Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 31 August 2011 - 8 September 2011

One movie opens on Wednesday this week, but it opens all over the place, so we might as well get a jump on planning the movie-seeing weekend:

  • That one movie is The Debt, a thriller about a group of young Israelis sent into East Germany in 1966 to capture a fugitive war criminal who still have reason to be haunted by it forty years later. The elder versions of the characters are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarin Hinds; the younger ones by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas, with John Madden directing from a script by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman (adapting a previous Israeli picture). It looks pretty good and is playing in both boutique houses like Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner and the downtown theaters in Boston Common and Fenway.

  • Horror is the order of the day for the other mainstream openings (Labor Day is apparently not a big-deal holiday weekend): Shark Night is taking a lot of hits for not going for an R rating (leading to comments that it should be advertised as "Shark Night PG-13" rather than "Shark Night 3D"), but I'm holding out a little hope; it features Sara Paxton (whom I loved in The Innkeepers, and it almost has to make better use of underwater 3D than Piranha 3D did, right? There's also Apollo 18, which takes found-footage horror to a new place - the moon. It's the movie that I always hoped that the Transformers 3 previews were for; hopefully it's good.

    With a few other screens to fill, Boston Common picks up another couple of smaller pictures: Senna has already been running for a week at Kendall Square, but this documentary on the beloved F1 racer may pick up a different audience downtown. They also have A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy, an R-rated comedy about a group of friends who get together and quite likely find that free love isn't quite as easy as it sounds. Still, it's got some people I like (Leslie Bib, Angela Sarafyan, Tyler Labine)

  • A few new movies open at Kendall Square, as well. I saw The Whistleblower at IFFBoston; it's a decent enough "inspired by true events" story with Rachel Weisz as a woman who exposes UN defense contractors' complicity in the sex trade in Eastern Europe. From France comes The Hedgehog, in which an eleven-year-old girl is already so jaded that she makes plans to kill herself on her twelfth birthday, but a few oddball neighbors will likely clear that right up. And the one-week booking is Magic Trip ("Ken Kesey's Search For a Kool Place"), a documentary put together from footage Kesey took during his apparently-famous cross-country road trip in 1964. Apparently hippies are interesting!

  • After finishing its summer vertical schedule up (Cave of Forgotten Dreams tonight; 8 1/2 Thursday), the Brattle returns to consecutive day blocks. First up, from Friday (the 2nd) to Monday (the 5th), is the area premiere of The Myth of the American Sleepover, and ensemble picture about kids crossing paths on a late August night - some starting high school, others starting college, etc. It's apparently better than most, and a high-profile festival favorite. Note that its last show of the day is at 7:30pm; the 9:30 show is Brian De Palma's Scarface.

    The next couple of midweeks, meanwhile, will be given over to The Neurotic Genius of Woody Allen; this week it's three thematic double features. Tuesday (the 6th) brings New York-oriented romances with Diane Keaton Manhattan & Annie Hall; Wednesday (the 7th) is oddball genre spoofs Love and Death and The Sleeper; Thursday (the 8th) is when Woody started getting a little more serious, with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters.

  • As of right now, the Coolidge Corner Theatre's site isn't updated with weekend shows, but Google shows them keeping Midnight in Paris, Sarah's Key, and Sholem Aleichem alongside The Debt. The special screenings are midnights of Fast Times at Ridgemont High Friday/Saturday and Office Space Monday at 8pm.

  • Over at Fresh Pond, the big Bollywood premiere is Bodyguard, an action/comedy/romance/probably-musical starring Salman Khan as the title character who cramps the style of college student Kareena Kapoor. We all know where this will lead, but supposedly the action is very impressive. The iMovie Cafe website shows another English-subtitled film opening on Friday (The Girl in Yellow Boots), but no times, so it may not actually arrive for another week, if at all.

  • There's an odd hodgepodge of films playing the MFA this coming week-plus. Thursday wraps up the run of El Buli: Cooking in Progress, in between two showings of Rebirth (which finishes its run on Friday the 2nd, as does the restored print of Black Narcissus). Friday and Saturday each have single screenings of The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, a documentary centering on an American soldier who allegedly went AWOL and was killed by the Khmer Rouge on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia in 1966 - but who may have turned up alive 40 years later.

    Also on Saturday, the museum starts another film series, selections from Montreal's International Festival of Films on Art. It runs through the 15th (with no screenings on Mondays and Tuesdays); this week's selections are Comic Books Go to War, T.S. Eliot, Antwerp Central Station, Patrice Chereau: Body of Work, and The Reach of Resonance.

  • The Harvard Film Archive is spotlighting American Punk over the next couple weekends. Friday night is Times Square and D.O.A.: A Right of Passage; Saturday is The Decline of Western Civilization and The Return of the Living Dead; Sunday is Suburbia (after a second screening of Decline); and Monday is Bruce LaBruce's No Skin Off My Ass. Before those (on Thursday, 1 September) is a rescheduled screening of Cristi Puiu's Aurora, after Irene wiped out the scheduled one.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has Yogawoman, a documentary on female yoga teachers, booked on Thrusday the 8th at 7pm. $20 seems a bit pricy, but if it's a subject you're interested in, it's not like it's showing elsewhere.

  • And, finally, if you missed some movie this summer, there's a little second-run action happening: The Arlington Capitol will have Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D starting on Friday, when Boston Common also brings back Cars 2 (digital 3D) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (pseudo-IMAX 3D) for matinees and Bad Teacher for 10:20pm shows.

My plans? Well, there's baseball on Thursday and Sunday, but around those games I'll probably try and fit Shark Night, A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy, and maybe some Woody Allen in. I'm also tempted to give Cave of Forgotten Dreams a second look, as "following Werner Herzog into placed normal people don't get to go" is one of the great justifications for 3D, and I suspect it won't be quite the same seen flat.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.21 (3 August): The Last Ronin and The Devil's Rock

Not a lot of stories to share. Hey, we're rapidly approaching "one month ago"; I think I'm doing pretty good here.

Besides, this was a bit of a wrap-up day - after work, I headed to St. Catherine Street to pick up my screeners (a dozen of them, including some I was genuinely worried about not seeing), kind of surprised that I was going there instead of the press room that was set up in the Hall building. It looks like the festival has moved their offices to a somewhat larger space in the same building they've been in since I started going, but which seems to have better air conditioning (based on the five minutes I spent there annually, I have no idea how they put up with working whole days in that place during summer).

I killed the rest of the afternoon with dinner at Mr. Steer and comics shopping at Capitaine Quebec. For all the various fancy burger places I try out during every trip to Montreal, I'm not sure any of them beat this long-standing diner in terms of making a really good burger. Crunchy outside, tender inside, practically spherical and thus able to be served on the same humble buns you would use for a backyard cookout.

After that, I hit the comic shop at an incredibly opportune time - during August, they're having a 30% off sale to celebrate their 30th anniversary, and this discount stacked on top of the ones already being applied to sale/clearance books, and since part of what I was looking for was 2000AD collections... Well, I got a couple $20 books for $4. That made me very happy.

And after that... Movies! Nobody came out from Japan for The Last Ronin, but The Devil's Rock was well-represented:

Mitch Davis & Paul Campion at Fantasia 2011
Mitch Davis is very excited to have writer/director Paul Campion there!

"The Devil's Rock" cast & crew at Fantasia 2011
(l-r) Mitch, Paul, and co-stars Gina Varela & Matthew Sunderland.

The night ended on a fun, energetic Q&A. Impressively, it didn't seem to be awkward at all for Ms. Varela, considering her character spent a non-trivial amount of the movie naked and there were more than a few wolf-whistles and questions/comments centered around her hotness. I mean, it would be weird for me, but then again, I am sure as heck not the kind of guy who is inclined to either get naked on film or go up on a stage to answer questions, much less do them in conversation.

Still, how often does this sort of thing happen for guys? I'm not sure I've ever seen that sort of reaction to a male guest at a film festival.

Saigo no Chushingura (The Last Ronin)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

The story of the 47 ronin is perhaps the most famous story in all of Japan, telling how in the early 1800s, after their lord was forced to commit seppuku, forty-seven of his samurai spent a year biding their time and planning before striking back at the lord who maneuvered their master into this position - and then committed ritual suicide themselves to atone for their crime. The Last Ronin is not that story itself, but rather an intriguing off-shoot, telling the tale of its survivors - including ones whom the bushido code suggests should not have lived.

