Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 19 April 2010 to 25 April 2010

Well, with the festival done and reviews trickling in, it's time to take a break from moviegoing, right? Wrong! Indeed, the weekend's two must-sees from the other side of the Pacific are getting second viewings because of how awesome they were at various festivals; I recommend them both highly.

* Hausu is properly named House - it's even in English on the prints - but we wouldn't want to confuse it with a sequel-spawing 1980s American haunted house movie, would we? No! For this is an absolutely insane bit of trippiness from Japan, which I saw on video at last year's BUFF, and loved. It's beautiful, and beautifully insane. It's running for a measly three days at the Brattle (Friday 30 April 2010, Saturday 1 May 2010, and Monday 3 May 2010, no shows on Sunday), and they will sell out. Midnights were selling the IFC Center in New York out for months after what was expected to be a two-week run, so see it in beautiful 35mm while you can, and hope that the Brattle or Coolidge bring it back for midnights later.

* The Good, The Bad, The Weird has been held in distribution limbo because of MGM complaining about the title, although IFC dropping a single conjunction seems to have done it. I saw it at the Brattle on Saturday night as part of "IFFBoston After Dark", and it is awesome. The opening train robbery is a funny, action-packed set piece that is best in class, there is near-constant action throughout, and the final chase scene could easily have been lifted out of an Indiana Jones movie, just in terms of it being one crazy thing on top of another. The thing is just a giddy delight of an action movie. It's the one-week wonder at Landmark Kendall Square, but hopefully it will stick around for a while longer once people see it and get the word out that it's a blast.

(Those are what pass for marching orders around here, people!)

* Also opening at Kendall Square are The Cartel and The Girl on the Train. The former is a documentary on the troubles with the American educational system which apparently places the blame squarely on teacher's unions, which I'm sure will play extremely well in the People's Republic of Cambridge. The latter caught my eye for featuring Emilie Duquennes, who was one of the many things I absolutely loved about Brotherhood of the Wolf and whose appearances on American screens have been rare to nonexistent since.

* Leaving the Kendall but heading to the Coolidge is The Square, which to my mild surprise will be mostly playing on film in the larger theaters (though there will be some showings off Blu-ray; make sure before you go). Also opening there are BUFF's It Came from Kuchar and foreign-language Oscar-winner The Secret in Their Eyes. Still, I think it's clear that the most important thing going on there this weekend is Tremors on the big screen at midnight.

* The Harvard Film Archive is closed Friday and Saturday night, but offers more John Ford on Sunday and Monday. The MFA has Mississippi Mermaid, The Headless Woman, and October Country

* Major openings are Furry Vengeance and the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, so it's a great time to catch up on the major releases missed during the festival.

This Week In Tickets!

For that price, that had better be a pretty nice seat at the Elvis Costello concert, and it was. I presume this tour - of which Boston was apparently the first show - is in support of a new album with this Sugarcanes band, which I haven't yet picked up. It was a pretty fun time, and a mostly acoustic set, and a good demonstration of one of the reasons I like Elvis: His catalog is large and varied enough that there are only a few specific songs that you have to expect no matter what. This tour is obviously going to be slanted toward country/roots/folk stuff, and he's got enough of that that there's no need to force it on songs where it doesn't work.

Anyway, here's a rundown of the festival stuff for the week, with links to what's already been reviewed. It's going to take some time to get through this, I can see.

21 April 2010: The Extra Man
22 April 2010: Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, Cracks
23 April 2010: Winter's Bone, Down Terrace, Machotaildrop
24 April 2010: Pelada, War Don Don, The Freebie, I Am Love, The Good, The Bad, the Weird
25 April 2010: The Parking Lot Movie, NY Export: Opus Jazz, Hipsters, The Killer Inside Me
26 April 2010: Tiny Furniture, Shorts 3: Animation
27 April 2010: Marwencol, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
28 April 2010: Micmacs
Elivs Costello & The SugarcanesIFFBoston Opening Night

IFFB 2010 Night Three: Winter's Bone, Down Terrace, and Machotaildrop

An amusing note: I made my screening plans for Friday night with the idea of grabbing two shows at the Somerville that were on the same screen, operating on the premise that there was no chance of one running too late to get to the other. However, demand for tickets to Winter's Bone was high enough that it got moved to the Somerville Theatre's large main room, while Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work got moved to the not tiny but not expansive screen #5, where I would later be seeing Down Terrace. Now, I wasn't going to switch movies, because keeping a schedule wasn't the primary reason I chose them, but I did find it amusing. And kind of reassuring, actually - it's good to see that at an independent film festival, there is much more demand to see a drama starring unknown actors than a documentary on someone who is famous for being famous (these days, at least; she became famous by being very funny, but that was literally decades ago).

Anyway, a picture of director Debra Granik and co-star John Hawkes can be found on my Facebook page, and from experience, I can say it looks much better than it would have if they were in theater #5.

After that, came Winter's Bone, where the end of the work week started to catch up with me, and I found myself jolted out of a micro-nap by someone getting run down by a car. Fear not, I literally only missed seconds, but they were just enough that I didn't see who it was, and I spent the rest of the movie trying to figure out which character was missing before deciding that it must have just been someone who was just in that scene, which kind of makes it funnier. I think I'm still able to review it fairly.

Then it was back to the Brattle for the late movie, Machotaildrop, and I kind of hope to get letters about my review saying that I don't know what I was talking about and the skateboarding was awesome. Because, quite honestly, I don't know what I'm talking about in regard to skateboarding; I just know that I never really went "wow, that's impressive" when the kids were doing their shredding(*). Kind of a shame, because I think that a stunt show interspersed with the movie's strangeness would have been a lot of fun.

(*) I half-suspect that no actual skateboarding teen/twentysomething actually says "shredding", with it being just a term that relatively old/ignorant people like myself use when trying to sound like they know what we're talking about, only to instead have it serve as a clear indication we should be mocked.

Winter's Bone

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The music on the soundtrack specifies Missouri, but that's not what's important; it's the mournful single female voice and barely-there accompaniment that tells us what we need to know about the setting for Winter's Bone: It's chilly, there's nothing fancy to be found, but there's love and loyalty there too.

Maybe not right on the surface; getting mushy is a luxury that 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) doesn't have. Her brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) need looking after, and their mother is practically catatonic. Their father is missing, and even though he's a no-account meth cooker, his absence a big problem: He's out of jail on bond, the family home will be forfeit if he doesn't make his court date, and nobody knows where he is. Ree's got to find him, even though everyone - neighbor Sonya (Shelley Waggener), best friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), and uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) - advises her to mind her own business.

The Ozarks are an unusual location for a film noir, and Ree isn't the typical hero, but Winter's Bone feels like something from that genre anyway, with plenty of hints given in the form of "you should leave it alone and definitely not look here", as well as a situation that exposes more and more rot the further Ree digs. For all that she's aware of the amoral, outside-the-law code her family lives by, there's an impulse other than self-preservation at work. She's got to be her own knight-errant, and there are few shadows to disappear into (instead, the roadless woods become a sort of no-man's land), but it's a classic noir story.

Full review at EFC.

Down Terrace

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

A lot of gangster movies want you to know that they aren't just about crime, but about family. You can't miss it, they're so formal and insistent that it becomes overbearing. Down Terrace, while it has other flaws, manages to present us with a family that are also a group of criminals, and makes the situation work.

Bill (Robert Hill) sells drugs in a mid-sized English city; he's been doing so for over forty years now and doesn't appreciate that he's just had to spend a few days in court because of it. He figures it was probably Garvey (Tony Way), the manager of his club, who sold him out, so he and his son Karl (Robin Hill) are going to take care of it. The thing is, Bill is really much more interested in drugs than enforcement, and the muscle he brings in, Pringle (Michael Smiley), is distracted by his kid. Speaking of kids, Karl's ex-girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock) has just shown up and announced she's pregnant. Bill's wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) just wants all this drama out of her house.

There have been a ton of crime-family comedies, but I have a hard time recalling any that reflect the very ordinariness of family relationships as well as Down Terrace. Nobody lectures each other on what a family does; they just do it, for better or worse. Bill could run a brewery, and it wouldn't change the characters' relationships a great deal, other than the product they enjoy as they kick back in the evening. Every bit of the relationships between Bill, Karl, and Maggie rings true, from Karl's combination of comfort and boredom as Bill repeats a story about the old days, to how Maggie has learned through long experience what her husband needs to do but can't, to how Valda is just not going to ingratiate herself quickly at all (which naturally leads to some nasty arguments).

