Thursday, April 28, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 April 2011 - 6 May 2011

If you're in Boston and like quality film, there's roughly one place you're going to be through Wednesday. Well, technically four, but it's the same event spread over multiple venues. Still, that doesn't mean that the area's other theaters (and sometimes, the very same ones!) are going to make that easy on you.

  • The major event, of course, is the Independent FIlm Festival Boston 2011, which actually started on Wednesday with Being Elmo (review forthcoming). It's Boston's biggest and likely best film festival, and while very doc-heavy (and performer-doc-heavy) this year, that's not exactly a bad thing. It started at the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday (the 27th) and runs there through Monday (the 2nd of May); there will also be shows at the Brattle from Friday (the 29th) through Sunday (the 1st) and the Stuart Street Playhouse on Tuesday (the 3rd), before closing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Wednesday (the 4th).

    Unfortunately, I didn't have time to write a full preview article, but you should be able to check out my schedule on Slated for an idea of what I'm seeing. There are plenty of other worthy films screening; I'm just trying to avoid documentaries about musicians I've never heard of and trying to see the stuff with no announced Boston release.

  • Potentially the most annoying festival counter-programming is Rubber, which opens at Kendall Square and is hilarious; it was one of my favorite movies at Fantasia last year and I'm dying to see how it plays in an environment other than "midnight with a packed house of exhausted lunatics". Please, Landmark, keep this around at least for a second week.

    Actually, I'd like to ask the same of some other the other movies playing there, too: The official one-week warning is on Carancho, an Argentine thriller set among the shady world of people who benefit from the countries frequent road accidents. Also playing is The Double Hour, which an Italian romantic thriller about two very different people who meet by chance and then find their paths crossing.

  • Landmark, at least, has the excuse of not taking part in IFFBoston. The Coolidge, on the other hand, is cruelly tempting people away from the festival with a few special attractions: Friday and Saturday at midnight, they will be running Back to the Future on the big screen. Monday night, there is a "Sounds of Silents" screening of It, the movie which made Clara Bow a superstar and gave us the phrase "The It Girl"; it will be accompanied by students from the Berklee College of Music. And Sunday morning, Talk Cinema will have a preview screening of The Tree, featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg as a mother whose daughter believes that her recently-deceased father talks to her using the leaves of the tree outside her window. There's a good chance The Tree will open elsewhere, and the Brattle has the Back to the Future trilogy on their next schedule, but missing It hurts.

  • The mainstream theaters have relatively scant openings, at least. The big one is Fast Five, the latest sequel to The Fast and the Furious to have its name drive sticklers for alphabetic order nuts. It looks like it could be a lot of fun, though, with Dwayne Johnson joining characters from all four previous movies as a cop hunting the hard-driving outlaws down. It's also hitting the premium (IMAX, Imax digital, RPX) screens, though likely for only a week before Thor's release.

    Also opening is Prom, a generically named high-school comedy from Disney that will probably be huge among its target audience, for all I know (although it doesn't seem to boast any of the Disney Channel stars that usually drive that sort of attendance). A couple theaters also open up Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, a sequel to the reasonably-cute animated movie from a few years back mashing up fairy tales. 3D at Boston Common, 2D (apparently) at Fresh Pond.

  • Fresh Pond also opens Immigration Tango, an comedy about two couples who switch partners for green-card marriages, with hilarity intended to ensue. It apparently opened in other markets over two months ago to not-great reviews. The Hindi movie opening is Dum Naaro Dum, which appears to be a story about students lured into being drug mules - with songs. Oddly, it comes not from the usual importers, but from Fox, whose Indian branch produced it, so the prices are low for a Bollywood movie.

    (And yet, no Dylan Dog, which I was sort of looking forward to.)

  • Once the Brattle finishes with their IFFBoston screenings, they will pick back up with their tribute to founder Cyrus Harvey Jr., who recently passed away. The films include Seven Samurai on Tuesday, Jules et Jim and I Vitelloni on Wednesday, and a Bogie double feature of Casablanca and Beat the Devil on Thursday.

  • ArtsEmerson will be featuring the early films of Kelly Reichardt on Saturday and Sunday night. The not-quite-double-feature features Old Joy, the film which first got her widespread notice, and a rare 16mm screening of her first feature, River of Grass, which plays alongside the featurette "Ode".

    This ties in to the release of her new film, Meek's Cutoff, which has a preview at the Harvard Film Archive on Monday the 2nd. The screen there is dark Friday and Saturday, although Sunday features the final film in the "Middletown" series from last weekend, Seventeen

  • The screen at the Museum of Fine Arts is also dark most of the week, with the next scheduled screening being on Thursday, when the 27th Annual Boston LGBT Film Festival opens with 3, the new film by Tom Tykwer.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington will be running the latest Spike & Mike animation complimations on Friday and Saturday. Friday night, it's "Sick & Twisted" at 7:30pm and "New Generation" at 9:30pm; the showtimes are reversed on Saturday.

  • It's a slow day on the second-run-shuffle front as well, although My Perestroika re-opens in one of the digital rooms at the Coolidge.

My plans, like I said, involve more or less living at IFFBoston. I'm taking Thursday off work to recover and see the Sox game, and honestly will probably just drop after that.

This Week Month In Tickets: 21 March 2011 to 24 April 2011

I've been getting behind on these, so it's time to catch up. Writing up BUFF took a ridiculous amount of time, so these kept getting pushed back, and back, and back, until four weeks get bound up in one post. So here's a little table of contents; as always, once at the page from the calendar, click the ticket for the review.

21 March 2011 - 27 March 2011
28 March 2011 - 3 April 2011
4 April 2011 - 10 April 2011
11 April 2011 - 17 April 2011
18 April 2011 - 24 April 2011

Why so long? Well, I imagine looking at this will explain that:

This Week In Tickets!

13 movies (including a shorts package) in four days isn't quite peak festival gorging, but it was a work week too. Of all the movies to choose to see that week, The Lincoln Lawyer may seem an odd one, but Lionsgate and Fandango were running an online promotion where the ticket cost $6, so I wound up trying to get that in before BUFF.

The Lincoln Lawyer

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2011 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run)

The Lincoln Lawyer doesn't re-invent the wheel, but it doesn't have to. It's a fun crime story that works as both mystery and legal thriller, thanks to a nice cast, polished production values, and a story that stays just on the right side of being too clever for its own good.

There are, admittedly, times when the movie feels less like a feature film than an episode of a television series. Not because it seems cheap or pat; rather because of the large supporting cast that are around to do one specific job here but could theoretically me more central in next week's story. I don't know if Michael Connelly has written more Mick Haller novels, but I wouldn't mind seeing them adapted if he has. Matthew McConaughey slips easily into the role of the slick huckster who may just have a decent core to him, and the folks surrounding Haller bounce off him nicely.

The script could perhaps use a little bit of work; there are bits where it seemed screenwriter John Romano has perhaps simplified something that a novelist can take his time explaining a little too much, and even those of us who basically learned what we know about jurisprudence from Law & Order may wonder if some of the courtroom antics would work for even a second. The finale's a little too pat, perhaps. It's forgivable stuff - the end is satisfying, even if it does strain credibility a little, and it's easy enough to go along with things up until then.

This Week In Tickets!

I did sort of want a breather after BUFF, but I wasn't going to wait much longer to see Source Code than necessary (and picking one of those gold tickets up for $4 from an online coupon site a few months ago would keep it at a reasonable price). I wound up falling a little behind on the reviews because nobody else on EFC was going to write about Cold Weather or The Music Never Stopped, and I wanted to talk about them before they left Boston theaters.

Oh, by the way - I'm going to talk about the end of Source Code, so if you don't want any of that, you can skip ahead.

Source Code

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2011 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DLP projection)

As a computer programmer, I'm kind of annoyed by the name of Source Code. Well, not really as a computer programmer; I suspect that I wouldn't really be cool with taking a technical term with a specific meaning and using it to refer to whatever you want no matter what it was. Because I've been programming computers since I was seven, I just happen to recognize that this movie's "source code" isn't a text file that is assembled or compiled into executable machine language.

