Thursday, September 30, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 20 September 2010 to 26 September 2010 (Boston Film Festival)

Nothing on the weekend because I was out on the cape, doing some tiny bit to see that my brother Matt got married safely. Congratulations, Matt & Morgan!

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Black, White, and Blues (22 September, 6:30pm, Stuart Street); The 5th Quarter (22 September, 8:45pm, Stuart Street), and The Iron Cross (23 September, 7:15pm, Stuart Street)

Since I didn't see anything else this week (I wanted to see God of Vampires at TerrorThon on Sunday, but thought it was playing at 9pm rather than 7pm), and I'll be catching up reviewing the stubless stuff in the next couple of days, here is as good a place as any to vent about the Boston Film Festival.

I washed my hands of it last year after two days, and heard a couple of references to the current incarnation having burned bridges with their prior venues, but came back this year after seeing it put together a potentially interesting line-up. Heck, there are at least three movies I would have liked to have seen (Miss Nobody, Conviction, Arcadia Lost). The films I saw tended to be right around average, with a couple worth a look and a couple stinkers, though.

I've been making a variation on this joke for a couple of years, but after attending this year's festival and following its tweets, I'm starting to suspect there's more truth to it than sarcasm: Festival director Robin Dawson and the rest of the staff really don't seem to be interested in running a film festival. They seem to crave the glamorous surface elements, but the core of a successful festival - bringing interesting films and filmgoing experiences to an audience - is sadly neglected. Compare this festival's schedule to what now must be considered Boston's two most prominent film festivals - April's Independent Film Festival Boston and March's Boston Underground Film Festival - and the younger festivals are light-years ahead, programming multiple screens, snagging films that go on to build great buzz and show up in theaters later in the year. They also form a personal connection between the festival organizers and the audience, presenting and highlighting other films year-round. I daresay that given time, the two genre film festivals run by Garen Daly's Zoetrope Media (February's Sci-Fi Film Festival and the currently-running TerrorThon) will make some of the same strides.

The Boston Film Festival doesn't do that. Within the festival, they don't do the most basic communication, like announcing that the screening of 127 Hours in the program isn't going to happen, updating the website with whether or not certain guests will be present, or telling the folks waiting in the lobby that the film is now seating or why it isn't despite the published start time being fifteen minutes ago. It's unlikely we'll hear anything from them until roughly next August, when they start trying to promote this year's festival again. The introductions to the films do nothing to fire the audience up, and the Q&As the festival staff leads are leaden and superficial. If you look at their site or follow their updates, the focus is strongly centered on the parties and the red carpet - the hobnobbing with celebrities parts. Admittedly, those are the parts of a festival I find least interesting just by my personal nature - I don't drink and have trouble hearing in crowds, so parties do very little for me, and the red carpet seems to be something of a manufactured event. No disrespect to Melissa Leo, who is a fine actress, seemed like a charming lady when doing her Q&A for Welcome to the Rileys, and deserves to be more A-list than she is, but I had to snicker when @BostonFilmFest tweeted two or three times in the afternoon that she would be Walking The Red Carpet that evening. I sort of get the red carpet thing at a big event with many prominent people in attendance, but what's the point of rolling out twenty feet of shag between the curb and a hotel's back entrance for one guest? Is watching that really exciting to people?

But, in a way, that's not a big deal. Different people may have different priorities from their film festival experiences, and if folks living in Boston want to drop $500 for an all-access pass that gives them a chance to hang out with some actors, directors, producers, and other filmmakers (note: this festival is the only one where I've heard a film introduced with "we've got the producer here, and the director, too")... Well, hey, whatever floats your boat. It's your money, and your fun.

What really got me this year, though, is how thoroughly manufactured this is. I laughed opening night, when I checked Twitter from my phone to see them crowing about their "sold-out" screening of Locked In - the stadium was 2/3-full, and I figured they must have been counting the people who bought opening/closing or all-access passes but opted to go to the opening night party or elsewhere instead. Sketchy, but technically true.

Then, the awards were announced, either as the festival progressed or on closing night, and it wasn't so funny. Here are the individual awards:
Best Director — Ed Burns, Nice Guy Johnny
Best Actor — Sam Rockwell, Conviction
Best Actress — Leslie Bibb, Miss Nobody
Best Supporting Actress — Melissa Leo for her three roles in Welcome to the Rileys, Conviction and The Fighter
Best New Actress — Jessica Romero, Down for Life
Best Young Actor — Alexander Newton, Iron Cross
Best Cinematography — Josh Silfen, To Be Friends
Best Screenplay — Rick Bieber, The 5th Quarter
Best Soundtrack — Tree Adams, Black, White and Blues
Visionary Filmmaker Award — Joshua Newton, Iron Cross
Career Achievement — Roy Scheider
Patrons of the Arts — Ernie Boch, Jr.

Now, put aside the most obvious issue, that The Fighter didn't even play the festival (though it would have been a great get, especially if local boy Mark Wahlberg came). Unless I missed my count, only two of the twelve people awarded were not in Boston to pick up their award in person - and Roy Scheider is dead.

Given what a relatively small percentage of cast and crew can often travel to a festival, doesn't that seem a little high? Individual opinions of what's award-worthy are individual opinions, but I would really like to hear the arguments that establish Rick Bieber's screenplay for The 5th Quarter as even good, or explain what, precisely, is "visionary" about the work Joshua Newton did on Iron Cross. Why is Ed Burns being awarded as Best Director, when his work was just sort of adequate, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, where he was genuinely good? Why isn't there a Best Supporting Actor category at all? Would there have been one if Zach Galifianakis had made the trip to Boston?

It certainly looks like these awards are at least not entirely for the work in making the movie, but partly quid pro quo for making the trip, showing up at parties, etc. And maybe this is a common arrangement. But if it is, other festivals do a heck of a lot more to disguise it. They have audience awards and/or juries whose names and qualifications are published on the website or in the program. These look bought and at least bartered for.

And that's not good. It's rare that you see "Official Selection - Boston Film Festival" on a one-sheet, but not unheard of, especially since one set of words between a pair of laurel leafs looks much like another, and who looks too closely at those, anyway (as Bob Odenkirk spoofed in "The Frank International Film Festival")? But just like quote whores (whom my fellow EFC/HBS writer Erik Childress does a fantastic job of monitoring), festival awards that may not be legitimate devalue a useful way for audiences to try to ascertain the relative quality of the mass of films we have available to us.

A few people getting a little thrill out of meeting Leslie Bibb or seeing Aaron Eckhart walk up a red carpet isn't worth that. And, personally, I hate that the first festival I ever went to appears to be not just lame, but a sham.

CherryThe Last HarborWelcome to the RileysDown for Life

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 05: Welcome to the Rileys, Down for Life

What to say, other than it's another day of the BFF. This was likely the best night of the festival by default - one average movie, one pretty good. The guests were friendly. As a night at the Boston Film Festival goes, not bad.

One thing I noticed after seeing the Scott Free logo in front of Welcome to the Rileys: The Scott family is having a remarkably productive 2010: Ridley directed Robin Hood,his son Jake directed this, his daughter Jordan directed Cracks, and his brother Tony has Unstoppable coming up. Ridley and Tony are known for being workhorses and talented in their different ways, I really liked Jordan's Cracks, and I became more impressed with Jake's work here as I wrote about it. That's an impressive track record for one family in one year.

Obligatory photos of people who were there:
Welcome to the Rileys star Melissa Leo, who also appears in Conviction

Terrible picture, as is the one that follows. I apologize for it. Real film festivals turn on the house lights when doing the Q&As.

Down for Life director Alan Jacobs and star Jessica Romero

I got a little uncomfortable during this Q&A. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding like even more of a pompous jerk than I'm accusing others of being, but there's something a little weird about sitting in a room dotted with middle-class white people in Boston praising the film for being realistic and suggesting how it might be a good teaching tool for turning at-risk kids' life around. Granted, I know nothing about the folks around me in the room (judging from other BFF audiences, it may have been all people with a vested interest in the topic, me excluded), but that's weird, right? I feel comfortable judging it to be a good movie, and saying that it feels authentic, but I really don't know enough about the setting to give it that level of praise. It seems like people talking because they want to register support of the movie's messages, not because they really have something to contribute.

Gads, I've gone from criticizing the BFF's management to its audience. This festival really brings out the worst in me.

Welcome to the Rileys

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

Welcome to the Rileys is not a tremendously complicated movie, but it is somewhat elegant in its construction. Its characters, their backgrounds, and their actions fit together like two components of a model whose pieces have been precisely manufactured to have complementary shapes, which in a certain way is what they are. Still, the filmmakers do a good enough job of disguising some of the seams, keeping it from looking too prefabricated.

