Friday, October 28, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 October 2011 - 3 November 2011

It's Halloween weekend! Let's push the big releases down a little bit and see what's off-beat and scary!

  • The Brattle Theatre goes super-old-school with their Silent Screams series this weekend, showing off (mainly) some early and justly famed early horror. Friday night offers up The Golem (with a pre-recorded soundtrack by Frank Black) from 1920 at 8pm and the recent period-style silent adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu at 10pm (both on video). Sunday offers a matinee pair of German classics - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at noon and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (for my money, still the best vampire film ever made nearly 90 years later) at 1:45. 8pm that evening has Cirkestra back in town to accompany The Unknown, which from their premiere earlier in the year is a pretty good show. Unfortunately, the other planned film with live accompaniment (Volcano Kings with the film White Zombie) has had to be postponed; as yet there's no replacement on the schedule.

    If that's not enough silent film for you, Wednesday and Thursday (the 2nd and 3rd of November) will feature the (in)famous Moroder Metropolis, a truncated version of the classic (from well before the recent recoveries of nearly the full picture) that uses subtitles instead of intertitles and a then-contemporary rock & roll score. Before that, there will be a live Tanya Donelly concert on Saturday night (the 29th), while Tuesday brings the second entry in the new Balagan series, Robert Todd's experimental documentary Master Plan.

  • The Coolidge starts their celebration of Halloween off with a midnight screening of An American Werewolf in London on Friday, in 35mm no less. Then, on Saturday night, they offer their annual midnight horror marathon. It kicks off with a midnight double feature of the uncut Suspiria and Return of the Living Dead, but for $5 and nine hours more, you get five other movies, including Demons 2, Hardware, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus shorts, trailers, costume contests, and other good stuff.

    No special events on Halloween proper, but there's a bit of a vibe to the other films playing - the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Friday and features newcomer Elizabeth Olsen trying to return to normal life after escaping a cult lead by John Hawkes; that's kind of creepy! There's also likely a feeling of dread to held-over Take Shelter and thrills (and economic horror!) to Margin Call, which occupies both digital rooms. And then Tuesday night (November 1st), there's a "Science on Screen" presentation of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, with Dr. Robert Stickgold on-hand to discuss the role of dreaming in the film and life.

    The Coolidge will also be one of the main venues for The Boston Jewish Film Festival including Wednesday's opening night screening, Kaddish for a Friend. The BJFF will also be having screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts and West Newton Cinema this week.

  • The Somerville Theatre wraps up their week-plus of horror double features on their main screen with a couple of classics - Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and James Whale's Frankenstein running from Friday to Monday in 35mm. $8 for the pair in the evening, $5 for matinees.

  • Head out to Showcase Cinemas Revere if you're in the mood for some locally-produced horror; Inkubus was shot in Providence by local filmmaker Glenn Ciano, and has Robert Englund as a demon terrorizing the cops in a police station scheduled for imminent demolition. It's actually got other familiar names in the cast (William Forsythe, Joey Fatone, Jonathan Silverman), and who knows, maybe it'll surprise.

  • Maybe the fact that Roland Emmerich's new film is playing boutique theaters like Kendall Square is not exactly scary in and of itself, but it's certainly enough to make a moviegoer wonder if something is off with the universe. The movie in question is Anonymous, which posits that Shakespeare did not actuallyl write the work attributed to him, and has the true author involved in the tricky court & succession politics of the time. This also plays at Boston Common and Fenway.

    The one-week opening at Kendall is Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a biography of the famed French chanseur who is just as well-known for his women as his music. It's directed by Joann Sfar, who is best known as a comic book artist, and it will be interesting to see how his style translates to live action. Kendall also gets in on the horror train, somewhat, with The Skin I Live In, in which a scientist whose wife was horribly burned goes to great lengths to test his new artificial skin. Perhaps not the sort of movie one would expect from Spanish legend Pedro Almodovar, but he's dabbled in this sort of thing before (heck, he even produced Alex de la Iglesia's first movie), and he's collaborating with Antonio Banderas for the first time since they were doing sex comedies back in the early nineties.

  • Of course, some would probably like their Banderas speaking English and animated; they get Puss In Boots, opening on the bulk of the 3D and IMAX-type screens this week. It's probably worth shelling out for the extra 3D, as DreamWorks Animation builds their movies with that in mind. The movie apparently jumps back to the early days of Banderas's swashbuckling cat (a fairy tale character who did, in fact, exist long before DreamWorks included him in Shrek 2). The other big star turn this week is Johnny Depp, who sports a shockingly conventional haircut in The Rum Diary. It's Depp's second go at Hunter Thompson (having also starred in the author's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), though not technically the same character.

    Last but not least among the big openings is In Time, which has survived a number of screwy name changes and a Harlan Ellison lawsuit. It depicts a future where people stop aging at 25 and from then on use lifespan as currency. I'm actually pretty excited for this one, as it's both somebody giving Andrew Niccol money to make a big sci-fi adventure (the premise has a fair amount of his Gattaca in it) and Amanda Seyfreid in a movie I want to see. Justin Timberlake stars.

  • Arts Emerson wraps up their run of Charlie Chaplin films with Modern Times, Chaplin's last mostly-silent movie (released in 1937, well after talkies took over). In it, the Tramp not only confronts the Depression and increasingly mechanized current life, but sings! It plays Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The first leg of their Katharine Hepburn series finishes, too, with The Philadelphia Story on Friday and Saturday evenings, in which Hepburn must choose between Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and, oh yeah, her fiancé. A different "Story" - The Palm Beach Storyfollows in on Friday, although they're not related; this Preston Sturges comedy is part of the "Marriage Circle" series. That series closes Saturday night with Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor remaking The Marriage Circle as a musical in One Hour With You

  • It's Festival time at the MFA, with The Boston Palestine Film Festival wrapping up with screenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and their screenings as part of The Boston Jewish Film Festival beginning on Thursday (November 3rd).

  • The Harvard Film Archive will present A Celebration of Helen Hill Friday night, with the late filmmaker's mother introducing a selection of short films, including the one she was working on at the time of her death in 2007 (since finished by her husband). And after a weekend off, "Frederick Wiseman, Institution U.S.A." returns Saturday through Monday with three long documentaries - Public Housing on Saturday the 29th, Deaf on Sunday the 30th, and Blind on Monday the 31st.

  • It looks like Indian films will be playing on two screens at Fresh Pond for Diwali, with Telegu-language 7th Sense playing at 3:25pm and 9:45pm today (Friday the 28th) and Tamil-language films 7am Arivu and Velayudham splitting the screen for the rest of the week (no English subtitles). Ra.One plays all day on the other, with special 10pm 3-D shows bumping the late shows of Puss in Boots on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

  • Some second-run movies shuffle to the Capitol Theatre in Arlington: 50/50 comes from Somerville and The Debt and The Guard arrive from Kendall Square. I must admit, I'm very pleasantly surprised by how well The Guard is sticking around; I think only Midnight in Paris has seen more longevity this summer. Speaking of which: Woody Allen's movie is down to just matinees at the Kendall, which makes this weekend likely the last chance to see it in theaters for those of us who work.

My plans? I'd love to get out to Revere to check out Inkubus (I don't expect it to be good, but like to support the locals), but a great weekend of silents at the Brattle and Paranount mean that The Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Modern Times will cut down on many chances. Similarly, I'd love to see Puss in Boots in proper IMAX in Reading, but I'll probably settle for digital elsewhere. In Time definitely gets a look, as does The Skin I'm In and I really should catch Moneyball before it disappears now that actual baseball is ending.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

This Week In Tickets: 17 October 2011 to 23 October 2011

10am movies, a really World Series that is pretty exciting despite the lack of Red Sox involvement, and a desire to grill one last time before winter shut that down for good account for a reasonably slow week for me at the cinemas:

This Week In Tickets!

Plus, I picked up a new laptop on Saturday so as not to use my work machine for everything and got to playing with it. Technically, anything I create on that machine belongs to my employer, and while I have no idea what the special products division of a pharmeceuticals distributor would want with my blog and eFilmCritic reviews, it's good to stay on the right side of the contract.

The Three Musketeers (2011)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2011 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run; RealD 3D)

On the whole, Paul W.S. Anderson's new version of The Three Musketeers is just not good. That's not really surprising; Anderson doesn't have a great reputation and he's working from a script that is, to be frank, pretty awful. It's outright "why did a buy a ticket for this" groan-worthy at times. And then the movie will hit something that Anderson is good at, and that almost makes it worse, because it means that this bad movie wasn't a bad idea, but just got screwed up.

