Friday, August 27, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up 02: Mutant Girls Squad, A Frozen Flower, I Spit on Your Grave, At World's End, The Revenant

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up 02: Mutant Girls Squad, A Frozen Flower, I Spit on Your Grave (2010), At World's End, The Revenant

A month after Fantasia ends, and I'm still trying to catch up writing the reviews of films I saw there. Makes you jealous, doesn't it? If so, you can at least have a mini-Fantasia experience this weekend with three films from this year's festival opening at least semi-wide: Centurion, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, and The Last Exorcism. The last is the only truly wide release, but the first two are likely showing up if you're in a fair-sized city.

Here are some exciting "filmmakers waiting to take questions pictures:

From the I Spit on Your Grave '10 screening, left to right: Programmer Mitch Davis, director Steven R. Monroe, Star Sarah Butler, original version writer/director Meir Zarachi, producer Lisa Hansen

From the At World's End screening, a couple with Mitch Davis and director Tomas Villum Jensen (very funny guy):


From the screening of The Revenant, writer/director Kerry Prior:

Anyway, here are the reviews of Fantasia films that I've posted to eFilmCritic in the past week or so; you can see them as they go up by either following their RSS feed, their Twitter feed, or my own tweets.

Sentô shôjo: Chi no tekkamen densetsu (Mutant Girls Squad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Even more than most over-the-top Japanese movies of its ilk, Mutant Girls Squad exists in large part due to alcohol and the west: While of the time, one just suspects that the filmmakers had to be plastered to come up with this stuff and that the end result actually sells more to Americans looking crazy Asian imports than in its native land, that's pretty much the actual genesis for this project: The directors and producer went out drinking when they visited the New York Asian Film Festival as guests, and decided that they should do a movie together for the next festival. The funny thing is, it's allowed them to play to their strengths and make what is in fact a pretty good movie, as gory action-comedies go.

We start with Rin (Yumi Sugimoto), a pretty schoolgirl who, as her 16th birthday is approaching, starts to feel a pain in her arm. What she doesn't realize is that she, like her father (Kanji Tsuda), is a mutant, with her particular power a hand that becomes a razor-sharp claw. She has trouble controlling it at first, which leads to an incident or two and the government's anti-mutant squad hunting her down. But, there's an underground society of mutants, led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi). They take her in, have Rei (Yuko Takayama) teach her to control her power, and have "cosplay nurse" Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) look after her until she's ready to take part in the glorious war against the human race. The thing is, Rin kind of likes humans.

Directors Tak Sakaguchi, Noboru Iguchi, and Yoshihiro Nishimura each tackle a third of the movie, in that order, but each has his fingerprints on his colleagues' segments: Sakaguchi handles the action choroegraphy for the whole film, Nishimura covers all of the prosthetics and gore effects, while Iguchi is the credited writer. If you want to make the observation Iguchi seem to get off rather lightly, I won't necessarily disagree. I will say that he and co-writer Jun Tsugita turn in a screenplay that is surprisingly coherent and makes the three main mutant girls sympathetic and motivated without it feeling too ham-fisted. It's not something that transcends its genre and the section that Iguchi directs is, like a lot of his work, unusually obsessed with pretty young girls with mechanical parts, but it gets the job done.

That job is primarily to give the directors insane things to shoot, and, wow, is the film chock-full of them. Nishimura concocts strange and impractal but also pretty cool armor for the government, absolutely bizarre mutations for the (mostly) girls, and when it comes time for the characters to throw down, does a good job of making sure that there are plenty of severed limbs, fake blood, and other mayhem to gross us out. Sakaguchi makes the fights fun to watch, fast paced and not overwhelmed with CGI. He's pretty good at handling the strangeness that his compatriots throw at him, figuring out how to make the mutations work as opposed to finding them something to just shove aside. That's good, because with this trio in charge, the movie is inevitably going to have action scenes where schoolgirls sprout tentacles for arms, swords out of their breasts, and chainsaw blades from their butts.

It's where these guys' movies intersect, and as a result, the movie doesn't actually feel disjointed or gimmicky. The directors have worked together before, and it's clear that they all love this sort of material; though the movie is funny and over the top, it's honest camp, filmmakers making the best splatstick movie they can without mocking the genre. The cast buys into it, for the most part, playing big but mostly stopping short of mugging for the camera. Yumi Sugimoto is a likable lead and a capable enough performer in the action sequences. Suzuka Morita and Yuko Takayama do well enough as her good and bad angels, and Sakaguchi is amusingly nuts as the transvestite mutant villain.

Mutant Girls Squad is exactly the movie you'd expect three "extreme cinema" guys from Japan to make after seeing Americans eat the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Be a Man! Samurai School, and Vampire Girl Versus Frankenstein Girl up. The good news is, it comes together much better than patchwork movies usually do, with all three filmmakers able to do do what they do best.

Full review at EFC.

Ssang-hwa-jeom (A Frozen Flower)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

How things change; before The King and the Clown, which was very careful about what it showed of its title characters' relationship, I don't think you ever saw gay characters in Korean cinema, and Park Chan-wook's Thirst wound up with relative unknown Kim Ok-bin landing the female lead because more established actresses wouldn't get near the nudity and sex the part demanded. Just a couple years later, both of those seem to be relative non-issues for A Frozen Flower, which puts a Goryeo king and one of his guards in the same bed with no doubt what's going on, and has a few eyebrow-raising scenes involving the queen, as well.

Toward the end of the Goryeo era, the King (Ju Jin-mo) creates the Kunryongwe, a group who enter the palace's service as children, with the palace as their home and family, and one boy, Hong-lim, catches the King's attention with his dedication and skill. Ten or fifteen years later, the adult Hong-lim (Jo In-seong) is now the captain of the guards as well as the King's lover. This presents a problem, politically; though the King is Korean, he must defer to the Yuan emperor, and has married a Yuan princess as part of that alliance. But since women do nothing for the King, not even his beautiful and loyal Queen (Song Ji-hyo), he has no heir, and is thus vulnerable. So, the Queen must conceive, and Hong-rim is the only man the King will trust with the job. But once you put two people in the same bed, things are bound to get complicated.

A Frozen Flower does a remarkably good job of balancing its erotic thriller and palace intrigue sides; even though those have always been two sides of the same coin. Writer/director Yu Ha does a good job of showing us the situation in the kingdom so that we may admire the King's strength as a leader even as we mayt start to harbor doubts about how he handles his personal life. At the same time, he makes sure that the King, Queen, and Hong-lim are interesting individuals so that the needs of the kingdom don't overwhelm what affection we develop for the characters. The triangle he sets up is interesting, not just for the homosexual nature of one of its legs, but for how we perhaps don't initially realize quite how unevenly the power is distributed in practice as well as in theory, so that by the end we have to wonder whether it was that way from the start - although Yu manages to make it much more ambiguous than he otherwise might have. He's also good at cranking up the heat in both senses of the term - the tension is thick as relationships disintegrate into mistrust and plotters tighten their nooses, and the sex scenes are equally exciting, not just for being titillating (if a studio released it in the U.S., it would be a very hard R), but for being in turns blissful, awkward, and passionate enough to leave an impression for when we see the characters later.

The cast is top-notch. Jo In-seong starts Hong-lim off as charming but a little insubstantial, gradually building him until his passion is what drives the movie. He is able to work well with both his other leading man and his leading lady, enough that the audience can not reduce the film's conflicts to just his sexual orientation. Ju Jin-mo is charismatic as the King, a strong and forceful personality able to make the audience keenly aware of his position without coming off as pompous or likely to be underestimated. And Song Ji-hyo is quite good as the Queen, both regal and able to convince the audience of her loneliness and humanity.

It's a pretty good movie, sexy and suspenseful, beautifully realized. My only real issue with it was that it may have been a little too funny at times: The scenes where Hong-lim is trying to impregnate the Queen while the King is in the next room, with literally paper-thin walls between them, got a lot of laughs, and I'm not quite sure how appropriate a response that was. It could have been played as uncomfortable-tense, as opposed to uncomfortable-funny. Similarly, the last scene is broadly sentimental in a way that the rest of the film pointedly is not, and although it's grown on me a bit, it's a bit much in the moment.

One thing that I would like to praise that may get overlooked amidst the sex and the intrigue is how great the action in this movie is. There are only two or three big action moments, but they are explosive - the first from how unexpected it is, and the one at the end for the sheer fury demonstrated, and how each swing of the sword and bit of destruction seems to have meaning. This is not just a person angry and looking for revenge, but an attempt to tear down everything that had once meant something, as much a bitter recrimination as a rousing finale.