It's been a few years since the Rileys' daughter Emily died, and neither of them are really in good shape. Lois (Melissa Leo) has become acutely agoraphobic, never leaving the house; Doug (James Gandolfini) has settled on a different routine, one centered around a Thursday night poker game, followed by waffles at an all-night diner, followed by a tryst with waitress Vivian (Eisa Davis). This time, he mentions to her that he's got a business trip to New Orleans soon; would she like to come? Once there, though, someone else catches his eye: Mallory (Kristen Stewart), an runaway teen stripper who stirs his paternal instincts. When he sells his business to stay down there after the convention, Lois realizes that this may be it unless she does something.

What writer Ken Hixon is going for here is pretty obvious - these people have gaps in their lives that the others can fill, although the Rileys are soon going to realize that Mallory isn't Emily. It's constructed fairly well, though. The trigger for Lois's agoraphobia is very basic, but Hixon and director Jake Scott let the audience make the connection rather than force it. Doug has a gratifyingly similar reaction to the audience upon seeing a pre-purchased cemetery plot. Scott and Hixon deftly avoid pointing out that Mallory allowing Doug to pay for the privilege of looking out for her is not far off from the stripping and prostitution that she regularly engages in, which would likely make the movie creepier than intended, but the idea is there to chew on if the viewer wants to.

Full review at EFC.

Down for Life

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

Down for Life has good bona fides where authenticity is concerned: It's based on a New York Times magazine piece, much of the cast was plucked from the South Central Los Angeles streets where it is set, and during the festival Q&A its start confirmed that it was true to her experiences. That's better than many films that flash a "based on a true" story credit, and though this one seems to fudge the ending a bit, it generally manages to balance drama and realism.

The film is presented as an essay that "Rascal" (Jessica Romero) is writing in hopes of landing a spot in a summer program. We're soon introduced to her mother Esther (Kate del Castillo), who used to run with a gang but went straight, and stepfather Rafael (Kurt Caceres). What Esther doesn't realize is that Rascal is not just a member of a gang, but the leader of its girls. Before school, they provoke a fight with an African-American group (Rascal's gang is mainly Latina), steal their car, and bring it to the chop shop. That gets the other gang as riled up as you expect. There are tensions everywhere for her, though - while her teacher Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover) is encouraging her to apply to that program in Iowa, gang leader Flaco (Cesar Garcia) sees that as a threat to his authority over all members. Tensions at home have her trying to crash with Vanessa (Emily Rios), a former classmate who has moved to a nicer neighborhood, but her mother won't have that...

The life of a gang member, whether male or female, is violent, and Down for Life does nothing to hide this. Director Alan Jacobs does an unusually good job of showing violence as both part of everyday life in this environment and genuinely terrible. The opening fight between the girl gangs is technically remarkable - the vast majority of movies with a much larger budget that are trying to sell action to an audience don't choreograph and shoot a group of nine or ten nearly so well; this one keeps them all in frame and looking much more like they are fighting than dancing - but it's partially upstaged by a detail from before the first punch being thrown: The girls take off their dangling earrings without breaking stride; this isn't a catfight, they know that someone looking to inflict damage (as they are) will go right for those, and they've got practice. He does other things, too: He keeps sexual violence to a relative minimum, keeping the focus on danger to life and limb and not making this about men vs. women; he shows it as just as likely to arise from supposed friends as enemies (violence as a tool for maintaining a hierarchy); he makes it sometimes be almost completely random, with no warning or plausible justification. Those of us living in a better area will recoil, but the cast just plays it as something they deal with.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 04: Cherry, The Last Harbor

I didn't have this thought at the time I was watching it, but a day or so later, while I was writing my review for It's Kind of a Funny Story, I did sort of idly wonder if I could take my review of that movie and modify it to be one of Cherry. The two aren't really that similar, but they've got some basic pieces in common - smart kid in a math-oriented field who really loves to draw, one parent pushy and one pushed, tossed alone into an environment where most everyone is older than him, a couple pretty girls attracted to him...

They are, in fact, fairly different, but once I had the similarities in my head, it was awfully difficult to get them out!

Obligatory photos of people who were there:

Cherry writer/director Jeffrey Fine and brother/producer Matthew Fine

The Last Harbor writer/director Paul Epstein, star Wade Williams, and producer Karl Richards

I feel bad about describing the shortcomings of some of these films, because all of the folks pictured seemed like pretty cool folks. The Fines were hanging out in the theater lobby before their movie, and I imagine any of the audience members who would have enjoyed some one-on-one time with them would have been able to get it. I'm pretty hard on Wade Williams (which I'd rather not be, because I liked him on Prison Break, a show that knew how to use him), but he was a genial, friendly guy with a big smile that you don't much see in his on-screen roles.

In other words, seeing a bad movie at a festival stinks, not just because it's a bad movie, or you're paying more, or it often means you sacrificed a rare chance to see a better movie for this piece of crud. Disliking a thing doesn't really feel bad, but feeling sorry for someone because you dislike it kind of stinks.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

By festival-schedule happenstance, I saw Cherry roughly 24 hours after It's Kind of a Funny Story, which has a fair amount of surface similarities once you correct for their different settings. Cherry isn't nearly as polished, but it's willing to make the audience squirm a little and occasionally go for the big laugh, which is worth something.

Aaron (Kyle Gallner) is a gifted student who comes from a long line of engineers, bright enough to be starting college at an Ivy League university a year early, and like many prodigies, somewhat awkward socially, which his new roommate "Wild" Bill (D.C. Pierson) takes advantage of. Still, despite the pressure put upon him by his sponsoring professor (Matt Walsh), he manages to attract interest from three different ladies: Darcy (Zosia Mamet), the nice girl on his floor who's also a target of Bill's hazing; Linda (Laura Allen), a "resumed ed" student in her early thirties that he meets in an art class; and Beth (Britt Robertson), her fourteen-year-old daughter. That's complicated, even before you factor in Linda's current boyfriend, Wes (Esai Morales), a cop who doesn't impress Beth much at all.

When writer/director Jeffrey Fine focuses on the mechanics of the college comedy, the result is fairly bland: The suffocating mother, hazing, gross-out jokes, and academic competition with a scholarship on the line, complete with villainous faculty member, all arrive right on time, and of course Aaron is going to discover that art is what he truly loves despite his parents' prodding (just once, I'd like to see hippie parents fretting over how much their kid likes math, and the film ascribing nobility to interest in science). As college movies go, it's not bad - the material with Aaron and Bill is actually pretty decent - but more than a little rote.

Full review at EFC.

The Last Harbor

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

I suspect that The Last Harbor will eventually show up on a cable channel rather than in theaters, and might be cheap and successful enough to get a follow-up or two. Mystery series have been built on less than "former big-city cop solves crimes in picturesque harbor town", but it works best with a more interesting sleuth than Ian Martin.

Ian (Wade Williams) is a drunk, and his latest outburst of behavior that gets stuff thrown out of court has him about to be drummed out of the Boston P.D. His captain offers him an alternative: The sheriff in his old hometown is looking for a promotion to a state job - why doesn't Ian transfer over there and while away the years until retirement in a two-person department in a town where nothing happens? It'll give him a chance to reconnect with his daughter Leanne (Austin Highsmith). One thing has crossed the desk, though - a girl who hasn't been seen in a couple of days. Ian starts digging and finds more than he bargained for.

As mystery stories go, The Last Harbor actually isn't bad at all. There's a full set of suspects who are all believably up to something, red herrings that don't feel like a complete waste of time when they're revealed, and motives that don't seem outlandish when finally revealed. Director Paul Epstein and co-writer Rand Marsh more or less plays fair with the audience, both in terms of not holding back clues that only the sleuth gets to see or having him do stuff behind our backs. With the right lead, this is a satisfyingly competent murder mystery.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 September - 30 September

Matt's bachelor party last week does in fact hint that a certain other event will curtail my movie-going this weekend. Fortunately, Matt and Morgan are awesome folks so I don't mind. And, besides, my niece has been practicing being a flower girl all summer, so it would be a shame to miss that.

The rest of the Boston area has no such excuse. Go see some movies!

  • The big-ish event this week is Terrorthon 2010, the nine-day horror movie marathon from J. Cannibal and the guys that bring us the annual Sci-Fi marathon. Myself, I would have gone with "The Boston Terrorthon", especially since they've been calling the sci-fi event "Boston's other Marathon" for years, but I imagine that to be the thin line where trademark violation becomes actionable.

