Saturday, February 26, 2011

Short Stuff: The 2010 Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts

Because of the way they're playing the Boston area and how my time is working out, I'll be seeing the three groups of short films nominated for an Academy Award this year in three different locations, and thus it will be difficult to find which one is the biggest draw. I suspect it will be this one - we're fed animated short subjects from a very early age, so what might seem like an insubstantial size for live-action films is perfect for animation.

Plus, animation is a medium where every second counts - and costs. Each 1/24 of a second requires the same time and expense, whereas with live action the costs go down once you're on set or on the ground, to the point where overshooting and then cutting down is not just practical, but the expected way to do things.

Looking at this year's nominees (and a pair of near-misses added to fill out the program), it's worth noting not just how much computer animation has taken over the medium - that's old news - but how the recent practice of making almost all animated features in 3D may be filtering its way down into the shorts category. One of the nominees was lucky enough to get a wide exhibition in three dimensions, and even if none of the others were actually produced with that in mind, the filmmakers are clearly thinking about how they want us to process the sensation of depth as we watch their works.

"Madagascar, carnet de voyage"

Take the first film shown in this program, "Madagascar, carnet de voyage" ("Madagascar, a Journey Diary" in English). The eleven-minute short is initially presented as a scrapbook of a trip to the African island nation, but as pages turn we see that they are not ordinary pages - some snapshots are animated, while others extend out of or into the page once they are no longer being presented as a head-on view. Soon, the camera zooms into one and we're presented with something resembling a conventional narrative, although filmmaker Bastien Dubois will often change animation styles on us, or remind us that we're inside his journal by showing the passage of time and space with a page turn, or scribbling notes in the margins.

It's a nifty device that Dubois plays with in a number of interesting ways, but which never overwhelms the actual content, mostly involving a trip to a small village to witness a Famadihana ("turning of the bones") ritual. Even without the stylistic embellishments and impressive rendering, it is like hearing about a journey from a friend who is both a keen observer and a skilled storyteller, and that's a beautiful thing.

"Let's Pollute!"

The next film presented, Geefwee Boedoe's six-minute "Let's Pollute!", is almost completely the opposite: It's tongue-in-cheek, designed to emulate the flat visual style and earnest tone of the educational cartoons of previous decades - in short, about as intentionally two-dimensional as a movie can be. The gag is that pollution and poor environmental stewardship seems to be something modern civilization regards as its right and duty, as if there were instructional videos on how to go about it.

It's pretty good, doing a nice job of not overstaying its welcome while still delivering a bunch of good gags in its short running time. Many of them are gross-out gags, making this the film in the category that feels most likely to be part of a Spike & Mike show. For the most part, it delivers its satire with more sugar than vinegar, pointing up the absurdity of our bad habits without being a complete scold.

"The Gruffalo"

Where "Let's Pollute!" is the shortest of the nominated films, "The Gruffalo" by Max Lang and Jakob Schuh is the longest, clocking in at twenty-seven minutes. It's also the most conventional, adapted from a children's book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, featuring a number of celebrity voices, and with a relatively conventional design sense compared to the other nominees.

There is, however, nothing wrong with that. It's very nicely produced, and removing the time necessary to process stylization lets Lang & Schuh slip plenty of wit into their fable and still have the young ones it's intended for follow it. In it, a squirrel (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) tells her kids a story about a little brown mouse (voiced by James Corden) who, crossing the woods to get to a tree full of nuts, must pass a fox (voiced by Tom Wilkinson), an owl (voiced by John Hurt), and a snake (voiced by Rob Brydon) who would each eat him. He bluffs his way past by claiming he's meeting a monstrous Gruffalo, only to find himself in trouble when the predators compare stories and find something's up just as he's discovering that this beast (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) may not be entirely imaginary.

It's a charming, funny little story, polished up nicely but still featuring plenty of occasionally dark British humor. It's easy on the eyes and ears, and when it's all done, kids will have learned an important lesson about how vital it is to be able to lie convincingly.

"The Lost Thing"

Meanwhile, quirk is the name of the game in "The Lost Thing", in which Shaun Tan and co-director Andrew Ruhemann tell the story of a boy (voiced by Tim Minchin) who, while looking for bottle caps on the beach, discovers a strange Thing. It's a large, many-tentacled cephalopod living in what looks like a red diving bell, but friendly and good-natured. The people around him seem to have no reaction but annoyance, if they deign to notice it, so the boy sets out to find a place where it belongs.

The film certainly has a distinctive look - the boy's city looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil only grayer, with even the beach looking over-regulated and joyless. It's actually a nifty design, filled with oblong buildings that seem to loom over each other and confusing signs, but there seldom seem to be any corners where something wonderful can be hidden... at least until they find one. The characters are impressively realized, as well - there's just enough color to distinguish the boy from the rest of the gray and dreary humans, while things that might appear monstrous are given cheerful life.

"Day & Night"

Pixar's "Day & Night" will probably be the one nominee that most people watching the Oscars wind up rooting for, just because it's the one they are most likely to have seen (playing in front of what is likely the year's biggest box-office success will do that). And it's not a case where the general public is cheering on an inferior product; director Teddy Newton (who also contributed gags to "Let's Pollute!") takes a nifty idea and executes it very well indeed.

Part of the charm to "Day & Night" is that it's something that really can only work in animation (or maybe comics) - its avatars of night and day are effective designs because their detail has been swept away, and they can move like two-dimensional cartoon characters, with that two-dimensionality allowing their silhouettes to work as windows into a three-dimensional world (a fairly stunning effect when it was projected in 3D before Toy Story 3, which still looks good in conventional cinemas). It's a nifty blend of cartoonish fun and joyous discovery of how to appreciate one's differences, and though it explicitly states its theme in the end, it does so with such sincerity that even jaded audiences should appreciate it.


Moritz Mayerhfer doesn't come right out and say what he's getting at in "Urs", one of two extra shorts added to the program to pad it out a bit. In this ten-minute German film, a strong young man and his elderly mother are the last people remaining in their village, blighted by drought and famine, and when their last goat dies, Urs decides to take his obstinate mother across the mountains in hope of finding a better life.

Though not a nominee, it could bump some of the others out of the running and I suspect few would have any objection. Like many of the others, it seems to intentionally work the difference in perception between 2D and 3D, as flat backdrops seem to gain texture as Urs presses into the unknown. What little speech there is tends to be inarticulate grunts, but the characters' body language is very expressive. And there's an impressively sad, unavoidable truth to how the film's theme of having to drag those unwilling to change, even in the face of inevitable disaster, to something else plays out.

"The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger"

The final film shown in this showcase is another honorable mention, though "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" may have been considered in part on the strength of filmmaker Bill Plympton's career. It's not a bad film by any means - much of Plympton's trademark dark humor is present and effective, and there are few who can get more laughter out of fewer images in a montage than he can. Plympton packs a great deal of comedy and adventure into six short minutes.

On the other hand, it certainly looks somewhat half-baked. Though Plympton has been using digital tools for a while now, this is the first time where they seem to have markedly changed his style. The thick black lines and bright, solid colors mean that the simplicity of Plympton's style doesn't serve to focus the eye on what's important, but rather makes the audience wonder what sort of primitive software he's using.

Still, when the biggest complaint is that one of the honorable mentions isn't quite up to its creator's usual high standards, it's a pretty good selection. If the choice of the award winner were left in my hands, I would probably select "Madagascar, carnet de voyage" (and I might have substituted "Urs" for "Let's Pollute!"), and that's what I'll be rooting for on the night of the awards.

Seen 25 February 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (Special Event)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 February 2011 - 3 March 2011

Oscars on Sunday, and as a professional courtesy, the studios are holding back on releasing anything particularly highbrow.

I kid, a little, but I suspect that both the multiplexes and boutique houses are poised for a major housecleaning next weekend, as the interest people had in nominees drops when they're tagged as "losers". Unfair, but what can you do?

  • There are two wide releases this weekend, and their trailers more or less tell the story Hall Pass is the latest by the Farrelly Brothers, and like its protagonists, it seems to be a case of guys settling into middle age not realizing that they're not as cool as they once were. In it, Owen Wilson and Jason Sudekis are given "a week off from marriage" by their wives Isla Fisher and Christina Applegate, somehow under the impression that they're going to do better. The previews make it look like the filmmakers are trying to recapture their young, gross-out glory, but they seem to have lost a bit off their fastball, too.

    Drive Angry 3-D, meanwhile, slaps a big "SHOT IN 3D" onto its poster and previews, letting us know that although this is an attempt to get you to pay $4 extra for a silly grindhouse movie, it's one where the filmmakers are actually using the tools to make it worthwhile (I didn't think much of director Patrick Lussier's My Bloody Valentine as a mystery, but the man is clearly comfortable with shooting for 3D). Plus, it's got Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, and William Fitchner in exactly the sorts of parts where they excel.

  • With 19 screens to fill, the AMC at Boston Common needs a little more, so they are actually your place to go for new independent films this week, featuring two with religious undertones. From the Christians, we have The Grace Card, a drama about a pair of police officers (one a part-time pastor) overcoming family tragedies and challenges. It's apparently produced by a large Memphis church, but does look a lot more polished than many faith-oriented films, with Louis Gossett Jr. playing the mentor figure. On another screen, we have Mooz-lum, about a teen from a strict Muslim family dealing with culture shock as he starts college soon before the 9/11 attacks. It's got a couple of familiar faces - Danny Glover, Nia Long - and I thought star Evan Ross was very good in Life Is Hot in Cracktown. I haven't seen a preview for this one, though, so I'll probably be going in blind.

