem to be animated independent of the rest of the face. It's a style that, when seen in a two-minute preview, looks bad, but to which the audience can quickly acclimate. That's made much easier by the way that every other movement in the film looks extraordinarily natural; I can't remember another stop-motion picture where the people walked and gestured so much like actual people.

This style and execution is probably no accident; it simultaneously makes things seem grounded in the real world without the impossible being too jarring. Keret, Rosenthal, and their voice cast do an impressive job of getting us to believe in these characters as real people, especially since the characters are split between the world-weary (the angel, Jim) and optimistic (Zack, Dave), and how Albert manages to combine them both. Some of the characters are a little underused; I'd have liked to see more of Michelle, or the magician whose property is being repossessed.

The film's sense of humor is sneaky: It's generally warm and almost quaint, and then the filmmakers will hit the audience with something that stings, including a great one at a pivotal moment. It's not a movie that generally goes for big laughs, but one that certainly has the audience laughing all the way through. It's often laughs of quasi-familiarity, - the audience may not be able to empathize with the exact situation, but often enough they'll certainly understand the feeling exactly.

In truth, for all the style and some of the situations are unusual, $9.99 isn't nearly as weird as its oddest bits. It's quirky and comfortable at the same time.

Also at HBS.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Departures

One thing about Departures that amused me, but maybe doesn't necessarily belong in the review proper: I'd picked up, at some point, that Kentucky Fried Chicken had done such a highly effective marketing job in post-war Japan that KFC and strawberry shortcake had become a Christmas tradition there. I'd never actually seen it referenced, though, so I practically burst out laughing at a scene in the middle of the movie where some of the main characters are meeting up on Christmas and enthusiastically wolfing down a bowl of fried chicken wings. (Though the cake next to it did not look like strawberry shortcake - indeed, the continuity was a bit off, because in some scenes there was a salad there!) Enthusiastically wolfing them down, slurping the greasy stuff right off the bone. Kind of horrifying, really- you could use the sound of that scene to foley a highly disturbing vampire movie.

Stuff like this is why I don't get too grumpy over the weird, stereotypical pair of Japanese guys in the "Kentucky Grilled Chicken" commercials - based on that bit of history and stunts like this, Japan and the Colonel have a relationship that us westerners can't really understand.

Okuribito (Departures)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Departures feels like the sort of film that wins the Academy Award for best foreign language feature. It's a good movie, just Japan-specific enough that the voters can feel like they're awarding another culture, but accessible and mainstream enough that film snobs can argue that it's another example of Oscar ignoring true excellence in favor of pretty-good-ness. And maybe it is. Nothing wrong with pretty good, and Departures is a pretty good pretty good film.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a pretty good cellist, for that matter, though not so good that he can count on getting another job when the orchestra he plays in is dissolved. He and wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move back to the house his mother left them, and he answers an ad for an "NK Agent". It's not the travel agency he assumes it to be - "NK" stands for nokan, or "encoffiinment" - but boss Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) pays well. He can't quite bring himself to tell Mika exactly what his new job entails, of course.

Which leads to one of the movie's two main themes, the way we as modern people distance ourselves from death as a part of life. We are told how Daigo's job used to be done by the family, then by undertakers, who now subcontract it out to businesses like theirs. So we see how the people who do this job are treated as outcasts, even though it is an important ritual. The other is how Daigo finds a new father figure in his boss, filling a hole that was left in his life since his father abandoned him and his mother when Daigo was six. There's obviously going to be some connection between these two threads, but to writer Kundo Koyama's great credit, there are multiple ways that they could connect, especially once we see that Daigo's father inspired him to take up the cello, and that he does have a natural talent for his new job.

Koyama and director Yojiro Takita do a nice job of building a pleasant atmosphere. The film opens with a bit of a flash-forward, so that our first impression of this job is respectful, though not so absolutely somber that we can't see a bit of humor in the odd circumstances. There's great affection between and for even the minor characters, although it's generally not something that the filmmakers go out of their way to demonstrate, but what any observer would pick up from meeting these people. A storyline about the elderly mother of one of Daigo's childhood friends who operates a public bathhouse more or less on her own is peppered with charming bits.

I particularly enjoyed the way Diago's and Mika's marriage is portrayed; though the story does lean on the familiar gimmick of the husband not being fully honest with his wife more than one might like, it feels different here than it does in movies from Tokyo Sonata to Shall We Dance? and further back. Daigo and Mika aren't a couple hamstrung by the dictates of tradition, but a modern young couple who joke and treat each other as equals, more or less. Masahiro Motoki does a nice job of showing Daigo maturing, and I like how Ryoko Hirosue is able to make Mika into someone we like pretty instantly, even when she displays flaws that match Daigo's in scale, if not form. I haven't liked an on-screen married couple more recently.

Tsutomu Yamazaki also hits just the right note; he pulls off making Sasaki funny without ever making him a punchline. He's got the bearing of a man with a wealth of experience whom age has slowed some without "old man" being the first thing that comes to mind when he appears. Kimiko Yo is nice as his assistant, and all the mourning families are interesting to watch for their different reactions.

Departures is a little rough in spots; after the initial flash-forward, the bits where Daigo is finding out where he's working and learning the trade are played rather broadly, sometimes to the point of Motoki mugging to the camera. The comedy is toned down a little bit after that, and things run as smoothly as the story will allow. I do like a lot of the little details - the notches on the floor where Daigo practiced his cello as a child, for instance - and the way Takita shows the passage of time in a way that's not jarring.

It's nicely off-kilter, though not enough to put people off. The frequently silly opening act hurts the film a little, but the film does a nice rebound into something that isn't quite brilliant, but certainly heartfelt and satisfying.

Also at HBS.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Last International Playboy (aka Frost)

I didn't connect this movie's co-star Lucy Gordon to the story a month ago about a promising young actress who committed suicide a month ago until I checked her IMDB entry toward the end of the process of writing the review. I guess it seems kind of creepy, now, considering that there are threads in this movie about characters potentially harming themselves and a mother who had killed herself. I wonder if this was something the releasing company worked for, since promoting a movie about self-destruction would inevitably bring questions about the cast member who hanged herself.

It almost certainly must have thrown the brakes on, because the company (Black Note Films, I believe) seems to have been advertising it relatively aggressively. I've seen ads for it on the sides of buses for months, which struck me as fairly strange because independent films from small companies don't tend to get that sort of exposure, and the bus ads were eye catching, making good use of their horizontal orientation. The poster and cardboard standees that showed up at Kendall Square as the movie came out is another good one, looking more like the cover to a glossy hardcover book than a movie poster; it's stylish.

