Thursday, December 27, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 December 2012 - 3 January 2013

The big openings for this weekend were on the 25th, so while there's some catching up to do, there's not a lot of turnover.

  • The most visible opening is Promised Land, where Matt Damon re-teams with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant but has a new writing partner and co-star in John Krasinski. Damon plays a corporate rep looking to buy drilling rights in a small town forced to confront the ethics of the situation. It plays one screen at Boston Common and two at Kendall Square, and will likely be expanding over the next few weeks.

    Boston Common also picks up Not Fade Away, noteworthy for being Sopranos mastermind David Chase's first foray into film since a low-budget 1972 vampire movie. It's a 1960s coming-of-age story about Jersey kids in a rock & roll band.
  • The Brattle finishes 2012 off with the rest of the Gene Kelly Centennial Tribute, which features double features through Sunday: 1948's The Three Musketeers & The Pirate on Friday, Summer Stock & Cover Girl on Saturday (with a 9:30pm late show of Xanadu, his last film), and An Amerian In Paris & Invitation to the Dance on Sunday.

    Other classics ring in the new year. The 31st has a double feature of The Thin Man and its first sequel, After the Thin Man (the latter shown digitally), and if there's a better way to end the moviegoing year than Nick & Nora & Asta, I don't know it. Plus, it's free to First Night buttonholders. On Tuesday the 1st, they have the annual Marx Brothers Marathon, this year including Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Room Service, and A Night at the Opera. All 35mm, $20 for a marathon ticket ($15 for members). The week finishes off with The Hurt Locker on Wednesday and Thursday, anticipating the upcoming release of director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.
  • The Coolidge continues the same schedule from Christmas - Django Unchained in house #1, Hitchcock and Anna Karenina in house #2, Barbara in the screening room, and A Royal Affair in the MiniMax. They do keep Christmas around with Friday and Saturday midnights of Bad Santa. They also close early on New Year's Eve, with no shows after 9pm.
  • The MFA wraps the December schedule with the end of their series of The Films of Juliette Binoche, with various screenings of Summer Hours, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Lovers on the Bridge, between Friday and Sunday. On Monday, they've got a 45 -minute First Night Short Films Program running during the morning and afternoon, most notably including "Gumdrop", a short co-directed by Kerry Conran, last seen directing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow way too long ago. Thus far, they haven't put their January film schedule online.
  • The Regent Theatre finishes up their Christmas week Sing-Along screenings of The Sound of Music, with three shows on Friday and one Saturday matinee.
  • The iMovieCafe screen at Fresh Pond continues Dabangg 2, with one or two screenings of Yamudiki Mogudu for those who speak Telugu.
  • Somerville Theatre is back up to five screens with The Slutracker done (aside from one New Year's Eve show), picking up Life of Pi from Arlington.

My plans? Catch-up, plus The Thin Man.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Central Park Five

Not much to say about the circumstances around seeing this film or the lead-up. Maybe I shouldn't have seen three movies on a day when I really needed to finish my Christmas shopping? Eh, it got done.

I suppose it's worth mentioning that I haven't done much research into how complete/accurate the film is. While I doubt that there are any factual errors, the extremely focused nature of the narrative leaves ample space for things to be left out, and anybody who wants to learn about the case should likely supplant this with other resources.

The Central Park Five

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, 2K digital)

The Central Park Five states the reason for its existence plainly toward the end: To in some small way close the gap between how loudly its subjects' guilt was proclaimed twenty-odd years ago and the attention paid to their being declared innocent after serving seven to thirteen years in jail. It's a worthy goal, and while getting the film in front of all the people who followed the news back then is likely impossible, those that do see it will certainly absorb its recounting of events.

When a woman jogging in New York's Central Park was raped and beaten into a coma in April 1989, it made the national news and became a cause célèbre in the local press. The police connected it with other violent incidents going on in the park at around the same time, and within two days, they had confessions from five shockingly young suspects - 14-year-olds Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson & Yusef Salaam and 16-year-old Korey Wise. That all were black or hispanic while the victim was white inflamed the situation further, and the district attorney had little trouble getting convictions a year later. A seeming triumph for the criminal justice system that New York badly needed - except that the five were innocent, their confessions coerced in marathon sessions without parents or lawyers.

The story touches upon a number of hot-button issues, either directly or as a tangent - race relations, capital punishment, what opportunities prisoners should have, and just why proper police procedure is so important. What the filmmakers can focus on is limited by access - none of the involved police officers nor any current city official chose to participate - but in some ways, this helps put the situation in context better than having a former NYPD detective tell the camera about the pressure they were under to close the case or how he regrets the assumptions he made back then. This is the world that the Five were living in, and how it got that way or how it evolved since then is irrelevant to their story.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wagner & Me

Fair warning/disclaimer: I missed the first minute or three of Wagner & Me as the bus from Fenway kept slipping while I waited for it (it seemed to be 3 minutes away for fifteen minutes). Hate when that happens, but I kept waiting because this was the MFA's last screening. Maybe if I hadn't stayed through all of The Hobbit's many credits, waiting for a preview that never came, I would have caught the previous one.

I came to this as a fan of Stephen Fry as opposed to having much particular interest in Richard Wagner. The composer does make for an interesting topic, although I can't say that I'm going to be rushing out to purchase great big Ring Cycle box sets as a result. That isn't exactly the purpose of the film, anyway - as much as Fry SPOILERS! ultimately says that he will continue enjoying Wagner because the music is good, !SRELIOPS it's not a movie about convincing. Though Fry and director Patrick McGrady do a fine job in explaining what Wagner did well, it comes down to "I heard it and liked it".

Truth be told, I like that; too many documentaries often seem like preaching to the choir while too few are simply informative. As much as documentaries with a strong point of view and mission behind them (especially if they are anti-authoritarian enough to be considered "brave") seem to get more critical acclaim, I tend to come to documentaries more via curiosity than passion, and therefore tend to favor the ones that put facts before me over those that arrange said facts in a pointed way.

On a completely different note, this isn't the only thing I saw in the last few weeks because of Fry's participation; on the first night of my London vacation, I saw him tread the boards in an "original practices" production of Twelfth Night. That was a lot of fun, although I must say that my first night in the city, not having slept that much on the plane (after staying up too long in an attempt to avoid jet lag by sleeping on the plane), did not have me in a particularly alert frame of mind for it. I do remember Fry giving a great performance, though, as did Mark Rylance (I was also pleased to recognize an actor from Black Pond). Just, man, how great would it have been completely rested?

Wagner & Me

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2012 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (special engagement, digital)

Wagner & Me is probably only going to be terribly educational for those like myself whose musical knowledge is relatively shallow - the folks who sing "kill the wab-bit!" to ourselves when a certain bit of Richard Wagner's most famous piece shows up on the soundtrack. Fortunately, it is nicely informative for that audience, and even for those in the audience who know everything he's saying, it's an hour and a half of Stephen Fry expounding on an enthusiasm, and that's always a pleasant time.

Mister Fry is, among many other things, a lover of Wagner's music, and he is quite excited to come to Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth and the theater that the composer built there for the express purpose of showing his "musical dramas". The theater now hosts an annual music festival centered around Wagner's Ring Cycle, with a seven-year waiting list for tickets. And yet, Fry tells us, he is ambivalent about supporting it; being Jewish, it is hard for him to overlook just how strongly the music is associated with the Nazis (he was a favorite of Hitler and the Wagner family supported the Nazis well before not doing so was suicide), and the anti-Semitism in the man's own writings.

Fry and filmmaker Patrick McGrady investigating Wagner's life and music and trying to reconcile those feelings gives them a reason to crisscross Europe while using Bayreuth as a home base, making stops in Nuremberg, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg to visit the important scenes of Wagner's life and afterlife where music is performed and scholars are interviewed. It is, generally, a good overview; McGrady never seems to be glossing over any portion of his subject's story, and while the examples of Wagner's work are often briefer than they perhaps must be (even when he doesn't have to try and deliver the essence of a four-hour opera in five minutes), he and Fry do a fair job of explaining things that may seem rather opaque to non-musicians.

The strength and weakness of that framework is Fry himself. Stephen Fry is a man of varied and voluble enthusiasms, and each visit to a new location brings forth the giddy joy of a teenage girl with a backstage pass for her favorite band. It's sometimes a bit distracting, but much more often it's infectious, especially since he manages the neat trick of combining an appreciation for high art with an utter lack of snobbery. This unabashed love for the music makes it hard to see him actually wrestle with the decision; aside from one interesting scene where he seems to be asking a cellist who survived the Holocaust permission to enjoy Wagner's music, the topic of anti-Semitism occasionally seems to come up in interviews out of obligation more than as a matter of real difficulty. The decision he ultimately makes is seldom in doubt.

It would be easy for that aspect of Wagner to overwhelm the entire production, which would miss the point that he is more than just a few ugly magazine articles and a truly repugnant fan. Wagner & Me is a basic primer fit for a BBC or PBS afternoon slot, though far more charming than most.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 December 2012 - 27 December 2012

Another week with two Dates When Movies Open: The Friday before Christmas and Christmas itself. Combined with things having opened this past Wednesday, and theaters' increasing willingness and ability to put popular films on more screens at the last minute, check listings before heading out.