It's an exclamation point on the story, and a fitting one. A Frozen Flower could have been just a costume drama where the costumes frequently come off, but instead plays as both an intriguing thriller and a surprisingly strong romance.

Full review at EFC.

I Spit on Your Grave

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

I can't comment on the original version of this movie (which was properly titled Day of the Woman), as I haven't seen it; if this new version is toned down, as many horror remakes tend to be, I think I would rather not. This one is rough and brutal, to the point where Anchor Bay feels that it can't be cut down to an R rating for its planned October theatrical release, and they're probably right about that. The filmmakers are right not to pull their punches, although this version may not be quite so bitter a pill as they'd hoped and planned.

Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a young writer, has rented a small cabin on a lake in Louisiana, where she hopes to work on a novel in peace. Anything resembling that peace will be shattered after a few nights, when some of the local boys - Johnny (Jeff Branson) from the gas station, his buddy Andy (Rodney Eastman), camcorder-toting Stanley (Daniel Franzese), and slow handyman Matthew (Chad Lindberg) - fueled by liquor and perceived slights, knock down her door and attack her. She runs, finding the Sheriff (Andrew Howard) hunting in the woods, only to have him join in. They chase her into the woods; cornered, she drops from a bridge into a river. The rapists figure their tracks should now be easy to cover, especially once they find the body. But...

About half of the movie is quite excellenly made, if unpleasant. It takes some time to set the stage; director Steven R. Monroe at times risks boring the audience with details of ordinary life whose secondary purposes are a little too clear (Jennifer's workout clothes which shouldn't be seen as a provocation; the abandoned shed, etc.). It's supposed to numb the audience, though, so that when Johnny and company arrive at Jennifer's cabin, the audience is that much more ready to be jolted. And the rape scene is absolutely horrific; even though most of the audience is probably well aware of what they bought a ticket for, they're really not. It's violent and frightening and just will not cut away until the audience really understands that the oft-repeated axiom that rape is not about sex but power is dead on.

The cast acts the hell out of it, although the most impressive scene here may not be the crime itself, but the one leading up to it. Jeff Branson in particular does a great job of moving his character from kind of unpleasant to monstrous without a seam; even though there is a clear inciting point, it's a smooth transition. The same goes for the rest of the group; they make the attack feel like a feeding frenzy, their characters unable to resist the smell of blood in the water, but not because a switch has been flipped or a veil cast aside; these men have pushed each other past the level of what society allows as we watched. It contrasts very well with what Sarah Butler does, going from certain and falsely confident to helpless.

And then we come to the movie's second half, where it sometimes feels like Monroe and screenwriter Stuart Morse are trying to play both sides of the street. It's structured in a way that feels familiar, with gory and fitting punishments being doled out, but with the rush of satisfaction we usually get from a revenge thriller drained out of them. Which, I believe, is part of the point - Monroe and writer Stuart Morse are looking to deconstruct and deglamorize both rape and revenge fantasies. It's a fine line to walk, and I don't know if they always manage it - some bits are so elaborate and cartoonishly suited to their targets as to run counter to the brutal realism, and we don't quite get into Jennifer's head enough to see why she would take this route. And that's really too bad, because the best moments in this section - the ones where there is not just real suspense but where Butler potentially has a chance to do something special - are the ones where we're directly confronting the question of just how far gone and messed up she is. Those moments should be what everything else is leading to, but instead, the film cuts to another gruesome horror set-up.

And those set-ups often work; many will watch them and feel that Monroe has taken scenes that might play for cheers and even laughs in other movies and made them uncomfortable again. It won't work that way for everybody; some will find no difference between this I Spit on Your Grave and the exploitation films it means to invert. A little more emphasis on what's going through the character's head as opposed to just what she's doing could have made a world of difference.

Full review at EFC.

Ved Verdens Ende (At World's End)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

It's a little bit amazing, when you come to think of it, how quirky action/adventure films made outside the Hollywood system can be. Maybe it's just because I am used to the conservative thinking that is typical here in America, but I tend to think these unusually expensive pictures with many different groups involved in financing and production would play it safe. And maybe that's usually the case, and those films just don't get exported. Still, I have a bit of trouble imagining At World's End coming from a Hollywood studio; as much as it's a big, exciting adventure with the expected dash of romance, it's also more than a little eccentric.

For instance, Adrian Gabrielsen (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) isn't the typical action hero; he's a psychologist working for the Danish government. He lives in the shadow of his well-respected father (Ulf Pilgaard) and cancer-stricken mother (Birthe Neumann), and has just been given a truly bizarre assignment: Fly to Jakarta and evaluate Severin Geertsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to determine if he is competent to stand trial for killing the crew of a British nature program in the movie's opening. At first glance, there seems to be no doubt that Geertsen is a loon; he claims to be 129 years old, well-preserved by eating the petals of an unusual plant he calls "Hedwig". The thing is, someone seems to believe him, which leads to Adrian being arrested for murder himself, escaping from jail with Geertsen, and the pair fleeing across the island with Adrian's secretary Beate (Brigitte Hjort Sørensen), trying to get to where Geertsen has hidden Hedwig and escape to Sri Lanka.

Even if At World's End had a more conventional action-comedy story, it would still have an unusual cast. Aside form Adrian's less-than-glamorous job, he's fussy and rather lacking in conventional charm. He's more than just a bit of a nerd or a nebbish; the thoroughly unconvincing way that he claims to have quit smoking goes beyond embarrassing to downright pathetic. It's impressive how likable Kaas makes this wimpy character, in large part by making him hilarious as a victim of circumstance who captures just how most of us would probably react in these sorts of unlikely situations. Meanwhile, even if Geertsen turns out not to be delusional, he's still kind of nuts. Coster-Waldau plays him as brave, charismatic, and assured, but also kind of psychotic from being out of touch with human society for a while. There's a hilarious bit at the end of an action scene where Adrian asks Severin why he did something terribly violent; Geertsen pauses, says he doesn't know, and then enthusiastically claps his new friend on the back like everything's okay. The pair make for a very amusing role-reversal, with the handsome Coster-Waldau in the supporting role and Kaas's sidekick-looking guy the star.

The real standout, though, may just be Brigitte Hjort Sørensen as Beate, the secretary who comes across as an unusually capable and charming ditz. She tromps through the jungle in a ridiculous dress, says overly-truthful and shallow things, but is also pointedly not stupid; she not only supplies Adrian with common sense, but often takes the initiative in getting them out of a sticky situation. Sørensen gives an immensely winning performance, letting us see that Beate has a bit of a crush on Adrian without having her make eyes or get flustered or give any of the other standard, obvious signals. She's gifted with great comic timing, and does is just generally fun to watch.

Anders Thomas Jensen's script is as funny as the cast. The movie opens with a sharp bit of black comedy, skewering nature shows by showing us both how we suspect they are behind the scenes and how we'd like some to end, and continues to up jokes both light and dark even as the adventure story picks up speed. He does a good job of supplying director Tomas Villum Jensen with enough comedy and action beats that those coming for either will feel satisfied. He also does well in not allowing the fantastical elements to take complete control of the movie without making them seem commonplace.

Director Tomas Villum Jensen (no relation to the writer, although they and Nikolaj Lie Kaas have frequently worked together in various capacities) takes all that and makes a handsome, exciting movie. Though not often afforded the chance to shoot big adventure movies in Denmark as either and actor or director, Jensen is up to the challenge of shooting an action-comedy on three continents (Australia frequently doubles for the Indonesian jungle), doing action well but keeping the movie a satiric comedy first and foremost, while also taking time to occasionally stop and just let the audience (and characters) enjoy the view. The only place where the Jensens ever really stumble is in the end, when they try to add a certain amount of pathos to the mix; it's a bit of a drag on a movie that had been pretty bouncy, even if occasionally dark.

Lots of adventures try to get serious in the end, though, and few of them can boast that they've done as well as a comedy, romance, and thrill ride beforehand. At World's End is decidedly offbeat, but also successfully so, a fun adventure all the better for its frequent odd choices.

Full review at EFC.

The Revenant)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

The Revenant is nearly two hours, long for a splatter-comedy, and if I could come up with a good suggestion for trimming it, I would probably offer it. The trouble is, the scenes which could probably survive a little tightening-up - the ones that are mostly David Anders and Chris Wylde talking - actually have a really nice rhythm to them. If the movie was mostly that, it would be a real low-budget delight.

