Tuesday, March 30, 2010

BUFF Day 3: My Normal, Love on the Rocks, and Red White & Blue

I didn't look to make theme days when I attend film festivals (in fact, I sort of try to avoid it so that films don't run together), but sometimes it just happens. Friday night, well, there wasn't much avoiding a sort of grindhouse theme. On Monday, Asylum Seekers and Stuck! just happened to both be about getting locked up, more or less.

Saturday wound up having a common thread of people getting tied up. For fun in My Normal, for more nefarious purposes in Love on the Rocks and Red White & Blue. Having that happen was kind of distracting, actually - all that intense stuff is going on during the last movie, and I find myself groaning "more people getting tied up? I don't think I've seen this much in the last three months!"

Another sort-of, kind-of amusing thing was how, during the introduction to Red White & Blue, director Simon Rumley goes on and on about Austin. Jeez, guy, if I'd wanted to hear that, I'd have gone to SXSW! This is Boston, buster, and we don't care!

I kid. Sort of. One of the things I took away from my trip to Austin last year was that Austinites really love Austin. I think it's a very specific manifestation of how Texans really love Texas. Practically the first question at any screening was "so, how do you like Austin? Awesome, right?", and if any part of the film was shot there, "so, just how awesome was shooting in Austin, and do you plan to shoot any or all of your next movie here?"

(I'm only exaggerating a little. There's civic pride, and there's this. Just push it a little harder, and you're New Yorkers)

"Valerie Sells Her Panties Online"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

A fairly funny movie from student filmmaker Valerie Temple, which is about the building of this actual website, although in a fun, tongue-in-cheek way. I missed the first minute or so of this 11-minute short, but what I did see was pretty entertaining. Sadly, during the Q&A, she informed us that in the year or two that the site has been up, she has not sold a single pair of used panties.

As evidence that this part of the film festival was designed to pander to me specifically, it plays as part of a "cute redhead" double feature with...

My Normal

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

My Normal is thoroughly enjoyable, but I've got to be honest: It might come off as just another talky indie/mumblecore film if half the cast of characters were not lesbian dominatrices.

Take Natalie (Nicole LaLiberte); she's a lesbian dominatrix (he said, in case search engines don't recognize the plural). As the film opens, she and a couple of her friends and co-workers (Naama Kates and Maine Anders) are doing a little role-playing with Jim (Heath Kelts). She's not damaged; she regularly has family dinners with her mother and sister (Katie Wallack), though her grandmother doesn't get that fixing Natalie up with boys won't get her anywhere. She doesn't necessarily want to be a dom all her life; she's studying film and writing a screenplay with her neighbor/ganja dealer Noah (Ty Jones). And she's just met Jasmine (Dawn Noel Pignuola), a nice girl who is a little uncomfortable with Natalie's job.

As one might guess from the title, the filmmakers aren't particularly looking to take Natalie to task for the way she lives her life. In the abstract, that's fine and laudable; that life appears to be comfortable and not hurting anybody, including Natalie herself. The film does suffer for it in some ways, though: Sparks by and large fail to fly when Natalie's normal comes into conflict with someone else's. Either things quickly work out for the best or the issue dies out. There is, for instance, no real back-and-forth between Natalie and Jasmine over how Natalie's job makes Jasmine uneasy. Given that, at some points, Jasmine is painted more sympathetically than Natalie (due to a subplot that could be made more clear), it's a conversation that both they and the audience deserve.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"You Ruined Everything"

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

Awww, poor mopey guy has been dumped and now mopes about it.

It looks like it has potential early on, with the photography reminiscent of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, so maybe the idea is that this guy's ex-girlfriend really did, somehow, cause the end of the world by breaking up with him. But, no, soon we see it's just a guy feeling sorry for himself, acting like a jerk and deliver pretentious narration about how his break-up has allowed him to create something artistic and meaningful.


Love on the Rocks

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

There are many varieties of "edgy", but most can fit within two broad categories: Those that make a mainstream viewer say "ewwwww!" and those that make that same mainstream viewer say "what the hell?". There is, as one would imagine, some overlap, such as in films like Love on the Rocks. This one's got a fair amount of ewwwww before making its major WTH detour.

Amber (Lauren Jennings) is a nice girl. She's been dating Gavin (Nicholas Tecosky) for four and a half years before he dumps her because he wants to play the field, and has probably put up with being taken for granted for nearly that long. Still, a blind date with Patrick (Justin Welborn) goes well, and soon they're seeing each other. After a while, though, she's just not feeling it, but has a hard time breaking up with him. Which may be a blessing in disguise, because Patrick is very clingy, and has a basement full of the corpses of women with whom it didn't work out.

Love on the Rocks starts with Patrick "ending a relationship", but the murders are only a part of the movie's thesis. That would be that neither men nor women are capable of a healthy relationship, because they tend toward certain basic personality types: Men are either monsters like Patrick, or ruled by their animal instincts like Gavin. Women don't come off much better; Amber is a doormat afraid of relationship failure, but women like her best friend and roommate Stacie (Terri James) - and the pop-psychology author she swears by (Noelle Monteleone) - don't seem to consider men their equals, but animals to control.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Red White & Blue

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Red White & Blue takes its time messing the audience up. Even the big event that pulls everything together takes a few scenes to really sink in, as we connect just what's been going on with a growing horror. For the most part, that works to director Simon Rumley's advantage, until the movie has gone from a slow burn to a prolonged end.

Erica (Amanda Fuller) is living on the margins in Austin; maybe she's a runaway. Right now, she's trading chores for a room in a boarding house, though she spends a lot of single nights in random men's beds. Nate (Noah Taylor) is an Iraq War veteran in the same place, and takes an interest in Erica, getting her a job at the local building and supply when the landlady starts insisting she pay rent. She won't sleep with him, though. And Franki (Marc Senter) is a garage musician whom we don't see much until after we've gotten to know Erica and Nate, although he does show up earlier. Things are finally starting to happen with his band, he's ready to get serious with his girl, and his mother's cancer seems to be going into remission. And then...

Well, the "and then" is something that's a giant kick to the gut under the best of circumstances. Then we connect it to a line from earlier in the film, and realize the situation is much worse than we'd thought, and could be worse still. Which it is, because from this point on, Rumley is intent on taking what we'd been seeing as decent, if flawed, people and shows us just what sort of ugliness tragedy can bring out in them. And, fair warning, that ugliness is not for the weak of heart.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sunday, March 28, 2010

BUFF Days 1-2: American Grindhouse, Pieces, Life and Death of a Porno Gang, and Love Exposure

Two long nights. I was a little disappointed that more people didn't come Thursday, but four hours on Thursday night is a lot. One of the early schedules on the website had a second screening on Sunday afternoon, and it would have been nice, but it looks like the schedule just wound up too packed, which is A Good Thing.

Friday night was very long and could have been longer at the other end; I couldn't get out of work in time to see Impolex. Still, by the end, it wasn't surprising when the guest for The Life and Death of a Porno Gang came to shake the hand of everyone left in the theater for the Q&A. That was about a half-dozen of us; I was sitting fairly close to the front, so I don't know whether it was a mad dash to get home at 2am or whether folks were bailing midway through.

I wouldn't blame them; the movie is intense. Fantasia is doing a series on Serbian films this year, and it seems that a lot of it is cut from this decidedly NC-17, angry cloth. I know I probably won't go for A Serbian Film; the word coming out of SXSW was that even the people with usually strong constitutions thought it was too harsh to see again, to the point of "I'd like to un-see that".

Ai no mukidashi (Love Exposure)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

I saw this at Fantasia last year, and on a second viewing, I liked it maybe even a little more. The parts toward the end that seemed arbitrary fit in much better the second time around.