The movie itself is a mess, though - boring characters, indifferent performances, a soundtrack that seems to consist entirely of bands that will likely stay undiscovered. The credits seem to indicate reshoots - both because there's a copyright date of 2009 despite the film having played festivals last year and because there's a section marked "Re-Shoot" - and I wonder whether they improved the film or maybe softened it up.

Speaking of the end credits, they looked very hasty and cheap (perhaps indicating they were redone), and had some of the oddest footage playing under them. I'm not complaining, mind you - we are talking about a topless, slow-motion pillow fight - but that seems like a really odd choice for the end of a movie where a large chunk of the characters are women urging the main character to be a better man, and the generic model types mostly disappear in the second half.

The Last International Playboy

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

The Last International Playboy was known as Frost during its time on the festival circuit, and I wholeheartedly support the name change, both because the longer title is a lot more interesting and because it downplays the fact that the filmmakers actually named a main character "Jack Frost". This was likely done by the marketing department - even though the title appears in the film, it's not interesting there; it sounds just as generic as everything else.

The title character (Jason Behr) is Jack Frost; he's the thirty-ish remnant of a wealthy family who wrote a well-received novel seven years ago and hasn't done much since. He's still carrying a torch for his editor, Carolina (Monet Mazur), who has been his best friend since they were kids; that's awkward because she's just told him that she's marrying Russell (Rob Bogue) in six months. Of course, it's not like that torch has prevented him from seeing other women; he's able to round up a bunch of cutely-named blonde models when his friend Scotch (Mike Landry) asks, so that he can better look the part for a writer doing an article on "the last international playboy". The writer, Kate Hardwick (Lucy Gordon), winds up more interested in Frost, and she's not alone: Beautiful trainwreck Ozzy (Krysten Ritter) insists he's going to marry her, and 11-year-old Sophie (India Ennenga) latches onto him because he's always around their apartment building when her parents are working.

There is not a single character in this movie that you have not seen before, likely in a more interesting variation. Jack is wealthy but still basically a decent guy, Scotch is kind of a loser (is there any doubt that he was the boorish legacy member of his fraternity in college?), Carolina is nice but impatient, Ozzy is loud, Sophie has a precocious understanding of adult psychology. Their issues aren't particularly timely or ingeniously creative. They don't even talk in an interesting way, either in terms of unlikely wit or musical vulgarity (Ozzy and Scotch try, but it's just kind of sad). Even songs that flat out tell the audience what to think are a step up from the plainness on display; this movie is about as whitebread as dramas about the idle rich get, and that is pretty darn vapid.

Part of the trouble may be casting Jason Behr in the title role. He still looks like he should be playing teenagers, even with the permanent five o'clock shadow he's been sporting since at least Dragon Wars and claims he's getting too old for this. To be fair, there's not a whole lot he can do; the screenplay seems to be very careful to make sure that we like Jack from the start. He's too nice and obviously good-intentioned, even though there really should be something creepy about how he hangs around with an 11-year-old (non-related) girl and won't accept reality when it comes to his ex. And somewhere between Behr and co-writer/director Steve Clark, the audience is getting pounded on the head with his drinking - look, he's on the same path as Ozzy, just not as fast!

Speaking of Ozzy, I'd like to see Krysten Ritter in a larger role sometime. She's specialized in parts like Ozzy - unconventionally pretty (for the movies, at least), overeager girls who don't fit in with the more practiced beauties around them - and initially, this doesn't look like one of her best: As wooden as much of the cast is, she's overdoing it, though I appreciated the energy. She shows us that there's more to her during a "girls getting ready to go out" montage, though, and darn if she didn't actually make me feel something later on, when no-one else was managing it. India Ennenga does actually come close, though her character is too obviously the tiny adult to Frost's overgrown teenager; Mike Landry's got a character who is supposed to be a loser, and he does that well enough that it's kind of hard to look past the boorishness. Neither Monet Mazur or Lucy Gordon really sparks with Behr, though, and it feels like one of them really should have.

To give credit where credit's due, Clark seems to be OK until it comes time to have people speak - wordless scenes are generally fairly nice, but the dialog is almost aggressively banal, and he doesn't seem to be able to coax a good delivery from his actors. He also gives us no hook into this privileged world, just seeming to assume that wealthy people in exclusive circles are interesting, especially if they're writers. He also saddles the film with a very soft conclusion. I can get not wanting to be overdramatic, but give us something!

It's not to be, unfortunately. Maybe that title change wasn't such a great idea after all; it holds out hope that the audience will get something juicy when if fact it's all too low-key.

Also at HBS.

This Week In Tickets: 15 June 2009 to 21 June 2009

This is a crowded page. The obvious joke is that I'm getting myself warmed up for Fantasia - long bus ride, camping out in the same theater for the whole day, getting knocked out during the midnight show. It's not far from true.

This Week In Tickets!

On video: Diary of a Nymphomaniac on 15 June 2009.

There actually could have been a little more - I was planning on seeing another double feature from the Brattle's "Classic Gangsters" series on Sunday, but I was still dragging from the 3:30am bus ride. I checked the shelf and saw that I actually had half of that program (Manhattan Melodrama, as part of the Powell & Loy box set), so I figure I'll catch up with that part later.

The Girlfriend Experience

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Every once in a while, I'll see a movie that is less than astounding but has some interesting character in a minor role, and I'll think, man, why didn't they just make the movie about her? The Girlfriend Experience sometimes feels like someone did just that, and it's an object lesson in how it really does help to have a strong story. Sasha Grey's Chelsea, a high-end escort, is intriguing, but it could really use a stronger story.

Still, no matter what he decides to do, there's no question that Steven Soderbergh's films are always interesting. It's very cool that he can at get these little movies done between his bigger ones, though.

The Public Enemy

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Classic Gangsters)

This is a prototype movie, the start of the gangster genre. I can't say I loved it; too often these prototypes, through no fault of their own, look like the later films that took their lead from them which are cliched messes. The Public Enemy is one of the first, but that doesn't mean it escapes feeling like just another gang movie.

Also... I'm not fond of James Cagney. He's got an iconic image, but even for an early talkie, it's really broad acting and just isn't that appealing in this case.

Little Caesar

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Classic Gangsters)

To be perfectly honest, Little Caesar suffers from a lot of the same things that bug me about The Public Enemy. It's just got Edward G. Robinson as the titular gangster rather than James Cagney, and what's not to love about Robinson? He's raw here, and in fact, I occasionally thought he hadn't yet differentiated himself from Peter Lorre. Still, he is starting to carve out the screen persona we've come to know and love.

There's also a fun subplot with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Robinson's old friend who would rather be a dancer than a hood, and other amusing side characters. it's still kind of raw, but a fun raw.