But that's about all I have for complaints. Much as he did with Moon, director Duncan Jones takes a story potentially full of technical jargon and weird concepts and gives the audience an emotional connection without reducing the science fictional ideas to standard genre fare that's been tarted up with laser guns. He and writer Ben Ripley do sling a lot of pseudoscience (the the point where I suspect no two audience members will have quite the same explanation of what "the source code" is), but they also do a nice job in structuring the movie - both the scenes on a military base with Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright running a program to investigate the bombing of a commuter train using weird science and on the train with Michelle Monaghan and confused by the odd behavior of her seatmate (not aware or able to believe that he's "possessed" by a soldier whose consciousness has been thrown back in time) are nice little thrillers, connected only by Jake Gyllenhaal as the soldier. Ripley doesn't make either one too complicated, and he and Jones make the combination of simple and complex plots work. Jones proves to be a solid filmmaker in this more mainstream effort, not compromising for a larger audience and keeping things running smoothly even though he isn't able to exert quite the control he could with Moon.

I like Jake Gyllenhaal in this sort of role; he's got action-hero physicality but comes off as down-to-earth. His Colter Stevens is exactly what you'd expect of a soldier in this situation: Cocky but confused, intelligent if not necessarily book-smart, a blue-collar guy out of sorts in his current surroundings (props to the costume guys, who help out by making him look reasonable but wrong in the train sequences). Vera Farmiga plays another sort of military character, the professional career officer who nonetheless has a conscience, and she handles it well - she builds a rapport with Gyllenhaal despite their characters mainly communicating over computer monitors. Jeffrey Wright plays the chief scientist as the pompous, egotistical sort, and does so more and more as the film goes on, but it never tips toward the negative. Michelle Monaghan is rather underused; she's mainly there to be beautiful and appealing enough that we can believe Colter falls for her within eight minutes. There's probably nobody more qualified for the job, but it would be nice if she were a more active participant.

And, perhaps, it might make the ending work a little better. I like how this movie ends, but I get some of the complaints that people might have about it. The source code is poorly enough defined that I can understand that some people think that it's a simulation of sorts, although the end states pretty definitively that there's quantum stuff going on that creates new, divergent realities/timelines. Some folks seem not to like it because the dark ending was in play, but I kind of dig that Jones and company don't go for it. Not just on the basis of wondering what's so wrong with rewarding your heroes, but because I like that Duncan Jones's science fiction isn't cynical. Yes, there are bad people in control of technology, using it in fairly horrific ways, but it can be used for good.

Of course, there are some awkward conversations to come at the end of each of Jones's movies. That's the other issue that one may potentially have with that ending - sure, it's great that Colter is getting a second chance, but it's at the expense of someone else's life, and the girl he's going to be romancing thinks he's that someone else. Doesn't sound so noble, does it? I think it's acceptable, though: - Colter is inevitably going to tell Christina the truth; he's attempted to with almost every iteration, and it's just who he is. As to the creepiness of taking over another man's life... Well, the man was eight minutes from certain death in the original timeline, and with this being a new one, you could argue that there was never an original in that timeline.

That would be a heck of a lot to explain in not a little time in the end, though, and it would blunt the emotional impact of the finale something fierce. I don't think it's hard to figure out with a little thought, though it could have been made clearer earlier.

This Week In Tickets!

Honestly, I'd forgotten I had tickets for Frankenstein until just a couple days before the screening. It had been a busy week.

Huh, someday I'm going to figure out why I instinctively write "tickets" when the normal case for me is generally a single. There's societal pressures at work there, I reckon.

Saturday at the multiplex was a bit about me trying to put my money where my mouth is about using loyalty programs and different showtimes to send a message. I wanted my big ticket purchase to be for Hanna, so I wound up seeing that on the premium screen as opposed to the others, and used an expiring-that-day free pass on Your Highness, which happened to be on film as opposed to digital. I honestly might not have seen Your Highness if not for that expiring freebie (which couldn't be used on the premium screen, even if you paid the difference), and, well, sometimes you get what you pay for.

NT Live: Frankenstein

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (NT Live, digital projection)

Not really a movie, but rather a simulcast of a play (or, in this case, I think it's the encore presentation of a simulcast of a play; a 7pm Eastern start would be, what, midnight Greenwich Mean?), although director Danny Boyle is probably best known for his film work. The gimmick to this production of England's National Theatre is a clever one: On alternate nights, the two lead actors would switch between playing Victor and the Creature; for this performance, Benedict Cumberbatch was the former and Jonny Lee Miller the latter. I'm kind of annoyed with myself for not getting tickets to both times it ran at the Coolidge, because that seems like the obvious casting, and I'm very curious as to what the other way around was like.

This version, at least, was quite good. With its two strong antagonists, Mary Shalley's novel translates to the stage fairly well, especially since it doesn't take the adaptation very long to give us the verbal, well-read Creature of the original story as opposed to Karloff's silent, child-like hulk. The decision to tell much of the play from the Creature's point of view, starting from its "birth", is a clever one, giving us a unique and visceral look at his confusion that the nested narratives of the book perhaps lacks.

It's a good-looking adaptation, too, done not quite in the round but with an impressively malleable stage setting. It's maybe a little difficult to tell that Boyle is the one behind it - so much of what we associate with his style is a moving camera and how he cuts his film, and that's just not a factor on the stage. For the cinematic presentation, the camera does move, which initially seems like a bit of a cheat - it means sitting in the Coolidge isn't really like sitting at the National Theatre in London, but rather hopping from one seat to another.

I hope I get a chance to see the other version, whether it be on television, DVD/Blu-ray, or another encore at the Coolidge. It's an interesting adaptation of the work, and part of the fun of seeing plays is how different people interpret the same material.

Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2011 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (special engagement)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a weird one; writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes us to a forest teeming with life to deliver a quiet meditation on life, death, and rebirth. It's graceful and nonsensical, maybe not for all tastes but perhaps for more than one might imagine.

Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying. There's cancer in his kidneys, and though he's not entirely bedridden, he knows the end is near. So he's called what's left of his family to his farm - his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), Soon, though, he finds himself with other visitors - his late wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). Clearly, the border between this life and the next is growing extremely thin.

In some movies, that would be the springboard for a fantasy story; in this one, the likes of ghosts and monkey spirits are simply accepted, for the most part. Not blandly - several scenes which involve the monkey spirits are in fact rather unnerving; their glowing red eyes and dark silhouettes make them clearly other, if not threatening. These manifestations are not part of everyday life, but they are things which do not require explanation - the forest contains spirits, and imprints of the living linger and do appreciate offerings. Indeed, while the characters seldom comment upon the supernatural creatures which appear around them - Jen quite frequently seems more worried about the Laotian workers Boonmee has hired than her dead sister reappearing - it clearly has an effect on them in the closing scenes.

Full review at EFC.

Your Highness

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2011 in Regal Fenway #4 (first-run)

You want your mind blown? Go to the IMDB entry for All the Real Girls. I started making jokes about that as soon as I realized that Zooey Deschanel was in Your Highness, but finding that Danny McBride was also in that cast was kind of amazing. These people (McBride, Deschanel, and director David Gordon Green) went from a quality, achingly real movie like Girls to this thing in about ten years. I can understand making Pineapple Express - even the indie-est of indie directors must secretly want to blow some things up every once in a while - but it's starting to look like Green was making quality dramas because that's all that he could afford to do on his way up, and dumb comedies were where his heart really was. Which is kind of odd.

The really weird thing about Your Highness isn't that Green is doing this sort of movie, or that I can barely remember Zooey Deschanel seeming like a young actress with a lot of promise as opposed to a pretty piece of mannered quirk. It's that despite the title, there's very little weed comedy in it. That's the obvious pun that the title is going for, and there are a couple off-hand mentions of it (but, strangely, never in connection to James Franco's noble prince character, and he's the one who seems high most of the time), but the basic story is basically fraternal jealousy grafted onto a quest that takes a sudden turn for the sincere once we hit the third act.

Less weird than annoying is that Green and co-writers McBride and Ben Best seem to not quite grasp what could make this movie really funny. A good chunk of the comedy comes from spoofing fantasy of the sword & sorcery, except that spoofing isn't really the right word. Spoof and parody are generally good-natured ribbing, whereas McBride and Best display a genuine vicious streak. The quest is quite specifically about preventing Justin Theroux's evil wizard from raping Deschanel's virgin, there are gags about child molestation and dismemberment, and other forms of nastiness. Natalie Portman's warrior woman is basically a sociopath. Your Highness at times seems like an astonishingly aggressive de-romanticizing of high fantasy (I'm reminded of how Punch Drunk Love took Adam Sandler movies apart to show the underlying ugliness) by showing what a miserable place an enchanted kingdom populated by actual human beings would be to live in would be, but it's almost like the filmmakers don't realize that their combination of parody and crude jokes almost add up to satire.