    If you don't mind making the trip out to Revere (or live out in that direction), locally-produced Oxy-Morons returns for another one-week run. And if you're looking for Oscar catch-up, Boston Common also has a 24-hour marathon screening of all ten Best Picture nominees starting Saturday at 10am. It looks like you've got to buy a ticket to the whole package rather than just the ones you may have missed, and there's no readmission during the wee hours.

  • Speaking of Oscar catch-up, the Brattle offers an odd double feature tonight (Friday the 25th) and tomorrow, with multiple nominee The Kids Are All Right and foreign-language film nominee Dogtooth. Both feature unusual family dynamics, although from what I've read of Dogtooth, the long-time lesbian couple of The Kids Are All Right isn't close to being in the same league.

    Mid-week, they will be playing a couple of documentaries: The DocYard screening is The Edge of Dreaming on Tuesday (1 March) at 8pm; it's the work of a rational filmmaker who, after having what seems like two predictive dreams, decides to investigate the phenomenon. On Thursday (3 March) afternoon, there is a special screening of Not My Life, an investigation into into modern slavery and human trafficking. Free admission for Harvard and Simmons students.

    In the middle of the week, they offer a tribute to the late, great Peter Yates. On Wednesday (2 March), you can see a double feature of Robbery (5:30, 7:45), a not-available-on-video adventure film about the Great Train Robbery, and Bullitt (10pm), the terrific Steve McQueen thriller with plenty of great suspense and car chases. Bullitt also plays Thursday night at 7:30.

    And, finally, there's also a late show of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone at 9:30pm on Thursday to catch audiences up for the second film in the series, which opens next week. No word on whether it or Evangelion 2.0 will be presented dubbed (as the first was a year and a half ago) or subtitled

  • Speaking of Peter Yates, the MFA concludes their "Cinema and the City" series this weekend by looking at Boston in Yates's The Friends of Eddie Coyle, maybe not "the best Boston film ever" as some have called it, but a pretty darn good crime drama. Also finishing up this weekend is "Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev. Their March calendar starts on Wednesday with a program of New Latin American Cinema, including The Joy from Brazil, Crab Trap from Colombia, and Lucia from Chile.

  • The Harvard Film Archive begins a retrospective of its own, Yilmaz Güney: From "Ugly King" to Poet of Despair, chronicling the career and strange life of one of Turkey's most (in)famous filmmakers. Some are films from his early (late 1960s/early 1970s) career (Hope & Bride of the Earth on Friday, Elegy on Saturday, The Hungry Wolves on Monday), while others were directed by others from his scripts while he was in prison for murder (Yol on Saturday, The Herd on Sunday).

  • ArtsEmerson was originally scheduled to have filmmaker Nina Menkes presenting two films in person this weekend, but an injury has, unfortunately, left her unable to travel. They will still be presenting Phantom Love tonight (25 February) and her new film, Dissolution, on Saturday night. The former is described as a "surreal psychodrama", the latter a look at violence in Israel. The Saturday afternoon family film is Charlotte's Web, and the Sunday evening program is Zulu Love Letter, a 2004 film set against South Africa's first truly democratic elections. It will be followed by a discussion that night and three more nights of South African films, but Zulu Love Letter is the only one open to the public.

  • The Academy-nominated short films are running in several places - the Coolidge, the Kendall, and the ICA (Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening only). The ICA also has an interesting program Saturday night, Sam Green and Dave Cerf: Utopia in Four Movements, a combination of documentary film, live narration and music, and "sound artist" Cerf putting it together.

  • The one-week warning at Kendall Square is for A Somewhat Gentle Man, a Norwegian black comedy starring Stellan Skarsgård as a recently released prisoner looking to go straight but only knowing criminals. I suspect that one-week warning is for real, as four films are scheduled to open next week, likely meaning a mass exodus.

  • And, finally, things get rather crowded at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, with Biutiful and The Illusionist both opening - Biutiful on film, and The Illusionist in the screening room. This pushes the shorts to the GoldScreen and means that the matinee of Another Year is on film while the evening show is in the screening room (Another Year also opens second-run at the Arlington Capitol). Maniac continues to play midnights (though without Mr. Lustig this weekend), and the Sunday morning Goethe-Institut German film is The Silence, in which an unsolved crime from 23 years earlier is reopened when it appears that history is repeating itself.

My plans: Catching up on the nominated shorts tonight and tomorrow, the Brattle Oscar party on Sunday, with Drive Angry and Mooz-lum sometime in between. A Somewhat Gentle Man and Robbery (and maybe Bullitt, though I've got that one on HDDVD) figure to round out the week.

This Week In Tickets: 14 February 2011 to 20 February 2011

Ah, the first festival pass of the season. It's sort of easing into the festival experience, as this one only scheduled one show a night. Of course, I had to make it more like a regular festival by throwing a second film in on a couple of nights:

This Week In Tickets!

Technically also included would be the Marathon portion of sf/36, but that's twelve movies, half of which I intend to write up, so since that ran into Monday I'll put it in next week's entry.

I wound up seeing No Strings Attached because the free ticket from AMC's awards program actually expired that night and my combined tendency to see movies before they're eligible for passes and ridiculous desire to "get the most" out of said pass (why use it on a $9 matinee when you can use it on an $11 evening show - and yes, readers from outside large cities, I did just write "$9 matinee") means I always tend to wait until the last minute to use them and generally see a not-so-exciting movie when I do

No Strings Attached

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Thus, No Strings Attached. As I noted when it first hit theaters, I do think the best version of the three similar films coming out in 2010-11 with the exact same plot (and in some cases, nearly the same name) will be the independent Friends (with Benefits), if only for doing surprising things with the supporting characters and generally being willing to go anywhere for a joke. This iteration has what is really an annoyingly good cast - Ashton Kutcher is actually pretty pleasant when playing a guy of modest intelligence, Natalie Portman makes her character enticing despite being closed off to the point of being almost emotionless, and their friends/family include Kevin Kline, Olivia Thirlby, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell, and more - but a real shortness of jokes.

It's not a case of the movie never being funny, but there aren't a lot of real belly-laughs. It definitely hews more to the "romance" side of the romantic comedy. And, to be fair, it does well by that. There is some sort of warming of the heart when Portman's Emma finally manages to open up and admit that, yes, she does have room in her life for that sort of attachment. It's preceded by a clunky bit of "here's the reason why she's so closed off" exposition, so it's not all it could have been, but it's good enough.

One other note: We may have reached the sad point in Kevin Kline's career when the odds of him appearing in a hospital bed at some point (to teach the younger lead characters something about the fleeting and impermanent nature of life) is greater than 50%. I've got to tell you, I'm really not looking forward to the point when it's more likely he dies in the movie than not.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2010 in Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

First: Seriously, Regal? Digital projection on screen #12? Presumably 2K, which isn't that much better than what I can get on my TV at home, as I remember a snip of film touting the 4K projection when I last saw a digital screening there. It was admittedly less of an issue once the film got going, but during the previews and titles, it looked really bad from where I was sitting. That screen is too big and has seats too close for 2K projection.

Second: I'm not saying I had what was going on completely figured out, but Diane Kruger's character being an attractive, age-appropriate-by-movie-standards woman who spends a lot more time with Liam Neeson's amnesiac Martin Harris than Harris's wife Elizabeth (January Jones) does is a pretty big hint as to how things will play out. Sure, there's a chance that the filmmakers will do something unconventional with the finale, but it's not exactly a big one.

Even without that, this is still just a middling thriller. As much as it's got some good bits, it's frustrating in that despite Neeson's character supposedly being very smart, the audience always feels like they're one step ahead of him - it takes him forever (and the prodding of a helpful ex-Stasi agent) for him to realize that if he was taking a cab from the airport, despite having just been there, he should probably focus some energy in that direction. Plus, when you wreck three taxis from the same company in three different action sequences, there's an opportunity for a good running joke that the movie sort of misses (also, the third is not nearly so spectacular as the first two; you really should build these things).

SF/36No Strings AttachedThe Housemaid (2010)Unknown

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival Features: Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning, The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels, Zonad

I say this in nearly everything I write about the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, at least over the past couple of years when it added a week-long screening series in front of the long-running marathon, but it's true: I want it to succeed. I want it to be huge. I want indie filmmakers who make science fiction to have getting into this festival as a goal, because it's the one that genre fans pay attention to. I want them to pass up screening at FantasticFest or SXSW because, well, Boston is cooler and more important.

Even if the fest's ambitions aren't that grand, though, there are a few areas that they need to address before next year, if this festival is intended to continue:

  • Communication: On the second night of the festival, the screening of Summer Wars apparently conked out with twenty minutes to go. I wasn't there - I'd seen it at Fantasia and was catching Perrier's Bounty that evening - but from what I've heard, the festival brass and the good folks at the Somerville Theatre handled it very well, apologizing and handing out free tickets. However, when that happens, it is incumbent upon the festival to let the audience know about any rescheduled screenings quickly and loudly. Ideally, there should have been information rapidly disseminated on Sunday - online (including website, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) and with signage in the theater. Instead, the earliest anybody found out was Monday evening when festival boss Garen Daly mentioned it at the screening of Star Wreck and those of us there mentioned it later on the message board. The official "announcement" was Tuesday, although it was less an announcement than quietly filling in the "TBA" space on the festival calendar.