One thing I did notice was that digital projection appeared to do this film no favors. I recall it looking very nice on film last year. This looked roughly like DVD quality and it made a lot of the film look kind of cheap in spots where I don't necessarily remember it looking low-budget before

"Porn Guide"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

The six-minute short that played in front of American Grindhouse was kind of amusing, although not particularly memorable. Truth be told, the stories about finding the 1970s-era guide to making porn movies and adapting it were probably more entertaining than the final result (though that is, in fact, pretty funny).

American Grindhouse

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

Cinema lovers: Have you spent your time in theaters and at the video store working your way through the Criterion Collection, absorbing the work of international masters, and seeing the most acclaimed films of a century of motion pictures only to come up blank when introduced to another film lover, only to find that you know nothing of exploitation movies? If so, you've got two options, and nobody likes the guy who claims he's too good for something. But, in just an hour and a half, American Grindhouse can give you an introductory course and offer suggestions for further study.

American Grindhouse makes no bones about it - it is Schlock 101, presented in a dozen or so chapters. It starts with "Edison to Freaks" and steps through the history of exploitation film in the twentieth-century to "Porn-o-Copia" and "The Final Grind...Or Is It?" In between, there are bits on the Paramount Decision, beach movies, nudie cuties and "roughies", women in prison, and others.

Robert Forster narrates, and director Elijah Drenner interviews a number of interesting folks, both experts and folks who were involved. These are, for the most part, a blast to watch; for the most part, everyone involved is enthusiastic but also irreverent. John Landis, in particular, frequently has a hard time keeping himself from laughing when discussing old exploitation films. Folks like Joe Dante, David Hess, and Fred Williamson each also contribute great anecdotes, and I strongly suspect that the "Send in the Nazis" segment is there entirely because the story Don Edmonds tells about becoming the director of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is not just an example of how the memorable B-movies are the ones where the filmmakers were as committed as they would be to any more legitimate project, but comes out with great self-deprecating wit.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

A faux trailer with its tongue in cheek about a slasher movie based on an undead fireman. Plenty of blood and not-bad gore for something so small. It'd be a horrible movie, but a decent enough concept to carry two minutes.

Pieces (Mil gritos tiene la noche)

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

It's a shame that there aren't a whole lot of grindhouses left so that the modern day descendants of films like Pieces can be seen in their proper environment. A tasteless, terrible movie in one's living room is just a bad movie; a tasteless, terrible movie in the company of dozens of similarly stunned people is hilarity for the community!

Pieces starts with a flashback to 1942, where a mother discovers her son assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked girl. She orders him to stop and throw it away before filth like that makes him... Well, whatever she's afraid of, the ship has sailed on that; he whips out an axe and goes nuts, later fooling the police into thinking it was a burglar. Forty years later, a series of murders begins in a Boston university (though not necessarily Boston University). Something has triggered him to start putting it together again, only this time he'll be using real body parts alongside the puzzle! Can two detectives (Christopher George and Frank Braña), an undercover police woman who used to play pro tennis (Lynda Day George), a nosy reporter (Isabel Luque), and the boyfriend (Ian Sera) of one of the slain girls figure out which of the schools multitude of middle-aged men is murderous?

Not likely; they're all pretty dim. In fact, there are moments when it almost seems like the filmmakers are playing into in in a semi-parodic way, like when Jack Taylor's anatomy professor looks witheringly at Christoper George's lead detective who asks if a chainsaw could have caused these injuries. The moments of dryness appear so randomly that it seems more likely that they happened by accident, a perfect storm of bad writing, bad acting and bad direction coming together to form an optical illusion of cleverness.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"Raymond May Have Rabies"

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

Didn't like this much at all; just ugly and not nearly funny enough to get away with it.

Zivot i smrt porno bande (The Life and Death of a Porno Gang)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Well, I can't say that I got anything less than could be expected from that title, can I? It's right there - life, death, people making porn, far more direct than its somewhat more infamous cousin, A Serbian Film. So, if you're squeamish, you've been warned. It may do you some good to check it out anyway, though - it's ugly and raw and depraved, and the occasional reminder that this is the only somewhat amplified reality of everyday life in some parts of the world is kind of healthy.

Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has graduated film school, but is having trouble getting people to finance his sci-fi/horror project. He ekes by doing commercials until he's introduced to pornographer Cane (Srdjan Miletic). Marko gets comfortable in porn, but soon winds up over budget and behind schedule with Cane, and to raise money to pay him back, he and his girlfriend Una (Ana Jovanovic) come up with the idea of live porno cabaret. Cane gets his cop brother to shut them down, so they and a half-dozen friends take the show on the road, making their money back by pitching their tent in various villages - and, on the side, making the occasional snuff film.

This is, in case you haven't guessed, a bleak movie about a bleak place. In the Q&A after the screening, the director of photography mentioned that most of the stories told to demonstrate why characters would volunteer for snuff films to give some small benefit to their family are based on actual events; they are matter-of-fact litanies of horror and despair. Drug use and disease are rampant.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Secret of Kells

This has to be written now - not only will the next few days involve being hip deep in BUFF stuff so that there isn't any time to write about The Secret of Kells, but I strongly suspect that it will be tough to get into the right frame of mind for it, as well.

Still, I'm glad to see it open up for a couple weeks. It's a delightful little film, and I think that in an ideal world, this is what the Oscars and similar awards are for - calling attention to good to great films so that they have an opportunity to sell more tickets. Something like Kells kind of falls into the boutique-house/mainstream trap, in that the folks who go to boutique houses don't seek out family-friendly animated movies, and families probably skip past Landmark's listings in the paper. Heck, only two Chlotrudis people (including myself) came to this showing, which was the designated movie of the week. But it did attract some families with kids to Kendall Square, which is a bit of an unusual experience.

2009 was a ridiculously good year for animated films - there were enough to nominate five movies for the Oscars, and they were good enough that people didn't carp too hard over Ponyo, which is only the new Miyazaki, being snubbed (to tie in a little, I considered comparing Kells to Kiki's Delivery Service, in how growing up led to the main character no longer being able to converse with someone). Folk I trust say that there was a good case for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, too.

Hopefully 2010 is nearly as good. I hear it's off to a good start with How to Train Your Dragon, although it'll be a week or so before I see that (I want gigantic IMAX, not digital, so I'll wait until after BUFF is over). In the meantime, see Kells during its likely brief release.

The Secret of Kells

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Like many fans of animation, I have a certain ambivalence toward the "Best Animated Feature" category at the Academy Awards. I like the idea of a sorely underappreciated medium getting some recognition, though I also worry that it will mark them as second-tier, and some of the selections made have caused me to question the nominators. Still, nominating this somewhat under-the-radar film from Ireland probably got it a much larger release than it would have had otherwise, so in doing so, they've done something right and done something good.

In 9th Century Ireland, the village of Kells builds walls to protect itself from the Norsemen who sweep over the island like a merciless wave. The abbot's nephew, Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), is less interested in defense than in helping the other monks, charged with transcribing knowledge. The finest scribe, they say, is Brother Aidan (voice of Mick Lally), who coincidentally arrives at Kells with warning that the Vikings will not be far behind. Still, he remains set on completing his book, and sees Brendan as a potentially exceptional apprentice. When Brendan ventures into the forest to find berries with which to make ink, he upsets his uncle Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson), but also meets Aisling (voice of Christen Mooney), a spirit who lives there.

An early shot tells us a great deal about both the film's inspirations and the visual style to come: We see the wall around the village as a perfect circle, as if viewed from directly above, but the central tower points to the top of the screen as if shot from the ground. This sort of inconsistent perspective is common in the illuminated manuscripts that the monks create, and while director Tomm Moore only uses the device sparingly, it gives the film both an extra bit of period detail and sense of the fantastic. It's a welcome break from the relative sameness of digitally animated movies, which are not necessarily always concerned about realism, but how things look in three dimensions.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 15 March 2010 to 21 March 2010

The preview portion, which is more of a right-now-view, since it's Friday already:

* The Boston Underground Film Festival kicked off yesterday with Love Exposure, which was decently attended for a four-hour movie on a weeknight, although not as packed as it should have been. The "regular" festival kicks off this afternoon (26 March 2010), with most films having their first run today, tomorrow, and Sunday, and then having a second screening Monday-Thursday. Of what's remaining, I've only seen Slimed! when it was screened as a potential entry for the Sci-Fi festival. It's a better fit for Underground (but I wouldn't call it good).