Good news: Bart (David Anders) is finally home from Iraq. Bad news: He returned to Los Angeles in a pine box. Good news: He's able to climb out of his coffin and meet up with his best buddy Joey (Chris Wylde). Bad news: He's got no appetite for anything but human blood. Good news: There are a bunch of creeps in the bad parts of town that are probably most useful as revenant food. Bad news: The LAPD doesn't take kindly to vigilantes. And Bart hasn't told his girlfriend Janet (Louise Griffiths) that he's sort of alive, even though her friend Mathilda (Jacy King) is noticing something is amiss. That's small stuff, though; other than that, it's all upside.

When the movie focuses on Bart and Joey just hanging out, trying to make sense of Bart's undead state, it's a lot of fun. Anders and Wylde have great chemistry together, and they make Bart and Joey the sort of slackers that we can absolutely buy as being surprised by what's going on but also just sort of rolling with it. They play off of each other very well, working their banter around physical and gross-out comedy without skipping a beat. And as much as we meet them as goofy comedic types, the actors make their characters real and three-dimensional enough that we buy into what's going on as the situation becomes more serious in the second half of the movie.

Despite the good work by the cast, The Revenant does at times seem to lose its way as it goes on. Writer/director Kerry Prior seems to have had a bunch of ideas for what he could do with a sort-of-vampire popping up in modern-day L.A., and was determined to use them all, whether or not they drew the film out too long, gave it an uneven tone, or ultimately just didn't make sense. It doesn't quite feel like flailing around, but the movie does become something of an aggregation of little bits that worked individually, and fit together from piece to piece, eventually wandering far from its main strengths. It also loses something as the number of characters contracts, and the violence becomes out-of-character slapstick even while the characters' issues become more serious.

For a horror comedy with a minuscule budget, it is put together very well. Prior sets himself a bit of a challenge in that the vast majority of the film has to take place at night - revenants aren't quite vampires who burst into flames when the sun comes up, but they do lose their animating spark, whether they're in a building or outside - and while the footage is somewhat grainy, the audience always has a good idea of what's going on, and when the action goes from small but gory effects to a larger chase and standoff, Prior handles the change in scale well.

While the movie has been playing festivals for the better part of the year and seemed pretty locked, Prior made the occasional comment in his Q&A about how certain cut scenes may wind up back in at some point. Certain bits could be elaborated on, but I'm not sure making this movie longer would do the pacing and occasional disjointed feeling any favors, even though most of the movie is pretty good.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston (and elsewhere) 27 August - 2 September

Let's start (and end) with something actually kicking off before most movies open on Friday, with time spent on stuff that played Fantasia, because (as usual) I won't be free of that until well into September:

  • Films at the Gate comes a little earlier than usual this year, but with one of its most interesting line-ups. After a curiously Donnie Yen-free line-up last year, the martial arts superstar we can claim as our own returns as part of the ensemble in the pretty terrific Bodyguards and Assassins on Thursday. Friday night's show is the original 1978 Drunken Master, with Jackie Chan as Wong Fei-hung under the direction and choreography of Yeun Woo-ping. Saturday night's show is a 1961 animated Monkey King feature from the Wan brothers (according to the site, China's Disney), Havoc In Heaven. And Sunday is Children of Invention, a pretty darn good indie shot in Boston's Chinatown, Somerville, and elsewhere around town. It played IFFBoston last year.

    Thursday and Friday night's movies are in the vacant lot next to the Chinatown gate; Saturday and Sunday moves to the Rose Kennedy Greenway just on the other side. Take-out from local restaurants is welcome and encouraged, all shows start at 8pm, with demonstrations of lion dancing, kung fu, and/or Tai Chi during the 7pm hour. And, hopefully, the rain that has soaked Boston all week will clear up.

  • The one-week warning at Kendall Square is for Centurion, Neil Marshall's Roman-era action thriller that I badly wanted to see at Fantasia but passed on in order to see the much less likely to screen theatrically Sawako Decides, Rinco's Restaurant, and Boys on the Run. Marshall has yet to make a bad movie. Also popping up from Fantasia is the first half of the Mesrine duology, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, with Vincent Cassel as one of France's most notorious outlaws and Gerard Depardieu as his mentor. Folks who have seen both (the second, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, opens next week) tell me that this is the big action movie of the pair.

    Also opening at Kendall Square are Flipped, Rob Reiner's pre-teen romance that could be either a return to form or a treacly mess, and Soul Kitchen, a German comedy about a German-Greek family restaurant.

  • Another Fantasia feature is opening on mainstream screens, and despite a final scene that I kind of have trouble with, The Last Exorcism is excellent; I'm already anticipating Patrick Fabian getting screwed during awards season because many voters wouldn't even think of looking for a Best Actor nominee in a horror movie. I can't offer quite the same level of excitement for Takers, which seems to have been trailered forever and has a decent but nondescript cast.

    Also opening is an "extended cut" of Avatar, although in the Boston area it will only be playing on digital screens (including the IMAX-branded screen at Boston Common); the genuine IMAX screens continue to show Inception (in Natick and Reading) and a mix of documentaries and Twilight: Eclipse (Aquarium). Last chance to see that in IMAX, kiddies, as it ends Sunday.

  • The Regent Theater in Arlington has a potentially nifty event for those who like music movies: The Isle of Wight 40th Anniversary Film Festival will be screening all eight documentary/concert films Murray Lerner shot during the Isle of Wight music festival in late August, 1970, with subjects from Miles Davis to Jethro Tull to the Who to Jimi Hendrix. The Regent's website doesn't say whether these will be screening on film or video, which could be a big deal if you're only seeing one film (a single film is $10, but the prices go down until 5 or more is $30).

  • The Brattle winds down their summer schedule with Cabaret-inspired films on Friday (double feature of Chicago and All That Jazz), Saturday (a 1931 3 Penny Opera matinee and double feature of New York, New York and Liza with a Z), and Sunday (matinee of The Loved One and double feature of A Single Man and Chris & Don: A Love Story). Monday's DocYard screening is The Philosopher Kings, a documentary about university custodians with director Q&A afterward. The Tuesday Noir 100 double feature is scheduled to be The Big Combo and The Sleeping City, both featuring Richard Conte, but who knows what the distributors will actually send? They also play Monday afternoon.

    Wednesday's Best of the Aughts double bill is animated(*), featuring Selick's Coraline and Miyazaki's Spirited Away. The latter also plays Thursday afternoon, with There Will Be Blood playing Thursday evening. Milkshakes, I'm told, will be available at the concession stand. Sadly, this is only the case on Thursday.

  • It's also fairly quiet at the Coolidge - the digital rooms are swapping Life During Wartime out for Farewell, the "Cops in Heat" midnight on Friday and Saturday is Beverly Hills Cop, and they've got the Grease sing-along Friday at midnight and Monday at 7pm, complete with costume contest. Wednesday, The American gets a head start on the weekend.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has more of The Human Comedies of Eric Rohmer Friday, Saturday, and Monday; Hou Hsia-hsien's A City of Sadness plays Sunday night. The MFA spends the weekend on the last of their Restored Prints, Odd Man Out by Carol Reed, and more Charlie Chaplin. Wednesday starts short, scattered runs of two documentaries: IFFBoston selection Kimjongilia, for those like me who are endlessly fascinated with North Korea, and Nobody's Perfect, about those born deformed due to the effects of thalidomide.

  • And, finally, it's not reaching Boston, but new silent film Louis (yes, that's what I said - "new silent film") is playing five cities in seven days, starting tonight in Chicago (continuing to Detroit, North Bethesda, MD, NYC, and Philly). For these five shows, there will be live musical accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis, Cecile Licad, and an all-star jazz ensemble. I'll be bailing on work Monday so that I can see it in the Apollo Theater. I'm kind of happy to be ending two months in a row with cool silent screenings (and it looks like the Coolidge is angling to make it three in a row).

(*) Though the Brattle's animated selections for best of the 2000s are both fine films which complement each other, it's worth digging into the DVD/Blu-ray pile this week to remember Satoshi Kon, who died earlier this week after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Kon made animated movies for grown-ups, and all four of his features - Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika - are well worth your time; the first and last are particularly brilliant. Sadly, both Millennium Actress and his television series Paranoia Agent appear to be out of print in the US, and there has yet been no word on how or if his last project, The Dreaming Machine, will be finished.

Paprika is on Blu-ray. It's gorgeous. Enjoy it and weep that we will get no more.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 16 August 2010 to 23 August 2010

A "This Week" post going up as early as it used to when I would back when I would stay up until 1:30am banging it out and being useless at work the next day? What can it mean? Well, two things:

  • I want to remind the good people of Boston that Films at the Gate starts Thursday, and I missed it when writing "Next Week". Specifically, Thursday night's opening film, Bodyguards and Assassins, which I saw at the New York Asian Film Festival and loved. Fun movie, fun event.