Kichiemon Terasaka (Koichi Sato) numbers himself among them, for he is the 47th ronin. However, before the final attack, the leader of the band, Kuranosuke Oishi (Nizaemon Kataoka)gave him the responsibility of letting the story be known, and also delivering financial compensation to the widows. After over sixteen years of crisscrossing the country on foot, "Kichie" has finally completed his work, and comes to Kyoto for the seventeenth anniversary rites. Upon arriving, he notices the merchant Kariya (Kohi Yakusho), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his old friend Magozaemon "Magoza" Senoo, a fellow ronin who fled the night before the attack, an act of terrible cowardice. And Kariya is a man of secrets, chief among them Miss Kane (Nanami Sakuraba), a beautiful young woman who secretly lives in his house deep in the forest, receiving lessons in ettiquette and deportment from former courtesan Yugiri (Narumi Yasuda). And when Kane catches the eye of Shoichiro (Koji Yamanoto), the son of wealthy clothier Jiro Chayashiro (Yoshi Oida), it is Kariya whom the father asks to investigate the girl's background.

Though it is likely no surprise to those who have read the original novel by Shoichiro Ikemiya, the literal title character, Kichie, is not the primary focus of the film. It is not long before Magoza takes center stage. The early scenes set up a mystery or two, but while the final details which tie the story together are saved for the end, that Kariya and Magoza are the same person is never in doubt. Still, the grace with which director Shigemichi Sugita and writer Yozo Tanaka shift the focus from Kichi to Magoza is impressive; it might take until midway through the film for the viewer to realize that the film is much less about Terasaka's burden as a living witness than Senoo's responsibilities as a parent.

Full review at EFC.

The Devil's Rock

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

You can make a pretty decent horror movie without a whole lot in the way of raw materials. More than practically any other genre, filmmakers have been able to do quite a bit with just a room, a handful of good actors, a half-decent concept, and a good gore team. At the very least, The Devil's Rock has an excellent gore team, and the rest isn't bad either.

It's the eve of D-Day, but before the Allied attack can begin in earnest, some German defenses must be neutralized. Thus, a pair of ANZACs who have been in Europe since the beginning of the war, Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) and Sergeant Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater) have paddled to one of the occupied Channel Islands, aiming to take out a German gun. When they get there, though, the gun is unmanned, and the base next to it is a charnel house. A survivor, Colonel Klaus Meyer (Matthew Sunderland), tells them that the base was used for Nazi experiments with the occult. This one, clearly, has had mixed results - they've summoned a demon, but control is clearly an issue. It's locked down now, but when Grogan looks at it, he sees his wife Helena (Gina Varela).

It's a tough situation when both demons and Nazis are saying that they're the ones with your best interests at heart. Director Paul Campion and his co-writers have a great deal of fun with the classic "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" scenario, which is a good thing - a feature-length movie confined to a few rooms where you can count the important characters on one-hand needs suspense more than anything else, and Campion's smart about it, cranking the tension up high to start and then finding ways to move the needle on the pressure gauge as much as he can as the movie goes on. It's not a perfect script by a long shot - the situation constantly demands Grogan accept the word of someone with every motivation to lie, and he seems to choose correctly or incorrectly based on how far along the story is - but the set-up is good and Campion can milk it.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.20 (2 August): Kidnapped, Marianne, and Bas-fonds

Let me say, I had pretty high hopes for getting much closer to done with Fantasia reviews this weekend; you'd think that with the hurricane and all, I might stay indoors and just grind through them. It turns out that Bas-fonds is a killer to review when there's any chance for distractions at all, and it kicked my butt until I was on the bus this AM.

Anyway, this was an interesting set of reiews to write, in that all three from this day grew in my estimation as I wrote about them. I still found myself not actually liking Kidnapped even as my esteem for its execution increased - it's one of a few movies I saw at the festival where I'm grateful that they exist, because they avoid taking the safe route and thus keep one from being too certain of what's going to happen when watching a thriller, but are kind of a dispiriting turd sandwich when you actually watch them. And I'm glad I finally saw what the filmmaker was going for with the second half of Bas-fonds, a month later.

The highlight of the day was easily Marianne, though.

Filip Tegstedt at Fantasia 2011

The fellow in the foreground is writer/director Filip Tegstedt, @TheNorthlander on Twitter and really an impressively hard worker at promoting his movie (see also @MarianneMovie). He had great-looking posters to hang and give away, and he was there for the whole festival, both to stoke word of mouth and to attend as a fan. That may not sound like much, but at a lot of festivals, filmmakers will arrive the day their movie screens and depart the next day, and even when they stick around, it's usually not for a three-week event. It appears to have paid off - it was a sold-out crowd on Tuesday and hopefully another good one on Friday. I really should bug the Boston TerrorThon people to try and book it, because it's good stuff that I'd really like the folks around here to see.

Secuestrados (Kidnapped)

Quality: * * * ½ (out of four)
Reaction : * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

I'll say this for Miguel Ángel Vivas: He is committed. He knows exactly what he wants to do with this movie - what sort of terror he wants to put the characters and audience through - and he goes for it with an admirable focus and determination. It's not always a pleasant journey, but the film is as tense as a hostage drama should be; it certainly hits its targets. The question is, then, whether or not the potential viewer wants to see those targets hit.

A scene before the title gives the audience some idea of what's to come, but for a bit after that, the tension is of the familial variety: Jaime (Fernando Cayo) and Marta (Ana Wagener) have moved into a nice new house in a nice development in the suburbs, and their teenage daughter Isa (Manuela Vellés) is not thrilled to have been yanked away from her friends. There's a party tonight that Isa wants to go to with her boyfriend César (Xoel Yáñez), and that leads to a bunch of "we're spending our first night in our new house together as a family", "but papa said", and so on. By the time the night is over, though, Marta and Jaime will wish they'd let Isa go out, and maybe done something themselves - three masked men with Eastern European accents (Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper, and Guillermo Barrientos) break in, hold them hostage, and threaten unspeakable things if they don't co-operate.

Right from the start, Vivas and company don't mess around. The hoods are quickly established as ruthless and violent enough that questions of personal motivation are extraneous, or at least a distant second behind surviving the next five minutes. Even the most professional, intelligent-seeming member of the crew seems to be using a relatively crude calculus as to whether hostages who can withdraw money from ATMs or otherwise be used as leverage are more valuable than corpses who can't talk to the police, and Vivas gets a great deal of mileage from moments that clearly shift favor killing the witnesses.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011)

Marianne is less a genre-straddling film than one that straddles the line between what is traditionally called "genre" and the more-respected types of drama, and it's one of the good ones. It's a story of a haunting, sure, but it's filled with great little character bits and acting; it should impress the audiences who normally look down on horror stories as well as those who cringe at apparent award-bait.

Ten years ago, Krister (Thomas Hedengran) strayed from his wife Eva (Tintin Anderzon) - again - with the Marianne of the title (Viktoria Sätter). Today, he is at Eva's funeral, holding their infant daughter Linnéa. His daughter Sandra (Sandra Larsson) hates him, preferring to spend time with her boyfriend "Stiff" (Dylan M. Johansson) and resenting Krister's requests for her to babysit her new sister. Eva's mother Birgitta (Gudrun Mickelsson) comes to help out with that, and that's got to be uncomfortable. Something more than an infant and grief is keeping Krister up nights, though, and Peter (Peter Boija), the principal of the school where Krister teaches, has him visit a counselor (Peter Stormare). But maybe it's Stiff, an avowed occult enthusiast, who knows what is really going on...

Writer/director Filip Tegstedt's little story is deceptively ambitious; what could be a vanilla ghost story based on a straightforward set of sins is instead a more complex set of interlocking plots with messy human emotions behind them. We see the Eva/Krister/Marianne triangle as well as Krister's mourning, but interestingly, not as something sexy and salacious - what Tegstedt shows is almost entirely the moments when Krister is hurting somebody and hating it. It's presented as a situation with no good answers - Marianne isn't a monster and Eva is very passive (it's no wonder Krister keeps having affairs if Eva just puts up with it) The flashbacks mesh tightly with the ones in the present, but never in a way that becomes confusing when a given scene is taking place. There's also a second triangle going on that is in many ways as interesting as the first - Krister, Sandra, and Stiff.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Camera Lucida)

Well, that was certainly something. Two somethings, maybe, which isn't a bad rate of success at all for a weird little art-house movie that clocks in at just a little more than an hour. Bas-fonds is far from perfect, but a large chunk can knock the audience flat.

Why? Because the three central performances are ferocious. Valérie Nataf, Noémie Le Carrer, and Ginger Romàn play a trio of women who are true outsiders, and their performances reflect a complete lack of interest in societal norms - it would be called overacting or theatrical in more conventional settings, but the yelling and various other forms of hysteria in those scenes is instead a genuinely shocking example of just how utterly divorced from the rest of the world these women are. The first half of the movie is mostly them running completely amok, letting the audience marvel at their odd dynamic, sexually and otherwise.