Full review at EFC.

Machotaildrop

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2010 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston - IFFBoston After Dark)

It seems like a ridiculous thing to say, after having seen the movie, but I initially thought Machotaildrop was a documentary. Skim the description, and the bits about a company with a colorful head recruiting skateboarders looking to go pro to train together doesn't seem out of the realm of the possible, especially if one is relatively ignorant of X-Game sports. Even given how little I know about that world, though, I strongly suspect that a reality show starting from the same premise wouldn't be quite this weird.

There real world likely has teens who love skateboarding as much as Walter Rhum (Anthony Amedori), who practices non-stop so that he'll be good enough to submit a video to the Machotaildrop skateboard company; few hang out at a skateboard-themed bakery. When he finally does make the grade, he's bought to Machotaildrop's headquarters, where he meets the company's eccentric founder, The Baron (James Faulkner), and is able to live and train with other boarders on the rise, including his hero, Blair Stanley (Rick McCrank). He also meets Sophie (Vanessa Guide), a girl who works in the company's archives, and knows some of its secrets. But will that be enough when the Manwolves attack?

Well, not actual Manwolves; a gang that goes by that name which skates in an abandoned amusement park which the Baron intends to level and rebuild as the greatest skateboarding-based activity center ever. It's that kind of movie, the sort where you can replace "headquarters" in the preceding paragraph with "secret underground lair" and perhaps be a little more accurate. Co-writers and directors Corey Adams and Alex Craig have built a world full of low-budget quirk; the ubiquitous cassettes, 8-bit video games, and fashions probably place it somewhere in the late 1980s or early 1990s, although they avoid any references that could specifically date the movie. Besides, it's not the real world at all - I don't remember TV series where skateboarders would host expeditions to find lost skate parks, for instance.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, April 26, 2010

IFFB 2010 Night Two: Taqwacore and Cracks

I've got to write something about Thursday night? Gads, that was four days and twelve movies ago! Sure, I wanted to say more, but this has been one of those festival weekends where I have no ambition for doing more than watching the new episode of Doctor Who when I get home (or Saturday/Sunday morning).

Anyway, rather than inflict my terrible picture from the Taqwacore screening on anyone without warning (It's here, on Facebook), I'll just zip this off during my lunch hour.

Well, one thing to mention - oddly enough, the first four movies I saw at IFFBoston were based on a novel in one way or another (yes, even the documentary). It was interesting to see, looking at Cracks, just how much that one seems to have changed - relocated from South Africa to an island in Britain, Fiamma becoming Spanish rather than Italian, an apparently tighter focus on her and Di, removing the author's self-insertion... Interestingly, director/co-writer Jordan Scott was on the original list of guests, but fell off later. I can't help but wonder if there were any fans of the book in the audience, because that might have made for an unusually interesting Q&A.

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

So, if you're making a movie about the birth of Muslim punk rock, who do you put at the center? Even if you know the players, that might not be as obvious as it seems: The word "taqwacore" (taqwa meaning "religious consciousness") first appeared in the title of a novel which inspired a number of musicians to pick up their guitars. Fortunately, writer Michael Muhammad Knight is as drawn to the real-life taqwacores as they were to his book, and director Omar Majeed is able to give us both at once.

So on the one hand, we start with Michael, whose life with a racial separatist father and abused mother eventually led him to seek enlightenment in a mosque in Pakistan. He wrote The Taqwacores later, and the novel would gain a following among young North American Muslims who felt stifled by their religion and their country. Among them were the teenagers in the Boston suburbs who formed a band, The Kominas; in 2007 they (and others) hopped aboard a green bus and road tripped across the country to Chicago, where the Islamic Society of North Ameica. Six months later, several would be in Pakistan, looking to spread the punk message to a different group.

Knight is also on the bus for much of the tour, and also returns to Pakistan for the movie's second half. Although he's not a great deal older than the musicians, he does clearly speak from a different perspective. While everyone in the film is outspoken and political, it's most often with a blunt, punk sensibility, while Knight's words - especially during readings or interviews supporting his novel - are much more considered and studied. He's no droning academic, and indeed throws himself into certain experiences with more abandon than anyone else, but he is definitely the one more likely to step back and take the long view.

Full review at EFC.

Cracks

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Cracks looks like a tonier, period version of Mean Girls or Heathers, and that's not a bad way to describe it in one sentence. It's a bit more clever than that, though, with a different force driving it in addition to mere adolescent jealousy.

At first, there is a sort of order; Di (June Temple) sets the standard for this girls' boarding school's diving team, and is as such the favorite of coach Miss G (Eva Green), who appears to be the school's youngest and most glamorous instructor. She is told that their team (which also bunks and eats together) will be getting a new member, a Spanish aristocrat's daughter. Naturally, Fiamma (Maria Valverde) is everything that could threaten her - exotically beautiful, a gymnast who immediately becomes the new star of the team, intelligent, and well-traveled. And what's worse, although somewhat aloof, she's not conceited, and the inhaler she wears around her neck for her asthma keeps her humble. Di can't help but hate her.

It's a familiar set-up, and probably was back in 1934, when the film is set. The script (by director Jordan Scott, Ben Court, and Caroline Ip, from a novel by Sheila Kohler), however, does an excellent job of telling us just enough. We actually don't learn that much about the characters, and the really crucial bit is slipped in without much fanfare. Unlike many films about teenagers, Scott and company place a great deal of focus on how they are still children as opposed to small adults, with Di in particular seeking something akin to a parent's approval and attention from Miss G. Fiamma isn't quite the child that Di is, but she still isn't quite so mature as she seems.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

IFFB 2010 Opening Night: The Extra Man

Remember, kids - as I mentioned in my eFilmCritic preview/tutorial, nothing at a film festival starts on time. It's kind of crazy from the outside, but it's a huge endeavor for the people putting the show on. At least for the opening night film this year, we had some spiffy entertainment between the 7:30 time listed in the program and the start of the actual film:

Jon Bernhardt, theremin dude

That's Jon Bernhardt and his theremin, hopefully not butchered too badly by my Droid's decent-for-a-phone camera. (It's only a matter of time before I get a real camera with decent optical zoom, no matter how little I think I'd use it) That proved to be pretty cool music to come in and get seated by, with a lot of movie themes and pop. It never hurts to see a demonstration of just what a cool thing a theremin is, too.

Tufts Bubs

After that, Dan introduced the Tufts Beelzebubs, a college a capella club that puts on a pretty entertaining show.

Then, the IFFBoston crew came out to throw last year's shirts to the audience raffle off the traditional bag-of-merch, Rock Band package, MP3 player, and JetBlue round trip tickets. Then the film, and then the presentation of the award and the Q&A with Kevin Kline (joined by one of the directors of The Extra Man.

The festival did something that was pure brilliance, giving Kline a one-of-a-kind statuette by a local sculptor "Skunk"; it's probably not clear in the picture, but the thing is a rocketship made out of recycled bits of stuff, and the look on Kline's face when he received it was priceless - he's probably got a mantel (or closet) full of very nicely designed pieces of glass and bronze, but likely nothing like this.

The double take he gave Adam on seeing the thing was priceless (as is imperfectly captured here. As you might expect, Kevin Kline is an extremely funny guy, really just a joy to listen to, gracious and patient with every question. I don't do interviews for a number of reasons, but Kline is one of the times I regret not taking an opportunity, even if we likely would have had to talk about The Extra Man, which, well, wasn't great.

But that's just one film at the festival, and I have little doubt that the rest will be more along these lines:

Kevin Kline and his award

And now, to catch the bus to Somerville, Taqwacore, and Cracks.

The Extra Man

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In general, it's a bad sign when the main character of a movie isn't the first name you see in the credits. That's not a rule you can really rely on, since that sort of thing is often negotiated by agents and studio people, but it is worth noting here: This movie is about Paul Dano's character, but it's Kevin Kline's name we see first.

Kline's Henry Harrison is the "extra man" of the title, a playwright who escorts elderly widows to social occasions. His new flatmate and protege is Louis Ives (Dano), a would-be writer come to Manhattan to "find himself" after being let go from his job teaching English Literature at a Princeton boarding school (there was an incident involving ladies' underwear). Ives soon finds a new job at an environmental journal, where he's soon smitten with co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes), but the combination of her boyfriend and his awkwardness keeps her out of reach.