  • I didn't see much in the way of movies at all, but want to remind folks to see the one I did see while they still can do so on the big screen, as it closes at the Brattle Monday night.

This Week In Tickets!

Part of the not seeing much in the way of movies is because I had two Red Sox tickets. Usually having two five days apart is a bit of a bummer, just from a "lack-of-variety" standpoint, as that's the time between the starts of a given member of the rotation. But, when that member of the rotaiton is Clay Buchholz on the sort of roll he's on now, it's a distinct pleasure. When you see cool stuff like Ryan Kalish's first MLB grand slam or David Ortiz hitting a triple, and both games have Buchholz going seven innings before handing the ball off to Felix Doubront. I was actually at Buchholz's first game, so I'm kind of fond of seeing him do well above and beyond him being a pitcher for the Sox.

Kind of a tiring weekend, though - my brother Travis had a cookout on Saturday, which meant getting to the pie shop at 9am, getting to South Station for the bus by ten, a full day of hanging with the family and a whole bunch of Travis's friends. I got to see my nieces, though, including eight-day-old Maisy, who did a lot of sleeping. Her big sister Dagny checked on her every few minutes, just making sure she was OK. Of course, since I wanted to get that review for Vengeance up, I wound up writing half of it in a text editor on my Droid while riding the bus. I don't recommend writing that way, although I do recommend the movie. It ran late, I got up early so I could catch the 9:30am bus back to Boston, as that gave me the best chance of making it to the 1:35pm game start. Of course, the rains came, and the game didn't wind up starting until 3:15, and then there was another delay...

But, hey, they won, and I did really like the one movie I saw this week:

Fuk sau (Vengeance)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

If you know world genre cinema, you know director Johnnie To - and if you don't, this isn't a bad place to start; much of the dialog is even in English if subtitles are an issue. He's one of the best and most prolific directors working in Hong Kong right now, a man makes criminals compelling and can stage a gunfight as well as anybody. There's a good chance you don't know Johnny Hallyday, though; a popular singer and actor in France, his films have not frequently traveled to America. Whether the audience is familiar with Johnnie or Johnny, they'll likely find the pair a potent combination.

After a brutal attack on her family leaves Irene Thompson (Sylvie Testud) gravely wounded, her father Francis Costello (Hallyday) comes to Macau, where Irene had been living. Though Costello introduces himself as a restauranteur, few chefs have his imposing presence, or have their daughters silently demand vengeance. He's out of his element in Macau, so when the police bring him in as an eyewitness to a separate crime, he doesn't finger the man he saw but instead hires the crew - Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-sang), Chu (Lam Ka-tung), and Lok (Lam Suet) - to help him track down his quarry. Quickly, he hopes, because he is facing some rather urgent time constraints.

Johnnie To directs from a screenplay by frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai, and while not everything they do is a polished crime picture, that's what pays the bills at their Milkyway production company, and they've gotten rather good at them. Not just in the staging of an action set piece, but in creating a feeling of camaraderie and danger; the story offers opportunities for loyalty and betrayal, with opportunities to have its gangsters display a code of honor (of sorts) without getting terribly sentimental about it or pretending that these are especially noble people. Indeed, the last half of the movie is spent wondering whether or not there is a point to this revenge, and whether characters are hunters or merely weapons. Wai Ka-fai makes sure that what we're seeing is not just a vanilla crime flick, either. It takes an unusual turn in that second half, one that is somewhat derivative but unusual enough to keep the audience thinking a bit.

Full review at EFC.

Kalish Grand SlamVengeanceRain Delays

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 August - 26 August

If you can only see one movie this weekend (which may very well be the case for me, with a family cookout and a baseball game on tap)...

  • ...Go for Vengeance, playing 9:30pm Friday-Monday at the Brattle. It's Johnnie To working in English for the first time, with a French star. To no longer seems to be attached to the Le Cercle Rouge remake in development, so this is probably as close as we'll get (for now) to To paying direct homage to the French crime films that seem to be one of his main inspirations.

    The other films playing the Brattle over the weekend are a new 35mm print of Perry Henzell's 1972 cult classic The Harder They Come, and digital screenings of his long thought lost follow-up No Place Like Home. The noir features are Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur on Monday and a double feature of Key Largo and Murder, My Sweet on Tuesday. There are special screenings to finish the week off - the premiere of Boston-based Superhero movie Mission Park on Wednesday (nice way to end new comic day!) and concert film Burning: Mogwai Live on Thursday

  • I saw two funny vampire movies at Fantasia - the Belgian Vampires and the Canadian Suck. So, Vampires Suck has to be as funny as the two combined, right? Oh, no? Bummer.

    Instead, how about Piranha 3D? I'm there for Christopher Lloyd basically doing Doc Brown, myself. And kids will probably dig Nanny McPhee Returns - Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal are not a bad place to start in terms of having the movie not stink. Lottery Ticket has a pretty decent cast, as does The Switch (well, it's got Jason Bateman. I'm sure someone likes Jennifer Aniston, too).

  • The big indie opening is Australia's Animal Kingdom, which looks terrific and opens at AMC Boston Common, the Kendall, and the Coolidge. The Coolidge also opens Alamar in the MiniMax, which is apparently now called the "GoldScreen". There are also plenty of fun special screenings on their larger screens - summer's last screening of The Room Friday at Midnight, Steven Seagal in Marked for Death Friday and Saturday midnight as part of "Cops in Heat", The Princess Bride Monday at 7pm, and Lost Angel on the same screen Tuesday at 7pm. Cast and crew will be there for an intro and a Q&A about that independent film about young actors in Hollywood

  • I missed it tonight (the 19th), but Jaws is playing the Somerville Theater Friday (the 20th)

  • The one-week warning at Kendall Square is for Patrik, Age 1.5, a Swedish comedy about a gay couple who think they are adopting an infant but instead wind up with a homophobic teenager. Also opening are Mao's Last Dancer, the aforementioned Animal Kingdom, and IFFBoston alumni Cairo Time. If you'd asked a hundred Trekkies which member of the Deep Space Nine cast would have the best post-series career, I'm not sure many people would have come up with Alexander Siddig El-Fadil, but good for him.

  • The Harvard Film Archive kicks off a couple weeks of The Human Comedies of Eric Rohmer Friday to Sunday. A follow-up to last week's The Outsiders, Rumble Fish plays Monday night.

  • No changes at the MFA, but can you really complain about more Restored Prints (a final screening of From Here to Eternity Friday afternoon, The Red Shoes from Powell & Pressburger, and starting Thursday, Odd Man Out by Carol Reed) and more Charlie Chaplin?

This Week In Tickets: 9 August 2010 to 15 August 2010

Strangely, no horror movies opened this Friday the 13th. Which is fine with me, because my folks and I will henceforth have a difficult time associating that date with misfortune, what with it bringing my brother Dan and his wife a new daughter. As near as I can figure it, her 11th birthday will be the first to fall on that supposedly-unlucky day.

Which means nothing. Unless you think that leap years lining up in that meaningless way counters the bad luck associated with a meaningless date on a calendar. In which case, congratulations, you've set a new record for superstition!

This Week In Tickets!

Wow... Before I scanned the page, I'd almost forgotten about the Thursday night double-feature, even though I wound up writing a full review of Agora (and grumbling that it is apparently not scheduled for a Blu-ray release). I have consumed a fair amount of movie since then, and a fair amount of TV as well, but, yikes, that stuff shouldn't have slipped my mind.

Admittedly, the reason I saw Get Low that night was because I wanted to catch Agora before it left town, and it was down to half a screen, with the only evening show at 9:25. Since I more or less knew that I wasn't going to start walking to Kendall Square at quarter to nine, a double feature was in order, and that happened to be the movie that fit best. Fortunately, it was a much better movie than most chosen based on start time seem to be.

And somewhere between Regal Fenway and the Brattle, I lost my Scott Pilgrim stub. --sigh-- The substitute comes from the back of one of htose reward program blanks they spit out at you. Note that because Scott Pilgrim played Fantasia, I tossed it into a Fantasia catch-up page. As close as I can tell, the next things likely to reach Boston from there are The Last Exorcism and the first Mesrine on 27 August, but I'll probably update a little by then.