What's bad? Oh, lots of stuff. Every place where writers Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies could have written some clever bit of dialogue, they basically do the opposite. It's not just that nearly everything every character says is bland, but it's as if every single bit is calculated to make the characters seem like jerks, and only Ray Stevenson's Porthos and Milla Jovovich's Milady de Winter can make that work for them. Honestly, even though D'artagnan is supposed to be the viewpoint character we like, he's such a smug little bastard that the natural desire of the audience throughout the movie is to punch him in the face (and man, is Logan Lerman terrible). The plot is a goofy mess, frequently advanced in dumb, dumb ways.

And then Anderson and company will throw anachronistic airships at us.

Sure, one can complain about how the filmmakers are taking ridiculous liberties with the source material, but it's sort of akin to complaining that Robin Hood movies don't follow Ivanhoe or that superhero flicks generally don't follow any specific comic book storyline. The crazy clockwork technology and environments are fun enough on their own for it to be forgiveable, and the fun that the filmmakers and actors are having is palpable. If Anderson has one saving grace, it's that he knows when to say "screw realism" and go for larger-than-life fun.

If he's got two, it's that he knows how to use 3D fairly well. He was a kid let loose in a candy store with Resident Evil: Afterlife, spending what seemed like half the running time throwing poorly-rendered stuff at the audience in slow motion; this one looks a little nicer and uses the third dimension more for depth and scale than jumps. The Three Musketeers is a spiffy-looking movie, and while the 3D isn't necessary, it looks good and has a fun sense of awe and grandeur.

And, finally, I really like the way Anderson ends his movies, including this one, with ridiculous cliffhangers. He doesn't do it in a cocky or presumptuous way; he gives a satisfying climax and then basically says that these characters have more and bigger adventures ahead of them.

WeekendThe Three MusketeersThe CircusLike Crazy

Chaplin: The Circus

You know what amused me about this movie that is really not funny in an objective sense? The gloves worn by the ringmaster character, as they are the exact sort of gloves worn by Mickey Mouse. They are pure white, have two slits and a button on the back, and seem to give an exaggerated roundness to his hands and fingers. I wish I had a screen capture, because it's not nearly as amusing just describing them (and considering how they aren't actually silly at all, most readers are probably raising an eyebrow to the screen or hitting "back" right now). The part that's sort of kind of a little bit more amusing is that I think I saw similar gloves in another classic movie recently (maybe Bringing up Baby), and they amused me a bit there, too.

Of coruse, it's not surprising in any way; Mickey dates from roughly this time period, so he's not wearing stylized things entirely designed to create a certain shape and hit a sweet spot between clean and busy design; they're based on real things that apparently fell out of fashion between then and now, even though Mickey (and his old cartoons) hasn't ever really disappeared.

I like seeing reminders of Mickey in The Circus, though, because Chaplin's take on The Little Tramp here is an awful lot like how Mickey would wind up portrayed in his comic strip by Floyd Gottfredson: Short and sweet, but also scrappy and brave - Mickey wouldn't back down from crossing a high-wire without training to help the show, and he'd probably be similarly ingenious in improvising a harness. He'd also absolutely stand up for Minnie (or Merna), even if it meant a fight. Both Gottfredson's Mickey and the Tramp are a lot tougher and less cutesy than they're given credit for.

The Circus

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2011 in the Paramount Theatre Bright Screening Room (Chaplin)

The Circus is potentially a tricky movie, because it's built on the idea of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character being funny. This seems like a safe assumption, but it's not just about him being funny to us, but within the movie (in most cases, a joke that doesn't work is just a joke that doesn't work, but one that doesn't work when the story needs it to be funny is a problem). Fortunately, Chaplin has no troubles on that front, and manages to make one of his more purely entertaining features.

The circus is in town, and a certain Tramp (Chaplin) is wandering the grounds, hoping to find a snack. An encounter with a pickpocket (Steve Murphy) has him stumble into the big top, which gets a bigger laugh from the audience than anything the clowns are doing on purpose. The circus's proprieter and ringmaster (Allan Garcia) sees opportunity and hires him on, only to discover that the Tramp isn't that funny when he's trying. Meanwhile, the Tramp is falling for the ringmaster's stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy), although her eye is caught by Rex (Harry Crocker), the handsome tightrope walker who has just joined the show.

Made between two movies often considered masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus is perhaps one of Chaplin's slighter films. It doesn't much go for the pathos that sets Chaplin apart from the other great silent comedians until the end, and even then it's perhaps misplaced, a mirror image of other movies' forced cheer. Chaplin executes those moments of seriousness well, of course, especially the scenes of Merna and the Tramp bonding over how the world is mistreating them (her stepfather is rather cruel toward her).

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Like Crazy

This is the second movie I've seen at the Coolidge-hosted "Talk Cinema" series, and as with Eye-Opener and CineCaché flicks, some of what I write about in the review is not insight I've reached unaided. And, as usual, I had a bit of a "hey, don't say anything about the movie before it starts" reaction to Ty Burr's intro. It's not just Burr, of course - every entry in one of these screening series seems to start with the host saying he or she learned this, that, or the other thing while researching the movie, and this really struck me when I saw the movie at a festival, and the director is best known for doing this thing... but I don't want to say too much. And I'm thinking, geez, you just did.

And now, to avoid being a total hypocrite, I'll let you jump right to the review (or, heck, the Full version at EFC) before getting into what association I heard that I could have done without. Note that there's going to be some spoilers in the next section.

Okay, no need to go crazy with the blank space.

The word Burr used that I didn't really need influencing how I thought about the movie was "mumblecore", along with the usual note about how the people most associated with it hate it. As much as that's where director Drake Doremus came from, and how there are certain similarities between this and a typical mumblecore picture, I don't really think of this as being near that category. Mainly, it's because too much money is spent on it - it's slick looking, shot in London and Los Angeles, and has River Song and Pavel Chekov in the cast as opposed to just the director's fellow film/music buddies. Clearly, Doremus has graduated from "underground" to "indie".

One thing that ran through my mind during the post-film discussion (I probably should have raised my hand and mentioned it, but the conversation went in a different direction very quickly) is that a lot of the young filmmakers making films like this never seem to have held long-term jobs, and soemtimes don't seem to get the mindset. Sure, maybe Jacob's indifference to deadlines is supposed to reflect how Anna didn't give thought to the consequences of overstaying her ­visa, and young people apparently do quit jobs for emotional reasons like Anna does at the end, but... Well, the movie is meant to cover three years, and a person does get settled in a job by then; the thought of losing insurance coverage and retirement benefits gives one pause. I kind of wonder whether a filmmaker in his twenties would get this, though; it's a life where you're less "unemployed" than "between gigs", and while you may have a much more intense identification with what you do with half your waking hours than those of us who sit behind a desk, you also know that it's a temporary thing.

Another thing: The filmmakers could have done much better in indicating that there was time passing; though they probably didn't have the sort of shooting schedule to show the change of seasons (which they don't have in L.A. anyway), you could give the characters haircuts or something. It's mainly a problem as it relates to the other boyfriends and girlfriends we meet - we've barely heard that Jacob and Anna agreed to Just Be Friends sometime earlier before we meet Jennifer Lawrence's Sam, and in the last act, it's not long after we see Jacob and Anna have gotten married (and then having some issues) that we jump forward far enough to hear that Anna and Charlie Bewley's Simon have been seeing each other for six months.

That's a real problem with the end of the movie, quite honestly - even though the marriage was presented as roughly equal problem-solving and true love, that Anna and Jacob seem to be dismissing it so quickly from the audience's perspective does a number on any sympathy we may feel for them when the visa problems clear up and they get back together. Up until then, their relationship was immature, but at least it was genuine; this sort of pulls the rug out from under the characters in the wrong way, and Doremus's tendency to skip over pivitol moments really hurts the movie especially badly here.

It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's also not that much better than the trailer that seems to have been on repeat at the theater for the last month or two. As I mention in the review, I think it will do well over time as the younger audience that is maybe inclined to take it at face value eventually gets to look at it with a more mature perspective.

Like Crazy

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Talk Cinema)

First love can burn very bright but not be that complicated, and since that's what Like Crazy is about, it makes a bit of sense for it to have a certain shallowness about it as well. The question is whether the movie demonstrates this sort of unconditional affection or whether it falls victim to it, even when the audience may be ready for more.

The two young lovers start out as students at a Los Angeles college. Anna (Felicity Jones) is a journalism major from England; Jacob (Anton Yelchin) is a local studying furniture design. They connect and fall hard for each other, and when Anna's student visa expires, she stays for the summer before returning home for a family wedding. The government is not particularly flexible about this sort of thing, though, and she's deported before Jacob can pick her up. Her parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) hire a lawyer to help sort things out, but in the meantime, a long-distance relationship can be a fragile thing.