Um Fa (The Longest Nite)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at the IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Believe it or not, sometimes studio/production interference can make for a better movie. The Longest Nite was taken out of the hands of its credited director after only five scenes were shot, with Wai Ka-Fai and Johnnie To taking over. The end result is a crazy, over-the top crime movie that gets a little stretched against its reduced budget, but is a whole lot of fun.

K-20: Kaijin niju menso den (K-20: Legend of the Mask)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at the IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

It's a shame foreign popcorn films don't make their way into American theaters more often. As nicely as this year's summer season started, it looks kind of blah after Up. Sticking in a giddy Japanese adventure movie, with master thieves, giant Tesla coils, blimps which launch helicopters, parkour, and all sorts of other retro-fun things, would really give it a kick in the pants.

Really, my only complaint is that they make the red herrings so red that it practically begs for an explanation, but I'm guessing that this is intended for a relatively young audience, and they won't question it too much.

Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang (When the Full Moon Rises)

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at the IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

I'll probably elaborate on this a little more when I get around to reviewing the second half of my day in NY in full, but I hate when this sort of movie - jokey self-parody - ends up on a midnight showing at a film festival. It might work as a midnight showing on its own, with people coming out to see it as a special occasion, but subjecting an audience that has already seen three or four or five movies to it? Mean. We're worn out, and this sort of thing isn't funny enough to make it worthwhile.
O' HortenThe Girlfriend ExperienceGangster Double FeatureDreamTactical UnitPlastic CityThe Longest NiteK-20When the Full Moon Rises

Monday, June 22, 2009

NYAFF - One day, six films (part one)

I intended to do this all at once, but I try to do TWIT on Mondays and it is one of the more daunting pages of the calendar in recent memory, and there are other things I'm going to write this week. So the rest of this is going to get pushed off a little bit.

(I also intended to write more of it between screenings, but my pen and my notebook seemed oddly incompatible when it counted. At times, the ink would only take when I was scribbling in the margins to make sure the pen wasn't dried up. This was later solved by my buying pencils, but by then it was almost time for my last film of the night and I was just a couple paragraphs into Dream's review)

New York is just far away enough to make day trips something I tend to hem and haw on, as I have a rule of thumb that you shouldn't spend more time traveling to something than you spend doing it. Especially if it's guaranteed to wreck you the next day, because you're catching a 3:30am bus. Last year, I crammed one movie from NYAFF in between my first and only visit to Yankee stadium and seeing Nathan Lane in "November", and that was well worth it; this year, I went for the six movies. Not really a bad one in the bunch, although the really good stuff was later in the afternoon and into the evening.

Bi-mong (Dream)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Although reasonable people may disagree on just what constitutes "good freaky" versus "bad freaky", they will most likely acknowledge that there is a difference. Many of those familiar with the work of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk will further agree that he is good at hitting both within the same movie, which is certainly the case with Dream.

"Good freaky" is the basic plot of the movie: Jim (Joe Odagiri) is far from over the girl who dumped him, and has vivid dreams about seeing her. Ran (Lee Na-yeong), on the other hand, is quite over the ex she dumped, thank you very much, although she sleepwalks. Somehow the two conditions are connected, with Ran acting on Jin's dreams, and even if this circumstance didn't lead to things like Ree being charged for a hit-and-run that was Jin's fault, she doesn't want anything to do with him.

This is a nifty premise; it's easy to see how it could be spun into a romantic comedy/fantasy, a horror movie, a drama, or some mixture. The trouble is not that Kim jumps between these approaches, but that he's seemingly so hot to get to the "bad freaky" that he overlooks the obvious way that the situation could be managed. After all, both Jin and and Ran appear to be working for themselves, from home, so barring attempts to actually figure out how this works, it must be easier to sleep different hours than cut oneself to stay away. And that's before things get really out-there in the end.

Of course, "really out-there" is Kim Ki-duk's stock in trade, and before he gets to the stuff that feels just gratuitous, he does a fine job of playing with all the neat and nasty ideas that the situation offers: The loss of control, the attempts to regain it, the growing closer out of necessity, the way Jin's instinct is to blame Ran even though her body is the one that's been violated. The only thing really missing is much in the way of playing with the idea that Jin is dreaming when Ran does, rather than Ran doing what Jin dreams. For all Kim's (and the fim's) faults and excesses, the parts of Dream that are on-target are pretty darn brilliant, and worth the other parts.

Aside from kim, the two stars are big contributors. Joe Odagiri performs his part in Japanese (versus the Korean spoken by the other characters) for no reason noted within the film, but he never seems to be different or separate from the rest of the cast. He's got a nice way of being both forceful and guilty, and managing to make charm from the two. Lee Na-yeong adds a bit of brattiness to Ran's victimhood, as well as finding the right mood for the somnambulent Ran. It's a pleasure to see her when she gets a chance to open up, and maybe a bit happy for a moment.

That moment could even last; cinema has seen stranger relationships that somehow work without even the fantastical element in this one. The film actually has several straight-ahead funny bits, which helps to sell the premise, although it does seem sort of light on supporting characters - Jin and Sun do seem to exist in a sort of bubble.

It does seem a little odd to complain that a movie with this premise is too weird, but that is its problem. The weird that grows organically from the idea is great stuff, but the rest is grotesque - and worse, seemingly random - enough to fritter a lot of that excitement away.

Also at HBS.

Kei Tung Bou Deui: Tung Pou (Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

The popular PTU series returned to Hong Kong cinemas this January after an installment or two went direct to video. Even for folks like myself who have not seen the original or the other sequels will likely find it enjoyably familiar, both for its cast of Milky Way regulars and crisply told police story.

We're filled in quickly as the film begins: Sam (Simon Yam) and May (Maggie Siu) each lead a team of four uniformed officers in Hong Kong, and there isn't a whole lot of love lost between the two teams: May started out as Sam's subordinate, but the upcoming duty roster has her promoted over him, with Sam's team grumbling that Inspector Ho (Wong Chi-yin) is showing favoritism toward May and her obnoxious second-in-command Roy. Another former team-mate, "Fat Tong" (Lam Suet), has been demoted to driver and is becoming bitter and lazy in that role. With just a couple days to go before starting their new assignments, the teams are dispatched to track down a group of armored-car robbers who have headed into the woods and mountains surrounding the city.

Though the original Police Tactical Unit premiered in 2003, the four sequels have all come out within the last couple years, at a rapid-enough clip that Yam, Siu, and Lam are likely as comfortable in their roles and with each other as the cast of a TV series that has settled into its groove. Writers Yau Nai-hoi and Au Kin-yee toss close to a dozen cop characters at the audience, but trust the cast to make their characters' personalities memorable without having designated subplots that have their own character-revealing resolutions. This is mostly a day in the life story, with that day including a fair amount of action.