Characters like Louis Ives are often hard to connect to, and this one is not exception. The things that make him wierd are too big to be quirks, but aren't big enough to make him a full, interesting character. The dream sequence that opens the film, a sort of Great Gatsby pastiche, is probably meant to give us some idea of Ives's self-image and the life he would like to lead, but it comes across as hollow, not even an appealing or well-constructed fantasy. Louis himself comes across as little more that a construct for the movie - a half-baked fantasy with a little cross-dressing and attachment to an old car thrown in.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 12 April 2010 to 18 April 2010

Wow, this is early! You know why? Because the page right below this is sparse. But don't worry, next week will be crazy:

* The Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 starts this Wednesday (21 April 2010), continues through the weekend, and wraps up next Wednesday (28 April 2010). I wrote an article at eFilmCritic that is half preview, half "how to see a lot of films at a film festival" tutorial. It's mostly common sense, but you know what they say about that.

* Wondering what the Somerville and Brattle Theatres have lined up for between the IFFBoston heading for the ICA and Coolidge and when new movies open up on Friday? A lot of speaking engagements at the Brattle, but Somerville kicks off a Jeff Bridges retrospective - which will run weekdays through May - with a double feature of The Last Picture Show and Fat City. Even if you're committed to IFFB, you can still get to the showings on Thursday (29 April 2010). They promise all features in this series will play on their big screen (which got a nice upgrade recently and looks fantastic) on 35mm film.

* Kendall Square isn't one of the venues for IFFBoston, but they do have three films opening: Exit Through the Gift Shop, In Search of Memory, and one-week-wonder Dancing Across Borders. They're kind of in the festival spirit, though, as the filmmaker and subject of Dancing Across Borders will be at the Friday night screenings to introduce the movie and answer questions. It also looks like The Square is still going to be kicking around, meaning I can get to it after IFFBoston (lucky me).

* The Harvard Film Archive presents movies by pioneering Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad Friday, Sunday, and Monday; Ms. Bani-Etemad will be appearing in person on Sunday and Monday. On Saturday, Emerson College Professor John Gianvito introduces his sprawling documentary Vapor Trail, about the devastating effect a U.S. Air Force base had on a Filipino community. The MFA appears to be taking the weekend off.

* The Coolidge continues to celebrate the Kurosawa Centennial with a new 35mm print of Rashomon. They also pick up BUFF's It Came From Kuchar and The Square for the digital screening rooms.

* Oh, The Boston International Film Festival is still going on, and still has a terrible website.

This Week In Tickets!

No, not a lot of moviegoing this past week; it was a draining week at work and then, when I got home, the charming discovery that my gas payments weren't being deducted from my checking account like I'd thought and thus my gas had been shut off for non-payment. When I did pay, the website said it would be turned back on within 24-48 hours, but it's pushing 108 now. Anyway, that meant cooking was a matter of either the microwave or the grill, and once you're done screwing around with the grill, it's a little late for hitting the early-evening show.

The weekend wound up being excellent, which is pretty amazing considering it was cold and rainy without heat or hot water in my house, ad the Red Sox got the crap kicked out of them by the Rays for four games. My friend Laurel was down for the weekend, and we hung out on Saturday, having a long and late lunch at Todd English's Kingfish Hall, walking through a historical graveyard, and then hanging out with her friend Jeff until nine or so.

It was also kind of cool to find out that the documentary she mentioned working on a couple years ago was Racing Dreams, which was easily the highlight of the two days I spent doing the Boston Film Festival (not to be confused with IFFBoston) last September. I wish I'd known so that I could spot her name in the credits; it's a pretty good movie, apparently due for limited release in mid-May, so there's some extra reason to check it out.

The next day was baseball with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece. Dagny has been to games before, but she wasn't talking or even clapping much for the "Mother's Day Miracle" game. Everyone was kind of worried about how much she'd be up for nine innings of baseball, especially once the game started with a rain delay, but she was excited from the time she got out of the car, only had to go exploring once, and had a great time cheering for the team. Her "go Red Sox, pleeeease!" probably sums up the mood of the fans pretty well.

So, I ate well and hung out with cool people, keeping me out of the cold house. But if you could turn my gas back on, NStar, that would be much appreciated. Sure, it has warmed up and I'll be at the film festival all week, so I won't need to heat the house and cook, but I suspect the other people in those packed theaters would appreciate it if I could take a hot shower.

The Runaways

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2010 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #8 (first-run)

I had heard bad things about The Runaways before plunking down my cash to see it, and the path of its release pattern was both unusual and damning - it was met with such indifference from audiences that it shed screens and bookings between its limited release and "national expansion", resulting in an actual net loss of 40 screens over that period. The preview was the type that sold the idea of a movie about Joan Jett's first band much better than this particular movie. So I was kind of prepared for it to be bad. What I wasn't prepared for was for it to be boring.

I don't just mean "boring" as in it being a rote, paint-by-numbers musical biography where young musicians get too famous too fast, succumb to the lure of drugs and ignore the people who got them there. That's "uninspired"; you can still make something out of that. This is boring, where the characters we're ostensibly supposed to connect with fail to do anything interesting for long stretches of time. And that's the last thing rock and roll should ever be.

And there's no reason to expect this movie to be dull. After all, you'd think that a group of girls who wanted to rock bad enough to defy convention, form a band, record great songs, and make a name for themselves would be full of strong personalities, right? But that's shockingly not the case; Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), whose memoir forms the basis for the movie and who is thus at the center of most of the action, almost never initiates any sort of activity. Things just happen to her, and we don't even see her react in an interesting way. Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) has a little more to her, but she still gets bulldozed by Michael Shannon as manager Kim Fowley. While I gather that Fowley being that sort of overpowering presence in real life, all he does here is out-shout the other characters.

It takes a lot of work to take the events of this film and make the end result so uninvolving, but writer/director Floria Sigismondi is up to it. She makes the movie a bunch of scenes presented without much to connect them into a story, gives us a tight focus on Cherie and Joan despite Sandy West and Lita Ford arguably having stories that are just as compelling... And what the heck is Alia Shawkat even doing in this movie as a placeholder for the band's various bassists? Despite being third-billed, I don't think she actually has a line (you can't even call her a composite character). Casting her in the part implies that the filmmakers at some point intended to do something with her, and that there might be more on the cutting room floor. It just confounds me that they possibly wound up leaving the interesting stuff out.
The RunawaysRays 7, Red Sox 1

Friday, April 16, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 5 April 2010 to 11 April 2010

Not a bad weekend coming up, truth be told. I don't know how much moviegoing I'll get in, as there are a few actual flesh-and-blood folks coming in to town to hang out - a friend I don't get to see often enough (hopefully), my brother's family for a ballgame, and probably my other brother (who lives here anyway) so that he can swipe a ticket for another ballgame that I won't be able to use because...

* Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 starts on Wednesday! The Other Man is the opening night show, and co-star Kevin Kline will be on hand to accept an award and hopefully engage in a highly entertaining Q&A. That's the only thing going Wednesday (21 April 2010), but starting Thursday, all five screens at the Somerville Theater will be in on the action through Monday. The Brattle adds one more screen Friday to Sunday, before the party moves to the ICA next Tuesday night (27 April 2010), and the Coolidge for the Closing Night on the 28th. I don't think I'll quite be managing the 17-ish shows that it's possible to string together, but I'll be there whether the send me a press pass or not. It's Boston's best film festival, a day longer than it was before, and filled with a pretty nice combination of documentaries, independent American films, shorts, and potentially-overlooked foreign films.

* Not Boston's best film festival, and one which I tend to grumble about a bit because they made the deliberate decision to counter-program IFFB last year (which continues this year), is the Boston International Film Festival. It opens tonight (16 April 2010), and all takes place on one screen at AMC Boston Common. The opening night film, Michael Caine in Harry Brown, is potentially worth a look, but it will run you $15 and I don't know if any filmmakers are there, and it would surprise me roughly zero if it were playing in the exact same theater two weeks later for the merely high prices charged there.

(In fairness, that sort of thing is impacting my decisions at IFFB, too. I've been anxiously awaiting The Good, the Bad, the Weird for what seems like two years, and it's the highlight of the IFFB genre schedule, but it's opening at Kendall Square on the 30th. Unless Kim Ji-woon or Lee Byung-hun is in town, I'll likely wait a week and see something whose distribution isn't assured)

* Speaking of future one-week-wonders at Kendall Square, The Square opens today, and the preview I saw the other day seems to deliver on the promise of the praise that the film has received on the festival circuit. Also opening there are The Secret in Their Eyes (looks good!), The Joneses (also opening at Boston Common), and The Eclipse, which I reviewed at EFC after a Fantasia screening last year; I can guardedly recommend it as a nicely-acted drama that is occasionally interrupted by a decent ghost story, although the two don't always mix as well as one might like.