  • On Friday the 21st, the multiplexes are opening a pair of fairly big-name movies. Jack Reacher has Tom Cruise playing the hero of Lee Child's novels (it's based upon One Shot), with Rosamund Pike as the damsel in distress and Werner Herzog as a villain. Herzog doesn't direct - Christopher MacQuarrie does - but he always makes things better. Robert Duvall's in there somewhere, too. It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common. The same theaters also pick up This Is 40, Judd Apatow's spin-off of Knocked Up which focuses on the couple played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who apparently are having a hard time getting along as they approach the big four-oh. Between that and the massive number of screens playing The Hobbit (and Monsters Inc. & The Guilt Trip having opened Wednesday, there's barely any room for Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, which is playing two 3D shows a day at Boston Common and Fenway. The troupe did an IMAX film a few years back that looked nice, and the preview for this offers more prettiness.

    Interestingly, Worlds Away seems to pick up more showtimes on Christmas, despite several other movies opening. The less impressive is almost certainly Parental Guidance, which posits that Marisa Tomei is the result of Billy Crystal's and Bette Midler's genes mixing, which I find suspicious. They play grandparents coming to help watch the kids and befuddled by new-age parenting. Crystal gets hit in the crotch a lot, it seems. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. Also on those screens is Les Miserables, featuring a pretty terrific cast of Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and more, doing their own singing for Tom Hooper's adaptation of the musical play based on Victor Hugo's novel.
  • The other really big Christmas opening is the new one by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. It's got Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as nineteenth-century bounty hunters whose search for Django's wife leads them to a plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm hearing Samuel L. Jackson is especially great in this. It opens at The Coolidge (where to go if you want to see it in 35mm as QT intended), Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    The Coolidge has a busy week all around, finally getting Hitchcock on its big screen on Friday and German Oscar submission Barbara, about a doctor hoping to cross from East to West Germany in 1980 who is instead reassigned to a rural town, opens that day in the screening room. They also welcome the Mayan Apocalypse with midnight screenings of Armageddon (you only show Michael Bay there if the world is going to end!). They also do a little shuffling on Christmas Day, replacing Chasing Ice on the GoldScreen with A Royal Affair.
  • While Kendall Square's big opener is Django, they also pick up something noteworthy on Friday: Rust and Bone, which features Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer and Matthias Schoenaerts (who was fantastic in Bullhead) as a bouncer. An unlikely match, but a horrific injury brings them closer together.
  • The Brattle switches things up for the holiday, as well. They spend the weekend finishing up the Focus Features Tenth Birthday party, with Milk and Shaun of the Dead on Friday (separate features), a double feature of Jane Eyre and Atonement on Saturday, with Brick as a separate late show, and separate features of Monsoon Wedding and Coraline on Sunday (Coraline is 2D, but should still look fantastic).

    They're closed to do their holiday shopping on Christmas Eve, but Christmas brings their Gene Kelly Centennial Tribute, with Singin' in the Rain on the 25th, a double feature of On the Town and Anchors Aweigh on Wednesday, and another twin bill (Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather) on Thursday. The series will run through Sunday the 30th.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is more or less dark, with the exception of the 4th Annual Vintage Christmas Show, a two-hour grab bag that includes a feature, some shorts, and a George Kuchar video diary. It's a free all-ages show at 2pm on Sunday (the 23rd).
  • The MFA wraps up its December calendar with an extension of what it has been showing: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as do The Films of Juliette Binoche, which include Certified Copy, Code Unknown,Damage, and the 1992 Wuthering Heights over the weekend and Chocolat and The English Patient after the holidays.
  • It's a holiday, so the Regent Theatre in Arlington is breaking out a sing-along print. For Christmas vacation, it's The Sound of Music, with on-screen lyrics, costume contests, and goody bags. One matinee and one evening show each on Wednesday the 26th and Thursday the 27th, with shows continuing through the 29th
  • Almost certainly the most fun title to say this weekend is Dabangg 2, a Bollywood action movie which has Salman Khan returning as a top cop and Sonakshi Sinha as his wife, and villains new and old to deal with (and being Bollywood, there are songs and comedy mixed in). It plays Fresh Pond via iMovieCafe starting on the 21st, although it does share the screen with a couple of unsubtitled Telegu-language films between Saturday and Tuesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a bit of second-run action starting Christmas Day, when they pick upSilver Linings Playbook. They also have a few things coming up that folks should consider buying tickets for early - the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival & Marathon from February 8th through 18th, something called "Faith Soloway's Lesbian Cinema Schlock Treatment" on February 14th, and the Alloy Orchestra accompanying a series of Buster Keaton shorts on February 23rd. The Coolidge also has a show that may sell out very early, the annual Sundance USA screening. This year it's on January 31st and has Liz W. Garcia in town to present her movie The Lifeguard

My plans include Django Unchained in 35mm, Jack Reacher, Rust & Bone, Brick, and all the stuff I've been meaning to catch up on for the better part of a month. Of course, it all depends on how much time is spent trying to Christmas shop before the holiday and how long I spend in Maine afterward.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kataoka Ichiro, Benshi: Shoes, "A Dog's Life", and Dragnet Girl

I don't, as a rule, get hugely excited about the special events on the Harvard Film Archive's schedule; they often play to a specialized audience. Sometimes, though, that specialized audience is me - I love silent movies and am probably closer to being one of those sad nerds who act like they have some sort of affinity for/knowledge of Japanese culture from manga and movies than I'd care to admit.

I freely admit, though, that I'd never heard of benshi before. They are a uniquely Japanese part of cinema, performers who would stand at the front of the cinema to add narration and voice dialogue during the silent era. They were a fairly powerful guild in their time, able to delay the introduction of synchronized sound to Japanese theaters by a number of years - for example, Dragnet Girl was released in 1933, well after the talkies had taken over elsewhere. They were occasionally even considered threatening to the government: After all, you could monitor the content of a film, but keeping an eye on what every benshi says at every screening is something else again!

There were many benshi at the medium's height - male, female, young, old, sometimes entire families performing together. Eventually, sound came to eiga the way it came to cinema around the world, and the time of the benshi was over. Except - not quite. Shunsui Matsuda, who had been a child benshi during the silent era continued after World War II, touring the country and in the process building a formidable collection of silent film prints as he did so. He also took on students, who would later do the same, which brings us to Kataoka Ichiro:

Benshi Tadaoka Ichiro

Imagine the lights brought down and a movie playing over his right shoulder.

He did the actual narration in Japanese, naturally, and there wasn't any sort of simultaneous translation aside from the films' intertitles. Unfortunately, all I've retained from a whole bunch of Saturdays at the Boston Language Institute was the ability to point to myself and say "Jason desu", so I didn't get the full experience, but it was a nifty way to see the movie nonetheless - having tone of voice connected to the image added a little texture, and although Kataoka-san was fairly restrained with dramas, he added a bit of energy to comedy.

Kataoka-san seemed a friendly guy, happy to discuss his unusual occupation after the films. He mentioned that being a benshi wasn't quite a hobby that he only gets to do on special occasions, as roughly three silent movies screen each week in Tokyo, generally with accompaniment. That's a fair number, although I suspect the number drops off precipitously once you leave the bigger cities. Still, probably more than most cities, even places like Boston where such screenings are relatively popular.

One other thing that came up that maybe didn't perk the ears of the HFA's audience quite as much as mine was that he and other benshi also do voice-over work for animation. It's natural, but it reminded me of how anime fans used to grumble both about the terrible English dubs on Stateside releases - occasionally done by the distributor's office staff - and how American animated films were often sold on celebrity voices as opposed to voice actors who knew this job well and were famous in their own right as voice actors. The general conclusion, of course, was generally something like anime is better and Japan has more respect for animation as a medium (late twentieth-century anime fans could be intense). I now wonder if this was a bit of a missing piece that anime fans didn't much consider - animation is more popular and broadly used in Japan, true, but celebrity "voice actors" actually predates animation, and even if there was enough of a gap between the decline of silents and the premiere of Astro Boy that few benshi seem likely to have transitioned directly to the new medium, this kind of work was almost certainly already respected by those in show business, rather than being a side job or anonymous like it was elsewhere.

The movie choices were interesting, too. Shoes was made by a company called Bluebird that made features for Universal in the studio's early days, and while Bluebird and their movies became relatively obscure in the USA, they were apparently quite popular and well-remembered in Japan. In a bit of a coincidence, the opening text crawl of Shoes positions it as a thematic follow-up to another Bluebird film directed by Lois Weber, Where Are My Children?, originally scheduled to play at the Brattle as part of their Universal Centennial program.

Shoes being roughly an hour long, it was originally expected to play alongside a short movie from Japan, but that was apparently unavailable as well, so Charlie Chaplin's "A Dog's Life" was substituted. No complaints about that here - it's a fun little movie which allowed Tadaoka-san to show another side to his performance, really giving everybody distinctive speech patters despite the movie being silent. And considering how hand-wringingly dour Shoes is, "A Dog's Life" almost seems like a more optimistic but barbed response, with laughs at the girl who sings about misery.

As for Dragnet Girl, well, I should probably watch more Ozu so that I have something to say about this movie from his early career. It was interesting as being the only thing in the program made with the knowledge that there would be a benshi on stage at the front of the director's mind, and there were times in the last act when Ozu seemed to be trying to assert control, with intertitles restating the relationships between characters and the plot almost word-for-word at times in the end, lest a narrator try and put his own spin on things, which apparently happened.

It was an educational experience, to say the least. Even without that, though, it's a pretty neat way to see movies, if only as a novelty, worth giving a try even if your Japanese is worse than mine.