As an action movie, Brothers in Arms works well enough once the action starts. Director Law Wing-cheong (taking over from Johnnie To) does nifty things with the camera, and cranks the tension up nicely within the sequences. Law and the writers take good advantage of the network of tunnels in the area. The trouble is that getting to the action sequences is sometimes not done well. It's fine that much of the time the PTU seems to wind up in the soup because of their own bad judgment, but it makes the later scenes where they are suddenly focused and the bad guys' equals look a little unlikely. Plus, after spending a fair amount of time establishing that the wooded mountains are large enough to get lost in an separate the teams, the last act involves a lot of groups just happening to converge on the same location.

That doesn't undo the good work by the cast, though. Simon Yam and Maggie Siu are excellent as mirror images of each other, both hard-headed and driven, unwilling to give an inch. We're inclined to Give Yam's Sam a little more sympathy than Liu's May, because they seem closer to being lovable outcasts than the other team, but Yam makes Sam very hard to love unconditionally. I'm curious how I would react to the characters' evolution in the rest of the series. Lam Suet is, as often, a delight to watch, serving as the movie's laid-back (and kind of disreputable) comic relief much of the time while still being able to make us believe when Tong turns clever.

Comrades in Arms is both part of a series that has much of its original team intact and a product of the well-oiled Milky Way machine, so when it gets down to business, it manages to do things right. It's a little bit lazy getting those pieces together at times, but it's a quality snapshot of the struggles of being this sort of cop, both in the field and in politics.

Also at HBS.

Dangkou (Plastic City)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Plastic City was presented as part of the "Hong Kong Film - New Action!" series... So one might be a bit surprised to find that one of its main characters is Japanese and it is set in Brazil, of all places. Despite all that, it tells a familiar tale of shifting loyalties in a dangerous underworld that many Hong Kong film fans should enjoy.

Meet Kirin (Joe Odagiri). He and his father Choi Chi "Yuda" Leung ("Anthony" Wong Chau-sang) are big names in selling knock-offs in São Paulo, operating entire shopping centers. They're about to feel the squeeze from both sides, though: A slick new operator calling himself "Mr. Taiwan" has arrived in town, offering new wares made in the same factories as the real thing after hours, thus being "not fake, but not authentic". The corrupt city official who always made sure to look the other way, Coelho (Antônio Petrin) is getting visits from people in government, saying that globalization requires them to show some results of cracking down on the knock-offs - far enough to cut into Kirin's and Yuda's business, which they really cannot afford.

The first half of the movie isn't quite standard crime, but it does seem kind of like writer/director "Nelson" Yu Lik-wai has mostly put a fresh coat of paint on known gangster tropes: You've got the son who is perhaps not quite so ruthless as the father was at his age, the new competition moving in, the clubs that are seedy once a thin veneer is scraped away. It's a highly enjoyable new coat of paint, though: The business of knock-offs lets the audience initially look at the characters in a slightly more sympathetic light (cheap consumer goods aren't exactly heroin), and a Brazilian busy, crowded city is more colorful and obviously multi-ethnic than what we usually see in Hong Kong.

The second half gets weird. A street fight so bloody and bizarre that I was convinced that it had to be some sort of dream sequence is the first obvious signal that Yu isn't just going to play out the standard gritty gangster tropes. It becomes about personal loyalty and self-destruction, or maybe redemption, or maybe the line between those last two is very easily blurred. The story takes a lot of weird turns, but to Yu's credit they don't wind up feeling random; even before he's filled in all the facts, it does feel like the various bits of strangeness come from someplace internal.

"Anthony" Wong Chau-sang, in particular, sells how much complexity may lie under Yuda's surface. He puts very slight variations into the character's body language, slumping ever so slightly when he gets to something where he may feel a bit guilty or vulnerable, but never enough to make the character appear over his head. His momentary breakdowns later in the movie are impressive; we believe he has seen something profound but don't need any speechifying or over-emoting to get the point.

Joe Odagiri has a somewhat less complicated character. We see that Kirin is not burdened by the experience and weight of history that Yuda is, and he's still somewhat naïve (in an interesting change-up, he appears to be the one more resistant to changing with the times, as opposed to the older Yuda). Odagiri does a nice job of projecting a lot of surface savvy and then growing in response to his difficulties.

(One thing I'd be interested to know is how well Wong and Odagiri handle their Portugese dialogue - both in terms of whether it was good enough to sell that the pair had lived in Brazil for 25 years, and because I saw this not long after Dream, where Odagiri spoke Japanese in an otherwise Korean-language film)

Yu has an interesting filmography; both the films he's made as a director of photography and writer/director are often a bit on the unusual side. He puts that experience as a cinematographer to good use, capturing the environment without a lot of "hey, check out how pretty the rain forest is" helicopter shots. He also does a fine job of transitioning the movie from being about Kirin and Yuda, purveyors of knock-offs, to something about them as father and son, without it ever feeling like a bait and switch.

Not without bumps - the main characters could sometimes stand to be a little more talkative, especially when making strange decisions - but well enough. Even as someone who is usually more curious about the procedural details than gangsters' personal lives, I found it an impressive bit of work.

Also at HBS.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Just a reminder...

Just a reminder: Moon (full review) opens in the Boston area (the AMC Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge and Embassy Theater in Waltham) today.

It is easily the best science-fiction movie to come out this year.

Sam Rockwell is fantastic.

The script is tight, the direction by first-timer Duncan Jones even more so.

It looks as good as something with many times its $5M-ish budget.

Anyway, you know what to do. Head into Harvard Square (or Central Square, Waltham) this weekend so that you can say that you had the discerning taste to catch this one in its original theatrical run when other folks start gushing about "discovering" it on video or at the sci-fi marathon, or when people ask you what the best movies of the summer/year were.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

O' Horten

Go figure. I was half-planning on bailing on the Chlotrudis movie last night - it looks like basically everybody decided to pack or head to Provincetown instead, and I was just sitting by the theater, reading a book, figuring I'd go home if I was going to be the only one there. One other person showed up.

And, happily, it was a darn good movie. I don't know if I'd seen a trailer or anything, but I'd half-filed it away as a "look how quirky I am!" movie, which it may technically be. It makes it work, though - it's never annoyingly self-aware of its cuteness, and it's got undercurrents of something a little more serious without getting maudlin. It really is the "coming of old age" movie that Up's director described his film as being.

O' Horten

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

O' Horten is what one might call dry, if given to the same sort of understatement as the film itself. The "O" stands for "Odd"; that may be a relatively common name in Norway which has nothing to do with its meaning in English, but "odd" describes the movie as well as anything else.