Odd because, in most cases, one might expect Ginger Romàn's pretty blonde Barbara Vidal to be the queen bee of the group, but she's not - writer/director Isild Le Besco has Romàn play her as nervous and subservient, always craving approval even when that should be an easy thing to come by. Noémie Le Carrer, meanwhile, has the younger of the Pichon sisters, Marie-Stéphane, positioned somewhere in between Barbara and Magalie, dominated by her older sister but also with some of her cruelty. There's a confidence to her that comes from knowing her place exactly; she can be on her knees scrubbing the floor and still cut Barbara down.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 August 2011 - 1 September 2011

Hey, I've seen some stuff that is showing up this weekend and can make recommendations on them, just like a real movie critic! Also like a real movie critic, I'm quoted on the back of the DVD/Blu-ray package for Little Big Soldier that came out this week (see? Not by name, but I'm the guy who wrote that for eFilmCritic). Although it's kind of sad that WellGo had to go to a blogging computer programmer who vacations at film festivals to get a quote for this - it's a good movie, and Jackie Chan's not nobody.

  • Speaking of Jackie Chan, and movies I saw at Fantasia last year that I can recommend, it's time for the Asian Community Development Corporation's annual Films at the Gate. Starting tonight (Thursday 25 August 2011), and running through Sunday (the 28th), there will be a free movie projected outside, near the Chinatown Gate in Boston. All shows at 8pm, with live martial arts and dragon-dance demonstrations at 7:30pm (weather permitting).

    It kicks off with Bruce Lee in 1972's Way of the Dragon tonight. Tomorrow (Friday) is the local premiere of Gallants, which I saw at Fantasia last year. It's funny! Saturday night's film is Jackie Chan in 1980's The Young Master (which also features Yuen Biao). And Sunday has a double feature - a very young Bruce Lee in 1950's The Kid, and the recent hour-long documentary A Moment in Time is a bit of an oral history of immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown, told in part via the movies shown there.

    All shows are free, though a hat is passed and popcorn is sold. The optimal way to enjoy it, of course, is to stop at a restaurant and get some take-out, supporting local businesses.

  • Three movies open at the multiplexes this weekend, and I can vouch for two of them: Our Idiot Brother, which screened in Boston as part of Sundance's local shows back in January, is a funny and good-natured comedy starring Paul Rudd in the title role, a guy whose good intentions tend to backfire on his sisters. They're played by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel, so there's a pretty funny, good-looking cast at work here.

    If you go in more for scares, there's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which was the last feature-length film I saw at Fantasia this year. I don't love it quite as much as Our Idiot Brother, but I like it quite a bit. I almost wish it was a little bit less intense, because it would be a good movie to scare little kids with (note: it's rated R, but it's one precocious ten-year-olds might like).

    I haven't seen Colombiana, the latest out of the Luc Besson action factory. Besson co-writes with frequent partner Robert Mark Kamen, the awesomely-pseudonymed Olivier Megaton directs, and Zoe Saldana stars, with Michael Vartan and Cliff Curtis in supporting roles. Saldana's character is looking for vengeance for the murder of her parents, and that stuff I said last week about how the French kick butt at mid-range action thrillers? here's the test, albeit mostly in English.

  • The Coolidge will be opening spiffy-looking thriller The Debt next Wednesday (31 September 2011), bumping the long-running Midnight in Paris to the digital rooms, but in the meantime one of those smaller screens picks up Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a documentary about "the Jewish Mark Twain", best known for stories that later became Fiddler on the Roof. On Sunday (the 28th), director Joseph Dorman will be present for the 2:30pm screening (they'll be moving to a larger screen for that).

    Around those, there are the weekly special screenings. Zoolander has Friday and Saturday midnights in the large downstairs theater, while A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors plays on the slightly-less-large upstairs screen at the same time. The Monday night "Big Screen Classic" is Federico Fellini's La Strada. It plays at 7pm.

  • Kendall Square will also be getting The Debt, with Point Blank and The Names of Love sharing a screen until then and then disappearing. In the meantime, they've stamped a one-week warning on two films: Chasing Madoff is a documentary on the ten-year investigation that led to Bernie Madoff's arrest for swindling a great many people out of their life savings, while Griff the Invisible is a romantic comedy about an office worker who plays superhero by night. Interestingly, it's distributed by Indomina which up to now has mostly focused on Asian action movies, so this is a bit of a switch.

    Also opening is Brighton Rock, an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel about a young gangster who marries a witness to keep her from squealing. Very nice supporting cast, including Helen Mirren and John Hurt.

  • The Brattle's area premiere this weekend is big - four hours and seventeen minutes, plus intermission, big. Mysteries of Lisbon is a grand-scale adaptation of a classic Portuguese novel by Raul Ruiz with a nice cast and what looks like gorgeous production design. It runs Friday to Monday at 7pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 1:45pm.

    The matinees on Monday - and all-day double feature on Tuesday - is the finale of the Bernard Hermann tribute, and the Brattle sends the series off in style, with a double feature of Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster. The Nina Rota series that's been running in parallel ends on Thursday (September 1st) with 8 1/2, which I'm assured is much better than that horrific Nine movie from a couple years ago. Note that there's been a change in tonight's screenings for that series - the 9:30pm show of The Clowns has been replaced by Amarcord, which also screens at 7pm. Print availability is a bummer, but for Fellini/Rota fans, that's a still a pretty good eight-day period when you take the Coolidge's La Strada screening into consideration.

    Wednesday night is the finale to the "Recent Raves" series, and it's another good one, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It's in 2D at the Brattle, but should still be fascinating even without the third dimension.

  • As mentioned last week, the Museum of Fine Arts opens a limited run of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress tonight (Thursday the 25th); it's a nifty process-oriented documentary showing how Ferran Adria comes up with new dishes for his famed restaurant, and a big hit at IFFBoston this year (it had to be moved to a much larger screen to accommodate demand). The "New and Restored Prints" series finishes off with screenings of Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus, in which Deborah Kerr plays a nun sent to a distant convent where everybody is on the verge of a breakdown. Also opening is Rebirth, a documentary on 9/11 survivors. The Friday and Saturday showings are sold out, but there are two screenings on Thursday.

  • The HFA wraps up the Joseph L. Mankiewicz series this week, with A Letter to Three Wives on Friday at 7pm and Sunday at 5pm, his version of The Quiet American Friday at 9pm, and his Julius Caesar Monday at 7pm.

    In the empty slots - Saturday and Sunday at 7pm - are two screenings of Cristi Puiu's Aurora. His follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu charts the mental breakdown of a solitary middle-aged metallurgist.

My plans? Hopefully plenty of Films at the Gate, hopefully baseball Sunday & Thursday, and Columbiana sometime in between. And if it rains and I don't want to go out, well, that's an excuse to buckle down and finish the Fantasia reviews up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.19 (1 August): Dharma Guns (La Succession Starkov), Exley, and Invasion of Alien Bikini

We'll wrap this up quick because I've got a self-imposed deadline for a couple things tomorrow and, well, this isn't something I want to linger on. This day was spent in de Seve, watching the off-beat stuff that are de Seve-type movies, and all three of them wound up being weird, with some nice bits, but fundamentally flawed in one way or another. And on top of that, the two director Q&As were not really helpful for me.

F.J. Ossang at Fantasia 2011
Dharma Guns writer/director/editor F.J. Ossang.

You can sort of tell a little from that terrible photo (fun fact: the lighting in de Seve tends to be much less forgiving than in Hall), but Ossang is a dapper man, showing up in a nice suit and even though I understood only scattered words of his French, speaking in a way that certainly sounds urbane and sophisticated. A bit of a contrast from many (if not most) of the participants who show up in jeans and a t-shirt and whoop it up to sound like one of the guys. Ossang is an artiste, and while I think that hurt the movie a bit, seeing someone so clearly an adult was a nice change.

This Q&A was done entirely en français, which is cool, but leaves me out in the cold. That's too bad, because I would really have liked to have a better idea of what was going on in the movie and what he was thinking.

Cast & Crew of "Exley" at Fantasia 2011
Larry Kent (r) and several Exley collaborators.

Larry Kent is a pioneer and a titan of Canadian independent cinema, and from how thoroughly enthused the various presenters and audience members et al were to meet and speak with him, I hope I get a chance to see some of his earlier films sometime to get a better idea of just how revolutionary they were, because I'm afraid Exley just isn't very good. It's got moments, just like the other two, but for as proud as Kent was about the improvisation technique, it seemed to be the source of a lot of the film's problems for me (see also: The Divide). It's seldom a good thing when the notes I've written down for a movie include "the point at which the movie stopped making any sense whatsoever".

It's also worth mentioning that Kent is 74, and he seemed a bit fuzzy at times. Not all the time, but he would hold on to certain points and make them if it was even slightly relevant to the question, ramble, and get a bit confused. He was likely a force to be reckoned with in his prime, but the guy we saw on stage seemed past that prime, though just so far as it was only occasionally uncomfortable for me to watch.