If you like the cheap movies, BUFF's $35 "recession special" is a tough deal to beat for the next week, as it gets you into all BUFF second-run screenings starting Monday. Start at 5pm each day and take in all three, and that's something like $2.33/movie.

* Kurosawa at the Brattle, with Stray Dog tonight, Seven Samurai on Saturday and Sunday, Ikiru on Monday, The Bad Sleep Well on Tuesday, and a double feature of High and Low and Drunken Angel on Wednesday. If you haven't seen some of these, you should. If you have, why not see them again?

* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drops down to one screen at the Kendall to accommodate BUFF, but opens at the Coolidge by way of compensation (albeit only in the video room) and gets another week at Boston Common. It's good stuff, and I selfishly want to encourage a good turnout because Music Box plans to distribute the other two this summer, and I want it booked in theaters.

* How to Train Your Dragon opens at the Jordan's IMAX theaters in Natick and Reading. I'll be honest, this kind of surprises me, as it seems like a much riskier proposition than keeping Alice around. That appears to be the issue in some of the multiplexes, where Paramount reportedly told theaters that if it didn't get at least one 3-D screen, they couldn't have 2-D prints. This also - I think - is the first digital 3-D film to be booked at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond - coincidence?

(I apologize for the website that last link will bring you to)

* The Harvard Film Archive has Abdellatif Kechiche being given an award and introducing a couple of his films. I won't lie - I hated The Secret of the Grain. A friend of a friend swears by it, though, seeing it at a festival and then at Kendall Square and then making a trip out to West Newton when it moved there. If you're in that category, this may be for you.

* The Boston Turkish Film Festival continues at the MFA; late next week, they also open a couple interesting-looking films on Wednesday: The Sun and Off and Running.

* Kendall Square and Boston Common both open Greenberg, signaling the end of my seeing that trailer in front of every movie I see, and Chloe, which is the Chlotrudis movie of the week on Monday. Kendall also has Mid-August Lunch as the one-week wonder.

* It's a little ways off, but IFFB has announced their 2010 lineup!

This Week In Tickets!

The Chlotrudis awards were a good time, and you can read the results here. It especially improved near the end, as after the first few awards, my reaction was along the lines of "wait, I paid money to see A Single Man beat Moon twice? What. The. Hell?" Beth Grant was the character actor honored this year, and though you'd never know it from watching her movies and TV appearances, she is not a shriveled, pinched, and bitter woman.

Full list and press release at the Chlotrudis website

The Red Shoes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes contains moments of striking beauty even if you aren't at all interested in the ballet - the technicolor photography is gorgeous, and not just because nothing leaps off a screen more than Technicolor red. I'm sure digital projection will get there someday, but in the meantime, Moira Shearer's hair in this film is something astonishing.

I like that this is a fairly relaxed movie, with time to show some of the process and politics behind the scenes in the ballet, and spend twenty minutes on the actual Red Shoes ballet right in the middle of the movie, enhanced with special effects and other bits to give us a little insight into prima ballerina Victoria Page's frame of mind. It's a pretty amazing sequence.

I have a hard time loving the movie without reservation, though. The main story of the film, which is meant to parallel the Hans Christian Anderson tale to an extent, gets very choppy in the end: The romance between Shearer's Page and Marius Goring's Julian Craster seems to take place almost entirely off-screen, and then, almost as soon as the film has made a big deal of that, it does an almost complete about face to show Page suddenly returning to Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and his ballet, and a climax that seems to come less from torment than carelessness.

Repo Men

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run)

Repo Men is frustrating. You can tell just by looking at it that Universal threw multiple times the budget of the similarly-themed Repo! The Genetic Opera at it for a rather more bland result. On a certain level, that's fine; its ambitions are more modest, and Repo! was a trainwreck. But this winds up being rather dull, despite the action which occasionally erupts in a spray of blood and guts.

And then, halfway through, when I've more or less given up, it starts to show some sort of pulse. Writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner seem to suddenly remember that what they're writing is both science fiction and satire, and they can thus do some goofy and large-than life things (in the book, for instance, the "artiforgs" appear to be a much better investment; rather than just being replacements, they prolong life, making the prices more reasonable and the debt more insidious). It's much too little, too late, but it does punch things up a little before the film gets to the ending that has been awkwardly foreshadowed for the whole film.

Speaking of which - Spoilers Follow, Obviously - I think it falls victim to the "getting the audience to see mistakes they wouldn't have if you weren't working so hard to let them know you are clever" pitfall (that needs a short and pithy name): Remy's narration is meant to be coming from the book he writes, The Repossession Mambo (also the title of the source novel, and probably the movie at some point in development) - and a running bit is about how he's been knocked unconscious four times, but if he never comes out of the fourth one, how can he write about it?
Prodigal SonsThe Red ShoesNightmare Alley & FreaksRepo MenHubble 3-DMy Son, My Son, What Have Ye DoneThe UnknownThe Girl with the Dragon TattooChlotrudis Awards 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Circus Films: Nightmare Alley, Freaks, and The Unknown

It's past midnight, I'd still like to get TWIT done by the time I get to work tomorrow/today. I have little to say about the circus, anyway, although I'll go for a silent with live accompaniment any time.

Nightmare Alley

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema)

Most film noirs involve scams of some sort, as do certain types of entertainment. The difference is that a patsy in a confidence game is not on some level making a choice to play along, consciously or unconsciously, the way the person in the audience of a magic show is. Well, that and the amount of money that changes hands. The basic skills, though, are highly transferable, which is the start of a decent story.

Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is with the traveling circus, a barker with an eye for the ladies who assists "psychic" Zeena (Joan Blondell) while her drunk of a husband, Pete (Ian Keith), assists out of sight. It wasn't always low-rent sideshows for Zeena and Pete, though - they once headlined vaudeville shows with a mentalist act, and even now Zeena steadfastly refuses to sell their highly-valuable code. Once Stan gets wind of this, he starts working on her, eventually learning the code himself - and lighting out for Chicago with Molly (Coleen Gray), who doesn't have so many miles on her. The act is a hit, but with success comes temptation - and sharp-witted psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) represents it in two forms.

Nightmare Alley starts out with a fairly tight script, but like Stan, it occasionally falls victim to its own ambition. It starts out working the line between lying on stage and lying for real, and just how far Stan's amorality can go. The second half, on the other hand, seems like a bit more of a stretch: It makes the jump from deception we allow in the name of entertainment to talking about faith, but doesn't have the teeth to really get into that comparison (among other things). It also pushes suspension of disbelief a little far; the story runs on people being credulous, but you can only take that so far. The fall from grace just isn't handled as well as the rise.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema)

Movie lovers know certain lines even if they haven't seen the films they are spoken in: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." "Round up the usual suspects." "It's alive! It's alive!" And, of course, "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you, one of us, one of us!" Freaks is the film that spawned that strange final refrain, and though its reputation is often more infamy than fame, it's every bit the classic as the others.

The film opens with a scroll of text, telling us that throughout history, those who were either born deformed or who became that way through misadventure were often abandoned by their villages and families to die in the wilderness, but they would sometimes form communities, and woe betide the man who attacked one member! In this case, the community is attached to a traveling circus, where little people Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are engaged. But Hans finds aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) very attractive, at least for a "big person", showering her with compliments and gifts. Cleopatra acts sweet, but cruelly laughs at Hans with her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor) - at least, until she finds out that Hans has an inheritance coming. Then, she gets serious - deadly serious. But, wrong one freak, and you anger them all...

