Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 November 2011 - 1 December 2011

Four-day weekend (without Japanese class, even!), two AMC Gold Tickets left on my desk by my employer earlier in the week, memberships and passes for other local theaters at the ready. Let's see what you've got for me, Hollywood!

  • If my nieces lived here instead of in Portland and their parents were the type to brave Friday-after-Thanksgiving crowds to do their Christmas shopping, I would totall be introducing them to the concept of the double feature, because, really, it's one of the best "take your kid to the movies" weekends in memory. Not only is Happy Feet Two still kicking around (and while not quite up to the level of its predecessor, still pretty delightful), there are three other family films open with pretty darn good pedigrees:

    The Muppets likely need no introduciton; it's the first theatrical release to feature these much-beloved characters in over a decade, it's brought to us by the Muppet fanatics who made Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the level of praise it has been getting is incredible. The human parts look to be perfectly cast with Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and Chris Cooper, I'm assured that there are plenty of cameos, and... Look, I'm an easy sell here, but come on, this looks fantastic.

    Hugo seems to be opening on relatively fewer screens, in part because theaters likely don't have any idea of how to handle a Martin Scorcese movie for the family audience. And in 3D to boot! Still, this movie about an orphan stealing bits in an early-1900s Paris Metro station to finish his amazing robot looks fantastic, with even many 3D skeptics saying that Scorcese has found good use for the technology.

    Then there's Arthur Christmas, a 3D/CGI movie from the generally very reliable Aardman Animations which features James McAvoy as the title character, the younger son of Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent!) trying to deliver an overlooked toy with the help of retired Grandsanta Bill Nighy. Hugh Laurie is his older brother and heir apparent. The rest of the cast is as ridiculously packed with great Brit actors as the average Harry Potter movie. Looks much more kiddie-oriented than the others (which are sure to have plenty for the adults in the audience), but Aardman is good at that.

  • Not really family-oriented, but also packed with a spiffy cast and getting a few pretty good reviews on its own is My Week with Marilyn, in which Kenneth Branagh finally gets to actually be Sir Laurence Olivier after trying so hard for his entire career. The Marilyn of the question is Marilyn Monroe, played by Michelle Williams, and the narrator is Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the guy responsible for squiring her around while she shoots a movie. Also in the cast: Julia Ormond (as Vivien Leigh), Emma Watson, Michael Kitchen, Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, Derek Jacobi, and more. It opens at AMC Boston Common, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Kendall Square.

    Also opening at the Kendall - albeit on Friday the 25th, rather than Wednesday - is Passione: A Musical Adventure, in which John Turturro sets out to make a documentary about Neapolitan music and winds up filming something much more quirky. I've got to admit, I wasn't that fond of his last directorial and musical outing, Romance & Cigarettes, but this sounds fun and it's reassuring to know that those Transformers movies are maybe paying for something worthwhile. It's only scheduled for a one-week booking, though, so see it while you can.

    Amazingly, there are almost no special screenings at the Coolidge this week - not even midnights! The only thing on the schedule other than the regular bookings is a "National Theater Live" simulcast of Collaborators next Thursday (1 December). It's a play written by John Hodge and directed by Nicholas Hynter, with Alex Jennings as a playwright tasked with creating a biography of Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) for his 60th birthday.

  • The Brattle continues its run of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey through next Thursday, with special 9:30pm shows of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Wednesday and Labyrinth on Thursday (both feature Being Elmo subject Kevin Clash). Starting on Friday, it switches to matinees only (3pm all week with a 1pm show Friday - Sunday).

    So what takes the evening? Well, Friday and Saturday (the 25th & 26th) are Be Thankful for Bogie, a double feature of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Having just finished a book of Dashiel Hammett short stories and having a bunch of Chandler on my shelf (I'm now down to the stuff that has been adapted for film), I am even more excited for this program than usual - and trust me, I am always down for these two movies.

    Sunday through next Thursday, they switch from iconic gumshoes to an iconic documentarian with the series Seeing Is Believing: The Non-Fictions of Errol Morris. Morris is one of the most acclaimed an influential documentarians of our time, and the Brattle has lined up some of his greatest hits: The Thin Blue Line on Sunday the 27th; The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure on Monday the 28th; a late show of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. on Tuesday the 29th; his latest movie Tabloid on Wednesday the 30th; and a dobule feature of Gates of Heaven and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control on Thursday December 1st. Morris will be there in person on Wednesday to discuss his new book Believing Is Seeing as part of the Harvard Bookstore's author series.

    A different guest will be there on Tuesday as part of the Balagan series - Bruce Baillie is co-founder of Canyon Cinema, and will be there to present a program of his 16mm films from the 1960s.

  • ArtsEmerson is taking the holiday weekend off, but the Harvard Film Archive is only closed for two more days than usual. On Saturday, they begin another retrospective film series, The Complete Henri-Georges Clouzot, which will present all eleven of Clouzot's features over the course of the next month. Saturday and Monday at 7pm, they start things off with The Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand plays one of four men hired to carry highly volatile nitroglycerine through a perilous jungle. William Friedkin later remade it as Sorcerer but this is the original, in a new and restored 35mm print. Sunday is The Assassin Lives at Number 21, a black comedy made in 1942 with a detective trying to figure out which resident of a boarding house killed another.

    There's also a Wednesday night VES screening of Blade Runner; those screenings are free, but are mainly for film students, and are often run on video (which of the approximately 27 cuts of the movie will be shown is not specified online).

  • French Film is also on the menu at the MFA, which concludes their The Films of Catherine Deneuve series Friday through Sunday with screenings of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Indochine, The Hunger, and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

    Next Thursday, they start their December calendar with two films from the same area: Göbeklitepe: The World’s First Temple is the first entry in The Boston Turkish Festival's Documentary & Short Film Competition, while Attenberg, Greece's 2011 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, kicks off their Festival of Films from Greece.

  • Over at Fresh Pond, Desi Boyz is the Bollywood film opening on Wednesday the 23rd, although times beyond Thursday are not yet posted. It appears to be a buddy comedy with Ashkay Kumar and John Abraham falling on hard times but still romancing Deepika Padukone and Chitrangda Singh (so things can't be that bad).

  • There's also more film than usual at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. There's their regular Thanksgiving offering of Sing-Along Mary Poppins from Friday to Sunday, a Saturday night presentation of Jimmy Tingle's American Dream which combines film and live performance, and on Thursday the 1st, there's a shorts program calling itself the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival which includes six shorts and a preview, with at least one set of filmmakers on hand for Q&A.

My plans? All three of the family movies, in order of priority above. Probably My Week With Marilyn, maybe get around to seeing J. Edgar despite the bad buzz it's been getting. And, yeah, I'm down for the Bogie double feature and Wages of Fear. Of course, first I'll be heading up to Maine to break in my mother's new kitchen for Thanksgiving dinner and visit my cute nieces. Priorities!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 November 2011 - 22 November 2011

Short-ish column this week - not only do new movies open next Wednesday, there aren't really a large number opening, though some are on a bunch of screens.

  • I refer, mainly, to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1. That, folks, is a lot of punctuation. I could make all the usual jokes, but I've got no actual standing to do so. You know if you're down for this or not; if you are, I count at least twelve screens between Boston, Cambridge, and Arlington.

    If not, there's Happy Feet Two. It's playing on the real IMAX screens at the furniture stores and the digital one at Boston Common. I liked the original a lot, even if it does have roughly five places where you can stop the movie at what seems like a natural ending that would leave a little kid in tears. This time around, we spend time with Mumble's son as all Antartic creatures have to work together. We also get 3D this time - five years ago, despite a nice 3D teaser, Warner Brothers cancelled the stereo conversion because of how poorly The Ant Bully did; nobody does that any more.