After that, Invasion of Alien Bikini. And while I certainly won't complain about all the time Ha Eun-jung spends in her undies, that's not, technically, a bikini!

(Also, before doing the links, I didn't realize that both the director and cast were part of last year's The Neighbor Zombie. Nifty, though Zombie was the better movie.)

Dharma Guns (La Succession Starkov)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Camera Lucida)

You know what I hate about movies like Dharma Guns, beyond their specific individual faults? The way that such art-house fantasies all too often wind up suffering from the same deficiencies as their mainstream cousins, implying that the thriller or science fiction genres are inherently flawed, when in fact it is more often a case of powerful tools being placed in untrained hands, who proceed to make a hash of things.

Stan Van Der Decken (Guy McKnight) awakes from a coma with memory problems that lead him to the Azores, where he hopes to reconnect with his love Délie Starkov (Elvire) and finish his screenplay Dharma Guns, as well as consult with shrink Doctor Ewers (Diogo Dória), who has also been treating Délie since the accident that injured Stan triggered a breakdown. However, the screenplay often seems to be exerting control over him rather than vice versa, making for a very porous border between reality and delusion.

The movie opens well enough, with a playful, nouvelle vague-ish water-skiing sequence that is fashionable and straight-faced enough to be homage but also just exaggerated enough to be parody. The slick, black-and-white cinematography of Gleb Teleshov, the soundtrack that bounces semi-ironically, the plain-spoken way that characters rattle off the most absurd of lines - all are familiar reminders of a proud movement in French film, and writer/director/editor F.J. Ossang manages to make them feel less like pastiche than earnest continuation. Dharma Guns is the work of a man as intrigued by the language of movies as those whose footsteps he follows.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Camera Lucida)

I'm glad I saw Exley in a crowded theater with people on either side of me, because if I were seeing it on DVD or streaming or other medium that involved me being home in my living room, I might have bailed on it after twenty minutes or a half hour, instead of making it to the end by dint of being penned in. Not that I'd necessarily advise sticking it out to the end for everyone, but it does get better as it gets stranger.

Exley (Shane Twerdun) enters the scene getting beat up behind a bar. Janey (Eliza Norbury) helps him home, and stays the night, but the next morning he gets a call with bad news - his mother is dying. He's in Vancouver, but she's on the other side of the country, and a plane ticket costs a thousand dollars he doesn't have. So he starts hitting everybody he knows up for money, and while that doesn't go well, one knows a guy who can help him out - but what he asks sends Exley off in a series of strange directions.

Though there is a writing credit, I'm guessing that what Bill Marchant came up with was more outline than script, as the final film was billed in the program and Q&A as being entirely improvised. It's the second film I saw at the festival to make that claim, and especially in the early going, it's the same sort of aggravating experience: The other actors don't seem to be working with Twerdun, but instead seem to see themselves in competition with him and each other. Oh, they might not be in the same scene, but that just means that they don't know how loud they have to yell and how crazy they have to act to be remembered, which means that they're all hitting full volume quickly. It's headache-inducing and ridiculous.

Full review at EFC.

Eoilrieon Bikini (Invasion of Alien Bikini)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Korean Film Spotlight)

Part of what's fun about South Korean cinema is how - at least with the stuff that is good enough for export - filmmakers often seem to feel no particular need to stay within standard genre lines. A monster movie will spend a lot of time on dysfunctional family relations; a thriller will display an oddball sense of humor; a tony historical piece will wallow in blood and guts. Which means that, even though a movie with a name like "Invasion of Alien Bikini" would seem destined to be a specific sort of flick, a swerve is inevitable. In this case, though, I can't say it was particularly well-advised.

Young-gun (Hong Young-geun) is, perhaps, just a bit repressed. He's never had a girlfriend, or even gotten laid, and he channels that energy into crime-fighting, patrolling the city in a superhero costume and fake mustache to protect his identity. Tonight, he breaks up what he thinks is a mugging, bringing the injured girl, Monica (Ha Eun-jung), back to his apartment to rest and hide. The guys he fought weren't garden variety thugs, though - they were government agents tracking an alien entity that they believe has possessed Monica so that it reproduce before morning - an action that would bring about the end of the world.

The plot this sets up is admirable in its simplicity - she wants his seed for what may be nefarious purposes, but he attempts to hold out for entirely different reasons. There's a funny, sexy little movie to be made from that, although it might not be feature-length, especially given the small cast and tight time frame that co-writer/director Oh Young-doo builds in. He and the cast do a good job of working that for a while, bouncing between snappy wit and self-aware silliness. It's clearly low-budget, but does a nice job of staying within those bounds, feeling like an homage to American B-movies.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Attack the Block

Another quick break from Fantasia stuff as I hope to call a tiny bit of attention to another pretty darn good movie playing on one Boston screen through at least Thursday. It's at AMC Boston Common right now (screen 13, digital projection, because they apparently don't do 35mm film there any more - all 19 screens are projecting one digital format or another this week), and if you like good sci-fi action, it's worth a look.

At some point, when people can look back with a little perspective, the way Attack the Block has been handled will likely make a fascinating case study. It got a lot of praise early on, although some of that might be the result of being in a very favorable situation - a midnight screening at an Alamo theater during SXSW, where they ply the audience with alcohol.

I jest, a bit, but I do think that a lot of the buzz that came out of SXSW was the result of a lot of like-minded people seeing something that appealed to them directly, and with the current social infrastructure of linking and retweeting, a small group can seem like a larger one, especially if you're tuned to that smaller group. And for a few weeks, Attack the Block got a lot of coverage in the blogs I follow, talking about it getting picked up, whether it would be subtitled (although, seriously, there aren't many problematic accents here). Then a big push over which theaters would get previews, and then a fair amount of previews, then a limited release...

Up until this point, there's a few things that I wonder about. I think Sony probably should have squashed any talk of subtitling early - and I mean, as soon as they saw the first tweet about it, because while it gets people talking, it also puts the message out that the movie might be hard for Americans to understand. And then, I wonder about all the previewing. The way these things are handled today, I don't know if they hit as many random people who could spread good of mouth to different places any more. There's so much information available about when these previews are (especially since Sony was pushing directly at fans) that they wind up being mostly people who would have paid to see the movie anyway.

Then the release date comes, the same sites are back pushing it, some acting like it's some sort of civic duty of those of us who like good genre flicks to make sure that this movie makes money so that it can get an expanded release.

And then, funny thing - between the expansion being announced and it reaching its second tier of cities, folks start rioting in London, and they're the same sort of kids who are the protagonists of Attack the Block, and suddenly there's zip to be heard about this movie. Now, maybe that's just my selective attention - perhaps it's getting attention in different circles, but it certainly seems like the hype which had been going more or less non-stop since March just died. I suppose that could be classified under "surprisingly respectful", but it seems unusual that everybody would be on the same page like that.

I don't know if the riots actually changed the way Sony handled this release, but I bet that they might have liked to have it go wider earlier, because even if current events didn't have much of an impact, it was riding a four or five-month wave of hype that had to break sooner or later.

Attack the Block

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2011 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, digital projection)

Attack the Block got ridiculously high praise from genre fans at festival showings this year, and it's not quite that good. Then, in between its US opening and its expansion to Boston, the London riots started, and talk about the movie dried up immediately (the film's protagonists would more likely be rioters than victims), and a full North American rollout now seems unlikely. It doesn't deserve that, either. It's a pretty good youth/sci-fi/action/comedy flick, which is not a bad thing to be.

The film opens on Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse just getting home from a late shift who is held up by five teenagers in hoodies - Moses (John Boyega), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Pest (Alex Esmail), and Biggz (Simon Howard). Something falling from the sky and smashing into a car allows her to get away, but the creature that emerges from it scratches Moses, so the his lads chase it down and kill it. While Sam is talking to the police, the boys take the corpse to the closest thing they can think of to an expert - pot grower Ron (Nick Frost) watches a lot of nature docs but can't identify it - and that seems to be that. Except that there are a lot of other shooting stars falling into this London neighborhood that night, and the creatures coming out of those are bigger and meaner.

Writer/director Joe Cornish gets the basics right with Attack the Block - he establishes his characters and creatures well, and then sets them against each other in a series of well-shot action sequences that increase in scale and complexity as they go along, but never exceed what one might reasonably think the characters are capable of. There's plenty of comic relief, but it never undercuts a genuine sense of danger. What exposition is necessary is relatively painless. In theory, this stuff shouldn't be that hard - we've been making movies for roughly a century, and people making silents seemed to get it - but a lot of action/adventure movies come out every year that don't manage these basic things. This one does it pretty well, and that's worth commending.

Full review at EFC.

