Thursday, September 02, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 23 August 2010 to 29 August 2010

Not quite the big moviegoing week it looks like, as the shortest films have the biggest tickets:

This Week In Tickets!

It does break down into easy blocks, though: The cursed (but still highly enjoyable) "Noir 100" series, underwater 3-D, and Films at the Gate. Plus Centurion.



* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir 100)

Sometimes, you have to wonder just how good Alfred Hitchcock would be if he always had really good screenplays to work from. Saboteur has a nice cast, a couple of entertainingly conceived and directed chase/suspense scenes, and the Master's ever-present glee and dark humor. In this case, it's less delight in nastiness than a wink at the audience, saying he knows how absurd it all is but he's going to play along.

And it does get pretty ridiculous. Three writers worked on the screenplay (including Dorothy Parker!), but at no point does anything seem to happen that really makes sense. Everybody, hero and villain alike, seems ridiculously trusting, and as pleasant as Robert Cummings is as the everyman hero on the run, the unwavering trust he inspires in everybody who meets him (other than Priscilla Lane's skeptical love interest) is kind of amazing. Fortunately, Hitchcock can run with it, just as he does with the insistent call to arms. Otto Kreuger seems to have a blast playing against it, just piling on more oily charm to counter the earnest patriotism of the rest of the movie.

Of course, he can't be in every scene that might become too insufferable, so a long, chatty scene in a circus wagon in which the sideshow freaks decide whether or not to turn the hero in is enlivened by a character who can only be described as "Mini-Hitler". And no matter what other flaws Saboteur has, a midget with a skinny mustache petulantly yelling that he hates democracy in a movie made as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II is kind of awesome.

Murder, My Sweet

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir 100)

I think I'm going to have to buy myself a bunch more Raymond Chandler, because I love Philip Marlowe. At first, I thought it was just a matter of liking The Big Sleep (see below), which is Bogie and Bacall and specifically augmented to be more about them flirting. But then you take a look at this movie, made roughly at the same time (indeed, in a four-year period, four different actors played Marlowe for four different studios), and you see Dick Powell also slipping into what at first glance seems like a generic P.I. character and both making it his own and capturing what's great about the character.

Which is? Well, he's funny and self-deprecating, a gallant poorly disguised as a mercenary. He's just smart enough to get to the answers before the audience but is often just as lost when trying to find the clues. Dick Powell slips into the role almost perfectly, and between Chandler and screenwriter John Paxton, he's got a very entertaining menagerie of supporting characters to play off and pithy lines to spout. It's a fun mystery, making up for the lack of one of cinema's classic couples with a light, pulpy story.

The Big Sleep

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir 100)

The original program on the Brattle calendar was Key Largo - unifying the double feature by having Claire Trevor appear in both ends - but The Big Sleep is what got sent. Hey, all those tins full of Bogart & Bacall films look alike, right? Still, it's hardly like that's any sort of downgrade. As much as I was looking forward to some Edward G. Robinson, I will miss no opportunity to see this movie.

Full review at EFC.

As much as I love this character, I'm sort of glad that ABC's pilot a couple years ago didn't get picked up to series; it was going to be set in the modern day with new stories, and while the Elliot Gould version of The Long Goodbye did OK in taking him out of his proper milieu, the character is better in a hat-wearing age. Besides, should anyone but Chandler put words in this character's mouth? I'm hoping for much better from the new theatrical adaptation(s) that Clive Owen is attached to.


As they do in Chinatown, let's start our Films at the Gate festivities with a little lion dancing (I took a whole bunch of pictures, but couldn't get all the dancers at once. The delay between pressing the button and getting a picture on my Droid strikes!):



Here's the setup that they used on Saturday and Sunday, which is probably a more sensible one all around - it even lets me get both the screen and the Chinatown gate into the same photograph - although it lacks a little bit of the tucked-into-a-corner secret-handshake feeling of the vacant lot used Thursday and Friday:


And the movies:

Jui kuen (Drunken Master)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2010 in a vacant Chinatown lot (Films at the Gate)

Drunken Master is a big, important movie in large part because it's a lot of fun - it's got the look and structure of an old-school martial arts movie, but infused with the goofy abandon of star Jackie Chan and director Yeun Woo-ping. It's a silly but entertaining take on young Wong Fei-hung, who adds drunken boxing to his repetoire when forced to study with Beggar Su (Yeun Siu-tien, the director's father, and a star during his own era), and at times almost plays as parody of Shaw Brothers-style martial arts flicks.

It's one of Jackie Chan's first starring roles, and while he had not yet reached the peak of his talent and charm, he's clearly one of those movie stars whose persona was fully formed from the start. He's not quite doing some of the crazy-elaborate stunts that would become his trademark in later years, but there's a great deal of slapstick in the action sequences, especially once Chan's character learns the "drunken" part of this technique.