The movie has a lot going for it, most obviously Felicity Jones. Anna is a part that would be very easy to oversell; she's got to be smart and passionate but also very immature at times. That immaturity is not exaggerated, though, so it's something that the audience recognizes as it starts to recede. It's quite the charming performance, all the more so because we get a chance to discover Anna's flaws without ever being pushed to turn on her.

Full review at EFC.


Oddly enough, in the week since seeing this, I've seen two separate movies that could potentially be a good thematic pair: Like Crazy, another movie about young people in love, and Unhappy Birthday, another gay-skewing movie from the UK (though horror rather than romance). Unfortunately, this one has felt like it took far too long to write, so... Time to move on.

Well, one other thought: I do sort of wonder how some of the gay-specific stuff which seemed interesting to me (coming out as a rite of passage, claiming that in some ways things are better off in America than the UK, etc.) played to the home crowd. I arrived late, so I was sitting away from the usual folks I'd ask for insight there, and I wonder if it was true but little-discussed or trite.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

It would be nice to say that Weekend is a good example of those independent movies where two people meet, talk, flirt, and fall in love in a short time period and have the fact that both people are men be a minor detail rather than an important one, but we're not quite at the point where we can expect it to work that way. That's about 50% of what this movie is, but the other half is interesting as well.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is pretty well-adjusted; he's shy, but doesn't seem excessively uncomfortable either when hanging out with his straight friends on Friday night or in a Nottingham gay bar after. It's there he meets the extroverted Glen (Chris New), a would-be artist who whips a tape recorder out the next morning and starts asking Russell what he thought about the night before. Despite this awkward start, they hit it off - so of course Glen has plans to fly to America Sunday evening.

Weekend is a hang-out-and-fall-in-love movie, and like most of those it rises and falls on what the actors playing the central couple bring. Cullen and New make a nice pair, with the actors able to pick up on the aspects that are opposites both above and below the surface. Cullen makes Russell pleasantly soft-spoken but not weak-seeming; there's a level of comfort with who he is that belies his shyness. New, on the other hand, gets that while Glen may be much more forward, he's uncertain about everything.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 October 2011 - 27 October 2011

It's a good thing that I'm not opting to go nuts with the horror movies this October, because Hollywood is really not doing much to help - an unwanted remake a week ago and a quick-turn-around franchise release this week. As much as I normally think Magnolia/Magnet does a good job, I kind of think Tucker & Dale vs Evil might have killed if it had been pushed into a genuine wide release. It's really not a spooky time at the multiplex.

  • It's the first October in nearly a decade without a new Saw movie, but Paramount has stepped in to fill the gap with Paranormal Activity 3, which takes place in the late 1980s and may or may not be connected to the others beyond the basic format - I'm not sure how this works, having skipped the second one and never had a chance to see the Japanese spin-off. I do know that no VHS camera in 1988 was recording the sort of high-definition, widescreen picture we see in the trailer.

    Two other movies that are different sorts of retreads open as well: Johnny English Reborn has Rowan Atkinson reviving the title character (curious in that while there would probably be something of an audience for Mr. Bean or Edmund Blackadder, I don't think anybody really expected the 2003 Johnny English movie to be anything but a one-off) with a potentially decent cast along for the ride. The latest adaptation of Dumas's Three Musketeers comes courtesy of director Paul W.S. Anderson and features a bunch of good-looking but forgettable folks alongside Anderson's wife Milla Jovovich. This one looks goofy and with exaggerated 3D, but I have to admit - that kind of worked for the last Resident Evil movie, so this could be fun. Maybe.

    Some smaller films also infiltrate the multiplexes: The Mighty Macs is actually playing at both Boston Common and Fenway and some places in the suburbs. The story of an underdog Catholic college's new girls' basketball coach taking them to the playoffs looks like one of those movies funded by a group wanting to see more positive depictions of faith on-screen (it's even G-rated!), but it's got a decent cast in Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton, and Ellen Burnstyn. Norman, meanwhile, looks to be a less-conventional family movie, with Dan Byrn playing a teenager who, for various reasons, lets the other kids at school think he has the same cancer diagnosis as his father (Richard Jenkins). It previewed at the MFA a week or two ago, but I didn't hear from anybody who saw it. That one's at Boston Comon

  • Also playing Boston Common - as well as the Kendall and Coolidge Corner - is Margin Call, which features a heck of a nice cast (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Mary McDonnell, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto) in a story about an investment firm trying to avoid disaster in the first hours of the financial crisis. Great ensemble, slick-looking trailer, but the list of producers is almost as long (meaning that there were a lot of hands involved) and the filmmaker is unproven.

    I think the one-week booking at Kendall Square is Puncture, which features Chris Evans as a personal injury lawyer who winds up in way over his head when he takes a case against a local hospital which sends him up against the entire health care industry. Or it may be The Mill & The Cross, Lech Majewski's film which takes place inside Pieter Bruegel's sixtheenth-century painting "The Way to Calvary", with enough painstaking work taken to get the visuals just right that many critics have been blown away.

  • Both the Kendall and Coolidge also open Take Shelter, in which a paranoid father, convinced that a disaster is coming, begins obsessively building a sotrm shelter in his backyard, with enough zeal that he may actually be the real danger to his family and community. It's also been getting a great critical reception, with the lead role absolutely perfect for Michael Shannon. It's mostly playing in theater #1, but check the Coolidge's website, as some shows are in #2, while Margin Call skips between film rooms and video rooms depending on the time of day.

    It's a huge weekend for midnight movies there as well - Human Centipede II and The Dead did well enough last weekend to be held over, meaning that this weekend is the rare time that all four screens will be used for midnights. The other two are the new restoration of Lucio Fulci's Zombi - considered a classic of the genre and presented on 2K video taken direct from the original negative - and this weekend's Steven King adaptation, Pet Semetary, which is one of the few (only?) King movies actually to be shot in his native state of Maine (hey, I grew up there and it was a big deal at the time)!

    Aside from the scary stuff (and, hey, both Take Shelter and Margin Call probably count toward that count in their own ways), Sunday morning (the 23rd) has the second Talk Cinema preview of the season at 10am, Like Crazy, which got some awards at Sundance for its story of a trans-Atlantic romance complicated by visa problems. Monday night (the 24th) has a National Theatre Live presentation, The Kitchen.

  • The Brattle spends most of the week on its "Recent Raves" series, and I can actually recommend many of them (or not). Friday the 21st features Another Earth, which is nicely-acted but flawed both narratively and scientifically; Saturday the 22nd gives my brother Matt Attack the Block for his birthday (unfortunately, the double feature with Super 8 listed on the schedule has had to be cancelled); Sunday the 23rd is a double feature of Meek's Cutoff and The Future (both of which I found had interesting ideas but sometimes torturous execution); Tuesday the 25th is a pair of recent comedies from across the pond, The Trip and The Guard (the latter such a Recent Rave as to stil be playing in theaters!); and Wednesday the 26th finishes things up with apocalyptic love story Bellflower.

    Around those, there are a couple of new movies to see. Monday night's CineCaché presentation is Unhappy Birthday, a new British thriller about two men looking to surprise a friend on their birthday, with things getting very strange when another woman joins the party. On, Thursday night (the 27th), MSP's latest ski movie, Attack of La Niña screens twice, with footage taken as an unusually cold winter in western North America creates unusual and (presumably) exciting conditions.

  • I've really grown to love ArtsEmerson's film programming lately. This weekend continues the Katharine Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin programs, with Kate in Holiday (Friday evening and Sunday afternoon) and the Little Tramp in The Circus (Saturday afternoon). I remember liking Holiday a lot from when I saw it five years ago, so that's a good start.

    They've also got another program running, though, "The Marriage Circle", which ties in with the live theater happening downstairs at the Paramount. On Friday and Saturday evening, they're showing a new 35mm print of Divorce Italian Style, in which Marcello Mastroianni conspires to eliminate his wife in order to trade for a younger model. The similarly-named but for more serious documentary Divorce Iranian Style, meanwhile, plays Saturday night (the 22nd) and examines the torturous hoops Persian women must go through to end their marriages, despite the fact that their husbands can do so at will.