    That's not good enough, especially in this case, as Summer Wars was the only animated/Japanese film playing, and as such might attract an audience that wasn't at other screenings and didn't read the message board. It's not impossible; consider two events at Fantasia: Back in '08, they got stuck with a copy of A Love with utterly indecipherable subtitles; by the end of the day it was off the online schedule, its later showtimes filled with other films, and ticketholders had refunds or exchanges. Last year, a technical glitch on the second-to-last day of the fest was still able to be made up for the next day, with a note on the festival's website almost immediately. And they've got to do it in two languages.

    Also, on Sunday night, I was told that the cast for one of the shorts turned up at the theater (they were local), but there was nobody from the fest to meet them, introduce them, lead a Q&A. That sort of thing can't be taken for granted; guest relations is the lifeblood of festivals.

  • The Website: This is arguably a subcategory of communications, but deserves its own bullet point. Look at it, it's bad. There are spelling errors on the front page that have been there for at least six months, important information is often hidden two or three non-intuitive clicks deep, and I don't think I've ever talked to anybody who has been able to make an order for tickets/passes/merch go through on the first try.

    It's pretty simple: In the twenty-first century, everybody needs to have a decent website. But when you're running something like a science-fiction film festival - an event that tends to draw a tech-savvy crowd - it's doubly important. Make it look good, have important information and/or links displayed near the top, and if you're going to put the site's address on all of your promotion, make sure that it's the first place you update, rather than your Facebook page.

  • Know When/Where Things Have Played: The first film announced last year as a "New England Premiere" was Sleep Dealer... but it had already played Boston, nearly a year earlier, with a run at the Brattle Theatre. When called on this, the programmers said the distributor had told them that the film had only played New York and Los Angeles. You would think that such an obvious gaffe would lead to the programmers double-checking this stuff from then on, but apparently that's not the case: Summer Wars was labeled a "Boston Premiere" despite it having played the Museum of Fine Arts a month earlier, and Zonad a "US Premiere" despite having played the Tribeca, Traverse City, and Austin Film Festivals in 2010.

    On the surface, this probably doesn't matter much to any festival-goer but me, and what's the harm in attendees maybe thinking they're getting something a little more exclusive than they are? But let me put it this way: If you're a Boston-area movie buff, and the first thing you see about this festival are claims you know to be false, it's not making a good impression (it's reasonable to expect someone running a "Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival" to know which sci-fi films have played Boston recently), and you might not be inclined to pay ten bucks to see a projected DVD of something you'd seen earlier. From the other side, if you're a filmmaker, it looks unprofessional. Do you want to take your film there?

    Again, it's minor, especially if you're only really concerned about pleasing your existing base, but this isn't hard: When you're booking a movie or writing up the program notes and schedule, Google "Summer Wars Boston" and "Zonad Film Festival". It takes seconds, you get me off your back, and you don't have to spit out lame explanations about how the distributor counts non-profit organizations like the museum differently. Getting stuff right never hurts, even if you never know how getting stuff wrong does hurt.

  • Double Dipping: There were eight features/short programs aside from the marathon, and two were repeated during the marathon. Truth be told, I haven't minded leaving the 'thon at 10:30 or so the past couple of years, but I think one should probably be the upper limit. Both years, there's been a fair amount of grumbling from people who bought the festival pass months ahead of time for a discount, not realizing that using it to its fullest extent meant repeats. At the very least, mention that one or two movies may be repeated between the "festival" and the "marathon".

    Ideally, though, it would be unique material from start to finish. On the one hand, it's booking more movies; on the other, it's getting people to come out more times, which I'm sure that at least the theater (specifically, the concession stand) will appreciate.

  • The Films: This is subjective, of course, but look at the three films being reviewed: A parody, a tribute to a schlock filmmaker, and another one on the mocking side. Now, to be fair, this is short because I'd already seen Summer Wars and The Revenant elsewhere and figured I'd be better off waiting for the 'thon for 20,000 Leagues, as that would be on film. I go to Fantasia, I get the occasional screener, so there's less new for me than there are other people. But that's still a lot of the schedule given over to movies more concerned with looking back rather than forward, and are movies about movies. The marathon is in large part a nostalgia event, but I think that's the very sort of thing sci-fi films need to avoid right now.

    As I've said before, when your goal is to emulate bad movies, you make bad movies. And if the festival is looking for a new audience beyond the "marathoids"... Well, one of the points I've been trying to make on the message board is that the college kids you'd be marketing to today didn't grow up watching bad movies on a UHF channel's Creature Double Feature or reading Famous Monsters of Filmland; they saw Jurassic Park in elementary school and get their news from Twitch or reading tweets from Fantastic Fest. I suspect that this sort of thing might not be nearly as enjoyable to that crowd. I certainly didn't get much of a kick out of it.

It's still a pretty good festival, and the marathon portion was as good as ever. But if Mr. Daly wants to make this a respected, quality festival, there are certain elements that must be tightened up.

Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

The festival program claims that Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning was a huge box office hit in its native Finland, which surprises me somewhat. Not just because it's not very good; bad movies make good money all the time, all over the world. No, it's because I cannot imagine how it could have been given a sizable release without a bunch of lawyers from Paramount and Warner Brothers grinding them to a paste. Tolerating fan films and being quietly grateful to be spoofed is one thing, but this...

Captain James B. Pirk (Samuli Torssonen) and two of his officers, Commanders Dwarf (Timo Vuorensola) and Info (Antti Satama), have been marooned in early twenty-first century Finland by a time-travel adventure gone wrong. However, while Info cautions against altering the timestream, a frustrated Pirk decides, what the hell, why don't we use the tech from our crashed ship to build a dreadnought and conquer the Earth? Eventually, he manages it, but running a planetary empire is hard, so when a ship emerges from a nearby "maggot hole", implying the existence of new worlds to conquer and pillage on the other side, he leads a fleet there. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, space station Babel 13's commander Joni Sherripie (Atte Joutsen) is wondering what happened to that patrol ship.

If you've watched sci-fi on television over the last twenty-five-odd years, decoding those character names should not be a difficult undertaking; I suspect that even the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine worked a little harder on clever puns when creating their spoofs of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The real shame, though, is that this really does represent something close to the full extent of the wit on display here. I'm not saying that the filmmakers should necessarily have tried to restart the Nerd Wars of the 1990s when you were either a Trek guy or a B5 guy and the other side deserved no respect whatsoever, but even halfheartedly diving into the two shows' strengths and weaknesses might have made this weak satire rather than weak parody. It's kind of surprising that they only had one actor playing a different part in both universes (although, yes, it's the one that makes for the best inside joke).

Full review at EFC.

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

It seems like cult and B-movie directors get more documentary features than their more mainstream counterparts. There's a Roger Corman one coming out this year, William Castle had one, as did Herschell Gordon Lewis. It makes sense, I suppose - these are often the guys who have lived colorful lives, and, hey, they've got a cult. It seems, though, that Ted V. Mikels is toward the bottom of the barrel, and director Kevin Sean Michaels doesn't do great with the scraping.

Ted V. Mikels got his introduction to show business at a very early age, cast as a child in a film set to star William Powell that never got off the ground. The bug bit him, and he eventually had a magic act before he got started making films as a writer/director, working in Oregon, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, mostly making schlock, notably horror flicks - his best-known (most infamous?) titles being The Corpse Grinders and The Astro-Zombies.

Mikels seems like a nice enough guy, who in his eighty-plus years of working in the shadowy parts of the film industry has accumulated his share of stories and friends, and many of them are on display here. Most are fairly amusing, but even for non-fans, they have the sound of tales that they have told more than a few times. These anecdotes don't build into something larger, though - it's like one of those DVD commentary tracks that are filled with mere description of what's on-screen with a smattering of on-set stories and tangents that don't actually provide much insight. There's never an "aha!" moment, or even some indication that Mikels is getting better at making movies - the clips of his recent pictures have the same bad acting and writing, but actually look worse for being shot on low-end video with awful CGI.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

If Zonad ever started to make a lick of sense for even one second, it probably wouldn't work. Fortunately, filmmakers John & Kieran Carney are well aware of that, and while they have managed to put something resembling a human heart in their movie, they are able to do so without giving up on being goofy.

It's a fine night for stargazing in a small Irish town, and there's an impressive comet passing by. On the way home, lovely schoolgirl Jenny Cassidy (Janice Byrne) makes it quite clear to her boyfriend Guy (Rory Keenan) that she's quite ready, but he refuses to take the hint, so she winds up going back home with her parents (Geoff Minogue and Donna Dent) and brother (Kevin Maher), where they find a man in a red jumpsuit and helmet (Simon Delaney) passed out on the floor. When someone says he must be a spaceman, he runs with it, calling himself "Zonad" and saying he's on a scouting expedition to Earth. People continue to believe it, so he enjoys the town's hospitality - at least, until Guy starts getting annoyed at the attention Zonad and Jenny are giving each other, and another visitor (David Pearse) arrives.

The premise is silly, naturally, which makes the balancing act that the Carneys and their cast pull off fairly impressive. The story requires the entire town to be unusually trusting, but it doesn't play as pointing at the stupid villagers and laughing. There's a parodic early-sitcom vibe to it, the same kind of orderly innocence, except that those old comedies didn't have the gleeful raunch we see from the beginning here (and this isn't Pleasantville - Jenny doesn't need anybody to tell her about sex). There's a bit of parody of sci-fi/sitcom/eccentric-village tropes in there, but not contempt.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Housemaid (2011)

Last year was an interesting one for Korean movies titled The Housemaid, as not only did Im Sang-soo release his, but it was also the fiftieth anniversary of the Kim Ki-young original, and if you went to a festival during the year, you might get either one. As I may have mentioned a few times, it's an interesting sort of remake, in that only the very basic framework seems to have been retained - a new maid comes to work for a family, winds up in the father's bed, and the balance of power shifts in the household when she gets pregnant.