Odd Horten (Bård Owe) has been a railroad engineer for nearly forty years, and looks like he could have another ten years of it in him, despite having reached the retirement age of 67. He's a quiet man who lives in a small Oslo apartment near the train tracks, smokes a pipe, and stays in the same bed & breakfast owned by Svea (Henny Moan) in Bergen before making the return trip. Retirement finds him a bit adrift - he checks on his mother at the nursing home, sells his boat to his friend Flo (Bjørn Floberg), and frequently dines at the same restaurant. He meets a new friend in Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), who talks of his time as a diplomat in Africa and Indochina.

Odd Horten may at times seem a passive character, and that is in some ways part of the point: He's been content in his routine all his life, and doesn't quite know what to do with himself now that it's gone. It makes him a wonderful straight man, though; he reacts with a kind of bemused acceptance to the peculiar events around him, highlighting the strange within the ordinary and the ordinary within the strange. Owe is wonderful in the part - as one character points out, he bears his age well, although his face does have plenty of lines that come from experience. There's hints of both formality and impishness to him; he can give off the air of a hesitant, guilty child at times.

Indeed, for all the movie often feels like Odd reacting to strange things around him, he's just as often put himself into those situations. There's a lot of Jacques Tati's M. Hulot to Odd, actually - the pipe, the lack of wasted words, the gentle physical comedy that plays out over a very episodic film. It's an older version of the character, though, confronting not middle-aged confusion but elderly reality. As funny as most of the episodes are, there's poignancy to many of them, too, as Odd confronts, either directly or by proxy, what it means to consider the time that lies both ahead of and behind someone his age.

Interestingly, after the first episode or two, he doesn't do it through comparison with the frivolous young. Most of the other characters in the movie are around Odd's age, and the seasoned actors playing them are a joy to watch. Like Owe's, Henny Moan's face has the story of a lifetime written on it, and despite her Svea being in less than a handful of scenes, we feel like we know everything about it, especially a presumed longtime friendship with Odd. Espen Skjønberg is deadpan-funny as Trygve, perfectly communicating both the wonder of a grandiose life and the tragedy of how one's flesh does, in fact, weaken before one's spirit. Then there's Ghita Nørby as the widow of Odd's favorite tobacconist, whose time on screen is a perfect rendition of how old age can be a delicate balance of holding on and letting go.

Writer/director Bent Hamer uses this to send Odd on a very specific kind of emotional journey (Up's Pete Docter described his film as a "coming of old age" story, and the term fits O' Horten perfectly). He's greatly aided by his setting - the film is set at winter, and presumably in part because of the long Scandinavian nights, much of the story takes place after sunset. There's constant snow, and the trains plunge in and out of tunnels, both those dug through mountains and created by high snowbanks. It's late, this says, although the landscape is dazzlingly bright and the days are beautiful. There's a single shot of Bergen that only briefly comes into focus (perhaps Odd takes it for granted?) that makes me want to visit, a trick repeated later for Oslo at night.

For all that potential melancholy, though, O' Horten is a tremendously cheerful movie. The jokes are frequent and funny, tremendously droll. Odd and the rest of the characters are tremendously charming, and the message is ultimately pretty upbeat. It's a real treat.

Also at HBS.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 8 June 2009 to 14 June 2009

Another fairly light week, combining "not a whole lot I want to see" with "there is some good baseball to be watched". The pendulum swings back a little this coming weekend - the Sox are playing NL East also-rans, while Moon, Departures, and Tetro open in Boston, and even the studio product (The Proposal and Year One) looks fairly entertaining. And, as mentioned in the last post, I've got an envelope of stuff from IFC's Midnight program to look through.

This Week In Tickets!

On video: Dead Snow on 13 June 2009.

The baseball game was awesome, exciting from start to finish, although I will admit that after the first few innings I was gritting my teeth that most 1-0 games where the pitchers are throwing strikes don't seem to go that slowly. I was really pulling for Brad Penny and frustrated when the bullpen did the uncharacteristic coughing up of the lead in the 7th; the man was throwing strikes but having his pitch count run up by what seemed like a bunch of hitters who hit tons of foul balls. I also wanted the Sox to win more than usual because there was a play in the 5th (I think) where Ortiz hit a pop-up with two outs, and the team started walking to the dugout before it was actually in Damon's glove. He dropped it, and I think that if Papi had been running hard out of the box, he might have made it to second, since Jeter and Cano were halfway to the dugout already. Yankee arrogance (yes, I'm sure the Sox and every other team does this too, but doesn't it just fit the Yankees' character?)!

There were Yankees fans there, of course, and I'm not sure which I disliked more - the two guys in Jeter jerseys a few rows below me stood after every minor accomplishment and pointed vaguely (it may have been the "we're #1" sign, that's usually more forceful), or the guy three seats to my left who didn't get demonstrative until after his team was ahead. Sure, the other ones were annoying, but they owned their rooting for the enemy.

Not to bag on New York too much, since I'll probably spend a day there this weekend, and maybe the next two, trying to see a few movies at the New York Asian Film Festival. I saw one film there last year, which I loved, and the line-up looks killer. I'm not sure which day I want to go to - I'll limit it to one per weekend, as I don't want to shell out for a hotel room and my last use of a friend's couch upset her roommate. Saturday's a full day of fun stuff, but nothing I want to see as much as the stuff playing Sunday. Of course, Sunday the 20th Century Boys double feature, which I'm very undecided on seeing: On the one hand, it looks great; on the other, it will almost certainly play Fantasia; and on the gripping hand, I'm loving the manga, and do I really want to spoil the next couple years of that? Plus, I'd want to stay late for both, which means I can be wrecked at work on Monday morning or at home on Sunday.

(Fantasia releasing their schedule or line-up would make this so much easier!)

Heh... No sooner do I type that, than I get an email from the festival with announcements. Nothing that simplifies any "what to do in NYC" decisions, but Takashi Miike's Yatterman and Park Chan-wook's Thirst are on the schedule, and that's good to know!
OutrageEasy Virtue8-0!

Dead Snow

It's a strange thing, being treated like an actual film critic. About a year and a half ago, someone told me that I'd been quoted in an ad for Wristcutters: A Love Story that ran in the New York Times, which just seems ridiculous - indie as it was, there were also plenty of reviews from people you might have heard of. I've even been quoted on DVD covers a few times - though the one time it had my name rather than "eFilmCritic", it was attached to words I hadn't written (I believe ADV has allowed the rights to Synesthesia to lapse since, so that'll disappear off the market soon enough). Still, it's basically a studio saying "see this - a computer programmer in Massachusetts who has a blog thinks it's good!" Crazy, right?

