Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sundance USA Boston 2012: Celeste and Jesse Forever

Last year, I don't think I heard much (if anything) about My Idiot Brother before catching it at Sundance USA, and it wound up being a fairly pleasant surprise. I may have oversold it a little, but it was a legitimately charming comedy with a nice cast that should have made a little more noise when it was released in August as Our Idiot Brother.

This year, it almost seemed as if the programmers were trying to go for a repeat of that - the movie showing at the Coolidge this year even starred one of Brother's cast members, Rashida Jones, and looked like it could have been funny. It was also picked up for distribution before hitting Brookline, and will likely also be released in August. Unfortunately, I was hearing bad things about it once it started screening in Park City and those warnings turned out to be right. Heck of a bummer, buying a $15 ticket weeks ahead of time and hearing that.

Anyway, I think this is the first festival-type screening since getting my new phone! Let's see how it helps with the Terrible Photography:

Will McCormack & Lee Toland Krieger, Will McCormack & Lee Toland Krieger do Q&A for "Celeste and Jesse Forever"
Dudes, c'mon, these people paid good money; dress up a little!

Well, not great, but the Coolidge isn't a great environment for this; it looks dark when you're just sitting there, and they always do Q&As off to the side as opposed to on the stage, under the lights.

Kind of fitting, though, considering how dark the picture was. They mentioned it before and after the film; I'm guessing that the Coolidge had to rent a DCP rig for the evening and there wasn't time to get everything to 100% in time for the screening. It wouldn't have made the movie any better, but it's an expensive ticket for that to happen at, which makes a lot of otherwise good organizations look kind of rinky-dink. And I'm guessing it wouldn't have happened with 35mm!

Celeste and Jesse Forever

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sundance USA)

"I don't like the main character" isn't really a great reason to dislike a movie - there are plenty of disreputable protagonists who are nevertheless intriguing - but in real life, it's not a lot of fun to hang around people who complain despite being the authors of their own misery. That's what Celeste and Jesse Forever too often feels like; it wants to be a relationship comedy with some depth, but it seldom has much beyond the superficial.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been best friends and lovers for half their lives, and can be almost nauseatingly cute together. It kind of freaks their engaged friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) out, as this is not, in their minds, the way a couple in the middle of a divorce should be acting. And despite the sources of friction that still show up occasionally, they remain best friends, even if they do seem like they should inevitably be pulled back toward each other. At least, it seems that way until Celeste returns from a tour to promote her new book; the two weeks apart have changed the landscape considerably.

Jesse is an artist who, toward the start of the movie, is more interested in catching some waves than finishing some work for Celeste's public relations firm, while Celeste is a "trend analyst"; the title of her book, "Shitegeist", gives some idea of how reflexively cynical she can be. And while they may not be horrible people, there's not much to them that's actively interesting - they're introduced to us with comedic shtick and the first personality traits of either that make a strong impression are negative. They're hollow shells who make what impression they do manage by having decent actors playing them, and that's the title characters - the supporting cast frequently doesn't even get a chance to rise to the level of "superficial".

Full review at EFC.

Monday, January 30, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 23 January 2012 to 29 January 2012

I swear, tickets at the Coolidge keep getting bigger. I think they know about this blog and are jockeying for real estate on the screen.

This Week In Tickets!

OK, that's because I pre-ordered a ticket for Celeste and Jesse Forever and thus printed it out at home. Meanwhile, I half-suspect that the Brattle just gives out ticket stubs because it would feel weird to go to a movie and not have your ticket ripped.

Well, that and litter-based advertising. Not that the good people who run movie theaters would say they want you to just toss things away, but people seeing those brightly-colored bits of paper with the theater's name on it on the sidewalk or the floor of the bus can't hurt.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2012 in Arlington Capitol #3 (first-run, 35mm)

One might think, based on the casting of a mixed-martial arts fighter in the lead role, that Haywire would be a non-stop action showcase, one more piece of evidence that director Steven Soderbergh can make any genre his own. That it's not the sort of melee-based movie that one would normally see out of Hong Kong or Thailand is initially a bit disappointing, at least until the viewer realizes that it's Soderbergh doing what he does best - with additional ass-kicking.

We start with private security operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) sitting in a diner in upstate New York, waiting for a contact who finally comes in the form of her colleague Aaron (Channing Tatum). He, naturally, is planning to double-cross her, but she's ready, escaping with young hostage Scott (Michael Angarano). It's not the typical hostage/captor relationship, though, as she spills every detail about her mission in Barcelona with Aaron at the behest of State Department officials Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), how her employer and former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) pulled her in to one more mission in Dublin with Paul (Michael Fassbender), and how that led to her stealing his car and having him patch up her arm while she tries to make her way to her father (Bill Paxton).

Soderbergh has made a lot of movies in his career, from tiny indies to big studio productions, and across all genres, but the thread that has run through most of them in one for or another - and been particularly prominent in some of his recent work - is the idea of a sort of observational drama. Haywire, like Contagion, The Girlfriend Experience, and some of his other films, has him standing back and matching his characters' cool professionalism rather than poking at them to figure out what makes them tick emotionally. It can make for dry-seeming movies unless you find process as fascinating as Soderbergh seems to, but the attentive viewer will surely be rewarded. For Haywire, that means showing the audience what may seem inconsequential details like Coblenz and Kenneth negotiating the contract for the Barcelona job, or the agents doing the sort of set-up that would be quick-cut flashbacks in other action movies. One has to watch closely and give special attention to looks that linger for a second extra or twitches at the corner of the mouth.