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.18 (31 July): Redline, Bangkok Knockout, Tomie, Battlefield Heroes, and The Devil's Double

Here's a somewhat rare thing: An entire day spent in on one side of Maisoneuve! Heck, considering that my apartment was on that side of the street, as is the Tim Hortons where I got breakfast and (perhaps) that Altaib where I likely grabbed a slice of pizza that night are all there, it may be literally true!

But, before the photographs of directors, let's start with a few shots from the demonstration of traditional Korean drumming that opened Battlefield Heroes:

Getting ready to drum
A fourth drummer (unseen) sets a beat for these three ladies to enter, go through a few steps, and take their places.

The blurring here is in part my phone, in part just what is inevitable when taking pictures of people playing the drums. It was a very cool demonstration, as each percussionist has five drums at her station, often spinning or bending over backwards to get from one to another. My fairly slow Droid would never catch that, always taking a picture like this when I snapped them doing something extra special nifty.

Taking Bows
Apologies for the crappy quality of this picture, but it's the only one where I was able to capture the entire ensemble - the fourth member performed in a sitting position, off to the side - I could basically see the top of her head from the fourth row.

That was all part of what Cine-Asie did to promote their 2nd annual Korean Film Spotlight presentation; there was also a panel with the director of The Unjust and a calligraphy demonstration at various points. This allowed for a heck of a nice introduction for director Lee Jun-ik, seen here during the post-film Q&A (with translator):

Lee Jun-ik at Fantasia 2011
(Photography note: I'm glad that the picture that came out the best was also one where he was rocking the straw hat.)

Director Lee was one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival; I adored his The King and the Clown, but it's a fairly serious motion picture, and I was worried about the description of Battlefield Heroes being described as a comedy. I didn't expect him to be such a genial guy; the smile on his face here is typical of his demeanor throughout the session, happy to answer questions and go into what he was thinking about while making the movie. One of the things that he mentioned which I found interesting was that the three sons of Yeon Gae So Moon who clash over what to do when their father dies are at least partly meant to parallel the three sons of Kim Il-sung, who are quietly having their own succession issues (one got busted visiting Tokyo Disney on a fake passport; the border skirmishes of last year are suspected of being partially about the new heir apparent convincing the military he has what it takes to be king).

Of course, while I tended to think of Lee as a "serious" filmmaker based upon The King and the Clown, from his comments, it appears that he also considers it to be at least partly a comedy. I'm going to use that as further evidence that South Korea just draws their genre lines in different places than the West does.

Lee wasn't the only director there that day, Noboru Iguchi was there to introduce Tomie: Unlimited (and likely Karate-Robo Zaborgar).

Noboru Iguchi at Fantasia 2011

It's a terrible "judging a book by its cover" thing to say or even think, but he does sort of look like the type of guy who might make a career out of movies where schoolgirls get mutilated and have machines or other things grafted onto their bodies, doesn't he?

He does, at least, tend to make those movies fun, and he certainly made a lot of friends at the screening, talking about how he made Tomie: Unlimited using the original manga and cult film House (which has gained cool currency in North America over the last couple of years; not sure how it's viewed in its native land). I almost wish I'd been able to fit a Karate-Robo screening in to hear what he said about that even though I'd already seen it at NYAFF.

Part of that is because, as much fun as Sushi Typhoon is (and if they're willing to pay for Sion Sono to make stuff like Cold Fish, that forgives a lot of lame things), it does seem to be holding the filmmakers back a bit, keeping them stuck making low-budget splatter, attempting to manufacture the genuine cult success they found earlier in their years. Heck, seeing Yudai Yamaguchi and Tak Sakaguchi doing this stuff is almost sad; they have done better work, and it seems like a step back. Tomie: Unlimited isn't actually Sushi Typhoon, but it does feel like that sort of thing, especially compared to Karate-Robo, which was shot on film and looked rather polished compared to Tomie. These are talented folks who seem to genuinely like making oddball movies, and I'd like to see them making bigger, cooler things rather than stagnating.

After those two shows, the presentation of The Devil's Double seemed kind of weird - Lionsgate/Maple had security guys watching to make sure nobody whipped out a camcorder or phone and started recording (it kind of blows my mind that studios continue to freak out over that stuff while marching toward digital projection and distributing movies on hard drives), but there was no guests and really no introduction; it could have been just any preview screening and not part of a festival at all.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

There have apparently been many movies named "Redline", most having auto racing as the subject, and many coming out within the past ten years. Most, apparently, are not very good. This one is, so here is a little help in picking it out should you see multiple Redlines lined up on the shelf - go for the animated Japanese sci-fi movie with the splashy artwork. It's frantically over-the top in every way possible, but isn't that what you want from a movie about incredibly high-speed racing in the future?

Of course, before we can get to the big race of the title, there's the qualifiers to get through, and the film opens with the Yellowline race. Sonoshee (voice of Yu Aoi) is in the lead with her crab-styled car, but fellow human "Sweet" JP (voice of Takuya Kimura) is making a late run with his tricked-out but old-school Trans Am. One advances to Redline by winning; the other is selected as a replacement when other racers drop out. Why would someone drop out of the biggest race in the galaxy, where the only rule is that your vehicle has to have wheels and anything else goes? Well, the planet selected is Roboworld, a militarized place that doesn't want it and has threatened to blow unwelcome guests away. That doesn't stop a number of competitors, including Machinehead Tetsuzin, who has fused his body with his car; Boiboi & Bosbos, magical girls from a planet of princesses; Lynchman & Johnny Boya, bounty hunters; Gori Rider, a corrupt cop; and Miki & Idoroki, small-time crooks. As the racers prepare on a nearby moon, JP's crustacean mechanic Shinkai (voice of Yoshiyuki Morishita) rebuilds his car while worrying that manager Frisbee (voice of Tadanobu Asano) will sabotage it as part of a deal with the mob.

That may sound like a lot of high-octane cazy, but there is much, much more. Main writer Katsuhito Ishii, co-writers Yoji Enokido & Yoshiki Sakurai, and director Takeshi Koike (making one heck of an ambitious debut here) stuff the movie with even more, like a Roboworld soldier who becomes stronger when he bawls. There's something called Funky Boy which is introduced to us with the phrase "Funky Boy must not be awoken", and by that point of the movie, the audience is either fried or thinking sure, I'll go with that. It's almost like Ishii, Koike, and company started out with a sci-fi racing movie and then asked themselves, with each pass at the design and script, how they could make the details just a little funkier and more science fictional.

Full review at EFC.

BKO: Bangkok Knockout

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

In many ways, the relative merits of Bangkok Knockout can be summed up by how its cast credits are presented, both in the film and online: In the closing scroll, the first thing presented after a character's name was not the actor who played the role, but what style of martial arts he or she used. If I'd had some foresight, I would have used my phone to snap some pictures of that scroll, not for that curiosity, but because I've yet to find a site which matches character names with actors to use as reference while writing this review. The thing is, it's almost not a big deal; it's not like anybody is going to spend time critiquing individual performances for this one.

The bulk of the characters are students of the late Master Udon, competing in a contest to find Thailand's best stunt team with the winner getting a chance to work for Hollywood producer Mr. Snead. The surprise comes after their victory dinner - Udon's son Pod, niece Fern, and students Lerm, Ed, Ko, James, and Pom, along with their teacher Rom, wake up from a drugged stupor to find that their friend Joy has been kidnapped and they've got to fight their way past a group of professional killers in an unfinished housing development to rescue her, while Snead takes bets from rich foreigners on who will survive each encounter.

Director Panna Rittikrai and producer Pracha Pinkaew know this game pretty well; though their names may not be immediately recognizable, they are the ones who discovered and developed the careers of Tony Jaa, Jija Yanin, and other Thai action stars. There may be a Jaa or Yanin in this cast, but this likely won't be the movie that catapults them to stardom. Some other movie might; it's just that here, they are part of a large ensemble that is fairly homogenous. They're all capable enough, called on to do more or less the same thing between fights, with only a couple of the fighters called upon to establish much of an individual personality. Still, while none of the main cast display the charisma required to steal the picture, none of the fighters embarrass themselves. This, sadly, cannot be said for the supporting cast, who are almost all terrible, which is kind of annoying - since they're not fighting, they're just there to act, and one would hope they could do that at least a little.

Full review at EFC.

Tomie: Anrimiteddo (Tomie Unlimited)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

I had an interesting discussion with between Tomie: Unlimited and the film which followed it on the festival schedule. I was somewhat disappointed in the movie, and laid out where it felt like it failed to come together, to be told that, actually, all the stuff I was faulting it on was irrelevant: I was trying to apply high-minded metaphor and meaning to something that really had no ambitions beyond freaking the audience out with trippy grotesqueries.