Freaks is commonly billed as a horror movie, and it certainly has horror elements - especially the utterly bizarre revelation at the end. But in many ways, to see it entirely as a freakshow is to miss filmmaker Tod Browning's point that these outcasts are as human as anyone, while the traditionally attractive Cleopatra and Hercules were frequently monstrous. A great deal of this was apparently lost when the studio cut its length by nearly a third (from approximately 90 minutes to 64), but it's such a basic part of the film that even without some of its more directly satirical or declarative scenes, the message can't help but come through.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Unknown

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Big Top Cinema, with live accompaniment by Cirkestra)

The Unknown is fabulous. By that I mean not just that it is a hoot to watch, which is true, but that it's got the feel of a fairy tale (before Disney cleaned them up), unbelievable and gruesome but with a harsh morality underneath. I'm not sure you can make a movie like this any more - actually hearing this dialog spoken would probably expose it even more for how ridiculous it is - but that's no reason not to enjoy this silent melodrama.

Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is the star of the Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, although Antonio (Nick De Ruiz) isn't fond of the man. Apparently using his feet to throw knives in an act with Zanzi's beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford) is okay; shows of affection between them, however, is a major issue. Why can't she like someone like the circus's strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry)? Alas, she hates men for how they try to get their hands all over her and their arms around her. What only Alonzo's midget assistant Cojo (John George) knows is that Alonzo's arms aren't missing, but bound in a corset, and the left one terminates in a hand with a very distinctive thumbprint, which would match those left behind at a string of thefts along the circus's path.

There's more, of course - in the course of roughly an hour, there will be murder, and a storyline that comes off as an especially twisted amalgam of Cyrano and "The Gift of the Magi". Director Tod Browning and his collaborators pile the melodrama on high, barely letting one bit of strangeness settle in the audience's collective brain before topping it. There is no subtlety to be found, with Nanon yelling things like "arms! How I hate men's arms!", just in case some in the audience are a bit slow.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Reminder: Love Exposure tonight.

7pm, Kendall Square Cinemas, opening night of the Boston Underground Film Festival. I won't lie, the festival can be a seriously mixed bag, but this particular four-hour masterpiece from Japan is fantastic.

I know, I lost some of you at "four-hour" and others at "Japan", but there's a reason it's been front-and-center at just about every fest it's played, as opposed to something shunted off to the side: It's damn good. And playing a festival means there's no excuse for not watching it - if it's just on video, or playing a regular engagement, it's easy to say "maybe later", but a one-night festival engagement, you make the time.

My review of it on eFilmCritic. Plus, doesn't it tell you something when someone who already spent four hours watching it last summer is willing (and eager) to do so again?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Random: I tweeted that the EFC review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was up, and almost instantly someone called @thousandtattoo is following me on Twitter, likely expecting more tattoo-related news. I'm sorry to disappoint you, sir, but I think they're kind of gross.

(Speaking of EFC, I'm going to start doing the "Full reviews at EFC" thing again, unless anyone hates it. I've got a few multi-review posts coming up, and they get pretty unwieldy; besides, EFC's been good to me and giving them a bit of a higher profile will also be good for me. Who knows, maybe money will even be involved someday.)

Anyway, on to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. The first book is out in paperback in America (as I write it, it's $5.50 on Amazon, for trade-sized and Kindle editions), the second just came out in paperback yesterday, with the third on its way in May. All three movies made from the novels have hit the big screen in Sweden. At this time, it's not clear what the plans are for American releases of the films. Music Box Films's website doesn't make it particularly clear whether they have the American rights to the other two films, so what sort of release schedule there might be isn't clear. As much as I hate being patient, I wonder if they might be thinking of targeting relatively quiet months when they can get both art-house screens and the occasional mainstream one - maybe The Girl Who Played with Fire in August/September, and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest next March.

Now I'm wondering how much of it I want to devour. There's no question I'll be seeing the other two movies whenever they reach American screens (if not before - it just hit me that Played with Fire and Hornet's Nest could be a double feature at this year's Fantasia festival, like the Death Note and 20th Century Boys films in previous years). But, like I said before, the English translation of the first book is $5.50 right now, and I think I'll be all over that as soon as I post this. After that, the question is whether or not I want to read the other two books before the respective movies hit the U.S.

The logic behind wanting to see the movies first is kind of silly - these things are books first and foremost, and why should I want to see the compromised version first? There is, on the other hand, a certain pleasure to the second time through being a more thorough, in-depth look at the story. Of course, the flip side is that these stories are mysteries, and you only get to experience them for the first time once.

On the gripping hand - I'm getting the first in paperback, so I'll wait until the others are in paperback with the same trim size (and hopefully trade dress), because I don't want my shelves more jagged than necessary. So that will probably determine when I even consider picking up the books before seeing the movies.

EDIT: By happy coincidence, Music Box Films has just announced that The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will hit theaters "this summer".

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2010 at AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run)

Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" novels - all three published posthumously, and given names that begin "The Girl Who..." in the United States - are kind of a big deal. How can you tell? Well, the three movies with high production values being made and released in rapid succession in Sweden are one way. The fact that the first, at least, got a fairly rapid turnaround for it's US release is another. And that's not all; I didn't see this long, subtitled film released by a small distributor in one of Cambridge's arthouses, but in one of Boston's mainstream multiplexes, with a pretty decent crowd for a Sunday matinee. Hopefully that augurs well for the other two getting big American releases, as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has me wanting more.

We start not with the title character, but with Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an Stockholm investigative reporter who has just been convicted of libel. He will pay a hefty fine and serve a three month sentence, although it doesn't start for six months. In the meantime, he steps down as publisher of the magazine Millennium, but he's offered another opportunity: Octogenarian billionaire Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) would like him to find out who killed his niece Harriet in 1966; the evidence suggests that it must have been some member of his family (a greedy and disreputable bunch even if you ignored his brothers' Nazi ties) and still active in the present. Fortunately, though Mikael doesn't realize it at the time, he's not working alone: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a "researcher" for the security company that vetted Mikael for Henrik, hacked into his computer as part of the job and is still following his progress.

Nyqvist is the first person billed in the credits, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if more than a few Mikael-centric scenes were cut so that, after the murder mystery, much of the rest of the film could focus on Lisbeth. She's an unconventional sleuth to say the least - in the middle of a buttoned-down security firm, she's a standoffish prodigy in gothy dress all the way to her multiple piercings and spiked collar, who has a scummy new parole officer who alludes to a history of mental problems (a marvelously repulsive Peter Andersson - seeing him, it's no wonder she seems to prefer girls or has trouble with anger management). She makes Mikael seem rather tame - just a methodical, middle-aged reporter, albeit one with ties to the victim and a false libel conviction.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

I wish I had shot/recorded the introduction and Q&A by the film's co-writer, Herbert Golder, when I saw it at the MFA on Saturday. I knew he would be doing one, sort of in the back of my head, but I was trying to fit three other movies into the day and, besides, I didn't realize that his contribution was not "writing a screenplay that was later acquired and re-written by Werner Herzog", but rather "working in the same room and accumulating a bunch of great Werner Herzog stories".

For instance:

* Werner Herzog has been trying to get giant chickens into his movies for years, ever since reading an article about forty-seven pound roosters. Specifically, he has a recurring dream about a giant rooster sitting on the largest tree stump in the world as a little person chases a miniature horse around it, trying to saddle it. This film is likely the closest he'll get, since (as is acknowledged in the film), giant roosters seemed to be an evolutionary/eugenic dead end. Ostriches are used instead.

* The genesis for the film came when Golder, a classics professor, was interviewing the inspiration for the main character while Herzog was taking meetings in L.A. for a big studio production that he knew would never get shot. They would meet afterward, and Golder said that this was the first, and likely last, time that his end of the conversation would ever be more interesting than Herzog's.