Aside from that, though, it's a completely different story. Eun-yi comes to work for an ultra-rich family, as opposed to one just lifting itself into the middle class, and the employer is the predator in this situation (although Eun-yi certainly doesn't fight it). When I saw the original back in December, I spent a little time talking about it as an indictment of consumer culture; I wouldn't say that the new version inverts that idea, but it does look at it from another angle. In 1960, Kim Ki-young was playing with the proverb that the things you purchase end up owning you; Im Sang-soo goes to the other end of the economy, where the people and corporations at the very top can act with impunity.

It's somewhat familiar territory for Director Im, who also made the excellent The President's Last Bang, a black comedy about the assassination of President Park Chun-hee. That was another film about rot and privilege at the top, but he doesn't treat the subject quite so lightly here. Here, the source of the power is vague - the bodyguards Goh Hoon travel with initially made me think crime, but it works for the merely wealthy, as well. In both cases, the power is entrenched - in The Housemaid, so much so that there's not even talk of who built the financial empire that lets Hoon live so well. He is, as far as the people around him care to consider it, a prince; his family has always been rich and powerful, using people and then papering over it with money, and the next generation will be the same way. It's cynical - even the people in both films who do grow a conscience of sorts may feel there's no way to stop the cycle - but in that cynicism, Im occasionally finds something blackly humorous or personally tragic.

... Anyway, this film is on the one-week program at the Kendall, although I suspect it may hang around another week; there's just one new film scheduled to open there this coming Friday and the shorts may be what leaves instead. Still, it's well worth a look; I think I like it a bit more than the original.

Hanyo (The Housemaid, 2011)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The original version of The Housemaid is widely considered a classic of Korean cinema, the sort of thing one doesn't remake lightly. For that film's fiftieth anniversary, though, that's what Im Sang-soo did, although it's the sort of remake where all the characters' names are changed, the relationships are reversed, and only the very basics remain. It's an almost completely different movie, but just as good, if not better.

There may not be any connection between the girl standing on the edge of a building in Soeul and there being an opening for a housemaid/nanny in the Goh household, but does it matter? They're in the market, and they hire Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who is attractive and capable and doesn't realize just how far in over her head she is about to get. Her primary charge, young Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon), is a privileged little girl. The mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), is pregnant with twins. The father, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), works long hours and is flanked by bodyguards when he returns home. The head maid, Cho Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong), has been with the family for decades, knows everything that happens in the house, and reports back to Hae-ra's mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young). When Hoon makes his way down to Eun-yi's room at the vacation home, an affair begins that will lead to not just cracks but radiating fractures in the household.

Is Eun-yi blameless in this situation? Of course not. But one immediately sees how Goh Hoon may be difficult for her to resist. It's not just that he's handsome and wealthy; it's the way that, when he enters a scene, it's immediately clear just how completely he dominates it; he's a man so used to power, financial and sexual, that it radiates from him like an aura. The magnetic properties of this sort of power is the core of this version of The Housemaid - Hoon exercises it casually and carelessly; Hae-ra and Mi-hee plot to retain it; Eun-yi and Byung-sik are drawn into its orbit; and Nami, born to it, is being taught to have the same relation to it as her father. If Kim Ki-young's Housemaid was about the emerging consumer culture trapping people as much as it superficially empowered them, Im Sang-soo's is about the other end of the scale, how this eventually concentrates wealth and power into the hands of a small, unchecked group.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 February 2011 - 24 February 2011

(Most of) you have an extra day's worth of weekend, folks - see some movies!

  • The Boston Sci-Fi Festival comes to its big conclusion with the annual 24-hour Marathon, starting at noon on Sunday and running until noon on Monday at the Somerville Theatre, in the big room. But first, the schedule shows that there are a couple more shows to go in the festival, and for the weekend, you get multiple showtimes (4:30, 7:30, and 9:30). Friday's program is Zonad, an Irish comedy from John Carney (who directed Once) and his brother Kieran about a dude in a jumpsuit who shows up in a small town claiming to be from outer space. It's gotten pretty good notices at various festivals, and will also play in the marathon. Saturday evening is The Revenant, which, despite anyone telling you it's sci-fi or a zombie movie, is a nifty-but-extended take on vampires. Then Sunday is the 'thon, with what looks like one of its strongst lineups in recent years. I'll likely be in the balcony; say hi.

  • The 'thon isn't the only Presidents' Day tradition for the area; the Brattle becomes extremely kid-friendly for school vacation week with their annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival. Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday are the "All Bugs Review", while Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday are "Lovable Looneys". Even if you don't have kids... Aw, c'mon, do I really have to say that these are funny flicks made for the entire audience back in the day? Plus, after a lifetime of seeing them on TV, it might surprise you how good they look on film.

  • The new film at Kendall Square this weekend is The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo's 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young's 1960 classic (reviewed here). I'm kind of excited for this, because all indications are that it's not a straight remake, but that characters who were innocent before are villainous and vice versa; it should make a neat companion piece. Note that Landmark only has it scheduled for a one-week run. Oscar season slows boutique-house turnover to a crawl, doesn't it?

  • Speaking of, there's not much turnover at the Coolidge, either - they move the Documentary shorts to a the MiniMax (er, GoldScreen) and put the live action and animated shorts in the screening room. Worth noting - they stick around for a second week at Kendall Square as well, but the times are inverted, which is handy if 9:45 screenings are tough for you: You can hit live-action at 7:10 at the Coolidge one night and animated at 7:10 at Kendall the next. Or you can check them out at the ICA on Monday the 21st (matinees) and Thursday the 24th (evening shows).

    Coolidge Corner also has a number of special events this week: The midnight shows Friday the 18th and Saturday the 19th are controversial 1980 slasher film Maniac, with director William Lustig in person. The film will be playing late shows for another two weeks after that, but Lustig is only around for this weekend. Monday night is the latest entry in "Science on Screen", Death in Venice, with psychologist Dr. Nancy Etcoff, whose book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty is quite relevant to this film. Tuesday is an "Off the Counch" screening of Another Year, where Dr. Judy Yanof of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society will lead a post-film discussion, and an IFFBoston preview screening of Win Win.

  • A couple action movies and a couple comedies show up at the multiplexes. The action comes from Unknown, in which Liam Neeson regains consciousness after an accident to find his wife doesn't recognize him - and indeed, believes someone else to be her husband, and I Am Number Four (also hitting the IMAX/RPX screens), in which a kid whose actually an alien must fight people trying to eliminate the rest of his race, but must do it in numbered order. Funny things - I could have sworn that Unknown was a remake of some foreign film, but it's apparently not, though it does adapt a novel. Number Four is an "adaptation", in that the young-adult novel was written for the express purpose of being made into a movie (it was downright weird that the publicity mailing lists I'm on offered me a chance to review the novel before it came out, when the movie must have already been filming).

    The big comedy is Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, and let's be honest - Martin Lawrence's character must like dressing as an overweight grandmother, because you don't do it three times otherwise - there are other, less ridiculous disguises to maintain. Fewer screens are going to Cedar Rapids - it's only playing Boston Common and Harvard Square - in which Ed Helms plays a small town guy over his head in the "big city". It stars The Other Guy In The Hangover, but might be interesting, as director Miguel Arteta has done some interesting things, and the cast includes John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, and other fun character actors.

  • Emerson's programs this weekend are both family-friendly: Friday and Saturday evening, they present Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (along with an episode of Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma); it's lovely in its own right and also a clear influence on Disney's later version. Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening is the Mel Stuart version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder in the title role. I'm guessing it's pretty spiffy in 35mm.

  • After a retrospective of his films started last weekend, Patricio Guzmán visits the Harvard Film Archive in person for Friday's screening of documentary featurettes "Chile, Obstinate Memory" and "Madrid" and Saturday's screening of Nostalgia for the Light. Though he leaves after that, Jorge Ruffinelli will introduce Sunday the 20th's screening of The Southern Cross. The series concludes on Monday the 21st wtih "A Village Fading Away".

  • The MFA's Cinema and the City series continues with Chinatown (L.A.) tonight and Los Olvidados (Mexico City) playing single screenings on the Friday the 18th through Sunday the 20th and again on Thursday the 24th. Also starting tonight is Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev; it opens tonight and runs through the 27th.

  • Two Indian features with English subtitles open at Fresh Pond this weekend. 7 Khoon Maaf is in Hindia and stars Priyanka Chopra as an apparent black widow who goes through seven husbands (the title translates to "Seven Sins Forgiven"); it plays all day Friday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Saturday through Tuesday, it shares a screen with Nadunisi Naaygal, which is in Tamil and appears to be a thriller of some kind; it runs Saturday through Tuesday.

  • The classic double feature at the Arlington Capitol this weekend is apparently the last in the series, and pairs a couple of pretty good ones: Start (or finish) with Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, a film noir that hits a lot harder than you might expect and features pretty good performances out of Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh. The art on the Capitol's website indicates that it's the restored version, cut from Welles's notes, but there's nothing in the text specifically saying that it's not the original theatrical cut (pretty good for 40-odd years). The other half is David Lean's Summertime, an exquisitely shot story of lonely Katharine Hepburn visiting Venice and perhaps finding love.