But not quite. Too bad, because I laughed the most when the movie was at its most vicious. Granted, I strongly suspect that this wasn't really on the mind of anybody making the movie - I sort of hate this genre and am very willing to see attacks on it, while the filmmakers were probably trying to combine things they loved (fantasy and vulgarity).


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2011 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX digital projection)

Hanna got itself some attention by director Joe Wright positioning it as the smart teen-girl action flick in contrast to Sucker Punch, although putting it next to a movie that got very little respect and angered many critics for calling itself "visionary" and/or "empowering" may be the equivalent of standing next to a short guy to make oneself look tall.

It is, on its own, pretty darn good. If you're aiming to make a great movie with a young woman at the center, "hire Saoirse Ronan" is a good place to start. She can't necessarily cure all that ails a film - The Lovely Bones, for instance, suffered greatly from having her remain separate from the rest of the cast - but she's been the best part of nearly every movie she's been in. Here, she's pretty darn good as the title character, a girl brought up in the wilderness by her father (Eric Bana), trained to hunt, fight, and speak a dozen languages, but with no interaction with other people; her knowledge of the outside world mainly shaped by a book of fairy tales. It's a nifty performance, only occasionally leaning on her acting like an ignoramus - most of the time, though she's clearly unfamiliar with the world around her, she's curious and intelligent.

The story itself is sort of a Bourne Identity thing - a variation on the dangerous operative hunted down by an intelligence agency trying to keep a program quiet - but it's a niftily made one. While main antagonists Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett often seem a bit like ciphers (with some odd accents to boot), most of the smaller parts (like Olivia Williams) are well-done, and director Joe Wright does a lot of things to give this movie a different feel: The sharp contrast between the polished steel of the CIA's interrogation chamber and the almost surreal shuttered amusement park where the action winds up. The funky Chemical Brothers soundtrack. And one or two amazing long tracking shots, better-used here than in Atonement, where it just looked like showing off as opposed to giving the audience a real idea of what's going on in a fight.

This Week In Tickets!

Hello, baseball. You have been missed.

This was my first game attended this year, and it was a pretty good time. There was a bit of craziness in the week beforehand trying to get the tickets sorted out - the brother who was originally going to come had to bail, and then Matt couldn't say for sure that he was coming until the last minute - and there was a bit of rain to start the day, but overall, there's not much nicer than sitting in the sun at Fenway Park and watch the Red Sox start to crawl out of the hole they'd dug themselves.


* * (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

As much as I think Roger Ebert's spoiler-ridden review of this movie is very bad form (seriously, don't find and read it unless you want a major development from the finale spoiled in the first paragraph), I do find myself similarly confused on who Super is trying to appeal to. It's not a mean-spirited movie, but it is a fairly joyless one.

It has its moments, to be sure - especially the energetic animated opening titles - but despite being promoted by its connection to writer/director James Gunn's Slither, it shares more cast members than attitude. This is a movie about a loser, and how for many people like Rainn Wilson's Frank D'Arbo, it's very difficult to rise above mediocrity in a positive way, and that even when seizing the things that which bring you joy and pride, the outcome is destructive more often than not. That's a sobering thought, and it's somewhat impressive that Gunn doesn't really ever flinch from it - we never harbor any illusions of The Crimson Bolt or Boltie being a great superhero, even when lesser movies might play the last act like that.

This doesn't actually make Super a bad movie, or even really a cynical one. Just one where the rewards are quite possibly much more modest and subtle than either the viewer or main character expected.

This Week In Tickets!

Two baseball games in two days! Not really a deliberate plan - I got a 4-pack to share with family for Christmas, and another one for myself, and the way they were set up had games on consecutive days. This was another good one, with Jed Lowrie continuing his ridiculously hot start and Daisuke Matsuzaka making all of us who joked about the appropriateness of him starting on Marathon Monday eat our words.

Speaking of Marathon Monday - I always forget just how utterly impassable Boston becomes once the runners start. It took me the usual forty minutes to walk from my house to the ballpark, but an absurd amount of time to get back, because there's really no easy way to cross Commonwealth Avenue on foot while it's blocked off for the marathon. I wound up making a huge mistake and getting on the Green Line rather than walking to the Common and either taking the Red Line or just turning left and walking home. Or ducking into a theater and watching a movie while the runners went past. Ah, well. Next year.

Later in the week, I went to The Warring States opening night, figuring maybe that was when these movies had their big crowds, but... not so much. And I had to duck out and tell an usher that the print was misframed. Fortunately, it was a pretty good movie. Not quite in the top tier of Chinese period epics - I figure this is like the Chinese equivalent of a Hollywood light blockbuster that stars second-tier stars and has competent visual effects but nothing groundbreaking - but entertaining nonetheless. And someone must be seeing it, because it's sticking around for another week of evening shows.

The week finishes off with the Brattle's Schlock-Around-The-Clock series; I took in some dubbed kaiju and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. The Creature Double Feature was an odd event - before the screening, one of the projectors went on the fritz, so at the end of each reel, they paused for a minute or two to thread up the next one. Between the commercial-break-approximating pauses and the English dubbing, it must have been like seeing them on WLVI back in the day.

Of course, back then you wouldn't have had the tool a couple rows in front of me who had his iPhone out and was constantly taking pictures of the screen. Really annoying. I can deal with the little girl behind me who was constantly asking her father questions, because parents bringing their kids to the Godzilla double feature is cool, but this other guy? Ugh.

Kaijû daisensô (Monster Zero)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock)

So, this turns out to be a big chunk of where Godzilla: Final Wars comes from, with its X-aliens with the skinny shades to the plot about them bringing monsters to earth; there's even an American co-lead. It is certainly pleasantly goofy, with special effects of the man-in-suit and cardboard variety.

It does kind of boggle my mind a little that these two movies were directed by Ishiro Honda, who wrote the original Gojira, a serious and intelligent film that personified atomic horror. It's hard to believe that htis movie with Godzilla's little victory dance came from it.

Kaijû sôshingeki (Destroy All Monsters)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock)

Okay, maybe this one is a more direct antecedent to Final Wars, containing as it does almost all of the Toho kaiju. It's a similar storyline - aliens control monsters to make them attack our cities so that they can take over - but the details of it aren't quite so memorable. It lacks the entertaining human/alien villains of Monster Zero and Final Wars.

That said, it does have a tremendously satisfying finale, with the other kaiju just going to town on King Ghidorah. That, at least, is something that sticks out.

Gone in 60 Seconds

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock)

Gone in 60 Seconds is an amazing car chase in search of a movie. The final half hour or so is writer/director/star H.B. Halicki tearing across Los Angeles in a 1971 Mustang as what seems like half the city's cops follow. The movie ends abruptly after that, and the set up to get to that point is often pretty perfunctory - a procedural look at the mechanics of grand theft auto and just enough sibling friction to set the chase up.

And you have to kind of admire Halicki's single-minded devotion to his skill set, to be honest. The man knew cars inside out, and apparently knew just enough about movies to get capable work from his team. The rest mostly worked itself out, but even when it didn't, the feeling was that it didn't matter, because the important stuff looked good.

The Lincoln LawyerHobo With A ShotgunMachete Maidens Unleashed!The Twilight PeopleFrankie in BlunderlandThe CorridorLusterCold FishHelldriverSon of GodFuture ImperfectAtomic Brain InvasionThe Dead InsidePhase 7
A Horrible Way to DieChopProfaneThe Beast PageantSatan Hates YouSource CodeCold WeatherThe Music Never Stopped
FrankensteinUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesYour HighnessHanna
SuperRed Sox 8, Blue Jays 1
Red Sox 9, Blue Jays 1The Warring StatesMonster Zero & Destroy All MonstersGone in 60 Seconds

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Warring States

Another Chinese movie playing at Boston Common, another somewhat sparse crowd, even on opening night, which surprised me a little bit; it's a movie that certainly seems commercial enough, and even if the pirate DVDs are already on the way (it appears to have opened in China a week and a half earlier, and Chinese pirates are are fast and shameless), it's the sort that people like to see on the big screen, or so you'd think.