Now, neither of us is wrong - just because original manga artist Junji Ito, co-writer Jun Tsugita, and co-writer/director Noboru Iguchi didn't necessarily see Tomie as a literal take on how the dead can force their way into the lives of the living doesn't mean I shouldn't think along those lines when I see it, and the guy I was talking to certainly enjoyed it for what it is. Stories are a collaboration between teller and listener, in practice at least. The trouble with Tomie: Unlimited is that there's a void in it that demands an explanation. If one is familiar with the source material and the history of the franchise, that will go in. The rest of us will see the strange things going on and maybe try to fill the hole in a way that doesn't quite work.

What is there? Well, we start with Tsukiko (Moe Arai), a high-school student who loves photography but is constantly outshone by her beautiful older sister Tomie (Miu Nakamura). One day, when Tomie cajoles Tsukiko into taking pictures of her to impress her boyfriend Toshio (Kensuke Owada), the head of the judo club whom Tsukiko also has a crush on, Tomie is killed in a freak accident. Cut to a few months later, when the Tsukiko and her parents (Maiko Kawakami & Kouichi Ohori) are having a thoroughly morbid dinner on what would have been Tomie's eighteenth birthday, when there's a knock on the door. It's Tomie, somehow seeming none the worse for the wear. Only Tuskiko seems to think there's something strange about this, especially since there's something about Tomie this time around that inspires even more extreme passions, both affectionate and violent.

Full review at EFC.

Pyeongyangseung (Battlefield Heroes)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011 - Cine-Asie presents Korean Spotlight)

Full disclosure demands that I mention that Battlefield Heroes is a sequel to an eight-year-old Korean movie, although it is still extremely funny and otherwise entertaining even if you've never seen Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield (which was made before director Lee Jun-ik got international attention for King and the Clown). So don't let that stop you if you get a chance to see this period slapstick war epic, because you don't get to see many of those, and it'd be a shame to miss this one for such a silly reason.

The year is 668 AD, and Korea is not yet united under one king. The Silla and Goguryeo kingdoms really don't have any beef with each other, but the Chinese Emperor wants Goguryeo toppled, so they push Silla and another allied kingdom to invade and take Pyongyang castle. Goguryeo is in turmoil, with its fierce general mortally wounded and dissension among his sons - pragmatic Nam-seng (Yoon Je-moon), bellicose Nam-geon (Ryoo Seung-ryong), and conflicted Nam-san (Kang Ha-neul). Silla general Kim Yu-sin (Jeong Jin-yeong) knows that the purpose of this strike is to weaken his army as much as to defeat Goguryeo, so he schemes to minimize his losses and hopefully have Silla come out stronger. All this is of little concern to a foot soldier called "Thingamajig" (Lee Mun-shik), who saw enough of war the last time he was conscripted, and is mostly concerned with another grunt in his unit, Moon-di (Lee Kwang-soo), who keeps volunteering and exposing them to danger.

There's even more political and military maneuvering going on, and I'm sure that many of those who have read this far are wondering just how funny seventh-century Korean politics and military strategy can really be (although at least the stuff with "Thingy" has potential, right?). And that's a valid concern - this is a pretty dense movie, with four armies and a couple dozen characters to keep track of. Fortunately, this appears to be the Blackadder version of Korean history, with foppish an ineffectual kings and battles decided on absurd turns of events. It's not the easiest material to make funny - or necessarily even comprehensible, especially if the viewer hasn't seem the previous film - but writers Jo Chul-hyun and Oh Seung-hyun do a fine job of packing everything the audience needs to know in while leaving plenty of room for laughs.

Full review at EFC.

The Devil's Double

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

You'd be forgiven for thinking that a movie taking place amid the inner circle of Saddam Hussein's family over the past twenty-five years, and featuring the potential plot twists and mind-benders of look-alikes, would be something fairly exciting. Unfortunately, the actual experience of watching The Devil's Double never gets beyond thinking about what an interesting idea this is, so that even the more lurid bits fall short of actually being exciting.

Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper) was in the Iraqi army during the war with Iran, as were many, and he's a bright young man, but that's not why he gets selected for special duty: He bears an uncanny resemblance to his former university classmate, Uday Hussein (also Cooper), son of Saddam (Philip Quast), and is thus recruited to serve as Uday's double, standing in when it might be dangerous or inconvenient for Uday to do so himself. "Take the place of a hated autocrat at times when people might shoot at him" is not a job Latif particularly wants, but that's a family you didn't say no to at the time, and so Latif is given surgery to further increase their similarity. And so he comes to be kept in a gilded cage, living like the prince in a palace but without freedom - a situation somewhat shared by Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), Uday's current preferred mistress.

The Devil's Double is based upon true events and the real-life Latif's accounts of this life, and as the film goes on, one might find oneself wishing it was less "based upon" than "suggested by" or "inspired by" those stories. That last paragraph, after all, is not a story, but merely a set-up, one which would ideally be followed by the characters doing something interesting - Latif being recruited to do espionage work against the Hussein regime, or having to take Uday's place for an extended period and have to do horrible things to keep the secret, or becoming involved in a genuinely complicated and conflicted relationship with Sarrab. And while the script by Michael Thomas hints at all of these possibilities, it never up and runs with one.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 August 2011 - 25 August 2011

You know, a few months ago, I was groaning at the possibility of 3-D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy being released in the USA and me thus feeling obligated to review it. Now that its release date has finally arrived, and no Boston venue has been announced (because the AMC that usually plays China Lion's films doesn't do unrated/NC-17 stuff), I'm kind of disappointed. I'm sure part of it is that the distributor has inexplicably chosen a date when three other 3D movies are coming out and several others are sticking around (or having to move to 2D screens), but here's hoping that after a couple weeks, when things have thinned out, one of the non-AMC/Regal theaters with 3D down by Alewife picks it up, because I've passed dread and arrived at "morbid curiosity".

  • 3D movies in a bit, but as a movie blogger I am contractually obligated to mention that Attack the Block opens at AMC Boston Common this weekend, playing an impressively aggressive schedule (seven times on Saturday, including midnight and 10:10am show). Early word on the festival circuit was extremely positive on this story of aliens attacking London, but making the serious mistake of hitting a run-down council flat, where the kids aren't going to back down. Of course, there might have been a little bit of the Austin/SXSW/Alamo crowd effect going on, but we'll see this weekend. Also at Boston Common, the "Night Terrors" series has returned with Atrocious playing Wednesdays at 10pm and Fridays at midnight; it's another first-person horror movie from Spain that has been getting reviews to match its title. They've also cut the digital IMAX shows of Final Destination 5 down to late nights and restored Harry Potter 8 to that screen during afternoons and evenings, with the listings indicating 2D but the prices the the same as the 3D Destination.

  • So, what's playing in 3D? A reboot, a remake, and a sequel. The reboot and biggest name is probably Conan the Barbarian, with Jason Momoa in the title role and enough good people playing supporting parts to make one hope for the best. As is usually the case, the filmmakers don't seem to be adapting any specific Robert Howard story, but just taking the character and the general milieu. Schwarzeneggar-free and likely pre-empts seeing Conan the King any time soon.

    The remake is Fright Night, which updates a 1980s flick that never penetrated the general consciousness and spawned sequels like some of its brethren but is fondly remembered. The new version is getting surprisingly good reviews and features Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant of recent Doctor Who fame, and the super-cute Imogen Poots, but be warned: The 3D is apparently one of those hasty post-conversion jobs, and near as I can tell the only way to avoid it is a single daily matinee at Regal Fenway.

    The sequel is also a reboot of sorts, with Spy Kids: All the Time in the World featuring Jessica Alba and a new generation of spy kids, because the ones from the original trilogy are now old enough to vote (though they show up here as supporting characters). Like Game Over, this one is shot in 3D, with scratch & sniff cards handed out for good measure.

    Those looking for something maybe a little less escapist may want to check out One Day a romance/drama with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess that opens at Kendall Square as well as the megaplexes. It follows them over twenty years, seeing what they are doing on the anniversary of their college graduation in each one. Cute concept, though the mid-August release raises questions about the execution.

  • That's the big opening at Kendall Square, as well, but they've got a few others coming: Senna is a documentary on Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, who is F1's Dale Earnhardt in that he was one of the sport's best and most popular - especially in his native land - only to die at the height of his career during a race. An interesting subject, at least, especially for fans of the sport. The other documentary opening is How to Live Forever, in which director Mark Wexler (best known for Tell Them Who You Are)takes a look at the longevity and anti-aging movements. It's booked for a single week.

    For fictional films, they also have The Names of Love, an opposites-attract romantic comedy from France in which a conservative man (Jacques Gamblin) meets a liberal young woman (Sara Forestier) whose take on "make love, not war" involves sleeping with political opponents to convert them. The trailer is cute enough to give it a chance.