  • The Capitol takes part in the second-run shuffle this weekend as well, but just barely, picking up a single matinee of Yogi Bear in one of its 3-D-capable rooms. Their sister theater in Somerville picks up 127 Hours and No Strings Attached (and maybe something else once we nerds vacate), while Boston-shot The Company Men also shows up at Stuart Street and the Studio Cinema in Belmont (add that to Somerville, and I think it may be playing wider second-run than it did when it first opened). Also, The Aquarium finally has retired Inception in favor of showing Tron: Legacy in genuine IMAX during the evening.

My plan? Well, the long weekend is more or less spoken for: Zonad tonight, the 'thon Sunday-Monday, and trying to buy Sox/Yankees tickets on Saturday. Around them, I will likely try to see The Housemaid, Unknown and the short films, and then likely catch up on sleep all week.

This Week In Tickets: 7 February 2011 to 13 February 2011

Blah blah lousy commute blah blah cold blah fairly busy weekend, actually:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival short programs ("Dangerous Visions", Friday 11 February, 7:30pm Somerville Theatre #2; "Retro Speculatives", Sunday 13 February, 7:30pm Somerville Theatre #2)

The size of the tickets makes it look like a busier week than it was - nothing between Monday and Friday, and then, bang, shorts at the Somerville, heading back to Cambrdige, stopping to grab some pizza before Angelica, and then spending all of Sunday watching shorts and talking the the IFFBoston folks, who seem really excited about what they have lined up.

Saturday... Well, I spent most of Saturday going through comic book backlog. It sounds like there were projection problems at the sci-fi fest, so I feel even less bad about bailing on the movie I'd already seen for Perrier's Bounty.

UndertowThe Strange Case of AngelicaPerrier's BountyOscar Shorts: Documentary

Short Stuff: The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival

A couple months ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I had a couple ideas for short sci-fi films, and it was too bad that I would likely never find the time to actually write them. A friend sees this, says to get cracking, because he and some other friends could use a good script. So I do, although it's slow going - I've got a full-time job, I try to write something about every movie I see for this blog, and, you know, creative writing is hard.

Seriously, it's really difficult. I have the story's idea, I have an outline of what I want to happen, I even have the backstories for the characters in my head. But the actual putting one word after another in order to create something that, when read, tells a story in an entertaining way and can serve as directions for actors and filmmakers to present it as a motion picture? It drives me nuts. My characters seem to take forever to get the point across, when I speak their lines out loud to see if they pass the "would a human being actually saying this sound ridiculous" test, it leads to revision, I'm not sure how to make the story less convoluted without a lot of boring exposition, and none of the endings I come up with feel right to me.

So, on a certain level, I feel a certain amount of sympathy for the makers of these short sci-fi films - and what I'm doing isn't necessarily the easy part, but it's the part that doesn't really require expending resources. Sure, I have to think about them - just how much does building a full-size time machine cost, anyway, and do I really need two? - but it'll likely be someone else who has to do something practical there. I'm looking at something that will likely run ten or fifteen minutes, and even if I get off my butt, finish writing it, and take advantage of a bunch of friends and family with skills this project will need, it's going to be a crazy undertaking.

But, at the same time, I kind of resent what I see in some of these flicks. Every time someone laughed during "Battle Beyond Belief", it pissed me off a little - I'm trying to give whatever cast winds up performing these characters real human beings to play, and create a story that grabs the audience's attention, and I know that it probably won't get as much visible reaction as a bad Shatner impersonation. "Cosas Feas" might have been a lot better if it wasn't drowning in conflicting homages. And so on. Oddly, I feel no envy of the guys with money for digital effects - you work with what you have - but I'm working hard on my end, and hate that people who aren't putting the same effort into every line are getting by with shortcuts.

Admittedly, "No Time" is a little derivative, but I think that by the time I'm done writing it, it will be something of its own. After that, who knows. Ideally, it would be awesome to have it be an actual part of this festival (and Fantasia, and Fantastic Fest...) next year, but I've got to actually finish writing it first.

Dangerous Visions

Seen 11 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

"Time's Up Eve"

A woman runs from the beings collecting human souls in this noir-inspired short. The story is nothing earth-shaking - once you've got the lay of the land, the twists in the plot are not hard to figure out, but director Patrick Rea takes us through them with a certain amount of style. It's bolstered nicely by good-looking black and white photography that emphasizes the stillness of the city; there's also a nice score and good use of what special effects are available.

At times, the choice to use a forties-pastiche style is a little overbearing; between the need to explain what's going on, the lack of anyone else for Eve to talk to, and what's inherent in the style, there is a lot of narration. At a certain point I started to start think about the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but just as that happened, the movie started to do that, and it wasn't necessarily good; the acting dropped a level or two. It's an interesting thing to keep in mind, that going with narration had allowed the cast to concentrate on one thing at a time (shoot until the body language looks right, record until the narration is right, and then combine the two) and gloss over where the cast might have been limited rather than accept compromise.

"Cosas Feas" ("Nasty Stuff")

Speaking of style run amok, Isaac Ezban overdoses on it somewhat here. This short is presented somewhat in the style of a Spanish-language sexual educational film, with narration and cinematography that seems right on target for that, and by the end it's piling B-grade horror tropes onto that, with a poorly-synched soundtrack and shots that seem to switch from showcasing how weird this kid's family is to recreating sloppy filmmaking.

It's too much in every way. Many in the audience didn't like the gross-out places it went, but I think the main problem is that it went on too long. Once you've shown the good, so to speak, it's time to end the movie quickly; instead, Ezban drags things out, diluting his payoff, and the two styles being aped work against each other. The movie bounces between tones, making it hard to appreciate either, and making it seem more a collection of odds and ends than a single vision.

And, yeah, it's gross. Nice job building the prostheses, and I get wanting to get as much use out of them as you could, but there's a definite "less is more" principle to be applied here.

"Zombie Radio"

Maybe not quite so much less as this picture, though. Lawrence Gray's shaggy dog story of a nebbish in pursuit of the paranormal only to be mocked by his ex-girlfriend on the radio, is mildly amusing but never has that great moment when the audience really laughs out loud. It's got a set of somewhat standard-issue quirky characters, but whether schmuck or just oddball, none of them grab us. It's also a sad example of failed banter - Frank and Luscious don't click and their conversations don't pop, so as we're following them from scene to scene, it's always acutely evident that there's something missing.

And, like "Cosas Feas", it just goes on too long - even as a short, it doesn't have enough gags for its running time, although the padding here seems early rather than late.

"Planes de Futuro"

This one, on the other hand, was pretty good. In it, a man in his bedroom is visited by a girl who seems sort of familiar, although he doesn't believe it when she says she's from the future. Director Ivan A. Solas actually does a rather remarkable job here - what's going on is supposed to be initially confusing, but enticingly so, as opposed to frustrating, and he edits the film in a way that is familiar from high-end mainstream movies (little jumps in time and cuts to alternate takes), but here is literal, as the time traveler attempts again and again to reach her desired goal.

Quite good, and really only hampered by some technical issues with the presentation (the sound was low compared to the other shorts and there was a strange noise coming from the booth; fortunately, this short was subtitled).


Despite the Latin-sounding name, this isn't another from Spain. It's an American film about spaceships searching for a new homeworld for humanity, with small crews finding solace in virtual reality and sometimes disconnecting from the real world. Familiar, but handled pretty well; each member of the cast has a good moment or two and the effects work isn't bad at all. I suspect that, like a similarly ship-based featurette from last year's fest, this was made as much to demonstrate the filmmakers' skills on the technical side as to tell the story.

It's a little stiff at times for that; at times, I wondered how much experience these actors had at handling digital backlot shooting. Sometimes I imagine that the physical precision needed to hit marks so that the FX guys can add environments and objects in is distracting to the point of being all an actor can concentrate on. Here, the feeling is not quite stiff but there is no feeling of spontaneity, either.

Retro Speculatives

Seen 13 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

(Note: There was one other short that played, but the Red Line got me to Somerville as it was just ending. It will be repeated during the marathon, so I'll comment on it then)

"Battle Beyond Belief"


Maybe it's wrong to rag on something like "Battle Beyond Belief", which never pretends to be aiming for sophistication, for being lazy. It actually does some things well; the Flash and stop-motion animation isn't bad at all, the music that takes over the last act is a good-enough pastiche of '60s manufactured pop that it actually becomes kind of catchy for a while, and breaking the flick into a three-act structure along the lines of the TV shows it riffs on makes for pretty decent pacing. But...

Seriously, a mincing gay stereotype named "Dr. Unkk"? A womanizing captain who frequently pauses in his speech named "Shat Williams"? These are pretty stock characters, and at one point I resolved to break out some old-school Star Trek DVD/BD/HDDVDs just to see if Shatner ever really delivered his lines like that. I strongly suspect that Shatner's been as Rich-Littled as John Wayne has - as in, nobody actually does an imitation of John Wayne any more; they imitate Rich Little's imitation of John Wayne.

Plus, it's one of those where the filmmakers like to shove breasts in the audience's face, and you sort of know that if anyone asked the filmmaker about it, they'd say it's a parody, and it is, sort of, but it's certainly not above just letting the audience leer, either. It's almost hypocritical - it wants the audience to laugh at something, but its satire/parody isn't close to clever enough to be looking down on that thing.