Percussionist Damon Krukowski

(Just a bonus bit of horrible photography, showing percussionist Damon Krukowski next to his rig Dragnet Girl. I missed getting a shot of Robert Humphreville, who accompanied Kataoka-san on the piano for Shoes and "A Dog's Life". Impressed by his schedule, though - that 7pm movie was apparently only the fourth of his five bookings on a Sunday!)


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

It's funny what strikes you when watching films from a hundred years ago and thinking of the society of the same time. For instance, Shoes posits that spending all one's time reading evidently was the mark of a useless layabout. The books are not even particularly described as junk or pulp; it's just that someone spends his time reading! It makes sense - it's not like there's TV or even that much radio in 1916 - but it dates this movie something fierce, as does some of its Puritan hand-wringing.

In Shoes, the shiftless bibliophile is the supposed head of the Meyer family (Harry Griffith), a father who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva (Mary MacLaren) brings in to the family on novels. Eva, who is the sole person supporting the poor family wants a new pair of shoes, and it's gone well beyond just vanity - what she wears is so close to falling apart that one strongly suspects that she won't be able to keep the job much longer if they frown on working barefoot; it seems like a reasonable investment for the family, really. But there's always some reason to put it off and they take her for granted, unlike the lascivious cabaret performer (William V. Mong) who spots Eva coming out of the department store one day.

The main problem with the movie is that for "a film in five acts", it feels like it could be compacted to a short with little damage; the characters just don't do very much other than restate their poverty and the father's laziness again and again. Director Lois Weber actually does a fairly impressive job of not making this drag, breaking it up with a fantasy sequence and making just enough use of the repetition to get across how Eva can't seem to make progress. The movie runs just under one hour, and though it could potentially be stretched at half that, it only skirts the borders of trying the audience's patience.

Like a number of other films directed by Weber and produced by Bluebird Photoplays - an early division of Universal that also made Where Are My Children? - Shoes is highly moralistic and leaves no doubt of what sort of reaction it aims to produce in its audience. From the earnestness of the opening titles to a finale meant to fill the audience with the same horror and shame as the characters, it makes for a strange time capsule.

The presentation is often as much of its time as the fervor, with the narrative intertitles a match for the broad acting. Harry Griffith and William V. Mong, especially, give the sort of big, theatrical performances that zero in on what's important about their characters unpretentiously enough to be enjoyable as more than just camp. Mattie Witting (as Eva's mother) and Mary MacLaren don't play quite so much to the balconies, but get across their characters' dire straits without making the women just walking misery. The shooting is nice, if static.

Because of all this, few if any today are going to watch Shoes as the sort of parable and piece of popular entertainment it was made to be a hundred years ago. It's still interesting, though, and probably goes down better than many of its contemporaries.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

"A Dog's Life"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

You really haven't seen a Chaplin film until you've seen it with a Japanese guy narrating and performing dialogue for the characters. With the fast-talking way Kataoka-san rattled off what he imagined the Tramp saying, it was almost like a Popeye cartoon at times.

Even without that, it's still a very funny movie, with Chaplin's Little Tramp befriending Scraps, "a thoroughbred mongrel" as they try to scavenge enough to survive on the street and eventually win the love of a woman whose singing at the Green Lantern club is so sad as to reduce all the revelers to tears. There's a bunch of quality slapstick and pathos that never really gets sappy... What more could one want from a Chaplin movie?

Hijosen no Onna (Dragnet Girl)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

I haven't seen nearly as many films by revered Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as I probably should if I want to consider myself a well-rounded lover of world and classic cinema. Heck, this may be it, and it's probably more representative of him as a craftsman than an auteur. It's an enjoyable example, though, perhaps especially if seen in its original, narrated format.

It's a fairly familiar sort of youth-at-risk story: Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui) is a kid who could potentially be a great boxer, but it's hard to muster the dedication necessary when crime seems to be treating former champion Joji (Joji Oka) better than boxing ever did. Hiroshi's sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is concerned, but of course her brother is hearing none of it.She's pretty and pure enough to get Hiroshi's attention, to the annoyance of his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), whose job as an office girl means dealing with attention from the owner's son (Koji Kaga). but may lead to criminal opportunity.

It's easy to think of the Westernization of Japan as a post-WWII phenomenon, but one only has to give this movie from 1933 a look to see it was going on earlier. But for the ethnicity of the cast, it feels like it could easily have come out of Hollywood; not only does everybody spend most of the film in Western attire, but Joji and Hiroshi practice boxing rather than karate or judo, and there's not a yakuza trope to be found among the crooks, either. Kazuko is the only one who spends a notable portion of the movie in traditional dress, for that matter. The story is the same on both sides of the Pacific, and Ozu and company tell it well.

There's probably something to just how western it seems which a westerner watching it almost eighty years later doesn't quite grasp except in the most vague sense. A formulaic story about the perils of easy money and falling in with the wrong crowd gains another layer warning about about breaking with tradition, although Ozu and co-writer Tadao Ikeda opt not to hammer this home (at least, these subtitles don't do that). It's actually a fairly entertaining movie to watch - Ozu and cinematographer Hideo Shigehara find interesting angles and move the camera in a fairly lively manner at times, and things move at a good pace despite not having the action of a typical crime story until fairly late in the game.

The acting style also seems surprisingly modern compared to other movies of its era, compared to the theatricality of silents and early talkies. The cast is good all around - Tanaka would go on to have a long and noteworthy career - giving the sort of performances that don't necessarily seem silent in one's memory. That may be in part due to seeing it not just with a live score, but narration and dialogue delivered by benshi Kataoka Ichiro. Live narration with silent films was the norm in Japan at the time - the guild actually managed to delay talking pictures in Japan for several years - and it allows Ozu to rely less on intertitles than other cultures' silent directors, and helps things flow more smoothly. The flip side is that benshi were independent, occasionally putting their own spin on a movie's story, and the repetitive dialogue in the last act's intertitles almost seems like an attempt to force the narrator to stay on the right track.

It's a relatively minor disruption to an enjoyable movie. It's almost certainly not among Ozu's best, given his reputation, but it's the sort of better-than-expected genre work that certainly can herald great work down the road.

Full review on eFilmCritic (dead link).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 December 2012 - 20 December 2012

I've done charts in these posts before, but the options for the movie opening this weekend are quite frankly mind-boggling.

  • That movie, of course, is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's return to the world of Middle-Earth for the story that started it all. It is mind-bogglingly expanded - this nearly-three-hour movie is the first of a trilogy, despite The Hobbit being shorter than any of the other Lord of the Rings novels. Still, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andy Serkis is a nice cast; the more kid-friendly tone appeals; and it's an interesting tech demo for being shot at 48fps rather than the usual 24. There are, accordingly, a lot of different formats at various prices at different sites.

    Jordan's IMAXDigital Imax 24fps$11.50$11.50$11.50
    Arlington CapitolDigital(?) 2D 24fpsN/A$6.00$9.00
    Arlington CapitolDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$9.00$12.00
    Fresh Pond35mm(?) 2D 24fpsN/A$6.75$9.25
    Fresh PondDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$9.00$12.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 2D 24fps$6.00$10.00$12.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$14.00$16.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 3D 48fps$10.00$14.00$16.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital Imax 24fps$12.00$16.00$18.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 2D 24fps$9.00$9.00$12.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 3D 24fps$13.00$13.00$16.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 3D 48fps$13.00$13.00$16.00
    Regal FenwayRPX Digital 3D 48fps$14.00$14.00$17.00

    (Note that Arlington isn't specifying digital or 35mm for their 2D shows, so I'm assuming digital; Fresh Pond does say 35mm on their website. The digital Imax screenings at Jordan's and likely Boston Common will also have a 9-minute prologue to Star Trek Into Darkness playing before the main feature.)

    Some of these showtimes may only be good until Tuesday, as both the 3D re-release of Monsters, Inc. and Seth Rogen & Barbra Streisand in Guilt Trip will be looking to get a jump on Christmas by opening on Wednesday the 19th.
  • That's not quite all that's paying; Kendall Square and Boston Common both pick up Hyde Park on Hudson, which has Bill Murray playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hosting the King and Queen of England as World War II approaches, with Laura Linney as his neighbor. That opens on two screens at Kendall Square; The Central Park Five, a documentary about a terrible miscarriage of justice in 1989, gets one and a single-week booking at that. There will be special guests at two screenings - directors Ken Burns and Sarah Burns at the 6:35pm show on Friday, with Sarah Burns joined by third director David McMahon and subject Raymond Santana at the corresponding Saturday show.
  • The Coolidge picks up a pair of movies second-run: The Sessions splitting a film screen with Argo, and Chasing Ice in the GoldScreen. The special engagements are noteworthy, too, starting with the midnights: The Fifth Element plays Friday and Saturday night in theater #1, part of the end-of-the-world series. Meanwhile, Friday night features the 2012 Everything Is Terrible! Holiday Special in the upstairs theater.

    On Monday night, the Sounds of Silents program returns with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (along with the school's Video Game Music Choir) presenting a new score for F.W. Murnau's Faust
  • The Brattle has their annual twin Christmas programs this weekend. Matinees and evenings, that means It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's classic with James Stewart and Donna Reed. Later at night, there's the Alt X-Mas shows, with Gremlins (projected digitally) Friday night, the director's cut of Brazil on Saturday, and The City of Lost Children on Sunday.