  • The Harvard Film Archive spends the weekend paying tribute to "The Legend of Taylor Mead", as the poet and actor will be in town to introduce three of the underground/counter-cultural films he has made over the years: The Flower Thief on Friday the 21st, Brand X on Saturday the 22nd, and Tarzan and Jain Regained... Sort of on Sunday the 23rd. For those who want more Mead, they will also be showing Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man on Sunday afternoon and Lonesome Cowboy on Monday evening.

  • The MFA is mostly booked by The Boston Palestine Film Festival, which runs from Friday the 21st through Sunday the 30th. Twenty-three different films will show over the course of the festival, with ten showing this week. Each only shows once, so check the musuem/series webpage to see what's running when. There's also a Wednesday afternoon screening of Raoul Ruiz's Time Regained as part of "An Evening in France", but that appears to be sold out.

  • The Somerville Theatre has a concert on Friday, and I'm not sure what they're using the big auditorium for on Friday and Saturday, but Starting Monday, it's horror dobule features, all on 35mm! Monday the 24th is random (Satanic Rites of Dracula & Nightmare on Elm Street 2); Tuesday the 25th is an It's Alive double feature (including the sequel, It Lives Again); Wednesday the 26th is "1980s movies set in movie theaters that aren't Gremlins" (Demons & Night of the Comet); and Thursday is horror essentials (The Shining & Carpenter's Halloween).

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington also has a number of different live shows over the weekend ("live radio" on Friday, a kids' concert on Saturday morning, and the Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra doing a Bowie/Queen/Zeppelin set Saturday night), so it only makes sense that their one film selection during the week is also a concert - Rush Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland. Shot in April, it notably includes their 1981 album Moving Pictures in its entirety. I knew a girl in college who really liked Rush, so I hope she digs it if she's still around here.

  • Most of the Indian films playing Fresh Pond this week are doing so without English subtitles, but that change with RA. One, the big Diwali-season opening on Wednesday the 26th. Diwali is when the big summer/holiday-type movies get released in India, and this looks to be a gigantic one, with big effects and action, a cameo for superstar Rajinikanth, songs, and whatever else might make this story about a father and son who get sucked into a computer game and become superheroes more fun. And on top of that, the 9:50pm shows will be presented in 3-D, I believe a first for Bollywood films in the United States.

  • There's a little bit of second-run-shuffling going on, as the Arlington Capitol picks up The Big Year (from the Somerville) and My Afternoons with Marguerite (from the Kendall & Coolidge).

My plans? I'm thinking The Big Year tonight (right on my way home AND at a convenient start time for that!), The Three Musketeers and The Circus tomorrow, Like Crazy and The Holiday on Sunday, Unhappy Birthday on Monday, maybe a preview or maybe the Brattle's double feature on Tuesday, and try to go for RA.One in 3D because I do like novelty. It's going to be a busy week unless work and other things interfere (as they are, admittedly, wont to do).

This Week In Tickets: 10 October 2011 to 16 October 2011

A busy moviegoing week:

This Week In Tickets!

Did I deliberately miss the bus last Thursday because it's much easier to make it downtown for screenings of Margaret and Love Crime (on their last day in town) when working from home in Cambridge than it is from the office in Burlington? No. But seeing as Thursday has been the usual day on which folks at my company are encouraged to telecommute, it's not a bad idea.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2011 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

The easy comment to make about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is that it drags terribly at 149 minutes, so it's kind of amazing that the thing that kept it from release for over five years was the director's inability or unwillingness to budge from the three-hour cut to get it down to the two-and-a-half that the studio demanded. The last thing this movie needs, perhaps, is to be longer. Of course, one must then think of all the directors' cuts where some extra length has helped. After all, "boring" isn't just a matter of something taking a long time; it's taking a long time without seeming to accomplish anything.

So maybe this movie actually would play better with Lonergan's cut... but I kind of doubt it. Margaret doesn't feel like a group of interconnected stories that each needed to be given room to breathe; it feels like Lonergan started from one reasonably simple, interesting story (Anna Paquin as a teenage girl who struggles with the repercussions of a traumatic experience) and got distracted, following every subplot he could think of. These side-trips don't enhance or reinforce the central story, though, at least as the movie is constructed - it just dilutes it.

And that is really too bad, because Anna Paquin is kind of great in this. Her character can be pretty darn difficult to like at times, but it's a believable sort of teenage snottiness. Two and a half hours is a lot of time to spend with this character, though, and none of the others make for an especially interesting contrast, though they're all played well.

So, a disappointment. Hopefully Lonergan at least has this out of his system now, and can move on to hopefully make another movie as good as You Can Count on Me

Crime d'Amour (Love Crime)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

I think I read something about how the filmmakers opted to make Ludivine Sagnier sort of frumpy in this movie, as opposed to the usual sex-kitten image. This means messy hair, glasses, and a pimple on her forehead. Oh, and she's only ever naked from behind.

I kid. This is actually a deliciously fun little movie in which Sagnier plays Isabel, a loyal and admiring junior executive who routinely has her work appropriated by boss Kristin Scott Thomas. When each makes an attempt to move up in the company - and a man comes between them - Thomas's Christine opts to humiliate Isabelle. What she doesn't realize is that even though Isabelle seems meek, she has the potential to be just as ruthless as Christine, and is probably smarter.

There's a couple of things I really like about this movie. It's structured like the best kind of magic trick, with practically every bit of deception done in plain sight, with it up to the audience to figure out just where filmmaker Alain Corneau (with co-writer Nathalie Carter) is going with everything. We're given an unusual rooting interest, and the movie at times seems to stake out an interesting moral position - that it's not necessarily ruthlessness and ambition that are most evil, but arrogance. as SPOILER: the lynchpin to Isabelle's plan is that she's willing to act without ego, something that Christine just couldn't do. :RELIOPS


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2011 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run)

There are many, many things about 50/50 that are kind of terrific, but something I always appreciate is when a movie or TV show finds good use for Matt Frewer. He and Philip Baker Hall have small parts as fellow cancer patients that share chemo times with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character. It's a little thing to notice, but it's the sign of of a movie that that sweats the details.

You'd expect those details to be sweated, as it's based on writer/producer Will Reiser's actual life, and funny, because his buddy when going through this was Seth Rogen, who co-stars as, well, basically Seth Rogen. Someday Rogen is going to win an Oscar for playing a sad or tragic variation on his jovial stoner persona, despite it being arguable that his ability to get the audience attached to these guys who make the audience laugh is the greater achievement. Here, he's really giving a great supporting performance, funny as usual but also displaying strength in just how he doesn't change as a friend.

Everyone's pretty good, especially Gordon-Levitt, who does a good job playing Adam as just a little tightly wound, which makes him at least a little funny even when the jokes come from how the people around him are reacting. Mostly, though, he's likable and able to let us see how afraid he is without it being overwhelming for the audience.

Silent SoulsPeter PanMargaretLove Crime50/50The DeadBringing Up Baby

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Katharine Hepburn: Bringing Up Baby

I wish I'd thought of it earlier, but next October, I think I'm going to try and do a "screwball-comedy-a-day" thing on eFilmCritic. Either just act like everybody always spends the month of October watching goofy slapstick movies, or push it as "after reading 'goriest deaths' lists on other sites, come to us for a Marx Brothers chaser!"


A couple other things that aren't really part of the review struck me while watching this movie. First, Cary Grant would have made a fantastic Superman. Of course, the character debuted the same year as this movie, and back then superheroes were the fodder for serials, not big-budget features. Still, he had the "seeming like a completely different man when he takes off his glasses" thing down in this movie, and according to the IMDB trivia page, his character was sort of based on Harold Lloyd and his "Glasses" character - just as Clark Kent was.

Also, I wonder how we'd look at Hepburn's Susan Vance if she popped up as the main character in a movie today. I remember a bunch of reviews for Sandra Bullock's All About Steve pointing out that the main character was unlikable and probably mentally disturbed for inventing this obsessive romance out of nothing, but... Isn't that the whole deal behind this movie? Susan meets cute with David, falls for him, and then does a string of improbable and strange things to try to keep him from leaving her side. I'm guessing the other isn't executed nearly as well as this one is - what Kate Hepburn and the filmmakers do is a lot trickier than it looks - but I wonder. Take this script, make it with Isla Fisher and Matt Damon, release it in theaters... Would critics and audiences recognize its brilliance or pick at it for not having a straight man, not really giving the characters a story arc, etc.?

I kind of suspect that's what would happen; as I say in the review, this movie is just too dedicated to being funny to fit audience expectations.

Bringing Up Baby

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Kate the Icon, Katharine the Iconoclast)

When somebody uses the phrase "screwball comedy", what does it mean? Everybody who has written a book on film probably has a different definition, and every one of those writers probably cringed over trying to define something so raucous and free-spirited with precise rules. But let's be honest - what they really mean is "like Bringing Up Baby, and hopefully half as funny." It works, because a movie can be half as amusing as this and still be pretty good.