  • The Brattle also has a recent movie or two from France this week. The Special Engagement over the weekend is Catherine Breillat's take on The Sleeping Beauty, which could be interesting: The last time Breillat put her stamp on a fairy tale, she made the odd choice to take the sex and violence out of Bluebeard (and there's not a lot left once you do that); here she's doing a more adult take than usual on this well-known tale, which runs through Sunday (the 21st). On Wednesday (the 24th), the "Recent Raves" series features The Princess of Montpensier, a grand-scale historical drama.

    On Monday the 22nd, director Heather Courtney will attend the DocYard presentation of her film Where Soldiers Come From to give an introduction and answer questions. A festival favorite, it follows a group of midwestern friends who join the National Guard after graduating high school, leading to a tour in Afghanistan and finally back home.

    On the other two days, the musician centennial tributes continue. Tuesday (the 23rd) is Bernard Herrmann day, and features a particularly nifty double feature: Brian De Palma's Sisters at 3:15 and 7:30, and the less well-known Twisted Nerve at 5:15 and 9:30. If the name of the latter sounds familiar, it's because Quentin Tarantino swiped a bit of this score for Kill Bill. On Thursday the 25th, the tribute is to Nino Rota, with a pair of films he scored for Federico Fellini: Amarcord and The Clowns

  • No major changes at the Coolidge, although they do pick up Point Blank to show in the digital rooms. This week's specials include 30th Anniversary screenings of The Beyond at midnight on Friday and Saturday, with the monthly showing of The Room Saturday at midnight on the other screen. The Summer Fun Screening on Monday night is a 35mm print of The Shining.

  • The Harvard Film Archive continues its The Complete Joseph L. Mankiewicz series this weekend with an intriguing combination of rarities and (in)famous works: Friday is a pair of romantic fantasies with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Dragonwyck (Gene Tierney AND Vincent Price? yes, please!); Saturday is the sprawling four-hour Cleopatra; Sunday is a second screening of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and James Mason spy thriller 5 Fingers; and Monday is Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers.

  • The MFA continues what it started on Wednesday, with a Restored Print of Went the day Well? playing daily through Sunday, alongside Octubre. On Thursday, Octubre has one last show and a limited engagement of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress starts; I saw that one at IFFBoston this spring and it is a pretty nifty little doc.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington is a good place for music-oriented docs, and on Tuesday the 23rd they have two screenings of Busking the System, which follows several musicians trying to make it in the Big Apple starting from the bottom in a very literal sense: Playing for tips in the subway. There are screenings at 4pm and 7pm, with cast and crew thre for a Q&A afterward.

  • At Fresh Pond, Arakshan continues with two shows a day, alternating with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which opened worldwide in July but just seems to be hitting Boston now. It's a vacation movie where three long-time friends take a last vacation together when one becomes engaged.

My plans involve a niece's birthday party on Sunday, but around that I'll probably take in Attack the Block, Fright Night, the Herrmann double, and probably Spy Kids.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Point Blank '10, and what "French Film" means today.

Taking a bit of a break from the Fantasia stuff for something that's currently playing Boston (and expands a bit on Friday, grabbing a screen at the Coolidge along with the Kendall) and is worth seeing: À bout portant, which (somewhat to my surprise), appears to actually literally translate to Point Blank, making me wonder what the 1967 adaptation of The Hunter that starred Lee Marvin is called in France, or if it's not widely enough known there for the ambiguity to be worth mentioning.

(Aside: Point Blank '67 needs to come out on Blu-ray; I love that movie and want to hear Lee Marvin's footsteps echoing around my living room. Besides, that way I could have five versions of that story in five different formats.)

One thing that struck me after watching this movie was that while the French haven't necessarily cornered the market on the mid-budget genre movie, I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone who does it better these days. Hong Kong is right up there, although it's worth noting that when HK's foremost director of films like these, Johnnie To, started looking to expand to a more Western audience, he didn't look to Hollywood - he cast a French star in Vengeance and signed on to a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville classic Le Cercle Rouge. There's Korea, obviously. The UK has Neil Marshall and does good work at a smaller scale, and the Hollywood does the blockbuster better than anybody, but nobody hits the middle ground like France.

Of course, what the UK and USA do well overlaps with France's area of expertise, and "mid-budget" is an amorphous term, so let's put it this way: A human-scale movie with decent production values. It's still something non-specific, but you get the gist, right? Something where the filmmakers are not obviously cutting corners, but not trying to sell spectacle.

Hollywood makes some of these movies, but many of the best have French DNA in them somewhere - Taken and the Transporter movies come from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, and a fair number of English-language horror films either have French directors or are remakes of French originals. It almost seems as if Hollywood lacks the structure and/or will to make movies that cost twenty million dollars instead of a hundred million, and I'm not sure why - is it fear that five mid-range movies don't get an ambitious executive noticed as much as one big one, or not wanting to open a small action movie the same weekend as a big one? I'm as guilty of digging spectacle as anyone else, so I can see myself passing one of these movies up for a "tentpole", but if you can find enough good scripts, it seems like a good way to limit risk.

France is a smaller country, with a somewhat smaller film industry. Point Blank isn't quite a blockbuster there, but there's a good chance that it was the biggest home-grown film the come out hte week of its release. It's makers seem to know that they're not going to compete with Hollywood releases on scale - there's the occasional Asterix or Brotherhood of the Wolf, but even those aren't Hollywood-big - so they've got to do it on quality. That means making thrillers tight, making horror movies vicious, and making action movies fast.

You'd think that at a smaller scale, the same factors which push American movies toward a bland PG-13 would be in effect, but it doesn't seem to work that way. Maybe they've got American imports for that; there's also a somewhat less puritanical streak that insists everything be suitable for a ten-year-old, and maybe there's less turnover at the cinemas from a week-to-week basis so word of mouth becomes more important than just the opening weekend. When that's the case, "you've got to see this" means more than just getting lots of people in on the basis of a vague trailer and moving them on to the next thing a week later.

I also suspect that the success of Luc Besson internationally has something to do with it. Previous generations of French filmmakers have had the likes of Godard and Truffant as role models, with even genre films tending toward the restrained cool of Chabrol and Melville. They made great movies, but their imitators weren't always quite so good, and even when they were, it led to French film being respected, but not enjoyed viscerally. Besson not only showed that one could make fun action with a reasonable budget and a European sensibility, but wound up mentoring and shepherding young filmmakers (though not, it should be noted, the makers of this film).

No matter what reasons are behind it, there's been a shift in what seeing that a movie hails from France means to the discerning moviegoer. The arty, pretentious stereotype cannot be entirely put away, but the French film industry is now also a reliable source of some of the best (and most uncompromising) crime, action, and horror films in the world.

À bout portant (Point Blank)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Point Blank is not a French remake of the classic 1967 John Boorman flick that starred Lee Marvin; that would require being mean down to its very bones, and this one is a shade or two warmer than that - although that's a double edged sword; letting us like these characters means we can get hurt along with them.

Take Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche); he's a good guy: He pampers his pregnant wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), looks the other way when the other nurse's aide is goofing off, and responds quickly when somebody cuts the respirator one of the patients is attached to. He's just arrived home from that eventful day when someone breaks into his house, kidnaps Nadia, and tells him to get the unconscious man, one Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem) out of the hospital by noon. That puts him in a heap of a mess, not only from two different groups of criminals, but two competing detectives (Gérard Lanvin and Mireille Perrier).

There's an impressive efficiency to the script by director Fred Cavayé and co-writer Guillaume Lemans; they've got three or four chase scenes in mind and everything in between is meant to get the characters running again. They're not obvious in their intent; they put some work into making sure that actions are almost never motivated by people being unreasonably stupid and there are enough surprises and plot twists to engage the audience's curiosity. Cavayé and company just don't go overboard; they don't give every cop a subplot or delve into the motivations behind the crime that Sartet is fleeing at the start beyond what's satisfactory. Many thrillers will pile masterminds and reversals ever-higher to keep the audience in a state of unbalanced shock; Point Blank prefers to quite literally cut to the chase.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.17 (30 July): Gantz 1 & 2, Article 12, Surviving Life, The FP, and Cold Sweat

I think I did a better job of avoiding the festival nap this year than most - of the 70-ish movies I saw, Surviving Life: Theory and Practice is probably the only one that I conked out in and thus won't be able to review. It's an example of how the nap can strike at any time, though - I'm not usually tired at seven o'clock, and I'd managed to sleep in after a late night at the Horny House of Horror on Friday, but the wall hits when the wall hits.

So, before the next movie, I hit the concession stand for a Pepsi Max and one of those strange Canadian candy bars we don't see much in the States, which meant that I was well and truly alert for this at the front of the theater:

Tim League, Jay Trost, Brandon Trost

That's Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, along with The FP directors Jay and Brandon Trost. I think that this was actually a couple days before Drafthouse Pictures officially announced that they would be distributing the movie in early 2012, so League's presence seemed a bit random at the time, although not totally so; the movie had apparently made some noise at the Alamo's Fantastic Fest screenings during SXSW, although part of that noise was the cast and crew being rowdy during the screening.