    Starting Monday, it's studio anniversary time again, with the Focus Features Tenth Birthday series. Interesting coming so soon after the Universal series, as I believe the studios were connected at one point. On Monday, they've got Moonrise Kingdom; The Pianist plays Tuesday; a Bill Murray double feature of Lost in Translation & Broken Flowers on Wednesday; and two by François Ozon with Ludivine Sagnier, Swimming Pool & 8 Women, on Thursday.
  • The The Harvard Film Archive has their last regular show of the year on Friday, Identification of a Woman. It's a straggler from the Michelangelo Antonioni series that ran earlier, with Tomás Milián as a film director confronted by two women.
  • The MFA continues with Stephen Fry's discussion of Wagner and Me through Sunday, with another film from the UK, period comedy Cheerful Wedding for the Wedding, playing alongside it and also returning on Wednesday and Thursday. Those two days also mark the start of a new series, The Films of Juliette Binoche, with Blue and Certified Copy on Wednesday and Code Unknown joining Blue on Thursday.
  • The Somerville Theatre is running a screen short through December as the "Slutcracker" Burlesque takes over the main stage, and they've got one other family-inappropriate holiday screening this week, with The Onion AV Club presenting a "New Cult Canon" screening of Bad Santa on Tuesday the 18th.
  • And, finally, the Regent Theatre has a couple of off-beat events. Friday night has Jimmy Tingle back in town, doing his "Live on Stage & Screen" show with his movie Jimmy Tingle's American Dream once more; this one is a benefit for the American Red Cross. Then, on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening, there's the two-part Christmas in Acidland, with each half featuring Christmas-themed television oddities that demonstrate just how much strange holiday material has been produced over the years.

Plans? Well, still haven't seen Lincoln, Hitchcock, or Killing Them Softly. I'll probably try to catch The Central Park Five and Hyde Park on Hudson. And, yeah, the first of the new midget movies, if only as an interesting tech demo.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

British (and Danish!) movies in British Cinemas: Sightseers, The Hunt, and Skyfall

When I went to London for vacation, I sort of had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to see Skyfall while I was there - James Bond in his home territory, so to speak - but didn't actually have plans more more. Sure, I'd look to see what was playing there that wasn't likely to hit the US for a while/at all. I wound up staking out four movies - Gambit, The Hunt, Great Expectations, and Sightseers. Great Expectations didn't happen, but Sightseers was quite the pleasant surprise - having liked both of Ben Wheatley's previous films, being able to see this one well before its first US screenings at Sundance was a nice bonus.

I was also (pleasantly) surprised to see just how wide an opening it got in London, and what a push it seemed to be given: There were posters at every tube stop, while the Curzon Soho was filled with promotion for the movie. Sure, it's a home-grown picture, and I've really got no idea what the major distributors in the UK are and how well they usually do getting movies on screens, but... Well, it's a weird movie, even by dark-british-humour standards.

I also tend to get the impression that the screen churn in the UK is pretty fierce - Great Expectations seemed to lose a lot of showtimes between its 30 November opening date and when I left on 9 December. It seems due, at least in part, to the lack of multiplexes; the nearby site with the most screens seemed to be the Cineworld where I saw Sightseers, a six-plex. It seemed like a lot of places would open the same movie, and then attrition would happen based on how things performed in that neighborhood (heck, The Hunt was playing all over the place, although that seemed to be a deal between its distributor and the Curzon chain). Movies would open up with single off-peak showtimes in some places.

The theaters themselves were pretty nice, though. I certainly wouldn't mind if a place like the Curzon Soho opened somewhere in Cambridge; though the admission price was steep (£14.50 for an evening show, or $23.20 assuming a 1.6 exchange rate) - stupidly, I didn't realize I could use the London Pass there until a couple days later - the snack bar was moderately priced good stuff, and the bar/café/lounge areas were quite the nice places to wait. They offer memberships, too.

The BFI IMAX is apparently the UK's largest screen, and it's impressively big, maybe a little larger than the New England Aquarium's IMAX screen. I was running too late to really scope the amenities out, but it had a bar/café that was packed right up until it was time for the show to start, and though run by Odeon, it wasn't quite so self-service as the place where I saw Gambit. Like that theater, there was assigned seating, and they put me right next to a couple despite the whole row being open two minutes before showtime. I spent the movie in C17 rather than C18; hope they didn't mind.

More fun with concessions: They don't put ice in your soda unless you specifically ask for it, and the cheese dip used for nachos at the BFI IMAX was creamy and roughly seventy-four times as good as the hyper-processed yellow stuff American theaters use. American theaters: Get your act together on this! Also, you are offered a choice between "Salty" and "Sweet" when ordering your popcorn, and I mildly regret not trying the latter at some point, because what is that? Just popcorn with sugar on it?

Anyway, it turned out to be a fun and busy moviegoing week considering that you'd think I would have other new and different things to do.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2012 in Cineworld Fullham Road #6 (first-run, digital)

Ben Wheatley's previous two films weren't everyone's cup of tea, and he hasn't exactly gone conventional with Sightseers. It's quite often as funny as it is twisted (or, perhaps, vice versa), overflowing with strange, messy, disturbing romantic comedy.

Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) are going on holiday after being together for a few months, despite the protestations of Tina's mother Carol (Eileen Davis). Odd, considering the pair are in their mid-thirties, but it comes as no surprise that neither has dated much; they've got that way about them. As much as Tina's the one who has seldom left her mother's side, Chris's outsized reaction to someone at the tram museum littering is the first hint that their caravan trip through minor tourist sites in the English countryside is going to be far out of the ordinary.

(Note for my fellow Americans: "caravan" is British for "camper" or "trailer".)

The term "dark comedy" covers a lot of ground, and Sightseers manages to walk most of it. It's one thing for the audience to laugh at something that is objectively horrible because the joke has been set up so well, and the movie does that often and well (often setting it up as the opposite of a joke). That's impressive, but perhaps the niftier trick is how Wheatley and co-writer/co-stars Lowe & Oram twist things so that the audience winds up seeing the road-trip/romantic comedy movie from a decidedly skewed perspective. The weird focus is funny, but not in a snarky, laugh-at-the-form sort of way. The filmmakers are very careful not to drift into parody or cool amorality.

Full review at EFC.

Jagten (The Hunt)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2012 in Curzon Soho #2 (first-run, digital)

One of the main characters in The Hunt (Jagten) is about five years old, and there are times when Thomas Vinterberg's movie almost seems aimed at her, explaining in clear detail why she should never tell a lie. It's not for pre-schoolers, of course; it's a grown-up movie about grown-up things. Vinterberg simply chooses to show how caprice and hysteria can ruin a good man's life rather than engage in it.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is, almost unquestionably, a good man; only his ex-wife bears him any ill will. Formerly a teacher at a now-closed school, he works at a day-care center where the kids all love him. One is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). In fact, Klara starts to get a little too attached, and when Lucas attempts to establish proper boundaries, Klara tells one of the other teachers that Lucas exposed himself to her.

Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindhom don't quite tell the story in a completely straight line - the point-of-view switches between Lucas and Klara during the first half with an occasional detour to Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), Lucas's coworker and potential girlfriend, and a fair amount of the second half puts Lucas's son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) front-and-center - but there's often a somewhat procedural feel to the movie. It's a "victim procedural" more than a "police procedural", with cops, lawyers, and other officials only rarely drifting through the scene, but a large part of what makes the movie an interesting watch is seeing how this sort of investigation works and where it goes wrong. It's like watching dominoes fall in slow motion as questions meant to bring out the truth sometimes seem to have the worst possible effect of planting misinformation in characters' minds.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2012 in the BFI IMAX Theatre (first-run, digital Imax)

As I said seeing it a month ago, Skyfall is pretty terrific, a gorgeous action/adventure movie bookended by a pair of especially fantastic action sequences. The script is maybe not quite so great on second blush - a friend wants to know why Bond didn't hit the deck if he could hear M and Eve on the radio in the beginnning, but, hey, melee going on. SPOILERS! I'm more interested in why the heck Q plugged Silva's laptop into the network rather than not only disconnect it from everything but work on it in the tightest Faraday cage he could find.

That sort of thing is kind of the heart of the movie's problem - nobody in it is really good at his or her job. Bond goes to interrogate someone - dead before he can ask a question. The girl dies quickly. M - dead. Family estate and beautiful car - blown up. Spies' covers blown. I guess Kincaid did OK, but... !SRELIOPS

It's still a frequently thrilling adventure that's well more than I expected from Sam Mendes, and I like that it attacks the lack of sentimentality required of this sort of espionage head-on.

One last thing: By the time I saw this, I'd gotten just familiar enough with the Underground to laugh at how the train that Silva crashed apparently had no passengers despite it being the middle of the day and to notice, when the two got out of the tube afterward, that Silva exited via Embankment while Bond came up out of Westminster, and unless a lot more time passed than the movie implied, he actually should have beaten Silva to Parliament.

(Yes, I am nitpicking public transportation in this movie. I must admit, though, that I'm impressed that the producers actually used nearby stations)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 December 2012 - 13 December 2012

So, uh, thanks for not opening much in the way of new movies in Boston while I'm overseas, American distributors. I'll just pick up where I left off on Sunday, then.

  • I saw a preview for Playing for Keeps in a London cinema, and you know what? A lot more soccer than the one I saw back in America. Funny how that works, eh (just like how the "Playbook" in "Silver Linings Playbook" is almost invisible in UK posters, presumably to hide the American football fandom)? It's got Gerard Butler as a divorced former soccer star sort of marooned in America so he'll be close to his son, with all the local soccer moms lusting for him. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond.