  • With more screens to fill, AMC Boston Common also opens The Descendants, as does Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. I saw this at a preview last week; Alexander Payne's first movie since Sideways is an amusing but heartfelt tale of a man (George Clooney) trying to do the right thing for his family on both immediate and extended fronts.

    The Kendall also opens a documentary, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, in which filmmaker Carl Coby attempts to understand his father, a man with long service in the CIA who finally balked after thirty years. It's the one-week booking (which, this week, may mean it only runs until Tuesday), and Carl Colby will actually be in town on both Friday (18 November) and Saturday (19 November) to speak with the audiences for both the 6:45pm and 9:35pm shows on both days.

  • Over at the Coolidge, The Descendants, Margin Call, and Martha Marcy May Marlene are in the main rooms, while Le Havre and Being Elmo are on video. The midnight screenings are actually somewhat minimal - the new Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation program plays Friday and Saturday (in the main auditorium on Friday, the screening room on Saturday). On Saturday night, there's an "Analog Awesomeness" double feature, with Terrorvision and The Video Dead being screened on VHS in theater #2, and the chance to swap VHS tapes wtih fellow enthusiasts. Gotta say, I really don't understand the whole fetishization of VHS. Better off heading to theater #1, where there's a Burlesque Marathon with 100 acts.

    On Monday night (21 November), director Johanna Demetrakas will be in town to screen her documentary Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which tells the story of "the bad boy of Buddhism". The event will raise money for the Boston Shambhala Center.

  • The Brattle regrets to inform us that director/co-star Sophia Takal will no longer be attending Monday's CineCaché screening of Green; she and the film will (deservedly) be receiving an award in New York that day. It's still well worth a look; I was surprised how much I liked it at IFFBoston this spring.

    Aside from that screening, continues the engagements of documentaries that started on Wednesday, with Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey running all week and Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone having its last show on Sunday. To go along with Being Elmo (and because Ned will program Muppet-related stuff every chance he gets), several movies Kevin Clash made contributions to will also be playing: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland on Saturday and Sunday morninings, Muppets from Space (featuring his character Clifford) on Tuesday night, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (where he performed Splinter) on Wednesday, and Labyrinth (where he plays The Four Guards and Ambrosius) on Thursday.

    Oh, and if you want more Muppet action, the Somerville Theatre is offering a special double feature on Tuesday night: Buy a ticket for the midnight premiere of The Muppets, and also get into a 10:15pm screening of The Muppet Movie.

  • Over at ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theatre, they've got three classics of different varieties screening. First, they close out the second leg of the "Kate the Iconoclast/Katharine the Icon" series with Adam's Rib, a 1949 film where she's once again teamed with Spencer Tracy, this time as married attorneys on different sides of a murder trial. It plays Friday at 6pm, Saturday at 8:45pm, and Sunday at 2pm. The complementary slot on Friday and Saturday nights (6:15pm and 8pm, respectively) is given to a new print of The Last Picture Show made for its 40th Anniversary; Peter Bogdanovich's best known film got a slew of awards and nominations, especially for its amazing ensemble cast. And the family-friendly program Saturday afternoon is the original The Land Before Time; although Universal would later crank out twelve direct-to-video sequels, only this one features the involvement of director Don Bluth and producers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has a similarly eclectic set of programming, with something different practically every night. On Friday, director Laurel Nakadate will introduce her film The Wolf Knife, which is apparently an "extension of Nakadate’s confrontational installation and video work". Saturday night, they wrap up the Sergio Leone series with a screening of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which is, as we all know, one of the greatest westerns of all time. After that, the Frederick Wiseman, Institution U.S.A. series of 16mm documentaries returns with the four-plus-hour Belfast, Maine playing Sunday at 6pm and his first film, Titicut Follies (documenting a Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane), running on Monday the 21st at 7pm.

  • Festival time is done (for now) at the MFA, so they will spend the weekend on The Films of Catherine Deneuve; this weekend features Genealogies of a Crime, Repulsion, The Girl on the Train, Belle de Jour, The Last Metro, and I'm Going Home.

And that, folks, is close to it until the new stuff opens on Wednesday. I think I'm basically looking at Happy Feet Two among the new releases, maybe catching up with Immortals, J. Edgar, and/or Take Shelter, with Adam's Rib and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the most tempting rep screenings. But, hey - Muppets and Hugo next week!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Preview: The Artist and attention to detail

Yes, I know I just posted a preview-oriented entry yesterday, but IFFBoston had a preview for this one at the Coolidge on Tuesday, and though I don't know exactly when it's coming out, having the word out about it being fantastic seems like a good thing.

(When is it coming out, anyway? IMDB says next Wednesday, 23 November 2011, but the local rep theaters don't have it down for then. More crucially, The Weinstein Company has not yet started spamming my inbox with Artist-related things. I suspect they will do so once My Week with Marilyn hits theaters, but that implies a December-ish release.)

A very pleasant surprise when this screening was announced was the presense of writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, who came out for a nice Q&A session afterward.

Michel Hazanavicius
Terrible phone camera photography ahoy!

It was a pretty entertaining session, although I wish I'd been able to really formulate a good question about how his recent films both engage and tweak nostalgia. It's something I really liked about the OSS 117 films he made with The Artist star Jean Dujardin - Cairo, Nest of Spies especially does a really good job of it. Or maybe ask him about reuniting with much of the same cast to do this very different movie. It's an interesting theme that seems to be running through his last three films, and the questions that were asked - often about specific references - didn't really get at it.

His answers to those questions were insightful, though, because they both showed just how much movie knowledge is bouncing around in his head, and how much detail managed to make it onto the screen. You can play spot-the-reference with this movie if you want, although I'm not sure how rewarding that is once you've made yourself feel clever. In fact, his anecdotes to me seemed to indicate that the beauty of getting even small details right is not what you can specificallly pick out, but what you can't. He talked, for instance, about how in one of my favorite scenes, Dujardin's George Valentin is going down stairs while Bérénice Bejo's Peppy Miller is going up, corresponding to their fortunes in show business at that moment - and that this is generally true whenever you see them on stairs. Sure, some other analytic types picked that up right away (I was more focused on how he tended to use square staircases to fill the Academy Ratio frame), but even if you don't pick it up consciously, the message is getting through.

And the subconsciousness isn't always on the part of the audience. Hazanavicius mentioned that he always gets questions about Uggy the Dog in these Q&A sessions, and it's a bit difficult for him to get enthused because he's not really a dog person, and a dog isn't really an actor, but kind of a prop that can be made to do different things with sausages. It wasn't, he said, until the movie was finished that he realized just how important the dog was to the movie; that he made the audience sympathize with Valentin a lot more because, despite how selfish this man could be, a dog knows who is and isn't a good person, and this one was tremendously loyal. I half-suspect that the original conscious point of the dog was actually to make Valentin less sympathetic - he repeatedly lavishes more attention on his pet than his co-star and his wife - but something in the back of his mind knew that this, even more than his driver's loyalty, would help the audience connect with him.

There were a bunch of other amusing bits - how he and his composer were at war at certain times, or how Bejo (his wife) wound up absorbing the research he immersed himself in while Dujardin, an in-demand actor who was filming other movies at the time, wound up working much more instinctively. Or that this particular project was born out of a producer who was looking to remake the 1960s Fantomas film, which led to Hazanavicius going back to the early-twentieth-century pulps and wanting to adapt them as a silent movie, and while that didn't happen, the adventure movie we see early on is Fantomas-inspired. I actually really loved those bits, to the point that when they were playing on a screen with action going on around it, I kept trying to watch them (attention to detail, again!).

