Friday, December 30, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 December 2011 - 5 January 2012

There is so little opening/expanding into Boston this coming week that you might as well just read last week's entry. Only the repertory venues have any notable changes:

  • The Brattle Theatre finishes up their "Backwards & in High Heels: A Tribute to Ginger Rogers" series today with a double feature of The Gay Divorcee and Swing Time, two of her more famous collaborations with Fred Astaire. Saturday, they celebrate New Year's Eve with the Kathryn Bigelow/James Cameron collaboration Strange Days, and then on Sunday they open the new year with the annual Marx Brothers Marathon, featuring A Night at the Opera, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Duck Soup.

    On Monday the 2nd, the current CineCaché cycle comes to an end with Kassandra with a K. It's a locally made film about a guy who attempts to deal with a breakup by becoming homeless and making a movie about it. Co-directors/co-stars Ahmed Khawaja and Andre Puca will be there to explain themselves afterward.

    After that, there's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, playing Tuesday the 3rd as a tribute to John Neville, who passed away last month. The week closes out with a new print of The Wages of Fear, which starts playing on Wednesday the 4th and continues through the 8th.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington actually has a fair amount of film this week. They finish of the Sing-Along Sound of Music for another year today at 3pm, and then on Saturday, their annual New Year's Eve visit from local humorist Jimmy Tingle includes a screening of his film Jimmy Tingle's American Dream. Then, on Wednesday January 4th the short documentary Children of the Streets screens alone, while on the 5th it plays as a double feature with dark comedy The Dinner Party; Children director Rick Stavros will be there for a Q&A between the films that day.

  • If you hurry, you can still catch the last screenings of the MFA's Film for Foodies series, with El Bulli: Cooking in Progress playing this afternoon (the 30th) at 5:30pm and Three Stars playing at 8pm. On New Year's Eve, they will be participating in Boston's First Night program with an hour of family-friendly short films playing at 10:30am, noon, 1:30pm, and 3pm. After taking New Year's Day off, they'll start showing film again on Wednesday the 4th with scattered screenings of Paul Goodman Changed My Life, which looks at the "poet, teacher, social critic, and political activist" via interviews and archive footage. It plays once daily through the 8th, although the showtime is different every day.

  • Otherwise, it's more or less the same as last week, albeit with some showtimes moved around - most notably, Tintin loses one of its two Imax-branded screenings a day at Boston Common, so you'll have to get up early to catch it.

My plans? Catch-up; I still haven't seen a bunch of stuff and I've got a four-day weekend.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Inspecting Clouzot: The Wages of Fear and The Assassin Lives at Number 21

I'd like to say I had something particularly clever and insightful to say about Henri-Georges Clouzot here, but I have to admit - I only went to these two shows, and I didn't spend much time reading up on the filmmaker, his life, and career. It's an interesting one, though, from his apprenticeship in the German film program (part of what led to him being considered too close to the Vichy regime after the war) to his tendency to cast singers. At least, that's what I heard before those two screenings; clearly I'll have to make some more time to see other Clouzot films to get an idea of his full career.

Worth mentioning: If you missed the first of these two films, it will be playing The Brattle Theatre next week, from Wednesday January 4th to Sunday the 8th. They are advertising it as a new print, though likely not the same new print that played at the HFA; that one was acquired by the Archive via Janus Films/The Criterion Collection, and while it would make sense for them to just ship it down the block, I don't know how often it works that way. And here's hoping the new print the Brattle gets will be a bit nicer than the one the HFA got.

That's even less likely, I imagine, as the flaws with the print I saw at the HFA are less due to the print and more due to the restoration. As was mentioned in the introduction, this is a new, digitally-restored print, and a good example of why "digital" should not be taken as a synonym for "better". First, the digital restoration work appears to have been done at something around HDTV resolution, which looks very nice in one's living room, but when blown up to the size of a screen measured in feet rather than inches, well, you can see pixels on occasion. It is, as usual, especially evident during the open credits, when plenty of unmoving images with what are meant to be straight lines instead resolve as having little staircase patterns. I've sort of given up complaining about those when I see them in a new movie; they're just part of the way text is expected to look these days. But in something almost sixty years old, it just looks wrong, a bit of 2011 style out of place in a 1953 movie. On a messages board I frequent, someone else mentioned that this black & white film had clearly been printed on color stock (and since this guy is a pretty great projectionist, I believe him).

These are some pretty distressing developments, especially coming from Janus/Criterion, who have a generally well-earned reputation as authoritative in the field of classic film presentation. Apparently it's not the first time they've done something like this; at least one person was heard to boo at the Criterion Collection logo. It is kind of alarming, though - their great reputation (and that of the HFA) is going to have a fair number of people thinking that this print is what The Wages of Fear should look like, and while it's not as bad as something cropped or colorized, it's a bit off. And if the next generation of prints is built from this print's master, it will be a bit more off - still basically the same movie, but losing a piece of its essential character.

Le Salarie de la Peur (aka The Wages of Fear)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2011 at the Harvard Film Archive (Henri-Georges Clouzot)

Supposedly, when it was first published, Hollywood tried to snap up the film rights to Georges Arnaud's novel Le salarie de la peur, but he insisted on a French adaptation. At some point, Arnaud's heirs relented, and the result, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, is a pretty good movie. The Wages of Fear, on the other hand, is a great one, the one to see if you've only got a two and a half hours of your lifetime to give to this story.

South America seemed like a land of opportunity in the post-WWII years, but for many it turned out to be a trap: Stuck in company towns designed to separate workers from their money and without enough jobs to go around, most can't even earn the money to get back home. That's where Mario (Yves Montand) finds himself in geography and circumstance as the film starts, though his spirits are given a boost with the arrival of a fellow Frenchman, M. Jo (Charles Vanel). An opportunity to make enough money to leave soon presents itself, though: An oil rig owned by the company is on fire, and needs quite a bit of nitroglycerin transported there to blow it out. Volunteers will be paid handsomely, presuming they make it there alive, but the two trucks being used to transport the volatile liquid - one driven by Mario and Jo, the other by hard-working Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) and his German partner Bimba (Peter van Eyck) - are not designed for the task and the road is treacherous.

The Wages of Fear is, at the center, a character study. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot (who also adapted the novel with Jérome Geronimi) takes his time establishing the characters at the start of the movie, not doing much to describe their pasts but making their present very clear. Clouzot does not make the characters terribly likable, although they clearly have their virtues which could be more prominent in better circumstances. What we see is a group of people who tolerate each other and are even friendly enough when all things are equal, but with an underlying desperation that could send things crashing down should things stop being equal. By the time the characters hit the road, things have the potential to explode figuratively as much as literally.

Full review at EFC.

L'assassin habite... au 21 (aka The Murderer Lives at No. 21)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2011 at the Harvard Film Archive (Henri-Georges Clouzot)

You know, I don't think I've seen another crime comedy quite like this one, which somewhat surprises me, because the darn thing works as well as anything in it's genre not named "The Thin Man". It's the sort of movie one expects to get ripped off and remade, and yet The Murderer Lives at Number 21 is a relatively unique obscurity, noteworthy as Henri-Geroges Clouzot's directorial debut but not otherwise as well-known as it should be.

A thief and a killer stalks the streets of Paris, frustrating the gendarmes even more for literally leaving a calling card at the scene of each crime. They've had a break, though - a burglar found a cache of these cards in the attic of a house he was robbing. Unfortunately, it's a boarding house, requiring Inspector Wwenceslas Wens (Pierre Fresnay) to enter undercover. None of the residents seems particularly likely - there's Professor Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier), artist Colin (Pierre Larquey), Dr. Linz (Noel Roquevert), spinster and would-be writer Mlle. Cuq (Maximilienne), former boxer "Kid Robert" (Jean Despeaux), and his nurse Vania (Huguette Vivier) - with owner Mme. Point (Odette Talazac) and valet Armand (Marc Natol) seeming equally harmless. And if Wens's job doesn't seem hard enough, his girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) soon shows up, figuring she can crack the case and that the publicity from doing so can only help her singing career.

Give Stanislas-André Steeman's novel to a half-dozen different filmmakers and they'll probably come back with as many different tones; that description allows for everything from broad door-slamming farce to a taut psychological thriller. Clouzot - who, in addition to directing, collaborated with Steeman on the screenplay - opts for something in between. I'm not certain that the case is actually solvable for the audience, but it probably is. The audience just doesn't spend a lot of time working on it; not only do the filmmakers pull off the Agatha Christie tricks of populating the house with characters who all seem charmingly insignificant and not clearly favoring any of them, but they make sure that we spend as much time watching the detectives as the suspects.

Full review at EFC.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 December 2011 - 29 December 2011

I could do with new movies being released in theaters every two days, although the smaller venues being at half-strength isn't the greatest trade-off.