    And... That's close to it. Boston Common has evening shows of The Art of Flight 3D, which has snowboarder Travis Rice and friends snowboarding in 3D (and, you know, for spectacle, that's probably not the worst way to spend money). The multiplexes also bring back End of Watch, which seems kind of random. Weekend late shows at Boston Common, a full screen at Fenway.
  • It's pretty quiet at Kendall Square, too, as they stick with likely award front-runners. Well, mostly - the single new release there, Deadfall, is a thriller featuring Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde as criminal siblings who go separate ways after a heist-gone-wrong. Not a bad supporting cast, either (Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek). It's booked for one week, while Bill W. is just there for one night - Tuesday the 11th. It's a documentary about William G. Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • The Brattle has two new indies booked Friday to Sunday. My Worst Nightmare is a French romantic comedy featuring Isabelle Huppert as an uptight gallery owner and Benôit Poelvoorde as the obnoxious working-class father of her son's best friend. Sparks will fly! It plays afternoons and evenings, with the 9:45pm shift taken by The Comedy, which features Tim Heidecker as "an aging hipster with a wealthy, dying father who aimlessly wanders Brooklyn looking for some kind of connection with life". Apparently not rally a comedy. There's more independent cinema on Monday night, as actress Beth Grant stops by to introduce CineCache selection Blues for Willadean, where she plays an abused housewife looking for "liberation", and take questions afterward.

    For the rest of the week, it's Cinemapocalypse 2012, as the Brattle celebrates the Mayans' "prophesied" end of the world with 2012 on Tuesday, 12 Monkeys on Wednesday, and Children of Men on Thursday.
  • The Coolidge has their own "end of the world" series on Friday, with Zach Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead kicking things off Friday and Saturday at midnight; more apocalyptic movies will follow all month long. Friday will also have the monthly midnight showing of The Room, which should not be confused with The Flat, which opens in the GoldScreen for the week.

    There's Christmas fun to be had Saturday morning with the Kids' Show, as The Muppet Christmas Carol plays Saturday at 10:30am. Michael Caine is Scrooge, Kermit is Cratchit, and Gonzo is Charles Dickens! There's movies Sunday morning, too, with Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet (about hijinks at a musicians' retirement home) the Talk Cinema selection at 10am and Barbara (about an East German surgeon exiled to a small village when she attempts to move west in the 1980s) is the Goethe-Institut selection at 11am. There's more special program on Monday at 7pm, as physicist Peter Fisher talks Tesla and wireless power before a Science on Screen presentation of The Prestige. They also appear to have a preview of Gus Van Sant's new film with Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand, Promised Land, a relatively conventional-looking environmental drama.
  • It's a short weekend at The Harvard Film Archive, with just the touring retrospective Jan Švankmajer, Conspirator of Pleasure on the schedule. It includes a collection of shorts (Saturday 7pm), Conspirators of Pleasure (Saturday 9pm), Alice (Sunday 5pm), and Little Otik (Sunday 7pm).
  • The MFA finishes its run of Neighboring Sounds, with the Brazillian film showing once per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at various times; on Wednesday, they switch it up for Wagner and Me, with Stephen Fry exploring his fondness for the German composer's music, despite its association with Nazism. It will be running once a day until the 16th.
  • Bollywood action-comedy-musical Khiladi 786 opens at Fresh Pond with Akshay Kumar in a story that, if I read the synopsis right, involves a matchmaker arranging a marriage between a gangster's daughter and a cop, only to find out that the cop and his family are con-men. It shares the screen with held-over thriller Talaash.

My plans? Well, who knows? Sunday will probably involve trying to avoid falling asleep as I have five extra hours inserted into my day, so maybe something that involves explosions (checks schedule, notes it is really explosion-deficient). I've got Lincoln, Hitchcock, and plenty more to try and catch up on, and will probably try to make Blues for Willadean on Monday, depending how much has piled up on my desk after a week away from the office.

Monday, December 03, 2012

British movies in British Cinemas: Gambit (2012)

Going to the movies in London isn't quite an alien experience, but it's more different than I might have expected.


Even the posters outside are shaped differently! Crazy, huh? I have to remember to take a look at a Silver Linings Playbook poster when I get home, though, to see if the "Playbook" part has been de-emphasized even more outside the US, because you probably don't want to bring the football stuff up (what the characters are obsessed with is less important than that they're obsessed, but still...).

Anyway, the first difference comes at the box office, where they ask you where you want to sit. Part of that is asking if you want a premium ticket - I said no, as the more comfortable chairs don't make up for being in the back of the house - but part of that is just that the seats are assigned. It seems strange, but given that seats at most sorts of entertainment are assigned, you can go the other way and say that general admission makes little sense. I do sort of wonder, however, if the people at the box office attempt the "checkerboard" pattern that generally forms in American theaters when attendence isn't expected to be high - after all, nobody wants someone sitting directly next to or in front of them if that's not absolutely necessary.

Inside was when it got kind of strange for me, though, as pretty much the entire concession process is potentially self-serve. There's popcorn and soda behind the concession stand, but those same things are also free-standing, along with the pick & mix candies, bagged candies, Doritos, bottled drinks, and other snacks. There's also a section for bar drinks and a door to the adjacent café, although I'm guessing you need a premium ticket to have those delivered to your seat. I admit to being a little flummoxed by that, which is kind of hilarious - going to a movie and getting snacks is something I've done literally thousands of times and here I am, staring stupidly.

Anyway, once that was sorted, it was into the theater (where I probably could have chosen to sit anywhere but D-12 if I chose), and what seemed like a pretty strong barrage of ads before the previews. Not totally unusual, but most chains in the US have moved the ad package to before the printed start time. The movie itself, as you can see from the review, wasn't that great, but it also wasn't my first choice (but that's a story for when I do get to that movie).

Gambit (2012)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2012 in Odeon Kensington #4 (first-run, digital)

It's a horrible thing when a caper movie doesn't come off. The great ones are casual and precise in a way that seems to come as much from alchemy as chemistry, and when that doesn't happen, it seems as though all the necessary ingredients are there but just don't come together at all.

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) has a plan - an expert on impressionist art working for the Shabandar Media Group and responsible for curating its egotistic head's art collection in particular, he has concocted a backstory by which he can sell Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) a Monet forged by his friend Wingate (Tom Courtenay). Convincing Shabandar of the picture's provenance will involve American cowgirl PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), who is naturally unpredictable, but another hitch is added to the mix when Shabandar plans to replace Harry with a new curator in the form of Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci).

The screenplay for this version of Gambit is by Joel & Ethan Coen, and there's a recognizable oddball sensibility to it; it is full of people who are not nearly as smart as they think they are. And yet, there seems to be a great deal missing that no amount of style is going to make up for. For instance, a great sting; even without having seen the 1966 original, what passes for a twist is utterly predictable. The plot holes on the way there are fairly huge, too; while the lack of high-tech art authentication may be excused by the characters being eccentric, a single security camera would have foiled the plot twice (including in one astonishingly pointless, runtime-padding sequence), and "yeah, but there wasn't one" isn't really a valid excuse here - the audience has pointedly been alerted to the possibility, so the plan needs to take it into account or be found wanting.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 November 2012 - 6 December 2012

This one's for you. No, really; I don't think I'll be able to make much use of it myself.

  • At any rate, the holdovers mostly dominate the theaters, with only a couple of wide releases. Maybe just one, Killing Them Softly, the new one from writer/director Andrew Dominik which features Brad Pitt as a fixer who gets involved when two young punks rob a card game and incur the wrath of the mob. Dominik did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so there's a good chance that this will be less a straight thriller than it looks. It plays Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    Boston Common also gets The Collection, a horror movie of the "torment and deathtrap" variety whose predecessor, The Collector, barely made a blip in theaters.
  • Kendall Square also picks up a pair of new documentaries this week. The Waiting Room is a fly-on-the-wall look at a day in an Oakland, CA emergency room and its lobby. It looks to be frantic but informative. It's scheduled for a week, with director Peter Nicks and Producer Bill Hirsch making appearances at the Friday and Saturday shows.

    The other documentary is The Flat, in which director Arnon Goldfinger stumbles upon mysterious documents when cleaning out his late grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment, which lead him back to World War II, the Holocaust, and a family's hidden personal history.
  • Aw, the Universal series is almost over at The Brattle, although they're squeezing four double features and a bonus screening into three days to send it out in style. Friday's twin bill features sizzling chemistry and banter with Destry Rides Again & Out of Sight. Saturday is split three ways, with a matinee pairing of Babe and Francis the Talking Mule, while the evening pairs the original version of The Wolf Man with Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. The late show is also a Universal production, but the focus is as much on Keir-La Janisse introducing and signing her book House of Psychotic Women (which combines memoir and criticism) as screening Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie. And on Sunday, they finish up with a great pairing of Back to the Future and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

    After that month-long marathon, they'll be taking Monday off, but will re-open Tuesday to finish off the week with one-off programs. Balagan presents "In Captivity" that day, a selection of three shorts and a feature that ponder constraints. Margaret Talbot will visit on Wednesday with her biography of father Lyle Talbot, The Entertainer, and will follow it up with one of his films, Three on a Match. And on Wednesday, they bring back Miami Connection, the much-lauded recently-rediscovered bit of 1980s action insanity.
  • The Coolidge keeps Anna Karenina and Argo on the main screens, but shuffles A Late Quartet and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters the the GoldScreen so that Mahler on the Couch can have the larger video screening room. It posits composer Gustav Mahler consulting with Sigmund Freud on his relationship with his wife. Fittingly, there's an "Off the Couch" screening with introduction and discussion by members of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society on Sunday the 2nd (at 7pm).