    As you might expect, running concurrent with Austin's Fantastic Fest, it's not getting a whole bunch of premieres. But, unlike the extended sci-fi festival in February, it does seem to be running in one of the Somerville Theatre's regular screens, and what I've seen - Dead Snow (no word on whether it's dubbed or subtitled) and The Revenant (with the director apparently coming to introduce/answer questions) - are middlin'-decent. There's a live show Saturday night, but aside from that, it breaks down pretty straightforward: Friday to Sunday is mostly Herschell Gordon Lewis-related stuff (the Godfather of Gore documentary, screenings of Blood Feast, and what is (according to the theater's listings) the remake of Wizard of Gore with Crispin Glover. Sunday to Tuesday, the 9pm shows are local horror - God of Vampires, Next Door, and Drive-in Horrorshow. Monday - Thursday is new-ish indie horror movies: Human Centipede, Dead Snow, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead, The Horde, and The Revenant. Next weekend brings the premiere of Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil

  • It's fall, which means prestige pictures start coming out, and the evidence for that is on display at the Kendall Square theater where they are cleaning house: Only two of its nine screens are showing films that were playing Thursday; six new films open this week. The big two-screen opener is Never Let Me Go, whose preview seems to be attempting to hide that it's science fiction; the one-week warning is on for The Sicilian Girl, about a girl who turns against the mob. Also opening there are French action-comedy Heartbreaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jack Goes Boating, romantic comedy The Romantics, and WWII/Holocaust documentary A Film Unfinished. Playing for one night only on Tuesday is Tapestries of Hope, a documentary on African AIDS patients, and the belief that raping a virgin can cure the disease.

  • Never Let Me Go also opens at the Coolidge on the main screen. The video rooms feature Kings of Pastry (special guests on Sunday), and the Manhattan Short Film Festival. The midnight show this weekend is The Breakfast Club, and a season of Talk Cinema starts Sunday with a preview of Stone. Another preview is Wednesday's Waiting For Superman. The really potentially cool thing is the Steamboat Bill, Jr. screening on Monday, with live accompaniment by Peter Blanchette, which also feature a short film.

  • I may not make it to that, though, as the Brattle's CineCaché series begins that night, the successor to the Eye-Opener, perhaps with a few more people attending at the more convenient time. As of this writing, there's no word on what the first film will be.

    Also at the Brattle: The Boston Bike Film Festival on Friday and Saturday; "Framed: Art on Film" on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday; and a special Elia Kazan event on Tuesday, featuring Martin Scorcese's new documentary A Letter to Elia and Kazan's Panic in the Streets.

  • Mainstream theaters get Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Again, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. Guardians will also be playing in IMAX and 3-D. There's apparently a new, CGI-animated, 3-D Roadrunner & Coyote short ahead of it, although it's not clear wheter that includes the IMAX screenings. I'm not sure whether to be excited or horrified by that. Mostly horrified, I think.

    There are also a pair of sort-of-kind-of-mainstream openings: Catfish, which is apparently some sort of faux-doc thriller (opening at Boston Common and Harvard Square), and The Virginity Hit, a raunchy comedy written and directed by the writers of The Last Exorcism - a change of genre, but apparently also a mock-doc. It's only opening at Fresh Pond and Revere in the Metro Boston area.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has still more Pier Paolo Pasolni on Friday, Sunday, and Monday. Saturday is "A Visit with Jim McBride", an introduction to the famed documentarian.

    The MFA continues last week's series has a couple screenings of 45365 on Friday and Saturday, with a screening of Asbury Shorts on Friday and David Hockney: A Bigger Picture on Saturday.

Not that I'll have time for half of this stuff. Man, one's brother getting married is really time-consuming!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 13 September 2010 to 19 September 2010

Let me tell you, the page is awesomely color-coded this week:

This Week In Tickets!

... green for the DocYard series, reddish-orange for "The Legacy of Psycho", pink for the Boston Film Festival, plus the various excursions outside of theaters.

It figures that Saturday had what looked like the most promising day for the Boston Film Festival - mostly for Conviction, which had Sam Rockwell in attendance to push a role that is apparently getting him some long-deserved awards buzz, although I'd have liked to see Miss Nobody; I like Leslie Bibb and the rest of the cast is nice, too - because that was the day of my brother Matt's bachelor party, which was pretty mild: Go to casino, eat at what is basically a family dining chain restaurant, and gamble. I didn't, because my high school math classes were heavy on probability and thus beat any notion that I could beat the house out of me, but my brothers and dad did. Go to stand-up comedy show, be mildly amused, gamble some more, take the bus back to the hotel because casinos are pretty dull - even the folks playing were just sort of going through the motions; it reminded me of nothing so much as playing solitaire on the computer and finding it had devoured an evening during which I could have been reading, writing, or just generally giving my entire attention to something engaging, with the added benefit that it's also likely to involve losing money. Plus, folks are smoking inside. It boggles my mind that either activity has any appeal.

Not that missing a night of the Boston Film Festival is much of a big deal in recent years; I'll be writing more about the festival in upcoming posts, but it's been fairly unexciting. Sure, only a couple movies have seen have outright sucked, but there's also no "you've got to see this" film to mention, either.

The Collector

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2010 in the Brattle Theatre (Legacy of Psycho)

This one got bounced around the Brattle's schedule in some odd ways - originally scheduled for the 8th, bumped to a matinee on the 14th when the print failed to show, given evening showings when a preview screening was canceled - but I'm glad I got to catch up with it. It's a simple, stripped-down thriller with a pair of great performances by Terrence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. Director William Wyler and his writers set up a series of alternating escape attempts and potential Stockholm Syndrome situations that become increasingly tense and clever.

I also kind of like what the actors do with their characters' accents. Both start by speaking with a so-called posh London accent, and while for Miranda (the kidnapped girl), it's something she has grown into although the traces of her original mode of speech are still there, Freddie's is a thin veneer; Stamp reveals that there's something much rougher and coarser behind his attempts to sound sophisticated. Maybe one doesn't notice it right away, but when he finally lets his pretense drop, it's much more clearly something that's been there all along.

Dressed to Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2010 in the Brattle Theatre (Legacy of Psycho)

It's a bit amusing that Dennis Franz would appear in Psycho II a couple of years after appearing this, which cribs liberally from the Hitchcock masterpiece. It hides just how much pretty well, but the nobody-is-safe structure is a direct life.

Still, Brian De Palma isn't just doing a remake; this is very much his own movie, with plenty of tension and voyeurism and utter unflinching delight taken from the sex and violence. Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon are a hoot as an unlikely crime-solving duo (a hooker suspected of murder and a nerdy teenager), while Michael Caine and Angie Dickinson are perfectly smooth in their roles.

As can often be the case with De Palma (and many other directors), there's a thin line between excess (whether it be of sex, violence, plot twists, and Hitchcock homagery) being fun and being wearing, and toward the end of the movie, Dressed to Kill at the very least has a foot on each side of the line. De Palma's certainly neither the first nor last guy to extend his movie too far seeking one last jump, though, and the nature of his films must make going for it almost irresistible.

Last Train HomeThe CollecterDressed to KillTo Be FriendsLocked InJon Lester seldom disappointsIt's Kind of a Funny Story / Nice Guy Johnny

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 03: It's Kind of a Funny Story, Nice Guy Johnny

I missed the second day of BFF (including a couple movies I really wanted to see) to go to my brother Matt's bachelor party, which started out at the Mohegan Sun casino in CT and finished with a rare-seeming win for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. I didn't gamble while at the casino, because I took way too much math (specifically, probability) in high school and college to even consider it.

That carried over to seeing movies on Sunday night. I bought tickets for these ahead of time, because although I was pretty sure that the weekday films would be easy enough to get walk-ups, these might be a different story - especially once @BostonFreeFilms started posting free passes for It's Kind of a Funny story. I arrived early enough that I might have gotten a seat from standing in the "rush" line, but $10 isn't a bad price to pay for a little certainty. Of course, finding out that anyone who came to see Funny Story would be allowed to stay for the second did give me a bit of a "why did I drop $20" feeling. But, as I said, I don't gamble.

Obligatory photos of people who were there:

It's Kind of a Funny Story writer/directors Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden

For a while, Boden & Fleck were pretty strongly associated with IFFBoston, working as volunteers/staff or having a film - documentary or narrative, feature or short - in the festival for every year (this year, Boden edited Children of Invention). Last year, Sony acquired Sugar early, but it played at Kendall Square soon enough afterward with them in attendance that it felt like an extension of the festival; this year, the release pattern for Funny Story led to it playing at BFF, which was kind of weird.