We start with Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), who has spent the last five years excavating and reconstructing a two-story brontosaurus skeleton, which is nearly complete on the even of his wedding to his assistant. Still, the department needs funding, so he's spending the afternoon playing a round of golf with the representative of a widow considering donating a million dollars. Things go awry, though, as he runs into Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), an incredibly flighty young woman who wrecks his afternoon and evening before calling him up the next morning for help with the leopard that her brother in South America has just sent her.

This, of course, is only the start of things; the script by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols is one nutty thing after another, and remarkably clear of purpose: Things happen and people do things because the filmmakers think that they would be funny, and they would probably be funniest happening in this order. Large chunks of what Susan does would probably get her set up as the man-stealing rival in a modern romantic comedy, but because those actions without fail lead to a funny bit, they come across as impish as opposed to mean. It really is a wonder of comedic construction: It's not that every joke is good, but even the two or three that don't work lead directly to something that does.

Getting the gags lined up is director Howard Hawks's job, and he's the talented conductor of a comedy orchestra here. There really is a rhythm to this sort of thing, like how a dinner scene has two distinct themes going on, which Hawks brings forward and back for maximum effect. Fast-paced banter will suddenly give way to a sudden slapstick crash. Characters will reappear just as the audience has forgotten about them, and every member of the broad, goofy-in-their-own-way supporting cast gets a chance to shine (even Virginia Walker, who as Huxley's fiancée has perhaps the most thankless role of all time). He also manages to integrate a fair amount of special effects almost seamlessly, as shooting around the leopard required a lot of trickery.

And, of course, there's Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who are doing a fairly brilliant job playing against type. Hepburn, after all, was making her name as a dramatic actress, and even in her comedies, she usually tends to be whip-smart with a sharp tongue; here, Susan is scatterbrained and almost ditzy, thoroughly guileless in a way one does not expect from this actress. She had to learn comedy on the job, but she masters it. Grant, meanwhile, upends the cool, debonair image we have of him (at least in hindsight) for an awkward, nerdy scientist who is just no match for Susan's manic self-assurance. He winds up being so good at playing awkward that the audience may not realize just how perfect his timing is.

As hilarious as this movie is, it's not totally surprising that it flopped in 1938; it's so committed to being funny that the expected narrative beats of characters baring their hearts feel a bit off - even back then, audiences expected romantic comedies to fit a certain pattern. Fortunately, we've got hindsight, home video, and archive prints, so we can enjoy this near-perfect example of screwball comedy any time we want.

Full review at EFC (Dead Link).

The Dead

A grain of salt with which you may wish to take this review: I missed the first five minutes or so of the movie after miscalculating the length of the one I saw before it in Somerville, mishearing whether a train was C or E, and then needing to take a shuttle bus from Kenmore to Coolidge Corner. In retrospect, the 66 bus might have looked a little better (which is saying something!).

So, whatever information co-director Howard Ford had to impart at the start of the show, I missed. Hopefully it was a good one; he did pretty well with the Q&A after the movie. It was maybe not the most informative Q&A I've ever seen, as I often got the impression that he was torn between wanting to speak well of the people he worked with - including himself and his brother, but also the locals, because nobody who makes this movie really wants to be the comfortable European talking about how backwards the folks he met in Africa were - and wanting to convey the madness of shooting on these locations. I imagine that there's a great DVD commentary in this movie's future, because there were some stories to tell: Star Rob Freeman got seriously ill; schedules got destroyed; customs held up boxes with prop guns and severed limbs until the proper bribery had been done; they recruited limbless people off the street, had them wait around until a shooting day came, put them in zombie make-up, and paid them more than they'd normally see in months. These are great stories, but a Q&A might not be the best place to tell them - you stop when you'd answered the question posed and midnight movie audiences aren't exactly the greatest at the follow-up question. A conversation between people involved months/years later, though? That would work.

I liked this one quite a bit, and it pleases me to see that the Coolidge is having it back for a pair of midnight shows this weekend; if you're in the Boston area and like zombies - especially the classic Romero-style shamblers, as these Ford made their love of the original Night of the Living Dead quite clear - this is worth checking out.

The Dead

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2011 in the Cooldige Corner Theatre #1 (@fter Midnight - Fresh Blood)

Most people who decide to make a zombie movie do it in a bare-bones way, shooting in their hometown rather than going particularly far afield; when you're working with no budget, it's best to be in familiar territory. Brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford decided to do something different, packing their severed limbs in a suitcase and heading to Africa. It's the sort of crazy decision that makes an otherwise conventional movie into something memorable.

Zombie outbreaks can spread fast; the one in The Dead is already consuming a large chunk of northwestern Africa as the movie opens. Foreigners are heading home, but with limited success; an plane evacuating Americans crashes just off-shore and the walking dead are waiting for the three survivors at the beach. Only USAF Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is able to make his way through the woods to a nearby village, where he meets local soldier Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia). Murphy gets a car running, and the pair set off to find a way back their respective families - Brian searching for an airfield with a plane he can repair and fly to Europe, Daniel heading for the fort where his son has been relocated.

This fort, happily for the audience if less so for the characters, is not in the same fairly generic environment that many post-apocalyptic films favor; it's on the outskirts of the Sahara, on the other side of a series of jagged peaks. The Fords more or less completely upend what this sort of horror film is supposed to look like with a series of breathtaking locations: We get to see an unspoiled-looking beach, villages large and lived-in enough that the characters can move around, forests, those beautiful peaks, and the majestic desert. Cinematographer Jonathan shoots in lush panoramic 35mm, and it's not just a spectacular feast for the eyes: The changing environments give the pair's quest a sense of scale, and the brothers make good use of the widescreen frame.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Peter Pan (1924)

The Brattle had a quick three-night "Peter and Alice" series, apparently tied into a Harvard Bookstore event that they hosted before this screening. I wish I'd managed to get to the other nights, as Tuesday was Hook and the P.J. Hogan version of Peter Pan (neither of which I've managed to see) and Thursday was the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland and a 1983 film about Alice Liddel and Lewis Carroll that featured creatures out of Jim Henson's workshop. For a short series, it certainly seemed to have a lot to recommend it.

To be completely honest, I don't know if I'd ever seen any production of Peter Pan in its entirety. I think I've seen the Disney version at some point, although that may just have been clips combined with hearing the songs a lot in elementary school music class. It's a good story, although like many from its period, some bits are wincingly dated (I imagine modern productions don't use the term "Red Man" and clean up their dialogue a bit). I found myself very interested in seeing what other versions make of Peter at the end; in this one, there's a slight sense of Peter as a tragic figure, so afraid of what he'll become if he grows up that he'll dismiss the possibility of romance and watch all his friends leave him rather than chance it.

Another thing that strikes me: Certain elements of design of this tale have stayed remarkably consistent over time. Ernest Torrence's Captain Hook has the same basic design as the one in the Disney version, and is pretty close to Dustin Hoffman in Hook. Same mustache, hair, hat, really everything, and given that all the pirates have their own look within the movie, it's a bit curious that there's been so little variation in the look of the pirate captain between the different versions.

One amusing variation, though, is that apparently there were two versions of this movie made back in 1924 - one for the US audience, and one for the UK. In the US version screened, the Lost Boys raise the Stars & Stripes when they capture Hook's ship, while the UK version has them raising a Union Jack, with some differences in the dialogue as well. Some of it sounds a bit awkward - "like an American Gentleman" just doesn't sound as proper as "like an English Gentleman", for instance.

Also of note: This includes the "clap your hands to bring Tinker Bell back to life" bit - do other film versions do that? In 1924, the filmmakers likely weren't considering that this could be seen anywhere but in a theater, but Walt Disney would have had his eye on television when making his, and later filmmakers certainly would. That bit seems like it would be a bit weird for someone sitting in their living room - do you clap when there's no-one else around, or do you smirk like a snotty jerk when Tink gets back up without your help, thinking you've outsmarted someone?

One last thing - Jeff Rapsis was on hand to give the film a pretty nice musical score; Brattle Creative Director Ned Hinkle mentioned before the screening that he saw Peter Pan on the schedule without mention of accompaniment and called them up. I half-wonder if he'd knock on my door if I mentioned that I was planning to throw my Blu-ray of The General in the player later this week. I kid, but it was cool to see him doing his thing, as it looks like Somerville's not doing the silent horror program that had been talked about a month or two ago, though the Brattle is having "Silent Screams" the weekend before Halloween. There's actually a pretty nice run of silents in Boston right now - this, the Chaplin movies at the Paramount, "Silent Screams", the Moroder Metroplis at the Brattle and then the Alloy Orchestra at Somerville with the restored version a week later.