    The midnights this week are both at least partially live shows: Friday night, band The Austerity Program will hit the stage around a screening of a documentary about their label Hydra Head, Blood, Sweat + Vinyl, with the screening helping to pay off the defunct label's bills. Saturday night, meanwhile, is the annual Boston Burlesque Marathon, with 100 acts running straight through to breakfast.

    Keeping with the stage theme, Sunday morning has a ballet simulcast of "The Pharaoh's Daughter" from the Bolshoi Ballet, and Monday evening is a special screening of Christopher Plummer in Barrymore, a film version of his and director Erik Canuel's one-man stage show in which acting legend John Barrymore reflects on his career; it also features Backstage with Barrymore, a documentary on the making of the production.
  • ArtsEmerson
  • wraps up their calendar until the new year with a program inspired by the Beauty and the Beast story. The classic Jean Cocteau version La Belle et la Bête screens Friday night, while Guillermo del Toro's adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth plays Friday evening and Saturday night. The animated part of the program is not Disney's film, but DreamWorks's How to Train Your Dragon, which runs Saturday afternoon. I'm not sure just how Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express fits in, but that plays Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Chungking Express is projected via Blu-ray; the others are 35mm (which means Dragon is 2D).

  • The Harvard Film Archive spends the weekend saluting outspoken Persian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in Jafar Panahi: This is Not a Retrospective. The name comes from his latest work, This is Not a Film, an interview/documentary shot during his recent house arrest that skirts his ban on making movies by handing the camera to co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and visitors, which screens Friday and Sunday evenings. Also screenings are The Circle (Friday night), The Mirror (Saturday evening), Crimson Gold (Saturday night), The White Balloon (Sunday afternoon), and Offside (Monday evening).
  • The MFA spends much of the week presenting documentary and short film competitors from the Boston Turkish Fesival, with programs on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday; programs will screen at Goethe-Institut on Monday and Boston University on Tuesday and Thursday. Saturday also features a couple interesting matinees - Jules Dassin's The Naked City wraps up the "New York City: A Must of Modern Art" screening program, and All Through the Evening captures pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe's annual concert of works by composer friends who died of AIDS. The film is free (presented by the Boston LGBT Film Festival) and will be followed by a live performance by Ms. Stern-Wolfe.

    On Wednesday the 5th, they open a limited engagement of Neighboring Sounds, a new film from Brazil about a coastal town whose principal family is threatened by the private security brought in after a series of minor crimes. It plays once a day through Sunday the 9th.
  • The Regent Theatre has two one-night bookings: "Choose Your Adventure", on Tuesday the 4th, is a ski film by Powderwhore Productions, which follows great skiers and snowboarders around the world from Chile to Norway. There's another doc on Thursday evening, Wild Horse Wild Ride, which shows how wild horses rounded up from public lands are trained and then sold at auction, with their trainers sometimes bidding against the public.
  • The Bollywood option at Fresh Pond this week is Talaash, a thriller starring Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, and Rani Mukerji in a story about a detective who has recently lost his son and must untangle the murder of a Bollywood star.

My plans? Well, I'm heading out on vacation later this afternoon, and while I'm sure my days will be packed, I wouldn't be surprised if I fit a movie in during the evenings. Anyone know what's playing in London this week?

Faith, storytelling, and mythology for the family: Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi

Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi seem mostly connected by happenstance - they came out the same day, both have a PG rating, both are being released in 3D (and, having been built for it from the ground up, look pretty good that way). What's surprising, though, is that they are similar in other ways.

Both, for example, key on belief and faith. The characters in Pi talk about God a lot, with Pi embracing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim belief systems as ways to connect with something larger than human understanding. The Guardians never call themselves gods, but the introduction of Jack is kind of heady - his narration talks of awakening without memories, but it doesn't play like amnesia so much as knowing he's an elemental force of some sort. The story goes back on this, giving Jack a backstory, but it's good enough to let stand. At any rate, each presents the divine as unknowable; even the Guardians know there's something more powerful out there, a Man in the Moon who only communicates obliquely.

For all that both talk about higher powers, though, both are arguably pretty rationalist in certain ways. The Guardians, for instance, are only powerful and able to interact wtih the world to the extent that they are believed in. Similarly, Pi's father points him toward science as the way to understand the world, showing that nature (as personified by the tiger) does play by human rules - the humanity and intelligence one sees there is a reflection of one's self.

You can get into fights over that stuff if you're so inclined - I doubt Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel would be particularly fond of my atheist's interpretation that Pi only sees the hand of God in his survival because he's got a tendency to see it everywhere - after all, what about all the other people he didn't help? If the chances of survival are one in a thousand, is it so odd that someone survived? Pi looks at his story and, man of faith that he is, says "God put me in this situation as opposed to admitting that while his individual survival was unlikely, it's not unbelievable that someone would survive.

What's really kind of interesting, though, is that both movies teach about storytelling. For Pi, it's obvious; at the end, we're given an alternate version of the story that parallels the one we've been hearing, and the audience is given the chance to choose which version is "real". The answer chosen within the film is not necessarily the more believable one, but the one that makes a better story, even if they are roughly equivalent. Meanwhile, Guardians is talking about character "centers", and while it's a "know thyself" sort of discussion, the way Santa demonstrates it with the nesting dolls both calls back how he knows he's an idea along with a person, and he's built up around that idea. You can probably spend some time talking about it that way with a clever kid, how this Santa was built up from that basic idea, which must be present, no matter what is added to it.

Rise of the Guardians

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, Real-D)

When writing about something like Rise of the Guardians, I sort of wish I lived close enough to my brothers that I could borrow a niece to come with me and tell me what she thinks afterwards. There's a contradiction at the heart of this movie - it builds a complex mythology around the likes of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and I wonder if it's too much to grasp for those young enough to really buy into it. The ambition is admirable and often impressively realized, but who does it fully work for?

The basic story is graspable enough: Pitch Black (voice of Jude Law), the Bogeyman, has learned how to hijack the pleasant dreams sent by the Sandman, which leads Sandy and the other Guardians of Childhood - Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (voice of Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy (voice of Isla Fisher) to meet at the North Pole, where the Man in the Moon informs them that their group will need a new member to counter this threat: Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine). Of course, Jack's not interested in that sort of responsibility, and most of the other Guardians are none to fond of him anyway.

Give the folks at DreamWorks (and original Guardians of Childhood author William Joyce) their due: There are a lot of variants on the "legends and folklore characters are real") angle floating around right now, but this is certainly one of the most eye-catching. Santa's workshop, the Easter Bunny's warren, the Tooth Fairy's headquarters and Pitch's dark mirror thereof are all gorgeously, ornately designed, impressive combinations of polish and whimsy built from the ground up to look especially amazing in 3D. The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro is definitely felt with that loving attention to detail, and the character designs combine action-ready angularity with a comforting softness atop that muscle.

Full review at EFC.

Life of Pi

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, Real-D)

It's hard to overstate just what a good-looking Ang Lee's Life of Pi is. It's not just that Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda shoot beautiful imagery, or that the special effects crew does remarkable work; the merging of the two is some of the most amazing ever done. Practically every frame perfectly balances the real, the fantastic, and the metaphorical about as well as is possible. It's so well-done that, by the end of the movie, one can almost take it for granted.

And that's dangerous, because the moment the viewer isn't thinking about how beautiful it is, he or she might start to find it a little dull. Lee and screenwriter David Magee wind up courting that a little, perhaps, with every cut-away to the present-day Pi which serves to remind the audience that it has been promised not just an adventure, but a story that will make you believe in God. That's setting the bar high, and these two talking makes the movie seem like it has to convince the audience of the story's impressive scale. And it's funny, maybe the movie would have still gone a little slack if it stuck with young Pi on the ocean, but that might have worked - being a castaway in that situation probably would have some boredom-interrupted-by-sudden-terror elements to it, and so it would have been easier to accept.

I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't stick with me afterward, though. Is it a story to make me believe in God? No - I actually think it kind of illustrates the folly of such a belief; Pi's survival is "miraculous" in isolation, but as a data point compared to the dozens who perished horribly, it's merely "unlikely". But, then again, the film has just reminded the audience that what one sees in an animal's eyes is often one's own reflection; might it not also be so for the world at large? A spiritual type like Pi will naturally see God, while the likes of me will see probability.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movies that aren't about what they're about: A Late Quartet and Brooklyn Castle

Someone on a mailing list I subscribe to reviewed Brooklyn Castle, starting out with "even if you're not interested in chess (I'm sure not!), you should see Brooklyn Castle, because it's not really about chess..."

Or something like that. We've all heard or said something like that as a recommendation, and it fits both of these movies to a certain extent: A Late Quartet is less about people who play classical music than a close-knit group pulling itself apart, and Brooklyn Castle is more about how schools enrich kids outside of pure knowledge than chess. Sometimes that's for better, as Brooklyn Castle actually has worthwhile messages to impart about education and the importance of what schools do outside the classroom, and sometimes for worse, as A Late Quartet becomes a pretty standard soap opera.

I must admit, though, that as I say it, I cringe a little bit, even when talking about a movie where this is a benefit. Would it be so bad if Brooklyn Castle was "about chess"? As much as I like the movie, I think a lot of documentaries wind up talking to a too-receptive audience at times because they are trying to influence opinion as opposed to give information. By including "it's not really about..." when we recommend movies, especially documentaries, we do two things: First, we wind up steering films toward people who maybe won't take anything new away from them. It strikes me that it might be useful to use things like the chess in Brooklyn Castle almost like a trojan horse, to deliver a message about how important enrichment programs are to those who might not already be on board.