Street of Chance (1930)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

This flick from 1930 wasn't the film originally set to play the Brattle that night - the 1942 film of the same name with Claire Trevor based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich was - but few were complaining. After all, while this one isn't a great movie, it does star William Powell, and it's a real struggle for me to remember a bad movie he's starred in.

In this one, he plays John D. Marsden, a supposed stockbroker who does most of his business at night, gambling under the name "Natural" Davis. He's probably good enough at figuring odds and counting cards that he'd be on a Vegas blacklist today, and he's generally well-regarded, giving people the chance to win their losses back, unwilling to take the money of those who can't afford to lose it, and making sure that his less-successful brother (Regis Toomey) doesn't try to subsist on cards the way he does. But, he's been so successful at concealing his double life that when said brother and his new bride (Jean Arthur) come back to Manhattan so that he can play "Natural", it's going to be a difficult trick to avoid exposing his hypocrisy and send "Babe" and Judith back to San Francisco without the taste for it.

Like a lot of films of the studio era, Street of Chance is slight but enjoyable. The plot's a bit contrived, but it's not extended or complicated past its breaking point. Director John Cromwell sees mostly stays out of the way, and William Powell is charming enough to make the audience care about a character who can be decidedly amoral at times. A one-two punch of Jean Arthur and Kay Francis doesn't hurt the movie at all, either.

The Chase (1946)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

Idle question: If you nod off during a movie, but it turns out that all you missed was an extended dream sequence, you can still say that you've effectively seen it, right? That's what happened for me in this case; I suddenly found myself confused by what was going on only to have main character Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) suddenly jerk to consciousness himself (see how in sync I was with the main character?), and, ironically, dash out of the room, totally confused.

There's a bit of a delay between then and when the real chase begins - the one in Cuba was apparently just a decoy - and it can sort of try one's patience a bit. It's not like there hadn't been any warning that Scott could wind up having mental problems (he'd been taking pills earlier in the film), but it feels like an arbitrary delaying tactic between spurts of Scott having to outrun and outwit his boss.

The bad guys are where The Chase has a lot of its fun - Steve Cochran is a pleasure as gangster Eddie Roman, a sadistic maniac with a volatile temper, and he's ably assisted by Peter Lorre. Lorre had a couple of stock personae that he liked to pull out, and here he's going for "vicious, sarcastic little bastard". Nailing it, of course, adding just a little more menace to scenes where it maybe wasn't quite clear that Roman is about to do something terrible.

Get Low

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Get Low is this year's Crazy Heart, a decent movie that nevertheless serves as a perfect showcase for a respected actor. This leads me to a couple of thoughts: First, that the actor getting showcased, Robert Duvall, actually interested me a little more in Crazy Heart, where he just created a memorable character and performance without the big dramatic moment. And second, is there a chain going on here? Does this mean that sometime next fall, we'll see a movie that thrives on a great central performance by Bill Murray, netting him some long-deserved awards?

I kid, a little. In fact, I think Get Low is a pretty good movie. The atmospheric opening gives a spark of menace and mystery to what could be a slight comedy or sentimental drama. It's a little awkward at times - director Aaron Schneider and the three credited writers have a hard time unraveling the mystery smoothly, instead revealing it in chunks that don't always feel completely natural - but an interesting story, with an attention to detail and tone that makes for a nice balance between it being operatic and cozy.

And, yes, the acting is pretty impressive. Robert Duvall's excellence is an expected thing by now, and if he doesn't vanish into the role of Felix Bush without a trace, he certainly seems to know where he can make familiarity work for him. He knows how to have a man not given to oration make a speech, and doesn't play up the "scary old man" bit unnecessarily. The ensemble around him is great, too; Bill Murray is unmatched at making a somber man funny and a funny character someone you can take seriously. Sissy Spacek is note-perfect as Felix's one-time love, and Bill Cobb is memorable in a role perfectly suited to him. Even smaller parts have good performances by the likes of Gerald McRaney and Lucas Black.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

I adore Agora, and I'll readily admit that a large part of it is that I agree with the politics and philosophy of the thing. Rather than it being a movie about a scientist who encounters something her rational outlook can't explain and thus must learn to have faith, it's a movie about how certainty allows people to do terrible things, and curiosity is a much more exhilarating emotion than comfort, and the stunning visuals and fine performances don't do much to hide that.

It's 391 AD, and the Roman city of Alexandria, home to the greatest library of the time, is in turmoil. Christians are now allowed to practice their religion freely, which has served to bring tensions between them and those worshiping the traditional pagan gods out in the open. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an astronomer and mathematician who is one of the few female teachers in this temple of learning, is not religious herself but welcomes all seekers of knowledge within her classroom. One of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), would court her, even as he clashes with his Christian classmate Synesius (Rupert Evans). Soon, the war of words between Christians and pagans will boil over into a riot, with the aftermath leaving Alexandria a dramatically changed city and Hypatia in even greater peril.

The story is not entirely or even primarily told from Hypatia's point of view, though. The central figure is Davus (Max Minghella), one of her slaves. He follows her lectures better than any of her students and is thoroughly smitten with her, but is also being drawn to Christianity by charismatic street preachers and the promise of a more just world. His interactions with Hypatia are intriguing, an exaggerated version of class relations in any era - depending on the moment, she will treat her slaves as confidantes or little more than furniture; it's no wonder Davus is pushed toward something that offers him certainty. And his arc with the Christians is certainly a pessimist's view of religion - a man reaching for a place to belong, even as its unquestionable authority allow terrible things to be done in the name of God. Minghella is convincing as Davus goes through each step, convincing us of his growth from naive servant to warrior and beyond.

Full review on EFC.

The Man from Laramie

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Mann & Stewart)

The Man from Laramie is a sneaky-good Western, in that it starts out looking like a somewhat underwhelming example of the genre, with its crooned title song and Stewart's resolutely determined Will Lockhart determined to get to the bottom of what's going on around here before he gets into town and meets Cathy O'Donnell's too-sweet-for-words shopkeeper. Not that familiarity is necessarily a bad thing; who doesn't like seeing (and hearing!) Wallace Ford as Stewart's sidekick?

But as the movie goes on, interesting and unexpected things tend to happening. Lockhart has injected himself into a tricky family situation, in that the Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) owns the town but his son may not be up to the task of being his heir and his ranch-hand may not look kindly on the elder Waggoman backing out of plans to make him a partner. Then there's the tough old lady who owns the one ranch Waggoman hasn't bought out, a murdered town gossip, and, oh, the real reason Lockhart has come, somebody supplying repeating rifles to the Apache. That's a lot of balls in the air, and they often land at unexpected times. The ultimate villain of the piece is not immediately obvious.

It makes for an engrossing story, and Mann tells it efficiently, with stark photography that complements the general lack of excessive sentimentality . It's not a grim western, but it is one that does well in avoiding a simple black hats and white hats shoot it out template.

The Far Country

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Mann & Stewart)

The second half of the double feature (or first, depending on when you got to the theater) didn't quite do as much for me. It's parts don't fit together quite so well; each section seems less-than-solidly connected to the others, and even within a section, the characters have wildly different tones. The relentlessly cheery young woman played by Corinne Calvet barely seems to exist in the same universe as the hardened James Stewart character, and John McIntire occasionally seems unsure whether to play his villain as broad and theatrical or gritty.

It's still pretty good; the Brattle's program described the Mann/Stewart westerns as often being noirs in Western clothing, and that certainly applies here: Stewart is the classic noir anti-hero who just wants to look out for himself despite being tempted by the femme fatale and chance at easy money on the one hand and the innocent girl and her principles on the other. What Mann does especially well is to marry this sort of story to the traditional western themes of law-abiding people in a lawless land - despite some unevenness, it's a mature western (though, in 1896, the frontier has moved to the Klondike) that works.

The Expendables

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2010 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

Give writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone credit - he knows that the audience for a movie like The Expendables isn't there for small ordnance or small explosions. So every action beat in the movie is larger than life, from the Somali pirate who has half his torso blasted off the open the festivities to the truly excessive amount of C4 used in the finale. This is a movie made by a man who has absolutely zero interest in making something that can be cut down to a PG-13 rating.

To be fair, Stallone gets more than just overkill. He clearly understands his own appeal, and the whole film is about guys being masculine, a comfortable balance between casual bullshitting with each other and focused intensity. Between action scenes, he spends a lot of time showing himself, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and company hanging out. That's never more obvious than in the early scene where Stallone plays off Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzeneggar. It's a comfortable, amusing moment, the sort of thing that strikes an audience as fun rather than potentially disappointing.