  • Opening Wednesday 21 December: Three new movies open this Wednesday, although a couple have already gotten a head start. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol has already opened on the premium screens, but on Wednesday it makes it to the standard digital and 35mm screens. It's a bunch of fun, although I highly recommend seeing it in genuine IMAX at Jordan's Furniture. It picks up new screens at Fenway, Boston Common, Harvard Square, the Arlington Capitol, and Fresh Pond.

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had preview screenings Tuesday night; it's David Fincher's version of the popular Stig Larsson novel about a disgraced reporter and young hacker investigating a forty-year-old murder. Fincher is pretty terrific, and the Swedish film was easily the best of the trilogy. I do find it kind of amusing that two of the films that will form this movie's competition at the box office (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) each feature a star from the Swedish versions. It opens at Fenway, Boston Common, Harvard Square, Somerville (in the main theater when it's not being used for "The Slutcracker"), and Fresh Pond.

    Then there's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of two of the tremendously popular albums of Belgian comics. Great voice cast, good-looking motion-captured animation, and though the character isn't that well-known in the US, the international response has been good. Note that it's only playing matinees on the Imax-branded screen at Boston Common (Mission: Impossible takes over at 4pm); it also plays Fenway, other screens at Boston Common, Fresh Pond, and the Arlington Capitol.

    Not a new release, but the Brattle will be picking up The Tree of Life for those of us who missed it earlier this year. It plays Wednesday through Friday.

    The Museum of Fine Arts will be finishing the "Architecture and Design on Film" series on Wednesday and Thursday with two final screenings of Unfinished Spaces; aside from that, they are closing out the year with two movies being called "Film for Foodies": A return of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress and another film called Three Stars, which brings the audience inside the Michelin rating system and features ten different three star chefs. Both films play Wednesday through Friday, and after a few days off for Christmas return on Wednesday the 28th.

  • Opening Friday 23 December: One of my favorite movies for the year so far finally gets non-preview screenings on Friday, with The Artist opening on two screens at Kendall Square and one at Boston Common. It's a thoroughly charming film about the end of the silent area filmed in the style of the time; even those who don't already love silent films should find reason to fall for this one.

    The Kendall also picks up A Dangerous Method, the new film by David Cronenberg. It features Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, treating a beautiful women played by Keira Knightley, and while the trailer makes it seem like a love triangle, early word is that it's actually a far more intellectual exercise.

    The mainstream theaters, including Boston Common, Fenway, Harvard Square, the Capitol, and Fresh Pond, will be opening We Bought a Zoo, Cameron Crowe's new movie about a likable widower (Matt Damon), who, well, buys a zoo for his family to live in. Looks pleasant, at the very least, and has a nice supporting cast in Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church.

    The Coolidge doesn't have any openings, but the After Midnite series will be celebrating Christmas on Friday night with Silent Night, Deadly Night, the infamous "Santa slasher" of 1984.

    Fresh Pond also will be opening Don 2, a sequel to the 2006 hit about a crime lord (played by Shah Rukh Khan) who, having conquered Asia, has now set his sights on Europe. Much of the cast of the previous movie, including Om Puri and Priyanka Chopra, returns as well. The movie actually opens a day early, on the 22nd, and there will also be 3D screenings at 9:45pm starting on Friday, and it's worth mentioning that the 3D conversion of Ra.One is one of the better ones I've seen.

  • Opening Sunday 25 December: Two new Steven Spielberg movies opening within a week? That's Christmas and then some. The second is War Horse, which follows a horse that is pressed into service during World War I and the boy who bonded with him. It will be playing Harvard Square, Boston Common, Fenway, and likely other venues.

    If you'd like something a little zippier for your post, there's The Darkest Hour, a Moscow-set alien invasion thriller produced by Timur Bekbambetov and directed by Chris Gorak. Nice young cast, decent-looking 3D. Opens at Boston Common, Fresh Pond, and likely other spots.

    The Brattle doesn't have a new release opening, but they start a repatory series. Backwards & in High Heels: A Tribute to Ginger Rogers is fairly self-explanatory, although as the theater's description points out that this title sells her a bit short, as she had a fine career outside her well-known pairings with Fred Astaire. It runs from Christmas to Friday the 30th, with a different double feature each day except Tuesday (when Stage Door plays by itself).

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington, as they do annually, will be playing The Sound of Music starting on Monday the 26th. It's a Sing-Along print, so there will be lyrics thrown up on the screen and audience participation will be encouraged.

  • Things are expanding and moving around a bit in spots: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy expands to Boston Common on Friday, picking up two screens, while The Skin I Live In moves from Kendall Square to the Somerville Theater the same day.

My plans? Finish my Christmas shopping, travel to Maine to see my brothers and father, and see what fits around that. I'm guessing that will include most everything above, including trying to see Tintin on the Imax-branded screen Saturday morning.

So, if I don't post anything else before then, Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fantasia in December: Sint (aka Saint aka Saint Nick)

Every year, I mean to write up reviews of Fantasia screeners I missed; every year, I fall short. There's also a tradition of "Fantasia in December/January - a great way to make the long wait between them seem shorter!" This year, I swear it's going to happen, not just because there have been a couple of cases where I've found good hooks (Ocean Heaven paired semi-logically with 1911; Sint is a good anti-Christmas movie), but because several of them were movies that I genuinely wanted to see but couldn't make fit, as opposed to the stuff that was kind of interesting but easily sacrificed.

Plus, my DVR is unusually empty right now. So that means Fantasia screeners, the Oscilloscope and Film Movement subscriptions, and everything I've purchased in the past few years may get some attention. Stay tuned!

Sint (aka Saint aka Saint Nick)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2011 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screeners)

Believe it or not, two movies came out in Europe last year where the real Santa Claus was a murderous supernatural monster. Finland's Rare Exports zipped through the festival circuit and appeared in the U.S. at the same time it was released in its native land; the Netherlands' Sint took a more conventional path, waiting to be picked up for distribution and then spending a couple months on demand before being released on video as "Saint Nick". It's not bad at all for a holiday slasher for those who could use a break from non-stop good cheer this Christmas.

In the Netherlands, the traditional day of gift-giving is December 5th, on the eve of the feast of Saint Niklas. However, as we see in the prologue, the story of Sinterklass has a bloodier origin than is generally known, and as a result, every time there is a full moon on that date, the vicious Niklas and his "Black Peters" return to wreak havok on Amsterdam. In 2010, high school students Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber), Sophie (Escha Tanihatu), Lisa (Caro Lenssen), Hanco (Joey van der Velden), and Sander (Jim Deddes) are planning on going about their business without paying much mind to that urban legend, but Goert (Bert Luppes), a detective who saw first-hand what Niklas is capable of on his last visit in 1968, is preparing for war.

Though it goes off in a couple other directions at times, Sint is at its heart a teen slasher movie, and rest assured, Amsterdam-South's high school will be down a few students by the time class is back in session. It's almost amiable as such things go, with the teenagers being the expected horndogs screwing around behind each others' backs, but not really being malicious or spiteful about it. They are, for the most part, likable enough but not anybody the audience is going to get so attached to that audiences find their being hacked to pieces tragedies rather than a way to give them the gore they paid for.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 December 2011 - 22 December 2011

Christmas is coming! That means a short week for this column, as it'll pop up early next week to cover the new movies opening on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. It also means that the lines between what opens in the multiplexes and what opens in the boutique houses gets blurred all to heck, with the IMAX guys confusing things a little further as they try to sort of a logjam on the premium screens.

  • The big tentpole opening this weekend is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which has Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law returning as Holmes and Watson, original "girl with the dragon tattoo" Noomi Rapace as the love interest, and Stephen Fry as Sherlock's smarter brother Mycroft on the trail of Professor Moriarty. I dug the first film, and while I'm admittedly a big fan, I've got fairly high hopes for this. Opens at Boston Common, Fenway, Harvard Square, Fresh Pond, Somerville, and places you can't get to via the T.

    Young Adult is the movie that straddles the multiplex and boutique houses, opening on one screen apiece at Boston Common, Fenway, and Kendall Square. It comes from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the team behind Juno, and stars Charlize Theron as a self-centered writer of successful young adult novels who returns to her hometown to hopefully wreak havok with her old classmates' lives. Though I cringe a bit at how positive that Juno review is, Reitman and Cody are talented people, and both Theron and Patton Oswalt are getting raves for their performances.

    Limited openings followed by expansion are usually a trick reserved for smaller films, but Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol pulls it this week in order to grab the premium screens before Tintin opens on Wednesday. It's got Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner dashing across the world to figure out who blew up the Kremlin, and director Brad Bird (making his first live-action film after some great animated work) shot pieces in no-crap real IMAX. Thus, the best places to see it in the Boston area are probably the Jordan's Furniture stores in Reading and Natick, where it's playing with the prologue for next year's Batmovie through at least the end of the year, but if you don't mind paying more for something a bit better than regular digital projection to be on the Green Line, it's also playing the Imax-branded screen at Boston Common and the RPX screen at Fenway, without Batman.