"The Poster"

Answer me this - why does a movie most likely made by genre fans, which will likely only be seen by genre fans, tend to paint said fans in such a negative light? The main character of htis one is a ridiculous cliché, and watching him is just painful; I'm surprised he wasn't given a Jerry Lewis-at-his-worst voice to him.

Plus, this could use a lot of tightening up. It's almost a half-hour long and doesn't really have enough happening during that time frame to justify it, especially since, as not great as the folks playing the main characters are, the supporting actors are worse.

"The Machine"

Another technology-scare movie, this one about a technology that can put a person in a virtual world without his knowledge using any TV. It's a really silly premise form a technical standpoint, but even if this movie isn't innovative story-wise - the audience will likely see every beat coming - it does okay in execution. Director Jeffrey Stallman paces it well, does well getting the most out of his limited budget, and coaxes good performances out of his cast. It's rough around the edges at points, but well-executed.

"Gear School: Plug and Play"

I never read Dark Horse's Gear School series - I think I resolved to get most of their Rocket line in collections, but the line sort of flopped, Dark Horse lets months go before putting a collection out, and what there was felt like orphan series, Act Is building up to an abrupt stop. Plus, they were pitched to a much younger audience than me.

I don't know whether Luis Calvo and Ismael Ferrer adapted a specific issue or just grabbed the characters and setting, but it looks like I may have missed out there; "Plug and Play" would work nicely as a pilot presentation for a kids' TV series. It's not quite slick, and the special effects may be a notch or so below state-of-the-art, but it feels pretty respectable: It's got big sets with the right amount of people, there are ubiquitous but not overwhelming effects, and the cast is likable and, while not exactly pushed to their limits here, probably good enough to sell a light action-adventure series.

Good luck making one, guys. There's certainly a lot worse out there.

"Keep Watching the Skies!"

James and Robert Dastoli have made a clever enough pastiche of an anti-alien propaganda reel, if you like that sort of thing. Those things are sort of proof against criticism: "There's no logic here!" "Well, there isn't in a propaganda film!" "The effects and acting are bad!" "Just like in 1950s sci-fi movies!" "It's derivative, getting a reaction not for what the filmmakers have created, but what the audience recognizes and remembers fondly from other films!" "Nerd!"

This one's got a few good moments, and I suspect that people with more affection for 1950s red-scare sci-fi than I have will enjoy it well enough. But, like I said up top, making even a short film takes time, money, and hard work - why put that effort into something that won't be more than a mere reflection?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Short Stuff: The 2010 Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts

One thing becomes very clear when watching the two programs' worth of short documentary films nominated for the Academy Award this year: The cut-off length to be considered a short is forty minutes. All five come in within two minutes of that length, and it suggests that, to a certain extent, either the filmmakers are playing to the awards or the rules give films that length a strong advantage in the nominating process.

Some of these films could, perhaps, be a little longer, but unless they get up to eighty minutes or so, they're not going to be programmed as features on their own. Get up into the thirty-five to forty minute range, though, and your film isn't just part of a short film package at a festival, it's anchoring it. There's probably also some bias toward longer films within this particular shorts category: This much on screen represents a great deal of work done and a certain weight to the subject that a ten-minute film might not, rightly or wrongly. And for a filmmaker passionate about his or her subject, this nomination is likely the best chance to get their film seen. It's probably also not a bad length if you're looking at public television as the most likely sales destination; it fits nicely in an hour-long timeslot, with room for the anthology series's credits, an introduction, and maybe an interview with the filmmaker or a follow-up piece.

Whatever the reasons for there being so little variation in the length of the pieces nominated for the award this year, all five groups of filmmakers have created worthy films, packing interesting information and true-life stories into a compact running time. Each is strong enough that I must imagine the voting will be close. The nominees, in the order presented, are:

"Killing in the Name"

"Killing in the Name" opens by reminding us that, though the western world frequently thinks of Muslims as the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, the vast majority of the 88,000 victims of such attacks over the past five years were also Muslims. This film focuses on one, Ashraf Al-Khaled, who along with his wife lost 27 family members when a suicide bomber targeted the hotel in Amman, Jordan where his wedding reception was being held. Since then, he has traveled the world, advocating against terror within the Muslim community.

It's a worthy subject, and one whose details perhaps might be worthy of expansion in a feature - a segment about a one-time conspirator in a large attack in Bali, Indonesia who testified against his group's leaders and is attempting to "de-radicalize" former compatriots is interesting, but the glimpse we see is all too brief. Perhaps more problematically, the narration describes this man as one of Indonesia's most potent weapons against terror, but what we see is not a man making headway. Admittedly, it's likely a long process, perhaps not suited to a short that has other concerns.

Or maybe we're supposed to despair; while this film is made with the participation of Ashraf's foundation, the message often seems to be what an uphill battle those who want peace face over their progress. We're confronted by several groups and individuals, including an Amman recruiter for Al-quaeda, who are unnerving for their calmness and certainty. I suspect that it ends up being somewhat less inspirational than it intends to be, although it is a calm, fairly clear-eyed look at a situation that seems intractable.

"Sun Come Up"

While watching "Sun Come Up", I was struck by how similar it was to another short film I'd seen a few months ago, right down to its opening of climate-change refugees appearing on a radio talk show. There's good reason for this - Jennifer Redfearn's picture is either an expansion of her previous short film, the ten-minute "The Next Wave", or a further examination of the same topic. In it, we see how residents of the Carteret Islands near Papua New Guinea are about to become homeless, not just by how rising sea levels threaten to swallow up their tiny archipelago, but by the environmental damage caused in the meantime.

When I saw the earlier version, one thing I noted was that Redfearn and company could have spent a little more time educating those not familiar with the area on the geography, and the longer run time does does allow her to present more facts, including a demonstration of how, even if the sea levels were to be stopped in their tracks immediately, much damage has already been done. It's simple, straightforward science that shows how this situation affects specific people, and well-done.

There are a few moments when it feels like the picture may have been expanded a little far - in a fictional film, one might think that more characters were introduced than could be properly developed - and it's somewhat unusual in that it might actually play a little better if it ended a little less resolved: Though we're happy that some people on the war-torn larger island are capable of empathy and generosity, the audience might feel a little more motivated to do something about the root causes of the problem if the Carteret people are as desperate at the end as at the start.

"The Warriors of Qiugang"

The same can perhaps be said of "The Warriors of Qiugang", though it certainly doesn't end with all the problems of this village in China's Anhui Province solved. Of all the films in the category, it's the one I might most like to see extended into a feature, or even adapted as a fictional film; with its complete story arc, likable hero, and relatively politically-acceptable storyline, I wouldn't be surprised if some Chinese filmmaker were to make something along the lines of The Legend of Qiu Ju out of it.

The stakes are a little higher than that, though - the village of Qiugang finds its crops devastated by the chemical plant built nearby, and finding redress for this is quite difficult, considering that the chemical company seems to have gangs and the local government on its side, and the bureaucracy is seemingly designed to be impenetrable to the mostly-illiterate inhabitants of this farming community. Still, director Ruby Yang is able to spend three years following the villager's progress, and they likely benefit by having the filmmakers there, too - in one sequence, it seems abundantly clear that the American film crew is making it harder for a factory representative to intimidate the villager's representative.

And that man, Wang Gongli, is a large part of why the film works so well. A man of late-middle-age or perhaps a grandfather, Wang is not much better educated than most of his neighbors - he made it through roughly the fourth grade decades ago - but he learns the law well enough to know which letters to send to the right people, eventually working the system well enough to get Beijing involved. He's a humble man, with a frequent smile, and Ms. Yang is smart enough to let let him be that: The word hero is used, but in a self-deprecating way, and letting him remain an ordinary man rather than trying to build him up makes his accomplishments more impressive, even if the end titles are right to point out that those accomplishments are also fragile.

"Poster Girl"

As the case of Wang Gongli shows us, documentaries can be made or broken by "casting", for lack of a better term. There are probably thousands of documentaries made on worthy topics that just don't get traction because the filmmakers never found the right person for the audience to identify with. Director Sara Nesson does not have that problem with "Poster Girl"; whether she intended to make a movie about Robynn Murray from the start or settled on her after looking at the topic of post-traumatic stress from a broader perspective, Sgt. Murray's misfortune turns out to be this movie's gain.

Her story is, after all, compelling - a former cheerleader from a family with a tradition of military service, she joined the army at the age of 19, and despite being told that she would be working support and outreach, she soon winds up in an exposed turret of an armored vehicle, unable to find the snipers targeting her among the civilians. She returns home with physical injuries as well as PTSD, facing the challenges of trying to get the VA to give her the care she needs and just trying to get through the day.

Much of the film involves watching and listening to Robynn, and she makes a great subject. She's comfortable being in front of and opening up to the camera, but not in a way that causes the audience to doubt that she's a mess otherwise. We're able to see her low points, including one that comes so quickly that we might not believe it if an actor showed a character breaking down that way. It's possible to see the person she was behind the person she has become, and curse the war all the more for what it does to people like her. Nesson tells her story extremely well, showing small steps on the road to healing as well as the sense of betrayal that seems to haunt her as much as the louder, gorier horrors of war.

"Strangers No More"

After a long diet of documentaries about what is wrong and miserable about the world, it's nice to finish the program on one about people doing good. "Strangers No More" covers a year at a public school in the middle of Tel Aviv, located in a district filled with refugees and immigrants from forty-eight countries. The students speak nearly as many languages, and in many cases this would be a recipe for chaos.