They're still some of the most pleasant folks you'll find to do a Q&A with. Their genuine enthusiasm for the material and their collaborators comes across, and it was interesting to hear Anna talk about how they really wanted to make use of effects, animation, and the like to visualize what is going on in their main character's head even as Ryan mentions how shooting the opening scene was kind of boring for him. It could come across as disappointment, but doesn't, and it's also a useful reminder of how even shots we take for granted today are very technical.

Nice Guy Johnny actress Kerry Bishé, writer/director/actor Edward Burns, and festival director Robin Dawson

I've got less to say about this one. Ed Burns has been doing this for a while, and as I say in the review, I admire his dedication, even though he doesn't come across as a really outstanding writer/director. I think he'd like to be Woody Allen, and is trying to set up his career in a similar way, but he's got skill rather than genius. This was another Q&A with a fair amount of students in attendance, and as such took the inevitable "pick up a camera and start shooting, since you can do amazing things with digital now and while theatrical distribution is almost impossible, video and on-demand give you a lot of options if you can keep costs down" route.

As much as I love film, it is amazing how digital has evolved in the aughts - Lucas was doing something really radical when he shot parts of The Phantom Menace digitally before announcing that the remaining two Star Wars films would be shot that way, and now cameras like the Red One are all over indie cinema, and it has made distribution much less of a crippling expense - when I was working in a Worcester movie theater, I was told a single print cost $8K, which means the prints for even a platform release for something like Nice Guy Johnny would not just increase its budget, but multiply it.. I think Funny Story is the only film at the BFF that was screened on 35mm film; everything else was a digital projection of some sort or another.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

The title of It's Kind of Funny Story is its own review. It's just a matter of where you want to put the emphasis. It's got enough jokes and amusing moments to qualify as a "funny story", but plays things so safe that "kind of" might sum it up better. That's a shame, and a surprise, considering how engrossing the previous two features from the team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson and Sugar) are.

As the film opens, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is about ready to throw himself off a bridge. He's not a victim of abuse or anything; at worst his mother (Lauren Graham) is a bit nervous and his father (Jim Gaffigan) has high expectations. He's on medication for depression, and his best friend Aaron (Thomas Mann) is dating Nia (Zoe Kravitz), the girl he adores. Instead, he goes to a psychiatric hospital and checks himself in for observation - not realizing that (1) the juvenile ward is shut down for renovations, so he'll be with the adults, and (2) it's a minimum five day stay. So he's going to be spending the better part of a week with people who have come much closer to killing themselves than he has - notably Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who pretends to be a doctor to sneak outside, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), the other teenager on the floor.

Funny Story is an easy movie to like, in large part because Fleck, Boden, and the cast do a respectable job of creating a cast of characters that are able to sell a joke without seeming to treat mental illness in an excessively cavalier manner (disclaimer: I have never had to deal with such matters directly). Craig's family and friends are exaggerated, but for the most part manage to balance being funny with showing genuine concern while also having difficulty relating to him; they're flawed but generally likable characters performed well. The patients are by and large confused and frustrated by how their brains just won't send the correct signals, and while some like Matthew Maher's Humble seem a little more zany than troubled, others like Craig's Egyptian roommate Muqtada (Bernard White) are agonizingly paralyzed.

Full review at EFC.

Nice Guy Johnny

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

As much as I hate the bilious broadcasts that pass for sports talk radio here in the Northeast, I kind of doubt that Oakland, California, is laid back enough that a host who goes by "Nice Guy Johnny" would fly, even in the overnight slot - and that's before hearing the bland commentary he's dispensing as the movie opens. Now, Nice Guy Johnny the movie isn't going to rise and fall based on the authenticity of the similarly-named radio show, but what we see and hear is telling nonetheless - mainly, that friendly but shallow responses to artificial dilemmas are on tap.

The host of the "Nice Guy Johnny" show is Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush), a transplanted New Yorker about to turn twenty-five, at which time he has promised fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) that, if he wasn't making $50,000/year, he would take a sensible job - and her father has just lined one up for him, as a supervisor at a company that makes cardboard boxes back East. He's less than enthusiastic. When he arrives back home and meets his Uncle Terry (writer/director Ed Burns), the bartender is openly dismissive, wondering why he's still with Claire anyway, and invites Johnny to join him on a weekend trip to the Hamptons. There, Terry and one of his girlfriends immediately try to set him up with her tennis instructor, Brooke (Kerry Bishé), who also thinks it is a dreadful idea. And, since she's a cute, athletic, outspoken sports fan, is probably perfect for him. But he's engaged, and made a promise, and is a man of his word...

That Brooke is more or less Johnny's ideal match while it's hard to see how he and Claire have tolerated each other for three years is simplistic, sure, but it's not necessarily a terrible thing to set up such a clear differentiation. It's disappointing, though, that Burns isn't willing to simply let them represent the opposing values of risk and security. No, Claire has to be a domineering, distrustful shrew. Similarly, the description of Johnny being nice to a fault is accurate, and it makes him a bit dull, while Uncle Terry is just as absurdly dishonest.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 01: To Be Friends, Locked In

I try to be nice to the Boston Film Festival every year. I come in thinking that this year, I'll bite my tongue, go into movies with a positive attitude, hand out business cards and make a good enough impression that they'll actually put me on the mailing list next year. And for what seems like every year under the current management, I've failed. Something about the attitude just rubs me the wrong way, and even before the festival starts, I'm annoyed.

For instance, when clicking on the "festival" tab of their website brings you to the party schedule, and there's a line there that says
Get your exclusive party pass now, these are the biggest events of the entire festival! Don't miss out!

... then someone like me who thinks that the films should be considered the festival's biggest events starts to grind teeth. I always feel like this particular festival is built from the parties outwards, and that's no way to make an excellent festival.

It's not all the festival directors. Take opening night. I was already in a foul mood when I got there because of issues printing off my tickets and staying at work late on a Friday afternoon - I couldn't print at the office or get an internet connection at home, so I only had my ticket for To Be Friends. Naturally, the folks at the BFF table didn't have any way to check/print off a ticket, referring me to the box office, who initially tried to refer me back to the BFF folks (aside: how do you not have a laptop or something set up so that you can check this, but have three volunteers sitting at a table to hand out passes?) before handing me a pass. The Stuart Street Playhouse people were great.

Anyway, that frustration may have led to me initially giving it a slightly higher star rating than it really merited; there was a weird overcompensating for my bad mood going on, as well as trying to separate the film itself from the remarks director James Eckhart made before and after the screening - someone saying to "let the film wash over you", or something similar, tends to set off my pretentiousness alarms, but the work itself shouldn't be judged on that. It was also a weird Q&A session, mostly filled with Emerson College students who tended to introduce themselves as such and by name before each question, maybe hoping Aaron Eckhart or someone else would remember them.

Okay, that's needlessly cynical. Not so much so is a tweet about the "sold-out crowd" for the second feature of the night, Locked In. I suspect it was "sold out" in that there were people who bought passes and packages that included both opening night films and wound up going to the opening night party rather than seeing a movie.

(deep breath)

OK, for those of you who dig filmmakers on stage doing Q&As:

Left to right, Joelle Carter (who I didn't realize was Ava Crowder from Justified until IMDBing her), Todd Stashwick (between them, the entire cast), writer/director James Lawrence Eckhart, and his brother, executive producer Aaron Eckhart. Todd and James did most of the talking, with Joelle agreeing and Aaron confirming that his involvement in the picture was mostly limited to "writing a check".

And now, reviews!

To Be Friends

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

To Be Friends is beautiful in so many ways - it is exquisitely shot and scored. The acting by Joelle Carter and Todd Stashwick is true and emotional, and director James Lawrence Eckhart lets the story unfold at the right pace. The thing is, while the dialog is unquestionably artful, it's also the case where beauty may or may not be in the eye of the beholder.

A man (Todd Stashwick) and a woman (Joelle Carter) are driving to a cabin in a beautiful, secluded spot on the California coast. They are longtime friends, and she wishes that they were more; he has of late been wary of any romantic relationship, much less one with his best friend. They speak about it in aphorisms and riddles before addressing it directly, but also just spend a weekend enjoying each other's company and playing music together (he plays cello, she violin) before confronting the reason why they came to this place at this time.