Da nao tian gong (Havoc in Heaven)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 in Chinatown Park on the Greenway (Films at the Gate)

One of the nifty things about Films at the Gate is that every once in a while, along with some top-grade kung fu flicks, they'll throw in an obscure but important piece of Chinese popular culture that us fans of relatively recent Hong Kong cinema don't even know exists, even though it is probably foundational in some way. This year, that movie was Havoc in Heaven, a much-beloved animated feature by Wan Laiming (and his brothers), who were considered the Chinese equivalents to Walt Disney in terms of popularizing animation and making quality films in the medium.

I dug it; it's an animated Monkey King movie that takes place before more well-represented "Journey to the West" stories, showing us just what a pain in the gods' neck the Monkey King was an also how he acquired his magical staff. The animation is nice, drawn in a simplified Chinese art style and often a little trippy as the powers and battles become more outrageous. It's an animated film like few I've ever seen, and I quite appreciated it.

I do wonder if in today's world, this is one to be appreciated more than loved. The kids in the audience were restless early on, and before the movie was halfway through they were nealry all running around the park, the movie banished from their attention. Since they were mostly speaking with their families in Mandarin or Cantonese, I assume that the issue wasn't a language barrier. For all the big, loopy action and the main character's insolence, there is a sort of formality to the movie that may be a little trying to a modern audience, especially kids raised on fast-moving, detailed animation with quippy motormouths for characters.


Piranha 3-D

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first run, digital 3-D)

I kind of hate to be the party pooper, considering how well Piranha 3-D has been received and how much I do respect its commitment to being no more and no less than a zippy hard-R monster picture for those who love such things, but... It's really not very good. It's got good moments, and the casting director clearly had a blast (Christopher Lloyd doing full-on Doc Brown put my butt in a seat), but it's all just a little less cool than it could be. The underwater 3-D imagery isn't leveraged nearly as well as it could be, members of a fun cast only rarely get to own the screen (you've got to get more out of Elisabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, and Dina Meyer than this movie does), and the film's biggest bloodbath leads to a whole lot of nothing. The movie just stops, rather than ending with a bang.

A lot of movie critic folks I know wondered why Dimension didn't screen this for the media, considering the 80+% rating it wound up getting on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I suspect that it may well be true that the Weinsteins in particular and studios in general have lost the ability to judge when they've got a really good horror movie on their hands, I can see the argument for holding this one back. It doesn't do anything poorly, but also doesn't excel in any area, and it just seems like blind luck that it came out at a moment when a lot of critics were ready to see even a decent gratuitous boobs & blood flick.

Under the Sea 3-D

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first run, IMAX 3-D)

The Aquarium gets a new "marine life in 3-D" documentary every six months to a year, because that is what the gigantic cube outside their main building is there for - giving visitors a different kind of immersive experience - and every once in a while, it's good to change things up to get people to come again. There's usually a combination of great photography, an environmental message, and some neat details about types of fish you probably had never heard of before.

Under the Sea is one of the good ones. Howard Hall concentrates on the "coral triangle" of the Indian and South Pacific oceans, getting pictures of beautiful and strange fish, using the large-format 3-D cameras well, presenting us with amazing sights suspended in space. In addition to direction, he also wrote the narration delivered by Jim Carrey. Carrey's a pretty nice fit, playful but non-patronizing; he engages the kids who are the movie's primary audience without talking down to them, which helps make Under the Sea a fairly pleasurable experience for adults, as well.

The Ultimate Wave: Tahiti

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2010 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first run, IMAX 3-D)

Ultimate Wave isn't quite so much about marine life unless you consider human surfers to fit that category. Surfer Kelly Slater makes his way to Teahupo'o, Tahiti to meet up with local surfing guru Raimana Van Bastolear and surf one of the world's greatest (and most dangerous) waves.

There are some beautiful shots of the local sea life, but most of the action happens around the surface, as director Stephen Low and cinematographer Mark Poirier capture great shots of the island and the water, getting right into the surf and showing us just how exhilarating and dangerous the activity is. The shots of waves from under the water are especially nifty; it's a view the audience may not have seen before. And while the movie often plays like the infomercial for the Tahitian tourist bureau that it is (and Suzuki - there's some really obvious product placement!), it also manages to work a little science in there, explaining waves and tides, and paying enough attention to detail that Venus's rotation is retrograde in an animation of the solar system.

SaboteurPhilip Marlowe Double FeaturePiranha 3-DUnder the Sea 3-DUltimate Wave TahitiFilms at the GateCenturion

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