Full review at EFC.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #3 (Sundance USA, digital)

This will get its own entry in a day or two, but let's just say that, despite being a game effort, it's not very good. The main character is difficult to like and has the frustrating tendency to lag well behind where the audience expects her to be in her development, and she's surrounded by characters who really seem to exist when and for what purpose the plot needs them to exist. This includes Andy Samberg's Jesse, which is especially frustrating, because we hear him talk about problems in his new relationship but never see them. As played-out as those storylines would likely be, they've got to be more interesting than Celeste's self-pity.

The Grey

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2012 in Somerville Theater #1 (first-run, 35mm)

About a year ago, the AMC and Regal cinema chains announced that they were forming their own distributor, both to keep a little more money from ticket sales and to supply themselves with the sort of movies that they felt the studios were ignoring - middle-budget productions aimed at an adult audience. From the looks of The Grey, Open Road is delivering the goods; it's a tight wilderness thriller whose aspirations to be somewhat more actually do elevate it.

A big part of the reason why is that John Ottway may just be the best role Liam Neeson has ever had, Oskar Schindler included. It's a part that requires the comingling of incredible confidence and despair, because it's a real man's role: The type that requires outword stoicism or brusqueness to attempt to cover for how the man feels too much. Neeson's great at that, both as Ottway does all he can to keep his fellow plane-crash survivors alive and at the moments when there's nobody to present a front to and he's overwhelmed.

He's got a strong script to work with from Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, with Carnahan delivering a tightfinal film. He never forgets that this is an adventure film as well as a character study, and keeps the moments between life-threatening danger short and to the point. He also knows how to get maximum impact from his action scenes: Where a lot of directors having people cross a rope over a gap would do the vertigo-inducing shots on the first person to cross and then have the others make it without incident, he reverses the order, never allowing us to take for granted how dangerous it is.

Be warned: The Grey is not the "Liam Neeson punching wolves" movie that the preview implies, but "Liam Neeson facing death with manly resolve is just as good. Also, despite the fact that the movie is produced by two theater chains rushing headlong into digital projection (I think all of the AMCs or Regals in the Boston area are 100% digital), it looks really great on 35mm film; see it that way if you can.

Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2012 in the Brattle Theatre [(Some of) The Best of 2011, 35mm]

This one will also get its own write-up sometime in the next week, as it's a good film that doesn't have a review at eFilmCritic. In the meantime, it's a good movie that wanders a bit, although that tendency is its greatest strength as much as it's a weakness.

Writer/director/editor/narrator Patricio Guzmán is more known for his political documentaries, so the telescopes in Chile's Atacama desert may seem like an odd starting point for him, but we soon see that the same zero-humidity conditions that make Atacama ideal for stargazing also preserve other types of history (any space enthusiast will remind you that what one sees through a telescope is the universe as it once appeared, not how it is at this moment): Drawings made by pre-Columbian natives are remarkably clear, and old widows can still search for the mummified remains of political prisoners from the Pinochet dictatorship. It turns out to be a masterful way to pull disparate subjects together, and Guzmán's film seems much more focused than other broadly philosophical pictures of its ilk.

Still, it does run on a little bit. The streamlined interview structure of the first half falls aside as he speaks to many survivors of the Pinochet years who basically say the same thing, a metaphor involving calcium doesn't quite gain traction, and everything after the film's most striking image (what seems to be another picture of the moon becomes a skull as the camera pans down) is maybe gilding the lily. Ultimately, though, Guzmán does what he set out to do, making a documentary that can draw an audience interested in one subject in to a film about another.

Celeste and Jesse Forever
The Grey
Nostagia for the Light

Friday, January 27, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 January 2012 - 2 February 2012

Huh, I haven't done an Oscar Nominations Reaction Entry in six years. I guess I've been better at handling things I can't control.

  • The nominations have led to a little stuff popping back up at theaters - The Descendants and Hugo return to Fenway. A few other things that received nominations show up in town for the first time: Albert Nobbs, which features Glenn Close as the title character, a woman who disguises herself as a man works as a butler in a small Irish hotel in the 19th Century for so long that it's become her whole identity. It plays at Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and Boston Common. Kendall Square alone gets A Separation, which is not only considered the front-runner for the Foreign Language Film award, but snagged a screenplay nomination for a story of an Iranian woman who sues for divorce, a precarious prospect in the best of times.

  • The big release at mainstream theaters is The Grey, which apparently is even better than the previews which make it look like a tense story of wilderness survival would indicate. Supposedly star Liam Neeson and writer/director Joe Carnahan are 2012's first award contenders, enough to make people wonder why it wasn't released a month earlier. At any rate, it's a pretty auspicious debut from Open Road, the distributor formed by AMC and Regal theaters to fill the gaps in what the studios are providing. In addition to those two chains' screens in Harvard Square, Fenway, and Boston Common, it's also appearing at Somerville and Fresh Pond.