Peter Pan (1924)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Peter & Alice)

Peter Pan is one of an eclectic set of characters that arrived at about the same time as the movies (see also Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and the Wizard of Oz), and during the hundred years that have passed since then the frequent adapters have wrestled with the question of whether they should be done in period style or made contemporary. Back in 1924, though, there was no question - you just filmed the play, and filmed it fairly well.

Indeed, screenwriter Willis Goldbeck and director Herbert Brenon don't vary from it much at all - Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) arrives at the Darling household, looking for his shadow (he had snagged it on the window the night before) and in doing so wakes eldest child Wendy (Mary Brian). She in turn wakes her brothers John (Jack Murphy) and Michael (Philippe De Lacy), and with some fairy dust courtesy of a reluctant Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire) they fly off to Never Land. There they meet the Lost Boys, who adopt Wendy as their mother, but there is danger, as pirate Captain James Hook (Ernest Torrence) aims to get his revenge on Peter for the loss of his hand (though, hey, at least his name is fitting now!).

When first contacted about turning his play into a film, J.M. Barrie had dozens of ideas of what a movie version of the story could do that the stage play could not. Few (if any) wound up making the transition, although Brenon and company do wind up with some nifty effects shots that a live performance would lack: There are close-ups of Tinker Bell and other fairies, shots showing Hook's pirate ship in the water, and a few flying bits. Even the theatrical bits that maybe wouldn't make it into a movie today are well-done, with George Ali giving real character to his pantomime performances as Nana and the crocodile who ate Hook's hand. The costumes for those are nice as well - not perfectly realistic, but good enough for the already somewhat abstracted world of a silent film.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, October 14, 2011

CineCaché: Silent Souls

Man, you go from a free screening of an American movie from a major studio's boutique arm that has standees in the multiplexes to charging ten bucks for an independent Russian movie from a tiny distributor, and suddenly the crowd goes from a full house to about a dozen of us. A shame, because Silent Souls is pretty good.

As per usual with CineCaché reviews, this one contains some insights that I can't honestly claim are mine alone, because there is a nice discussion afterward and my mind is sort of like a sponge. The bit about the bridges is mine, though, and surprisingly, I actually came up with it while watching the movie. That's unusual for me, to be honest - I'm usually the guy who doesn't say a whole lot in the post-film discussion but figures something out with a bit of thought afterward.

This is probably an argument for just how accessible Silent Souls actually is; I'm generally not a big "symbols" guy. Or you could argue that if you keep showing me bridges, I'm eventually going to make the connection, and there are a lot of bridges in this movie: The second shot is a memorable pontoon bridge, a wall mural with little twinkling lights in the background of one scene has a bridge figure prominently in it, and then there are enough that I find myself counting them.

Ovsyanki (Silent Souls)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)

Silent Souls is an art-house movie, more obviously filled with more symbol than story; it's deliberately oblique at times. In many cases, movies like that want more from their audiences than they're willing to give, but this one does a good job of laying out the knowledge needed to interpret it. It's worth the effort.

Aist (Igor Sergeev) is a 40-year-old resident in the town of Neya with more interest than some in his Merjan heritage, explaining to us how Merja was a Finnish region that Russia absorbed centuries ago. His people, he explains to us, are quiet and stoical, which explains why there is relatively little wailing when his friend and co-worker Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) tells him that wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has died, and he would like Aist's help with the traditional Merjan funerary rites. This involves wrapping her and driving back to her home village so she can be cremated.

Screenwriter Denis Osokin and director Aleksei Fedorchenko don't play particularly coy here; when a road movie opens with a shot of two squawking birds in a cage, it's a pretty clear signal to the people in the audience that they should pay as much attention to background as the characters, because that's where a lot of information is going to be found, even if it is metaphorically encoded. It's also not long before we start getting a lot of narration that is likely lifted directly from Aist Sergeyev's short novel The Buntings, and while it can be bad form for a movie to lean too heavily on that, it's more tolerable than usual here, as Aist's words are less frequently telling the story than describing Merjan tradition. Some of that winds up just being memorable trivia (go ahead, try and forget what Merjans do on their wedding day), while other bits are information helpful in understanding what's going on visually.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 October 2011 - 20 October 2011

Have I opened one of these with "it's 1980s remake weekend!" yet? It feels like I have, which means that there was another weekend in the last couple years with two noteworthy remakes opening, which is kind of nuts. I'm not as anti-remake as some - I like the idea of classic stories being reinterpreted for new generations in theory, but geez...

  • The remakes are of Footloose and The Thing, and I don't know how good an idea either is. I mean, the first one is Footloose... It's not as if the original is a classic, but a dopey little movie that had a great soundtrack album (yes, I own it), and while director Craig Brewer has made a couple of pretty darn good movies in Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, I'm not feeling this. The Thing v3.0 can go either way; nice cast, and making it a prequel as much as a remake isn't a bad idea, and remember, the "classic" it shouldn't touch is the second cinematic version of the story itself, after 1951's The Thing from Another World.

    The sleeper this week could be The Big Year, which features Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as rival bird-watchers. On the one hand, all three can be very, very funny; on the other, they can make some very bad choices. The cameo list is a mile long, so it shouldn't get bogged down too long, and the story seems to have a little bit of heft to it, which could play to Martin's strengths.

    The "it's only opening in one theater, which can't be a good sign" entry is Trespass, which is apparently hitting OnDemand at the same time despite starring NIcolas Cage and Nicole Kidman as a couple fraying in a home-invasion thriller. Directed by Joel Schumacher, who worked with Cage and Kidman in 8mm and Batman Forever, respectively... Man, this is another bunch of real hit-and-miss people, isn't it?

  • Meanwhile, three movies open up at the Kendall. I sort of saw Blackthorn at Fantasia (fatigue knocked me out), and I found the "what if" story of Butch Cassidy living out his days in Bolivia (under the alias of the title) until deciding to return home and getting into one last adventure nicely shot but kind of dull. It might be worth a second look, though.

    The other two films opening come from the UK. Toast tells the story of a young man (Freddie Highmore) who finds himself competing for his father's attention with his new stepmother (Helena Bonham Carter). The name comes from how, while both stepson and stepmother are fine cooks, the late mother could only prepare toast. The comedic memoir doesn't arrive with quite the acclaim of Weekend, whose description suggests a sort of gay Before Sunrise, in that it appears to be two would-be lovers spending a weekend talking and getting to know each other. It's getting a a lot of love, both on the festival circuit and with critics.

  • Meanwhile, the Coolidge opens The Women on the 6th Floor, which played the Boston French Film Festival earlier this year. It features Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Kiberlain as a wealthy couple in 1960s Paris whose lives are turned upside down when they hire a maid (Natalie Verbeke) and get to know the other women in the servants' quarters (including Pedro Almodovar and Alex de la Iglesia favorite Carmen Maura).

    The midnights this weekend include the local premiere of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), which also plays at 10pm in one of the screening rooms through at least Thursday (the 20th). The first one would pop up for midnights on a regular basis for a while, but I hear that this one is not only not a direct follow-up, but also pretty charmless. Other midnight options include Creepshow on both Friday and Saturday nights; it's another collaboration between Steven King and George Romero, this time an EC Comics-inspired anthology piece. And on Saturday (the 15th) only, co-director Howard Ford will introduce The Dead, a generically-named but interesting-looking zombie film that was shot on location in Western Africa. I'm guessing there aren't going to be a lot of chances to see this on the big screen.

    There are other interesting one-offs playing there as well; Sunday morning has Goethe-Institut presenting Sasha, a German film about a gay immigrant teen struggling with the decision to come out. Monday night (the 17th) has the latest installment of Big Screen Classics, with Judgment at Nuremberg playing on the main screen in 35mm. And on Tuesday and Wednesday (the 18th & 19th), Guitober Rocks Brookline Music School plays in the screening room; it's a featurette-length documentary about local students and why they love the guitar.

  • The Brattle kicks off its Recent Raves series this weekend, and although the calendar doesn't officially include it -likely because it's too recent, technically still in first-run release - I'm counting Friday Night's screenings of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil in there. Other entries for the week include the jumbo-sized drama Mysteries of Lisbon (Saturday the 15th and Sunday the 16th), Errol Morris's Tabloid (Monday the 17th), Terrence Malick's The Tree of LIfe (Wednesday the 19th), and a double feature whose cleverness is hard to beat: Project Nim & Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Thursday the 20th).