* They wrote it in a week at Herzog's cabin in Austria, with bon mots from Herzog along the lines of "you cannot stay for more than a week, but I will not let you leave until it is finished" and "if you are thinking, you are not writing." (paraphrased) The actual quotes are funnier, especially with Golder imitating Herzog's distinctive voice.

* The room with the piano and drum set in it was like that when they got to the house. The owners offered to move the instruments, but Herzog instantly fell in love with it, turning to Golder and saying "Herbert, write something". Naturally, that scene turns out to be indispensable.

Someday, I'm going to have to go to a festival that actually has Herzog in attendance, as those must be the most amazing Q&As of all time.

The film plays twice more at the MFA: Thursday 25 March 2010 at 5pm and Friday 26 March 2010 at 8:10pm. Golder will be taking questions after the Friday evening screening.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the Boston Museum of Art (Master Filmmaker)

The first two credits to appear on the screen in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done are "David Lynch Presents" and "A Film By Werner Herzog". If you recognize the names, you know that means there's weirdness ahead. Now, to be fair, Lynch didn't do anything but hook Herzog and company up with some money, but perhaps he did so in part because he saw some reflection of his own brand of madness in Herzog's.

It starts conventionally-but-oddly enough: Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Peña) are driving around San Diego when they receive an 1144 call - 1144 meaning someone is extremely dead. It's an old woman, slain with a sword in her neighbor's house. The obvious suspect is her son Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), and he's holed up in their house with two hostages. Soon his fiancee Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) shows up, repeating the common refrain that Brad hasn't been the same since he got back from Peru, but the stories she and theater director Lee Meyers (Udo Kier) tell indicate "not the same" is severely understating the case.

Yes, Herzog (with co-writer Herbert Golder) is once again casting his eye on madness, but it's not the descent being chronicled here - though the scenes in Peru certainly result in him reaching a breaking point. This film is about the lines between eccentricity, treatable mental illness, and insanity. Much is told in flashback, sometimes prompted by questions asked of Ingrid, Lee, and the witnesses to Mrs. McCullum's murder, sometimes not; those scenes come together to form a vivid picture of a complete breakdown, albeit one where the audience can perhaps understand why the other characters might not see it coming.

Michael Shannon does a fine job with that. Brad seems harmless enough when we first see him, both in the present and the past, although never "normal". As things progress, though, Shannon does well in making us see how Brad's behavior is filled with giant warning signs in retrospect, but might be discounted at the time, because he's good at presenting Brad as off without overshadowing the other broadly played characters. One example of that is his great, nervous chemistry with Grace Zabriskie.

Zabriskie plays Brad's mother, and she does excellent work in capturing the sort of woman able to dominate through fragility; even after stripping away the flamingo motif Herzog and company have decorated her house with, there's something about her that's nearly as unnerving as her son. Chloe Sevigny is interesting as the other woman in Brad's life; she presents Ingrid as a woman of some intelligence who, perhaps, fell in love with Brad before things started going bad and now can't bring herself to admit he's not the same person. Brad Dourif steals a couple scenes as Brad's Uncle Ted, and I quite liked Dafoe and Peña as the responding detectives - though their job is basically to tie the flashbacks together, the actors make them memorable characters.

There's very little about My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done that isn't memorable; Herzog and company find fascinating shots in the architecture of Calgary, sketch off-kilter and unnerving characters, and manage to make a good police film in between. It's not quite the full-on barrage of weirdness that one might expect (or fear) from a project with both Lynch's and Herzog's names, but it's a very fine example of both the barely-submerged strangeness of the former the towering madness of the latter.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hubble 3-D

I guess I'm an astronomy nerd. Scott asked me whether I was one last night at the Chlotrudis awards after-party , when I mentioned that Hubble 3-D was one of the movies I'd seen this weekend. If I am, though, I'm a lapsed one. I don't visit NASA.gov or Space.com on a daily or even weekly basis, despite the fact that they offer at least one image daily that is a worthy screen saver

Look through my attic, though, and you'll find evidence of previous extreme astro-nerdiness: Recordings of the Moon missions on vinyl. A copy of Roy A. Gallant's National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe that has completely fallen apart. Stuff like that.

I'm not sure why I stopped being so rabidly interested in this stuff. A certain amount is high school and college, expanding interests in some directions and focusing them in others. Some is the crushing, horrifying loss of two shuttles in my lifetime, which seemed to virtually shut down the space program for years at a time. Yes, this makes me a fair-weather fan, although I've remained eager to devour space exploration things that appear on my radar, and remain your go-to guy for when you need an argument as to why science fiction could use more science, and not less.

One of the reasons why I think this is encapsulated in something that I couldn't really fit into the EFC review: That the visual effects sequences are awe-inspiring, perhaps even more so because they come from what is possible and real. I loved Avatar, but my favorite bit of effects is one from the very start, where we see the ship that brings Sully to Pandora, and it's meticulously researched and reflective, and even that doesn't send the chills down my spine that the visuals in Hubble do. It's why science fiction is so much more exciting than fantasy; there's something you can potentially get your hands on someday, rather than just a shared delusion.

Oh, and the line? That the web of galaxies and clusters we see in the end was science literally showing us the shape and structure of the universe, and that this shape and structure is so grand that religious viewers will see it as evidence of the hand of a creator, while us more agnostic people will see... Well, I couldn't come up with something quite so majestic, and it didn't seem like an appropriate place to get into science-versus-superstition stuff, especially making the superstition sound cool.

(I also wanted to compare the feeling of that last scene to the last shot of 2001, just in how it creates the feeling of a larger universe too vast for our merely-human minds to comprehend, but couldn't quite make that work either.)

Anyway, I'm pretty sure I'll see this again while it's at the Aquarium. $9.95 isn't a bad price for a few moments of genuine awe.

Hubble 3-D

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the New England Aquarium (first-run)

The Hubble Space Telescope did not make a great first impression; its launch in 1989 was quickly followed by the discovery that a warped mirror rendered it no more powerful than ground-based telescopes. This got a lot of publicity, far more than the later repairs and upgrades got, which is a terrible shame. As Hubble 3-D attempts to demonstrate, the Hubble's legacy should not be the manufacturing defect that the beginning of its life, but the steady stream of amazing images and data it has provided us with since.

Hubble 3-D spends some time tracking the instrument's history, from footage of it being assembled on the ground to its launch on the thirty-first space shuttle mission (STS-31) to the repair mission on STS-61 to the more recent debate on whether or not to allow it to expire as it reached the end of its operation lifespan. It's no spoiler to say that the decision was made to upgrade its sensors, and so the majority of the time we spend in Earth orbit is with the crew of the shuttle Discovery on STS-125, particularly commander Scott Altman and mission specialists Michael Good, Michael Massimino, and Megan McArthur.

The footage of the mission is impressive, as it can't help but be: No matter what issues one might have with 3-D when applied to regular feature films, I imagine that few would deny that it and the large IMAX screen are useful in this context, allowing the audience to experience the full range of movement possible in a free-fall environment in an immersive way that no other medium can. The clarity of the exterior shots when the astronauts are doing the repair work on Hubble is amazing, as well - large format film and no atmosphere does wonders. The only downside is that there's not much movement possible in the shuttle's bay, and the innards of Hubble are so densely packed that, while the narration describes the difficulties faced in the repair, it is often very difficult to see first-hand.

While that's a bit disappointing, the pictures we get as a result of those repairs and upgrades certainly are not. Much of it is technically computer-generated imagery, but that's necessary; the Hubble doesn't have an eyepiece that an IMAX camera could be fastened to. What it does have is sensors and stabilizers that allow it to take very high-resolution photographs, with enough parallax to make three-dimensional modeling possible. One of the most impressive demonstrations of this comes in a zoom into the Orion Nebula, a "stellar nursery" that provides an uncommonly clear view of hundreds of solar systems forming in gaseous cocoons which feature comet-tails because of the intense solar wind being produced by the central star. It ends with an image of one of these systems, a snapshot of what our own star system may have looked like five billion years ago, which is as beautiful as it is awe-inspiring.

