Thursday, September 22, 2011

This Week Month Late Summer In Tickets: 11 July 2011 to 18 September 2011

For the thing that I tend to think of as the signature element of this blog, This Week has certainly gotten away from me a few times. When festival time starts up again next year, I'm going to have to figure out how to not let that happen.

No film festival knows how to derail a posting schedule like Fantasia:

This Week In Tickets!

This Week In Tickets!

This Week In Tickets!

This Week In Tickets!

I've written about this in pretty exhausting detail, so let's assume you know the drill: Click on the ticket or part of the schedule, get to its blog entry. The last one, here, has the stats and wrap-up.

As mentioned on the last day, I took the 11:30pm bus, which got me into Boston around 8am, giving me plenty of time to rest up for a 4pm Red Sox game (sadly, the ticket has since gone through the wash. The Sox beat the Yankees, despite John Lackey being on the mound, but they naturally did it in long, grinding fashion. It left us barely enough time to "murder a burger", as my friend Justin put it, before the restaurants closed for the evening, but I was fortunately able to introduce him and his girlfriend to Boston Burger Company. Mmm...

Then it was time to start catching up on stuff that I missed, as well as hit the last film of the Somerville Theatre's summer Buster Keaton series:

Captain America: The First Avenger

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2011 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, digital 3D)

I wouldn't say Marvel's movies have been disappointing of late; more that the first Iron Man was one heck of a tough act to follow, and to a certain extent, recent entries have introduced the general movie audience to some of the more frustrating elements of reading comics - the way other books encroach on the one you're reading, or how what's happening now seems like set-up for what would come later. Fortunately, Joe Johnston and company are mostly able to avoid that in Captain America - this one stands on its own, and is a pretty great adventure movie.

What makes it work? I think a large part is that writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely did an impressive job of synthesizing several takes on the character of Steve Rogers into one that works extremely well: The look most closely resembles Bryan Hitch's designs from The Ultimates, and the relationship between Steve and Bucky Barnes brings to mind the way Ed Brubaker has redefined them during his current run on the book(s), but the big, adventurous stories and WWII can-do spirit of the Joe Simon & Jack Kirby originals. It's potentially a tricky alchemy, but Johnston and the writers make it work.

And tone's kind of a big deal with this movie; it's big pulp adventure that is wonderfully sincere as it throws big Saturday-Serial menaces at Cap and his allies pursue the Red Skull and Hydra (as bad as the Nazis, but not making the movie too somber). The ties to other Marvel movies give the feeling of a larger world but don't hamstring things; if you've seen Iron Man and Thor, there's easter eggs, but if not, it's still a blast. Chris Evans hits the right humble, sincere attitude as Rogers.

He's got a bunch of nifty people around him, too - despite my fears that Tommy Lee Jones would be sacrificed early as the inevitable lost father figure, he sticks around, and even if there's a bit of a weariness to him that suggests he might be a bit too old for the role, I can't come up with a better fit. Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Shaw, Neal McDonough and more are good supporters (and speaking of McDonough, who plays Dum Dum Dugan, I love that the Howling Commandos seem done right, keeping their distinct personalities while shedding the feeling of being stereotypes); Hugo Weaving is a fine villain.

It looks pretty good too. I'm not sure what miracles the folks who told me that the 3D adds nothing expect the technology to perform; I think it added a little more pop to the action scenes and gave a bit of an extra sense of scale to some of the more fanciful environments. Johnston didn't shoot in 3D - he switched back after finding the cameras too difficult to wrangle - but did have a smaller camera to use as second-eye reference, so it feels a lot closer to native 3D than many upconversions (like, say, Thor).

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (special engagement)

I reviewed this back in November 2004 (yikes!), though it's very easy to read that more as "Jay learning to appreciate silent movies" rather than something specifically about Steamboat Bill, Jr., I stand by it and my great fondness for the movie. Accompanist Jeff Rapsis talked about how, at the time, it was a sort of nostalgic image of small-town America; and yet, for all that it's very much of its time and before, it never feels old or irrelevant. It's still sweet and funny and an amazing production.