(Surprisingly, there seemed to be a fairly impressive turnout for the Boston International Film Festival across the hall. I tend to take that one for granted, and in fact have made something of a deliberate effort to ignore it since they moved their dates to conflict with IFFBoston a couple years ago. Seems like they draw an audience, though.)

I must admit to being a little disappointed that this was the only Chinese movie opening in Boston this week. Well Go opened Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen in New York, Los Angeles, and a couple other markets this weekend, but not Boston. They didn't open either of the Ip Man movies here, either, and I don't get that - the other Chinese movies do okay here, there's a couple of theaters right next to Chinatown and the Kung Fu Video store. Plus, there's a not-entirely-illegitimate claim that he's local; he went to school at Newton North high school for a while and his parents are still nearby (heck, I think mother Bow Sim Mark still teaches tai chi). And Boston does like to support its local guys; I think The Company Men lasted longer here than anywhere else, and, heck, I remember Gerry sticking around.

Thankfully, Legend of the Fist is going to play Boston, just not for a month; it's scheduled to open at the Brattle on 20 May, the same day as China Lion has their next day and date release, A Beautiful Life. That one's a romance with Shu Qi, and considering that their biggest hit in the USA thus far was her in If You Are the One 2, I'm guessing that will do pretty well.

Zhan Guo (The Warring States)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2011 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run)

The Warring States is the sort of movie that, for one reason or another, only China seems to make in quantity: The period melodrama about the clash of nations and individuals, with playful comedy existing side-by-side with romance and horrible betrayal. It's perhaps not the grand epic that some of its fellows are, and may be a bit confusing to westerners, but it's diverting and pulls together by the end.

The time is roughly 355 BC, in the middle of China's "Warring States" period. Military strategists are a precious commodity and are often free agents - or, just as often, kidnapped for their expertise. That's what happens with Sun Bin (Sun Honglei), the greatest student of the legendary Gui Guzi - he is first recruited by the Wei army to help them take a border city, and after that plan is successful, the daughter of the Qi general he defeated (Jiang Wu) has him kidnapped. That's not so bad, though - Tian Xi (Jing Tian) is young, beautiful, and spirited, though initially not quite so taken with Sun Bin as he is with her. However, this skirmish has made the other kingdoms nervous, and they come together to make peace. This reunites Bin with the general of Wei's army, Pang Juan (Francis Ng). Juan is Gui Guzi's other student and Bin's sworn brother; his sister Fei (Kim Hee-seon) is the princess of Wei. Of course, there's more going on than may first appear, and despite being a savant in the area of military strategy, Bin will likely be hurt by his nature as a trusting pacifist.

Bin's a bit of a weird character, at least as presented in this movie. A quick glance at his Wikipedia entry suggests that, at a minimum, the events have been reordered somewhat, and he's become as much folk hero as historic figure over the centuries; I'm not sure how much of his backstory the film's main audience would be expected to know. There's an enjoyable contradiction between his genial personality and his skill at planning war; at times the audience may wonder how he got to that point. We don't get that story, but Sun Honglei embodies the contradictions amusingly, finding the line between Bin being childlike and understanding the basic facts of war enough to want no part of it. Especially toward the beginning, it's a funny, larger-than-life performance, but that works to give some extra heft to the end, when the clownishness of the Bin we meet at the start is no longer appropriate.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 April 2011 - 28 April 2011

I just finished writing up reviews from the Boston Underground Film Festival, so what's that mean?

Independent Film Festival Boston 2011, obviously. That doesn't start until Wednesday, though, and in the meantime, it's a bit of a calm before the storm as studios hold off the big blockbusters this week, giving audiences a bit of time to catch up or rest up before the festival (or, for those outside Boston or not big on the documentaries, before Fast Five claims to kick the summer off two months early next week). Or to see the special programs and such that will be filling local theaters this week.

  • With not a lot to be super-excited for at the plexes, we might as well start out locally, with the Brattle Theatre's Schlock Around the Clock weekend. Rather than doing an overnight marathon as in past years, they're programming the weekend with guilty pleasures: a Bela Lugosi double feature Friday evening (before Battlefield Earth, a Japanese monster double feature Saturday afternoon, a double feature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Howard the Duck Saturday evening, and an old-school red/blue 3-D1 double feature of It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon Sunday afternoon. There's an argument to be made that many of these films are not schlock, but let's be honest - the real crap is actually crap.

    Definitely not schlock is Tuesday's DocYard presentation, 12th & Delaware, a documentary about about the battle between pro-life and pro-choice activists that plays out every day at a Fort Pierce, Florida, intersection. And in a late edition to the schedule, the Brattle will be paying tribute to its recently deceased co-founder Cyrus Harvey Jr. with a number of the films that he played during his time at the theater, starting with a double feature of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, and picking up again next week after IFFBoston.

  • Also not schlock, but clearly done as a tribute to movies that sometimes were, is Big Trouble in Little China, the latest entry in the Coolidge Corner Theatre's midnight tribute to the 1980s. John Carpenter directs Kurt Russell as an American lunkhead caught in the middle of a crazy Hong Kong horror movie. It's a blast, and plays midnights Friday the 22nd and Saturday the 23rd. Also not schlock is the month's Science on Screen selection, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds; it plays Monday (the 25th) at 7pm and will feature Dr. Theodore Stankowich, a visiting scientist at Harvard, discussing animals with "mobbing" behavior.

    Other special events include a kids' movie screening of The NeverEnding Story on Saturday morning, which will be introduced by folks from the Brookline Puppet Theater. And on Monday through Wednesday (the 27th), they will be running the second half of a series of six documentaries on environmental issues - Planeat on Monday, Bag It on Tuesday, and Urban Roots on Wednesday.

    Also opening at the Coolidge is The Greatest Movie Ever Sold2. In it, Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock shows how inescapable advertising in the form of "product placement" has saturated our entertainment - and demonstrates, by financing his movie entirely through product placement.

  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold also opens at Kendall Square, alongside Henry's Crime, featuring Keanu Reeves as a man who, after serving a prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, opts to actually go through with it - a plan that he hatches with former cellmate James Caan. And the one-week warning goes for Circo, a documentary about a family circus in rural Mexico stressed by an economic downturn and family conflicts. Director Aaron Schock will be there in person on Friday and Saturday, introducing the evening shows and doing Q&As after the 7pm screenings.

  • Sticking with the circus, one of the mainstream openings is Water for Elephants, in which Robert Pattinson plays a mourning veterinary student who takes a job with a circus, apparently finding romance with Reese Witherspoon. For those who would rather see animals in their natural habitat than under the big top, DisneyNature's annual Earth Day documentary this year is African Cats, which is what it sounds like - two family groups of big cats in Africa. This is a thing that Disney used to be great at, and I gather these docs generally at least look spectacular.

    The biggest opening, though, is Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, in which his Aunt Madea character reveals yet another set of relatives, this group of which gathers around when the mother (Loretta Devine) has health problems. I've got nothing to say about this, because despite Perry cranking movies out at a ferocious pace, I've yet to see one, and haven't even seen a preview for this. Mr. Perry and I just don't cross paths.

  • A new Chinese flick also opens at Boston Common: The Warring States is a period adventure about rival military strategists during the Warring States period who shared a mentor and would wind up facing each other on the battlefield. It looks like a lot of fun, but may not stick around, as it's already opened in China, and Chinese pirates are fast.

  • If India is more your speed than China, you may want to check out Zokkomon, a superhero movie produced by Disney's Indian division about a kid who trains himself to be a superhero. From the showtimes, it looks like it's relatively short for a Hindi movie (probably only 100 minutes or so) and could be a lot of fun. I'm going to have to see it this weekend just because the name sounds fun to say. "Zokkomon. ZOKKOMON! ZOKKOMON!"

  • ArtsEmerson serves up Curling on Friday and Saturday. It's the latest by Québecois filmmaker Denis Côté, who is apparently a bit of a rising start north of the border. In it, a real-life father and daughter have the same relationship on-screen, with the father being extremely protective. Sunday night's movie is also from Québec, a repeat of last week's The Far Side of the Moon. And, for the rest of the weekend, it's also in French, as Godard's Une Femme Est Une Femme alternate with Curling, followed by an episode of Godard's Historire(s) du cinema.