    Oh, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked opens at Fenway, Boston Common, Fresh Pond, and Arlington. Every one of those places also offers something from the Muppets/Hugo/Happy Feet/Arthur Christmas set as another option, and Tintin is just a week away.

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is getting a surprisingly limited initial release, playing just the main screen at the Coolidge and two screens at Kendall Square. It stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the protagonist of a great many John LeCarre novels, trying to ferret out a Soviet mole in MI-6 at the height of the Cold War. Fantastic cast, and it comes from the director of Let the Right One In, which I should not have to remind people is really, really good.

    The Coolidge is offering a bonus on the 7pm screenings on the 16th & 17th (Friday & Saturday), with Brookline's Metropolitan Chorale giving a brief performance before those shows. They also have a few special presentations lined up, including midnights of David Cronenberg's The Fly on those same two days (yes, kids, David Cronenberg made great, disgusting horror movies before A History of Violence). Monday the 19th, there's a Sound of Silents screening of Battleship Potemkin at 7pm, with live music provided by the Berklee College of Music's Department of Film Scoring.

    Kendall Square, in addition to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, picks up The Conquest, Xavier Durringer's dramatization of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's climb to his current office. It's set for a seven day run, as nothing is lined up to open there on Wednesday.

  • The Brattle is having their Christmas celebration this weekend, with holiday stalwart It's a Wonderful Life playing through Tuesday. They'll also be having their annual Alt X-Mas series, with 10pm shows of Christmas movies that are less warm and fuzzy: On Friday and Saturday, it's Rare Exports, last year's Finnish tale of how every Christmas tradition is meant to protect us from a Krampus-like Santa Claus and his murderous elves; Sunday the 18th brings National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; the woefully underseen but excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang plays Monday (it's got Robert Downey Jr. being cool, Michelle Monaghan in the Santa dress, and Val Kilmer in a rare bit of recent awesomeness from Shane Black); and Cano & Jeunet's City of Lost Children wraps things up on Tuesday. It's a Wonderful Life gets pushed to a matinee only on Monday the 19th to make way for a 7:30pm CineCaché screening of Secona. In this one, a big-city executive gets stranded in the Arizona town of the title while others there search for a boy lost in the woods. The advertising copy includes both the words "inspirational" and "quirky"; take that as you will.

  • It opened in India a couple of weeks ago but The Dirty Picture appears at Fresh Pond this weekend; the musical Bollywood biography stars Vidya Balan as Silk Smitha, a Bollywood star in the 1980s and 1990s who apparently scandalized with her overt sexuality and was involved in a love triangle with her director and his brother. It's also a comedy, apparently. Ladies vs Ricky Bahl also has a few scattered showtimes, as does Panjaa (but you'd better speak Tamil).

  • ArtsEmerson just has a couple of films before shutting down for winter break. Friday night and Saturday afternoon, they've got a new print of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They're advertising it as a new 35mm print of the 1998 "Ultimate Edition". Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, they finish up the "Kate The Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon" series with Long Day's Journey Into Night, a 1962 film based on Eugene O'Neill's play directed by Sidney Lumet considered to feature one of her greatest performances. It's a long one, but looks to be well worth it.

    Across the river, the Harvard Film Archive wraps up its retrospective with one last weekend of The Complete Henri-Georges Clouzot before they shut down for the holidays. Manon plays Friday at 7pm and Sunday at 4:30pm (followed by a recently recovered 1931 short); Les Diaboliques plays Saturday and Sunday at 7pm; and Clouzot's final film, Woman In Chains, plays Saturday at 9:30pm. Also included in the program is Serge Bromberg's and Roxandra Medrea's Inferno (playing Friday at 9:30pm), in which film preservationist Bromberg attempts to reconstruct the making of Clouzot's unfinished film of the same title.

    The HFA also has a shorts program on Sunday at 2pm featuring vintage 16mm and 35mm holiday shorts; it's free and family-friendly.

  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues its Architecture and Design on Film series, with Friday, Saturday, and Sunday screenings of How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?, Unfinished Spaces, and John Portman: A Life of Building.

  • There's a little shuffling around going on as well. Shame opens up at Boston Common, also remaining on two screens at Kendall Square. Melancholia is no longer playing at the Kendall, but opens at the Arlington Capitol, which also picks up J. Edgar from Somerville (which is temporarily a 4-plex while the main auditorium is used for burlesque show The Slutcracker). The Coolidge also picks up The Skin I Live In, which will play alongside Melancholia in the smaller video rooms.

My plans? Well, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, because I love Sherlock Holmes. Depending on how I can work it in around my Christmas shopping, I may try and make it to the furniture store to see Mission: Impossible. In between, I'll probably hit Long Day's Journey Into Night, Sedona, and maybe Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gangsters in Japan: House of Bamboo and Outrage

I've been taking a Japanese language course for the past few weeks, but I would have been seeing both of these movies anyway. The House of Bamboo preview played before just about every ArtsEmerson screening for a month (right after the one for Adam's Rib), and I don't know how effective it was considered back in 1955, but I found myself lapping it up. Sure, there's a bit of kitsch to it 55 years later, but even if big-budget movies made in Tokyo aren't that big a deal now, there still aren't many chances to see that Tokyo shot with old-school Cinemascope and Technicolor. The closing shot of a chase through an amusement park, with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack shooting it out across the screen, high above ground surrounded by flashing lights, is pretty killer.

I actually didn't see any previews for Outrage at all; I don't know if that's a matter of just not spending much time at Kendall Square or not seeing the right movies there, but I tend to at least find Takeshi Kitano interesting. I think the last thing I saw him in was the anniversary screening of Battle Royale at Fantasia, where he's just a tremendously over-the-top monster, a far cry from the guy who drove me nuts by seeming so vacant in Fireworks (a film I may have to revisit; I wasn't quite so smart as I tried to be at 22, and I strongly disliked it). Come to think of it, I don't recall particularly liking Brother - his last crime film was his only real attempt to penetrate the American market, with him as a cool, mostly-silent (because he didn't speak much English) enforcer brought in by a local gangster with some yakuza connections. Looking at the things he's done that I've seen, I think playing it cool does him no favors. He's at his best when he can be a little schlubby or unhinged.

As for how much those Japanese classes have helped so far: Well, I can now recognize the word "iie" (pronounced ee-ee-ay) as "no", so there's that. I haven't yet learned a lot of vocabulary, although I'm starting to get sentence structure down. I'm convinced that every language but English is spoken very fast.

Another thing I have trouble understanding: Yakuza movies in general. It's kind of weird, actually - I can follow triad movies out of Hong Kong and western mafia movies, and Japanese culture doesn't trip me up that much, but somehow this stuff leaves me scratching my head. I usually have a little notepad with me so that I can jot down names of characters in foreign movies that I may wind up reviewing, but I forgot it this time. The solution was to scarf down my popcorn extra fast, fold the bag up, and be thankful that Landmark goes for a fairly plain light-brown bag that isn't tremendously waxy on the outside:

Popcorn bag, 11 December 2011, Notes on a popcorn bag

Supposedly Kitano is working on a sequel, and let's just say that from the body count of this one, it's going to need a whole popcorn bag of its own.

House of Bamboo

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Family Screening Room (new prints)

There's a new 35mm print of Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo making the rounds, and while it probably won't be as widely booked as other restorations, it hopefully means that Fox has plans for a new DVD and Blu-ray release. This movie may not pop up in many lists of "essential" films, but an American crime film in post-war Japan is certainly novel enough to be worth a look.

In the mid-1950s, Japan was still struggling to get back on its feet after the war, and the U.S. Army still had a strong presence. As the movie opens, a weapons shipment is robbed, the work of a gang of former GIs led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Part of the reason they've never been brought to justice is that they kill their own wounded men. This time, one survives, though only for long enough to point the investigators - Army Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter) and Tokyo Police Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa) - in the right direction. So when one Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) gets off the boat and makes contact with the gang and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the dead man's girl, they've got no reason to doubt his bona fides.

If you were to line crime movies up and rank them by their moral ambiguity, House of Bamboo would probably be considered one of the simpler ones. Dawson and his gang are ruthless and opportunistic, while there's never much doubt about what "Spanier" will do when the chips are down, even before he and Mariko find themselves growing closer. Indeed, when the time comes that Eddie must do something a bit ruthless himself to maintain his cover, there's an especially loathsome guy there to take the fall. It's still film noir; just maybe not the most challenging form.

Full review at EFC.