There are certain expectations for the dialog in a modern movie, particularly one like To Be Friends that is, by and large, two people discussing the nature of friendship and romance, and where their relationship is situated on that spectrum. The usual inclination is to make it sound real, or at the very least, make it sound real plus two on the clever scale (how people wish they talked). Eckhart doesn't go for this; instead, he opts for a very theatrical mode of speech. Carter and Stashwick are not shouting to be heard in the balconies, but the words coming out of their mouths are, simultaneously, very declarative, laying the characters' feelings out there very directly, and very artificial. Nobody talks like this for very long, and watching it will likely bring to mind a one-act play taken off the stage and shot on location. It feels very different from even other talky films, and while some may enjoy the stylization, others (like myself, much of the time), will find the artificiality distancing.

Full review at EFC.

Locked In

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

Locked In is a pretty terrible movie, although one where the audience might be willing to make allowances for budget, or at least give some of its off-seeming moments a conditional pass, just in case the all-but-inevitable twist ending explains them. It defaults on that loaned good will, of course, but by then it already has your money and your time, and what can you do about it besides give it a one-star review on your blog?

To put it mildly, Josh (Ben Barnes) has an uncanny ability to destroy holidays. The film opens with him driving his family home, Christmas tree tied to the top of the car, and having a bizarre, apparently self-inflicted accident that somehow leaves him and wife Emma (Sarah Roemer) more or less unharmed but four-year-old daughter Brooke (Abby & Helen Steinman) in a "locked in" state - technically conscious and aware of her surroundings but unable to more or acknowledge them. To twist the knife a little more, this was an attempt at a reconciliation for Josh and Emma - on Halloween, Josh turned stepping out to pick up more candy into going into a bar, having a few drinks, and hooking up with old flame Renee (Eliza Dushku). Now, Ben's receiving mysterious phone calls that sound like Brooke and seeing other clues that lead him to believe that Renee ran them off the road. He also gets into contact with Frank (Clarke Peters), a guru who apparently can help them reach Brooke and bring her out of her unresponsive state.

The movie starts off with an absolutely bizarre car crash, a scene that feels as though director Suri Krishnamma knew the story needed a car crash but had no actual money for a stunt driver, so it's cobbled together with distorted shots of one of Boston's tunnels and sped-up footage. It's odd-looking enough that it may temporarily either blind the audience to how the scene makes no sense, or give them the mistaken impression that it's just a flawed bit of execution, rather than a character just doing something for no reason other than the plot outline demanding it - with neither Josh nor Emma remembering any particulars because the movie would fall apart if they did.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up Part 05: Brass Knuckle Boys, Love in a Puff, Woochi, Symbol

Looking over my notes for these movies:

* I said Brass Knuckle Boys had "two hugely funny scenes" in the original capsule, which I kept for the new one (that's how you can write a semi-coherent review two months after the fact: keep notes and do a quick first draft/outline much closer to the date). I have no idea what the first was, and I hope I didn't spoil the second too much.

* Looking at the character names for Love in a Puff - who in hell names their kid "Eunuch", even as a "Western name" in a Cantonese-speaking region? Sure, it's an obscure enough word that maybe he doesn't get teased in grade school, but when someone does know it, the taunting will be vicious.

* When I looked at what I'd written, I said "I guess I'm going to have to punt Overheard". Then I look at my notes and stuff starts coming back to me. Then I start to write, and move on to Woochi.

* The confusion mentioned in the Woochi review? All genuine and present when I first saw it, and not a result of just getting around to writing it nearly two months after seeing it. Still darn funny and a good adventure, though.

* I wonder if Symbol will show up anywhere in the U.S. As much as I dig it, I also note that the really weird stuff from Japan - Survive Style 5+, Funky Forest, and this - can be a really hard sell. Still, I strongly suspect that when people ask me what I remember from this year's trip to Montreal around Thanksgiving or Christmas, the films I mention will be the screwy ones - Symbol and Rubber. And, for those of you who have seen Symbol, there will be a tiny bit of spoiler-ish discussion after the eFilmCritic review.

Anyway, with this, I official reach the end of Fantasia reviews done from memory. 65 in two and a half months isn't a bad count, with six more coming via screeners (2 for second views, 4 for being unable to fit into the schedule), a few reviewed when they arrived in Boston, and a total of 9 punted due to drowsiness/waiting too long/not being in final reviewable shape. Not my busiest year, but respectable, I think.

Of course, the screeners will have to wait - I finished Fantasia just in time to start on the Boston Film Festival, although that's a much more lightweight assignment.

Shonen merikensakku (Brass Knuckle Boys)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Brass Knuckle Boys has two hugely funny scenes, including a flashback that is among the best rock 'n roll movie jokes I can remember. They're both in the beginning, though, and there's still the better part of two hours to go after the bit with the guitar-smashing. And while the movie still has plenty of amusing bits, that's a long time to go on after hitting the high point.

We start off with Kanna Kurita (Aoi Miyazaki), a perky young talent searcher for a record company who is really just absolutely no good at her job. She's got a positive attitude, though, so when she brings her latest YouTube find in to her boss Tokita (Yusuke Satamaria), she's all smiles and no hard feelings as she prepares for her inevitable firing, especially since what she's found is a punk band and they work for a pop label. The good news, though, is that Tokita used to be a punk rocker himself, back in the day, and these "Brass Knuckle Boys" ("Shonen Meriken Sakku", or SMS for short) remind him of the rock of his youth, and he dispatches Kanna to sign them. The bad news is that SMS is the rock of his youth - bass player Akio (Koichi Sato) is now a bartender in his mid-forties, and hasn't spoken to the guitar player, his brother Haruo (Yuichi Kimura), since the band broke up twenty-five years ago; Akio just posted some of their old videos for fun. But both drummer Young (Hiroki Miyake) and disabled, incomprehensible singer Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi) are up for a reunion tour, and after a few miscommunications and deceptions, that's what they've got, with Kanna stuck riding herd on them.

There are large parts of this premise that are comedy gold, and when writer/director Kankuro Kudo is satirizing musicians the music industry, the movie is fairly clever. I love the banter between Kanna and Tokita that opens the film, and the aforementioned flashback with the smashing guitars is just about the funniest thing I've seen in a long time; it's got a killer moment when the audience laughs because it knows that Kudo is about to do something horrible. Moments like Haruo wandering on stage, casting a disdainful look at the label's most popular act (a bland boy band that sings about playing video games) are pregnant with the possibility of the movie really letting people have it in fine style.

Full review at EFC.

Chi ming yu chun giu (Love in a Puff)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Pang Ho-cheung made Love in a Puff during post-production for Dream Home, and though there are some certain stylistic ties - the groups huddled together for their cigarette breaks that are central to Love in a Puff show up in Dream Home, both start by telling us something about Hong Kong that serves as a major influence on the action, and both make a point of their timeframes while doing this or that to avoid being strictly linear - they wind up causing opposite reactions. This is the one that's romantic and charming.

Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue) is a young guy getting his start in advertising; Cherie Chu (Mirian Yeung Chin-wah) is a little bit older, selling cosmetics in a retail shop. They're both smokers, and Hong Kong's tough anti-tobacco laws cause people in the same area to congregate in small groups that have little in common but their addiction. Still, they hit it off, and while Jimmy is single (the humiliating story behind that is a popular one among their group, at least until Jimmy shows up), Cherie isn't, although her boyfriend Carl (Wong Tak-bun) will soon start to wonder what is up with the texts and calls from the new man on Cherie's contact list.

Love in a Puff takes place over the course of a week - an unusually specific week, mid-February of 2007, and in some ways, that feels awfully short; it requires that Jimmy and Cherie (and Carl) to go through a fair number of relationship stages in a relatively short period of time. Of course, that's part of what's clever about the movie - Pang shows how modern communications can accelerate romance and other relationships for good or ill, and how such things are now a part of modern life. There's a little thread about how Cherie considers changing her mobile phone provider to get more favorable rates on texting and calling Jimmy, and though a big deal isn't made of it, it's a nice little detail.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

At first, it seems hard to take an action/adventure story where one of the villains is a giant bunny rabbit seriously, even when you're talking about a movie as whimsical as Woochi. Sure, the giant rat goblin, that's one thing, but the rabbit?

The goblins first show up at the turn of the sixteenth century, looking for a magical pipe created by the Archgod. They are defeated and imprisoned by three lesser gods, and the pipe split in two to prevent any further danger - one half being given to sorceror Hwa-dam (Kim Yun-seok) and the other to another master (Baek Yun-shik) - but when he ends up murdered, suspicion falls on Jeon Woochi (Kang Dong-won), his mischief-making student who embarrasses the nobility into behaving justly along with his transformed-animal servant Chorangyi (Yu hae-jin), and he is magically locked in a tapestry. But 500 years later, the goblins are free, and the gods know that the only one who can fight them is Woochi. Of course, they're fully acclimated to the twenty-first century...