    There's less fanfare for Man on a Ledge and One for the Money. The former (playing at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Harvard Square, Fenway, and Boston Common) is a thriller featuring Sam Worthington and Elizabeth Banks as the title character and the shrink sent to talk him down, not knowing that he's serving as a diversion for a massive heist. The latter (at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common) stars Katherine Heigl as the star of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels about an unlikely bounty hunter.

  • There's some one-offs at various theaters too: Kendall Square's one-week booking is Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman's documentary of the namesake Paris burlesque house. The trailer promotes it as being from the director of La Danse, although I'm guessing that that movie didn't have quite so much nudity as the preview shows.

    Boston Common, meanwhile, gets Miss Bala, Mexico's submission for the Academy Awards. It didn't get shortlisted, but it's received good buzz. It features Stephanie Sigman as a would-be beauty queen who finds that it's a more dangerous, corrupt business than she might have thought.

  • Are we still on awards? If so, the Brattle's (Some of) The Best of 2011 series provides both opportunities to catch up on nominees and looks at things that maybe should have been nominated. You can catch Le Havre on Friday, World on a Wire on Saturday (with late shows of Attack the Block both days), a documentary double feature of Nostalgia for the Light and Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Sunday, The Interrupters on Monday, a double feature of Beginners and Weekend on Tuesday, the original Japanese cut of 13 Assassins on Wednesday, and a double feature of Bill Cunningham New York and Midnnight in Paris on Thursday.

  • Over at the Coolidge, in addition to opening Albert Nobbs, they've got a couple of Friday and Saturday midnights of things I saw at Fantasia last summer but didn't write up full reviews for. The Theatre Bizarre is an anthology film with work by seven directors. Some of the segments, like Buddy Giovinazzo's "I Love You", are darn good; others... Well, less so, as is the way with anthologies. Local director David Gregory (who did "Sweets") will be on hand Saturday night to introduce and withstand interrogation (IIRC, much of the questions for his segment may consist of variations on "what the hell, man? what...the...hell?"). That's upstairs; the midnight show is Battle Royale, the classic satire featuring Takeshi Kitano and a pre-Kill Bill Chiaki Kuriyama. It was mostly a cult sensation in the US because it never had official distribution here, and this theatrical release is in anticipation of it finally hitting DVD and Blu-ray in March (right along the time The Hunger Games shows up in theaters). It's a genuine classic, well worth seeing on the big screen.

    Other special programs show up during the week: The Goethe-Institute German film on Sunday morning is Stopped on Track, about a man who finds out he has a terminal illness; on a far less serious note, Monday's Science On Screen program is Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which includes discussion by MIT's professor Edward Farhi on the theory of time travel.

  • The MFA closes out their January calendar with the end of their Boston Festival of Films From Iran; the films running Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all 2011 releases, showing what's going on there now. There's also one last show of the dubbed Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos on Saturday morning.

    And speaking of animated films from Japan, they kick of the February schedule on Wednesday with the first few screenings of Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli. This touring program is the chance to see some absolutely fantastic films on the big screen in their original language and mostly in 35mm. On Wednesday (1 February), they will be running two of Hayao Miyazaki's more recent features, Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away; the next day features Spirited Away, Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service, and Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday.

  • ArtsEmerson has a set of nifty programs upstairs at the Paramount Theater this weekend, including a visit from one of their own academics. On Friday night, Asian Cinema scholar Shujen Wang will introduce and discuss When Love Comes, the latest by Taiwanese filmmaker Chang Tso-chi, which focuses on multiple generations of family living together and running a restaurant. They will also have two more entries in their Gotta Dance! series on the American musical, and their rarities: Sunnyside Up comes from 1929 and Delicious is from 1931, very early in the development of the form, and while some of the songs may be familiar, most of the cast has since faded into obscurity. Neither of the two is available on DVD, and Sunnyside Up is a new 35mm print.

  • It's a very French weekend at the Harvard Film Archive. They continue their series of The Complete Robert Bresson with Mouchette and L'Argent on Friday night, The Trial of Joan of Arc on Sunday afternoon, Four Nights of a Dreamer on Sunday evening, and Au Hasard Balthazar on Monday. Famed cinematographer and director Claire Denis will introduce Four Nights of a Dreamer on Sunday (she appears as an extra); on Saturday, she will introduce and discuss her own film White Material, as well as a featurette she recently shot, "To The Devil".

  • After a few weeks without Hindi-language (or English-subtitled) movies, Fresh Pond gets Agneepath, featuring Hrithik Roshan as an exile returning to claim his home village from the gangsters who have overrun it.

My plans? Well, I've heard fantastic things about The Grey and A Separation, so I'll likely be hitting those. Some Ghibli, definitely (language practice! It's educational!). And both One for the Money and Man on a Ledge look like they could be at least entertaining. Well, here's hoping, at least.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


This was going to be paired with something else: At first, Red Tails for both having predominately-black casts or A Dangerous Method, which I saw on the same night. But I really said all I had for them in the TWIT entry(*). Then I figured a "first love" pairing with Young Goethe in Love, but my work schedule made that one tough to catch during its one-week booking (and its not going to happen tonight, as the Sundance USA show at the Coolidge and attendant Q&A will likely run long enough that catching the last show will be impossible. That's a shame, really - I wasn't really interested until I saw it was from the same director as North Face, which I liked quite a bit.