Autoreiji (Outrage)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Takeshi Kitano has apparently been doing unusual stuff lately, with Glory to the Filmmaker and Takeshis apparently being considered weird for even Japan. Those projects haven't been doing quite so well, so Kitano has gone back to the material that he's best known for, making his first crime movie since Brother came out a decade ago. It seems like he's been accumulating ideas - there may be two movies' worth of story in here, which makes things a little crowded.

The setting appears to be Kobe, and the chairman of the local yakuza is displeased with a few things. Apparently Murase (Renji Ishibashi) and his family are dealing drugs where they are not supposed to, but Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) is reluctant to take action because he and Murase became sworn brothers in prison. Thus, it falls to Ikemoto's former protege Otomo (Kitano, credited as "Beat" Takeshi), now a boss himself, to settle things. The trouble is, it's tough to hit on exactly the right response without looking weak or inciting further retribution. Things get further complicated when one of Otomo's men, Ishihara (Ryo Kase), commandeers the embassy of a small African country to set up a casino that the police can't touch.

I must admit - I often just don't get yakuza movies. I love Japanese cinema, and I think director Takeshi Kitano has done some very good movies. Mob films aren't my favorite, true, but I like some (Hong Kong's Johnnie To is especially good) and I usually can at least understand what's going on. Something like Outrage, though, has me scrambling to take notes so that I can figure out the hierarchy and obligations of the characters. It's not that complicated, really, but there's no exposition or new recruit that can serve as a yakuza-for-beginners primer. It's a little bit more confusing, perhaps, because while the two story lines are related, Kitano gives the audience a large chunk of the "retribution" story before spending some time on the embassy one and then starting to tie them together.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Mad Scientists, One Plan: The Skin I Live In and Victim

I got sent an email offering me a screener of Victim a year or so ago, and because the subject matter sounded like the sort of thing I kind of dig, I asked. Never arrived, and I didn't figure out how to watch it of xfinity's website while it was there. From what scattered reviews I read, it didn't seem like I was missing much.

It popped up on a couple of streaming services again a month or so ago, though - I've heard it's on Netflix, and I found it on SundanceNow. And this will probably be the last time I use that site, because I found that the only way to keep the picture moving along with the soundtrack was to constantly move the mouse pointer around in the "progress bar" area. Not so easy when you're trying to eat a calzone at the same time!

Anyway, here's some reviews, and if you don't mind reading about the plot twists and endings, stick around (or jump to) after the reviews.

La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Pedro Almodovar has been dancing around doing this sort of weird sci-fi/horror movie for years (remember the silent movie sequence in Talk to Her?), and in a way he's still dancing - The Skin I Live In is so grounded in the here and now and focused on the psychological as opposed to the technological that art-house denizens who run screaming from mere "genre" can convince themselves that they're not sharing their genius with their grindhouse cousins. Their loss; the way Almodovar imports those genre elements into his world is part of what makes the movie so delicious.

We start with scientist Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant surgeon and researcher presenting a paper on the potential for synthetic skin to a conference - a topic near to his heart after his wife was horrifically burned in a car accident years ago. His colleagues are so alarmed by the ethical problems of his proposal that he assures them that it is only theoretical - and then goes home to see how the most recent graft is taking to Vera (Elena Anaya), the test subject he is keeping so isolated that she kept locked in a room in his estate, with Robert and longtime family servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes) mostly speaking to her via TV screens. And as we come to know more about Robert's complicated obsession, it becomes very clear that this set-up is not merely the result of fears of contamination.

The Skin I Live In at times seems to have more ideas in play than it knows what to do with - in fact, my impression was often of two similar screenplays not quite fully merged into one - and in the hands of a lesser director than Almodovar, it likely would have been a trite mess (I don't know how many threads are Almodovar's own and how many come from the source novel, Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula). There are thoroughly extraneous bits of soap opera, on the one hand, while Robert and Vera seem to have two different experiments and plotlines going on that are close to being at cross-purposes. Almodovar strives to make this into complexity rather than contradiction, and manages it about half the time.

Full review at EFC.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2011 in Jay's Living Room (SundanceNow streaming)

If I was going to see and review Victim (and let us assume for the purposes of this paragraph that such a thing was unavoidable), it probably would have been better to have seen it when it first appeared last year and not after seeing a certain movie that came out a month ago. It wouldn't have ranked higher without a similar movie showing how to do every wrong thing this one does right, but I also wouldn't have been tempted to make the entire review a compare and contrast.

The film opens with a young girl (Jennifer Howie) being attacked by an unseen assailant; some time later, we see a man (Stephen Weigand) annoying a waitress in a bar. On leaving, though, he is also attacked, and wakes up in a bare cell in a basement. An old record on female deportment is being piped in, there's a young girl's diary there for him to read, and every once in a while his captors - eccentric surgeon Dr. Volk (Bob Bancroft) and hulking mute Mr. George (Brendan Kelly) - will take him away for a procedure to break his body and mind. At one point, he manages to make a 911 call, and the detective who picks up the case (Stacy Haiduk) is far more curious than seems reasonable, but...

Victim doesn't run on a completely straight track, but near enough so. For a horror chamber piece like this, with only four characters really in play, there's not a lot of room to build tension by killing characters off. So, tension has got to come from somewhere else, and while Volk certainly has a cruel fate planned for his victim, the getting there is mechanical. After the first time Weigand's character tries to escape, Volks' plan mostly proceeds without a hitch. There's never the sense that escape is possible, that Volk is feeling conflicted, that there might be a wedge to drive between Volk and George. All writers Michael Hultquist & Robert Martinez and directors Matt Eskandari & Michael A. Pierce have to give the audience is dread at what is going to happen, and even when even the big steps along the way are played as banal and emotionless. There's never a jolt or a revelation to get the audience more invested until the end, and even then it's either expected or nonsensical.

Full review at EFC.

Welcome back! Fair warning: We're going to be talking about things that could be considered spoilers from here on out, and while I tried to keep the reviews themselves pretty vague - probably too much so in Victim's case, as the advertising is pretty up-front as to what it's about - I'll write more freely here.

Anyway, as the title of the entry makes clear, I grouped these two movies together for a reason - they are both about surgeons who kidnap the men that they hold responsible for their daughters' deaths, getting their revenge by performing sexual reassignment surgery. Both seem to set the victims on similar courses of having their minds reshaped in the same way as their bodies, although as in all other aspects, Pedro Almodovar goes about it in a much more interesting way that the makers of Victim.

In Victim, the nameless title character is pretty much brainwashed in what seems to be relatively short order. I may have missed it, what with the choppy picture and all, but there was never a solid feeling of the passage of time in that movie; the period before the "Four Months Later" jump seems like it could have happened over the course of a couple of weeks. Plus, for as brilliant a surgeon as Volk may have been, that doesn't necessarily imply any knowledge of psychological warfare. Still, he seems to break his prisoner in relatively short order, and on a schedule. As a result, the mental transformation is not only less believable, but it robs the audience of its protagonist. The victim becomes someone else with no connection to who he/she was before, and the filmmakers don't have the curiosity to explore whether he/she deserves the vengeance Volk has planned for her.

The Skin I Live In, on the other hand, gives us a much more intriguing evolution. We meet Vera before flashing back and meeting Vicente, and the mental metamorphosis is done in a way that demonstrates what fascinates me about these stories: At a certain point, when he starts to take up yoga, Vicente seems to realize that he needs more than hate and rage: He must be able to function, to find a way to live with what he has become without approving of the path that led him there. Then, when he's attacked by Zeca, the question becomes just how far down the path he's gone, and what this second trauma does to his/her self-image.

The mad scientists are similarly similar in their raw materials, though different in their construction. Antonio Banderas's Robert Ledgard has a series of connected traumas motivating him, and at times his grasp on the situation can seem as muddled as Vincente/Vera's. When I first saw the movie, I tended to think that this may be a weakness, but it works better than expected. In Ledgard's mind, Vicente/Vera is his attempt to rectify the deaths of both his wife and daughter - punishing the person he believes raped his daughter, creating a synthetic skin that will prevent the sort of disfigurement that led to his wife's suicide, and subconsciously creating Vera in his wife's image. What makes him a truly interesting mad scientist is that part of him is genuinely trying to do good, though he embraces how interrelated the processes of creation and destruction are. Volk, meanwhile... Well, he's got great mad scientist hair, but his motivation is very straightforward (punish the accessory to his daughter's "murder"), and the filmmakers miss their chance to tackle any interesting questions raised.