And, really, that's just the half of it. Writer-director Choi Dong-hun has stuffed a lot of story into this film's two and a quarter hours - that description doesn't mention the nobleman's widow (Lim Su-jeong) who seems to have gotten her wish to be reincarnated as a commoner, working as a personal assistant for a bossy actress (Yum Jung-ah), or the mythology, or the gods' plans to double-cross Woochi. It's pretty dense for a lightweight family adventure, and while I suspect that some of the mythology is information that any Korean schoolchild would know, there were other bits that weren't nearly so clear - heck, by the end, I wasn't sure what one character's deal was - reincarnation, amnesia, possession, just being too old to remember back five hundred years, or something else? And Choi certainly takes his time during the Joseon-era scenes - it goes much longer than that sort of prologue usually does.

Full review at EFC.

Shinboru (Symbol)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

It's been a while since I've seen a movie from Japan that is as thoroughly demented as Symbol, which means it's been a long time since I've seen any movie as crazy and trippy as this. Writer/director/star Hitoshi Matsumoto also did Big Man Japan, but from what I've read that's positively conventional compared to Symbol.

The film plays out in two separate locations. In Mexico, a poor but honest man who wrestles lucha libre as "Escargot Man" (Luis Accinelli) prepares for his next tag-team match, with his son (David Quintero) cheering him on, his daughter (Adriana Fricke) looking to find a life that suits her more than her current profession (nun), and his wife (Lilian Tapia) understanding but weary, especially with their son skipping school and being teased for having a lame luchador for a father. And then, well, elsewhere, a Japanese man in a bathrobe (Matsumoto) awakens in a white room that is completely featureless except for an outcropping that looks like a really funny-looking switch. Touching it causes the walls to sprout dozens more (and reveals to the audience that, yes, they are what they look like, which is odd, because I'd always imagined cherubs like the ones they're attached to to be more or less sexless). Pressing any of those causes something to come out of the walls. Can this man use these things to find a way out? And if he does, what's that got to do with the luchador?

In case this point has not been made clear enough, Symbol is downright peculiar. It is also gut-bustingly hilarious. The scenes inside the white room are an improbably but perfect alchemy of absurdity, surrealism, and slapstick. With no-one to talk to, Hatsumoto's character is soon engaging in every kind of silent comedy imaginable, from broad pratfalls to little bits of prop comedy to letting us just admire the confusion and frustration on his face as he simultaneously acclimates to and is driven mad by his imprisonment. Initially, Hatsumoto and co-writer Mitsuyoshi Takasu use the scenes in Mexico as buffers, allowing each little silent comedy routine to stand on its own without bleeding into or being directly compared to others, while also allowing the audience to be surprised anew by this type and level of strangeness. Of course, to be fair, there's something more than a little off-kilter about the Mexican scenes themselves.

Full review at EFC.

... So, back from reading about Symbol on eFilmCritic, and figure that this here is the forum in which to discuss what I think the film is about, or at least what I take away from it?

Anyway, though the film is loaded with obvious religious symbols (lots of angels of different varieties), my outlook on it is to look at it as being about science and technological advancement. In the first section, "The Education", Matsumoto learns about critical thinking and problem solving. Although he initially concerns himself with simple matters of survival, he eventually learns to use the elements in his environment as tools, and use them together in order to solve problems. In "The Implementation", he takes control of what is hidden behind the walls, the angels (now seraphim rather than cherubs) which represent not necessarily the supernatural, but the basic forces of the universe. In "The Future", he becomes literally godlike, taking on the appearance commonly used for depicting Christ, soaring into the air, causing chaos in the world on a whim, emerging into a scene straight out of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is the course of humanity's progress as a tool-using creature: We first needed to learn the very concept of not just tools, but how to think, how to correlate cause and effect, and how to build and use machines. The next step after that is to climb, trusting in what we as a species has learned before and building upon each discovery to move upward. Granted, using angel penises as handholds seems a little bizarre, but it makes a sort of symbolic sense - angels are agents of the divine, although the we as a species must overcome certain taboos and trepidation before making use of the natural forces and knowledge increasingly at our disposal. As we do so, we no longer need to touch them directly - we learn abstraction. Just as Matsumoto no longer needs to actually diddle angels directly to move forward - he levitates and waves in the direction of what he wants done - we are reaching a point where we individually don't need to directly understand our tools. Few reading this on a computer are likely several layers away from the actual work being done; most no longer understand basic (or BASIC) programming, much less the machine code used to build an operating system or the logic used in synchronizing a network, much less what goes on inside an integrated circuit. We are gods now, waving our hands and watching incredible things happen.

Of course, it's not without consequences. As Matsumoto ascends into godhood, he causes chaos in the normal world. Random, frightening things happen to the luchador, his family, and others around the world. Fine control is going to take a while, and this power may initially be available only to a privileged few. We can now have a massive effect on the world without truly understanding the power we wield, as any news story about global warming will tell us. Should we be able to do so? It doesn't matter; we will.

And the reward may be to start over again, on a larger scale; like the Starchild in 2001.

At least, that's what I see there. I imagine that someone less prone to taking religious/spiritual/superstitious symbols and applying them to a natural world may see it differently.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 September - 23 September

So, no Toronto for me last week. But, it's consolation prize time:

  • The Boston Film Festival runs at the Stuart Street Playhouse from Friday to Thursday this year. I'm hopefully going to be spending much of the week there, because I have a hard time just giving up on it, even if my first reaction is to snarkily say that they're a natural fit because both have fallen well short of their potential in their current iterations.

    Still, this looks to be one of the best schedules that they have had in recent memory - a good mix of locally-shot productions, films with awards/other buzz, and potentially interesting discoveries. I'm looking forward to Miss Nobody, Conviction, and It's Kind of a Funny Story (directed by local favorites Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck); I'm morbidly curious about closing night feature Iron Cross (the film at the center of the Variety screening series controversy earlier this year). And Stuart Street is a nice place to see a movie, with a spacious lobby, decent projection, and plenty of seating. It will be interesting to see what it's like when seats are actually filled.

    (Amusingly, I'd have to give reviewing I Want So Much to Live a pass even if I didn't have Red Sox tickets for that afternoon, since it's about a company that my day job does a fair amount of business with. Not because I'd be likely to butter them up, but because the review would become thoroughly tainted by what a pain in the neck their drug makes my work!)

  • I was initially shocked that BFF didn't try to open with The Town, but that's apparently because it opens wide the same day, on just less than every multiplex screen in the Greater Boston area (hey, it shot here and Ben Affleck is still our boy - dude was an usher at one of the theaters where it's opening). There's actually a pretty decent-looking slate opening in what screens are left - Devil looks like a tight horror film, Easy A a smarter-than-average teen comedy, and Alpha and Omega a harmless-enough 3-D animated kids' movie.

  • One of my favorites from Fantasia, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, opens at the Brattle Theatre, but for an extremely limited run - five screenings at 9:30pm on Friday (17 September) and from Sunday to Wednesday (19-23 September). Trust me on how good this is, and do not watch the trailer! It gives away less than it might, but, honestly, you want to go into this one cold.

    The limited screenings are due in part to how many other things are booked for the Brattle this week. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno plays evenings and weekend afternoons, a making-of documentary for a film that was never finished, as archivist Serge Bromberg pieces together the rushes from the three weeks Clouzot shot Inferno in 1964 with interviews and any other information he could find. A complete Clouzot, Wages of Fear, is a free screening at 11am Saturday morning as part of the "Elements of Cinema" series. Thursday is given over to a book reading by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan plus a mystery screening. And the Saturday night Alice Creed screening is sadly usurped by "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog" (this screening is for charity, so it's got that going for it, but Joss Whedon's foray into Youtube videos bumping a precious screening of Alice Creed is uncalled-for).

  • The Coolidge opens Mademoiselle Chambon, an intriguing-looking French romance, on one of the film screens, and I'm Still Here on one of the digital ones. On top of that, there are several worthwhile-looking single screenings: Midnight showings of Ferris Bueller's Day Off Friday and Saturday, with "Naked Girls Reading: Science Friction" in the other theater at midnight on Saturday; German film I've Never Been Happier Sunday morning; a "Big Screen Classics" screening of Brazil Monday evening; and See What I'm Saying on Tuesday, which is open-captioned so that it is accessible to both the hearing and daf/hard-of-hearing. Also on the schedule is the premiere of Ken Burns's Baseball: The Tenth Inning with Burns and co-director Lynn Novick in attendance, although it is sold out (watch that page to see if the theater can release some tickets).