(*) Well, not all I had to say, but all I had to say without appearing foolish or ignorant, which is always nice to avoid.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, 35mm)

Films about contemporary youth are tricky things; as much as many filmmakers would like to make a great one, it's a rare thing for a filmmaker to be both close enough in age to the teenage characters of a story like this to have a clear view inside their heads and have honed their skills enough to tell the story this well. So the word done by Dee Rees here is even more impressive; she's managed to make a pretty fantastic film despite not being much older than her main character.

That character is Alike "Lee" Freeman (Adpero Oduye), a seventeen-year-old girl from Brooklyn with good grades, an interest in poetry, and a family that has its frictions but is more intact than many. The latest and largest source of that friction is Laura (Pernell Walker), a dropout that Alike has been spending a lot of time with; she likes other girls and from what they do when hanging out together, it looks like Alike is starting to lean in that direction. Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell) avoids the issue, but mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) decides to lay down the law, banning Laura from the house and insisting Alike walk to and from school with Bina (Aasha Davis), a nice young lady from their church.

The obvious place to start when talking about this movie is Adpero Oduye, who is close to perfect as Alike. Part of it is her look; she's just androgynous enough in appearance to potentially register as a boy in the low-lit opening scenes where she's wearing bulky, shapeless clothes, signalling early on that this isn't a phase, but that she isn't like most girls. A larger part, though, is the attitude she brings to the character; Alike can be a sullen, combative teen, but there's a large part of her that is not truly cynical yet. She's smart both inside and outside the classroom, and her self-awareness makes the character more interesting; we can see that she recognizes the sort of isolation she's heading for.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New from China: The Viral Factor and The Flowers of War

Hey, it's been a while since we've seen China Lion open a film in Boston - Love in Space and My Kingdom back in September. Nobody manned up to get 3D Sex & Zen Extreme Ecstacy, and Magic to Win only played a few cities (5 screens instead of the usual 20-ish). It looks like we're going to miss All's Well Ends Well 2012, which is a shame. I don't know that it looks like a particularly good movie, but it seems weird to me that even when movies with Donnie Yen get U.S. distribution, they seem to take the long way around getting to Boston (where he spent some of his teen years and where his family still lives).

Especially considering that based on the usual terrible sample size of one screening, The Viral Factor did pretty well - the best attendence I've seen at one of their opening weekends since If You Are the One 2, and no walkouts - which I've found is not a given with Chinese movies. The Flowers of War had pretty decent attendence as well, even across the river in Harvard Square, although it's apparently not going to make it to a second week (so, see it in the next couple of days if you're inclined). It would be cool if this gave them some momentum.

The Viral Factor

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, digital)

The Viral Factor aims to be a throwback to the pre-Hollywood films of John Woo, combining stylish action with even grander melodrama. And while director Dante Lam likely has more in common with today's John Woo than the one who made A Better Tomorrow, it's fun to see that type of movie again. It's a sort of action weepy, a bit more enjoyable than it deserves to be.

We open with an international task force including Sean Wang (Andy Tien), "Jon" Man Fei (Jay Chou), and his ex-girlfriend "Ice" (Bing Bai) smuggling a scientist who has bred a new strain of smallpox out of Jordan. This, of course, doesn't go well, with Jon losing one friend due to the other's betrayal. He has one of those ticking time bombs of a brain injury himself, but when his ailing mother informs him that there is news of his father and that he has a brother she never told him about, he immediately sets off for Malaysia. On the plane, he meets Dr. Rachel Kan (Lin Peng), who recommends a neurologist she knows, and once there, he not only reunites with father Man Tin (Liu Kai-chi) and niece "Champ" (Crystal Lee), but finds out that his brother Yeung (Nicholas Tse) is a criminal. Who, it turns out, is being hired by corrupt cop Russell (Philip Keung) and the people who took the biologist - and are having him create a new supervirus.

Almost all action movies try to connect with the audience emotionally by adding a subplot that makes things personal or has the hero dealing with something in his relationships or family. The Viral Factor takes this to an extreme, with the bioterrorists' plot not exactly being relegated a nuisance that interrupts Jon's attempts to bring his family together before it's too late, but still mainly pulling him in because despite being just-arrived in one of the most densely populated cities in Asia, Jon just happens to be connected to Rachel and Yeung for reasons entirely separate from the people who lodged a bullet in his head. The movie barely even tries to get any emotion out of the plot with global stakes until it threatens the Man family directly, although that's not unusual - millions could die in a global pandemic, but threaten the hero's family... It's a set of terrible clichés, but this movie owns them, to a certain extent, by focusing on what would logically be side-stories so closely. There's a Greek tragedy not far beneath the bullets and explosions, and the Man brothers coming face to face with everything in their lives up to this point.

Full review at EFC.

Jin líng shí san chai (The Flowers of War)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2012 in AMC Harvard Square #2 (first-run, digital)

It sort of makes sense when Hollywood makes a movie about something that happened outside the borders of America and Europe but makes a white guy the protagonist - silly, but understandable. When a Chinese filmmaker decides that his Chinese movie about the Rape of Nanking should star Christian Bale - that's kind of weird. But then, a lot of things about The Flowers of War seem ill-conceived, and Zhang Yimou's ability to occasionally make it work only makes it more problematic.