As per usual, Rapsis did a fine job with the soundtrack, both for this and the two Keaton shorts that preceded the movie. It was also good to see that the series had built some momentum; with enough people in the auditorium to open up the balcony. It doesn't look like there's going to be any September show, but Jeff did talk about doing something cool for Halloween.

This Week In Tickets!

Hey, I'd seen something like 75 movies in the month before and had a huge pile of comics and stuff awaiting me when I got home - I felt like staying in!

Cowboys & Aliens

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2011 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first run; digital projection)

Cowboys & Aliens isn't a bad movie at all; it's just tough to shake the feeling that it could be better. It's the sort of movie where six writers (not counting the ones who wrote the original comic) and another dozen producers pound at it until any truly distinctive voice is gone. These producers spend a fair amount of money that shows up on screen, but a certain spark is missing.

I talk about "fun" at the movies a lot, which can be sort of a cheat - it's a terribly vague term and an extremely subjective thing - but I think it's a large part of what's missing here. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are both stony-faced protagonists of few words, and neither Sam Rockwell nor Olivia Wilde are in much of a position to be an upbeat counterbalance. This movie really needs someone who sees tracking down a ship full of creatures from outer space and rescuing their loved ones as an adventure as well as a grim mission, and the kid played by Noah Ringer can only do so much to counteract that. He's one Robin to a half-dozen Batmen.

There are moments when it works - when the posse is told just why the aliens are there, Harrison Ford snorts "that's ridiculous". The audience sort of agrees with this, sure, but it's an acknowledgment of the goofy pulp origins of this sort of tale, and we're expected to be fine with it, so why can't the movie be a little cheerier even while being thrilling and suspenseful? Ford is the main joy of this movie, looking and sounding like a guy who should have done many more Westerns than he has, and the filmmakers maybe should have sacrificed some "realism" for a chance to really let the audience take pleasure in what's going on.

SPOILERS: That includes letting certain characters live in the end. This is not a movie that needs to pay for the pure joy of watching the alien ship blow up with losing a character the audience likes. :SRELIOPS

This Week In Tickets!

A bit more of a "back to normal" week, the relatively short weekend the result of heading north for my niece Maisy's first birthday party. I apparently further solidified by status as the weird uncle by giving her an Uglydoll. Apparently, even though I've seen them at toy stores for the past few years, it's just not a brand that all parents are aware of.

(Allow me to take a moment to mourn the passing of the Tokyo Kid store in Harvard Square, which will make it much more difficult to someday give a niece a totally kawai stuffed toy that is actually a monstrous character from a very adult series.)

The ballgame was cool for a while, but turned out to be one of Erik Bedard's less impressive games in a Sox uniform. But, I got to see the Red Sox turn an around-the-horn triple play, which was pretty awesome.

The two other tickets here have been covered elsewhere, so see Point Blank and Attack the Block if you wnat more on them.

Der Räuber (The Robber)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves)

I joked with a friend after seeing this that whoever described this as a thriller must have had a very low threshold for getting excited, much like the guy right next to me who jumped and gasped at the least provocation. Of course, after saying that, I'm not really able to find evidence of anybody ever calling it a thriller, so the joke is on me for assuming that a movie about a distance runner who robs banks would be an exciting crime movie.

Looked at for what it is, rather than what I was expecting it to be, it's certainly no failure. Andreas Lust gives a nuanced, thoroughly believable performance as Johann Rettenberger, the gifted runner/thief of the title, and he has to, because that's the movie, with everything else meant to work alongside it. It's a well-realized portrayal of a man controlled by obsessions; while it would be easy to suggest that Rettenberger is addicted to the adrenaline of the heist with the running a personal detail, enabling him to escape on foot, that's actually secondary to the elite athlete's obsession with improving his skills; we can actually believe that robbing banks is mainly the way of earning money that allows him to have his rigorous training schedule.