  • At Kendall Square, the one-week-warning is for Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which I saw at IFFBoston and, well, did not like very much at all. Also opening is Zhang Yimou's remake of Blood Simple, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop

  • The Harvard Film Archive has more Pier Paolo Pasolni on Sunday and Monday. Before that, though, they welcome Portugese director Miguel Gomes to town for a two-night retrospective, "The Musical Imagination of Miguel Gomes".

  • The MFA continues last week's series Local Filmakers Present, this time including Thy Will Be Done, Everyday Is New, Radio Cape Cod, 45365, Birthmarking, and The Olmstead Legacy. As with last week, many screenings will be preceded by shorts.

So... Anyone know good places to grab quick snacks between screenings at 8 or 9 near Stuart Street?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The DocYard: Last Train Home

Obviously, I'm late to town on The DocYard Presents series that ran at the Brattle Theatre this summer; Last Train Home was the last entry in this biweekly* eight-film series. If it's representative, I missed out, but Mondays have been rough for me schedule-wise - they seem to be the day when I'm most likely to stay late after work.

This was an interesting screening in part because the Q&A with the director afterward was done via videoconference, as the film has actually been making a lot of rounds and getting attention, so filmmaker Lixin Fan is much in demand, making a side trip to Boston out of the question. It went as well as these sessions usually go, although I find myself not hugely impressed with Skype and related technologies. I half suspect that in a couple of years, some teenager is going to stumble upon just how amazingly clear a pure analog landline-to-landline call sounds compared to computer/cellular equivalents and start a fad.

I'll be interested on seeing what the schedule looks like for the series's projected return in early 2011. In the meantime, any of my friends/family/random readers in Maine might be intereste din checking out the Camden International Film Festival, which is run by some of the same people and features a fairly impressive line-up of docs (its specialty). In the meantime, the Brattle and Chlotrudis are starting another biweekly Monday series on the 27th, "Cine-Cache", which appears to be spotlighting some of the independent/foreign/documentary films as the Eye-Opener series of previous years, although now at a more friendly time.

* Yes, I checked this to make sure I was using biweekly properly instead of "semiweekly". It is my grammar thing that drives me nuts, and the fact that it can apparently mean two things that are exactly opposites is maddening.

Last Train Home

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The DocYard Presents)

Last Train Home starts by presenting the audience with large numbers - the 130 million Chinese workers who return home for the New Year's holiday annually (the world's largest human migration), and the 2100 kilometers that separate the Zhang family during the rest of the year. Once it has hit the audience with those, it narrows the focus considerably - to how this pattern affects that one family, who prove an interesting and sometimes disquieting sample of the population at large.

Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin work in a factory located in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, mostly sewing jeans for export to the west. They've been doing this for a decade and a half, ever since their daughter Zhang Qin was about a year old, working long hours to support Qin and her brother Yang, who live back in Sichuan Province, tending the farm with their elderly grandmother. The annual trip home means everything to them, despite the expensive and hard-to-obtain tickets for a trek that is a logistical nightmare for time that is all too short. And when you only get to see your children for a few days once a year, those days are seldom all you hope they will be.

Last Train Home opens in 2006 and follows the Zhangs through the better part of three years, covering two migrations and, some economic ups and downs, the Beijing Olympics, and some very contentious family reunions. It is, initially, a bit of a surprise to see the movie extend so far along that axis as opposed to another - the images presented to the audience emphasize breadth as opposed to duration: When we're introduced to the Zhangs at their workplace, we don't initially realize that the film is about them - we see many workers, and they are not identified on-screen individually (I don't believe father Changhua's name is ever spoken, at least not with subtitles, although he does call his wife "Su" at one point). Similarly, though we are given some information about how far the Zhangs are from home, Fan doesn't go out of his way to make us feel the length of the trip, at least on the first iteration.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 6 September 2010 to 12 September 2010

The theme of this week's moviegoing isn't quite rushing to stay ahead of stuff closing, but there was a fair amount of that going on:

This Week In Tickets!

The initial plan for the week had actually been to see the Mesrine movies on back-to-back nights, but a combination of rain and screwy screening times did that in: For some reason, Landmark was programming Kendall Square like these two movies were unusually long, rather than under two hours with room to spare. Once I saw that they'd be splitting a screen starting on the 10th (note: This means that they are on their way out; see them before the end of Thursday if you haven't), it made more sense to just wait and fit Animal Kingdom, which had no 7pm screenings, into there somewhere. It probably would have been easier if I'd made use of Monday's day off, but for some reason I didn't.

It wound up being an all crime/action week, and as it turned out, there wasn't a bad one in the bunch:

Animal Kingdom

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2010 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run)

Animal Kingdom is kind of brilliant, really. It's a family melodrama and crime thriller brought so down to earth as to be almost unrecognizable as those typically operatic genres. It's almost off-puttingly chilly, from the opening scenes where Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) seems to treat his mother's dying of a drug overdose as something that gets in the way of his watching Deal or No Deal. There are few, if any, memorable scenes that involve people raising their voices to each other.

And yet, it's thrilling. Joshua is plunged into his small-time crime family's activities not when they're riding high, but when the noose is starting to tighten, and the pull of both his family and his girlfriend's is balanced perfectly. The portrayal of the police is well-handled, too - Guy Pearce's detective seems a reasonable sort, but the rest are a violent force looking to eliminate the Codys without much in the way of due process.

With any luck, there will be some awards talk for a few of the actors involved. Jacki Weaver gets the flashy role as Joshua's grandmother, with displays of impressive ruthlessness despite not looking like much to begin with, while Frecheville does very well in making Joshua conflicted but not indecisive.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2010 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run)

I remember a lot of people describing the Machete trailer as the best part of Grindhouse a couple years ago, and while I wouldn't say it's even close - does anything really beat Zoe Bell on top of the car for the last twenty minutes or so of Death Proof? - it was certainly the best of the fake trailers, and it was a genuine kick to see Robert Rodriguez spin the character off into his own movie.

A kick in part because Rodriguez has a real knack for getting the most out of his cast, even when they're people like Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, and other folks you might (rightly or wrongly) not think much of. Nobody is really stepping very far outside their comfort zone, but all of them are well-utilized. He maximizes the funny/sexy/cool from every contributor and situation.

Also, are there many filmmakers better at getting their vision on-screen than Robert Rodriguez? Part of it is that his name is all over the credits - although, interestingly, while many previous movies would show him as a one man show, with credits like "written/produced/shot/cut/directed by Robert Rodriguez", this one shows him paired up with someone for every one of those jobs. But there's a quite frankly remarkable consistency of tone to this action comedy, with the blood, skin, and 'splosions just a bit over the top, right on the line where they can be enjoyed both as grandiose action movie craziness and parody of same. This is an action movie with a personality, unquestionably Rodriguez's; a person watching it knows both what he likes and where he's coming from.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2010 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run)

Salt came out while I was in Montreal, and despite the generally good notices, I kept putting off seeing it after I got back. The creative team was interesting - both director Philip Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer have done stuff I like, but also vanished for long periods. And the plot outlined in the trailer seemed a bit on the far-fetched side.

Now, I'm still not sure whether Wimmer's script completely holds together, but it's enjoyably audacious, and Angelina Jolie is great in the title role - physical, smart, and projecting just enough doubt to make the audience wonder whether she's the hero or villain of the piece. Outside of her, it's a pretty low-key cast: Liev Schreiber as her boss at the CIA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the guy heading up the manhunt, Daniel Olbrychski as the Russian walk-in up to no good, and August Diehl as Salt's arachnologist husband are all pretty solid. Andre Braugher shows up as the Secretary of Defense in the last act, proving once again that movie casting directors have no idea what to do with Andre Braugher.

And, of course, Wimmer and Noyce manage to cook up some pretty darn impressive action scenes. There's a ridiculous chase scene early on that takes jumping from vehicle to vehicle to the next level, and maybe it says something about how relatively disappointing most action movies are, but I found myself smiling, nodding, and thinking "this is a really good chase; I have not seen many better lately". The filmmakers also have great fun bouncing between improbably bits that somehow avoid major injury and ones where things don't go nearly so well.

You can have a much worse action double feature than Machete and Salt; they're a great pairing of bombastic films that somehow manage to get the audience to buy in.

Mesrine: Killer InstinctAnimal KingdomMesrine: Public Enemy Number OneMacheteSalt

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up Part 04: Variola Vera, Frankenstein Unlimited, The Executioner, Mesrine

Just five left before I start digging into screeners...