As the movie opens in 1937, the Chinese capital of Nanking is falling to the Japanese in an invasion and occupation just as ugly as its name implies. While the Chinese army crumbles, several parties are converging on a Catholic Church that they hope will offer sanctuary: The late abbot's teenage adopted son, George Chen (Huang Tianyuan), has about a dozen girls from its convent school who were unable to get on the last boat out; a group including Meng Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi), the girl who believed her father would get them out, that was separated in the confusion; Major Li (Tong Dawei), an excellent sharpshooter who carries the only other surviving member of the unit, a boy too young to be much more than a mascot; and John Miller (Bale), an American mortician sent to handle the abbot's funeral arrangements. They'll soon be joined by a dozen ladies from a local brothel, whose elegant de facto leader, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), learned English when she attended a convent school in her youth. It soon becomes very clear that the church and Miller's white face can only offer so much sanctuary - and the guards posted around the gate by Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) are not exactly for the girls' safety.

The opening minutes of The Flowers of War are a breathtaking series of horrors, as Zhang Yimou combines his penchant for striking visuals with increasingly desperate and tragic situations. It temporarily strands the audience in the surreal environment of the world at war, and if the whole movie was like that, it would be an impressive achievement: two hours of randomness, shell-shock, and almost casual atrocity. Of course, that would be difficult to sustain and even more difficult to sell, so things settle down a little, and then the prostitutes show up.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, January 23, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 16 January 2012 to 22 January 2012

Busy at work all week, but do not take the lack of tickets on Saturday for fear of a little snow. Hardy New Englander here.

This Week In Tickets!

The snow did have a little effect on my Saturday, as there were only two of us at Japanese class instead of the usual five, and I'm guessing it kept a few people from the Chlotrudis Awards nominating meeting, leading to it running short and being practically over by the time I got there. One of my best classes, though - more one-on-one time, less trying to pick voices out in a crowded room.

Main noteworthy effect - I could at least pick out that some of the Japanese dialogue in The Flowers of War was in the past tense (verbs ending in "-mashita"!) and in the form of a question (sentences ending in "-ka"!). My goal of being able to understand random words in dialogue by NYAFF/Fantasia is seeming possible!

Oh, and what's with moving the switchover from matinee pricing to evening prices from 6pm to 4pm, Regal? Not. Cool.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, 35mm)

This is an extremely strong feature debut from Dee Rees; it's a rare thing for a filmmaker to be both close enough in age to the teenage characters of a story like this to have a clear view inside their heads and have the skill to tell the story this well. Rees may never make another movie this good, but I hope she gets the chance.

A lot of praise will (and should) also go out to Adepero Oduye, who stars as Alike "Lee" Freeman, a smart girl trying to figure out just what being gay means to how she fits in her family; it's the sort of performance that has to be precisely measured and never feels even a bit off. There's not a weak link in the rest of the cast, either; I particularly liked Charles Parnell as the father (with problems of his own) who seems to know about his daughter but doesn't quite let himself know.

I think what I like most, though, is the way Alike's first relationships are handled. It deserves a little elaboration, but Rees does an exceptional job of establishing that while Alike shouldn't be identified by her sexual orientation, it is a big deal. I'll probably write this up a little more later, and hope to expand on that, because I think it's part of what makes the movie ring true for everyone even if it is a story about ethnic and sexual minorities.

A Dangerous Method

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, 35mm)

It struck me, when I saw the trailer for this one, that there may be a fair amount of people who just know David Cronenberg from his recent, mainstream work like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, as opposed to his early kinky horror work. It's kind of neat that fans of both might see something familiar in A Dangerous Method, even as it seems a departure for the man.

It is, however, not without its problems. It may presume more knowledge of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) than some in the audience possess, and while Cronenberg and company do a fine job in keeping a movie that is often nothing but pointed conversations moving, it can be a bit fatiguing at times, especially when the script seems to cover the same ground two or three times.

Still, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley are rather fantastic as Jung and patient-turned-colleague Sabina Spielrein. Knightley's work is especially impressive, as her lurching, out-of-control tics are a huge contrast to the precisely controlled affect of the rest of the cast (especially the icy-but-delicate Sarah Gadon as Jung's wife), but it comes off more as a fine mind struggling with an unruly brain than an actress out of step with the rest of the cast.

The Viral Factor

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, digital)

This one got an eFilmCritic review over the weekend; it's a fairly enjoyable action movie that would like to be the sort of operatic action movie that John Woo made back in the late eighties and early nineties, but Dante Lam isn't John Woo and Jay Chou isn't exactly Chow Yun-fat. Still, I appreciate it making the effort, as well as Lam's enthusiasm for smashing cars up.