* The Brattle has Jim Henson's Fantastic World over the weekend. Note that some of the times have changed since the calendar was printed. They've also added a special presentation of Cheech & Chong's Hey Watch This on Saturday night, and a couple showings of An American in Paris on Wednesday and Thursday as the start of a "Musical Mind of Vincente Minnelli" series.

* Call me a bad lover of independent film, because the very existence of the remake of Death at a Funeral is just ridiculous: It comes a mere three years after the release of the original English version (which was directed by Frank Oz and featured Alan Tudyk), and the only difference in some cases appears to be that most of the cast is now black.

But, I have to confess - the preview made me laugh more than the original did. And more than the preview for Kick-ass does (does anybody not at that preview without thinking that a movie about Hit-Girl and Big Daddy would be much funnier than the one with the teenagers?).

* The Harvard Film Archive offers a weekend of Sternberg Before Dietrich. The silents playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday have live piano accompaniment; Friday and Monday have introductions by film scholars.

* The MFA offers scattered showings of Home starring Isabelle Huppert, and a South Asian Film Festival.

* A likable-looking baseball movie by the name of The Perfect Game opens, if you're up for a trip to Revere.

* The Coolidge has cult phenomenon The Room as the late show all weekend, with writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau in attendance. Friday and Saturday at midnight are sold out, but there may still be tickets for Sunday at 9:30pm.

This Week In Tickets!

I was going to do a second non-TWIT post this week, about Sunday's trip to Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond, but the day job was crazy and... well, I wasn't particularly keen on spending hours on stuff like the movies I saw there, which were just not good. I came out cursing that I'd spent a gorgeous Sunday inside watching that stuff rather than sitting on my deck, reading with my Droid pumping the game into my ears.

Of course, the other regrettable thing is that I could occasionally check the score when the movies got dead-dull because I was the only person in the theater for either. Sure, that sounds like a "the food is terrible... and such small portions!" complaint, but even a bad movie should get a little audience out of curiosity or "hey, it's the next thing playing", especially something with a potentially cool name like The Black Waters of Echo's Pond. But a place like Fresh Pond - and I will do an entry on it later, because despite not being there for a while, I have a weird fondness for it - is one I would think could benefit by giving one or two screens over to old-school grindhousery, some maybe less visible but potentially crowd-pleasing genre films.

But, if you want to see a movie in digital 3-D, the price is right - $9 matinees, $12 evenings (versus $6.75 and $9.25 for 2-D). I haven't seen which screens those play on, though, and whether they're better than the pair I sat in Sunday, which are too narrow with the screen placed uncomfortably high and an aisle down the middle

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2010 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #8 (first-run)

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond is just sad. The opening is bad, but in kind of a goofy pulp manner; it flashes back to the 1920s with silly accents and sets dimly lit so as to disguise that there's not much actual scenery there. I was kind of hoping it would end up like The Gravedancers, but that wasn't to be. It seems like it wants to go in that direction, especially with its "evil board game" plot, but...

... well, it just takes too long for anything to happen. There's ten characters, and it takes forever to get to winnowing the number down. Most are pretty terrible actors, with Robert Patrick popping up on occasion on autopilot. He's also credited as an executive producer, which means that he must have felt strongly about it for some reason, and I've got no idea why.

Ca$h!

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2010 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #7 (first-run)

Ca$h!, meanwhile, is just mediocre. It's got a lot of the same problems as Echo's Pond - it spins its wheels for a long time before getting down to business. It's better in large part because the cast is pretty good. Sean Bean is all calm menace, in a dual role that is thoroughly unnecessary, but sets up a sequel (and you've got to admire the chutzpah of a guy who, directing his first movie in 13 years, makes sure there's room for a follow-up to his likely direct-to-video production). Chris Hemsworth is a decent-enough good guy, but it's Victoria Profeta who is the most fun to watch, jumping into the amorality of the situation with abandon and bringing a lot of energy to a movie that just sort of plods along until suddenly realizing it needs a good caper bit at the end.

Now, if writer/director Stephen Milburn Anderson had realized that the entire movie should have been a fun caper, he would really have had something,despite the fact that the bit that kicks all the action off is one of the most downright stupid plot devices I can recall. Unfortunately, it's not, and instead it just creaks forward.

Yankees 6, Red Sox 4Dodes'ka-den / The Lower DepthsThe Black Water of Echo's PondCa$h!The Hidden Fortress

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Kurosawa: Dodes'ka-den, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress

Dodes'ka-den and The Lower Depths are kind of a tough double-feature, as they are both somewhat long, more than a bit of a downer as far as subject matter is concerned, and similar: Both are focused on one poor neighborhood or rooming-house (although rooming-room seems more correct, as there's no privacy!), staged very much like filmed plays. They're very good, and Dodes'ka-den in particular offers a chance to be impressed by Kurosawa-sensei's technique, but five hours of that (including the intermission between films) is a lot of downbeat material.

The Hidden Fortress, of course, was the opposite experience - uplifting and exciting, exactly what I needed after realizing that I had wasted a beautiful day seeing a pair of cruddy genre movies in some of Fresh Pond's lesser screens. I'm not sure I had ever seen it before, and I certainly don't remember it being quite so funny. As I mentioned before, after seeing Kagemusha, Kurosawa was an entertainer as well as an artist, even late in his career. Many of his film's are must-see, and if you call yourself a fan of Star Wars without having seen this, you should definitely rectify that and familiarize yourself with Artoo, Threepio, and Leia's direct ancestors.

And, for the next week, Criterion is running a pretty good deal on these movies. Until 22 April 2010, their boxed set of 25 of Kurosawa's films, including most (if not all) of his collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, will only run you $299.25 if you use the code "AKBRAT". That sounds like a lot, but it works out to $11.97 per film, with $25 of the purchase price donated to Cambridge's Brattle Theatre, the very definition of a worthy cause if you like movies. I just did, and I must say that I am looking forward to working my way through it this year.

Or you can get some of these individually by clicking on the usual links, but I know nobody does that (and yet, I keep getting emails from people who want to advertise on my site). Still, I'm going for the big one. A shelf full of Kurosawa movies impresses people, and there's a lot of classics in that box.

Dodes'ka-den

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

"Do-des-ka-den" is the sound trolleys make as they roll through the streets of Tokyo. Or at least, that's how they sound in the head of Roku-chan, a mentally retarded young man living in one of the city's outer slums; he repeats it to himself as he makes his daily circuit around the area. As such, it makes a fitting title for Akira Kurosawa's examination of one of those neighborhoods - a constant, unchanging dirge that nevertheless might as well be imaginary for those who hear it.

Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi) and his long-suffering mother (Kin Sugai) are not the only eyes through which we see the area. There's Misao Sawagami (Yuko Kusunoki), pregnant for the sixth time, although the housewives who spend all day gossiping by the communal fire doubt that any of them come from her husband Ryotaro (Shinsuke Minami). Best friends Hatsutaro Kawaguchi (Kunie Tanaka) and Masuo Masuda (Hisashi Igawa) work and drink together; it's so hard to see where one ends and the other begins that it tkes a moment to realize that their wives Yoshi (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and Tatsu (Hideko Okiyama) have switched partners. Foster father Kyota Watanabe (Tatsuo Matsumura) works his niece Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki) almost to death and drinks away what little her piecework brings in. A homeless man (Moboru Mitani) passes the time by describing his dream house to his son (Hiroyuki Kawase).

And there's more. Kurosawa and his two co-writers (working from a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto) juggle roughly a dozen storylines, intersecting very little, other than in how a number of characters confide in elderly Mr. Tanba (Atsushi Watanabe) or how the housewives have comments to make on just about everything going on, although they don't involve themselves directly. Kurosawa and company avoid a set structure - some vignettes are entirely atomic, over and done with in one scene, while others recur, or build from start to finish. It is, perhaps, a little too sprawling - though none of the segments Kurosawa rotates through are exactly narrative dead zones, none become the film's spine. Dodes'ka-den tells many small, intimate stories in its nearly two and a half hours, but doesn't spend much time with any one of them.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Donzoko (The Lower Depths)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

I am not sure which exact time period The Lower Depths takes place in, and I am not certain that it matters. It is a 1957 Japanese movie based upon a play by a Russian, first performed in 1892. The exact origins are unimportant, though - the lot of the jobless and hopeless seldom seems to change.