What is a little disappointing is the way Stallone directs some of the action bits. There are some excellent ones, not just for the amount of firepower used but for the creatively insane ways it is used. But inside the castle where much of the last act takes place, the action often gets choppy and confused. It's almost impossible to tell who is fighting whom, to the point where even when the camera does hold still without cutting for a few seconds, the heads are cropped off! One would think, as old-school as the movie is, Stallone would go for a little more clarity there.

(Also, given the name, I kind of expected a few more members of his team to be expended, so to speak, although that's not a huge complaint!)

Street of Chance / The ChaseGet LowAgoraScott Pilgrim vs The WorldThe Man from Laramie / The Far CountryThe ExpendablesThe Girl Who Played with Fire

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Here's a bit of idle curiosity: When awards time comes around, how does Music Box handle promoting Noomi Rapace? I presume that, although she's reportedly excellent in all three Millennium films (as you can see below, I'm fairly fond of her in at least the first two), they'll request people nominate her for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as it's probably the most familiar title of the three, and appears to be what was done in Europe.

Of course, if they do that, it's not like voters will be voting entirely for her work in that movie; it will be almost impossible to put the good work she does in Fire (and likely Hornet's Nest) out of their minds. Does that give her an unfair leg up on the other nominees? Or is it a fair compensation, considering that she won't have the chance to be nominated three times that a more conventional production/release schedule could have given her.

If she wins or is even nominated, the March-debuting Dragon Tattoo would be one of the earliest-released films to get recognition in recent years, although you'd have to put an asterisk next to it, I guess, for the same reasons - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will likely still be in theaters and fresh in voters' minds (depending on whether you believe the Millennium Film Trilogy website or the Music Box Films website, it opens October 15th or 29th).

It's an interesting question that I suspect awards voters are going to have to wrestle with this fall. The first Mesrine film opens in Cambridge on the 27th, with the second part coming a week later. The year has also featured the Red Riding trilogy. And while I'm sure film societies and critics circles will happily award Ms. Rapace for her work in the entire Millennium trilogy, the Oscars and similar institutions with strictly defined rules may have a hard time fitting them in or getting the voters and studios to conform to the letter of the regulations.

Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

It's not really important that the first "Millennium" novel (and film adaptation) is called "Men Who Hate Women" in Sweden, becoming "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in English-speaking countries for the purpose of having the entire trilogy look nice when placed side-by-side on a shelf. It's notable, though, because that means that the second entry is the first to originally have its title be a description of Lisbeth Salander, a shift in focus that comes across loud and clear in this second [Swedish] adaptation.

It's been about a year since Salander (Noomi Rapace) helped disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) untangle a forty-year-old mystery and identify a serial killer. Salander has spent the year traveling, and Blomkvist has returned to Millennium. Things are about to heat up for both, though - Millennium has hired Dag Svensson (Hans-Christian Thulin) as a freelancer so that he and his girlfriend Mia (Jennie Silfverhjelm) can complete and publish their exposé of trafficking in Eastern European girls that could cause a major scandal in the national government, while Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), the guardian that Lisbeth memorably blackmailed in the first film, has decided he's had enough of being under her thumb and inquired about having her killed. Whoever Bjurman contacts opts not to kill Salander directly - instead, she finds herself neatly framed for a set of homicides, with only Blomkvist believing in her innocence.

Though all three films were made and released in rapid succession, Fire has a new creative team, with director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg taking over for Niels Arden Oplev and Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (Alfredson and Frykberg stick around for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). Whether because of the change in the creative team or because of the source material, Fire is less intense than Dragon Tattoo; it doesn't have a scene as brutal as the bit which got her Bjurman as an enemy until the finale, always keeps the story Dag was investigating at arm's length, and isn't able to quite do the same job of making research compelling to watch. It doesn't even put Blomkvist and Salander in the same room until the very end; their interaction is electronic and generally one-way.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fantasia Catch-up, Part 01: Clash, Rubber, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I'm not sure quite how regularly these will get posted in the next few weeks; I figured this would be a good place to stop because I'm going to want to include Scott Pilgrim in TWIT (even though I seem to have lost my stub), and I wanted to do a full review because the ones on EFC were uniformly negative, and that average rating needed to come up. While I was writing,an even more positive one was posted, of course.

Putting aside Clash, I think both Rubber and Scott Pilgrim have futures as midnight movies; they both practically demand an odd mood and probably play better in a crowded, like-minded room. I was genuinely surprised at how sparse attendance was for Pilgrim on Saturday; even though I'd seen the trailer get a lukewarm response, it's a fun movie that hopefully word-of-mouth will do kind things for.

Anyway, onward! But first, a reminder that no matter where and when Rubber plays, theaters should make an effort to have its star in attendence:


Bay Rong (Clash)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

It's probably unfair to compare Clash (aka Bay Rong) to The Rebel, the previous action movie to co-star Johnny Nguyen and Tranh Van Ngo, but it's inevitable - the two leads are back, Nguyen once again writes and produces, much of the behind the scenes crew is the same (with that movie's co-editor taking the director's chair). This looks to be made on a much smaller budget, and is contemporary as opposed to being a period piece. Unfortunately, it just isn't at the same level; the action scenes are fewer and farther between, and the melodramatic story doesn't quite work.

It involves Trinh (Thanh Van "Veronica" Ngo), a hard-as-nails mercenary who has put together an anonymous team to do a job: Stealing a laptop from some westerners for a gangster known as "Black Dragon". Trinh values anonymity to a paranoid extent, giving everyone code names and insisting they use them, kicking one of her men's butt a little when he tries to argue with her rules. She's got reason to want to keep a secret; her boss, gangster "Black Dragon", is holding her daughter hostage, and won't return the little girl until she has completed a number of missions. Of course, secrets can cause a little trouble - one of her men (Johnny Nguyen) is an undercover cop.

For all the story that Johnny Nguyen crams into the script, the mission itself never becomes terribly interesting. You may as well call the laptop a MacGuffin and be done with it, and for all the mistrust and betrayals that eventually take place, the intrigue just isn't there. The characters are basic types without a whole lot of individual personality - most are pretty grim hardcases, although there's an inexperienced rookie driver in the mix. The end is also a bit of a let-down; while, yes, earlier the movie made a bit of a joke about seeming like another movie, this isn't a terribly satisfying way to break the mold.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010: Camera Lucida)

It's natural to be a little wary of Rubber. It's a movie made by a French musician that takes place in America, with a gonzo concept and an experimental execution; just looking at the description, the odds of it being unbearable, either from snobbishness or quirkiness, are rather high. And while it is as absolutely bizarre as one might expect, the result is almost always genial absurdity.

That gonzo concept? A discarded tire ("Robert") somehow comes to life, rolling across the desert of the American southwest under its own power, apparently animated by pure anger. It is so angry that when it comes across something that it can't crush by rolling over it, it is able to reach out telekinetically to batter and even explode whatever lies in its path with the pure power of its rage. And yet, when it encounters Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), a young woman apparently driivng home from college, it stops, smitten, perhaps. Of course, just because Robert can't bring himself to kill Sheila doesn't mean anybody else at the motel where she has stopped is safe - a confusing turn of events for Chad (Stephen Spinella), the sheriff's deputy who comes to investigate when the bodies start piling up.

Experimental execution? Well, in addition to Spinella kicking the film off with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue about how nothing happens for a reason in the movies, we see an accountant (Jack Plotnick) setting up a spectators gallery across the desert, where a bunch of people sit in lawn chairs, watching the goings-on via binoculars. We regularly jump back there to hear comments on the action, and eventually they cross paths with the action in extremely unusual ways.

Full review at EFC.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2010 Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

When Moulin Rouge! came out in 2001, I commented that it was a musical for the generation raised on MTV and sampling. I didn't mean it as a slam, just an observation, but some folks I said it to were more than happy to repeat it as if it were obvious derision. In some ways, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is similar - it's a romantic comedy for a generation raised on video games, comics, and manga. It's a pretty darn good one, too, but someone inclined to dismiss those media will likely be immune to its charms.

It's been a year since Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim (Age: 22, Rating: Awesome) and his girlfriend broke up, but he's going out with 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) now, even though his bandmates Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), sister Stacey Pilgrim (Anna Kendrick), and cool gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) all recognize it as a bad idea. And that's before he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American girl who has just moved to town that he literally can't get out of his head. Ah, but Ramona has some baggage: Seven evil exes, whom Scott (Michael Cera) must defeat in order to date her.