I think the niftiest thing he mentioned, though, is that he actually shot most, if not all, of the film at 22 frames per second. That's something that happened a lot during the silent era, as it took a while for the 24fps standard to fully take hold, and can cause real problems when projecting silent movies today: Not only are many cinemas just not equipped to run their projectors at anything but 24fps, but there can be arguments about what the proper frame rate actually is. A lot of movies from that era were, in fact, shot at 22fps intending to be projected at 24fps; the difference is often not noticeable, but it's subliminally 10% faster and (presumably) more exciting. I suspect that the only time anybody might consciously notice it is when Peppy is driving like a maniac, but the rest of the time it's both doing what it did back in the twenties to make the movie a bit zippier and giving the it an extra layer of authenticity, even if it's one that most of the audience won't actually notice.

And that, folks, is fantastic. Like I say below, I'm predisposed to like this movie anyway; the tremendous care put into it makes me much more certain that others will too.

The Artist

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (IFFBoston Presents)

Look back through my reviews here, and you'll see that The Artist had a better-than-usual shot at appealing to me: I go to most any silent movie that plays the local repertory houses, and liked the OSS 117 movies that director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin did together (particularly the first, which also paired Dujardin with his co-star here, Bérénice Bejo). I'm not saying to take my opinion with a grain of salt, though - Hazanavicius doesn't rely on nostalgia or previous goodwill, but creates a movie that captures the delights of the silent era perfectly while acknowledging the inevitability of its end.

The film opens in 1927, with the Hollywood premiere of the new film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), a star of adventure movies in the Douglas Fairbanks mode. It's a smash, and while he's holding court on the red carpet, a young lady accidentally winds up on the wrong side of the velvet rope, winding up on the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?". She's Peppy Miller (Bejo), and she bumps into Valentin again when she gets chosen as an extra for his new movie. Her beauty and charm soon have her moving up the ladder, while Valentin's refusal to even consider talkies has him headed for a rapid fall.

After a set of retro-styled opening credits, Hazanavicius opts not to mince words, with Valentin's on-screen alter ego yelling "I won't talk!" at a mad scientist, followed by a "No Talking" sign as the action moves to Valentin waiting behind the movie screen for his introduction. It's an instruction he will mostly hold to, as he and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shoot the film in a period-appropriate squarish frame (see it on your town's narrowest screen!), in crisp black and white, with dialog delivered via inter-titles and Ludovic Bource's score tasked with implying sound effects. The filmmakers display incredible affection for this 1920s style of filmmaking, only rarely doing things that couldn't have been done at the time and never stooping to parody - once they've decided to make a silent film, they know that they can't break the rules lightly.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Previews (at the time): Melancholia, The Descendants, and Into the Abyss

There was going to be another preview on this post (or the next), but I missed out on Sunday's ArtsEmerson member screening of The Muppets. Funny thing was, I told other people about it. If I ever find out that I lost my seat to one of those people, I'm going to be kind of annoyed. Not hugely so, since they probably brought little kids, but a little (more at myself than the other person). I also saw someone showing up at the Paramount Theater with the big orange boxes used to ship film prints these days, and it sort of crossed my mind that this might have been the best chance to see it on film, at least until I saw it would open at Somerville.

But, enough about what I didn't see, and more on what I did! I saw these three previews on three consecutive days, but at three different theaters as part of three different programs: Melancholia was at the Coolidge as part of the somewhat pricy Talk Cinema program and featured post-film discussion moderated by Boston Phoenix film editor Peter Keogh; The Descendants was a free preview as part of the Brattle Theater's & Chlotrudis Society's CineCaché program (though folks who had paid for a season pass got priority seating) with a discussion led by the Brattle's Ned Hinkle and Chlotrudis's Michael Colford; and Into the Abyss was a deal where Landmark asks people on their mailing list to register and then over-books the theater, with no discussion. So, as usual, I'd like to apologize to anybody whose ideas made their ways into my Melancholia and Descendants reviews as if they were my own; I don't mean to be a thief. There was a little non-me overlap between screenings, but not a whole lot.

Which is kind of nice, if only because it probably meant that I only saw one movie with the Into the Abyss crowd. It wasn't a particularly poorly-behaved crowd, really, but it did tend toward a little bit of big-city snobbery, with a tendency to laugh at the people Werner Herzog interviewed for this film, many of whom were from Texas and spoke with an accent and maybe weren't quite so educated and fortunate as the people in the audience. It's not the first time I've seen a boutique-house audience do this, and I know I'm not immune from feeling superior to people with backgrounds less privileged than my own, but giggling at everyone in the movie seems to cross a line to me, especially when I think one of the points of the movie is that there's societal and structural problems here, and the audience is taking the people who have to deal with it first-hand lightly.

This probably annoys me more than it should, admittedly, but looking down on people who are probably just as sincere and capable as oneself but got started with fewer opportunities isn't cool.

The discussions at the other two films were good, especially with Melancholia. It was noteworthy (to me) for the contrast in moderation style between Keogh and Ty Burr (who had hosted the previous two screenings in the series). Burr writes for the Boston Globe, while Keogh's Phoenix is the local alternative weekly, and that seemed to carry over to how they spoke in person, with Burr very straightforward while Keogh had more freedom to work a bon mot or two into every sentence. Thankfully, he managed to avoid spending much time on how Lars Trier made more than a bit of an ass of himself at Cannes; the discussion was inevitably going to be a bit of a referendum on Trier anyway, but at least this way the focus remained on his films more than his personality.

The comparisons to Antichrist and other movies mostly flew over my head (I'm not sure I've seen anything he's done aside from Dogville, which was enough), but a good chunk of the discussion went to how, SPOILERS! in the second half, Justine couldn't leave the grounds, and Claire eventually found herself in the same boat. I'm guessing that's another metaphor for despair; while Claire is capable for much of the movie, she eventually succumbs to the same kind of crippling inability to act as her sister. Another thing that Keogh brought up that I'm not exactly sure about was how Kiefer Sutherland's character was akin to a climate-change denier, and I kind of think he was off the mark there. I never got the impression that he was only believing what he wanted to; in fact, we just don't have enough information to know whether his optimism or Claire's fear was more prevalent, and in a way it doesn't matter - he just has to be wrong on this crucial thing and collapse completely because of it.

Aside: The science of how Melancholia destroys the Earth is kind of ridiculous. Given the relative size of the planets, there's no way Earth should be making it do a loop-de-loop while staying in its own orbit, and if its pass is going to be close enough to siphon off enough of the atmosphere that people near sea level are feeling shortness of breath (as even Jack says was predicted), that's still a global catastrophe in its own right, in that people at altitude are screwed and we're probably losing the ionosphere and ozone layer, and that's before you get to tidal effects. It's roughly as dumb as Another Earth though more tolerable because it's not shoving the audience's face in it all the time, but still - gravity is not that difficult a concept; how hard is getting it right? !SRELIOPS

Aside to the aside: Obviously, Melancholia uses a similar plot device to Another Earth, but another good comparison is Marth Marcy May Marlene, in that the central family dynamics of the two movies are awfully close (psychologically damaged girl, sister who wants to help but isn't up to the challenge, brother-in-law who says nice things but really doesn't want this to be his problem). It's sort of what you'd get if the two movies mated.

It's likely that more of the Descendants discussion made it into my review than with Melancholia, just because it wasn't quite so scene-specific and spoilery. There was a lot of love for Alexander Payne, who is very good, although I wonder if the long layoff between Sideways and The Descendants boosts his reputation a bit more than it deserves. He's made good movies, sure, intelligent contemporary dramas for adults in a time when it's more difficult to get them made than it should be, but I seem to recall that Sideways was often thought of as "well done, but lightweight" on its initial release while the script for the new one has a few problems.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Talk Cinema)

As hooks go, it's tough to beat the one Lars von Trier uses to start Melancholia: The world ends in such slow motion that time almost seems to be standing still. It's a fantastic scene of planetary destruction, and also gives the audience a close enough look at the family who will be the film's focus for the next two hours to assure them that even though this may be it for visual effects until the end, there's still plenty of opportunity for catastrophe on a smaller scale.