Nearly a dozen of them are sharing a crowded barn, or bunkhouse of some sort. Tonosama (Minoru Chiaki) tells us he was a samurai once. Tomekichi (Eijiro Tono) is a tinker, but caring for his dying wife Asa (Eiko Miyoshi) has bankrupted him. An elderly actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) claims he can't do his part of cleaning because a life of drinking and jokes with Yoshisaburo (Koji Mitsui), a gambler; both of them look down upon prostitute Osen (Akemi Negishi). The only one with anything resembling a private room is thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), presumably because he's sleeping with Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), the landlord - although it's her sweet sister Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa) that he really likes. She's just brought in a new resident, Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari), an elderly pilgrim looking for shelter during the cold months.

The Lower Depths is based on a play and feels like it; most of the action takes place in a single room and consists of the characters talking back and forth. There's not necessarily a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from it, but it's good talk; we quickly get a sense of who these characters are and what sort of past and present they are carrying around. A plot eventually forms around the quadrangle made up of Sutekichi, Osugi, Okayo, and Osugi's husband (Ganjiro Nakamura), but slowly, in such a way as to make it clearly secondary to everything else going on.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

Let's get right down to it: Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress is one of the greatest adventure movies of all time. It's got a chiseled hero, a strong-willed tomboy of a princess, and a pair of disreputable sidekicks; there are are swordfights and secret passages; thrills and laughs. It's not the first to do all these things, but it distilled the formula to perfection, and anyone who shies away from it because it's a fifty-year-old black-and-white Japanese period piece doesn't deserve the films it influenced.

It doesn't start with the hero, though, but a pair of peasants, tall Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and diminutive Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara); they left their homes to seek fortunes in war, but by the time they got there, the Yamana clan had already routed the Akisukis; only one princess is rumored to survive, although the royal treasury is still missing. Tahei and Matakishi stumble upon a piece of that, and are soon enlisted by General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) to help recover the rest, carrying it and the spirited Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) into exile. Of course, the entire Yamana army is after them, and the peasants are only as loyal as their greed.

There have been dozens of adventure movies along these lines; what makes The Hidden Fortress somewhat unique is not so much the flawless execution as the point of view. Most movies would start with the samurai, or the princess; this one spends the first twenty minutes or so following Tahei and Matakishi as they stumble from one misadventure to another, bickering and generally showing themselves to be no heroes, though charismatic underdogs in their own way. When they finally do stumble across Makabe, he comes across less as the hero of the piece but as a bigger, stronger version of them, and even as Kurosawa gives him more scenes with Yuki that establish him as a noble, righteous samurai, we can't help but see him as the guy who's kind of a jerk to Tahei and Matakishi.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Thursday, April 08, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 29 March 2010 to 4 April 2010

Relatively quiet weekend coming up:

* As I mentioned earlier, the Brattle has more Kurosawa coming up, and Twin Peaks. Not on the original calendar is a night with Paul Verhoeven - first, a book discussion of his new book Jesus of Nazareth (apparently, this is what he went to school for), second, he'll introduce RoboCop.

* The Coolidge opens The Runaways and picks up Mid-August Lunch in the MiniMax. Monday night, they have The Godfather on the big screen. Someday, I'll give it the second chance it deserves. They also have a sneak preview of Please Give, in association with the Provincetown International Film Festival.

* The one-week wonder at Kendall Square is one I saw at Fantasia last year, The Warlords. It's pretty darn good, a chance to look at Jet Li as an actor as well as a martial arts star. Also showing up at Kendall are Lbs., The Greatest, and Vincere.

* The only large mainstream release this week is Date Night, but a couple random theaters (Showcase Revere and Entertainment Fresh Pond) are opening something called The Black Waters of Echo's Pond, which probably stinks, but I can't help it, I'm drawn to random openings like that.

* The MFA continues Off and Running and The Turkish FIlm Festival.

* More guests at the HFA - Kamal Aljafari on Friday and David MacDougall on Sunday and Monday. John Ford movies on Saturday.

This Week In Tickets!

After a week of BUFF, one really needs to make the next movie one sees something like How to Train Your Dragon, if only for the purpose of resetting the brain. That much screwiness and projected video absolutely requires family-friendly IMAX as a corrective.

I was, I admit, a little disappointed not to see any Iron Man 2 promotion at the IMAX theater in Reading, which is kind of surprising; as much as I dug How to Train Your Dragon, I figure that in a month the theater will be ready for a couple weeks of big action. That's the same weekend Star Trek opened last year, looking like about the same sort of appeal, and IMAX theaters found themselves scrambling to find ways to keep Trek around after its two week run.

And, notice, no ticket for Clash of the Titans. I love 3-D, but even before reading the reviews, I kind of knew that was going to be a disaster. 3-D cinematography is by and large a different beast than standard cinematography, with different sorts of choices made; while 3-D films will often be shot with an eye toward how they'll look in 2-D, the opposite is generally not the case. The rapid turnaround for the conversion raised red flags, as well. I'm not one to automatically dismiss that sort of digital work (although calling it that understates how many human beings are making decisions in the process; it's not just hitting a "make 3-D" button), but there were red flags aplenty for Clash.

Plus, the movie just didn't look very good.

How to Train Your Dragon

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 April 2010 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run)

All that said, when 3-D is used well, and planned for from the beginning, it can be breathtaking. How to Train Your Dragon knows how to do this properly; aside from having many fantastic flying scenes, it makes even ground-based scenes have a sense of depth, with the island village of Burk hugging cliffs, building straight up, and having bits cross over openings in the earth or be suspended in mid-air. The training ground where Hiccup, Astrid, and the other Viking kids learn how to fight dragons is often viewed through safety netting, so that we get a sense of depth and scale.

Even seen in 2-D, though, this would be a very good family film. One that parents should probably see with their kids - there's a lot more dismemberment implied than they might be used to - but one that is both very smart and very sweet-natured. It features dragons and vikings, as well as a big, climactic battle, but spends most of its time on construction and understanding. It's got a thoroughly appealing cast of characters, often getting more clever in matching the voice actor to the animated image than other films.

And, yes, it's toyetic as heck. Hiccup's dragon Toothless is awful darn cute, there's enough different kinds of dragons to engage the part of a kid's brain that memorizes Pokemons, and Craig Ferguson's blacksmith viking, with his his customizable artificial limbs, just begs for an action figure.

She's Out of My League

* * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2010 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

So, I had good luck with one Jay Baruchel movie on Saturday, how about another on Sunday? Well...

She's Out of My League isn't really bad, just below average, burdened with way too many sidekick characters, gags that are good enough for a bit of a laugh but are sustained much longer than it takes to chuckle, and lead characters who, while likable, aren't really funny themselves. It's pleasant enough, you can root for Kirk and Molly to stick, but at the end of the hour and a half, it really should have made us laugh more than it did.

Props for hiring Krysten Ritter to play the female lead's best friend, though. I am a big proponent of Getting Krysten Ritter Larger Roles in Bigger Movies.
Asylum Seekers / OCD & MeStuck!The RomanticSomeone's Knocking at the DoorFriends (With Benefits) / CaniformiaCummings Farm / Happily Ever AfterHow to Train Your DragonKagemushaShe's Out of My League

Kagemusha

There's still a few days left of Kurosawa at the Brattle - a double feature of The Lower Depths and Dodes'ka-Den on Friday and Saturday and The Hidden Fortress on Sunday (sadly, no 9pm-hour show for any of those, as the Brattle is wasting using that time on Twin Peaks), and a Yojimbo/Sanjuro double feature on Wednesday and Thursday. I'm kind of disappointed that I couldn't get to more, between BUFF during the first week and things running longer than I thought on other days.

I encourage folks to get to as much as they can. I don't push Kurosawa on people very much, and it's probably for the reason that many people shy away from his works today: It's easy to sound like a snob when doing so. When I describe Kurosawa's work, it starts to sound more and more pretentiously arty: After all, the guy's foreign. He made a lot of period pieces. His films were not just old, but often in black and white. Many were long. Many were adaptations of Shakespeare, transposed into medievel Japan. Now, I'm cool with that; if you're reading this, you probably are too. But imagine running down this list with a friend whose moviegoing habits are more or less restricted to new releases - can't you feel them backing off?