  • Friday night, the Harvard Film Archive preesnts Foreign Parts by Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, two filmmakers who actually met as part of a Harvard program. It's a documenary about the New York City neighborhood of Willet's Point, and area just outside the Mets' CitiField with a truly astonishing amount of automobile junkyards and chop shops (indie film fans will likely remember it from a film named "Chop Shop").

    A series of documentaries rounds out the weekend, the "Middletown" series centered on Muncie, Indiana, in the late 1970s. which run Saturday to Monday (with one more screening next Sunday). Producer Peter Davis is expected to be present each night, and director E.J. Vaughn is scheduled to appear on Saturday (the 23rd).

  • The MFA continues their "Animation Celebration" this week, and im kicking myself that I've already missed one of the things I really wanted to see. Still, there's a lot of nifty looking stuff playing as part of the series. There are also a couple of other events: Tuesday afternoon (the 26th), jazz composer and sax player Wayne Shorter will present a screening of The Fountainhead and discuss its influence on his work, and Wednesday evening (the 27th), there is a preview of Queen to Play, with Kevin Kline in his first primarily Francophone role as the tutor for a chambermaid who has just discovered her talent for chess.

  • The Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 starts at the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday the 27th, and my first impression from looking at the schedule it's going to be a lot of fun for those that like documentaries, especially ones featuring performers. The Opening Night selection is Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a look at Kevin Clash, the Jim Henson mentee who has performed the character of Elmo on Sesame Street (among others) for twenty-odd years. Clash, director Constance Marks, and Elmo will all be there for the screening. Thursday the 28th, the festival takes over three more of the Somerville's screens, with a wide variety of docs, shorts, and a fiction feature that night.

  • The Arlington Capitol shoulders the bulk of the second-run shuffle this week, picking up Soul Surfer and Hanna. The Stuart Street Playhouse drops The King's Speech but picks up My Perestroika (which also continues playing at Coolidge Corner), with Poetry continuing to play one show a day at 5:30pm

My plans? Well, it's going to be a tight week - I'm committed to IFFBoston (you don't ask for a press pass and then not use it!), so I'll have to get everything in before then. I'll probably check out The Warring States on Friday, maybe Zokkomon over the weekend, and the Monster Zero/Destroy All Monsters Creature Double Feature at the Brattle. Maybe get Curling in there somewhere. Maybe fit Big Trouble in Little China, Rio and/or Scream 4 in there if the late night Sox games don't leave me exhausted.

1I'm compelled to make the usual comment about how, actually, these movies were originally presented with polarized glasses very similar to the ones in use now, with red/blue used only for lesser cinemas and re-releases when platter systems became more prevalent. So this would be more "middle-school" than "old-school". Back

2Fine, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Just because Morgan Spurlock is going for irony here doesn't mean I have to put a sponsor's name in big, bold letters. Especially since pomegranete juice tastes pretty gross. Back

Boston Underground Film Festival 2011 Day 8: The Beast Pageant and Satan Hates You

Day 8? What happened to day 7? Well, I'd already seen Atomic Brain Invasion and Cold Fish, and though the idea of seeing Sion Sono's new movie again had some appeal, it was nice to have the night off. The other theater was showing the "J. Cannibal's Tapas of Terror" and "Midnight Transgressions" programs, and while I like short films plenty, I can skip the horror and "how far can we push it?" stuff. Plus, new comics day and not feeling like I have to rush home from work made for a nice break.

It's maybe not fitting that the festival ended with one of the more egregious projection errors, but it was disappointing; what happened with The Beast Pageant was roughly as bad as everything that happened Saturday combined. Basically, there were about twenty minutes of shorts before the feature, but apparently the feature started running at about the same time. We saw the shorts, then the projection switched to the feature, which ran to the end and restarted, causing some confusion in the audience - was this some weird achronological editing? Were we seeing deleted scenes? It took a while until someone was sure enough that something was up and went to find festival management.

The festival guys were, naturally, extremely apologetic, especially considering that this was the last day of the festival, so there was no chance to reschedule, or give free tickets to the guys who weren't using passes. It's a real shame that the problems with presentation need to be mentioned - and they do, as they certainly affected my enjoyment of the movies and ability to discuss them - because BUFF runs a fun festival, and even with the problems they had, the general feeling is of things running smoothly.

I didn't love everything at BUFF, but I don't think you're supposed to; if one person were to love everything, they probably wouldn't be as close to the edge as they wanted to be. But they certainly had a slate of interesting movies, and that's what you go to this festival for.

The Beast Pageant

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Obviously, I can't review this movie properly, as I wound up seeing it out of order. However, I suspect that the very fact that those of us in the audience didn't twig to the fact that we were coming in late or quite get what the deal was when the movie looped around suggests that, at the very least, the movie isn't exactly tight.

In it, we follow Abraham (co-director Jon Moses) as he escapes from his machine-controlled life in a city straight out of Brazil or the films of Guy Maddin and starts roaming across the increasingly bizarre countryside. That is, after a miniature singing-cowboy version of himself grows out of his abdomen.

The Beast Pageant is a strange little movie, the sort that often seems built with the primary purpose of having the audience say "huh, that's peculiar". It gets plenty of that, for sure - changing landscapes, dancing trees and rocks, naked doll-sized people baking pies inside their scale-model house, bizarre commercials for fish in cereal boxes. It's also got the sort of obligatory theme of how modern life can be confining and how the machines intended to serve us are actually the ones in control. There's not a lot to it besides its eccentricity and familiar message, really; filmmakers Moses and Albert Birney are just putting ideas on-screen.

There's charm to that eccentricity, though. This is very much a D.I.Y. movie - the camera is salvaged and the sets are spare - but its homemade aesthetic is earnest and playful. The exposed, convoluted machinery of the city is lovingly detailed, while the "best we can do" effects for the cowboy (alternately a doll sticking out of Abraham's shirt and shots of Moses against a background that roughly approximates the shirt's pinstripes) fool no-one but still work.

It's not a great movie. It's scattered and random and I suspect that if I had seen it in the right order I would have grown impatient waiting for things to get started. It's a diverting bit of oddness, and enjoyable enough on that count.

Satan Hates You

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

I must admit - I've completely lost the ability to tell genuine evangelical Christianity from satire of the same. I say this not to disparage the people who find comfort and strength in their faith, just to point out that as with any group with strongly held convictions, you sometimes need to look very close to figure out whether something is being said with the force of true belief or comic exaggeration. For the life of me, I can't figure out which one Satan Hates You is, which may make it sort of brilliant.

We are all sinners, as they say, but Marc and Wendy may have a leg up on the rest of us. Both hang out at the same bar; Marc (Don Wood) is an unemployed alcoholic who is quick to anger when somebody gets the impression that he likes other men, while Wendy (Christine Spencer) is a party girl who is not terribly particular about what she puts in any of her orifices. They are being watched by unseen demons Glumac (Larry Fessenden) and Scadlock (Bradford Scobie), who are not allowed to interfere directly but can certainly whisper encouragement. Still, evil influences aren't the only ones in their lives; the folks at the storefront church next to Mickey's bar make overtures to Marc, and Wendy finds herself drawn to the televised sermons of Dr. Michael Gabriel (Angus Scrimm).

"Christian" doesn't often word-associate well with "bloody horror", but they are not always mutually exclusive. There are both long and recent traditions of apocalyptic art, and Halloween "Hell Houses" are often surprisingly graphic to those who don't realize that God-fearing people often have extremely specific and detailed ideas about sin and the punishments sinners will receive at the hands of Satan, and are dead serious about scaring you away from them. So when the characters of Satan Hates You are involved in nasty, sinful things (on either side), writer/director James Felix McKenney presents it with plentiful blood and gore, often imaginatively so. That back-alley abortion clinic, in particular, is impressively grotesque. The production values are sometimes a bit crude, as befits something made with more fervor than resources or technique.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Boston Underground Film Festival 2011 Day 6: Chop and Profane

If someone going to BUFF had opted for the "recession special" - a $35 pass that got the audience unlimited admission to the second half of the festival, the encore showings which run Monday through Thursday - Tuesday would have been a good night to sample the award winners. Both the "Director's Choice Feature", Chop, and the "Best of Fest Feature", Profane, played that night. I, personally would have recommended what was in Theater #4 instead - I found The Corridor slightly better than Chop and much preferred the gonzo fun of Helldriver to the well-intentioned but ultimately very dull Profane.