    In between, there are a couple of short packages. The Boston Bike FIlm Fest is about three hours of short films featuring bicycles and bicyclists on Saturday night (the 15th). $15 gets you in; there will be door prizes and BBQ from Redbones. On Tuesday (the 18th), Balagan sets up shop for the first entry in a biweekly series of "homegrown short films" - some on video, other on 16mm, and with an hour of Jesse Kaminsky DJing to kick things off at 7pm.

  • It's not listed on the Somerville Theatre's website, so that means it's probably in the digital screening room in the basement, but All Things Horror has a nifty little "Shudderfest" scheduled for this weekend. I can vouch for both movies being screened on Friday night (the 14th) - The Corridor is a nifty thriller about a strange, mind-altering corrior of light in Nova Scotia, while Absentia manages a lot of creeps out of very little in the way of effects, and would be an interesting drama even without it. Saturday's movies are new to me, with I Didn't Come Here to Die looking like "people go nuts in the woods" and Ashes is more in the rage-virus mold. All have shorts attached, and you can save money by buying passes for either double features or the entire event.

  • The Hindi movie opening at Fresh Pond this week is Aazaan, an action movie about an Indian army officer investigating a high-tech terrorist plot that may involve his younger brother.

  • ArtsEmerson has entries from three different series at the Paramount this weekend. The Katharine Hepburn movie is Bringing Up Baby (Friday & Saturday night, Sunday afternoon), a classic screwball comedy in which she clashes with Cary Grant and has a pet leopard; the Chaplin films are "A Dog's Life" and "Sunnyside", each about half an hour and thus making for a quick double feature Saturday afternoon. And they have their first "Crazie Cult Classics" screening with, appropriately enough, George Romero's original version of The Crazies. I'm a bit amused that they call it a "rare screening", because I've actually seen it twice in theaters not that long ago, which just shows how skewed perspective can be.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has cinematographer Agnes Godard in town on Friday evening, introducing and discussing Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Run, which she shot beautifully. Saturday afternoon has a couple of special presentations - "Home Movie Day" in the classroom next to the theater, and the premiere of Josiah McElheny's "Island Universe" at 3pm. Then, much of the rest of the weekend will be the continuation of the Frederick Wiseman, Institution U.S.A. series - Essene and Meat Saturday night, Welfare on Sunday evening, and Law and Order on Monday. Sunday afternoon also has a special free preview screening of Martha Marcy May Marlene at 4:30pm, with tickets given out starting at 3:45.

  • The Museum of Fine Arts will mostly be showing Savage Memory this week, with screenings on the 15th, 16th, 19th, and 20th (Saturday/Sunday/Wednesday/Thursday), while "Celebrating World Cinema" feature Valley of Strength also plays on the 16th. There are a couple of "events" screening as well - "Mother Nature's Child" has filmmaker Camilla Rockwell visit on Saturday (the 15th) to discuss her featurette about how kids need the outdoors, while Brent Green visits on Friday as part of the Fall Concert Series: Not only will he be showing his live-action/animated film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then on that day, but he'll be on stage, providing live narration and music.

Plans? Well, I'm not trying to do the "see lots of horror in October!" thing, but I may opt to go nuts on Saturday with the second day of ShudderFest, The Dead, and maybe The Thing '11. Why not? Around there will probably be The Big Year, maybe Trespass and some catch-up - I sort of can't believe I haven't seen Moneyball yet, although it might be good to wait until baseball stuff doesn't feel like raw pain any more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Week In Tickets: 3 October 2011 to 9 October 2011

Since this was a relatively quiet week in which I wrote up a blog post for everything I saw, this is more or less a collection of pointers and excuses for there not being more:

This Week In Tickets!

No ticket: Ocean Heaven (screener DVD in my living room on 7 October, about 7pm-ish)

Quiet week at the movies for a couple of reasons: First, Sunday was Dagny's Birthday (Observed), in which the Seaver clan heads to Maine and celebrates my niece stealing my birthday from me. It's cool; she's an energetic five-year-old and because of her, my age has frozen at the 32 years old I was when she was born (that's how it works, right?). Second, some jerk hacked my debit card number, and while my bank was quick to catch it, getting a new card sent took "3-5 business days", which meant doing what I could to stretch what cash was in my pocket out that length of time. It's the second time it's happened this year; clearly it's time to beef some security up.

So, you see what makes the cut when such things must be managed - Detective Dee, because I was meeting people and I loved it back at Fantasia; a classic Chaplin film I have (embarrassingly) never seen, and the new Jackie Chan movie, which I nearly passed over due to bad reviews (which, sadly, I had to add to), but which I wound up seeing out of curiosity and wanting to support this sort of [close to] day-and-date release. Naturally, it winds up being the most expensive ticket because I had to fit it around trips to the toy store and Maine, and the evening show was the only one that fit.

It's also another one of those really annoyingly nationalistic movies coming out of China (although I wonder how other countries see Hollywood films). This has become such a trend that there have actually been stories about Chinese studios preparing "international versions" which cut out some of the flag-waving. It's a bit odd that those are the ones getting quick American releases; even if marketed to the expatriate community, I wonder how much of that community is here because they want to be away from such things versus missing home.

Di Renjie (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame)

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

Picking up on that "nationalist Chinese film" angle, I think Detective Dee either does pretty well in that regard or is depressingly accepting of totalitarianism. It never does the rah-rah stuff, but much like in Hero, where the rebellious character winds up accepting the need for an autocrat, there may be a hidden pro-state agenda here, at least if you're determined to find one: The title character was jailed for opposing the Empress-to-be, but acknowledges that the empire is better off under her stewardship upon his release to work for her. In the end, SPOILERS! Dee uncovers a plot by the Empress to eliminate dissidents, but decides that stopping this is less important than foiling her assassination, which would kill innocent people and could plunge the nation into chaos. Tsui Hark and company maybe aren't completely cool with this sort of thing, as they finish with Dee a fugitive who must literally do good in the shadows because of what he knows !SRELIOPS. On balance, it's better than I thought when I started this paragraph (this is basically how 24 ended), but it's hard not to think of these things when watching a Chinese movie these days, even one like Detective Dee which is more Hong Kong than Beijing.

Still, I wasn't thinking about it during the film that much, because Tsui Hark and the other filmmakers really are completely nuts. To give you an idea of how crazy and over-the-top this movie can be, the seventh-century kung fu robot marionettes showing up took me by surprise on this second viewing because there was so much other insanity to be found. The filmmakers really didn't do anything halfway, and good for them - if you're making a movie where it makes sense to have a character doing martial arts on talking deer, you are arguably failing your audience if this never happens.

So I'm glad I got a second chance to see it in theaters before its last day (if you're reading this in the Boston area before 7:45 on 13 October 2011, run to Cambridge! you can still catch it!); it's a ton of fun, and I like giving movies I saw on a press pass at festivals a bit of my money, voting with my pen AND my wallet, even if theater 4 in Kendall isn't quite the floor-to-ceiling screen of Theatre Hall in Concordia.

(For more on this movie, my festival report is here; the eFilmCritic review is there.)

(Yes, I realize now that I did actually pay to see this one at Fantasia because I didn't have time to pick up my press pass until Friday. The principle still holds!)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom FlameThe Kid1911

Charlie Chaplin: "A Day's Pleasure" and The Kid

Janus Films has been shuttling a collection of restored Charlie Chaplin films around the country for about a year and a half now, and ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater is actually their second time landing in Boston (they were at the Museum of Fine Arts last summer). They'll be playing Saturdays through the end of October, generally pairing a short and a feature as they did last weekend (at least, until they get to the longer features). They are being shown on 35mm and generally look pretty good, and hopefully it's a forerunner to more Criterion Chaplin Blu-ray releases (right now, they have only released Modern Times and The Great Dictator on Blu-ray).

Parents are bringing kids, too, which is nifty. One thing I suspect (though finding a sample for a test is tricky) is that kids respond to Chaplin's Little Tramp more than they do the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Personally, I like Keaton and Lloyd better, but their brand of silent comedy was kind of deadpan and technical - you have to figure out just how amazing their stunts are and laugh at their lack of reaction, and that takes a bit of context. Chaplin, meanwhile, isn't stoical at all; his movements are broad, his face is expressive, and the Tramp's costume says more about him than Keaton's straw hat or Lloyd's glasses. There's something about the tramp that even the youngest kids can immediately grab on to right away that the other two silent stars lack.