Which is a shame, because Akira Kurosawa made tremendously entertaining movies. Even Kagemusha, which at times moves away from the large-scale action sequences in a very deliberate, artsy manner, is far lighter than it might be in other hands. It's funny and energetic, and it's not really a surprise that George Lucas was an executive producer on it. The common thought process on Lucas being inspired by Kurosawa is often that he cribbed characters and stories but dumbed them down (especially since hating on Lucas became a national sport in the last decade or so), but a look at Kurosawa's work shows that, yes, there's a level and type of artistry more often associated with the film's other America producer, Francis Ford Coppola, but the sheer entertainment that Lucas at his best creates is there too. It's easy to see both being inspired by Kurosawa, and returning the favor by helping him mount this production.

Kagemusha

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

Akira Kurosawa would have reached the century mark this year, and while one needs no excuse to dive into this master's work - that so much is fantastic is reason enough - the anniversary is providing us with opportunities and reminders to do so. Hopefully, many will take advantage of the chance to not just revisit favorites, but to perhaps experience some of these films for the first time, as even potentially intimidating films like Kagemusha are brilliant for all, not just some elite.

It does hit the audience with a little exposition right away, on how in 16th Century Japan, leaders factions sought to take the capital of Kyoto and unite the nation under their rule: Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), and Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui). Shingen's brother Nobukado Takeda (Tsutomu Yamazaki) bears a striking resemblance to him, and frequently serves as his double on the front lines. Quite by accident, Nobukado finds a man whose resemblance to the king goes beyond "striking" to "uncanny", and brings the uncouth thief (Nakadai again) into the palace to be trained to imitate Shingen. He is meant to only serve as an occasional decoy, but when a sniper's bullet strikes Shingen, his dying command is that his death not be announced for three years, lest Nobunaga and Ieyasu attack the Takeda clan while it is weak - and, perhaps, lest his son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) seize power as the designated heir's guardian.

There's a fair amount of history and politics to this film (more in some cuts than others - 20th Century Fox removed twenty minutes present in the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray; this review is of a Fox print), and it's impressive how clearly it is presented. Kurosawa and co-writer Masato Ide put a lot of balls in the air - not just one, but two rival lords, as well as the contention between Katsuyori and the rest of the court - but it's never overwhelming. Kurosawa is also very respectful of that history; he doesn't suggest that the fate of the nation turned on his fictional creation, although he does build a compelling story around him.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

BUFF Day 7: Friends (With Benefits) and Cummings Farm

Last week, when I tweeted that my review of The Life and Death of a Porno Gang was up, my friend Laurel responded with "so, they've got you reviewing porn now, huh?" No, I say, it's just a movie about how screwed up Serbia is; it's cutting edge! And now, a week or so later, what do I finish BUFF off with? A movie whose title and premise (six white folks in their twenties hooking up!) sounds like a '90s porn spoof and something with a really obvious sex pun in its title.

(Although, to be honest, there are times when I think that's the way to go. This has consistently been in EFC's top 50 reviews of the day since it got put up. I have to work a little harder to argue that that one's not porn, but I doubt many of its hits come from people looking for a review of that particular film.)

Anyway, that's the end of the 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival for me, or nearly so (I should be getting back to The Romantic in a week or so). There was one more day, but my schedule lined up so that I had seen everything showing then except for It Came from Kuchar, and I sort of figured that was in the same category as The Beaches of Agnes - no matter how well-made it is, the subject is just not something I'm drawn to. And I was ready to be done Thursday night I just stopped at the comic shop, stumbled home, and dropped.

Next up: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010, where I will go to all 8 days no matter what.

Well, actually, next up was hitting How to Train Your Dragon on Saturday. After a solid week of weird, violent, sexual stuff shot on a shoestring, a glossy IMAX movie for the whole family was exactly what I needed.

"Caniformia"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

This short seems like it was little more than a group of images that don't make a strong whole. Some are memorable in and of themselves - the girl in bed with the bear, naturally - and director Jessica Stevens does connect them with a somewhat pleasing surreality. Some bits aren't as funny or interestingly strange as one might have hoped, though (the news anchors, for instance), and the feeling when it ends is basically "huh, I guess that happened".

Which, to be fair, could be exactly what Ms. Stevens was going for.

Friends (with Benefits)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

A funny thing happened while I sat in the theater, watching the BUFF screening of Friends (With Benefits): I realized that it was, all told, a pretty conventional romantic comedy - which is probably the last thing I expected to see there. Oh, sure, it's fairly raunchy, but not much more so than what goes on at the multiplex these days, and even the crude bits seem more affectionate than embarrassing.

We start with a group of friends that would make a fine sitcom cast: Owen (Alex Brown) and Chloe (Margaret Laney) are med students, although Chloe's real passion is music and Owen's is writing. Alison (Anne Peterson) is the perfectionist, Jeff does IT for porn sites, Shirley (Lynn Mancinelli) is uninhibited, and Brad (Brendan Bradley) is the smoothie. Unusually for this sort of group, he's actually the only one in a relationship, and the lack of regular loving is starting to get to the rest. Owen proposes obligation-free hookups to Chloe as tension relief, and she decides to go for it. Now, they've been best friends forever, so this is obviously going to be something more than just tension relief. And there's a whole different set of issues waiting when the other four figure that they've got the same problem.

Is this a hackneyed romantic comedy plot? Good lord, yes. It works, though, because director Gorman Bechard and his co-writer Ashley McGarry wisely avoid making their characters stupid. None of the characters are idiots there for the other friends to snicker at, and there's only one moment that seems to hinge on smart people doing stupid things. Yes, it's a big hoary cliché that happens exactly at the predictable time to drive a silly wedge between Owen and Chloe because of an over-reaction. But smart people do occasionally react badly in that situation; it's a mistake we can believe.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"Happily Ever After"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

Another "huh, that happened" short, this one centered around a pair of male friends and their would-be girlfriends at a roller rink. This one bops amiably along until one of the characters says something that should be sort of a buzzkill, but instead the characters just shrug their shoulders and continue on.

Odd. Not badly so, but mostly kind of weird.

Cummings Farm

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

I admit it - when I opened up the IMDB page for Cummings Farm for reference while writing this review, I was kind of shocked to go straight to the film page, rather than a list of this film and a dozen bits of porn. I'm guessing they have some filtering going on, although given the name and the plot description, I sort of figure that this would be flagged as adult entertainment by accident, even though it winds up being pretty much the opposite of that sort of movie.

Three couples are traveling to Cummings Farm for an orgy, hoping to spice up their moribund sex lives. We first meet Alan (Adam Busch) and Yasmine (Yasmine Kittles), who bicker for the whole trip. Then there's Gordon (Jordan Kessler) and Rachel (Aimee-Lynn Chadwick); they're running late because Gordon is drunk again. Already present are Todd (Ted Beck), who came up with the idea, and Tina (Laura Silverman), his wife, whose grandparents owned the farm. Oh, and then there's Larenz (Edrick Browne), delivering some weed to Gordon, who hasn't told the others about the extra guest.

Beck (who wrote the script) and director Andrew Drazek aren't doing much in the way of a bait and switch here; it's clear from the start that this is a pretty bad idea that only roughly half of the participants are actually excited for. So instead of building up a sense of anticipation, the film sets up a feeling of unease. Some of it is forced; the accusations that Larenz is unwelcome because he's black, for instance, manage to feel gratuitous but also don't go far enough to actually be insightful. In almost every other aspect, though, it's note perfect; the filmmakers get the idea across that this isn't going to save any relationships but it doesn't quite feel like a ticking time bomb.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Monday, April 05, 2010

BUFF Day 6: The Romantic and Someone's Knocking at the Door

It'll be a bit of a down day on the write-ups, I'm afraid - six days of all-evening festival attendance, generally following a full day at work, resulted in me sort of hitting the wall on Tuesday. I dozed off a couple of times in The Romantic, including once right close to the end, and it was a bit difficult to pull details out for Someone's Knocking at the Door.

That's not a slight on either movie; it's all on me. It's an indication of why we should appreciate the heck out of everybody who does the actual work to run a film festival, regardless of size: If this is how wiped out just attending a bunch of movies can make you feel, imagine how it must be for the guys who have spent the better part of a a year watching dozens of features and probably hundreds of shorts (with the vast majority likely terrible) and lining up sponsors, then going from morning to late at night making sure all the films are in the right place, ferrying guests around, and then trying to look excited and ready to go all night when the daily parties start. I'm not up to it, I know that much.