And yet, apparently the stuff that gets reprinted on eFilmCritic and Hollywood Bitch-slap gets enough eyeballs that it's worth giving me the occasional festival pass or, in this case, envelope full of screeners, even though I honestly have no idea whether or not any review of mine has ever made a studio more than the money I would otherwise pay to see a movie. It's impossible to track, but I guess it's possible. Maybe even probable, in the cases of movies where few reviews exist.

Reviewing from screeners is weird, though. They tend to be no-frills DVDs, which means with the widescreen ones not even anamorphic (oddly, I had a VHS screener once that was - that was a curiosity!) and a straight stereo mix, so I can't really comment that much about the look and sound of the movie. The one for Dead Snow tended to pop the "for review use only" message (which occupies half the screen) in when it was most distracting, right on top of the picture, rather than in the blank space. I suspect that they're meant for the busy, on-the-go film critic, who watches them on his or her laptop between other work. My watching them on my living room HDTV is probably unusual - heck, I wound up not reviewing a bunch of screeners from Fantastic Fest because neither my HD DVD nor Blu-Ray player would get them to do anything, and I hate watching movies on my laptop (though I haven't tried it with the SlingCatcher, which seems glitchy but that might just be the computer choking on trying to stream in and out at once).

I mention this because IFC Films has sent me eight recent/upcoming movies from their "IFC Midnight" series, which I'll try to get through around baseball games, the NYAFF, etc. Dead Snow is the first; I think I may be able to get a couple more in this week

(Note: IFC is doing a simultaneous release in NY/LA theaters and On Demand; according to the publicity materials, the theatrical release will be in Norwegian with English subtitles, while the pay-per-view release is dubbed into English. Both options will be present on the forthcoming DVD, but until then, make sure the one you see matches your preferences. This review is of the subtitled version.)

Død Snø (Dead Snow

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2009 in Jay's Living Room (screener DVD - letterboxed w/ notices)

Dead Snow doesn't need a whole lot of reviewing. It's the movie with the zombie Nazis, and if the mention of the phrase "zombie Nazis" makes a person say "tell me more", what he really means is "tell me if they screwed it up". Short answer: No, they don't. This isn't a horror classic, but it's also no disaster.

It's a Norwegian twist on the familiar horror template: Eight friends driving out to the middle of nowhere to a cabin with no cell phone reception; it being Norway, they're looking forward to some skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling on their Easter vacation. They are college students in their senior year, about to start med school, though Martin (Vegar Hoel) gets squeamish at the sight of blood - obviously this will be an issue, just like girlfriend Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) suffering from claustrophobia. The single guys are Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen), the horndog, and Erlend (Jeppe Laursen), the movie nerd. The single girls are Chris (Jenny Skavlan), also into the movies, and Liv (Evy Kasseth Røsten). Vegard (Lasse Valdal) is the handsome, rugged type, though maybe not quite so sporty as his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp), who has opted to hike to the cabin. Alas, it doesn't look as if she will make it, if the opening scene with a young female hiker getting thrown around by unseen assailants is any indication.

Fortunately, someone drops in to give them a little exposition about how, during WWII, the area was occupied by an especially nasty group of Germans who looted the town before being driven into the snow. The film's first act is filled with that sort of inelegant information dump: When the characters have a long conversation about how to tell whether you're facing up or down after being caught in an earthquake, you may want to start taking bets with your friends on who gets caught upside down in an earthquake and when. I imagine that the inevitable is more fun when you've got money riding on the details.

Full review at EFC (I see a movie because of them, they get the click-through).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Easy Virtue

I may have to pick the soundtrack for this one - it's not amazing, but it's a lot of fun, and going roaring twenties with songs from later ages is one of the crazy ideas that the filmmakers have that can be said to work more often than not.

Easy Virtue

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2009 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

On the one hand, Easy Virtue is exactly what previews suggest it to be - a movie where a modern young woman (Jessica Biel) clashes with the staid establishment from which her husband hails, personified by her new mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). There's other plotty business in there, but the culture and family clash is the film's bread and butter, and it handles them well enough to get by on formula, if it didn't have other tricks up its sleeves.

Those "other tricks" start with Kristin Scott Thomas. We know where her Veronica Whittcker fits into the scheme of things from the first scene where she appears, and we're ready to sort of lament that she's in this sort of role, that it's a good thing she speaks French so well, because all the English-language world has for women of a certain age is monsters-in-law. As soon as we see her with Veronica's son John, though, we realize she's up to something different: Her Veronica, at least, isn't ridiculous in any way. She's conservative, certainly, and maybe a little too attached to traditions that were becoming impractical, but she's an intelligent, capable woman who loves her son but not to the point of smothering him or believing he's above Biel's Larita for knee-jerk class-system reasons. Many lesser actresses might have made Veronica into a simple villain, but Scott Thomas makes her into one we could agree to disagree with.

Or, at least, she pulls it off; she's likely not inserting anything into the film wholesale that wasn't in Noel Coward's play, Stephan Elliott's direction, or the script by Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins. There's plenty that can be done with the story; Alfred Hitchcock famously made it into a thriller eighty years ago, and Elliott does a nice job of combining the culture-clash comedy with weightier bits. There's also something charming about how relentlessly they refuse to modernize the action: Larita unironically defies Veronica by smoking, despite the fact that someone dying of cancer is a plot point, and though the Whittakers' financial difficulties play a role, it's very specific to them, rather than the times changing.

(Some of the other ways Elliott uses the film's period setting are just odd. There's a bit that doesn't recur quite often enough to be a running gag that essentially amounts to name-dropping 1920s celebrities that demonstrates how pop culture references without a punchline aren't funny once removed from context, but it doesn't feel like satire. Then there's the anachronistic songs arranged as if they were written in the roaring twenties, which actually makes for fun ending credits, but other selections - like "Sex Bomb" - don't quite work.)

Kristin Scott Thomas is not the only impressive member of the supporting cast. Colin Firth and Ben Barnes are quite enjoyable as father and son Jim and John Whittaker, both of whom are mostly likable, coming up with unique takes on the man paired with a woman who makes a stronger impression than him. Kris Marshall does a great job of stealing scenes as the butler, especially since he's not introduced as a funny butler. Charlotte Riley does well in the thankless role of John's girl-next-door, and Kimberly Nixon is quite good as sister Hilda.

And then there's Jessica Biel, who has moments when she's terrific, like when she first sees that John's family lives in a castle-like mansion, and stretches where she seems to be horribly miscast. She plays off Scott Thomas, Barnes, and (especially) Firth very well, but she also seems to be the common denominator in the sequences that just don't work. Or at least don't work as well as they should - there are moments when Larita should break our heart, and we just feel sort of bad for her. She's also much funnier in a group than on her own.