And then there are the finales. By the time Victim reached the end, I already disliked it, but the "four months later" seems like a terrible cheat - even though The Skin I Live In has numerous jumps, we get to see the crucial steps in Vicente's evolution, which we're denied for "Rachel II" - and then George, Volk, and the original Rachel are all dispatched in ways that often seem merely accidental and are not informative. "Not informative" may seem like an odd thing to say, but we do need these scenes to tell us something, specifically who and what the transformed man has become. Does he/she survive because of some universal instinct, some buried portion of the original man who tried to escape re-emerging, or pure chance? It's not clear, and it needs to be. This tells us what the point of the previous seventy minutes has been - is it about being able to rise above victimhood, or a complete defeat at the hands of Volk (even if it is a Pyrrhic victory)? The last shot, of the new Rachel leaving the house and walking away, is probably meant to be ambiguous, but this movie hasn't earned it - we need to know whether the character is going home, retracing the original Rachel's steps, or starting fresh - or we at least need to be able to make the argument for one or the other.

The Skin I Live In, meanwhile, does almost the exact same thing, but Almodovar makes his intent very clear: Vicente reasserts himself, killing his captors. Vera is still very much a changed person, but she knows herself. And after it is done, she further asserts her identity not by heading down a generic road, but by returning to Vincente's mother, though without trying to disguise her new femininity.

This still leaves the movie intriguingly open-ended, and honestly, I'd really like to see someone in Hollywood do a gender-bender story that picks up where The Skin I Live In leaves off. I've always liked this genre, but I think filmmakers have often backed off what really fascinates me about them: How does a person stay true to itself when something that defined him or her at a very basic level is changed? Instead, these stories are presented as something to reverse or forestall, maybe with a helping of "spending time as a woman might make you a better man". That's well and good, but where Vera finds herself at the end of Almodovar's movie is potentially the really good stuff, both in a science-fictional and metaphorical sense.

In the meantime, though, at least we've got The Skin I Live In. And, hey, one can say that Victim isn't a total loss - looking at what the two movies do is a great way to illustrate exactly what great filmmakers do to elevate material over what their their less gifted (or experienced) contemporaries manage.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Boston Asian-American Film Festival: Almost Perfect and One Big Hapa Family

Hopefully the other programs at the Boston Asian-American Film Festival were good; I couldn't commit to the whole festival, but it seems to be run by good people who were able to get filmmakers present for every screening. The films I saw were solid enough, although I don't know if I'd necessarily see either of them without this sort of push.

It's kind of a shame, though, that it's sometimes hard to see these movies outside of this festival setting. Almost Perfect, for instance, is a fairly typical indie drama, with the fact that this family is Chinese/hapa not trivial, but certainly not the driving force behind the characters' actions. It seems that, even on television, there are fewer shows with "visible minority" leads and supporting casts (is it really just Fox's The Cleveland Show, whose title character is voiced by a white guy?). It shouldn't be like this; there should be something like The Cosby Show with an Asian-American family and, really, there should be at least one Asian-American movie star in Hollywood. Just one.

Heck, a few years ago, there was hope that Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle would be a sort of breakthrough, but the main result seems to be a career boost for the white co-star, and the leads getting to be cool in supporting roles in Star Trek and House. I've got no desire for progress to put things like the BAAFF out of business (things like One Big Hapa Family will always need events dedicated to their niche), but even as white as I am... I doesn't have to be all about me, Hollywood.

Almost Perfect

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Asian-American Film Festival)

It's not an insult to say that Almost Perfect is a decent movie that would probably make a pretty good TV series. It's more a case that Bertha Bay-sa Pan's film feels less like a crisis point than a somewhat larger example of the issues its characters deal with on a regular basis; it could be extended without much trouble. It's not a bad family drama, just not a big one.

The "almost perfect" daughter of the title is Vanessa Lee (Kelly Hu); an attractive single New Yorker in her mid-thirties, she runs the family business's philanthropic foundation, and is the one that the rest of the family leans on. That family includes recently-retired father Kai (Roger Rees); mother Sandra (Tina Chen), a much-respected professor of architecture; fashion-designer sister Charlene (Christina Chang); and younger brother Andy (Edison Chen), who is hiding out on Vanessa's couch to avoid the troubles in his marriage. An old college friend of Andy's, Dwayne Sung (Ivan Shaw), shows up at one of Vanessa's charitable events, and quite enjoy reconnecting, even if Vanessa's needy and difficult family keeps getting in the way.

Movies like this, about the drama and comedy of family life, demand a well-rounded cast, and this one is pretty good. It's a group whose members are each a little familiar from previous parts in various ensembles, and that experience works to the movie's advantage: We get what's going on with each character quickly, without a lot of exposition, and they can move in and out of the background without seeming to be trying to claim screen time or going the other way and just feeling like place-holder characters. Tina Chen is especially good; while all of Vanessa's family members are designed to be somewhat unreasonable and demanding, Chen is the one that takes the best advantage of the room they're given to make them somewhat sympathetic individuals as well.

Full review at EFC.

One Big Hapa Family

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Family Screening Room (Boston Asian-American Film Festival)

There's an interesting idea at the center of One Big Hapa Family - investigating the astonishingly high rate of "mixed marriages" among ethnically Japanese Canadians - and director Jeff Chiba Stearns is enthusiastic about pursuing it and occasionally ingenious in presenting it to the audience. I'm not sure that there's a feature-length movie to it, though, even if his using his own family as a sort of lens isn't as limiting as one might think.

The idea for the movie came from the 2006 Koga family reunion he attended in Kelowna, British Columbia. Amid all the seeing near and distant relatives, playing silly games, and the like, he notices that every married couple there younger than his grandparents is mixed, leading to a couple generation's worth of "hapa" kids running around. This isn't the case with other visible minorities - though such marriages are the majority among Japanese-Canadians, they are relatively rare among those of South Asian descent, for instance - and he set out to find out why this was.

The short answer, it turns out, is that it goes back to World War II; not only were many Canadians of Japanese descent placed in internment camps, but laws were passed preventing them from living near the western coast. Spread thin and disparaged, intermarriage was inevitable. The section of the movie devoted to this information is intriguing, especially when Stearns visits the New Denver Camp on Vancouver Island and speaks to caretaker Sakaye Hashimoto, a man interned there as a child. The potential is there for a movie or two on this subject alone.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 9 December 2011 - 15 December 2011

New movies this weekend! Doesn't look like they're good new movies, but that just means gives you another chance to see Hugo.

  • The two new movies are New Year's Eve and The Sitter; both come from directors who have been doing a good job of burning through any good reputation they had. Garry Marshall's movie is a sort of follow-up to his last, Valentine's Day. Like that one, New Year's Eve is a bunch of intersecting love stories that share an impressive cast. The previews make it look miles wide and a centimeter deep, but it may be pleasant enough. It's at the megaplexes, Fresh Pond, and Arlington.

    The Sitter is the latest movie directed by David Gordon Green, and man... Guy used to write and direct gut-wrenching independent movies; now he's on his third straight dumb-looking comedy. This one stars Jonah Hill as a college slacker who gets into misadventures looking after his neighbor's kids, without the benefit of looking as cute as a young Elizabeth Shue. It's at the megaplexes, Harvard Square, Fresh Pond, and Somerville.

    And, if you want to travel further afield, there's The Greatest Miracle at the Showcase in Revere. It's a Mexican-produced (but apparently English-language) 3D animated film, about three troubled souls who find solace in the church. I'm guessing it does not have a message of how superstition just leads to false hope.

  • Two smaller movies open at Kendall Square. Shame has gotten a fair amount of publicity for Fox Searchlight accepting that a movie about sex addiction is going to get an NC-17 rating. Fortunately, the advance word is not just about how naked Michael Fassbender gets, but how great the movie is. That one gets two screens and an open-ended booking; the one-week booking is Outrage, the latest movie from Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano. It's his first crime film in a decade, with Takeshi starring as a put-upon yakuza lieutenant; apparently it's been successful enough in Japan that Takeshi is already shooting a sequel.

  • Over at the Brattle, they have a new 35mm print of Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Weekend. Not to be confused with the recent British film of the same name, this one has a French couple trying to collect a bequest with the world going insane around them. It's got the theater mostly to itself, with the exception being a Balagan show on Tuesday at 7:30pm; it's a program of works by underground filmmakers who died during the past year.

  • Over at the Coolidge, most of the new stuff is on the tiny GoldScreen. For most of the day, it's Tomboy, the movie about a young girl mistaken for a boy in her new neighborhood that is also held over at the Coolidge; at 9:40pm, From the Back of the Room has the screen. It's a documentary about the women of punk rock and the Riot Grrrl movement. On Friday night, the room gets upgraded to theater #2 for a special midnight screening with director Amy Oden on-hand to introduce and discuss the movie and a live performance by Troubled Sleep.