I've written the makers of The Romantic asking for a screener so that I can give it a full and fair review in the next couple of weeks; if that doesn't work, I expect that I'll be able to catch back up to it at Fantasia. In the meantime, before getting to the reviews, to compensate for not having a whole lot to say about Tuesday night, here's a picture of something funky set up in the Kendall lobby on Sunday night (the 28th):

Ask It!
The Romantic

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

The Romantic deserves props if only for its ambition; it's a feature-length animated feature with most of the work done by a small team in Pennsylvania which builds a strange but consistent mythology and then, as is almost a necessity, destroys it; it is the downfall of gods, kings, and men.

It's not somber, though - the visuals are quirky and distinctive, and there's plenty of comic relief (both verbal and slapstick). It's not for everybody - it's violent at times, and grotesque at others; those who find animation to be the domain of family-friendly cinema should not apply. And as much as I would claim my own weariness as much more of a factor in having trouble getting through to the end than faults in the picture, the movie does have a bit of a tendency to move in circles and keep telling us that character X might have his own motivations until well after we've gotten the point.

Someone's Knocking at the Door

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

A lot of horror movies like to vary their means of delivering the kills, and Someone's Knocking at the Door does. But not too far, because, let's face it, when you open with "raped to death", pulverized intestines and various other uncomfortable details, well, what can filmmaker Chad Ferrin come up with that sounds worse?

That's what happened to Ray (Jordan Lawson), the poor guy. The police are investigation, but we see early on that they may not have all the information. At least initially, Ray's friends aren't talking about how they were reading the case files on 1970s serial killers John (Ezra Buzzington) and Wilma (Elina Madison) Hopper earlier -including the bits about returning - or the drugs they were taking while they did it. Justin (Noah Segan) was the most enthusiastic; straight-edge Meg (Andrea Rueda) the least. The other three, med students all, are foreign student Annie (Silvia Spross), stammering Joe (Ricardo Gray), and abrasive Sebastian (Jon Budinoff).

The plot is, at first glimpse, straight out of the slasher movie template: Dead serial killer, distinctive MO, plenty of young victims and unsuspecting cops to become a body count. Ferrin and his co-writers kick it up a couple notches, though; from the very beginning, the prospective victims are maybe not ready to turn on each other, but they're just as worried about each other as evil spirits. Maybe it's the drugs, the stress, or something else, but this movie seems to start at the level of paranoia other horror movies have to ramp up to.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, April 02, 2010

BUFF Day 5: Asylum Seekers and Stuck!

I debate with myself every year about what I'm going to do with BUFF - whether I should ask for a media pass, just go to a few shows, or pick up a full pass. I generally tend not to ask for a media pass (I was comped one some year, I think) because they make me feel a sense of responsibility - if they're giving you a pass, it's with the understanding that you will see and review as many films as you can. The thing is, I know that BUFF is often going to program a lot that I have no interest in seeing, and I don't want to feel obligated to see it, even if the obligation is all in my head.

Last year, I only went to one night(*), as the fest overlapped SXSW, which I traveled to. That made going with just buying tickets to what I wanted to see easy, and it actually turned out to be a good double feature (the insane Hausu, finally hitting the Brattle on film this spring, and the creepy-as-hell Deadgirl). This year, I hemmed and hawed a bit, but saw enough stuff on the schedule that interested me that it was worth my while to buy a pass. I wound up seeing 17 films plus getting a t-shirt for $100, which isn't bad these days. And, much more than in some previous years, it was generally good stuff.

Except Monday. Monday was a pretty thorough disappointment, even as it turned out to be another themed day (imprisonment). At least it wasn't the gross-out "why did I think I wanted to watch this?" day, just two movies that didn't quite work as well as they perhaps should have. Maybe I would have been better off watching Chloe with the friends who I met for supper, but I figure that will be playing for a week or two more, and who knows when either of these will resurface; BUFF movies often don't show up on video for a while, if ever.

(*) Heh, I see a bit in that article about wanting to flood EFC with more BUFF reviews than they get from SXSW. So far, it's Boston 11, Austin 0, although I suspect nobody was actually at SXSW on an EFC pass. Maybe next year I'll go back again.

"OCD and Me"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

Hey, who'd have thought that this five-minute mix of animation and live-action would be the best thing I would see on the night? Well, hopefully filmmaker (and subject) Kendra Mattozzi; it's always nice to have confidence in one's own work. As she should; she does a nice job here of presenting a condition that is amost always played for laughs or as debilitating into something that, while certainly setting her apart from the crowd as something of an oddball, doesn't make her seem weird. Her energetic stream-of-consciousness actually makes her sound like the reasonable one in most situations.

Asylum Seekers

* * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

It's a hoary old chestnut, but one that has stuck in the English language every since Shakespeare first used it in Hamlet because here's a truth contained in it: "Method to madness." It's not enough to just say that a character is insane and that's a free pass to do anything with him; even for a comedy, it's got to make more sense than what goes on in Asylum Seekers.

Six people are being committed to a local mental hospital, more or less voluntarily: Antoine (Daniel Irizarry), a nymphomaniac virgin; trophy "mousewife" Maud (Pepper Binkley); evangelical nihilist Paul (Lee Wilkof); introverted exhibitionist Miranda (Camille O'Sullivan); cybernetic lolita Alice (Stella Maeve); and gender-bending refugee Alan (Bill Dawes). There is, however, only one bed available, so Nurse Milly (Judith Hawking), on behalf of the mysterious doctor running the facility, will have to test them to see which is most in need of their care.

The easy, politically correct knock on Asylum Seekers is that mental illness is no laughing matter, but while the sentiment isn't wrong, juxtaposing the mad with the supposedly sane can make for great satire. And if you can come up with the right tone and stick to it, broad comedy can work. Writer/director Rania Ajami, however, really doesn't seem to know what tone she wants to take. Several of the characters are just one-note jokes, but others at times have a sense of tragedy and realism to them that doesn't much fit with the others.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Stuck!

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

The thing to realize about Stuck! is that, despite the exclamation point in the title and the meticulous recreation of a genre and style that has fallen out of favor, it is not a parody. Or at least, not a conventional one. Instead of playing up the salacious nature of the women-in-prison movie, it plays things completely straight, with nary a wink in the audience's direction.

Daisy (Starina Johnson) is sent to the slammer for murder. She didn't do it - she tried to wrest the gun from her suicidal mother's hands - but the neighbor who saw it through the window (Karen Black) testified against her, and now she's on death row, her crime considered so heinous that her execution has been bumped ahead of the other residents: Black widow MeMe (Susan Traylor), mentally ill Princess (Jane Wiedlin), Bible-thumper Esther (Mink Stole), butch lesbian Dutch (Pleasant Gehman). The only other contact they have is with a guard they call Amazon (Stacy Cunningham), who delights in giving the prisoners the humiliation she feels they deserve.

Another feature at BUFF, American Grindhouse, had a segment on "educational" exploitation pictures, where informative or socially relevant content was used as a smokescreen to justify the films' actual draw of sex, violence, and nudity. That's the sort of picture that Stuck! is recreating, although it seems to be doing so in reverse: Offering up the promise of shower scenes and a "riot" in order to give the audience a story of abuses of power within prison, the dangers of the death penalty, and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Decidedly not the campy, salacious material one might be expecting.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Thursday, April 01, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 22 March 2010 to 28 March 2010

And now, before getting to what is likely the most annoying image map to construct in TWIT history, a look at what's playing in the Boston area for the next week:

* The Brattle has more more Kurosawa on tap. It is good stuff.

* The Coolidge has a Science on Screen screening on Monday, 5 April 2010, with a physics professor discussing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now, that should be a kick.

* The Somerville Theatre opens a documentary on The Doors called When You're Strange.

* The Harvard Film Archive starts a new calendar on 2 April 2010; they kick it off this weekend with guests in attendance. Friday through Sunday is Argentine director Martin Rejtman; Monday is one of the Archive's founders, Stanley Cavell, with Rules of the Game.

* Kendall Square also starts a new calendar of one-week wonders. Last week's, Mid-August Lunch is held over. The new one is Sweetgrass, and has filmmakers in person for the 7:10 pm shows. With BUFF leaving, they've got some more screens to fill, and are also opening City Island and Vincere. (Next week is The Warlords; it's really good.)

... I also got an email from a publicist mentioning that Don McKay opens "in Boston" on the 2nd, but that's a single screen on theaters in Methuen and Danvers. The North Shore, IMHO, does not count as "in Boston", seeing as I can't get to Methuen and Danvers requires a couple hours on subway, commuter rail, and the bus.