The film could do with maybe packing a few more moments like that into its brief running time. There are moments which could be cut or re-used footage from director Toni Myers's Space Station 3-D or other NASA films, informative as a kid's first introduction to spaceflight but not exactly Hubble-specific. The earnest narration (provided by Leonardo DiCaprio) occasionally asks the question of whether there may be other life out there, but exoplanets are not among the images we're given (as powerful as it is, some things are still too small and too far away for great images).

Especially since what we can see is so amazing that there's no need to undercut it. Hubble finishes with a sequence that can legitimately be called awesome without devaluing the word, a glimpse into the furthest reaches of the Universe that reveals not just how tiny our world is in the grand scheme of things, but also a hint of that scheme itself. It's a humbling sight, the sort to make one exit the theater with shivers on an unseasonably warm day - a sensation worth treasuring and which ignites (or reignites) the curiosity of those who see it.

Also at eFilmCritic

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Prodigal Sons

You've got four hours before the movie closes out it's Boston run. It's not bad.

Prodigal Sons

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

At some point in Prodigal Sons, likely a different point for everybody, one has to wonder about the making of it. I don't mean that parts of this documentary feel staged - that's not the case - but it seems odd nobody ever seems to demand the camera be turned off during a family argument. When you consider that the filmmaker is also one of the main subjects, it's hard to imagine the camera not affecting the action, but if it does, nobody gives any sign of it.

Consider what seems to be the original thrust of the documentary, filmmaker Kim Reed returning to her home town of Helena, Montana, for the first time in years to attend her 20-year class reunion. This is a big deal because she was born Paul McKerrow, and had in fact been a football star as a teen, before leaving for San Francisco, transition, and New York. Everybody seems to be pretty cool with it, certainly far more accepting than Kim had feared. It feels good to watch, and we don't really have time to wonder if the folks Kim shows are on their best behavior for the cameras or the subset that was even willing to be on camera, because the focus soon begins to fall on Kim's brother Marc.

Marc was adopted when Kim's parents Carl and Loren McKerrow believed they could not have children, only to conceive Paul soon after. Held back a year in pre-school, Marc would wind up in the same class as Paul, creating a certain amount of tension between the two, and an automobile accident at the age of twenty-one left him with a cranial injury necessitating the removal of part of his brain. It's left him prone to mood swings and even violence. Soon after the reunion, he learns the identity of his biological mother just in time to go to her funeral. And as if his life was not already surreal enough, that mother was Rebecca Welles - daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

The contrast between Marc and Kim is at the heart of the film, and as much as a story about a post-op transgendered person returning home would have been interesting on its own, the revelations about Marc make for fascinating parallels. Every shot of their faces is an invitation to search for someone else (Paul in Kim's case, Orson in Marc's) that we might not have seen otherwise. Even when Ms. Reed doesn't spell things out - perhaps especially when she doesn't spell things out - there's an intriguing narrative to the opposite ways they deal with their identity crises, their envy of each other's DNA, and how each points at certain actions and says "that's not the real me".

Unfortunately, real life doesn't often give us the neat, perfectly parallel narratives that a fictional film would, especially where brain trauma is concerned, as the last third or so of Prodigal Sons demonstrates. Marc does some terrible things, and the last act of the movie becomes "how do we deal with him?" This is interesting in its own way, certainly - it is an extraordinarily raw look at how terrifying the loss of control can be - but it pushes the complexity of Marc and Kim backward. Now Kim is mostly the dutiful child, with Marc the problem sibling to be pitied as much as feared, because he can't help his brain chemistry. As a filmmaker, Reed tries to keep that thread alive, noting that in a strictly clinical sense, she would be considered just as mentally ill as her brother. But as visceral and personal as this is (too personal, perhaps; this is about where I can't help but wonder why one would tape this and then share the footage with the world), it's not quite the same sort of food for thought as the middle section of the film.

Is it a fatal weakness? Not at all; it's just life not working by a script. It does seem a little self-serving; we see Marc at his worst and Kim at her best, and it's only natural to wonder about that given that Kim Reed is the director, producer, and editor of the film, even though in those capacities she would easily be able to say that the final third is too powerful to leave on the cutting room floor. Still, the film is at its best in the middle, when Reed-the-filmmaker seems to allow a measure of doubt about the actions of Kim-the-subject, and that's the part that makes Prodigal Sons worth a look.

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, March 15, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 8 March 2010 to 14 March 2010

Plenty of good stuff coming up this week, well worth spanning eight days to mention:

* My friends would likely give me a hard time if I didn't start with The Chlotrudis Awards on Sunday night at The Brattle Theatre. It's a fun evening, honoring quality independent films, and Society President Michael Colford is probably going nuts even as we speak to meet the person who spoke the Donnie Darko line that has been in his email signature for years, special guest Beth Grant.

But, hey, that's just an awards ceremony, one I'm almost willing to punt if I can't find time to get to the ridiculous amount of other stuff playing in (potentially) short runs this week:

* Before the awards, the second half of the one-two punch Werner Herzog brought to last year's Toronto Film Festival opens at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday. If My Son, My Son, What Have You Done? is even half as good as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it will be well worth figuring out the MFA's schedule to catch.

If you haven't gone to movies at the MFA before, I'm only half-joking about the "figuring out" bit. Even when a movie like My Son is having a "run", that means it's booked for 4-6 dates which are not necessarily in a row or at the same time. This one is playing five times, around The Films of Kim Longinotto and the start of The Boston Turkish Film Festival.

* Hubble 3-D opens at the Aquarium on Friday, playing 3 matinees daily while Avatar has the night shift. The Ultimate Wave: Tahiti 3D is also playing there, and that looks pretty cool. But gorgeous photography of Tahiti and James Cameron's cool sci-fi flick aside, is there anything cooler than documentary footage of spaceflight and crystal-clear images from the Hubble in genuine reels-of-film-that-require-a-forklift-to-move-with-single-frames-the-size-of-your-fist-projected-with-a-bulb-that-doubles-as-a-death-ray-onto-a-screen-the-size-of-a-medium-sized-office-building IMAX 3-D? Not for $12, there isn't.

* Circus Films at the Brattle! It's a small, weekend series, but there's some neat stuff, including an outfit called Cirkestra providing live accompaniment to a silent, The Unknown. That always gets me to the theaters.

* Kendall Square opens a few new movies, including The Secret of Kells, which looks like it thoroughly deserved its Oscar nomination from the gorgeous clips and previews. Also opening are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mother; the one-week-wonder is Neil Young: Trunk Show.

* The Coolidge has a 25th Anniversary special screening run of Ran on Monday beginning Friday to celebrate the Kurosawa Centennial. They'll be running Rashomon later and the Brattle will be running a three week series.

* And, finally, even though I'll probably get another chance to remind the half-dozen or so people who read this blog about it next week, The Boston Underground Film Festival kicks of next Thursday, the 25th, with the local premiere of Sion Sono's Love Exposure, an amazing film that has too much awesome packed into its four hours to classify. It's funny, heartbreaking, and utterly bizarre by turns; I loved it when I saw it at Fantasia last summer.

Yes, I said four hours, which is one of the reasons I highly recommend seeing it at the Kendall on the 25th. If it played a regular run, or came out on video, it would be easy to say "four hours? not tonight!" at any given time; at a one-time festival screening, though, you make the time, because there aren't other alternatives. And you should, because in addition to being as long as two movies stuck together, it's got as much good stuff as two individual movies, maybe three.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Wonder Woman (2009), 13 March 2010.