The next image is actually almost as memorable: A stretch limousine that is too long to navigate a bend in the road. That limo carries newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) to their wedding reception, where Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) await at the mansion (large enough for the back yard to be an eighteen-hole golf course). The reception is the type that would be a test of endurance even without the baggage being brought by the guests: Justine's father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling) use a captive audience to belittle each other and the institution of marriage; her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) announces that she's been promoted and then has his nephew (Brady Corbet) hound her for one last thing before the honeymoon; and Claire feels the need to remind Justine not to make a scene. And then, in the aftermath, Justine notices that Antares seems to have disappeared from the sky. It's being transited by a previously unknown planet, which will be named "Melancholia" and pass by Earth a few months later.

Rather a pessimistic name for a new world, but one which gives us more than a hint to Justine's true disposition early on. The exact pathology of her mental illness is not spelled out, but though her issues can remain hidden, they are large and have a tremendous gravitational pull of their own. This is apparently something that von Trier has personal experience with, and his script does an excellent job of using the wedding to smother his heroine: Everything is too big, there are arbitrary demands being made of her constantly, and even the family members who know her condition don't really understand. Even in the middle of what should be a joyous occasion and with the best efforts of her new husband, true happiness seems hard or impossible, and later, well, it's really going to just be too much.

While von Trier pours all of that into the script, Kirsten Dunst is the one tasked with getting most of it out, and she's just fantastic. Sure, in the second half, she's given a change in costume and cosmetics that reinforces just how worn-down and haggard she feels, but it's almost like she's fighting the almost-comically sexy wedding dress in the first half: Without being too broad or winking a contrast, there's a palpable conflict between Justine and the person she's expected to be - although it's pretty easy to tell when she's genuinely enjoying a moment and when she's trying to put on a happy face. There's exhaustion and resignation when she speaks, but never in excess.

With Justine relatively passive at points, the rest of the cast does get a chance to shine. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a less showy role, but she anchors a great deal of the movie as the sister who, while perhaps not as luminous as her sister, is practical and loving. Gainsbourg plays her as able to defend Justine as sick but barely holding back her frustration in adjacent moments. Kiefer Sutherland makes an interesting contrast to her, in that John's most notable characteristic is a short temper, but he does very well with making the moments where we see John's better nature count.

Indeed, for all that the supporting cast is filled with minor monsters while even the main characters have prominent ugly streaks not very far below the surface, Trier seems less interested in tormenting the audience than usual. Sure, the opening is so gaudily slow that it's only the music that keeps the audience from wondering if there's something wrong with the projector, and there's a moment toward the end which seems to exist only to make Claire and Justine seem shallower and meaner than the rest of the film implies, but they're isolated moments. For a long movie that consists of two scenarios where not a lot happens, it's smooth enough sailing for even this notoriously impatient viewer, and Manuel Alberto Claro's photography is often downright gorgeous. And while the script has some needlessly dumb science, its ambiguities are well-constructed enough that to work however the audience is inclined to interpret them.

Of course, Lars van Trier is still Lars van Trier, and even though this is, for him, a fairly accessible film, there's still a number of potentially off-putting ingredients. He's still the sort of guy who fills a movie with miserable people for the express purpose of making the end of the world not entirely a downer ending. But there is something hopeful and positive underneath all that, and it's worth finding.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

The Descendants

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)

The Descendants is, I suppose, a movie about trust and responsibility, although I'm not getting very far trying to boil it down to parallel situations and easy lessons. That's okay, though; this lets director Alexander Payne put a naturally smooth leading man like George Clooney into a situation that's all corners - something he handles better than expected.

Clooney plays Matt King, whose last name is apt in that he's a direct descendant of a Hawaiian princess (although the Polynesian blood has apparently been diluted during the last century and a half). As a lawyer and head of the family, he's in charge of divesting one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land on the archipelago, and the whole state is anxiously awaiting his decision about whether to take more money from a Chicago-based developer or go with a somewhat smaller offer from a local businessman. He, however, has issues much more close to home to worry about: His wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident, and the doctors inform him that she's not going to wake up. A self-described "back-up parent" to two daughters, he now finds himself having to deal with ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and sixteen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) acting out on top of informing family and friends of Elizabeth's condition. Oh, and to make matters worse, Alex tells him that Elizabeth was cheating on him.

This movie is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I suspect that the Kings' spendthrift cousins and the question of what to do with the land was much more prominent in the original book. Here, the disposition of the ancestral land mainly serves as a reason for strangers to be nosy and remind the audience that Matt's got a lot on his plate, at least for the bulk of the running time. It does eventually get tied in with the story of Matt trying to sort out his reactions to his wife's infidelity, but that connection feels a little contrived (it's more than a bit of a small-world coincidence). In the end, both are perhaps about Matt trying to figure out what he owes to people he can't converse with and on the one hand and how to guide his family on the other, but establishing these themes in both stories does cut into the time that could be spent really exploring them in either.

ortunately, Payne spends the bulk of his his time on Matt and his more immediate family and does some interesting things there. One choice he makes that may not be particularly unusual but is certainly one I don't recall seeing before is how he presents Elizabeth in the hospital; where most coma patients on film seem comfortable and serene, she looks stiff and twisted, perhaps to make a starker contrast to the beautiful Hawaiian scenery outside. He avoids any sort of flashback that would allow the audience to get to know Elizabeth or see what sort of straits her and Matt's marriage was in; it also means that when people tell Alexandra that she's a lot like her mother, we've got no context for whether it's a good or bad thing.

And, of course, he sticks George Clooney in just about every scene, which almost never hurts. Clooney has a natural charisma and self-assurance to him, although he mostly brings that out when doing narration - the narration, after all, is the stuff that his character knows - and as an occasionally snarky false face when dealing with other people. Much of the rest of the time, he's showing uncertainty, even running funny to show that there are cracks in his veneer. He's working with a couple of impressive young actresses in many of his scenes, too. Shailene Woodley gives a mirror of Clooney's performance, in that while Matt is in much more turmoil than he lets on, Alex has things much more together than anyone is ready to believe. We see a lot of Matt in Alex, actually, and looking at the rest probably gives us some idea about Elizabeth. Amara Miller is often playing something of a generic weird kid or brat, but she's a believable one and good when she has to be.

The rest of the cast are given less intricate characters to play as well, which can lead to some too-broad performances. Nick Krause isn't entirely to blame for a little of Alex's friend Sid going a long way, but he sure does manage to slide right into a character designed to get on Matt's nerves. Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel are playing off-beat friends of the family, and it's not a great loss when those quirky comedy characters disappear as the movie gets more serious. On the other hand, Robert Forster is great as Elizabeth's father, a tightly clenched fist of a man who is likely a good man underneath his anger but is not in the best place to show it. Toward the end, there are a couple of really nice surprises in Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer, who make Matt's confrontation with his wife's lover much more interesting than one might expect based upon their previous work.

It's a pretty film, of course; the Hawaiian settings basically mean that cinematographer Phedon Papamichael just has to set up his camera and point in any direction to capture a nice landscape; the matching music does a nice job of keeping things to the proper scale. Everything about the film does that, really; it's enjoyable in large part for not trying to be more or less than it is.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

Into the Abyss

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (preview)

Werner Herzog is enjoying a late-career burst of productivity that would make many younger filmmakers jealous, and he's managed to do so in part by switching between fiction and documentary, tackling whichever new subject piques his interest, often at the ends of the world or the edge of madness. Into the Abyss is almost conventional by his standards - the triple homicide and later incarceration of the killers it covers is sadly common - but like many documentaries, it's as much about how the filmmaker looks at the subject as it is the death penalty itself.