The hook for Scott Pilgrim as comics was that it takes place in a world where video game logic applies: Warp zones allow Ramona to zip between places quickly, bad guys disappear and leave coins behind when vanquished, and you can pick up a second chance if a 1UP crosses your path. For the movie, director Edgar Wright and co-scripter Michael Bacall retain both the video game and comic conventions, and it's a tricky gimmick to make work; while having sound effects occasionally pop up on screen is good for reminding us of the unreal atmosphere between the times when the fighting makes things completely nuts, other bits don't translate quite so well: The infographics that occasionally pop up work better in comics because you can read captions at your own pace without slowing time down, and the "he punched the highlights out of her hair!" gag really doesn't work at all when divorced from Bryan Lee O'Malley's art style. On the other hand, Wright and company often do an exceptionally good job of pulling the audience from scene to scene without regard for how they're separated; the movie will cut to another place or a later time in such a way that it feels like there's no interruption.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 August - 19 August

A summer chock full of nothing, and two movies I really want to see open up this weekend, in mid-August? That's just really screwy!

  • Seriously... Scott Pilgrim vs. the World AND The Expendables on the same day. Oh, and Eat, Pray, Love, but even if I was likely to get revved up for that, it would be for later in the weekend.

    I must admit, it was a bit of a weird feeling when the final volume of Scott Pilgrim came out a couple weeks ago, I read it, and realized that there'd be no more, other than the movie - and that a fairly faithful movie would be coming soon. Not how it usually works out.

  • The one-week warning at Kendall Square is for Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel. Director Brigitte Berman will be doing Q&As at the 4:50pm and 8:00pm shows tonight (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday). I guess we've already missed that first one. Sorry, I'm crazy behind.

    Also opening at the Kendall are The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, which should at least look awesome, and The Extra Man. The latter was the opening night film at IFFBoston this year, and while it wasn't bad, it's also kind of all about Kevin Kline, and when the movie focuses on Paul Dano, its ostensible star... Well, it's not quite so great.

  • Not many changes in the main features at the Coolidge, but some fun specials. The "Cops in Heat" midnight tonight and tomorrow is Super Troopers, which I may have to check out; it didn't appeal to me much on seeing the trailers, I quite liked Broken Lizard's The Slammin' Salmon, although that had Michael Clarke Duncan as a secret weapon. The big show is Monday's The Big Lebowski screening, with prizes for costumes and more, plus free bowling passes

  • The Brattle's also going with what's worked all summer: A mini-series over the weekend - new prints of four Jimmy Stewart westerns, plus a free "Elements of Cinema" screening of Mann's The Furies starring Barbara Stanwyck on Saturday morning. A DocYard presentation of AIDS-in-Africa documentary Today the Hawk Takes one Chick with director Jane Gillooly in attendence. "Best of the Aughts" screenings on Wednesday (There Will Be Blood and Hedwig & the Angry Inch) and Thursday (the literally brain-meltingly awesome pairing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!). And one that I'm really annoyed about missing, the week's noir selection Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window, playing Tuesday and matinees on Monday. Of course, I'm missing it to see the Red Sox, and I've heard there may be a Laser Show that day, so I'll deal.

  • If you dug It Came From Kuchar at BUFF this spring (I missed it), head on over to the Harvard Film Archive for A George Kuchar Celebration. Mr. Kuchar will be there in person, so if you've got any questions on what the guy was thinking, you're in luck. Monday has Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders; Rumble Fish plays next Monday.

  • Finally, the MFA has more Restored Prints: A few more screenings of From Here to Eternity, plus Close-Up from Abbas Kiarostami and The Red Shoes from Powell & Pressburger; I believe we saw a new print of that at the Brattle earlier this year and it was gorgeous.

    Their other big series during August is Janus Presents Charlie Chaplin. New 35mm prints of Charlie Chaplin, folks. We've already missed The Great Dictator, unfortunately, but A King in New York screens tomorrow and The Circus on Thursday.

This Week In Tickets: 2 August 2010 to 8 August 2010

It's almost late enough to go back to including the preview here, but there's logic to it - I wanted to get the Metropolis review done, as well as make as much progress on the Fantasia stuff as I could before it fell out the back of my head. Now comes the hard part - going back to the 9th of July and writing something on The Clash! Still, I haven't quite been chaining myself to the shiny new laptop they gave me at work:

This Week In Tickets!

Look at the fees Ticketmaster is charging on that concert ticket. $42.50 is not an unfair price, but, honestly, what do those $12.85 and $5.00 fees (applied to each ticket in the order, not just the one) buy you? To be fair, Live Nation has been experimenting with waiving or consolidating them at various points this summer, figuring that the audience might be okay with a slightly higher ticket price if they don't get whacked with a 38% mark-up on the last screen of the check-out process.

It was, at least, a fun concert, the first I'd seen with BNL in their current 4-person configuration; Stephen Page's voice and antics are missed, although Tyler Stewart taking over for him on "Alcohol" during the encore was an... energetic substitution. I also dug the stripped-down, almost a capella "Sound of Your Voice" that Kevin Hearn did. I will readily admit, though, that I can't hear "Four Seconds" without thinking of my niece singing it any more. She's going to love that clip when she's a teenager, I'm sure.

It was also cool to hang out with Matt, Morgan, Dan, and Lara while the opening acts were playing. Lara is clearly someone who believes that "pregnant" does not mean "disabled", as this was her second BNL concert in two days, the previous one being at Foxwoods in Connecticut, despite the fact that her due date was about a week and a half away when I saw her. I do sort of wish everyone could have arrived earlier, as I didn't quite figure the times right for getting the bus back from Reading after seeing Inception, and I was some kind of hungry.

Born to Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

Hopefully I'll get a chance to go back and revisit these noir series in more detail, as the Brattle's series of films noir featuring cast members born in 1910 has had some fun, rarely-seen entries. Like this one, where Claire Trevor's Helen Brent discovers a murder victim on her way out of Reno (where she'd been living for a month so that she could get a divorce), only to meet and spark to the murderer, Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) on the train back to San Francisco. He doesn't think much of her finacé, but once he meets her wealthy foster sister (Helen is adopted)...

Born to Kill isn't a perfect movie. It lacks a really great moment of Helen realizing that Sam is a killer and having to figure out how she feels about that. But it generally does a good job of mixing its soapy elements with its crime, and tends to have good forward momentum, with more fun twists and turns than usual. It's got a nice cast, too, although I tended to find the supporting cast growing on me more than the leads.

Johnny Angel

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

Another one with Ms. Trevor, this time playing the femme fatale who has a history with George Raft's title character but is married to her boss. It's certainly got a nifty hook, with Johnny finding the ship his father skippered abandoned at sea and then tailing a mysterious French girl who emerges from it.

There's a few too many characters for its short runtime, though - Signe Hasso doesn't get to do much as the damsel in distress, and Hoagy Carmichael's helpful cabbie is just sort of wedged in there as well. It makes good use of its intriguing initial mystery, though, and looks pretty slick, both in terms of faking New Orleans and creating nifty locations for the action to take place; many of them don't look like they've just been thrown together on the lot as a generic apartment, but made to look like specific, individual settings.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2010 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (The IMAX Experience)

I feel like the last sci-fi fan to see Inception - especially considering the relatively empty theater I saw it in (as well as they've been doing, I suspect the IMAX guys are ready for Resident Evil: Afterlife). It is, as befits its reputation, pretty sweet. It's got a ridiculously good cast, does a pretty good job of introducing new ideas and then playing with the implications, and some last-act action sequences that are legitimately amazing. I had an absolutely blast watching it.

However, since I am a hard-sf-loving guy who notices details... <SPOILERS>

... that whole exciting last act seems to be predicated on a false premise, to wit, that the dream state is a perfect simulation of reality, just at high speed. In fact, it's a simulation so perfect as to be imperceptible. Myself, though, I'm not sure the whole sped-up time thing should work more than one layer down. Okay, a dream can run 20x fast than reality - but that's taxing the extent of one's brain, right? Go down a layer deeper, and your brain just isn't powerful enough - you've already gone from using 10% to 100% in order to do this, and there's no 1,000% level (let alone 10,000%) to get to.


I suppose that's less egregious than what some sci-fi movies do, but I couldn't help but notice it.

Born to Kill / Johnny AngelInceptionBNL 7 August 2010Metropolis at the Brattle

(Final!) Fantasia Daily for 28 July: Boys on the Run, The Complete Metropolis

So, just over two weeks after the end of this three-week festival, I get to the last of my daily updates of Fantasia as it happens! Not the end of the Fantasia coverage, over course - I've got half a dozen screeners to view and two or three times as many movies that I saw that I saved for later in my attempt to get something up daily, so I figure you'll be seeing Fantasia updates until it's time to expect Fantastic Fest updates (not from me - even if I could bring myself to get more then a few miles from Fenway Park in September/October, it conflicts with my brother's wedding).