This Week In Tickets!

Lots of BUFF. Tough to fit anything else in.

The Secret of KellsLove ExposureAmerican Grindhouse & Porn GuidePieces & FiremanThe Life & Death of a Porn Gang & Raymond May Have RabiesMy Normal & Valerie Sells Her Panties OnlineLove on the Rocks & You Ruined EverythingRed White & BlueIgnorance Is StrengthPlaying Columbine & Born to Be AliveThe Death of Alice Blue & No EscapeAmer

BUFF Day 4: "Ignorance is Strength", Playing Columbine, The Death of Alice Blue, and Amer

2:00 - "Ignorance is Strength" (95 minutes)
4:00 - Playing Columbine (94 minutes + 12 minue short + Q&A)
6:15 - The Death of Alice Blue (86 minutes + 8 minute short)
8:00 - Amer (90 minutes)

When one looks at a schedule like that, you've got two choices: Miss something you're looking forward to or accept that you're going to be claiming that popcorn is a meal at some point. Although, to be fair, even a "small" popcorn will fill a body up for hours. And it's probably more vegetables than I eat in a week.

My trick to actually having vaguely satisfying and not wallet-draining meals this year: Hot dogs. Yeah, I know, not really good for you, but at 11:30pm I don't want to take the time to cook much or take in a lot of sugar that will keep me up. Franks cook in the microwave in about a minute, and one or two is just enough that I can get to sleep without my stomach growling.

(Although, if I do this in Montreal, shoot me. Then again, considering how much they like their burgers and fries there, they might make un hot-dog très bon)

Also: Playing Columbine is a pretty darn good movie, but I suspect that no matter when it played this weekend, the turnout would have been crushed by PAXEast.

"Ignorance Is Strength"

Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

I probably could have gotten to a couple more shorts programs this year, but I made a semi-conscious decision not to, in that I likely would have been semi-conscious if I tried to get to the ones running at around 12pm on Saturday and Sunday. Plus, although BUFF had much less that left me wanting to walk out because I was squeamish this year, the shorts programs tend to be loaded with that. This one looked to have the most fun sci-fi/satire stuff, and it was showing at a good time.

"Attackazoids, Deploy!" - * * * - Cute live action short about about getting people to buy bonds and turn in their scrap metal to build military robots. Plenty cute, with fun robots, but the usual retro-kitsch sometimes goes a little far (like almost always).

"Skylight" - * * * * - Saw this last year, at Fantasia as part of Zappin Party. It's a very funny bit about the ozone hole frying penguins.

"How Not to be Stupid" - * * * - Lots of talking heads telling us the difference between critical thinking and wishful thinking. Funny, but occasionally condescending. Although, let's face it, certain folks deserve condescending to.

"This is My Show" - * * * ¾ - At first, this pastiche of HGTV looks like a simple parody of how things like perfectly manicured lawns and the like are the opposite of loving nature, but then the host just starts talking about other things that have nothing to do with what the camera shows, and that's kind of hilarious, between what she's saying being funny and the sheer incongruity.

"A Tax on Pochsy" - * * - I gather Karen Hines's Pochsy character is something she does on stage. It's the sort of character Sarah Silverman makes her living on, self-centered and wide-eyed, and not the sort of thing I tend to find terribly amusing. Here, she just goes on and on, without much of a sting to make it work. Nice black & white photography, though.

"CannibAlien" - * ½ - Aaaand, here's the gross one, which is naturally the longest one in the program at 33 minutes. It's nasty, and it extends way past the point where it's clever or amusing satire. It just goes on and on, and the CGI animation is very distracting.

"Born to Be Alive"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

This one amused me quite a bit: A guy get sneezed on on the bus and decides to take his revenge. Alexander Felsing's 12-minute short really manages to hit a sweet spot precisely, as it's quirky but not ostentatiously so, a little mean but nowhere near grotesque, and doesn't make the audience feel bad about letting their mean side come out a bit.

Playing Columbine

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

It's not that I didn't think much of video games as an art form before seeing Playing Columbine; I just tended to think of them as more of an abstract art form. I would respond to complaints from my brother that a game was disappointing because of its plot with the argument that any plot more than "I love dots; they're delicious!" was extraneous. Playing Columbine is an eye-opener on that front, as much for what it does poorly as for what it does well.

That I say Playing Columbine does some things poorly is not a knock on the film. All documentaries, even the best ones, have trouble encapsulating their subjects entirely; the movie screen is a few senses short of reality in even the best of circumstances. Understanding the evolution in games that hit a watershed moment with Super Columbine Massacre RPG! requires an interactive element that film just can't supply; it requires putting oneself in a character's shoes more directly than mere empathy; passively watching people play SCMRPG! cannot do it.

A little background: In 2005, Danny Ledonne used a piece of "game construction set" software to build a role-playing-game that used Columbine high school as an environment and allowed players to play as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, recreating their infamous 1999 killing spree - an even that struck the young Colorado man close to home. Initially placed on the internet anonymously, until Ledonne was identified as the designer, it would later gain fame and notoriety beyond its obvious controversial nature when a college student in Montreal who went on a similar shooting spree cited it as a favorite, and when the Slamdance Festival dropped it from competition without explanation, causing both half the entrants in their gaming competition to drop out, as well as some jury members.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"No Escape"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

The short that played with Alice Blue is one we demoed for the sci-fi festival (there seems to be a certain amount of overlap between the two screening committees), and didn't get chosen there because it really wasn't sci-fi at all, but it is a nifty little thing to get an audience pumped for a feature with. It does what's expected - panic, escalation, twist ending - but does it in a really slick way.

(When some eccentric millionaire decides he wants to get into both the cinema and restaurant business simultaneously and has me convert the Polaroid buildings between Central and Kendall squares into an Alamo-like theater, this is one of the shorts I'll run before features.)

The Death of Alice Blue

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital video)

A couple days after watching it and turning it over in my mind, I can't decide whether The Death of Alice Blue is a sloppy example of vampire soap opera melodrama or a dead-on parody of such things. I'm going to go with the latter, although I'm not sure - the satire is mostly aimed at targets other than the White Wolves and Sookie Stackhouses of the world.

It's Monday, and the second day of Alice Blue's second day working as a creative intern at Raven, a large Toronto advertising agency, is also her twenty-first birthday. It could be going better; though head of Creative Stephen is nice to her, she embarrasses herself at a presentation, but of the rest, the only folks who don't treat her like dirt are a pack of misfits who seem obsessed with blood tests and reflex testing. And she herself is starting to feel kind of strange...

Though it opens with a "chapter one" graphic ("The Bloodsucking Vampires of Advertising"), watching The Death of Alice Blue often feels like jumping into a serial midway through, with subplots already in progress that are not accompanied by explanation. Other times, it feels as though writer/director Park Bench is making stuff up as he goes along. This may very well be deliberate, a gag on how a lot of urban horror/fantasy franchises start out as "a girl in the city...with vampires!" satire and bloat into continuity-choked epics with warring factions, foretold destinies, characters killed off to show the writers mean business, and absolutely every tiny detail connected past the point of absurdity. If that's what he's up to, then well done.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Amer

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

The most popular phrases being used to describe Amer tend to include the word giallo - it is giallo-inspired, reminiscent of the giallo films of the 1970s, etc., etc. This is true, but also misleading, because such descriptions often serve to subtly warn non-fans of the genre away. Everyone who enjoys good cinema and maybe a good scare should give Amer a chance, though; it's a thrilling, sexy, eye-watering gem.

It is split into three distinct vignettes: In the first, a young girl (Cassandra Forêt)sneaks around in her family's old house, catching glimpses of spooky things (as well as other things that people do at night). In the second, a teenager (Charlotte Eugène-Guibbaud), bored while while her mother visits the hairdresser, wanders off with a young man. In the third, a woman (Marie Bos) returns to her childhood home, now overgrown, but as evening comes, she finds that she may not be alone.

Whether these three are supposed to be the same person at three stages of her life or just represent three stages of life themselves is relatively unimportant; although you can find obvious links between the episodes, what is important is that each features its protagonist confronting sexuality and mortality. In the first, it's glimpses of her parents' lovemaking and an apparently mummified corpse; in the second, we seem to be catching her at the very moment she is blossoming into womanhood, a tipping point between pretty and sexy, with new dangers presenting themselves; and, finally, we see the house itself appearing dead and the lady sexy, but reserved in public.

Full review at eFilmCritic