The crime is ugly, a pair of teenagers breaking into nurse Sandra Stotler's house looking to steal a car, murdering her, her son James, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. The police would catch the two in about a week, with Jason Burkett receiving a life sentence while Michael Perry is sentenced to death. Ten years later, in 2010, Herzog talks with them on the eve of Perry's execution, also visiting the crime scenes and meeting with their families and those of the victims, trying to get some context for what seem like two monstrous acts - the second being Perry's upcoming execution.

Herzog is quite clear on that - he believes capital punishment to be an abhorrent practice and says so in no uncertain terms. There's a school of thought that considers this bad journalism, looking to hold a writer or documentary filmmaker to an impossible standard of impartiality, but what Herzog does is probably more effective as well as more honest; he lets the audience know his opinion early on so that we can see where his questions are coming from. He also leaves in the exchanges that maybe didn't give him the answers he wanted, and those are interesting moments; the audience sees Herzog as a filmmaker trying to make his point but also documenting what the actual situation is.

That's just one way in which Herzog demonstrates himself to be a good host and interviewer. He is, as always, broadly curious, willing to talk to a broad range of people and allowing their words to bring him to the next question. Certainly, some of what comes across as interesting give and take is likely canny editing, but it's still impressive to see him pick up on someone mentioning squirrels on the golf course and follow that, of all things, to a very emotional moment. He speaks respectfully to all involved, injecting his own views, but in a way that draws his subjects out rather than putting them on the defensive.

The dicussions themselves are interesting, too. The level of poverty and petty criminality is at times jarring for a middle-class audience - Herzog seems legitimately thrown to find out that the brother of one victim only learned to read while in prison in his twenties. We see people who have had their entire family ripped away in ways that fiction writers would tone down because they just seem absurdly tragic and unbelievable and people who work(ed) in the process of execution who seem shaken by what they've been a part of. A number of interviews take place through glass in prison visiting rooms, and though the environment is similar, they make for fascinating contrasts - Perry seems to smile way too much for someone facing imminent execution while Burkett seems self-aware if not quite contrite, and Herzog nudges us to compare our reactions to the pair. A comment from Burkett leads to interviewing his father, and both an explicit and implied indictment of how broken the system is.

"Into the Abyss" doesn't rail about the death penalty the way one might expect, and doesn't end with an impassioned plea. It maybe doesn't make as sharp a point as the filmmakers may have intended. But that's somewhat fitting in a way, as the destructive pointlessness of it all is one of Herzog's recurring themes here.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

Friday, November 11, 2011

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

This week, I bought membership to both ArtsEmerson's film program and MoviePass; let's see how they're going to get used.

  • I believe J. Edgar is the first time that Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio have worked together; it's a biography of the notoriously driven and paranoid head of the FBI. He's certainly got the potential to be a fascinating subject, although Eastwood admittedly isn't on a particularly hot streak as a director.

    The other big opening is Immortals, another variation on the story of Theseus that was told just last year in Clash of the Titans. The difference, I guess, is that this one was planned for 3-D from the beginning and director Tarsem Singh seems like he'd be a natural for that; even his bad movies (see: The Cell) are striking to look at.

    And, yes, fine, there's an Adam Sandler thing opening, but the trailer sets new records for looking terrible. You know you have better options.

  • I've actually had a chance to see two of the three new movies opening at Kendall Square this weekend at previews, and they're both very good: Melancholia is the latest from Lars Trier; it features Kirsten Dunst as a bride trying to fight back depression on her wedding day despite the way that the guests range from well-meaning but unable to understand to flat-out horrible - good thing the world's about to end! Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog's new documentary about a death row the crime that landed him there, and everyone involved. Very good, especially since Herzog is not shrill, even though he very clearly doesn't approve of capital punishment. The other movie is The Other F Word, is the one-week booking. It's another documentary, this one about punk rocker Jim Lindberg, who after years of making songs that rail against authority must now be that authority as a father. There's also a two-day run of a recently unearthed Steve Jobs interview conducted by Bob Cringely. It's a 1995 interview, so he was at NeXT at the time; there may be some amusingly bitter comments about Apple (interestingly, the sickeningly fawning text on Landmark's website doesn't mention Pixar at all, even though Toy Story would open that year). It bumps evening showings of Take Shelter on Wednesday the 16th and The Skin I Live In on Thursday the 17th.

  • Getting back to rocker dads, the Coolidge opens Janie Jones in its tiny digital "Goldscreen" room. The movie stars Alessandro Nivola as a guy who has the tween-age daughter he never knew he had (Abigain Breslin) dumped in his lap mid-tour. Disaster naturally ensues. They open Le Havre on the main screen; it's a French film (albeit by noted Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki) about an older resident of the port city that takes a young African refugee under his wing. Note that both will have some shuffling and reduced playtimes when Being Elmo opens in the Screening Room on Wednesday.

    Midnights this weekend are both Giorgio Moroder-related: His cut of Metropolis with a 1980s rock soundtrack plays downstairs in advance of being released on home video next week, while Flashdance (for which he wrote the score) plays upstairs. Pick your poison. Other special events include the Goethe-Institut screening of Almanya, Welcome to Germany at 11am on Sunday morning (the 13th); it tells the tale of an ethnically Turkish family that has lived in Germany for three generations and has decidedly mixed feelings when the grandfather announces he has bought a house in the homeland and wants the entire family to move back there with him. Monday night has a "Big Screen Classics" 50th anniversary screening of West Side Story; while a number of multiplexes have been advertising screenings, those are digital, and I think the Coolidge's will be on film. And on Tuesday night, director Michael Hazanavicius will bet here for an IFFBoston screening of The Artist. It's a free preview, so you've got to get a pass and get there early. And buy some popcorn and corn syrup-free soda, ya freeloader.

  • The Brattle is all about Steven Tobolowsky this weekend - the ubiquitous character actor will be doing a live version of his podcast, "The Tobolowsky Files, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8pm, and be the guest of honor at the Brattle Film Foundation's annual gala at the Charles Hotel at 5pm on Sunday. If that's not enough, four of his movies will play before and after the live performances: Sneakers and Groundhog Day on Saturday, and Groundhog Day, True Stories, and Memento on Sunday.

    The guests continue for the rest of the week, with a live concert to benefit the New England Folk Music Archives on Monday the 14th and director Jacqueline Goss present for the Balagan presentation of The Observers, a 16mm film that follows climatologists on Mount Washington. Another director will the there on Wednesday night to introduce a 9:30pm show of Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, a look at the punk & funk band still trying to play after twenty-five years. I'm not sure which director - both Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler are credited - but at least one will be there for opening night.

    It's a bit late for guests, but Everyday Sunshine is only playing the late show and only for five days; it will be sharing the screen with Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, which also opens Wednesday the 16th. I quite liked this documentary on Kevin Clash, the man who has performed the little red monster on Sesame Street for years and is now an executive producer on the show, when it ran at IFFBoston this year. It's scheduled to run for a little over two weeks and will have some fun co-features starting next Saturday (the 20th).

  • Down the street, the Harvard Film Archive continues its Once Upon a Time... Sergio Leone with Duck, You Sucker! (Friday and Sunday evening), Once Upon a Time in the West (Saturday evening), and The Colossus of Rhodes (his debut film, Sunday afternoon). According to the website, Duck, You Sucker! will also include an hour of Clint Eastwood's early television work, even though the movie itself stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn.

    On Monday evening (the 14th), Oliver Laxe will visit with his film You All Are Captains, which he made with his students in Tangier and which blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Sounds like a great one to grill a director about afterward.