I must admit, I had to scratch my head a little when the awards were published (I missed the gala/party, because I was at Phase 7 and had to work the next day) - I had managed to miss (nearly) every single one of the awarded films by taking my first choices over the weekend, with the exception being Hobo With a Shotgun, which won the audience award. I guess that must have been voted on at the party or something, because I don't remember seeing audience ballots. If so, it had a leg up by not having its audience split (it was the only thing playing opening night); it thus had a better chance to be many people's favorite of the fest.

My votes likely would have gone to The Dead Inside, Phase 7, and Cold Fish, but even though I really disliked the Best of Fest selection, it's a reasonable choice given that BUFF is a festival devoted to envelope-pushing, and all four of the Best of Fest/Director's Choice winners and runners up were movies that do that in one way or another. My tastes are fairly mainstream - I like movies where things happen and as a result people do things, generally solving some sort of problem, and the story is told clearly. So, Profane is not for me, but it fits in with what BUFF is about perfectly.

(One other note: Though the director was not in attendance for either of these movies, Usama Alshaibi did send a video message mentioning that he was recovering from being assaulted a couple weeks earlier, an apparent hate crime. I may not like his movie, but that's despicable, and I wish him a speedy recovery and justice.)


* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Earlier in this festival, I saw a film described as a black comedy that played pretty well as a straight thriller. This one, meanwhile, is presented as a revenge thriller, but winds up being presented so broadly that it only really works as a comedy. Fortunately, if you're down with this sort of bloody, wise-ass flick, it can work pretty well.

Lance Reed (Billy Bakshi) is being faced with a really lousy choice - some guy (Timothy Muskatell) has kidnapped him and his half-brother Bobby (Chad Ferrin), then informed him that there's another man back home with his wife (Tanisha Mukerji), ready to kill her after having some fun. Time to choose. Oh, but before you do, there's something you should know. Well, Lance makes his choice, but it's the sort of thing that leads to cops and others asking Lance questions. Lance's question is about who this guy is and what his beef is - Lance was kind of a jerk in his addict days, but nothing about his captor is ringing a bell.

Things, of course, get worse. This is a movie about things getting worse, piling more blood, mayhem, secrets, and depraved behavior on until it blows past tension to absurdity. It's fast-paced and full of both amusing one-liners and abundant gore; the audience is unlikely ever to find themselves bored - the movie seldom allows a tense situation to simmer, always rushing toward the next nasty revelation or mutilation. In a way, it's a good thing that director Trent Haaga and writer Adam Minarovich are so committed to just going for the next worst thing; it gives Chop a consistently irreverent, almost cartoonish tone. This might be a happy accident, and Haaga's and Minarovich's goal might have been to make a nail-biter whose events shocked even as they made a well-hidden part of the viewer snicker, but in cases like this, it may be better to do one thing well than two so-so.

Full review at EFC.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Congratulations, Usama Alshaibi. You've managed to make spiritualism, Islamic mythology, and kinky sex boring in one brief eighty-minute feature. That's quite an impressive accomplishment, considering that most of the movie doesn't seem interested in accomplishing much of anything.

Meet Muna (Manal Kara). She moved to the United States from Jordan for school when she was younger, but of late has not been studying. Instead, she's been working as a dominatrix in Chicago, partaking of alcohol and drugs and other forbidden things. She's also been hearing voices, and believes them to be her jinn, a sort of demon of smokeless fire, some of them assigned to individual humans to tempt them toward evil. She discusses this with her friend Mary (Molly Plunk) in the back of a cab, which leads to the driver, Ali (Dejan Mircea) befriending her and offering his assistance.

And... That's mostly it. Despite the early mention of jinns, this isn't really a supernatural thriller. There's a potentially interesting idea to be played with of Mary and Ali being opposing jinns for Muna, with Mary leading her toward the pleasures and temptations of the flesh while Ali represents a spiritual cleansing and perhaps romance. If that's writer/director Alshaibi's intention, though, it's weakly executed. There's never a real sense of Muna feeling conflicted, or there being any particular consequences if she moves in one direction or another.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 15 April 2011 - 21 April 2011

It's actually a pretty quiet week at the theaters. Is it not school vacation week in other states, or just in Maine and Massachusetts where we have the Patriot's Day thing going on?

  • I suppose you could say that there are two major openings this week and two-semi-major ones. Among the majors, Rio is the most recent animated picture from Fox and Blue Sky (best known for the Ice Age movies); it features a last-male-of-his-kind bird (who never learned to fly) sent to Rio to breed with the last female. Hijinks ensue. Blue Sky doesn't get quite as much ink as Pixar or DreamWorks/PDI, but they do have a consistently decent track record.

    Number two is Scream 4, which has me hoping for good things, because I do like the previous entries in the series, and nobody involved has really had great things in their career since. Still, the previews make me wonder if Craven, Williamson, et al really had more to say or if this is just a way for them to remind the world that they exist.

  • And then there's Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Supposedly, it's the first of a trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's mammoth novel, but IMDB doesn't list any information on Parts 2 and/or 3. The trailer didn't knock me over, either, so I'm wondering if Rand's core fanbase is enough to get the next two parts into production. It opens at Kendall Square, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    Also among the tweeners is The Conspirator, which opens at Kendall Square and Boston Common. Robert Redford directs Robin Wright Penn as a woman who is accused of sheltering Lincoln's assassins. It's an interesting subject, from a company whose aim is apparently to produce accurate retellings of American history, but it seems odd to see Redford working outside the studio system - and odd that this should seem odd, given that he's the guy behind Sundance and all they've done for independent film.

  • Also opening at Kendall Square are two foreign films. Perhaps the most noteworthy is In a Better World, the Academy Award winner for best foreign language feature. It's about a Danish doctor who splits his time between an African war zone and a small town back home; guess which one is more potentially treacherous. Also opening is Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times), a quiet meditation on "four-fold transmigration", the idea that the soul passes between human, animal, plant, and mineral forms.

  • The Coolidge doesn't shake much up this week, but does add a "Nine Nation Animation" program to the digital screening rooms. It's ninety minutes of festival award-winning shorts from around the world (My Perestroika, Orgasm Inc., and Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune also share these two screens). The 1980s midnight series continues with Red Dawn tonight and tomorrow night; The Room joins it at midnight for its monthly screening on Saturday. Sunday morning, the Goethe-Institut presents Autumn Gold, a German documentary about people striving for a gold medal in track and field - in the 80-100-year age bracket. On Wednesday the 20th, there will be a screening of short films from the first ten years of the 48 Hour Film Project; 5 of the 15 came from the Boston competitions. And on Thursday the 21st, Coolidge members can see a free preview of Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, courtesy of the Nantucket Film Festival.

  • Also featuring animation this week is the Museum of Fine Arts, which begins an "Animation Celebration" program on Wednesday with a screening of Summer Wars; later that evening and on Thursday the 21st, the program will feature Piercing I, billed as the first independently-produced animated feature from China, about a college graduate trying to head back to his rural home after all manner of setbacks in the city.

    Before that, though, are a couple of holdovers from last week: Mercedes Alvarez's documentary The Sky Turns, and the remaining three days of the museum's first annual Hollywood Scriptures program, which feature a film followed by a one-hour panel discussion. Lebanon is showing Friday, Armadillo on Saturday, and War Don Don closes the series out on Sunday.

    Another quick series runs this weekend, New South Asian Film. Friday night is Life! Camera, Action..., about an Indian-American woman who wants to make movies; Saturday is Cooking with Stella, about a Canadian cook in New Delhi; and Sunday is Bicycle Bride, about a woman who falls for a Swedish immigrant despite her family's plans for an arranged marriage.

  • The Brattle doesn't feature animation, but they do present something in the same spirit, with a Jim Henson Weekend. Friday and Monday, there's a double feature of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal; Sunday afternoon and evening, there's a TRIPLE feature: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Kids and families may also want to come to the Brattle on Saturday, with a kids music show at 11am featuring Elizabeth Mitchell and special guest Barbara Brousal. Another music show runs that evening, New York City's Ida.