    In other special bookings, the original 1940 The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi plays midnight on Friday and Saturday, with The Room showing up for its monthly visit on Saturday only. Sunday morning's Goethe-Institut film actually references its namesake with Young Goethe in Love. Monday's Science on Screen feature is 12 Monkeys, with science writer Carl Zimmer on hand to discuss the film afterward. On Tuesday, members of the Boston Psychoanalytic society will be on-hand to discuss The Descendants as part of an "Off the Couch" screening at 7pm.

  • It's a very quiet weekend at Emerson's Paramount theater, with just a couple of shows: On Friday and Saturday evening, they screen David Lean's Summertime as part of the Katharine Hepburn series; this one features Hepburn as a never-married middle-aged woman who takes a vacation in Venice, perhaps hoping for romance. Friday night also has an IFFBoston screening of The Swell Season, which catches up with the stars of Once as they tour the world after falling in love for real.

    Over at the Harvard Film Archive, they spend the weekend continuing the Henri-Georges Clouzot series, with The Raven, Miquette and Her Mother, Quai des Orfèvres, The Spies, The Mystery of Picasso, and The Truth all playing at various times between Friday and Monday.

    The MFA, meanwhile, brings The Festival of Films from Greece to a close with Plato's Academy on Friday and Saturday and Alps on Sunday. Architecture & Design on Film continues throughout the week with Eames: The Architect and Painter on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday; How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster and John Portman: A Life of Building on Wednesday and Thursday; and Unfinished Spaces on Thursday. All three will also continue through next week

  • Over at the Regent in Arlington, they've got a special one-night only event on Thursday the 15th: The local premiere of The Wrecking Crew, which aims to bring the same attention to the namesake group of California studio musicians that Standing in the Shadows of Motown brought to the Funk Brothers. Director Danny Tedesco (son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco) will be on hand to introduce the movie and answer questions.

  • The Hindi movie at Fresh Pond this week is Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, in which Ranveer Singh plays a conman who has been living off seducing women, with a group of them now deciding to team up to get their revenge. It's a full-one two-hour-plus Bollywood musical, so know what you're getting into. It's splitting the screen with the Telegu-language Panjaa, so check times before heading out.

  • There's also a little bit of first-and-a-half-run action going on this weekend, aside from Tomboy showing up at the Coolidge. The Ides of March moves from Somerville to the Capitol, and though Moneyball is also playing there, it's not set-up for a double feature. The New England Aquarium, meanwhile, picks up Happy Feet Two, which will play at 5pm weekdays and 4pm and 6pm on weekends and school vacation days, for the most part. That's real 70mm IMAX, by the way, and at $3.55 less than the digital "Imax" at the Boston Common Theater at the same time. Plus, you can get a combo deal which lets you into the Aquarium to see actual penguins as a bonus.

    I note that Boston Common is not showing any listings for evening IMAX 3D shows of Happy Feet Two, although nothing else is playing marked as IMAX. I choose to believe that they do this out of shame.

My plans? Again, not a whole lot. Saturday will probably be eaten by me setting up a command center to try and buy Red Sox tickets online after Japanese class. Speaking of which, I'm almost sure to see Outrage after that, if only to see if I understand the occasional word. Around those... Maybe The Wrecking Crew, Weekend, and/or Shame, and maybe try to catch up with My Week with Marilyn.

Katharine Hepburn, Stage II: Woman of the Year, State of the Union, and Adam's Rib

This was the second leg of ArtsEmerson's three-month Katharine Hepburn retrospective, and I must admit to enjoying this program of collaborations with Spencer Tracy a bit less than the first set. In her 1930s movies, Hepburn was a force of nature that demanded people either accept her as she is or get out of the way. Even the dizzy dame of Bringing Up Baby or the woman about to marry out of obligation in Holiday was exceptional somehow, and by the end of the movie, the man she chose would have accepted that.

Then you get to the 1940s, and Spencer Tracy, and suddenly Kate's ability is something that needs to be reined in. Woman of the Year often seems especially ugly in this regard; we spend the first chunk of the movie seeing that Tess is brilliant in a number of areas and willing to learn in others; then for its finale, the old arrogance returns, and the filmmakers stumble by not playing it as Tess and Sam needing to adapt to making big decisions together marriage as opposed to the single life, but Tess just being wrong and Sam being right, with Tess having to grovel before him even though he didn't exactly put a lot of effort into trying to fix things.

Plus, there's no way I'm going to believe that a college-educated veteran reporter can't make a pot of coffee without it becoming a slapstick farce. There's not a class, but if you're a coffee drinker, that's just basic survival techniques.

Anyway, the series at the Paramount is in its final leg now, with some of Hepburn's later works, where she was able to get some of her power back because she was no longer really playing a romantic lead - The African Queen last week, Summertime this weekend, and closing out the series with Long Day's Journey on the 17th and 18th.

Woman of the Year

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

I wonder, idly, what I'd think of Woman of the Year if I saw it as part of a program of Spencer Tracy films as opposed to one focused on Katharine Hepburn. In the context of Hepburn's work, it comes after three all-time classic films with Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story) and almost seems to serve as a rebuke to them, knocking the independent and intelligent Hepburn down a peg. On the other hand, it probably seemed to loosen Tracy up - a harbinger of a relationship that would prove fruitful both on-screen and off.

Sam Craig (Tracy) and Tess Harding (Hepburn) are columnists for the same newspaper, with Sam covering sports and Tess world affairs. A comment by Tess on a radio program describing sports as unimportant kicks off a feud, though they eventually bury the hatchet at a baseball game, falling for each other and even marrying. Of course, neither of them has really changed during this whirlwind courtship, so Sam's old-fashioned values and Tess's imperious nature will inevitably lead them to clash again.

Hepburn and Tracy would later go on to have a long-running relationship, but this is where they met, and the on-screen chemistry, at least, is visible from the start. Like all good movie newspapermen (and women), they're never at a loss for well-chosen words, but they still miss a step when they first meet, and a sequence of Tess attending her first baseball game does a nice job of putting the initial conflict to rest and letting the audience see her as potentially more than an all-business grump.

Full review at EFC.

State of the Union

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

Get this: In 1948, a successful businessman making a run to be the Republican Party's nominee for President against an incumbent Democrat but having to finesse his way around an extramarital affair or two was the subject of a Frank Capra film, with the candidate and his wife sympathetic characters. Really! They were played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn! And it was charmingly idealistic and kind of funny no matter which party you supported!

The would-be candidate is Grant Matthews (Tracy), a self-made millionaire in the aviation business being urged to run by his lover Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), who recently inherited her late father's newspaper empire. He's reluctant, but Washington operator Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) convinces him he's got a shot. The catch, obviously, is that it won't take the other papers long to dig up the connection between Grant and Kay, so they make sure that Grant's estranged but still loving wife Mary (Hepburn) travels with him on a cross-country speaking tour - with reporter "Spike" McManus (Van Johnson) along to serve as Kay's eyes and ears.

State of the Union is, like many Frank Capra films, a combination of cynicism and idealistic aspirations and cynical reality, with Capra and his writers (Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, from a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) not opting to use one to disguise another: The film is pretty clearly set up as a battle between the two women in his life for Grant's soul, with Mary believing he would make a good President despite his faults and Kay perhaps finding him an electable proxy for her own ambitions. It's a facile-seeming setup, perhaps, but the underlying concept rings sadly true sixty years later; it maps to a number of disappointing real-world candidates in recent decades.

Full review at EFC.

Adams' Rib

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

Adam's Rib opens with a darkly funny sequence, as wronged wife and mother Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) follows her husband Warren (Tom Ewell), trying to work up the nerve to shoot him. The outcome is not much in doubt - if no-one gets shot, there's no reason for the rest of the movie - but it's arguably the high point of the movie, even though enough jokes still work for it to amuse.

The story of the Attingers is front page news in New York City, and the district attorney assigns one of his best men, Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy), to prosecute it. It appears to be open and shut, at least until Adam's wife Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) inserts herself. Sympathetic toward Doris, she points out that society has often looked the other way when cuckolded men take their vengeance, and attempts to secure the same sort of treatment for Doris, even if she has to turn the trial into a circus to do it.

It's possible to do a "battle of the sexes" movie that doesn't come off as unfair, even when appraised with a later, more progressive eye - Tracy and Hepburn actually made a decent stab at it earlier in the decade with Woman of the Year - but Adam's Rib is certainly not it. Sure, Hepburn's Amanda is perhaps played as the more capable of the Bonners, but it's a rare moment when Amanda is the one making the reasonable argument or doing the reasonable thing while Adam goes too far. That's not inherently a bad thing, but the script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin often crosses the line from madcap to mean. This is meant to be a romantic comedy, but the antics on display do less to demonstrate why they love each other than to indicate that they must, because otherwise why put up with this?