After a while, though, this intense internality becomes quite a lot to bear. Lust's performance is perfect but that sort of obsession makes his character static; once we get Rettenberger, the film doesn't have a whole lot more to show us until it's time for things to start going wrong. Sure, at that point, co-writer/director Benjamin Heisenberg does a pretty nifty job of tightening the noose visually, but even then, the arc seems pre-ordained and a bit standard.

This Week In Tickets!

There would have been more tickets here, but what can I say - Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene shut everything down on Sunday, including the MBTA. Honestly, it wasn't that miserable out Sunday afternoon - wet and windy, sure, but by the time I got cabin fever that afternoon, it was actually kind of bracing.

The hurricane also meant that the Red Sox ticket marked "Sunday" was actually the second game of a doubleheader on Saturday, and that wound up being a long day of baseball - the first game started at 1pm, endured multiple delays, driving me nuts as I waited for an announcement - which finally wound up being "come on down, we'll even let people with tickets for the second game in before the first finishes". Later on, with not a lot of us in the stands, the Sox evidently tweeted that gate C was open for anyone in the neighborhood. Hey, might as well - can't sell beer to people who aren't there.

So, not a lot of movies seen that week; the ones I did make it to were the last shows in the Bernard Hefrmann retrospective. I love the Brattle's old-school vertical schedules in the summer; too bad it so often conflicts with my trip north.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Bernard Herrmann Centennial)

SPOILERS: Hey, you may not know this, but Brian De Palma really likes Alfred Hitchcock - especially Psycho; he spent much of his early career talking little bits of Norman Bates's insanity and sprinkling it into his villains. Of course, there's a certain logic to "If you're going to steal, do it from the best", and it's not like he regurgitates this stuff lazily. :SRELIOPS

Even without that sort of reference, this is a thoroughly De Palman movie, with an opening that is both risqué and tongue-in-cheek, some shocking violence, a somewhat unconventional amateur sleuth, and an enjoyably twisty/bizarre storyline. Actually, that may undersell it; when you add the sheer number of just absolutely crazy things that go on in this movie together, the end result should be utterly laughable - and, really, the use of hypnotism in the last act is absolutely ridiculous - but somehow De Palma stitches it together into an entertaining, cohesive whole.

But, hey, I dig it. It's a crazy movie but it keeps its crazy going through to the end.

Twisted Nerve

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Bernard Herrmann Centennial)

Now, here's a pretty brilliant way to cap off the Bernard Herrmann series (or at least come close to doing so) - a movie that is probably best known for the bit of Herrmann music that Quentin Tarantino lifted to drop into Kill Bill, creating a tremendously effective earworm. To be quite honest, it's the part of this movie that most deserves to enter the general public consciousness. Well, that and "good lord, was Hayley Mills a cutie in her early twenties".

After all, the plot is more than a bit ridiculous, with Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett) apparently thinking that the best way to get close to pretty young librarian/med student Susan (Mills) is to pretend to be mentally handicapped. Of course, he turns out to be insane in other ways, which leads to an expositional outburst that reminds the modern audience that forty-odd years ago, people used to use the term "Mongoloid" and attribute all sorts of psychosis to this. It is, shall we say, a product of its time.

That's not entirely a bad thing; director Roy Boulting and his co-writers are generally able to negotiate the border between "anything can happen" and "what the hell?" pretty well, and when it comes time for a character to snap, he snaps very well indeed. I can't say I was terribly impressed with the movie, but it certainly has moments, and who knows, maybe if I saw it on a non-terrible print (this one was very, very red), it might make a better impression on me.

This Week In Tickets!

Yes, I saw a great deal of this homestand, although not a whole lot of winning. The funny thing? Early in the season, when it seemed like the Red Sox wouldn't win a game all year, they always seemed to win - and decisively! - when I went.

Sunday, though, was so rough that my Dad and brother who came down for the game left early. Well, they had to catch a train back home, but they left early enough to make sure they had plenty of time to do so. Can't say I blame 'em.