Granted, many of the parts that fall flat seem like they have no business working - the can-can scene, for instance, is just painfully drawn out for a joke that is not only obvious, but is also obviously not going to be allowed to pay off. It's got to happen, and on a certain level I appreciate the filmmakers making an effort to go for big laughs, when it fails, it falls terribly flat.

Easy Virtue isn't a bad movie - on balance, I think it works more often than not. But in some ways, that's even worse - all the parts that are so well-done just seem to highlight the questionable decisions made by the same people.

Also at HBS.

Outrage

A few odds and ends of thoughts before getting on to the review:

* The Brattle is playing a double feature of Azur & Asmar and Sita Sings the Blues. Both are impressive animated movies, Sita in particular being fantastic.

* I'm constantly surprised when I'm the first to review something on EFC/HBS that has played festivals or been released in other cities, as is the case with Outrage, especially since I generally don't finish until it's a week into its Boston run. We really need to get some more folks who see indie films going there, especially if they're based out of New York or L.A. (or some festival-friendly area).

* Sometimes the results are fun, though. As I right this, my review of Moon from SXSW is the hottest thing going there, even above the two Taking of Pellham 1-2-3 reviews. I'm guessing that it will show up in Cambridge next weekend, at the Harvard Square (based on Landmark's website only talking about it playing Waltham); hopefully Boston Common, too. I do get addicted to checking how my reviews are doing there, then trying to figure out why certain ones hit the leaderboards.

* Writing this review was annoying, not just because the laptop crapped out a couple times (fortunately, without loss of data), but because I get nervous writing about "gay stuff", and not just because many of the folks (both specific and hypothetical) most likely to read the review are gay. I hate the words: I've known too many people who use "gay" as an insult, "homosexual" is too clinical, and, man, I'd like to get "queer" back into general circulation. It just sounds like a word that means "somewhat odd or bizarre", and I'd like to be able to use it that way without it sounding like a double-entendre, especially since it seems to have become one of those words that only members of the group can use. Also, is there a specific preferred order for the acronym "LGBT"? I saw it that way on a site, but I always think of it with the "G" first... Anyway, it means second-guessing every sentence to figure out whether I'm saying something I don't want to say.

Anyway, it's playing at the Kendall and Coolidge right now. Digital projection in both cases, but I saw it at the Kendall because I don't like the way theater #3 in the Coolidge is set up.

Outrage

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

There are grounds to critique how Outrage is put together as a movie, and plenty of them, but they are relatively minor. For the most part, the film does what a good piece of documentary journalism should, in that it presents information clearly, in a manner that is entertaining enough to keep an audience's interest without diminishing the subject matter's import. Even if a viewer disagrees with Kirby Dick's message or tactics, he or she must admit that he argues his point reasonably well.

That point is this: Many politicians and members of their staffs are gay and in the closet, which ordinarily would be their own business. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of this group acts in a way that is directly counter to the interests of other LGBT people, and that sort of hypocrisy should not be allowed to stand. The film offers up examples of these politicians, shows the process of investigating, and makes an attempt to explain why so many smart and capable people would choose to live with such a contradiction in their lives.

Writer/director Dick is not terribly subtle in how he does this: He introduces a politician, presents the evidence that despite his public front (the outed politicians are, by and large, male and conservative), he enjoys the company of other men, and then displays a graphic of their dismal voting record on issues like marriage rights, anti-defamation laws, and AIDS relief: A big "NO" pops up (with thumping sound effect) next to each time the issue was raised and is followed by a tiny percentage of gay-friendly votes. That the template is obvious from the second time its used is not a knock against it; it makes its point very clearly.

Dick also takes care to make sure that the outings are substantiated, either by having people speak on the record or making sure that any anonymous sources are confirmed. The journalists who originally broke these stories on their magazines and blogs are very careful to point out that there's no room for doubt in these stories; they must be able to withstand scrutiny. Most seem like they would, although in one or two cases it did seem as though the independent sources weren't necessarily so independent as claimed.

The film also has some structural problems. The opening graphics, for instance, state the film's premise but also say that there's a conspiracy to keep this secret. "Conspiracy" is a loaded word, and the film does not follow up on this accusation in a very substantial way. It also has a tendency to return to points that don't need reiteration. Take the case of Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida. Early scenes do a fair job of establishing that he's gay, claims otherwise, and actively works against gay rights. Returning to him multiple times almost seems to work against the film's aims: He's got a gregarious, charming manner that are a great asset to his political career, and it's almost possible to sympathize with this guy who has to keep answering the same questions despite there not being much new proof; we forget just how damning those original accusations were.

The movie keeps coming back to him, though, because his story fits the topic in so many ways, and he's one of the few subjects that does not have "former" attached to his position when identifying subtitles come up (aside from the reliably entertaining Barney Frank). It also sidesteps the ethics of outing, to a certain extent: Early claims of how it is much better for all involved to be out of the closet, no matter how that happens, dangle until late interviews with former New Jersey governor James McGreevey and former Arizona legislator Jim Kolbe. Many of the interview subjects say that normally, they'd never out someone, but in these circumstances... The line is not well-defined, and offers critics a chance to charge that the filmmakers are as hypocritical as those they criticize.

And maybe they are, in some ways - there's room for debate about the film's ethics and the politics. Its information, on the other hand, seems pretty solid, and the presentation is good. That's what makes for a good documentary, if not a perfect one.

Also at HBS.

Monday, June 08, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 1 June 2009 to 7 June 2009

I laid out a much more ambitious schedule this week, but now that I look at it, I still think I could/should have done more: Either The Girlfriend Experience or Outrage at the Kendall, or What Goes Up at the Somerville (the rare Somerville-only opening, which is easy to miss). I saw Outrage tonight, since this week's Chlotrudis Tuesday Night at the Movies is an either/or situation, and afterward I'll be able to talk with both the Outrage and Easy Virtue people. I suppose I could have seen Easy Virtue over the weekend, too, but that would have meant sitting in the Coolidge Screening Room tomorrow night, and why do that when it could possibly be avoided?

This Week In Tickets!

I almost missed Katyn, which would have been a shame. Thursday was just one of those nights when I wanted to see the movie but didn't particularly want to go out. I'm glad I did see it, although if I were smart, I would have done the laundry before going out.

Baseball wiped out doing more on the weekend - the Lester game on Saturday night was too good to be torn away from, especially once the grill had been fired up, and Sunday... Well, look at that ticket. Go to the Fenway Park diagram and figure out where it is. There's no shade there, and I was pretty well cooked by the time the game was over. It is, apparently, not good to spend that time in one unshaded place without sunscreen or a hat during the summer.