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A great time to take kids to the movies: Happy Feet Two, The Muppets, Hugo and Arthur Christmas

I've been mentioning it in the last couple of Next Week in Tickets entries (as I try to catch up on what's going to be an enormous This Week/Month/Long Time in Tickets), but there is a ridiculously good selection of family-friendly films out right now, and by the end of December we'll get Tintin directed by Steven Spielberg and We Bought a Zoo by Cameron Crowe. So, parents who take their kids to the new Chipmunks movie have what might be kindly called "better alternatives" and just as accurately described as "no excuse whatsoever".

Of course, as with anybody without kids who purports to have any sort of opinion about stuff involving them, I've been told my thoughts are worth very little. For instance, out of these four movies, my favorite is easily Hugo, but I honestly have no idea how it will go over with kids. It's not just that it hits my buttons incredibly well, but I just don't have the day-to-day interaction with them where I can judge what their attention span is or whether certain things will interest them. I think Hugo is wonderful, but it is pretty evenly paced. On a second viewing, I talked myself into thinking that was a very good thing, but it's different enough from a lot of other things made for kids (and, sure, adults) that I just don't know how kids would react to it. Neither screening was packed, and I didn't hear kids going bananas afterward, so who knows.

Similarly, I found Happy Feet Two pleasantly weird, but I've got no idea how kids process it. There have been a couple of animated movies like this in 2011 - Rango is the other one - that struck me as just demented, although I half-suspect that this might be more of a problem for parents than kids who haven't had time to establish what "normal" is.

Then there's The Muppets. At Thanksgiving, my awesome five-year-old niece Dagny didn't really know the characters, but her mother was jazzed about it. That's sort of where I figured this movie would fall; the Muppets haven't been in kids' faces constantly like their cousins on Sesame Street, and Disney was marketing ­this as much to grown-ups as to the little guys. Plus, I caught the 5pm show on opening day (no, I did not work from home that day entirely to make it possible), and I think the movie is pitched more to grown-ups. There's nothing objectionable in it for kids, but the themes are reunions and broken relationships and nostalgia. Sure, any kid is likely going to get feeling out of place like Walter and love the broad characters, but I think it packs a sneaky extra wallop for grownups, in part because it leans heavily on The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show (the first time these guys have done this, really; before, the Muppets have just been these great characters that are great in part because they work in so many situations; continuity is new to them).

And yet, last Friday my brother posted a picture on Facebook of Dagny staring at the movie screen in rapt attention. Which probably means Disney got the desired reaction.

And that I've got to slug my brother for whipping out his smartphone in a movie theater when I see him at Christmas, just on general principles.

Speaking of Christmas, I suspect that Arthur Christmas is maybe the one best pitched to kids. It's new, fun, fast, and gorgeous, and really doesn't do much to fly over kids' heads at all. It's about Santa, after all, and it's from Aardman Animations, who are crazy good at this sort of thing.

So, in summary: Arthur Christmas is the probably safest bet for little kids (below eight or so). Hugo for the slightly older ones (seven and up). Prime the pump for The Muppets by showing kids The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show first (which is its own reward). Maybe be ready to talk about climate change when seeing Happy Feet Two.

Oh, and a couple more things: First, I got lucky/planned well in where I saw these movies - Happy Feet Two was playing in genuine horizontal-70mm IMAX at the Furniture store (they actual brag about being film-based in the introduction, which I love), The Muppets was on the big screen in Somerville, Arthur Christmas was on screen #1 in Arlington (though, sadly, I was the only person there), and I was sort of caught by surprise to see that Hugo had the RPX screen at Fenway the first time I saw it, as I figured Twilight 4 would still be there. I sort of doubt that they'll keep those screens for much longer, but not only are all of them are good enough to be worth paying a little extra to see in good conditions, those screens aren't really that much more expensive under those circumstances: My matinee ticket for The Muppets cost $5, and an evening ticket at Somerville costs $8, less than matinee price at the chain theaters. The $11.50 for Arthur Christmas was about what AMC & Regal charge for 2D shows; the price was similar for for Happy Feet Two in Reading. Hugo was a little pricier, but the deluxe screen with the nice seats and nicer presentation was really only about fifty cents more than the "regular" 3D projection in the same building.

And, finally, three of these four movies had shorts attached, although none were really a big deal. For Arthur Christmas, it was Justin Bieber music video, and... Well, he's an odd thing, isn't he? I mean, he's this super-white, pubescent-looking kid whose music sort of apes hip-hop at times. I guess that makes him his generation's Pat Boone. The Muppets had a Toy Story short attached, and it was cute, with the guys getting a lot of jokes about what fast-food giveaway toys would be like in that world. It does kind of show just how extending a franchise can dilute it, too - remember when the toys getting across town was an adventure? By the end of this short, they're doing it like it was no big deal.

Then there's "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat", attached to Happy Feet Two, which features Sylvester, Tweety, and Granny digitally rendered in 3D, with the soundtrack taken from some sort of record that Mel Blanc recorded years ago. My initial reaction is basically that this thing is an affront to all that is right and decent - seriously, when I saw Mel Blanc's name in the credits twenty-two years after the man died, it freaked me out (I figured June Foray was from the record too, but it looks like she's still voicing Granny and other characters at 94, because June Foray is awesome). It's a clear demonstration of how CGI is not a great medium for hand-drawn characters - they look like plastic if the animators try to retain the simplicity of the designs, but all the textures and fur/feathers in this make them look even stranger. Even beyond those issues, though, I think this is just a bad cartoon - the pace of the song doesn't actually match slapstick rhythms well.

Anyway, Warner, I beg of you - don't do this again. Have guys ink and paint on celluloid - it just looks wrong otherwise.

Happy Feet Two

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2011 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first run, IMAX 3-D)

Happy Feet had an odd but charming concept - penguins who sing, except for the misfit who tap-dances - and somehow managed to get even odder as it went along. Happy Feet Two, in comparison, seems like a more conventional animated sequel, but its eccentricity is on display by the end.

It's only fitting that things are a little more settled - the tap-dancing penguin from the first, Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) is more settled; he and his mate Gloria (voice of Alecia "Pink" Moore) have a boy of their own. It seems Erik (voice of Ava Acres) is just as awkward as his father was, and after a mortifying scene in front of the whole colony, Erik and his friends Bo (voice of Meibh Campbell) and Atticus (voice of Benjamin "Lil P-Nut" Flores Jr.) run away from home, tagging along with Mumble's friend Ramon (voice of Robin Williams), who is going back to his Adelie colony. There they meet Sven (voice of Hank Azaria), a flying penguin. Mumble goes to fetch the kids, but while he's out, disaster befalls the colony.

Meanwhile, a krill named Will (voice of Brad Pitt) decides he wants to be an individual instead of part of a swarm, although his scared friend Bill (voice of Matt Damon) isn't quite so sure about the idea.

George Miller once again directs - yes, he made the Mad Max movies and Lorenzo's Oil; he was also behind Babe and its sequel - and he's got some big ideas at play above and beyond how cute baby penguins are. For instance, while Happy Feet Two isn't a movie about climate change per se, that's something that's clearly on his mind. The danger to the emperor penguin colony is clearly the result of that situation, and while Miller and his three co-writers don't force a lecture from the birds, they do frequently pull the camera back to space, far enough to make the audience connect the penguins' crisis with the planet as a whole (along with the impact of man), and he moves from that global scale all the way down to the microscopic krill.

Full review at EFC.

The Muppets

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

I love the Muppets. Dig through various internet message boards and you'll see that I was pushing for Kermit the Frog to host the Oscars for years before it was a thing. I maintain that their Christmas album with John Denver is the only one that a person needs. So, yes, I was looking forward to this, and I'm pleased at the result, and hope for more now that the comeback is out of the way.

The Muppets, at least in the movie, haven't been together in years, to the chagrin of two brothers in Smalltown, USA who are their number one fans. Older brother Gary (Jason Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are going to Los Angeles, and little brother Walter (a puppet performed by Peter Linz) is coming along, excited to see Muppet Studios. When they get there, though, not only is the place run down, but Walter overhears tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) going over his plans to buy it, knock it down, and drill for the oil underneath! Gary, Walter, and Mary find the now-reclusive Kermit the Frog (performed by Steve Whitmire) to tell him about this disaster, and they conclude that the only way to raise the ten million dollars necessary to save the theater is to put on a show, which means getting the gang back together.

The Muppets' need to make a comeback is meant to reflect real life, and I take a bit of issue with that: While this is their first theatrical feature since 1999's Muppets From Space, I haven't felt like the characters were missing in the interim; there's been regular TV movies and specials, a great comic book series by Roger Landridge, and more. They could use a push back into the spotlight, sure, but acting like they've been gone for a generation and a half both sells them short and makes the first half of the movie both too melancholy and too focused on the human characters.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2011 and 3 December 2011 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX 3D)

How good is Hugo? It's repeat-viewing good. In fact, it's repeat-viewing-in-3D-on-the-premium-(that-is-to-say-expensive)-screen-while-it's-still-there good. Now, certainly, part of the reason I did so was the lack of new films opened during its second weekend of release, but this is the one I wanted to see again, even if it cost $13.50. A high price, but it earns the money.