It rained in the Boston area this weekend: An annoying drizzle when I left in the morning to catch Green Zone, and just enough to keep me in the theater for Cop Out when that ended. Looking at those ticket prices, I kind of wish I'd seen them in reverse order; Green Zone was easily worth more than Cop Out.

Then, Sunday... I was intending to go out and see something else, but a couple minutes buying a paper a block away convinced me that I didn't even want to walk as far as Central Square to catch the T. I spent the day bagging and tagging over a year's worth of comics that had piled up in the attic. Still a few left, and then there's the putting them into long boxes in the other corner of the attic (where another six to eight months's worth are also waiting. Curse my mania for alphabetical order.

I'm also beginning to strongly suspect that screener DVDs degrade over time. Every time I try to start going through my Fantasia/Fantastic Fest screeners to try and catch up, just starting gets more and more frustrating - the Blu-ray and HD DVD players won't touch them, then the laptop pops up a "No Disc in drive" message when I try to watch Spare, wouldn't send sound out to the SlingCatcher when I tried to watch The Chaser and its enormous watermark, and now doesn't even react to the presence of The Chaser in the DVD drive at all.

All that really means is I can maybe skip over some of my backlog stuff, and get started on the next phase that was to come after screeners: All the HD DVD/Blu-ray stuff I've purchased but never watched in any format (discs I have never watched despite having seen the movie are exempt). I opted to start from the end of the alphabet rather than the beginning for a simple reason: It was 10pm and Wonder Woman runs 74 minutes, while Alexander Revisited is three hours plus. Potentially unfortunately, that means that the next disc up is White Noise 2, purchased because I was assured it had nothing to do with White Noise and I like the cast. Still, you could clear the bar of that first movie by a lot and still be utter crap.

Oscar Shorts - Live Action

Seen 9 March 2010 at the ICA (Oscar Shorts)

The winner, which we knew going in, was "The New Tenants", a fairly deserving choice, although I do wonder about the politics: As much as it's officially from Denmark, it's in English and has appearances by familiar faces like Vincent d'Onofrio. To balance, thought, the film from Ireland is not in English, but Russian.

"Kavi" - * * * - Pretty good short about a kid in India whose entire family is enslaved. It kind of goes on for a bit, and kind of peters out, but it's well-done.

"The New Tenants" - * * * ¼ - The winner is quite funny, darkly so. Excellent deadpan sense of humor.

"Miracle Fish" - * * * - Nifty little story that goes into odd places. It ends kind of abruptly, but is intriguing throughout.

"The Door" - * * * ¼ - Neck and neck for the award with "The New Tenants", at least in my mind. It's a crushing story that follows Chernobyl villagers in the aftermath of the meltdown, brutal to watch at times.

"Instead of Abracadabra" - * * ¾ - Cute story with some funny bits, although it's not as good as it could be at points. The main character's a bit too dim to make it really work perfectly, though.

Oscar Shorts - Animated

Seen 10 March 2010 at the ICA (Oscar Shorts)

"Logorama" won the Oscar and it was my favorite of the program. As I mentioned last week, it's a pretty good year when a new Wallace & Gromit short is perhaps among the weakest entries.

"French Roast" - * * * - Funny little short, although it's a little strange visually; it takes a while to get used to how much of the action is rendered in a mirror that looks a lot like a window. That's a pretty impressive trick from a technical perspective, though.

"The Lady and the Reaper" - * * * ½ - I swear I saw something very similar to this a couple years ago, although I think that was much more somber and maybe hand-drawn. This is CGI and madcap, full of cartoonish slapstick about death fighting a heroic surgeon for the soul of an old woman who is at peace and ready to see her late husband again.

"A Matter of Loaf and Death" - * * * ½ - Yep, still funny.

"Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty" - * * * ¼ - The initial idea isn't quite so fantastic (a granny telling a disturbing and self-serving fairy tale to her grandchild, with a different form of animation within the story), but the punchline is perfect.

"Partly Cloudy" - * * * - I can't remember whether this was 3-D or not when I saw it with Up, but it's still a cute, very enjoyable little short. Pixar does great work.

"Runaway" - * * * - Nice-looking short out of Canada with kind of a nasty sense of humor despite its smoothness.

"The Kinematograph" - * * * - I dig the "early history of film" part, but there's something about the emotion of this one that leaves me kind of cold, like we're supposed to look down on the inventor even though the wife is concealing her illness. The implication is that he traded his love for his invention, and knowledge comes with a price that is often not worth it, and you're going to have to try a whole lot harder to convince me of that.

"Logorama" - * * * ¾ - You know what's cruel about this short? That a whole bunch of lawyers will keep it from ever being issued on video (although if it's available on iTunes (ptui!), I'd imagine at least some of that's been worked out), but it's the one you will most want to have available for freeze-framing to catch all the clever little bits of things that directors "H5" put in every corner of their world made up of corporate logos.

Green Zone

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2010 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

A lot of folks have been making the obvious comparison to the Bourne movies (Damon! Greengrass!), mainly because it is the easy comparison. I think that, in a lot of ways, Green Zone is better than his work on those, because while I found that globe-trotting action/adventure isn't really Greengrass's forte (my impression of those films will always be him taking what was clearly an impressively staged and executed car chase in The Bourne Supremacy and cutting it into incomprehensibility), he does damn good "you are here". There's a great boots-on-the-ground feeling to the movie, not just in how tense the action can get, but in how we instinctively understand an NCO like Miller's place in the world: He's the glue that holds the army together, although the likes of Miller are so well-trained that the likes of him actuallly questioning his orders is unheard of.

Cop Out

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2010 at AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run)

So, let me understand this, MPAA (or Warner, or whoever is responsible) - it's okay to have the line "a couple of dicks" front and center in the movie, but having it as the title is crossing a line? How's that work?

That aside, Cop Out is interesting in what it says about Kevin Smith as a filmmaker. Not the moral judgment of "how can you stand having your name on this?" or the political implications of whether this is a gesture to make him seem more studio-friendly to people other than the Weinsteins, but how it lets us examine specific talents. All his previous films were as a writer/director, with the general impression being that he can write well enough to cover his weakness behind the camera. He didn't write Cop Out, though, and it indicates that while he can't spin gold from straw, he's built up enough skills to maybe make a mattress. It is a pretty dumb script, after all, but in many ways the execution isn't bad. The scenes and bits that don't work - and there are many don't call attention to themselves; they move smoothly on to the next bit.

Bruce Willis helps. You can't blame the guy for all the big-money action roles he's taken - if someone waved a check for twenty million dollars in my face, I'd have a hard time saying no, even if it wasn't the first time - but it is a crying shame that he doesn't do more comedy, because he's both a good straight man and wiseass. I'm not quite so sold on Tracy Morgan; I kind of get what he's going for here, and he's saddled with a particularly dumb subplot, but he kind of reminded me of the Nigel Bruce-model Watson here: Eccentric, kind of clueless, etc., is funny, but when a character comes off as so rock-stupid that it's impossible to picture his as a homicide cop with ten years on the job, that's a problem.

Wonder Woman (2009)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2010 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray)

A few idle questions to ponder when trying to evaluate the merits of last year's direct-to-video animated Wonder Woman:

* Would I enjoy it more if it were done in Japan, at roughly this level of quality? I've watched a fair bit of animated action/adventure out of Japan, and not always the big-budget theatrical releases, and liked much of it. The question is, does the language barrier help (making it harder to notice bad dialogue/voice acting), as well as the lack of familiarity with the source material? Through a lot of Wonder Woman's first half, I was thinking that this was rather flat, not really up to the standards one would hope for.

* Would this be acceptable story if this were a live action film? Probably not. It shows how unwieldy the character's origins are, especially how long it takes to get Diana born and off her island. It really locks things into the character's mythological origins, and a characterization that is much more simplistic and aggressive than the well-developed Diana we know from the comics.