But more importantly, it means we're recommending stuff by saying that the audience won't learn something new, like that's a positive! It doesn't just hold with documentaries, either; I saw a review of A Late Quartet that implied the classical music stuff was dull and the soap opera material was the interesting drama, which is pretty close to the opposite of how I viewed it. After all, the melodrama was familiar (and not that well-executed), while the music was potentially new. I would have enjoyed learning more. That's an issue I often have with documentaries - the ones I find most fascinating are the ones that deliver knowledge, while the ones I often see praised are often the ones which feature narrative and a message. Even in a narrative feature, though, I really like learning new things, and find it odd that it is so often treated as something only to be reluctantly included in features.

A Late Quartet

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (second-run, digital)

A Late Quartet starts out with a fair amount of promise: It's got a cast full of fine character actors, a somewhat unusual setting in the world of classical music, and a premise that is easy to grasp but which has the potential for great drama. All of this is good enough that when the story wanders into conventional soap opera territory, one might groan a little - all the movie has going for it, and they're going to spend time on this?

The New York-based string quartet "Fugue" has been playing together for about twenty-five years. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the oldest member, plays cello; Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) is first violin; Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is second; and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) plays viola. They're intertwined in other ways, too; Peter is a professor during the off-season and the Gelbarts' daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is in his class, good enough that he recommends Daniel tutor her. It's a cozy situation, but a tremor in Peter's hands turns out to be the early stages of Parkinson's, and medication can only do so much for so long.

Writer/director Yaron Zilberman establishes a couple of interesting and overlapping themes early on: There's the fear of change versus its absolute inevitability; there's how music can be a living, evolving thing from performance to performance or static and practiced, and how people can be much the same. Zilberman doesn't play coy with any of this; heck, Peter ruminates on those sort of things when lecturing Alex's class. But there's something to it, and the details of this particular setting are interesting enough to resonate for even non-enthusiasts.

Full review at EFC.

Brooklyn Castle

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, digital)

Chess isn't the only noteworthy extracurricular at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318 - principal Fred Rubino mentions that marching band and other activities may also have funding issues in one scene of Brooklyn Castle - but the students there are remarkably accomplished at it, having won (as of the time of filming) 57 school, grade-level, and individual trophies since the program began a dozen or so years earlier, and they send dozens of students to tournaments to which schools that don't have sixty percent of their students living below the poverty line only send a handful. That's a bunch of kids with interesting stories that make for a pretty good movie.

The documentary doesn't focus on the whole team, of course, but about a half-dozen students: Rochelle, about to enter high school and on track to become the first black female to attain a "master" rating; Pobo, a gregarious kid and natural leader also involved in student government; Alexis, the son of South American immigrants worried about which high school he'll be accepted to; Justus, a soft-spoken prodigy with confidence issues; James, a much more outgoing sixth-grader with similar talent; and Patrick, a kid with ADHD and an uphill climb to make the travel team. Time is also spent with their families and teachers.

Here's something to ponder - if you made Brooklyn Castle about the marching band, or the swim team, or some other activity, you could make a great many of the same points but get different reactions from the audience. The movie is not, as one might assure potential audience members, "about chess", but chess might seem a particularly worthy activity to viewers, since it seems closer to academics than most of the others. One of the interesting ideas lurking around the edges, though, is that this is not necessarily the case: The kids fill their schedule with up to seven chess classes per week and are just as nervous about placement tests as any student. Rochelle's mother, though supportive, points out that regular schoolwork must come first.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 23, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 12 November 2012 - 18 November 2012

"Mainstream movie geeks" seems like a strange thing to say, but it is a thing. You know you're not quite in that group, though, when the new thing that every genre movie site has been raving comes out and you're like "but... silent movies with Japanese narration!"

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Waiting for Lightning, 10:00am on 18 November 2012 in Coolidge Corner #2

Universal is still turning 100, which means there are still new prints showing up at the Brattle, which means that Usher membership that gets one admission to everything gets a workout with Pillow Talk, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Birds, Jaws, the restored cut of Touch of Evil, and The Killers. Happy birthday to all of us!

Universal's anniversary also ties into the special screening on Sunday night, in a way - Shoes is presented as a follow-up to Where Are My Children?, which was to be part of the Universal series but didn't arrive; here, the focus was on presenting silents with benshi narration, a pretty neat experience thanks the benshi Ichiro Kataoka. That was the end of a long day at the movies, starting at 10am with Waiting for Lightning at the Coolidge, so you will perhaps forgive me for not capping it with Miami Connection afterward.

Paramount's hundredth has been much less fun than Universal's, but the anniversary logo was stuck on Flight, a pretty-good return to live-action cinema from Robert Zemeckis. Somewhere in there, I also saw Possession, an impressively deranged flick from 1981 that got cut to ribbons on its initial US release.

The first ticket in the books for this week, though, was for "An Evening with Tony Buba", on the schedule as part of CineCache but not drawing much of that series' usual group (although the DocYard crowd made up for it. I nearly gave it a pass, planning on hitting the Coolidge's "Science on Screen" presentation instead, but just working a bit late in Burlington makes a 7pm show in Brookline almost impossible. That was okay, though; like the Japanese benshi, learning of a Tony Buba and seeing him in acction helps make film fandom more interesting.

Buba, you see, is a documentary filmmaker who has spent a fairly lengthy career chronicling life in his hometown of Braddock, PA. Many of those films have been shorts, shot in black and white on 16mm film, the work of a craftsman who focuses on something he feels passionate about rather than necessarily trying to propel his career to the next level. It's a sort of work that, I suspect, will never sell a lot of DVDs or get a lot of hits on media streaming sites as entertainment, but will be tremendously valuable to future generations who want to understand what life was like in this part of the country at this time. There's a reason home movies are as often added to the National Film Registry as commercial works - they're informative in ways beyond the predictable - and Buba's work, especially in the two shorts screened, is illuminating in the ways of an amateur work but with the clarity of the professional's, without ever seeming like he's altering the picture.


Speaking of pictures, that's Mr. Buba on his first visit to Boston, doing a Q&A moderated by Rebecca Myers (nice to see her again after ArtsEmerson scaled back its film program). He's a little grayer and softer than the guy who pops up in the movies screened; the most recent, Lightning Over Braddock, was from 1988. He turns out to be quite the affable fellow, sharing some stories of working with Pittsburgh's other great independent filmmaker, George Romero, giving updates on the people in the film, greeting old friends, and telling a story about how he was offered the job of editing Roger & Me but turned it down because he was looking for money up-front instead of on the back-end, since it's not like documentaries ever make any money.

Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché/DocYard, 16mm)

As a result, I kind of wish I was more able to love Lightning Over Braddock. It's a fascinating sort of movie, made during the mid/late-eighties when the transformation of America's "Iron Belt" to the "Rust Belt" was starting to not just pick up steam but be noticed by the greater population. This enables Buba to make a feature, but he doesn't want to make one that gets lost in the crowd or makes his beloved home town seem generic.

So he makes a movie that is more about the making of a movie about Braddock than actually being that thing, and that's kind of fun. I suspect that it's even more fun for those who have seen more of his previous work; many of the main figures in this movie have been the subject of Buba shorts, so the effect might be like a writer pulling everything he does together, with the added kick of Buba stepping back and talking about the process and parodying the endeavor. It doesn't hurt that he has cultivated an enjoyable cast of characters over the years, especially Sal Carollo. Sal's a hustler with an inflated idea of his own popularity and the fame and fortune to come from independent documentary films, and Buba has fun staging scenes where Sal gets riled up even as he has to deal with the guy being quite erratic.

I think doing something feature-length gets away from Buba a bit, especially since Lightning Over Braddock is in many ways the story of a man looking for a story, and I kind of got the idea that it would have gone on forever if Sal hadn't thrown a monkey wrench into it by the end (even then, it sort of wanders aimlessly for a bit, though the cameo by George Romero is fun). It generally works; when all is said and done Buba has both given a snapshot of Braddock and sent up snapshots of places like Braddock as a documentary genre. I just found myself a little more fatigued at the end than a long work-day would explain.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2012 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, digital 4K)

Robert Zemeckis is not a subtle guy; the first song on the soundtrack of this movie about a man battling addiction issues is "Alcohol" by Barenaked Ladies (though I doubt many radio stations today would be playing it when an alarm clock goes off; was it ever even released as a single?), and it's not the last on-the-nose music cue in that scene, let alone the film as a whole. It's pretty clear where he's going with this from the start.

It's still pretty enjoyable in the details, though. The crash-landing and everything leading up to it that really puts the story in motion is the sort of technical challenge that Zemeckis has spent his career diving into (I half-wonder if his return to live-action was as much motivated by the desire for new challenges as studios shutting down motion-capture projects), and he's good at that sort of thing, making it tense and impressive without the flash getting in the way. After that, it's Denzel Washington's show

Washington is good at this sort of thing; he's able to project the charm and capability that doesn't blunt the character's arrogance at all but makes it tolerable. The comparison between Washington's Whip and fellow addict Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly) is pretty simple - her near-death experience frightens her to the core, while Whip being initially shaken doesn't take, as he's too certain that he's capable of handling anything. What Washington does is get us to believe that he has a better nature underneath the impulsiveness and selfishness, and Zemeckis does a nice job of making sure the film doesn't drag as we see bits of that underneath Whip's uglier qualities.