Following that, I took the B line to Harvard Street, had some BBQ at SoulFire, and then hit The Debt at the Coolidge. I've got to admit, the BBQ wound up being the highlight of the day.

This Week In Tickets!

Labor Day on Monday, and since I didn't want to pay a whole lot of money for what looked like a thoroughly mediocre movie, I went to Fresh Pond for Shark Night 3D. Big mistake. The movie wasn't completely beyond salvage, but as much as I would have liked to write about what a great value 3D shows at that spot are, it wound up being more "you get what you pay for".

Then it was a bit of a layoff until the weekend, where I caught a couple of new releases from China, a couple of old releases from Germany, and thought I was going to get to the cheap show of Contagion in not-really-IMAX, but misread the schedule and wound up seeing, well, something else.


* * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2011 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, digital projection)

Remember how a few weeks ago, while reviewing Point Blank, I built the blog entry around how the French had pretty much taken over the mid-level action film, and referred to the then-upcoming Colombiana (co-written by Luc Besson and directed by Besson protege Olivier Megaton) as an example? Never mind. Colombiana isn't quite a disaster, but it's not very good.

How is it a letdown? It takes what seems like forever to get started, for example. This sort of Europa-Corp. action movie tends to have a pretty straightforward plot, but this one feels the need for a long prologue where we see what makes Zoe Saldana's Cataleya what she is. It's got a pretty spiffy chase scene where the ten-year-old Cat escapes from her parents' killers, but even after all that, the "I want to be a killer" scenes still feel wrong, like an oddly specific thing to ask. As the movie goes on, we get two separate scenes of Cat vomiting something up, her doing jobs that seem to rely on both gaining information she had no time to research and a lot of luck, and then, when we've been prepped for an extremely clever infiltration - the villains have even commented on just how good she is at that sort of thing - the finale is just a brute-force attack. And Olivier Megaton is not the most talented action director Besson has found; he's the type that is generally competent, but also does things like shake the camera and cut quickly when the really good ones would give the audience a good look at what's going on..

It's not a total loss - Zoe Saldana is good at the action-girl thing, and Lennie James handles what is a relatively thankless role as the FBI agent tracking her down with aplomb. It looks good, has a couple good action sequences. It's not close to Europa's best, though - this sort of movie is straightforward and familiar enough that the execution needs to be flawless to stand out (see: Taken), and that's not the case here.

This Week In Tickets!

Another time mix-up; I somehow got it in my head that The Driver was starting at 7pm on Saturday, instead of 6:30pm, so I wound up missing that and taking the T to Somerville for Contagion instead. I'm kind of disappointed by that - it looked like a good warm-up for Drive. A little disappointed about missing the other pre-code Raoul Walsh film at Emerson this weekend, too - even if Me and My Gal wasn't that great, "not available on video" is always tempting.

Sunday was a bit of a repeat of two weeks earlier - ugly Red Sox loss, supper at SoulFire, movie at the Coolidge. It wound up being a loop, since I went there for the 10am Talk Cinema series. Anyway, packed weekend of movies:

The Lion King

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2011 in AMC Boston Common #5 (3D rerelease)

I expected from the start that this specific 3D upconversion was a particularly bad idea, but seeing as there was a $10 early show ($6 admission + $4 tack-on for 3D) and AMC and Disney were running a program where they'd put $5 on the rewards card for seeing it, I figured that I was $5 worth of curious as to how it turns out, even if I do have the Blu-ray coming in a few weeks.

And how does it turn out? Interesting tech demo, at least, albeit one that exposes the technology's flaws as much as its potential (if not more). The opening number, "Circle of Life", looks impressive, given that it's full of things that 3D shows well, and that upconversion handles well - multiplane set-ups (that is, where you want to show that various sets of objects are different distances from the viewer but don't want them breaking that plane), establishing a distance to the horizon, uncomplicated flight, etc. It's easy to watch that and think, hey, this might work.