  • There's a pretty great line-up at Emerson's Paramount Theater this weekend. The week's Kate Hepburn/Spencer Tracy film is State of the Union, in which Frank Capra has Kate play the estranged wife of presidential candidate Tracy (Angela Lansbury is in it, too). It runs Friday at 6pm and Saturday at 6:15pm. If you've been there for a movie in the past few weeks, you've probably seen the gorgeous looking trailer for House of Bamboo, a Sam Fuller noir (albeit a gorgeous CinemaScope color one) set in occupied Japan starring Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, and Shirley Yamaguchi; it runs Friday at 8:15pm and Saturday at 8:30pm.

    The family-friendly stuff at 2pm looks good, too - on Saturday, director Jeff Chiba Stearns presents his partly-animated documentary One Big Hapa Family, which focuses on how a stunning number of ethnically Japanese Canadians are marrying outside their demographic. It's presented as part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, which also presents a special appearance by James Hong on Friday night at MIT (where two shorts programs will also screen, at 9:15pm on Friday and 1pm on Sunday) and three movies at AMC Boston Common: Touch and Bang Bang on Saturday and Knots on Sunday; all will have directors attending.

    Oh, and there's a members-only preview screening of The Muppets on Sunday at 2pm. I'm not saying this screening alone is worth the $60 membership fee, but it more than pays for itself if you see enough movies there. Good luck finding the film membership page on their site, though - I think you have to sign up for the email newsletter and hope there's a link to it in that.

  • The Boston Jewish Film Festival wraps up at the Museum of Fine Arts this weekend (there's also one show in West Newton on Sunday) with screenings of My Best Enemy and Dusk on Saturday and Breath Made Visible, Lenin in October, and Mabul on Sunday. After that, the focus shifts to The Films of Catherine Deneuve, with Belle de Jour, The Girl on the Train, and Genealogies of a Crime playing on Wednesday the 16th and I'm Going Home playing on the afternoon of Thursday the 17th.

  • The new Bollywood film showing at Fresh Pond is Rockstar, with Ranbir Kapoor as a wanna-be musician who believes that his songs will never take off until he falls in love and has his heart broken, so he seeks out the most beautiful girl in his college (Nargis Fakhri). Popular composer A.R. Rahman does the music, and the soundtrack has apparently been a big deal in India for months pre-release. That one's got English subtitles, Telegu flick O My Friend apparently does not.

  • The Somerville Theatre is down to four screens this week, with the big auditorium used for live theater Friday and Sunday, a concert on Thursday, and The Alloy Orchestra with the restored Metropolis on Saturday night. I saw this earlier this year at a sold-out show, and it's well worth checking out. As a bonus, even with the Red Line out of service between Harvard and Alewife on weekends, there's still plenty of time afterwards to get to Brookine for the Moroder version. Metropolis double feature!

    They free the room by pushing The Rum Diary over to the Arlington Capitol. It's in the 48-seat screening room, while in amazing second-run news, Midnight in Paris, after months playing in Cambridge, is apparently set up in the main auditorium. Note that Midnight has no screenings on Thursday (a Steve Katsos benefit for Autism Speaks) and Puss in Boots has no 3D screenings on Tuesday (and only one 2D matinee at 3:30pm; not sure why).

My plans? Actually, kind of laid out: Duck, You Sucker! tonight. All afternoon and evening at ArtsEmerson on Saturday for One Big Hapa Family, State of the Union, and House of Bamboo. Maybe stay up late for the Moroder Metropolis. Right back there for The Muppets the next day. The Artist on Tuesday. Try to fit J. Edgar, Puss in Boots and Immortals in between.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chaplin: Modern Times

And so the Chaplin retrospective runs its last shows at the Paramount. Would it be unduly selfish of me to hope for another return to the Boston area, even though they've already played at the Museum of Fine Arts and Somerville Theatre? There's still a few I haven't had a chance to see on the big screen yet and a couple more places that would seem happy to book them.

I jest a bit, but seeing these films really has been a fun and somewhat educational experience. The last time I inhaled a lot of Chaplin was years ago - I think the Brattle had a series featuring Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati - and I don't know if I ever really appreciated Chaplin like I did Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin is much more openly emotional than the other geniuses of silent comedy, and while there are times when this can lead him to get overwrought, it also sometimes camouflages what a great filmmaker he was. With Keaton and Lloyd, their precise staging is right out in front for the audience to be astounded by, while Chaplin is using stunts and tricky camerawork to serve the story.

In some ways, this perhaps makes him the most mature filmmaker of the three, although the flip side is that the perhaps less humanistic Lloyd and Keaton are often more solid with their plotting. Take the end of Modern Times, when the truant officers appear out of nowhere to come after Goddard's Gamin, or how the sisters she worried about so toward the beginning basically become a non-factor. Chaplin, making art, doesn't really worry about this; he's achieved the emotional response he wanted, while Lloyd, building a machine, may have been more likely to make sure it made that much sense. Chaplin does something similar in The Circus, where the tightrope walker is useful, and the last scenes are great, but the foundation isn't as strong as it might be.

Ultimately, I think Buster Keaton is probably my favorite of the three, but the trio are all so close that the ranking can easily change based on what I saw last. It's a shame that the silent comedy is so close to dead aside from the occasional curiosity (though I am really looking forward to the upcoming curiosity of The Artist very much indeed!).

Modern Times

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2011 in the Paramount Theatre Bright Screening Room (Chaplin)

While Harold Lloyd enthusiastically embraced the new technology of talking pictures only to find that it didn't reciprocate, and Buster Keaton similarly fell out of favor, Charlie Chaplin was still making mostly-silent films when Modern Times was releasedin 1936. Considering that both Keaton and Lloyd would have to be rediscovered in order to get their due while Chaplin's Tramp became and remained an icon, it seems to have worked for him. When this movie came out, though, he must have seemed as wary of progress as his main character. Fortunately, he still knows his way around a gag, and can balance slapstick and sentiment as well as ever.

Here, Chaplin plays a factory worker who winds up having a nervous breakdown as the president of Electro Steel orders the pace of the assembly lines accelerated beyond the limits of human endurance. When he comes out, coincidence places him at the front of a workers' protest, leading to him being jailed as a communist, although his helping the guards during an attempted escape gets him early release. Meanwhile, an orphaned gamin (Paulette Goddard) runs when separated from her sisters. The pair meet up and face the challenges of a world that is stacked against them together, although the man's earnest efforts often wind up with him in jail again.

Though originally conceived as a full talkie, Modern Times is at its heart a silent comedy, and it's as episodic as many of them; a sloppy projectionist could mix up the order of the Chaplin character's various disastrous work experiences between the night watchman gig and being a singing waiter without the story being adversely affected. Still, almost every one of those segments is a miniature classic, featuring some of cinema's funniest set pieces pulled off with flair. Chaplin was a master in having things quickly spin out of control and then get even more chaotic; the café scene at the end is a perfect blend of Chaplin as instigator, victim, and improvisor.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 4 November 2011 - 10 November 2011

No "This Week in Tickets" this week, not for lack of material, but actually for so much seen that I had no time to write. This week looks a little quieter, so I should have time for a double-sized TWIT next week.

  • The movie getting on a lot of screens this weekend is Tower Heist, with Ben Stiller as an apartment concierge scheming to rob the occupant of the penthouse suite, as that guy's Ponzi scheme destroyed the staff's retirement savings. Not knowing the first thing about doing this, they recruit Eddie Murphy's professional crook to help. I'm a bit higher on this than some others; I don't hate director Brett Ratner the way a lot of writers seem to (granted, I find him mediocre-but-capable as opposed to actively bad). Also opening is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, so I guess Kal Penn isn't working at the White House any more. Aside from the returning Penn, John Cho, and Neil Patrick Harris, I see that Richard Riehle is reprising his role from The Hebrew Hammer (I'd say more, but, honestly, I haven't seen the other Harold & Kumar movies, and it's a little early for Christmas stuff, honestly).