    No shows Tuesday, but Wednesday and Thursday are a True Grit double feature. John Wayne and Kim Darby have the 7pm show on Wednesday, with Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges before and/or after; the order is reversed on Thursday.

  • The Harvard Film Archive welcomes Kurdish director Bahman Gobadi this weekend; he will introduce and take questions on Saturday (No One Knows About Persian Cats, which is pretty great) and Sunday (A Time for Drunken Horses, his first film). Also showing as part of the retrospective are Turtles Can Fly and Marooned in Iraq on Friday and Half Moon on Monday. On Tuesday, VES has a screening of Persepolis (not Gobadi's, but another story of Iran); on Wednesday they show The Passion of Joan of Arc.

  • Whoa, more Iran? ArtsEmerson is presenting Offside tonight as part of the Boston Muslim Film Festival. It's about a group of female soccer fans who disguise themselves as boys sneak into a soccer match, only to be caught and detained in a holding area where they can here the crowd but not see the game. The film was banned in Iran, and director Jafar Panahi was arrested during the December protests and sentenced to six years in prison and a twenty year ban on making films, writing scripts, giving interviews, or traveling abroad.

    Saturday night, the program features two films by Andy Warhol - "Hedy" and "The Velvet Underground in Boston". Sunday night's screening is The Far Side of the Moon, a surreal movie directed by and starring Robert Lepage as quarreling brothers. Lepage will be presenting something called "The Andersen Project" on stage at the Paramount later in the year, which ties into the Saturday Afternoon family film, Hans Christian Andersen, featuring Danny Kaye as the famous storyteller.

  • Saturday afternoon, the Stuart Street Playhouse presents the 4th Annual Moving Images Film Festival, a program of films "by and about those with disabilities". Temple Grandin plays at noon, the short "When I'm Not Alone" at 2:45, and the documentary Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia at 3:45. The first two will be captioned and feature panel discussions afterward.

  • The Boston International Film Festival opens tonight at AMC Boston Common, and you're welcome to try and extract any information you can from their terrible website. I may try to make it out there for Ay Luv Yu tonight, just because I want to know how Steve Guttenberg shows up in a Turkish romantic comedy. The festival runs through the 24th.

  • Another festival is going on at the Arlington Capitol, the Boston International Kids' FIlm Festival. The bulk of the program is matinees from Saturday the 16th to Thursday the 21st, but there is an opening night screening of To Kill a Mockingbird tonight at 7pm. If you've got kids and the afternoon free, it looks like there's quite a bit of good stuff there (including Summer Wars and The Secret of Kells).

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has "Sing-Along Grease" this week, every night at 7pm (except Saturday), a 2pm matinee on Sunday, and a 10:30am show on Wednesday. Enjoy, people who like singing along to things!

  • The second-run shuffle has Insidious and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules moving over to Somerville, one playing evenings and the other matinees (not a bad plan during school vacation week). The Lincoln Lawyer opens at the Arlington Capitol, and The King's Speech pops up at the Stuart Street Playhouse (which also keep Poetry), although there are no shows tonight (Friday the 8th).

My plans? Well... Baseball! I've got tickets for the Sunday and Monday afternoon Red Sox games, and I honestly feel pretty good about them (the losing can't go on forever; this is too good a team). I will probably try and see Scream 4 and Rio at some point, along with the animation programs at the Coolidge and MFA.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Boston Underground Film Festival 2011 Day 5: A Horrible Way to Die

My plans for BUFF were rearranged a little over the weekend - Monday was going to be a two-movie night, Luster and Twilight People, but I opted out of The Woman on Friday night (combination of a tight window, a sold out show, and not being particularly fond of Lucky McKee), and then opted for Luster over Horrible on Saturday. Based on their listing in the program, I thought that it would be in the same theater as Cold Fish and Helldriver - the ones I really wanted to see - and the best way of making sure that your film festival schedule doesn't get screwed over is to stay in one theater all day. Turned out not to be the case, and I was sweating more than a bit as Luster's projection problems closed the gap between showtimes.

It was a good thing I did, at least in terms of seeing as many movies as I could, as Monday turned out to be one of those days at work, the sort that keep you in an office out in Burlington until 7:30, torpedoing any chance of seeing a show in the early-evening slot. It did leave me with a little time to get dinner, though, and The Friendly Toast was pretty ideal at 8:30, especially after a few days of subsisting on nachos and microwaved hot dogs. The lessons for the film-festival-goer here? (1) Getting one night of decent food is awesome mid-fest, (2) always see the stuff you really want to the first opportunity you can, because stuff comes up, and (3) I think I'll just work from home the entire week of IFFBoston and avoid any T-related anxiety.

As to this movie itself, I'm kind of surprised that the review I wrote is so positive, all things considered. I'm not kidding about Wingard and company spending too much time futzing with the camera; I found myself grinding my teeth and really just hating the experience of watching A Horrible Way to Die, almost entirely for the pretentious, frequently out-of-focus cinematography (I think there was some horrible shaky-cam action in there as well, but I'm not sure).

I half-wonder if this would have been a completely different review if I had been able to write it closer to the actual screening, when the bile from staying late at work and getting to the theater only to see this blurry thing was fresh. Heck, I might not have seen the parallels between the characters' addictions otherwise, or not found them compelling enough if that was still fresh in my head.

(And, yeah, it bugged me this much. If I sound like a broken record now, imagine just how frustrated I was while the movie was actually unspooling!)

A Horrible Way to Die

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

I don't want genre filmmaking to become a paint-by-numbers affair, where we as an audience rejoice at basic competence and filmmakers strive to replicate a winning formula. Crime, horror, and the like can be innovative and done with artistry, not just a bit a flourish. That said, I spent a lot of time during A Horrible Way to Die wishing that director Adam Wingard would stop screwing around with the damn camera and trust in a good story and cast.

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is starting to get her life turned around in a new town. She's not outgoing, but gets on well enough with the staff of the diner where she works as a waitress. She's committed but reticent in the AA meetings she attends, where she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg), a nice, good-looking guy who offers a ride home and would like to see her again. As that relationship is starting, serial killer Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) escapes from prison and starts making his way across the country, blazing a trail of blood in Sarah's general direction.

As Wingard and writer Simon Barrett start mixing in flashbacks, the connection between the two threads soon becomes clear, but the film is not entirely about Sarah's past coming back to haunt her. A Horrible Way to Die is also about addiction and compulsion; just as Sarah and Kevin find themselves joking (but also dead serious) about how the Italian restaurant where they meet for their first date is perhaps a bad idea when they see the walls almost completely covered with wine bottles, Garrick can't seem to resist when an opportunity to kill is placed in front of him. He's not outwardly a maniac, but like an alcoholic, he murders without taking any real pleasure in it, no matter how many lives he literally destroys.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Boston Underground FF 2011 Day 4: Son of God, "Future Imperfect", Atomic Brain Invasion, The Dead Inside, and Phase 7

And here's Sunday. It turned out to be a pretty good day, all told - it included my favorite film of the festival (The Dead Inside), an interesting documentary (Son of God), and a really good thriller (Phase 7). Even the throwback sci-fi movie (Atomic Brain Invasion) was enjoyable enough, although the shorts were a pretty mixed bag. Some just annoyed the heck out of me, but others had some good imagination.

It wound up being a bit of a long day - even with the inevitable delays at the starts of movies that tightened time between screenings, it was still a half hour between them toward the end, which is a bit of a bummer when you're hungry: There's not a lot of fast food around Kendall Square, and the two nearby restaurants that sponsored the fest - The Friendly Toast and Tommy Doyle's - are not quite places you can run into, order, and finish a meal between shows. I'm just glad that the hot dogs at the theater are edible - even though they're microwaved and, you know, hot dogs, it makes the day feel less like one where I'm subsisting entirely on junk food. This is also the only situation where the free refills on those jumbo sodas actually makes sense.

It was cool to see Phase 7 on film, at least - after the previous day's issues, there was something reassuring about seeing the specks and lines that indicate 35mm appear on the screen. You'd think digital would be more reliable without the moving parts, but the simplicity and standardization of film certainly translates into reliability.