A couple of funny things - it seems like I've been hearing Dante Lam's name as one of the current wave of Hong Kong action directors for a long time, but this is the first movie of his I've seen, and there's not a whole lot of other stuff in his filmography that really screams for my attention. The exposition toward the beginning was a bit odd for a couple of reasons - one, it's a case of somebody telling other characters things they would already know because they're really talking to the audience; and two, the actor doing so (Andy Tien), has such a good accent in English that he must be fluent, but he repeats the script's awkward grammar precisely. And, I admit, it's a little weird to see Sammo Hung's son Sammy in the movie as a generically good-looking guy; I initially thought Philip Keung was the younger Hung, just because he sort of looks like Sammo.

Full review at EFC.

Red Tails

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2012 in Regal Fenway #9 (first-run, digital)

To see Red Tails is to wish, almost immediately, that it was a better movie. From the very first lines of dialogue, uttered in the middle of a pretty spectacular looking aeiral battle (as charmingly retro opening titles appear on screen), it's very clear that for all the good intentions behind this movie, a great many things are going to fall short.

It's almost impossible to describe just how much of a mess the script is. There are bits where the dialogue is so simplified that it seems to come out of a children's book, but writers John Ridley and Aaron MacGruder don't seem to have any particular idea of what's important and what's not. There's a subplot about David Oyelowo's "Lightning" being a hot head who goes looking for confrontations with racists that comes straight out of nowhere, and another about his wingman "Easy" (Nate Parker) having a drinking problem that has no structure to it whatsoever. There's a POW camp story that could be its own movie but comes and goes randomly here. Director Anthony Hemingway doesn't seem to have the heart to cut a single second of the spiffy effects footage that George Lucas has paid for, even when it serves no purpose or when a little editing could punch an action scene up.

And yet, given the lines they've got to work with, I like Oyelowo and Parker a lot. They're not complicated characters, but the actors are charismatic. And Terrence Howard - his first scene with Gerald MacRaney is two guys doing the sort of beats they hit best, and he makes the entire cast around him better. And when it comes time to get into the air, Lucas's money is spent well - the flying scenes are gorgeous.

It's frustrating bordering on tragic, really, that this project Lucas spent nearly twenty-five years working on isn't what it should be.

Jin líng shí san chai (The Flowers of War)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2012 in AMC Harvard Square #2 (first-run, digital)

Here's one I'm hoping to figure out while writing a longer review on the bus ride home, because it veers all over the place. On the one hand, the opening sequence is absolutely stunning, the sort of thing that makes one wish it was the entire movie. But it soon gets into areas that seem completely and utterly misguided, including scenes between Christian Bale and Ni Ni that are occasionally played for thoroughly inappropriate laughs. And then there will be a moment where that seems to work - it's people trying to remain true to themselves and sane in the middle of circumstances so horrific as to defy imagination.

What Zhang Yimou is striving for seems to be a Chinese Schindler's List, a presentation of the Rape of Nanking that is both as harrowing and as digestible for a mainstream audience as Steven Spielberg's take on the Holocaust. It's not that; the story is often repellant not for what is presented but for how cavalierly the material is treated. Zhang is too talented, though, to make a movie that can be completely dismissed. I can't say I enjoyed The Flowers of War; it's not that kind of movie. I did find myself impressed more often than I wondered what Zhang and company were thinking, though, and that's got to count for something.

PariahA Dangerous MethodThe Viral FactorRed TailsThe Flowers of War

Saturday, January 21, 2012

That Week In Tickets: 26 December 2011 to 1 January 2012

Man, if I would have finished this on the bus ride home yesterday, I could have actually said I was caught up with TWIT. Instead, I went and saw not one, but two movies at Kendall Square last night.

Still, the plan is going to be to keep up with this in 2012, even if it means some late Sunday nights. For now, I'm closing out 2011 with this busy page:

This Week In Tickets!

It's kind of amusing to see Monkey Business just a couple days away from My Week with Marilyn; though the former was part of the Brattle's Ginger Rogers tribute series, it's got a great big picture of Marilyn Monroe on the cover if you buy it on DVD. She's really only got a supporting role in it, and that's kind of being generous with her contribution. Still, it wouldn't be much of a surprise that studios would later build movies around her being sexy the way they previously did around Fred & Ginger being able to dance; she seemed to hit an intersection of child-like innocence and fully-realized sexuality without making it sound creepy.

Michelle Williams does a pretty good job of capturing that in My Week with Marilyn, deliberately making it difficult to see where Norma Jean Baker ends and Marilyn Monroe begins, even while insisting they aren't exactly the same. Of course, I suspect that's a result of the source material, where even though Colin Clark may have felt like he was getting close to the woman, he was still only really meeting the movie star.

The Darkest Hour

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2011 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, digital 3D)

There's a lot of product placement in The Darkest Hour, and I wonder if the filmmakers ever found themselves trying to rationalize all those shots of signage for McDonald's and Starbucks Coffee with Cyrillic lettering. See, they might say, we're doing a movie about an alien invasion, and by showing all of these American things, we're making a statement about how Moscow has, in a way, already been invaded...

It's the sort of thing you almost have to say; otherwise you're looking at a movie that feels like a string of compromises and wondering what you gained by them. It's set in Moscow, but follows a group of Americans almost exclusively for the first half, and never really has them come across cultural or language barriers when more actual Russians show up. It's shot in 3D, but what good is that when the villains are mostly invisible? It needs to end, but wants to leave the possibility of sequels open.