The movie follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps the clocks wound while dodging the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He also has another project, rebuilding an automaton that his father (Jude Law) discovered in a museum. For that he steals parts from the booth of a toymaker (Ben Kingsley), who becomes furious not just because of the theft, but upon seeing the boy's notebook, which he takes home to burn. Hugo appeals to the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookish but curious girl about his own age, to help him get it back.

The kids have no idea what sort of mystery they'll uncover, and I'm loath to spoil it even though it's a subject that will pique the interest of some potential customers. Suffice it to say that this is a Martin Scorcese movie, but not the type where he focuses on crime and criminals; rather, this is the Scorcese who so loves the movies and their history that he took painstaking care to duplicate the look of film in each era in The Aviator. That Hugo and Isabelle will sneak into a movie is a given (and given that it's 1930 and Hugo spends a great deal of time in and around clock faces, the choice of which one is also clear), but when they talk of movies being dreams given life, it's quite literal: Hugo's daydreams and flashbacks are not announced with a musical cue or fade, but with the light flickering and the sound of film passing through a projector.

Full review at EFC.

Arthur Christmas

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2011 in Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, RealD 3D)

Arthur Christmas is going to be overlooked by many just by having the lousy luck to open alongside two of the more anticipated and acclaimed family movies in recent history (The Muppets and Martin Scorcese's Hugo), despite the fact that it's got a thoroughly impressive pedigree of its own: It's the latest from Aardman Animation and has enough British acting talent doing voices to staff a Harry Potter movie, and nobody involved in this charming animated movie disappoints.

Title character Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the second son of the current Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent), and he tends to be a bit of a screw-up, which is why he works in the mailroom while older son Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) actually runs the high-tech operation from Mission Control at the North Pole. Steve's a logistical genius, which is why the discovery of an undelivered present on his stealthy super-sleigh is a shock - but, hey, it's well within the margin for error. Arthur, though, can only think of how one little girl in Cornwall will feel when she's the only kid to wake up without a present under the tree, and so sets off with cantankerous retired "Grandsanta" (voiced by Bill Nighy) and elf Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen), an expert present-wrapper, to make things right.

They've only got hours to go, but with Grandsanta's magically-powered sleigh and three characters who can not only be expected to stumble, but stumble enthusiastically, that's plenty of time for a number of slapstick adventures all around the world. Many of them, admittedly, are a bit uneven, and some of the lesser ones could probably have been removed without much trouble if director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham had opted to make a television holiday special rather than a feature film, but each sequence has something in it that's at least a little funny and thrilling enough to excite but not really scare the young audience members. Smith and company also load it with background jokes; I expect that there will be a lot of freeze-framing and rewinding of the eventual home video release to catch what that one elf said or what's showing on a computer monitor. The script is also peppered with funny lines, and Smith respects both the kids and adults in the audience to catch those jokes without underline them.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 2 December 2011 - 8 December 2011

There is so close to nothing coming out this week that we might as well just link back to last week's. But, there's screenings at rep theaters and a few new releases, so let's see what's showing up before just looking at catching up.

  • Some of the "new releases" are more along the lines of "very short runs", comprising just Friday and Saturday. The Brattle, for instance, will feature Tales from the Golden Age at 4pm and 7pm and Burke and Hare at 10pm and midnight. The former is an anthology film led by director Cristian Mungiu; like his 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, it focuses on life in Romania during the latter years of the Ceausescu regime with a darkly comic look at the everyday insanity of living in a dictatorship. The latter comes from John Landis; it's a frequently funny look at the infamous pair of Edinburgh "resurrection men", as played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.

    Across the river, ArtsEmerson has the Boston release of The Color Wheel, in which director Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman star as a pair of bickering siblings who have a hopefully funny back-and-forth as the brother helps his sister move. It plays at 6:30pm on Friday and 8:45pm on Friday and Saturday, with Perry on hand for the Friday night shows.

  • ArtsEmerson also starts their third leg of their Katharine Hepburn series (which could be subtitled "the spinster years") with a newly restored 35mm print of The African Queen on Saturday at 6:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. If you haven't seen this, you really should - it's Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on the title boat in East Africa during World War II, a great adventure with great performances.

    Among other continuing programs, the Harvard Film Archive wraps up its tribute to one director and continues another. Friday and Saturday are the finales for Frederick Wiseman, Institution USA, featuring two very different films - on Friday night, Wiseman appears in person to present The Last Letter, a rare non-documentary (though the black-and-white, Expressionistic monologue of a woman describing the Nazis taking her village is hardly conventional), while Saturday features State Legislature, a three-and-a-half hour documentary on Idaho lawmakers and their staff at work.

    The other series is The Complete Henri-Georges Clouzot, and also includes a documentary and a narrative. The documentary is Sunday's The Mystery of Picasso, in which Clouzot shows the artist at work in 1956 (it will repeat next week). The narrative film on Monday is one Clouzot wrote but did not direct, Strangers in the House, which adapts a George Simenon novel about a corpse found in a small-town lawyer's attic. It plays with "Jean's Return", a short film that originally appeared as part of a 1949 anthology.

    With a new month, the MFA starts a new calendar, including The Boston Turkish Film Festival's Documentary & Short Film Competition and The Festival of Films from Greece. The former wraps up on Sunday, while the latter continues for a week after that; both include some acclaimed films. On Wednesday the 7th, they start a program of Architecture & Design on Film which will run for most of the month, starting with Eames: The Architect and Painter

    The Brattle will also have the latest installment in their CineCaché series on Monday the 5th, although as of this writing, the film has not yet been announced.

  • The rest of the Brattle's schedule is some potentially fun special events: A live presentation of the Baltimore Annex Theater's production Threepenny Opera plays on Sunday at 8pm, and there are Harvard Book Store presentations on Monday (Mindy Kaling, sold out) and Wednesday (American's Test Kitchen) at 6pm. There's a new ski movie on Tuesday, with "Solitaire" offering a rare look at winter sports in South America's mountains. And on Wednesday and Thursday evening, a new Muppet movie in theaters is as good an excuse as any to show the original classic The Muppet Movie, with the added kick that the 8:30pm show on Wednesday and the 7pm show on Thursday are sing-alongs!

    If you'd like to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial on the big screen, you've got options: ArtsEmerson will be running it in the Paramount's Bright Screening Room on Saturday at 2pm, while the Coolidge has it playing midnights on Friday and Saturday as well as at 10am on Saturday morning. Note that ArtsEmerson is advertising the 2002 re-issue edition (notorious for some well-intentioned but unnecessary changes) while the Coolidge has the original 1982 cut... So, aside from a potentially more convenient time, I'm not sure why anyone wouldn't see it at the Coolidge.

    The Coolidge also has a couple of other enjoyable presentations this weekend: The other midnight movie on Friday and Saturday is The Creature from the Black Lagoon in anaglyph 3D - red and blue glasses will be provided! People say those look silly, but honestly - an audience filled with people wearing those looks like it's about to have fun, compared to the serious room full of Matrix characters of today. Sunday morning's Talk Cinema screening is Michel Haznavicius's thoroughly wonderful The Artist, with conversation afterward.

    AMC Boston Common and Showcase Cinemas Revere will also be having weekend matinees of Pokemon the Movie: White - Victini and Zekrom on Saturday and Sunday. I'm guessing it's dubbed.

  • Also worth noting at Boston Common and Revere, the showtimes for Moneyball and The Ides of March are set up for viewing as a double feature. Revere is selling single-admission tickets for the pair, but I don't know about Boston Common, but it's worth asking at the box office.

    Other than that, the multiplexes basically stay as-is this weekend, with just two screens turning over: Kendall Square picks up Tomboy for a one-week booking; it's about a ten-year old girl who, when her family moves to a new neighborhood outside Paris, is mistaken for a boy and opts to run with it, even though she's quite feminine at home. Boston Common's booking of Answers to Nothing is technically open-ended but since this mystery/ensemble drama is getting terrible reviews and also available on demand, it likely won't last long despite a cast of Dane Cook, Julie Benz, Erik Palladino, and Elizabeth Mitchell. (Okay, it probably doesn't deserve that sarcasm)

My plans - yikes - probably mainly involve double-dipping: Another go at The Artist and Hugo, especially while the latter is playing on the RPX screen at Fenway (it was gorgeous last weekend). Catch-up with My Week with Marilyn and maybe J. Edgar. See what CineCaché is. That sort of thing.

(There will be non-preview posts coming soon, honest!)