Pillow Talk

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Sometime, someone is going to explain the charm of movies like Pillow Talk to me. Visually, I get it; the bright colors pop in widescreen Technicolor, there's a good-looking cast with a fair amount of charm, and a good line or two. But get right down to it, and the story involves a selfish jerk (Rock Hudson) who responds to the valid complaints of the woman who shares his party line (Doris Day) by seducing and taunting her, in the process screwing over his best friend (Tony Randall)... And we're apparently supposed to root for the pair to get together?

Ehhh, no. Maybe if Hudson's and Day's characters were a bit more interesting, but they're sort of blanks. Amusing and good-looking enough, sure, but between them having a hard time showing as much personality as Tony Randall does; he's at least entertainingly dry. The music's good, too, if shoehorned in.

It's funny; I like Down with Love, which is an homage to this sort of movie, but the personalities are more fun.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie through and through, even if it strives for something more elevated in the final moments. It is, however, one of the very best of the B's. The filmmakers do an impressive job of generally playing the story of a man shrinking down to nothing straight even if it is kind of a goofy idea, and not overstating the size of the movie. The focus stays squarely on the title character, and doesn't become a bigger story than its characters are suited for.

As absurd as the story is, director Jack Arnold and company execute fairly well. The moment when Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is exposed to a strange mist is appropriately eerie, and the oversized sets and props used to throw off one's sense of scale as Scott shrinks are as good as you could hope for. It's not going to trick anyone into thinking it's real, but it looks just mismatched enough to sell the audience on how Scott no longer fits into the world around him. He's not the world's greatest actor, but it's not like he has a huge range of emotions to portray, and he provides fair beefcake when he's shrunk too small for clothes.

Richard Matheson adapts his own novel, and there are times when he seems to love his words a little much - the only bit of narration that really feels necessary is the last bit, which gives the movie a grandeur that it might not otherwise have; much of the rest is clumsy (although sometimes hinting at interesting story elements that aren't fully followed up). The adventure elements in the basement are pretty terrific, though, making a spider a genuine threat.

The Birds

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The Birds is a lot better than I remember, but what surprised me when watching it this time around is just how ahead of its time it is. It's hardly the first nature-gone-amok horror movie, but its construction is surprisingly modern: Extended getting-to-know you at the start, occasional quick-cutting, and an explosion that seems somewhat shoehorned in. I'm not necessarily complaining about this - Hitchcock was really inventing the modern horror movie here and in Psycho, and it's kind of thrilling to see: Even as much of The Birds is a slow burn, the occasional choppy, frantic feeling heightens the usual panic, and the gas station explosion is one of the best of the type, especially with the broad, overhead views Hitch gives us.

Of course, a little bit of "ahead of its time" is "special effects are not quite where they need to be yet". A lot of the blue-screening is fairly rough, and not all the birds are convincing in close-up. If Hitchcock had a bit of later technology at his disposal, he would have made something even more amazing. But what he's got is plenty good; the way he fills the screen with birds whose malevolence is ready to explode makes how things look when it actually happens just an enhancement.

It's a nice cast, too. Tippi Hedren is not just stunningly beautiful, but makes a kind of shallow heroine a lot of fun to watch. Rod Taylor makes the man she follows to Bodega Bay charming but kind of simplistic in the way he tries to grab moral high ground. The whole group is great fun to watch together; they'd be fun to watch even if there wasn't the potential for birds to attack out of nowhere, which makes for a great foundation when the horror erupts out of nowhere.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Jaws, similarly, is better than I remembered, and I remember it being pretty darn good. One thing I always forget is just how fast the thing moves: The first shark attack comes right at the top, there's just enough "trying to save the Fourth of July" material to give the whole thing some context, and then all hell breaks loose, leading to the final act which is arguably the the reason you have the rest of the movie: Brody, Quint, and Hooper on the boat, hunting the shark while showing just what a motley crew they are.

And that last act is fantastic. There are a lot of things that go into making it that way: Spielberg, even at this early point, could direct the heck out of an action scene, and the way he feeds the audience just enough information about how everything on board this ship works so that nothing ever seems to come out of nowhere. More directors should re-learn that a great deal of suspense comes from knowing characters' limits and that of the things around them.

Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss play off each other amazingly well; it's kind of amazing how the dynamic goes from Brody and Hooper feeling frustrated by the seemingly-insane Quint to Brody being the outsider as the two nautical types bond. They're none of them complicated characters, but the audience understands who they are perfectly, and they seem like much more complete people than the simple archetypes they could be.

Also worth noting: The new 35mm print the Brattle had (struck for the anniversary series, and likely the basis for the new DVD/BD) is pretty darn gorgeous. I suspect that I've seen the shooting stars in this movie before, but they're a great example of just how clear the image is.

Touch of Evil (restored cut)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

It boggles the mind that Universal originally cut the long tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil and overlaid the main titles; it's such a great shot from the very first bit, where the guy slides into the frame and sets the timer on the bomb in a bit of showmanship that the movies generally try to avoid but which is such a perfect kick-off for such a flashy sequence.

That's just the start of a pretty darn great movie, perhaps the greatest example of the type where who the murderer is winds up being far less important than how he's pursued, with Charlton Heston's upright Mexican Federale Miguel Vargas a sharp contrast with Orson Welles's corrupt local American cop, while the gangsters "Mike" is trying to covict attempt to use wife Janet Leigh for leverage. That's the cat-and-mouse game one remembers at the end, with the resolution of the murder itself almost an afterthought.

Most of the fun, naturally, comes from watching the cast work off each other in this situation. Heston is smooth and righteous without being a prig, and the idea that Welles's uncouth drunk would look down on Vargas is absurd but tragic. Leigh is kind of a gas as Miguel's American wife - the way she acts in the movie implies the sort of rebellious streak that can come from being comfortably well-off; it's never said that her marrying a Mexican detective was scandalous for her Philadelphia family, but you can tell she would have enjoyed that feeling. Then there's Joseph Calleia as Welles's loyal partner, whose bluster becomes almost tragic when he realizes that he's perhaps been willfully ignorant.

At some point, I'll have to watch the original theatrical cut (this "memo version" has almost completely displaced it). I'll probably like it, because the story itself is a good one, but I suspect the focus will be more on the mystery rather than the detectives, which isn't the most interesting part.

The Killers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Similarly, The Killers is a somewhat unconventional murder mystery, although it's the telling that is less typical as opposed to the characters. After all, star Burt Lancaster is dead by the end of the first act, and we'll learn his story in flashbacks as insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) traces his story back.

It's a corker, filled with double-crosses, stolen loves, and a caper gone quite wrong. Lancaster's Ole "The Swede" Anderson is never quite a hero, but more the sort of big dumb lug who gets in way over his head because as much as he doesn't mind breaking the law, he's not the sort of inherently ruthless person his rivals are. It's easy to see why he falls for Ava Gardner's Kitty, even if she's not exceptionally sketched-out.

One of the reasons that The Killers really succeeds is that both the present-day and flashback scenes are equally enjoyable. Lancaster and Gardner are jumping through the film noir hoops as well as can be expected, but it's just as much fun to watch O'Brien and Sam Levene (playing a cop who knew The Swede back in the old days) become friends and work off each other on a quest not so much to save The Swede's good name or recover money for the insurance company as do one last good thing for a guy they've grown fond of, despite either years having past or their never meeting. It's a remarkably upbeat way to frame a story that is inherently tragic.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

Here's an odd thing to ponder when watching films from a hundred years ago (and thinking of the society of the same time): Spending all one's time reading evidently was the mark of a useless layabout, as it is with the main character's father, who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva brings in to the family on novels. They're not even particularly labeled junk or pulp; it's just that he's reading!

The story itself is simple enough - the daughter who is the sole person supporting a poor family wants a new pair of shoes, and it's gone well beyond just vanity - what she wears is so close to falling apart that one strongly suspects that she won't be able to keep the job much longer if they frown on working barefoot; it seems like a reasonable investment for the family, really. But there's always some reason to put it off and they take her for gratned, so what scandalous thing will she do...?

In some ways, it's almost comical just how horrified the reactions are in the end, even if the guy in question has been built up as vaguely scummy. The main problem with the mmovie, really, is that for "a film in five acts", it feels like it could be compacted to a short with little damage; the characters just don't do very much other than restate their poverty and the father's laziness again and again. Director Lois Weber actually does a fairly impressive job of not making this drag and the movie runs just under one hour, but the breathlessness of the scandal and the earestness of the opening titles makes for a strange time capsule.

"A Dog's Life"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

I'll get into this a little more when I get around to reviewing both nights of benshi-narrated silents, but you really haven't seen a Chaplin film until you've seen it with a Japanese guy narrating and performing dialogue for the characters. With the fast-talking way Kataoka-san rattled off what he imagined the Tramp saying, it was almost like a Popeye cartoon at times.

Even without that, it's still a very funny movie, with Chaplin's Little Tramp befriending Scraps, "a thoroughbred mongrel" as they try to scavenge enough to survive on the street and eventually win the love of a woman whose singing at the Green Lantern club is so sad as to reduce all the revelers to tears. There's a bunch of quality slapstick and pathos that never really gets sappy... What more could one want from a Chaplin movie?

An Evening with Tony Buba
Pillow Talk
The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Birds & Jaws
Touch of Evil & The Killers
Shoes & A Dog's Life