What the opening doesn't have a lot of, though, is character animation, and it's when we get to close-ups of the characters that things start to seem very ill-advised. Though I imagine The Lion King was easier to deal with than some older cel-animated films might be, in that the CAPS coloring system gave them shading and textures to work with as opposed to flat colors of previous decades, the current state of the art for stereo-conversion is basically mutliplane, which leads to an effect much like 3D comics, where a head will seem like a two-dimensional object separate from the body, just on a nearer plane. The stereographers try to get around that, but trying to made a 3D model out of a 2D object is tricky, and things like the feline characters' snouts often look vaguely wrong, poking out too far or not far enough depending on the "camera angle" being used, or wobbling as heads turn.

And part of that may come from how cel-based animation, unlike CGI, stop-motion, and the like, does not use rigid models. I remember how, when Beavis & Butt-head was popular, the guys making the action figures wound up having fits because it turned out that the title characters actually are designed differently when seen head-on or in profile. I don't know whether this is the case for any characters in The Lion King or not, but I could see animators flattening the characters' faces a little when seen from the front, humanizing them slightly. When Tangled came out last year, producer and longtime lead animator Glen Keane described how producing it meant developing new software to make the character models more malleable so that it would more closely resemble the animated films of the 1990s in style, but the tech for going the other way is apparently a bigger challenge.

Ultimately, the experience doesn't take much away from The Lion King, the movie - it's still better than the sum of its parts, even if those parts seem a bit weaker now than they did on its initial release - and I'm different too; the "normalcy restored by person reclaiming their birthright" really annoys me today, when it just seemed a bit off back then. I suspect many in the audience won't even feel that something is slightly amiss with this movie, but honestly, I'd still recommend the 2D version if that's playing theaters nearby (here in Boston, it is at Regal Fenway) and not springing the extra dough for the 3D Blu-ray. The converted image nifty at points, but the process is a net negative; not enough to compensate for the extra cost or the picture as a whole looking vaguely (or specifically) wrong.

Me and My Gal

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2011 in the Paramount Center, Bright Family Screening Room (Movies Matter)

Me and My Gal is an old movie, and that's what one has to call it. It's not a classic, and "vintage" implies that, like wine, it ages well. Not all seventy-year-old movies do that; some, like this, were just made in 1932, taxied around the country to fill a screen for a week or two, and then vanished into relatively deserved obscurity. It's not all bad; in fact, it's just good enough to show what doesn't work.

We start with Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy), a cop walking a waterfront beat. In one day, he meets Helen Riley (Joan Bennett), a sassy diner waitress, and saves an annoying drunk (Will Stanton) from drowning. This earns him a promotion but pulls another cop away from keeping tabs on the boat carrying Duke Cartega (George Walsh), a gangster that the law hasn't been able to make charges stick to, returning to the country after being away a year. It turns out he used to go with Helen's newlywed sister Kate (Marion Burns), and wants to use her respectable job at a bank to help rob the place while her sailor husband is away.

Or at least, it seems that way. The movie spends a lot of time talking about "the numbers" that the Cartegas want Kate to get so that they can burgle the appropriate safe deposit boxes, but even though Duke looks to have Kate hide him after the robbery, I have no idea whether she ever did actually supply him with these numbers. This whole half of the movie is a real mess, the plot of a gangster flick uncomfortably jammed into a romantic comedy as the B story, with neither actress Marion Burns or generally-respected director Raoul Walsh able to give us much of an impression of where Kate stands one way or the other.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2011 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run)

Part of what makes Contagion such a thoroughly nifty movie is how, even though panic is a large part of what it's about, along with some other strong emotions, writer Scott Z. Burns and directer Steven Soderbergh maintain a tight leash on any sort of outburst. Moments which could be used for cheap drama are allowed to pass as we watch the characters just try and make it through the next minute; Soderbergh allows shots to linger on possible surfaces on which a virus could rest for half a second without any sort of musical sting. We get the idea; there's no need to hammer it home.