And if "I've only got so much vacation time a year" doesn't do it the next time someone asks me why I don't include Fantastic Fest on my annual moviegoing itinerary, I'll just pull that picture up on my phone. As much as I enjoy having a little fun with not-so-serious movies, this sort of "hey, we're drinking to excess and acting ca-ray-zee" thing wears out its welcome pretty quickly for me. It drove me bonkers when I went to SXSW a couple years ago - I seriously did not need midnight shows delayed a half hour for drinking games when I'd been seeing movies since 11am and would get up and do it again the next day - and I suspect a whole festival like that would not mesh well with my temperament at all. You may insert your uptight New Englander jokes here.

(Also, did anyone else find it tacky that Fantastic Fest announced their first wave of titles on Fantasia's opening night? Seems like odd timing. Seriously, guys, it's okay if cities other than Austin are talked about as cool film spots for a day or two!)

And now, what I saw on my last Saturday at Fantasia this year:


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

Here's my original review at EFC from back in January, when I saw this film in a Fathom Events presentation (full entry here. I liked it quite a bit more the second time around, and not just because of how having the original Japanese soundtrack is an immense improvement over the terrible dub track I saw back then. It's amazing; not making the audience laugh at the line delivery turns out to be a massive improvement for a movie meant to be suspenseful. Who knew?

To a certain extent, I think that recalibration of expectations helped as well. I dig the Gantz manga, but without a ridiculous budget, the movies were never going to match the amazing action scenes in the books, so the movie was something of a disappointment the first time through. However, it's a bad practice in general to judge something on what it isn't rather than what it is, and this film is a fine sci-fi thriller.

Gantz: Perfect Answer

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

The Gantz manga is too large and sprawling to make into one movie; and even two may have been a stretch - the first half of this two-part movie covered roughly the first fifteen or so 200-page volumes that have been released in the US, and left plenty out. Gantz: Perfect Answer has the task of explaining what the heck was going on in Gantz and then wrapping the story up, which is one tall order. It gets the job done, and usually with enough style that the audience can overlook the bits that really don't make a lot of sense.

(Note: Spoilers for the first Gantz movie will abound; if you haven't seen it, you might wish to do so and then come back later.)

After watching his friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) die in the last movie's climax, Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) has sworn to make things right. In the regular world, it means he and girlfriend Tae Kojima (Yuriko Yoshitaka) are looking after Kato's little brother Ayumu; when he's called by to a strange apartment by the mysterious "Gantz" entity to hunt down aliens for "points", he and fellow veteran Yoshikazu Suzuki (Tomorowo Taguchi) execute them with ruthless efficiency, protecting the newbies so that they can earn enough points to revive fallen comrades. As bizarre as this is, things are about to get even stranger - model Eriko Ayukawa has a black orb that is sending her on missions of her own, cop Masamitsu Shigeta (Takayuki Yamada) is digging into the strange pattern of deaths and reappearances around Tokyo, and Kato has apparently returned from the dead without anybody accessing the 100-point-menu.

There comes a time in many (if not most) continuing series where the focus inevitably turns inward. What starts out as a scenario that allows the storyteller to explore many ideas within a familiar framework becomes a focus on the details of the framework itself. Perfect Answer winds up in a sort of in-between place - although it never devolves into focusing on minutia, the new characters introduced have less room to breathe than Kato, Kei, and Kishimoto did in the first. Making Gantz and the aliens the focus of the story rather than just plot devices does tend to highlight that the series's video-game logic really makes no practical sense.

Full review at EFC.

Article 12

* * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Documentaries from the Edge)

It's always unfortunate when a worthy topic becomes the subject of a bad documentary, because it can be very difficult to separate the quality of the picture for from the merit of its arguments. Usually, it's not that difficult to be objective judge each separately, but Article 12 is the sort of self-satisfied preaching to the choir that can push even a sympathetic audience member to investigating the other point of view just so that he or she is not blindly agreeing with these guys.

The title of "Article 12" comes from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; that portion of the document states that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." However, the film points out, this is not always the case; even in democratic republics like the United States and the United Kingdom, privacy protections are becoming weaker, both because of government surveillance and by the voluntary actions of the populace.

There are plenty of good arguments for why privacy is important and why the present day's steady erosion of it is dangerous, and it would be very nice if filmmaker Juan Manuel Biaiñ laid them out in a more rigorous, structured way. Instead, he starts by assuming that the audience prioritizes privacy as highly as he does and then repeating a series of dire proclamations about how the weakening of these rights is bad, although there is a curious lack of concrete examples as to why. Sometimes, interview subjects like Noam Chomsky are allowed to make huge, unsubstantiated leaps between premise and conclusion.

Full review at EFC.

Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Surviving Life (Theory and Practice))

N/A (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011)

I want to like Jan Svankmajer. I really do. He's a guy who has moved between live-action and animation for a long time, gotten praise internationally, and influenced people all aorund the world. And, truth be told, I have enjoyed a good chunk of what I've seen from him, odd thought it may be. Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) generally falls into that category.

But, man, he knocks me out. I don't know why. Often, I've been able to point to weird showtimes or other factors like that, but this was right at 7pm. Fourth movie of the day, but I can handle that. And what I saw of this one, I rather liked. Some weirder-than-usual bits - I really didn't get what he was going for by using the cutout animation for long shots and than live action for extreme close-up. I suppose mostly just fun, but it was a weird bit of stylization in a movie that spends a lot of time on dream imagery..

Ah, well. It'll probably show up at the Brattle sometime in the next year, and I'll make sure to stop off at the 7-11 for a Pepsi Max before hand, just like I did afterward to make sure I'd be up for...

The FP

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

The FP is the sort of flick that is precisely built to appeal to a certain category of movie fans, who are often surprised when it doesn't do much for others. I have no doubt that it will find its cult quickly, and it should: It's crafted, not manufactured, and offers genuine goofy enthusiasm rather than precision pandering.

Things are going down in Frazier Park (the FP, yo!) - a year ago, local Beat Beat Revelation champion BTRO (Brandon Barrera) collapsed and died in a battle with rival L Dubba E (Lee Valmassy), and now L Dub's gang controls all the liquor in the county. The only hope for The FP is BTRO's brother JTRO (Jason Trost), if the brothers' buddy KCDC (Art Hsu) can get him to return and train under BBR master BLT (Nick Principe). But can he do that, especially since Stacy (Caitlyn "Caker" Folley), the cute girl he met that fateful night, seems to have taken up with L Dub?

Well, of course he can, otherwise it's a very short and unsatisfying movie for all involved. The Trost brothers (star Jason and cinematographer Brandon co-write and direct) know what sort of template this movie will eventually follow, and they don't deviate very far from the pattern. They just amp it up, figuring out to three decimal places how far you can push the ratios between characters' devotion to a sport, the stakes involved, and the game's inherent silliness before it stops being fun-stupid and starts being stupid-stupid. They stay pretty solidly on the fun-stupid side, attaching some frequently-hilarious bombast to patently ridiculous competition.

Full review at EFC.

Sudor frío (Cold Sweat)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011)

Cold Sweat is silly and ridiculous in just about every way it can be, but it's the sort of ridiculous that works. Director Adrián García Bogliano and company do a nice job of adding just a little bit more crazy with each reel, making for a fun midnight movie.

Back in 1975, the film informs us, a group of Argentine rebels stole twenty-five boxes of dynamite, but nothing came of it at the time. Today, Roman (Facundo Espinosa) is looking for his ex-girlfriend Jacquie (Camila Velasco), who appears to have left him for some blond guy she met online. Fortunately, he's got help; his friend Ali (Marina Glezer) is able to track down where this guy lives from his IP address. When they get there, the run-down house is home not to the lothario they were looking for, but a couple of old guys - Gordon (Omar Musa), who uses a walker, and Baxter (Omar Gioiosa), who is somewhat more mobile.

One should not underestimate old guys, either in movies or in real life. They are the people that natural selection hasn't figured out how to stop yet, and the older they are, the more likely they are to have learned how to mess you up over the course of their lives. It's not giving too much away to say that Gordon and Baxter are the villains of the piece, and they're an enjoyably unconventional choice for the job; ideology seems to have given way to extreme crotchetiness. Some senility, too, but really, having them just resent young people is enough. In addition, they're clearly sick of each other after thirty-five years cooped up together but neither able to imagine life without the other. Omars Musa and Gioiosa play off each other amusingly, with a natural chemistry as they bicker and both managing to give their characters an actual threatening air even as the movie has a laugh at their age and infirmity.

Full review at EFC.