This week is also pretty booked, although the studio summer movie offerings look even weaker than this past weekend (especially since I'm not going to see The Taking of Pellham 1-2-3 v3.0 until I've been sent the free ticket mentioned on the cover of my Air Force One blu-ray). Hopefully some of the stuff I've missed this weekend will stick around.

The Hangover

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 June 2009 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I genuinely loved the way The Hangover started, with some choice shots that do a great job of communicating tension, despair, and resignation. Then the movie jumps back in time, spending a little too long getting us to the nifty premise that brought us in - three guys try to find a missing friend after a bachelor party in Vegas leaves them all hung over, not remember anything. If it's going to take this long to get to the good stuff, we should at least be getting more perfectly deadpan Jeffery Tambor.

Then we do get to the good stuff, and it's not really that good. None of the episodic bits are really gut-bustingly funny, and the randomness doesn't quite work. The characters aren't really interesting enough to make the particular humiliations they receive funny - one's kind of smarmy, one's insecure, one's weird and kind of creepy, and that's all they've got - and as rife with potential as the situation is, it doesn't quite build right. Each gag should be bigger and crazier than the last, but it doesn't really work that way, and the resolution/answer at the end isn't the summary of what came before. The filmmakers have presented this as a mystery, and maybe it wouldn't be the worst idea to have it play out like one.

But, really, the worst offense is that it's just not funny enough. None of its bits are nearly as funny as they could be, and although I didn't have the feeling I have with a lot of R-rated/gross-out comedies - the one where I want to find out why on Earth the idiots around me are laughing, because there's no actual joke there - I was also acutely aware that I should have been laughing more. Of course, it doesn't help that a sparsely populated 11am show is probably not the best place to see a movie like this, although a really great comedy could have overcome that.

Also, it's probably about time that I accepted that Heather Graham is just really not all that good, despite being pretty and curvy and willing to do anything for a laugh. She's like Matt Frewer in that regard - sure, they seemed fantastic in the first roles I saw them in - Swingers and Boogie Nights for her; Max Headroom and Doctor Doctor for him - but those were apparently lightning strikes, actors being cast in the perfect roles for them, and they just weren't going to be that good in the vast majority of other parts.
Pirates of PenzanceA Song of SparrowsKatynThe HangoverSox and Sunburn

Katyn

Every once in a while, I'll read something that notes that for all we remember about the Nazis and their death camps, Stalin actually killed more people in his purges. The point isn't to diminish what the Nazis did, but to recognize that it's sadly not unique, and wasn't before the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the horrors that have gone on in Africa over the past twenty years. The Nazis weren't even the first; ask the Armenians about that. But, nonetheless, we keep coming back to them; the Soviets even attempted to cover up the incident depicted in Katyn not by saying it didn't happen, but by shifting the blame to Hitler. Which makes sense, from a practical standpoint; the Nazis were, after all, infamous for this sort of thing.

Katyn

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 June 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

The title of Katyn refers to a place name and an event, one which looms large in modern Poland's history, but the film holds the actual event in reserve. It's too big, after all, putting Katyn at it's actual chronological place in history might blot out everything around it, and as horrific a massacre as it was, the violence of the incident is not the sole thing about it which is horrible.

Even in the middle of World War II, the Soviet Union was playing the long game. Poland, positioned between the Soviets and the Germans, got it from both sides. As the film opens in 1939, the two armies meet in Krakow, but their commanders shake hands rather than fight right off. Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter Nika are seeking Anna's husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), an officer in the Polish army. While the Nazis are closing down the university and rounding up the faculty - including Andrzej's father Jan (Wladyslaw Kowalski) - the Soviets are doing the same with the Andrzej and the other officers, including Andrzej's friend Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra). Many are slaughtered by the Soviets at Katyn in 1940. In 1945, as the war ends, the Soviets take control of Poland, and insist that the massacre was perpetuated by the Germans in 1941. Everybody knows this to be false, but if the Soviets punish anyone who says otherwise, what will the historical record say?

Writer/director Adrzej Wajda lost his father at Katyn, but does not make the film entirely about that specific incident. Katyn is a turning point, a nexus which is horrible enough in its own right, but which is also part of a pattern. Katyn serves as an examination of how fascist states take and consolidate power, especially for the long haul. Methodical destruction of the army is only part of it; information control is just as important, if not more so. The first half of the movie details how the Nazis and Soviets sapped Poland's strength by removing its intellectuals and army's officer corps; the second shows the Soviets consolidating power, entrenching a lie through sheer repetition and suppression.

The way Katyn shows both the lead-up to the incident and the aftermath is engrossing; Wajda does a great job of balancing procedural details with emotionally intense vignettes. The film frequently makes small jumps forward in time, but in the middle it makes a big one, from the middle of the war to the end (roughly 1940 to 1945; in the print shown, there is some unsubtitled text to bridge the gap). The risk is that Katyn can wind up feeling like two hour long movies glued together, especially as the second half introduces new characters - like Andrzej's nephew Tadeusz (Antoni Pawlicki) and Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka), the sister of one of the prisoners - and new stories to go with them. It's suddenly more people to keep track of, and stories that don't always directly connect with the first hour's, even if the themes do.

It's not a fatal flaw, or close to one; the new stories are as good as the ones we started with, and that's quite good indeed. Wajda does a great job of building each individual tale and tying them together without giving the feeling that Katyn only affected a small group of people. More important is the overall mood; everything from the cinematography to the reconstruction of the city contributes to the feeling of Poland being squeezed. It is a thoroughly created atmosphere of despair; even the knowledge we in the present have that Poland would endure and come out the other end of history well does not completely offset the feeling of the time.

The actors help offset that feeling a bit. They don't play their characters as particularly cheerful, but do generally manage to accentuate their virtues and determination without making them appear fools or or especially quixotic. Despite being separated for the bulk of the movie, Artur Zmijewski and Maja Ostaszewska show a strong bond as Andrzej and Anna; enough so that we don't really need their early scene together to see that, although we're glad to have it. Among the prisoners, Jan Englert plays a general who does well inspiring the troops, and Andrzej Chyra is very good as the loyal, but cynical, lieutenant. The second-half characters often serve as a breath of fresh air, compared to the likes of Anna and Jerzy, who seem broken by a war that never seems to have ended for them. Magdalena Cielecka brings steely determination as well as beauty, while Antoni Pawlicki and Agnieszka Kawiorska play their characters as a little less jaded, still seeing resistance against the Communists as an adventure as well as a good fight.

They'd think differently if they saw the execution of the Katyn massacre, which is depicted with a brutality usually reserved for Nazi atrocities. In some ways it's more intense, as it is individual as well as efficient. It's a suitably sobering end to the film; the final demonstration of how far an authoritarian state will go maintain their power, even if they'll later deny it.

Also at HBS.