  • Surprisingly not opening at the multiplexes is Like Crazy; you've got to head to Kendall Square (where it's got two screens) for that. I may not have loved it, but I kind of liked it, and the long-distance romance story with Felicity Jones and Anoton Yelchin seems pretty mainstream-friendly. Maybe Paramount's giving it a slow roll-out. Also playing at Kendall Square is Oranges and Sunshine, a based-on-a-true-story story of British kids sent to Australia by the government and told their parents were dead; Emily Watson plays the social worker who stumbles onto it and tries to reunite the adult children with their parents; Hugo Weaving (in what seems like a rare non-villain role) and David Wenham also star. Also kind of rare is the scheduled one-week booking, in that Revenge of the Electric Car is a documentary sequel, following up Who Killed the Electric Car? with the story of how consumer demand has led to a resurgence of development in the Electric Vehicle field. The first was an entertaining bit of advocacy, so here's hoping the same can be said for the second.

  • The Brattle has a somewhat cobbled-together schedule this week, although many of the parts are interesting. On Friday and Saturday, the screen is split between Margaret (matinees and 7pm) and The Catechism Cataclysm, a pair of interesting if imperfect films. I'm not sure whether Margaret needed to lose about forty-five minutes or have the extra half-hour in Kenneth Lonergan's director's cut put back in, and I'm not sure whether The Catechism Cataclysm could do with being weirder all the way through or whether it should have saved all its strangeness for the end, but they're both worth watching at least once.

    The next couple of days (Sunday the 6th and Monday the 7th) are sort of an Alexander Payne series, with a double feature of Sideways and Election playing on Sunday and a CineCaché preview screening of his new movie The Descendants (with George Clooney as a father forced to take unaccustomed responsibility for home and family in Hawaii) on Monday. That one's free but will sell out; admission is only guaranteed with a series subscription or for the first 100 people to buy tickets for Sunday's double feature.

    Sunday also features Israeli gay activist Assi Azar in person to introduce his featurette on coming out, "Mom & Dad: I Have Something to Tell You". The Harvard Book Store will be hosting author talks at 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; I suspect Wednesday's Guest Jonathan Lethem had a hand in choosing the screening of John Carpenter's They Live that follows his talk at 8pm (if not, then it's amazingly random!).

    And on Thursday evening, the Brattle hosts Opening Night of the Boston Asian-American Film Festival. The picture is Almost Perfect, which features Kelly Hu as the stable center of a California family who helps everybody else but doesn't have time to help herself. Director Bertha Pan Bay-Sa and co-star Tina Chen will be on-hand to introduce the film and take questions afterward.

  • Another festival, The Boston Jewish Film Festival, will be spending time at the Coolidge Corner Theatre throughout the week; there's at least one showing every day, although it's sometimes matinees and sometimes evenings. The means there will be a fair amount of bouncing between screens and formats for Martha Marcy May Marlene (always on film), Margin Call (some film, some video), and Take Shelter (all video); check The Coolidge's website before heading out.

    Aside from the BJFF, there are a few nifty specials: True Romance plays midnight on both the 4th and 5th; it's joined on Friday night by a Dumb & Dumber quote-along and on Saturday night by the monthly screening of The Room. If you prefer getting up early to staying up late, Saturday morning offers a Kids' Show screening of The Great Muppet Caper and Sunday morning a Talk Cinema screening of Lars Trier's apocalyptic drama Melancholia.

  • The Museum of Fine Arts film program also has several BJFF screenings, but this weekend also features a couple of other new presentations: On Friday night, there are two chances to see Urbanized with director Gary Hustwit in person for both; it's his third film about design (following Helvetica and Objectified; this one focuses on making cities both beautiful and liveable. There are also three chances to see His Mother's Eyes, a new film from French director Thierry Kilfa starring Catharine Deneuve as a successful woman at the center of a family that has torn itself apart; it plays Saturday the 5th at 4:30pm, Sunday the 6th at 10:45am, and Wednesday the 9th at 8pm. It's the start of a Film of Cateherine Deneuve series, which continues on Thursday afternoon with Time Regained.

  • Speaking of directors in person, ArtsEmerson has a couple coming to the Bright Screening Room: Hassan Ildari introduces his 1989 thriller Face of the Enemy, set during the aftermath of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, at 6pm on Friday, and director Naomi Uman is there for her "Ukranian Time Machine" collection of films made during her return to her ancestral village on Saturday at 8:15pm.

    There will also be classic films on offer: Saturday afternoon, they'll be running an IB Technicolor print of the 1939 animated Gulliver's Travels, made directed by the legendary Fleischer brothers and preceded by two of their cartoon shorts. They also start the second leg of their "Kate the Iconoclast/Katharine the Icon" series with Woman of the Year on Saturday the 5th (5:45pm) and Sunday the 6th (2pm). November highlights her films with Spencer Tracy with a theme of Kate's character attempting to be a supportive wife, even if that's not always her nature; here they're married newspaper columnists.

  • The Harvard Film Archive sometimes goes for the obscure, but this weekend they begin a program dedicated to a widely known master: Once Upon a Time... Sergio Leone. This weekend kicks off with two of his "Man with No Name" westerns, A Fistfull of Dollars (Friday at 7pm) and For a Few Dollars More (Friday at 9pm and Sunday at 4:30pm), along with the full 229-minute European cut of his final film, Once Upon a Time in America (Saturday at 7pm). Sunday and Monday nights, the venue will host the local premiere of Nicholas Ray's just completed/restored We Can't Go Home Again.

  • RA. One, Velayudham, and 7am Arivu continue at Fresh Pond; note that only RA. One is subtitled and there are no more 3D shows.

  • The third annual Killer Film Fest takes place in the Somerville Theatre's "micro-cinema" on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; I can personally vouch for El Sanatorio (Friday the 4th, 8pm) and The Dead Inside (Saturday the 5th, 5:40pm). Upstairs, there's live theater in the main auditorium this weekend, and the latest ski movie from Warren Miller Entertainment, Like There's No Tomorrow. And while it's not quite this week, the Alloy Orchestra returns on Saturday the 12th with the restored Metropolis after a sold-out show earlier in the year.

  • The Arlington Capitol - aside from having a BJFF screening on Tuesday night (Life Is Too Long, 7pm) and opening Tower Heist - picks up a couple of other movies for second runs: Moneyball slides over from Somerville, and Midnight in Paris from Kendall Square. Here's hoping the latter can find an audience in its second-go round!

My plans? Yeesh, I don't know; Urbanized if I can make it tonight, the previews of Melancholia, The Descendants, and hopefully Into the Abyss I'll maybe go for the Emerson screenings of Gulliver's Travels and Woman of the Year while also catching up on In Time, Puss in Boots, and Moneyball.

Too Late: The Guard & The Big Year

Well, bummer - by the time I get these two written up, they're good and gone from the Boston area. I knew that was going to be the case with The Big Year, as I wound up seeing it on its last night at the Arlington Capitol (after it had moved there from Somerville), and knew it was likely near the end for The Guard - it opened in Boston in early August, had a pretty good run for a little movie, sticking around Kendall Square long enough to still be playing there when the Brattle showed it as part of "Recent Raves" (usually movies that have come and gone) before also making its way to Arlington.

At least The Guard had a good run here; The Big Year came and went fast. I've got warmer feelings for it than are perhaps warranted; it reminds me of my late grandfather, who probably never did anything like a Big Year himself but loved birds all the same. I never really got that when I was a kid (at least once being a real brat about it), and while I can't necessarily say I've grown much fonder of birds or anything about the great outdoors since, I do understand having hobbies that other people think are weird or being strangely devoted to them.