Even with the quite frankly ridiculous cast - there's a lot of folks used to starring roles taking ensemble/supporting parts here - that's a really tricky balance to maintain. Contagion is as much about crisis management as crisis, and it's likely that as much as the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that salutes the level-headed problem solvers, their every instinct is likely to push for more obvious drama. Soderbergh is probably uniquely qualified to handle it; despite being much better than most at wrangling the scale of a large, complicated movie like this one, he's still and indie filmmaker at heart, so he can make the scenes with, say, Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Heron sing.

Not all of the half-dozen threads or so the movie has going for it are created equal; we both seem to see Jude Law too often and not really feel the impact his character is making. But, man, so much of it is good, emotional, and at least within shouting distance of being scientifically sound that it's able to stimulate our curiosity as well as the more primal fears, an unusual combination that makes the movie even more exciting.

(Random aside - is World War Z shooting yet? Seeing this movie done so well make me wonder if those filmmakers could back up and make something closer to the anthology feel of the book rather than the more straightforward sci-fi/action/horror movie being planned.)


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

I forget - which award, exactly, is it that Drive's opening sequence should make it a shoo-in for - sound mixing or sound effects editing? Whichever it is, Nicolas Winding Refn and his team put on a clinic of how to grab the audience with audio - a thumping bassline gives way to the Lakers game that the movie's nameless Driver puts on for background noise, minimalist but natural dialog enters, and loud, harsh sound effects highlight the danger. Add slick direction by Refn and taut editing by Mat Newman, and it's an early sign that the audience is in for something special.

The funny thing is that on the face of it, Drive isn't that exceptional. The plot could be a fourth Transporter movie; it's just that Refn sees pulp as beautiful, so he goes all in, paying loving attention to every tiny detail, taking cues from 1970s and 1980s car noir, and not backing off from the violence. It's a surprisingly harsh action movie - Refn doesn't go in for elaborate car chases quite as much as one might expect, but instead gives us up close and personal violence where guns and knives can be seen to really mess a body up.

Part and parcel of that is Albert Brooks as a villain and, man, is he fantastic. It's a wonderfully entertaining performance that separates itself from all the other cheery psychopaths in short order, especially since we initially think we've got the dynamic between him and business partner Ron Perlman figured out. Ryan Gosling makes the Driver an intriguing nut to crack; there's an almost childlike simplicity to him that we almost want to see him as some sort of idiot savant where cars are concerned, except that he's also clearly no stranger to the world of violence. Gosling does a very impressive job of making this guy seem like a whole person despite there not being a whole lot of information about him.

Each of those elements is a part of what makes Drive exciting to watch - it's a simple action movie, but one with art to it. Refn doesn't see any reason why this sort of picture can't have flourishes and embellishments even when the film itself is relatively straightforward.

The Lion King 3DMe and My GalContagionThin IceWakefield is DONEDrive
Shark NightMy KingdomLove in SpaceColombianaWorld on a WireWorld on a Wire
Last time at the top of the AL EastI hate John LackeyThe Debt
Sisters & Twisted NeverRain!
Point BlankTriple Play!The RobberAttack the Block
Cowboys & Aliens
Fantasia (1 August)Fantasia (2 August)Fantasia (3 August)Fantasia (4 August)Fantasia (5 August)Voltaire @ FantasiaCaptain AmericaSteamboat Bill Jr.
ExpoRailFantasia (25 July)Fantasia (26 July)Fantasia (27 July)Fantasia (28 July)Fantasia (28 July)Fantasia (29 July)Fantasia (30 July)Fantasia (31 July)
Fantasia (18 July)Fantasia (19 July)Fantasia (19 July)Fantasia (20 July)Fantasia (21 July)Fantasia (22 July)Fantasia (23 July)Fantasia (24 July)Pointe-à-CallièreMontreal Science Centre
King of Devil's IslandDetective Dee and teh Mystery of the Phantom FlameFantasia (14 July)Fantasia (15 July)Fantasia (16 July)Fantasia (17 July)

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