"A Day's Pleasure"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Charlie Chaplin Revisited)

Indeed, when Chaplin isn't in his "Little Tramp" mode, he suffers a bit; "A Day's Pleasure" actually threw me because... Well, actually because I didn't realize there was going to be a short before the feature, and I was wondering how this set-up led to the images that everyone has seen from The Kid. It was still a bit underwhelming once I realized my mistake; Chaplin is playing a part which superficially looks like the Tramp (same mustache, similar but less-ragged coat), but is instead a sort of typical suburban family man rather than the distinct, individual character we associate with him.

In fact, Chaplin's trying to do the Harold Lloyd-style domestic comedy here, and it's not very surprising that he's neither as good at it as Lloyd is or as good as he is at his own thing. The title of "A Day's Pleasure" is ironic, of course, as "Father" endures a series of irritations in giving his family a day out, and Lloyd's mild surprise or Keaton's effortless ability to turn things around are a lot more entertaining than Chaplin's expressive crankiness.

The gags are okay, though - I think that Kenneth Branagh straight-up lifted a bit with a folding chair for Much Ado About Nothing from this, and while there are occasional flaws in the logic leading to the various slapstick bits, the execution is almost always exacting.

The Kid

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Charlie Chaplin Revisited)

Imagine, if you will, a screenwriter or producer making a pitch to a Hollywood executive for a heartwarming family movie about a man who unexpectedly becoming a father, raising the child in an unconventional way, and then facing losing that child due to a busybody who frowns upon their unusual home life. Wouldn't the world be a much better place if, in order to get his money, the pitcher was forced to explain how this improved upon what Charlie Chaplin did in this movie?

Without color.

Or sound.

Ninety years ago.

With a run time of less than one hour (and that kind of padded).

Of course, that basic story likely had a few whiskers on it by 1921, so we get into it fairly quickly: An unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) gives birth, and attempts to leave her baby with a wealthy family. She soon reconsiders, but the boy instead winds up in the care of a certain penniless tramp (Chaplin). Five years later, the kid (Jackie Coogan) is helping his dad out on a little grift, but when he falls ill, the doctor (Jules Hanft) looks at the state of the Tramp's apartment and calls the authorities.

Movies with this basic plot tend toward the mawkish and ridiculous these days, and most would probably be much better if they took a lesson from The Kid and didn't worry so much about the story arc and plot. The bulk of the Tramp's transformation occurs in the first ten minutes, as he tries to give someone else this responsibility before embracing it, while at the other end of the movie, Chaplin gives us the ending that feels right without expending a lot of effort on just how one realistically gets there. He certainly doesn't drag the audience into a courtroom for an impassioned plea. Sure, part of that is because it wouldn't work in a silent movie at all, but it's not like anybody likes those scenes in talkies, either. He knows what the audience wants, and finds economical ways of giving it to them.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jet Li and Jackie Chan not fighting: Ocean Heaven and 1911

Has Donnie Yen got a new romantic comedy that can be fit in this category? Yes, but it's not out yet, so we'll stick with these two action stars and their new, less physically intense movies.

There's no denying it; the big action heroes are getting older. Jet Li and Jason Statham were the younger guys in the cast of The Expendables, but Li has actually stopped doing certain kinds of martial arts in his movies because they're too intense for a guy his age, and he's not alone: As nice as it has been to see Yuen Biao popping up recently in Ip Man: The Legend Is Born and My Kingdom, he's not doing amazing acrobatic feats any more. Jackie Chan's skeleton must be held together with super glue by now, from all the injuries we've seen him take in his movies' outtakes.

With all that wear and tear on their bodies, it's not surprising to see these guys throwing in a few more movies where they spend a little less time getting beat up. The question is, are they up to that challenge? After all, their action flicks are often judged solely by what sort of physical displays they feature - I've certainly gotten email and comments after dinging a movie part of a star for lackluster acting, telling me that sort of thing doesn't matter. And on a certain level, the people saying that are right; they're paying their money to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li punch and kick things. But now, when the acting really does matter?

It turns out they're pretty good. This really shouldn't come as a shock; it's not like Ocean Heaven and 1911 are these guys' first roles where they've had to show more than their fists: Jet was quite good in Warlords, and Jackie has done movies with minimal fighting before - The Shinjuku Incident and (I think) Crime Story, with Little Big Soldier resting as much on him creating a character as throwing down. Plus, they've endured in the business for twenty-five to thirty-five years, and either making dozens of movies back to back teaches you a thing or two or you had a little something that all the other good-looking young guys who knew some kung fu didn't. Which happens to be the case doesn't matter at this point, the end result is that they've got the skills now that they need to call on them.

The movies that they're calling on them for are an interesting pair, though, in that both are propaganda pictures of a sort. Ocean Heaven actually has that word pop up in the end credits as part of one of the many companies and agencies involved with the movie, while 1911 is a more traditional "here is our glorious history in which our founding fathers are noble and pure" picture. Heck, the text scroll at the end of that one even includes a gratuitous bit of extolling the people in power, saying that while Sun Yat-sen had the right idea, it would be the Communist Party forty years later that would really get it right. I guess Ocean Heaven and its clear message of how love and effort can work wonders for the autistic is propaganda, too, but it seems much more palatable from here, especially since Jet Li's "Old Wang" is allowed to be imperfect and impatient at times, which is just not the case with anybody in 1911.

Oh, and apropos of nothing: Ocean Heaven contains the saddest piece of product placement I ever recall seeing. I don't mean the use of Qingdao's Ocean Park as the main setting, but I sort of wonder if McDonald's looked at the script and said "yes, use our mascot as a wholly unsatisfactory substitute for the girl you like" or whether it looked different on the page and just wound up playing out that way when the cameras rolled.

Haiyang tiantang (Ocean Heaven)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2011 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screener DVD)

Jet Li's accomplishments as an action star are well-known around the world, he's so good that his skill as an actor is often masked, if not considered entirely irrelevant. His good works are somewhat less well known, but he has made a point of sharing his good fortune. The latter two traits are what are on display in Ocean Heaven; not only did Li feel strongly enough about the movie's subject matter to take the job on for just a dollar, but he acquits himself quite well even though there's not a fight to be found.

Li plays Wang Xincheng, an electrician at a Qingdao aquarium. His autistic twenty-one-year-old son, Dafu (Wen Zhang), is with him all the time (he swims as well as the fish), and both Xincheng's neighbor Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) and boss Tang (Dong Yong) are fond of the pair. Still, when "Old Wang" is diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, his initial reaction is despair. And no wonder - teaching Dafu to be self-sufficient is a tremendous challenge, while it's proving almost impossible to find a care facility that will accept somebody Dafu's age.

Writer/director Xue Xiao Lu knows this territory; she has spent years working with autistic children, and her depiction of the Wangs' challenges have the ring of truth without sensationalizing things. There's an impressive lack of melodrama here; Xue doesn't feel the need to either inject some sort of obstructive bureaucratic villain into the proceedings or have the characters wring their hands or make teary speeches about their situation. Everybody is doing the best he or she can in a tricky situation, and Xue has a nice habit of cutting away from scenes a bit earlier than others might, letting the audience chew on the situation as the next scene as opposed to milking it.

Full review at EFC.

Xinhai geming (1911)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2011 in Regal Fenway #4 (first-run)

Jackie Chan's hundredth movie commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the revolution that brought down the Qing Dynasty, and both of these events seem to deserve something better for commemoration than this lifeless history lecture.

1911 and 1912, for those of us who didn't know, is when when a series of rebellions and battles ended the monarchy in China. The spiritual and intellectual leader of the revolution, Sun Yat-set (Winston Chao) did most of his work in exile, raising funds from overseas Chinese; more often than not, the commander on the ground was Huang Xing (Jackie Chan). Sun's Tongmenghui group may not win many battles initially, but the victories prove costly enough for Regent Long-yu (Joan Chen) and the Qing Dynasty that General Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun) sees an opportunity to be the last man standing.

1911, the film, seems like an odd choice for a near-simultaneous U.S. release, especially considering that distributor Well Go has generally marketed to a broader audience than the expatriates who would seem to be the ones most interested in this picture. If you don't speak Mandarin, your attention will frequently be divided between the text identifying each new historical figure that appears on screen and the subtitles for their dialog, and you should choose the dialog, because many of these characters will be in and out of the picture so quickly that their names are not really useful (another hint: "Sun Wen" and "Sun Yat-sen" are the same person, and we should be thankful that the subtitles do not also refer to him as "Sun Zhong-shan"). The movie is definitely made for those who are already somewhat familiar with the history, and like a lot of recent Chinese movies, it hits the nationalism pretty hard at times.

Full review at EFC.