The last day of the festival is always a weird one, and this year it was especially so. I tidied up the apartment I sublet, trying to leave as little trace of myself as a master criminal would. The owner came in, collected the keys, and verified that I hadn't destroyed anything that would count against my deposit - he was very forgiving about that ceramic potpourri jar which, in my defense, was sitting on an awfully rickety table that I was almost guaranteed to trip over if I forgot just where the light switch was on the wall. Then I took my things, headed to the bus station, stowed the suitcase in a locker (yes, the Montreal bus station actually has storage lockers! Awesome when you have a noon check-out and an 11:15pm bus), and headed back downtown.

After a late breakfast at Cocktail Hawaii, I went to the Canadian Center for Architecture. I'd been there a few years ago, and sat in their park reading and writing a few other times, but my curiosity had been piqued by posters on the Metro about "other space odysseys". It turned out not to really be space architecture - such a thing can barely be said to exist - but a reasonably interesting exhibit that included designs for the JPL, comparisons of a lunar capsule to the inside of a peasant hut (more similar than you'd think, in how it makes use of every surface for storage), and theoretical ideas about zero-gravity construction. The other main exhibit was about Iannis Xenakis, who combined architecture, music, and mathematics.

After that, I had a choice to make. My plan had been to see the 3pm Centurion, but that was before Boys on the Run was canceled and rescheduled for 3:30pm Wednesday afternoon. Figuring that Centurion will likely get a theatrical release, I opted for the latter (it's nice to have a media/VIP pass that lets you make those decisions at the last minute; I recommend it). It was maybe not the best decision I made at the festival, but I try to be consistent in opting for the movie I won't necessarily have another chance to see on the big screen - or at all - and even a below-average movie like Boys on the Run has interesting moments.

After that, a little more time to kill, so I made my way to Place des Arts on foot, and made sure that I got there early enough that if my being on the list didn't mean I could pick up my tickets there, I would have time to hike back down to Concordia to do so. Fortunately, that wasn't the case, and I just had to wait for them to be delivered.

Of course, first I had to find the right building. There's a really pretty building on the Place...


... although what I've cropped out was how the entrances were inaccessible due to the construction going on around it. The actual entrance the the address on the flier looked more like this:


... which, I must say, looks better than it did at street level. What I'd forgotten, of course, is that Canadians are basically burrowing creatures (something I learned from waydowntown long before I discovered the Underground City in Montreal). The entrance shown led to a tunnel which, in addition to the usual shopping centers and Metro stops, led to a lobby area which, as you can sort of see, is just under and outside Salle Wilfrid Pelletier:


I was among the first there, which was maybe not the best idea - if you were on the VIP/media list, they were just ripping tickets off a bunch they'd printed out, and the first person there gets one at the end of a row. Now, maybe all the folks on the list got "whatever's left". It doesn't much matter; it's an awesome room, and being on the end gave me a real idea of how big and cool the place is:



Seeing everybody file in did give me a chance to see how genuinely excited all involved were, though - especially seeing all the programmers practically giggling with glee, almost unable to believe that they had really filled a 3,000-seat auditorium, that they'd gotten an orchestra to score something for their event... that their quirky festival, dedicated to what have traditionally been niche offerings, was being treated as a genuinely big a city that has no small number of festivals and other artistic events.

And despite all that, they haven't lost touch:


That image may not say a whole lot to those who haven't been there, but those folks standing at the front right? I sat behind them at a lot of movies. They are the "front row crew"; nearly every screening I've seen at the festival in the years that I've been there has had some portion of the same group down there, whether in Hall or de Seve. They get thanked collectively at the end of each DJ XL5 Zappin Party. I don't know them, I've never spoken to them, but seeing that someone involved made sure that they had seats to this big event that might normally have been reserved for high-rollers of some kind made me feel good. I talked in the wrap-up about how Fantasia is growing and will probably continue to grow and mainstream itself, but it's good to see that they're not forgetting the people who made the festival what it was.

Anyway, eventually the movie started, the movie ran and was excellent, and ended. The orchestra pit appeared to have an elevator built into it, so that composer Gabriel Thibaudeau and his 13-piece orchestra could be easily brought up to eye level to take a bow:


A standing ovation, naturally, ensued.

After that, it was time to dash through the underground city, take the Metro to Berri-UQAM, grab a slice of pizza before the place in the bus station closed, and jump on the Greyhound to head back to Boston. There were familiar rites to be observed then - staying awake until the border, hoping that you don't get the cranky and hostile ICE guy, and then trying to get as much sleep between there and South Station as possible because by the time you hit Boston, it will be almost seven o'clock and you've got to be at work at nine.

Speaking of which... It's 1:30am, I'd like to do some combination of "this week" and "next week" tomorrow, and work starts at nine. Good night, see you tomorrow, and look for more Fantasia reviews as I spend the rest of August catching up!

Wai dor lei ah yut ho (Boys on the Run)

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

A number of times in the past few years, and past few weeks, as I've been reviewing Japanese films based on long-running comics/manga, I've either written something along the lines of how well I think it does in translating that medium's pace and story to film (or struggled mightily to not make that comment, as it gets repetitive). Usually, it's something along the lines of having to cram a lot of material into a couple hours to make a film with a beginning, middle, and end. This time, I find myself left wondering whether writer/director Daisuke Miura did that fairly well and I just don't like the end, if he only adapted some fraction of the series, or if he adapted it somewhat loosely.

Whatever he did, this is the story of a young man, Toshiyuki Tannishi (Kazunobu Mineta), still living in his parents' home and working a pretty menial job, servicing capsule vending machines for the Sangyo Saida toy company. It could be worse, though. There's a girl at the office he likes - Chiharu (Mei Kurokawa), a toy designer - and he gets along with his opposite number at Monster Toys, Aoyama (Ryuhei Matsuda). It's Aoyama, in fact, who encourages him to make a go of it with Chiharu. Things go pretty well, until an awkward situation involving Shiho (You), Chiharu's next door neighbor - a basically friendly prostitute.

Low-end neighborhoods and the often best-left-unspoken habits of their residents are apparently familiar territory for Miura, and Boys on the Run certainly lives in that district. It's casually vulgar, milking incidents like Toshi accidentally lending Chiharu some unusual pornography for plenty of laughs while also being able to recognize things which aren't far off as scuzzy and uncomfortable. Miura gets good mileage both from his gross-out gags and the comedy of discomfort, and as long as the movie is focusing on being a raunchy romantic comedy, it's a delight to watch.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 in Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, Place des Arts (Fantasia 2010)
Seen 8 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagements)

I am somewhat reticent to publish this review under the title "The Complete Metropolis". Firstly, because that isn't strictly accurate; approximately five important minutes still remain missing - and will likely remain so; the 2008 discovery of a 16mm print in Argentina that contained 25 minutes of missing footage is a miracle, and hoping for multiple miracles is just unreasonable. Secondly, because it feels so right that it will not be long until this cut will be considered the definitive, "normal" cut of Metropolis, and the version that persisted for eighty years will be seen as the alternate cut requiring an identifier.

In its unspecified future, a great city exists. The rich and powerful live near the top, and none is higher up than Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), considered the city's architect as well as its most powerful resident. His son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), on the other hand, is idle rich, but has his eye turned by Maria (Brigitte Helm), who has brought some children from the workers' city to see the opulence in which their "brothers" live. He follows her down to the machine floor, where he witnesses a fatal malfunction, and eventually switches places with Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), worker #11811. While he learns of the lives of workers and Maria preaches about the need for a mediator between the classes, the elder Fredersen sets his henchman "The Thin Man" (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son and charges inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robot duplicate of Maria to sow dissent - though Rotwang is not necessarily an ally.

Metropolis is 83 years old, and sometimes that shows in the way this cut was assembled - not only are there two important sequences where intertitles must substitute for still-missing footage, but the footage from the Argentine print sticks out; restoration can only do so much. Even if it were pristine, though, it would still be very much a film from 1927 - silent, black and white, and made with different conventions than we are used to today. People run funny because the action is sped up in those scenes, while other moments will have the characters pausing before making sweeping motions to be certain that their emotion is clear. The dialogue seen in intertitles is functional and sometimes stilted, and the visuals are fanciful and non-literal in ways seldom seen today except as a parody of older art-house films.

Full review at eFilmCritic