And, on top of that, it's just not very good. There are certainly signs that director Chris Gorak could stage a pretty good action scene given some inspiration, and while the CGI for the aliens could use a little more money thrown at it, the vision of a suddenly devastated Moscow (which appears to be a truly beautiful city) is quite impressive. The movie just can't escape how utterly generic it is, though - it is full of interchangeable characters, the aliens are a bland cross of between familiar grays and Dan Dare's Mekon, and it doesn't add even one original concept to the annals of post-apocalyptic adventure.

I don't think that The Darkest Hour was ever going to be a great movie, but even as sci-fi/horror "product" it fails to stand out from the crowd for much more than a couple of cool shots. Some of the people involved will undoubtedly do good work someday, but this tops out at "kind of slick for a low budget" (if it had a low budget).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (USA)
Monkey Business & The Major and the Minor
Swing Time & The Gay Divorcee
The Darkest Hour
My Week With Marilyn
War Horse

Friday, January 20, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 January 2012 - 26 January 2012

So far, January has been a lot of nothing, but it turns out that it's just been waiting to blast us with stuff that is at least interesting from all sides - there's a fair amount that's worth seeing this weekend, and a lot that is trying to convince us it is.

  • I'll admit it: I had a pretty big crush on Gina Carano when she was appearing on the revived American Gladiators a couple years ago, where she coincidently went by "Crush" (yes, I'm also admitting to watching the American Gladiators revival). So, yeah, I'd be pretty excited about Haywire, her first big role, even if it weren't the latest by Steven Soderbergh and filled with an absolutely fantastic cast. Strangely enough, straight-up action/adventure is one of the few things Soderbergh hasn't done (unless the sublime Out of Sight counts). Still, given that he's apparently good at everything, I'm sure this will kick some butt. Plays the Arlington Capitol, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    In the works for over twenty years, George Lucas's long-gestating Red Tails finally hits theaters this weekend. The January opening is, admittedly, not a good sign, but the trailers promise an old-fashioned aerial action/adventure set against the backdrop of an all-black squadrom of bomber escorts in WWII with state of the art effects. At the very least, it should be very pretty, and Lucas seems to have hired good people to write and direct this passion project, as well as put together a good cast. And, c'mon, admit it - the Fox fanfare followed by the Lucasfilm logo in the trailer still gave you goosebumps whether you want to admit it or not. Plays Fenway and Boston Common.

    Speaking of trailers, the opening of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close means we'll finally see the end of that one. I must admit, it seemed weird to me - the kid trying to follow a trail his eccentric father (Tom Hanks) left him after the father dies in 9/11 makes me wonder how dad knew to leave a mystery behind. Plays Somerville, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    Hey, they made another Underworld movie, and Underworld: Awakening is in 3D. Kate Beckinsale is back as a vampire who is now fighting humans who are fed up with being eaten so that she can look good in black leather as well as werewolves. The funny thing is, despite having missed hte last couple installments, this looks like something I could step right into, were I so inclined. Plays at Fenway and Boston Common, including the premium screens, although the furniture stores are sticking with Mission: Impossible.

  • Boston Common has a couple of other screens to fill, so they're going to add a couple of things that are a little more esoteric. Pina is a gorgeous 3D documentary by Wim Wenders showcasing the work of late choreographer Pina Bauch; I saw a preview last week and was kind of bowled over. They've also got a simultaneous release with Hong Kong with The Viral Factor, a new action/adventure movie by Dante Lam that stars Jay Chou (Kato in The Green Hornet) and Nicolas Tse (recently seen in Shaolin and Bodyguards and Assassins).

    Over in Harvard Square, Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War opens. I believe this is Zhang's first international feature; it features Christian Bale as a western refugee who tries to rescue a group of women during the Rape of Nanking.

  • In contrast, only one movie opens at Kendall Square, Young Goethe in Love. It's a historical romance about the famed German poet, and while that may not be your thing, it's worth remembering that co-writer/director Philipp Stölzl also made North Face, and though this is a completely different sort of film, it's still a pretty good track record.

  • The Brattle also opens one film, with Silent Souls playing Friday through Sunday. It's a nifty little Eastern European movie, featuring two longtime friends who go on a journey (across many bridges) to lay one's wife to rest in the traditional way. Arty, but not impenetrable. Note that it won't have any 9:30 shows, as "Hooked on Who" pops up, this weekend filled with episodes featuring robots (Tom Baker on Friday and Saturday, Matt Smith on Sunday).

    Monday and Tuesday (the 23rd and 24th) feature the return of a pair of special programs for their winter sessions, both opening up with director visits. The DocYard Presents will appear every other Monday; this one features Space Coast, a 1979 film by Michel Negroponte and Ross McElwee which looks at the Cape Canaveral area after the end of Apollo. Balagan Presents plays every other Tuesday; this installment is "A Visit From Daichi Saito", who will introduce and discuss six of his experimental short films. After that, they offer the chance to catch up with (Some of) The Best of 2011: Rise of the Planet of the Apes will play on wednesday the 25th, and a double feature of Melancholia and Take Shelter will run on Thursday the 26th, with the series continuing until February 5th.