This was also the official "closing night" of the festival; it continued through Thursday, but that was repeat showings, and as they were evening-only, much less exhausting. Awards were given out at a party that overlapped with Phase 7, and they make me scratch my head a little, but I'll get to that when I get to those movies over the next few days.

Son of God

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Did Khavn de la Cruz and Michael Noer stumble upon a potentially fascinating movie by pure chance while walking around the streets of Manila? Or did they know about the subject and gracefully insinuate themselves? Or were things somewhat more scripted? On the one hand, it doesn't really matter; the ideas and events of the film are the same either way. And yet, it's worth asking the question, given that this is a movie about taking advantage of faith, whether or not our faith in the film is justified.

As the movie starts, experimental filmmaker Khavn (he's often credited without his surname) and Danish documentarian Noer are shooting in Quiapo, a poor Manila neighborhood, when their path intersects a marching crowd. They're members of the Church of the Black Nazarene. It's a noisy, flamboyant sect, and that seems harmless enough. Then Khavn and Noer find a group claiming that Christ will soon be resurrected, in the Philippines. Not unusual. Then we meet "Son-of-God" (Ali Doron), a diminutive guy with curly white hair who claims to be that resurrection, and who surprisingly lets the filmmakers tag along as he spreads the word.

Is Son-of-God a fraud? Almost certainly. Certain elements come from a standard playbook, and aren't necessarily executed all that well - watch how Doron pulls tumors out of a man during a faith-healing exercise; though it's easy to see those who want to believe falling for it, a closer look makes his hand seem a much more likely source. And yet, it's not all that hard to sympathize with those who believe in Son-of-God; these are people who need to believe in something, after all. And Doron comes across as quite sincere; a confrontation with a believer who lost someone close after having been "cured" by Son-of-God does not play out cynically. Instead, there are moments of guilt and moments that suggest something more like a crisis of faith. Even the skeptical might find themselves very curious about what's going on in Doron's mind here; the pilgrimage that follows certainly seems genuine, rather than something done for show.

Full review at EFC.

Future Imperfect

Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

I'll punt this one a little, rather than running down every short, mostly because it's been a couple of weeks and thus many of the details have fallen out the back of my head. Also, a number were very short, and not clever enough to make an impresion in their brief running time.

Still, there were some memorable entries - "Apocalypse Story", for instance, in which a boy and a girl come across each other in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's interesting for being almost entirely dialogue-free, possibly because language has fallen into disuse when other people are so few and far between. "Spark" is another one featuring a young cast, with a clever conceit - that genetically engineered plants have increaded the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to the extent where people are legitimately terrified of fire. A lot more, though, were like "Robotic Panic", a low-budget but somewhat amusing bit where a robot's requests become increasingly uncomfortable.

Atomic Brain Invasion

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

It's fair to look at a movie like Atomic Brain Invasion and sigh. Another one of these things? After all, to put it bluntly, the people with legitimate first-hand nostalgia for 1950s sci-fi flicks are dying off, and going the spoof route just seems unsporting. Writer/director Richard Griffin splits the difference, making a throwback sci-fi flick that's kind of funny, but occasionally seems to miss opportunities.

It's the 1950s, and this small New England town seems typical. Sure, the occasional mushroom cloud on the horizon probably should make the residents wonder just exactly what sort of velocipedes the army is working on at the Bicycle Testing Ground. That's not the only strange thing going on, though - something has crashed in the woods where the local high school has a field trip. Among those teenagers are misfits Sherman (David Lavallee Jr.), Kevin (Daniel Lee White), and Jim (Colin Carlton); academically inclined cutie Betty (Sarah Nicklin); and Lukas (Michael Reed), son of the general in charge of the army base (David Erin Wilson), who is having a hard time dealing with the fact that Betty doesn't like him nearly as much as Sherman. As slimy aliens infiltrate, another group of aliens lands - good-looking teenage ones (Alexander Lewis, Alexandra Cipolla, and Ruth Sullivan), asking to be taken to the king. They can't mean Elvis (Brandon Luis Aponte), can they?

Look at the credits of Richard Griffin and his cast, and you'll see a lot of overlap. This is a group that has been cranking out horror movies on a fairly regular schedule, and this time around they wanted to make something less R-rated. On that count, they succeed; it's a pretty mild movie, with no swearing, not much even the easily-horrified fifties moms in the cast would find terribly suggestive, and what violence there is more likely to involve puppets and glowing green goo than graphic blood and guts. In that way, Atomic Brain Invasion is a tends more to the pastiche than the parody; it respects the 50s monster-movie conventions much more than it mocks them.

Of course, it can't help but make fun much of the time, and sometimes they could have done with pushing it a little harder. While the kids are often played as kind of broad and maybe oblivious, the characters are at their best when they poke each other with something a little sharp. For instance, Lukas isn't nearly as funny as a dim-bulb bully as he is when he's playing weird, eccentric, and perhaps in a deep, dark closet. A conversation by the ladies horrified that kids might be going to that rock & roll concert rather than their pie-baking contest is a little obvious, but General Bedfellow commenting during a lecture that "we don't know a lot about radiation, and most of what we do know is wrong" is funny because it jabs at present-day scientific ignorance on film and in life as much as it does the past. Heck, Elvis is funnier the nuttier he seems. Basically, every time Griffin, co-writer Guy Benoit, and company go for the screwy, bizarre joke, it works a lot better than just repeating formula.

Full review at EFC.

The Dead Inside

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Films like Travis Betz's The Dead Inside are some of my favorites to write about. Not so much the genre - although, let's face it, you don't pass up a chance to write up singing zombies - but because it's a well-made movie that goes in clever, often funny (but often not), directions. Plus, the surprises start coming early, so there's the challenge of saying just why it's so cool without giving the game away.

We start with the zombies, Harper (Sarah Lassez) and Max (Dustin Fasching), who know that there is a delicious young woman on the other side of a door. However, while they are able to converse well enough with each other, that locked door is too much of a challenge for their zombie brains. And they are not in line for a whole lot of help, as the tiny room beyond contains Fiona (also Lassez). Fiona's a writer of a series of books starring Harper and Max, and the locked door has her stuck. And as her boyfriend Wes (also Fasching) - a wedding photographer growing sick of weddings - soon discovers, it's rather worse than a simple case of writer's block; Fi seems to be having a full-fledged breakdown. Or, as the surprising direction Harper's and Max's story takes indicates, something stranger may be afoot.

Many independent movies confine themselves to a small cast and a single location out of necessity; many horror movies do so to keep the tension up. Few make such a virtue of it as The Dead Inside, where people other than Fi, Wes, and their alter egos are glanced (or heard) only briefly, and the decision not to redress the sets between the Fi/Wes and Harper/Max sequences reinforces both just how similar the couples are and what sort of turmoil Fi is undergoing. Betz moves between the scenarios smoothly, sometimes during songs, sometimes with shots of Fi at the computer, but never with the intent to confuse.

Full review at EFC.

Fase 7 (Phase 7)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

In most zombie/contagion movies, the point where the tension really cranks up is when, after braving the various horrors to get to what should be a safe place, the characters discover that the greatest danger isn't out there; but in here. Phase 7 cuts out a lot of the time used in getting to that point, making for a thrilling siege picture.

Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) don't know anything is up as they're doing the grocery shopping, just buying the usual while the people around them are stocking up. It's not until they get home that they find out that there have been outbreaks of a nasty disease around the world. When one of their neighbors is taken away for displaying symptoms, the Argentine equivalent of the CDC places the entire building under quarantine. As time passes with no news of the restrictions being lifted, tensions begin to form - Coco's neighbor Horacio (Yayo Guridi) seems disturbingly prepared for this situation, and a number of others are already making plans on how to consolidate and distribute assets, starting with elderly neighbor Zanutto (Federico Luppi).

Phase 7 is being presented in some circles as more black comedy than thriller, and I think that characterization does the movie a bit of a disservice. That's not to say that it's not frequently funny - it is - just that its sense of humor is often bone-dry, to the point where it can easily be confused with bad plotting. For instance, the opening scene, where Coco and Pipi are too wrapped up in their own minor concerns to notice that everybody around them is hurriedly buying in bulk - that's smart, satiric, and just gets funnier as the scene continues to play out. As things play out, though, with indications that a fair amount of time is passing, Pipi's continuing obliviousness and Coco's often head-scratching behavior become less amusing than frustrating to watch.

Full review at EFC.