Variola Vera

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Wow... Looking at the IMDB page for this, I am shocked to see that Rade Serbedzija played the womanizing doctor in this movie. I had him completely pegged for the Albanian Muslim who serves as patient zero, because his career lately has been variations on that sort of hirsute guy of Eastern European heritage. My mind is blown. Now I'd like to see more of his early career, especially if this tense account of a 1972 smallpox outbreak is representative.

The film starts with Halil Redzepi (Dzemail Maksut) contracting variola vera while on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and returning to what was then Yugoslavia, but soon it drops us into the middle of a hospital soap opera, with all the necessary ingredients: There's Dr. Grujic (Serbedzija), a scuzzy type who has made his way through much of the female staff, but has yet to have any success with Danka Uskokovic (Varja Djukic), the newly-arrived lady doctor who is as professional as she is beautiful. There's Dr. Dragutin Kenigsmark (Erland Josephson), the head of the hospital, who has a history with Dr. Markovic (Dusica Zegarac). The administrative director, Upravnik Cole (Rade Markovic), is having an affair with Slavica (Vladica Milosavljevic), trampy enough that you know she's been a notch on Grujic's bedpost. There are long-term patients, maintenance men, and hangers-on, and it's chaotic enough that one almost doesn't notice Redzepi staggering in, getting the runaround until he's vomiting blood, and nobody at the hospital connecting his symptoms with smallpox (it's extinct, right?) until an outside expert, Magistar Jovanovic (Aleksandar Bercek), insists on placing the hospital under quarantine.

Though made in the early 1980s, Variola Vera dramatizes an incident that occurred ten years earlier, and it feels like a 70s movie. Not just in that it does what I presume a good job of recreating 1972 Belgrade, but also for the general tense atmosphere combined with solid character work. It feels very pre-Jaws/Star Wars, a mirror image of the paranoid thrillers that came out on the other side of the Iron Curtain during that period, complete with a subplot about the government wanting to keep news of the outbreak quiet, not just to avoid a panic, but to avoid looking backward to the west. Indeed, contrary to the expectations Americans might have of Eastern European productions during the Cold War, writer/director Goran Markovic doesn't appear to have any trouble showing institutions as corrupt and/or ineffective.

Full review at EFC

Frankenstein Unlimited

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

One of the pleasures of Fantasia is that, while the draws are often much-anticipated movies from around the world, it always has room for smaller films, including enthusiastic showcases for locally-produced works. They're not always on the largest screen and sometimes they're run at odd hours - audiences would have to go to the secondary screen on Sunday morning for this anthology of six tales inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - but it's an important part of the festival, even if the results are somewhat uneven.

That not every bit will appeal to everyone is borne out by the first segment, Matthew Saliba's "Dark Lotus". It's something of a music video in two parts, with a mad scientist (John M. Thomas) cultivating fetuses in a garden, only to find his work destroyed by a rival (Martin Plouffe) - though years later, the spider-woman (Kayden Rose) born out of his work will avenge him. Having the film start with the most unconventional of the segments is a good idea; though it will excite some, many won't easily connect with it, so it can't derail the movie. The photography is nicely done, and it's creative and effective in its grotesquerie, but even those who like it gross may not like it weird.

Fortunately, it's followed by the most direct take on Frankenstein, Matthew Forbes's "Victor". This one takes place some time after the Monster's rampage, with Victor Frankenstein a pariah in his village, haunted by what his glorious dreams turned into. It's attractively mounted on a small budget, and hits upon a part of the story that is often overlooked or downplayed.

Full review at EFC

Jibhaengja (The Executioner)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

It's not hard for a prison movie to get off to a decent start. There is, after all, always a new guy coming in who needs to be shown the ropes and taught the rules. That the new guy in the case of The Executioner is a guard rather than an inmate isn't even a particularly novel twist on the idea. Still, the filmmakers handle this hook well enough that it's not particularly hurt by its awkward second half.

The new guard is Oh Jae-hyung (Yoon Kye-sang), for whom this is just one more in a series of unimpressive jobs, and it shows - the inmates initially give him no respect. It falls to veteran guard Bae Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon) to toughen him up. Jong-ho is not shy about using his baton, and puts it to Jae-hyung that this is the only way to get the inmates' obedience, even if the hardening sometimes doesn't stop at the prison walls. Things are about to change, though - the new death row prisoner, Yong-doo (Jo Seong-ha) is a serial killer without any shred of remorse, his crimes so reviled that the government feels pressured to reinstate executions (though criminals have been sentenced to hang, none have actually been executed in South Korea since 1997). This move affects not only Yong-doo, but other inmates like Seong-hwan (Kim Jae-geon), who has been awaiting execution for so long that he and Senior Officer Kim (Park In-hwan) have become close friends.

I strongly suspect that The Executioner would have more effect on me if I were a Korean national, or even if I had more familiarity with current Korean culture and politics than I do. Part of the reason is that it does not become overtly political until about halfway through, and while any audience member who has been content to simply watch it as a prison movie will find himself or herself a little thrown by the change in emphasis, foreign audiences may be a little more at sea because they lack a baseline. What is the general thinking on the death penalty in South Korea, and why did executions stop a decade ago? Have there been recent cases like the one depicted that have led to a call for renewed executions, or is this a purely hypothetical situation? Heck, during a section of the film where Jae-hyung and his girlfriend Eun-joo (Cha Soo-yeon) deal with a pregnancy scare, there's an awkward juxtaposition of capital punishment and abortion where I realized that I didn't really know whether the anti-abortion crowds tend to politically align with the pro-execution people, and vice versa, in South Korea as they do in the US.

Full review at EFC

L'instinct de mort (Mesrine: Killer Instinct)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The story of French outlaw Jacques Mesrine is a grand, sprawling one, so large that Jean-François Richet felt the need to split it into two films in order to do it justice. Watching the first one, covering Mesrine's rise to prominence in the 1960s, it's possible to make a case that this doesn't go far enough, as Killer Instinct itself could very easily be divided in half, with each segment expanded into a strong film.

Though we are briefly introduced to an older Mesrine, the film quickly flashes back to his origins: In 1959, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is approaching the end of a tour as a French soldier in Algeria, and somewhat hesitant about the brutal techniques used to quell the rebellion. He's soon back in Paris, and while his parents (Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer) have lined up a job for him, his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) has found him far more lucrative "off the books" work for gangster Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Soon he's a successful bank robber, and has met and married Spanish beauty Sofia (Elena Anaya), but armed robbery and domesticity don't mix, and by the late sixties, he and new flame Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France) have fled for Montreal, where Quebec separatist Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) could use a man like Mesrine.

Though the two halves overlap somewhat, the geographical split ensures that Cassel's Mesrine is the only character to be a factor all the way through. While that certainly gives Cassel plenty of opportunity to shine, it also can make the telling of Mesrine's story feel a bit shallow: Love interests and partners in crime (sometimes the same people, sometimes in opposition) seem to be rushed on and off the stage, with barely a chance to establish themselves before being replaced with the next year's models. The idea may be to establish Mesrine as larger than life, a man for whom others are just temporary, supporting characters, but it often has the effect of making the others seem neglected. It also may leave the audience vaguely wondering if there's something to the pattern of Mesrine joining groups that seem to position themselves as something other than mere criminal organizations that could be made more explicit.

Full review at EFC

L'ennemi public n°1 (Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The first half of Jean-François Richet's two-part biography of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, Killer Instinct, was quiet good; the second half, Public Enemy Number One, is even better: As much as it's still shuffling a lot of characters in and out, it's telling one strong story in a way that's both intense and highly entertaining.

Public Enemy Number One starts by flashing forward to 1979 (the aftermath to Killer Instinct's prologue) before jumping back to 1973, where Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) has been apprehended by the law but is suffering from no resultant lack of bravado; he's already plotting his next escape. He'll alternate daring escapes with audacious robberies, in the process meeting fellow escape artist François Besse (Mathieu Amalric) and new lady love Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier) and making an enemy of Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet). As dogged as the detective's pursuit is, though, Mesrine's worst enemy may be his own legend, and how he is starting to believe it.

This movie doesn't pick up right where its predecessor left off in time - about four years have past - but Mesrine in this film is the character that he spent Killer Instinct becoming: A man who believes himself to be a devil-may-care modern swashbuckler, harnessing his personal charisma with ease to tweak the police and charm the public. It's a funny, charismatic performance, but even as Cassel is making the audience laugh, he's also perfectly showing the dark side of this personality: A desperate desire not just to succeed, but to matter. As the movie goes on, this arrogance and desperation takes on a greater and greater prominence in Cassel's performance, even as it becomes more unlikely - with his increasing scraggliness and middle-age spread, he becomes something akin to an aging rock star, confusing charisma with significance.

Full review at EFC