As expected, it was just me and a half-dozen other people at the last screening, the folks behind me being a group that was likely a little older than the usual crowd for a Jack Black/Owen Wilson movie and which seemed to contain at least a couple of birders. It makes me wonder if Fox maybe should have tried to figure out some sort of alternative marketing for this movie; despite the stacked young cast, its natural audience is probably a generation or so older, the folks who would identify with the Steve Martin character. It's probably too late to get this a holiday release on DVD/BD, which is a bit of a shame; it really is one of the relatively few recent movies for grown-ups that I'd feel comfortable recommending to my grandparents.

The Guard

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves)

At one point in The Guard, it's suggested that there are hidden depths to the title character, with a visiting FBI agent saying he's not sure whether he's an idiot or a genius (in a somewhat saltier manner). That's oversimplifying, of course; a large part of what makes the movie so much fun is that even if Sergeant Gerry Boyle is neither, he's so perfectly suited to his environment that Brendan Gleeson is able to make such a screwy character cool.

Boyle is pretty much the entire police department for a small town in County Galway, Ireland, and since he's lazy and mildly corrupt, that makes it a good place to dump a body if you don't want a murder investigated too closely; even a conscientious new subordinate, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), isn't going to push Boyle to work particularly hard investigating. Still, when he sees the victim's face during a briefing on a gang of drug smugglers suspected of being in the area, he speaks up, bringing even more straight-laced FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to town, which threatens to throw a wrench into the plans of the other gang members (Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Mark Strong), who are planning to bring quite a bit of white powder into the country there.

The Guard is built like a buddy-cop movie, but it's really Brendan Gleeson's show. Gerry Boyle isn't a particularly complex character, but he is a nuanced one, well-rounded enough that although the audience may not always be able to predict what he'll do, it's always the thing that makes the most sense in retrospect. The trick is that Boyle doesn't really change that much over the course of the movie, but Gleeson has such a strong idea of who this guy is that he can slip from buffoonish to sly so smoothly the audience doesn't realize those bits are at opposite ends of a scale. The feeling is not that he's committed to something, but rather that he's accepted it - Gerry Boyle just is this guy, and Gleeson just needs to be Boyle instead of forcing him at the audience.

Full review at EFC.

The Big Year

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2011 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (second-run)

What a curious thing The Big Year is in this day and age - a movie made for a broad adult audience that is nevertheless so tame that the MPAA rated it PG. Throw in a couple of stars often known for wackier work and I suspect that its brief stay in theaters is due at least in part to audiences just not knowing what to make of it. Sure, even in retrospect, it's unlikely to be seen as a forgotten classic, but it's nice in more than one sense of the word, and that's a surprisingly rare commodity.

The film takes place among "birders", avian enthusiasts who often travel great distances to observe different species, with Brad Harris (Jack Black) as our narrator. Brad's got an unusual gift for identifying birds by their call, and he's planning his first "Big Year", where he'll attempt to see and identify as many different types of bird as possible within a calendar year. The current record of 735 is held by Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who initially says he only intends to set the pace and see if anybody will come close to his record, though his wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike) knows better. Another man trying for the Big Year is Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), an executive whose attempts to retire from the company he founded are continually being interrupted by the merger that needs his personal input.

At times, it seems as though director David Frankel and screenwriter Howard Franklin had planned to go with a somewhat zany take on Mark Obmascik's book. The opening features an animated history lesson narrated by John Cleese, a series of snappy cuts and contrasts that emphasize the nerdy nature of the characters' hobby, and the on-screen counters that pop up with their totals emphasize the competitive aspect. There are comedic moments throughout the movie, and while the majority work, there are a few lazy ones in there, and the movie seldom seems to go for t)he really big laugh, settling instead for chuckles.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

RA. One

There were probably only a half-dozen of us in the theater for Saturday's 3D screening of RA. One, although I don't know how much of that is down to interest in the movie, not particularly caring to see it in 3D - especially considering that it only ran that way for the 10pm show, which would have made for a really late night for kids - or the fact that it was snowing outside despite October not yet being over and who wants to go out in that?

(Me, obviously, and I must admit that I got a certain amount of amusement out of the college-aged girls who clearly had not anticipated this sort of weather when choosing their skimpy costumes and high heels for the night's Halloween parties; some were having a pretty rough go of getting home afterward.)

I was actually pleasantly surprised at the quality of the projection; the last time I tried to see a 3D movie at Fresh Pond was miserable, and while I still think that the digital 3D they use isn't quite as easy on the eyes as the Real-D/IMAX/RPX branded screens elsewhere in town, it was much better than the mess of Shark Night. The movie also looked surprisingly good in 3D, especially given that it seemed mostly post-converted, if the endless closing credit scroll is any indication - everything was much more textured and natural-looking than is usual for that process, and some of the action and dance scenes at least seemed composed with it in mind. And those closing credits did go on forever; it's the only time I can remember the music running out a good three minutes before the text, with the rest unspooling in silence. I'm guessing that the stereo conversion people are only listed on the 3D digital files, and rather than pulling more music out of the film, we're subjected to an uncomfortable quiet.

One thing I found myself wondering while watching it was how much Endhiran (aka The Robot) influenced it. Big action movies like this tend to have long gestation periods in Hollywood, but that may not quite be the case in India, so even though this was pushed back to a Diwali opening from summer - in part to accommodate a Rajinikanth cameo that directly references Endhiran - there are a lot of similarities. Some of them are very basic - the robot with the same face as the scientist developing it, for instance - but the two big chase scenes also seemed very familiar. There's a car chase that defies a fair amount of gravity, and a robot running through, on top of, and on the side of a train to rescue the leading lady, with very similar staging to the equivalent chases in Rajini's movie.

The big trouble with these similarities (and the fawning cameo) is that their main effect is to remind that audience that RA. One is not really as good a movie as Endhiran. Both are kind of silly, but S. Shankar really embraced that last year - Endhiran doesn't just have bigger action scenes, but it gets more absolutely bug-nuts as it goes along. Anubhay Sinha, though, never really creates something in his movie that is big and crazy enough that the dumb stuff doesn't matter.

RA. One

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2011 in Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #3 (first-run, digital 3D)

It may be hard for those who haven't seen many Bollywood productions before to believe, but RA. One is kind of disappointing because it just goes through the motions. Oh, sure, it's a musical sci-fi action/adventure comedy, and those aren't even a dime a dozen in India, but the filmmakers don't put those things together in a particularly interesting way. It's a combination of the most familiar and sometimes annoying parts of those genres, with the occasional clever or surprising bit only occasionally making the audience sit up and take notice.

Ten-year-old Prateek Subramaniam (Armaan Verma) loves video games and is great at them, but that doesn't mean having a father who programs them is cool. That goes double when one's father is as nerdy as Shekhar Subramanium (Shah Rukh Khan), an accident-prone dork who clearly won the heart of Prateek's mother Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) with his big heart and surprisingly good dance moves. Shekhar tries to please Prateek by giving his newest game an unstoppable villain, modeling it on Ravaan, the ten-faced demon of Hindu mythology. Prateek play-tests the game and pronounces it good, but it gets crossed with another piece of tech the company is developing and "RA. One" manages to escape to the outside world, looking for the boy who beat him. The best shot of stopping him: "G.One" (Khan), the game's hero, although bringing him to life may be a bit trickier.

There are a half-dozen credited writers on this thing, including star Shah Rukh Khan and director Anubhay Sinha, and yet there are some pretty severe flaws to the screenplay. Ignore that the technical details for how RA.One and G.One escape with all the powers that they have in a video game world are stupid even by the standards of bad science fiction, but the timeline frequently makes no sense. The comedy is generally lame and often inexplicable (Shekhar sees a Bad-era Michael Jackson poster on Prateek's wall and decides imitating MJ will make him seem tough and cool - really!). And as exciting and unexpected as one of the movie's big cliffhanger moments is, the rest of the movie is crippled character-wise because of it.

Full review at EFC.