* How involved was Gail Simone? She's the current writer of the Wonder Woman comic (at least through June), and though her run hasn't been as good as Greg Rucka's, she has emphasized the mythological warrior elements of the character. She's got a "screen story" credit on this, although I wonder if she contributed more directly to the second half. Certain bits, like "They're messing with Lincoln! No-one messes with Lincoln!", have her stamp on them.

I wish more did. There's potential here, and a really nice voice cast (Keri Russell as the title character; Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor, the guy with the line about Lincoln; Rosario Dawson as Artemis). It's got pretty serious action for an American animated film. I just wish it had more of Rucka's ability to make all the elements of the character or Simone's wit and inventiveness.
Live Action ShortsAnimated ShortsTerribly HappyGreen ZoneCop Out

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy is already out of Boston, sad to say, after one week plus one preview, which is too bad, because I liked it a lot. I now wish I'd seen it earlier so that I could do a little to spread the word on it - IFFB had a preview screening on the 4th, but I was at Spike & Mike that night. Shame, especially since it's being distributed by Oscilloscope, and they don't have quite the pervasive on-demand presence as IFC and Magnolia do.

They do have a very impressive line-up of films, though: I have yet to hear anything but rapturous praise for Dear Zachary, but just limiting to what I've seen of the 23 films they've listed: Wendy and Lucy is very good indeed, I quite liked Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, Unmistaken Child is my choice for 2009's best documentary, The Messenger has a fantastic supporting performance by Woody Harrelson, and Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love is worth a look (it's also one of my more frequently-accessed reviews on eFilmCritic).

I'm also very tempted by their "Circle of Trust" subscription, which seems like a good deal so long as they keep up their high standards ($150 for 10 DVDs, delivered a week before street date). As alternate distribution programs go, it's interesting as it doesn't do much to get a movie to a broad audience, but certainly does seek to maximize their films' exposure to the core indie-film audience. I'm not sure that's the greatest plan, but I admit I am tempted to sign up, even though I suspect that not every DVD they send would be worth the money.

But, at least one of them will - Terribly Happy is really good:

Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

I take note of odd credits when watching movies, and maybe any (hypothetical) readers from Denmark could fill me in on a couple from the end of Terribly Happy: Is it common for Danish films to credit the people who put the teaser and trailer together, or were this particular film's previews noteworthy, and if so, is it the same one Oscilloscope used to promote the film in North America? I'm just curious, because the small cinema wasn't exactly packed, and it's too bad people missed it.

Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop from Copenhagen who has just been assigned to be the town of Skillard's new marshal. He describes it as a promotion, but it doesn't seem to be a strictly voluntary one: There's a daughter and an ex-wife who won't return his calls, and a bottle of pills he dumps down the toilet, even though Dr. Zerling (Lars Brygmann), "the local quack", says he's ready to refill the prescription. The locals don't particularly want him there, either; it's the sort of town that takes pride in taking care of its own problems, and nobody seems to worry about the occasional disappearances. That's not in Robert's nature, though, especially when he's confronted by the Buhls: Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) is the first to greet him in town, but has telltale cuts and bruises from her boorish husband Jørgen (Kim Bodina). Everybody knows when that happens; it's when their daughter Dorthe (Mathilde Maack) pushes her dolls' carriage around at night.

Terribly Happy hooks the audience early on, not because it necessarily has a unique set-up or hugely compelling performance, but because it's ready and willing to point the audience in different directions. Our first glimpse of Ingerlise is just a friendly hello, but it's hard to miss the femme fatale vibe coming off her the second time. Jørgen, meanwhile, is introduced with a shot straight out of a western. So, we're thinking, where's Robert heading; is he going to be Ingerlise's patsy or the marshal who cleans up the dirty town? Or does director and co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz have another destination in mind? After all, Skillard is neither the naked city or the windy American West; it's a murky swamp town.

Genz (along with co-writer Dunja Gry Jensen, adapting a novel by Erling Jepsen) does find surprising directions to go even as it uses film noir and western conventions to point us down one path or the other. What's perhaps more impressive is how Genz does it, not doing too much to highlight the plot twists but quietly turning the screw all the same. Much of the second half of the film is pure suspense; without holding anything back, Genz does a great job of keeping us intently interested in what's going to happen next.

He couldn't do it without Jakob Cedergren. We know from very early on that Robert isn't exactly squeaky-clean, but it's not just his determination to play things by the book that keeps the audience in his corner even as his flaws become more manifest. We can see the guy trying to live by his better nature even as Skillard chips away at it, and as he sinks into a moral quagmire to match the local bogs, he doesn't necessarily elicit automatic sympathy, but he gets people to look over their shoulders on Robert's behalf.

The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Christensen and Bodina. Kim Bodina, especially, is impressive; in many ways he winds up doing what Cedergren does in reverse, scraping off bits of bad first impression without ever letting us lose track of just why we had such a poor opinion of the guy. Christensen, meanwhile, is making Ingerlise a seductress even though it's hard to believe it of her; there's just the right balance of concerned mom and hothouse flower in her portrayal to keep us guessing. Lars Brygmann, similarly, manages to make Zerleng seem both corrupt but also, potentially, another outsider who could be an ally.

And then there are all the small details that show how much effort has been put into every frame of the film - how appropriately small Dorthe seems the first time we see her without the red coat she wears throughout the film, or how Robert's footwear tracks his assimilation by Skillard. All of those things keep the story and setting tight, so that those of us who came to this film (no matter what preview drew us) would have a hard time turning away.

Also at eFilmCritic

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 1 March 2010 to 7 March 2010

A whole lot of delay on this post for not a whole lot of content. A nasty cold hit me Sunday afternoon and lasted most of the week, making the Barking Dogs review harder to get done than it had any right to be, and then both times I tried to scan the page in before catching the bus in the morning, it would disappear in a computer crash sometime during the day.

Not a bunch to write about what's coming out this weekend, either:

* The Brattle opens what promises to be a good-looking new print of The Red Shoes for a week.

* John Ford at the Harvard Film Archive. From the look of the calendar, including how the winter-months series is described as "part 1", it looks like John Ford will be the theme for the archive at least through the end of the academic year.

* The tail ends of the "New Films from Spain" and "New Films from Quebec" series at the MFA

* Stuart Street reopens The Hurt Locker to capitalize on its Oscar wins, which is great - it's a terrific movie. It's enough to make one stop wondering, at least for a week or so, if "$10 second-run boutique house" is really a viable business model.

* A little film by Oscar Winner Kathryn Bigelow's ex, Terminator 2, plays midnights at the Coolidge as part of "March Metal Men". Next week is Robocop and I think it would be kind of funny if they finished up with Anvil!. Also continuing are Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer.

(I am conflicted as heck on The Ghost Writer. Trailers look good, excellent cast... But I do not want any of my money going to Roman Polanski.)

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Triangle, 5 March 2010; "A Matter of Loaf and Death", 7 March 2010.

Thin week. You know how sometimes at work, something huge comes up, and it's all hands on deck to make sure that gets done? That was the week before last. Last week was the week where I worked late to make up the time lost on the other thing.

"Wallace & Gromit in: A Matter of Loaf and Death"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2010 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray)

I may talk a little bit more about this when I get to the Oscar Shorts programs next week, but it is a darn good year for animation when you can legitimately argue that a new Wallace & Gromit short is the weakest nominee in its category. That's not anything against "Loaf and Death" - it's a quality half-hour of "Wallace & Gromit", though it suffers a bit of wear (as often seems to be the case, Wallace has gotten dumber and lazier over the course of the series), but it still brings a great deal of the funny: Slapstick, awful bread-related puns, and well-utilized movie references (Aliens in a kids' cartoon!). There's just enough suspense to keep adults involved and kids on the edge of their seat, and the quality of the animation is top-notch.
The Good GuyBarking Dogs Never Bite