Somehow, it works. Directors Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon don't necessarily present the educators as doing anything particularly revolutionary, although as the audience watches, little things seem to add up: Everybody learns Hebrew. The school is open until evening so that students have a place to go and productive activities when they might otherwise get in trouble. Kids are encouraged to interact with each other and given responsibilities when they're able to handle them. Simple, intuitive things from educators willing to get involved in their students' lives. It might not scale too well to larger schools, but it works here.

Goodman and Simon don't get too fancy with the film, either - early on, they introduce three African students that they will follow more closely than the others, lay out their particular challenges, and use their progression and maturation over the course of the school year to show the school's methods, the teachers' commitment, and how, if you show kindness and understanding, ethnic and cultural differences don't matter much to kids at all.

Not a bad way to end a program that started with terrorism practically right next door.

I won't guess which filmmakers will take home the statuette - had I a vote, it would probably be for "Poster Girl", but no-one's getting robbed here. All five do a fine job of presenting interesting information on a variety of topics, and anybody who has a chance to give them more than the combined minute or so they'll get on Oscar night will likely find it well worth their while.

Seen 13 February 2010 at the Coolidge Corner Screening Room (Special Event)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Perrier's Bounty and my bizarre attachment to its director

It's a little weird to feel possessive of films just because you've covered them in one way or another, but people do - or at least, we feel more connected that we might otherwise. I know I'm not the only one who gets this way; during the Chlotrudis nominations, one member who has a podcast or radio show or some such would start advocating for a film with "I interviewed the writer/cinematographer/etc." And this wouldn't necessarily be followed by some sort of specific insight gleaned from that interview; the implication was that the film was better/more important to her because there was a personal connection.

I felt something similar when I opened the IMDB page for Perrier's Bounty and saw the director's other work. Now, I already felt a little ashamed about taking so long to get around to Bounty in the first place; I'd wanted to see it at IFFBoston last year, but opted to fit something that didn't seem as likely to play Boston otherwise - after all, if an Irish crime movie with a few reasonably well-known actors doesn't play Boston, where will it play. And it did - the week I went down to Maryland for my cousin's wedding and then hung around an extra week to see the Smithsonian and watch the Red Sox play at Camden Yards. So I missed it, and then didn't grab it when it came out on video because... Well, I wouldn't say I've become an HD snob, but I have trouble buying stuff on DVD that might come out on Blu-ray, and since I'm not in NetFlix, haven't tried Redbox, and didn't have a good way to hook my computer up to my TV to see it streamed, I missed it.

So I was kind of happy to see it announced as playing at the Paramount Theater as part of the Irish Festival (which is not, apparently, the "Irish Film Festival Boston", formerly the "Mangers Boston Irish Film Festival", formerly the "Boston Irish Film Festival", and now confusingly sharing the same initials as Independent Film Festival Boston). The screenwriter was going to be in town to introduce it, although that fell through. I was a little annoyed that it would fall the same weekend as the Sci-Fi Film Festival, but it turned out to be running against Summer Wars, which I like but have seen (and which, it turned out, had projection issues that night anyway). So I went, got there just in time because I thought the 6:45pm show was a 7:00pm show, and it was good.

And then, I got home, started writing the review, and saw that Ian Fitzgibbon had also directed A Film with Me in It - and then I felt really bad about having taken so long to catch up with his follow-up. Which is kind of silly - when I reviewed it at SXSW two years ago, I gave it a thoroughly middle of the road grade. I only thought about it more later because I tend to obsessively check which reviews of mine are getting hits on EFC, and it would show up on occasion. For a while, I was one of the few folks in North America who had reviewed it (it played the late show at SXSW, and there wasn't a lot of us press there), so I guess I considered it "mine", and when I realized I'd missed the director's next film, I felt like I'd let someone down.

Which is screwy, but go figure. I'm also trying to figure out why A Film with Me in It isn't available on DVD, despite having played American theaters over a year ago and being released by IFC Films here, not some fly-by-night outfit. (Near as I can tell, the only way to watch it legally in the USA is on SundanceNow). I wouldn't buy it, but for some reason, this is my movie and that it's not available almost two years after I gave it a neutral review vaguely offends me.

Perrier's Bounty

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2010 at the Paramount Theater, Bright Screening Room (ArtsEmerson)

Does film's articulate-criminal/caper genre tell us something about the various cultures it appears in? Just among English speakers, you see clear differences, especially in the language: The Americans have their staccato cursing; with the Brits use it as a marker for class mobility (or the lack thereof). What of the Irish, then? Why, poetry and romance, of course, even when the words are casual and the situations rapidly spin out of control.

Michael McCrea (Cillian Murphy) is no master criminal; he's just a guy without a proper job. What he does have is a crush on his neighbor Brenda (Jodie Whittaker), a father (Jim Broadbent) convinced he's about to die, and two thugs (Michael McElhatton and Don Wycherley) who show up to tell him he has his choice of two broken bones unless he pays the grand he owes to their boss, Darren Perrier (Brendan Gleeson). He figures to shift his debt by borrowing the money from The Mull (Liam Cunningham), but he's not flush. A confrontation with Bren's boyfriend Shamie (Padraic Delaney) gives him an opportunity to earn more money than he needs, but also leads to breaking & entering, stolen cars, warrior dogs, dead bodies, a price on his head, and a great many parking violations.

The script, especially at the start, is wonderfully tight; writer Mark O'Rowe does an unusually good job of tying the opportunities, double-crosses, and disasters together so that the entire story ultimately comes back to Michael and his desire to do right by people. It's easy for a story like this to degenerate into complete randomness, and while there are certainly moments where coincidence takes over, O'Rowe strikes a nice balance between having things be unpredictable and there being some sense to how things play out. He also picks good words to put in his characters' mouths and amusing situations to put them in.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Strange Case of Angelica

I'd honestly really rather not harp on the age of this movie's writer/director, Manoel de Oliveira, but, man... One hundred and two. Granted, he was likely only a hundred - a hundred and one, max! - when this film was shot, but he's been working since then, with his movie scheduled to come out this year shooting in Brazil. I can't really imagine traveling to work when I'm that old (to be quite honest, I can't necessarily imagine being that old without some cool advances in medical science) - but check out this picture at IMDB - that's a crazy-healthy-looking guy for 102.

O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

It is customary, when discussing master filmmakers still producing movies well past when people in most industries have retired, to comment on how they are still vital and what an inspiration it is that they still love their art so much. That seems insufficient for Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, who was probably hearing things like that twenty-five years ago. The Strange Case of Angelica was made in its writer/director's 102nd year, and is not a farewell (he's traveling to Brazil for his next feature). Nor should it be - this film is a stately but enjoyable work likely informed by its creator's age but which stands well on its own.

The Angelica of the title (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) is beautiful, recently married, and even more recently passed away. Her distraught mother (Leonor Silveira) wants one last picture of her daughter, so in the middle of the night, she calls for a photographer. What she gets is Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a Sephardic Jew who is stunned not only by the girl's beauty even in death but by how, when he looks through the camera's viewfinder, Angelica's eyes open and she smiles at him. He's soon smitten by a girl he can only have in his dreams, and his erratic and obsessive behavior soon becomes a great concern to his landlady Justina (Adelaide Teixeira).

The Strange Case of Angelica is a period picture, though it does not announce itself as such. While the camera used by its protagonist being loaded with film is likely not the only detail tying it to the 1950s visible to a knowledgeable, attentive viewer, de Oliveira seldom goes out of his way to emphasize when and where the action takes place. The result is a movie with an unusually timeless feel - there is an uncomfortable formality to Angelica's family (not to mention barely-veiled anti-semitism) that lands somewhere between slightly exaggerated and what was normal for the time that can put the viewer on edge, for instance. Though taking place in the past, not being firmly rooted there makes it somewhat easier for its central themes to resonate today; indeed, some might say that its message that focusing on things past and unattainable fantasies is seductive but ultimately self-destructive has never been more relevant.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I am, in some ways, far too constricted by rules I set for myself. When writing for EFC and this blog, I tend to work something close to a first-in-first-out queue; it makes the most sense, since the details of a given movie are more likely to fall out of my brain given time, crowded out by the stuff I see afterward. So, since there was a bunch of stuff from last week that I wanted to write up, the film I saw Monday got delayed until after it had stopped playing in local theaters. Quite frankly, I had a hard time convincing myself to write this week's Next Week before finishing this, even though it's timely and the blog's most read feature. I just don't multi-task well at all.

Fortunately, a large chunk of the people I know who would have had interest in watching it were there Monday night when I saw it, but I'm not sure how helpful that is. Unfortunately, Wolfe Releasing doesn't seem to have a website that lists the places where it is playing, although I see it will be released on video in June.

So, this review is probably not particularly helpful right now to my local readers, although I imagine the movie is moving to smaller cities than Boston right now. I just don't know where. If you're coming because the movie just opened near you and found this review, say hey in the comments, because it may be fun to track how this thing travels.

(Other silly rules I set for myself: I alternate reading mystery and sci-fi books, organize my new comics alphabetically when I pick them up on Wednesday and read them in that order unless there's a compelling reason not to, generally bring one dark/caffeinated soda and one light/caffeine-free one to work every day, and try not to eat the same meat for both lunch and dinner. I am, quite frankly, ridiculous.)

Contracorriente (Undertow)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Not all ghost stories are horror movies; in fact, some of the best ones aren't. Take Undertow, for instance - it's not the first film to pounce on the idea that literal and figurative haunting can be the same thing, but it does so almost perfectly, using the simple metaphor to add interest and perhaps humor to a story that could be too familiar, even if well-told.

Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a well-respected man in his Peruvian fishing village. He's a simple fisherman, not wealthy, but he has a lovely wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who is expecting their first child. They host practically the entire town for dinner after church on Sundays, and when Miguel's cousin dies, the man's brother asks Miguel to speak for him at the ceremony where the body is offered back to God and the sea, as Miguel is "good with God". They may not think so if they knew that, when nobody is looking, Miguel is the lover of photographer and artist Santiago (Manolo Cardona), who is widely shunned even though nobody mentions his sexuality. Then, one day, Santiago disappears - although not to Miguel, who is the only one to see the drowned man's ghost, and knows that Miguel will only find peace if Miguel finds the body and carries out the ritual - but that would mean admitting everything.

Where writer/director Javier Fuentes-León is going with this is clear, but that doesn't hurt it one bit. Santiago's ghostly state is an elegant metaphor for Miguel's closeted existence - by turns, it highlights both Miguel's fear of discovery and the torment Santiago feels at being hidden, but Fuentes-León isn't satisfied with that; he's able to deftly transform it from a metaphor to a fantasy of Miguel being able to merge both his public and secret lives at once, although the film is well aware that this is not a fair deal. Though the exact moment when the change is made is obvious, it does not feel like a filmmaker trying to change the rules to have it both ways, but a natural outgrowth of the story. It's impressive management of tone, although Fuentes-León does falter in that area toward the end, when he opts to examine more permutations of how the situation can play out than is optimal.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 11 February 2011 - 17 February 2011

Ah, February holidays - Valentine's Day, President's Day, and Oscar Day. All three influence what's coming up this weekend.

  • We'll start with President's Day, for the past 35 years the ending date of the Boston Sci-Fi Festival/Marathon. The holiday and marathon are still a week away, but just as with last year, there's a nine-day festival on tap for the run-up. It plays at the Somerville Theatre, and looking at their schedule, it seems like it will be playing in one of the "regular" theaters, as opposed to the video room, this year. According to the schedule, this week's shows, all at 7:30pm, are the "Dangerous Visions" shorts program on Friday the 11th, Summer Wars on Saturday the 12th (with an extra show at 4:30pm on Sunday), the "Retro Speculatives" program on Sunday the 13th, Finland's Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning on Monday the 14th, documentary The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels on Tuesday the 15th, an as-yet-unannounced flick on Wednesday the 16th, and the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Thursday the 17th, with Jeff Rapsis providing musical accompaniment (this will also be part of the marathon).

    I'm often a little rough on the event, especially on its message board, but only because, out of all the film festivals and events Boston hosts each year, it's the one I want most to be great. As much as I'd like to see less parody/homage to bad sci-fi movies and more attempts to create good stuff (and less questionable use of the "premiere" label), this is a fun event, Summer Wars, at least, is a pretty darn good movie, chances to see silents with accompaniment should always be taken, and I want good attendance so that it can grow. So if you see anything you think you might like there, head out to Somerville.

  • Let's move on to Oscar, as those who like seeing everything nominated can get much closer this week: Not only is Landmark Kendall Square still playing Another Year, Biutiful, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, The Illusionist, and The King's Speech, but they will also be playing the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts and Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts for a week.

    If you can't see them this week, they'll move to the Coolidge next Friday. In the meantime, they've got Another Year opening, as well as the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts. Those will be playing in two separate-admission programs, as each short in this category is actually about 40 minutes long. There's also midnights of Eraserhead this weekend, as well as a couple of Valentine's Day live events: "Naked Girls Reading: Love Stinks" at midnight on Saturday, and Mortified's Doomed Valentines Show on Monday night. The latter is sold out, but check their website and Twitter; sometimes tickets are released last-minute. The Sunday-morning "Talk Cinema" series this week previews The Double Hour, a thriller of sorts that won several top awards at the Venice Film Festival.

  • Since it's Valentine's Day, the Brattle is showing Casablanca on Sunday the 13th and Monday the 14th. You may not get to the big Monday at 7pm show, which sells out early and where people have been known to propose and cosplay (at least, I hope they cosplay!), but there are several others and novelist Leslie Epstein will introducing and answering questions at the 4:15pm show on Sunday. Mr. Epstein's uncle and father wrote the script, and I imagine people will try to pry baseball knowledge out of him, too, since Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is his son. That, friends, is a heck of a family tree.

    This isn't the only intriguing romance the Brattle has this week; around showings of Casablanca, they are also opening The Strange Case of Angelica, a unique-looking fantasy about a photographer who falls in love with a woman who only lives through his pictures. It's made by 102-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, and appears to be influenced by work made throughout his long lifetime.

    Plus, the bi-weekly DocYard series returns this week with Secrecy, Tuesday the 15th. In it, directors Peter Callison and Robb Moss take a look at how the massive amounts of information the United States classifies as secret is both potentially necessary and difficult to justify in a democracy.

  • The English-subtitled Bollywood film opening this week is Patiala House, a London-set drama that reunites Chandni Chowk to China star Akshay Kumar and director Nikhil Advani. It appears to involve a disgraced father, romance, and cricket, not necessarily in that order.

  • The Harvard Film Archive starts another two-week series: History, Memory, Cinema: The Documentary Vision of Patricio Guzmán. According to the HFA synopsis, Guzmán was one of the first to use documentary filmmaking to record history as it happens as a counter to sanitized, "official" histories, and the films included in this series reflect that: Salvador Allende on Friday night (playing with the featurette "Robinson Crusoe Island"), The Pinochet Case on Monday, and the three-part The Battle of Chile on Saturday (parts 1 & 2) and Sunday (part 3).

  • The MFA's Cinema and the City series continues, with this weekend putting the focus on Rio de Janeiro (the fantastic City of God) and Washington DC (All the President's Men), as well as a couple more shows of "Three Films by Rudy Burckhardt", featuring New York. Then, on Thursday, the next cycle begins, spotlighting Los Angeles (Chinatown) and Mexico City (Los Olvidados).

  • Emerson splits its program this weekend. On the ends, there are visits by two different filmmakers: On Friday night, French filmmaker Rose Lowder is in town for an "Avant-Garde Showcase", with an hour or so of experimental 16mm films she has made over the past thirty years. On Sunday, Claire Andrade-Watkins presents her 2006 documentary "Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican?": A Cape Verdean-American Story, about how a tight-knit community of immigrants in Providence was displaced and broken up in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    In between, there are a couple of co-presentations with the Irish Film Festival of Boston: On Saturday night, there are two chances to see Perrier's Bounty, which played locally both as part of IFFBoston and a brief theatrical run last year; it shows up in part because ArtsEmerson is presenting writer Mark O'Rowe's Terminus on their main stage. The kid-friendly film this weekend will be presented Sunday afternoon, when A Shine of Rainbows runs at 2pm.

  • Also Sunday afternoon is Double Take at the Institute of Contemporary Art, with Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez there to introduce his film in which Alfred Hitchcock encounters his doppelganger. On Saturday, they present a second program of short films from the Ann Arbor Film Film Festival, all presented on 16mm film.

  • The Somerville & Arlington theaters each have worthy double features to check out this weekend. Somerville continues to run Casino & GoodFellas as a double feature on Friday and Saturday, switching over to Amelie & The Triplets of Belleville for Sunday and Monday. I'm not sure what they'll use the screen for Tuesday-Thursday. The Capitol, meanwhile, continues its weekend series of HD double features, this time with Ingmar Bergman's two from 1957, The Seventh Seal & Wild Strawberries.

  • These two theaters also account for much of the second-run shuffle, as Somerville opens The Company Men while the Capitol picks up 127 Hours and Rabbit Hole. Both lose The Social Network (as does Harvard Square), but that's still cranking along at Stuart Street, now alternating with I Love You Phillip Morris.

  • And that's... Oh, right, there's the new first-run films coming out. It looks like a pretty grim bunch, quite honestly: The Eagle looks like the best of the bunch, with a young Roman soldier attempting to find out what happened to his father and the 9th Legion. I suspect it could sort of work as a sequel to Centurion, but, then again, why not just bag Centurion if you want some lost-legion action? Director Kevin MacDonald isn't bad, but he's not Neil Marshall.

    To prepare for the kids having February vacation, studios hit with not one, but two films aimed at them that are playing almost exclusively in expensive 3-D: Gnomeo & Juliet, an animated take on Shakespeare's most famous play done with lawn gnomes that has a buttload more writers than such a thing needs, but an interesting voice cast (James McAvoy and Emily Blunt play the leads, but the supporting cast has people from Michael Caine to Jason Statham to Dolly Parton to Hulk Hogan to Ozzy Osborne). It also features a ton of songs from executive producer Elton John, including two new ones. Kids may be more interested in Justin Beiber: Never Say Never; apparently young people like him.

    And, fine, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston have a new romantic comedy out, Just Go With It, four times removed from its original source material (it is apparently based on an earlier film based on an American play based on a French play). The trailer looks terrible, it's been getting reviews of remarkable bile, and I strongly suspect Nicole Kidman insisted that her name be kept out of the advertising and her face out of the previews because she's up for best actress awards for Rabbit Hole and being seen as connected to this could not possibly help.

My plans? Mostly living at the Sci-Fi Film Festival; I bought a pass months ago. Around that, I'll probably try and get to see the nominated-shorts collections, maybe Perrier's Bounty and Angelica and Double Take. Plus, I've still got an AMC awards ticket that needs to be used by Tuesday; maybe it'll finally get used for Blue Valentine.