  • The Coolidge, meanwhile, will be catering to people who would like to be in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance film Festival but can't. The screening rooms will be hosting a selection of last year's Sundance Shorts all week, while on Thursday the 26th, they will have their annual Sundance USA screening of Celeste and Jesse Forever, with director Lee Toland Krieger on hand for a Q&A. I'm almost certain that's sold out, though.

    There are two pretty good movies screening at midnight on Friday and Saturday this week - Mean Girls is the "Hey Ladies!" entrance downstairs, why Takeshi Kitano's fun and gory return to yakuza action Outrage is "Fresh Blood" upstairs. Going from midnight to mid-day, they'll have a special screening of Big Catholic Guilt: Resurrection on Saturday at noon, which shows a set they played at the Middle East in 2010, fourteen years after their last concert. Otherwise, no new openings, just continued screenings of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method, and The Iron Lady.

  • Okay, when FUNimation announced they would be screening Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos nationwide, I did not expect its Boston venue to be the Museum of Fine Arts. Apparently they worked well together with Summer Wars, though, so if you want to catch the latest movie based on the popular manga, that's where you'll go. If you do, be aware that it's dubbed in English. It plays Friday the 20th (7:45pm), Sunday the 22nd (10:30am), and Wednesday the 25th (5:30pm), and will continue next weekend.

    A more expected part of the MFA's calendar is the Boston Festival of Films from Iran, which features a number of films by Abbas Kiarostami as well as Circumstance (Wednesday the 25th at 7:50pm), which I liked quite a bit when it played IFFBoston last year.

  • School's back in session, so ArtsEmerson's screenings at the Paramount return with the start of Gotta Dance: The American Movie Musical, a long series featuring not just the well-known classics of the genre, but some more obscure examples. This weekend, they pair The Broadway Melody (Friday at 6pm and Sunday at 2pm) and Singin' in the Rain (Friday at 8:30pm and Saturday at 2pm); the Friday evening shows can be purchased as a double feature and will be introduced by classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz. On Friday night, they present Views and Wavelengths, a collection of short films that screened as part of the Toronto Film Festival's "Wavelengths" program and the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde". Several New England-based filmmakers will be present to discuss their contributions.

  • The Harvard Film Archive, meanwhile, begins screening The Complete Robert Bresson: Pickpocket on Friday (7pm) and Sunday (5pm), Angels of the Streets on Friday (9pm), Diary of a Country Priest (7pm) and Las Dames du Bois de Boulogne (9:30pm) on Saturday, Lancelot du Lac on Sunday (7pm), and The Devil Probably on Monday. That 7pm show will be introduced by artist Stephen Prina.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has second screenings of the two documentaries from last week - Splinters (surfing in Papua New Guinea) reruns on Wedesday the 25th and Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged plays on Thursday the 26th; both begin at 7:30pm.

My plans? Red Tails and Haywire from the US, The Viral Factor and The Flowers of War from China, and Celeste and Jesse Forever from Sundance. Maybe I'll try and fit Young Goethe in Love or Underworld 4 in there, but that might really be pushing my luck.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ginger Rogers & singular talents: Monkey Business, The Major and the Minor, Swing Time, and The Gay Divorcee

The program notes for the Brattle's Ginger Rogers tribute, "Backwards and in High Heels", note that even that title doesn't really do her justice. After all, the quotation it comes from (pointing out that yeah, Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels) is not actually about her. Rather, it's about women in general, how they often have to work harder for lesser recognition. It's almost political, really, as opposed to pointing out just how great she was on-screen.

After all, she's clearly more than Astaire's dance partner. I admit to not being hugely impressed when I saw her in Tight Spot a few months ago; she brought a big personality a B movie that really wasn't very good despite her presence alongside Brian Keith and Edward G. Robinson, and while I think I've seen her in some other stuff (I want to say a Jimmy Stewart western), a concentrated dose of her as 2011 came to a close led me to really appreciate her screen persona. It's actually pretty close to what I imagine her Tight Spot character must have been like when younger, sassy and capable and funny. She's also a bona fide good actress right from the start; even when she's being second-billed to Fred Astaire or Cary Grant (or set to be upstaged by a young Marilyn Monroe), she's always the best thing about these movies.

Well, unless you compare her to Astaire as a dancer, maybe. It gets back to the "backwards in high heels" thing, but it did often seem as though Fred was doing the longer sequences of quicker steps, although it's not like he was spinning as much, and I'll bet twirling in heels is an order of magnitude more difficult than throwing down a few taps. But what do I know? I've got a lot more experience watching martial arts flicks than musicals, and I'm not exactly great at figuring which stuff is really hard there, either.

It's funny, though, that I can spend the three or four months from my first day at the New York Asian Film Festival to when I'm finally done with my Fantasia reviews pumping out a whole bunch of text about a slew of sometimes very similar kung fu and horror movies and feel like I'm hitting each one fresh, but present me with two RKO musicals to write up back to back, and I almost feel like I'm writing the same thing twice. I don't know if I felt that when reviewing three versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles in rapid succession!

In a way, though, Hong Kong filmmaking is sort of the last bastion of the mindset that made movies like Swing Time, and even there, it's kind of diluted these days, as the cross-pollination with Hollywood makes those action movies a little more story-oriented. I mention this is the review of Swing Time, but while movies like it and The Gay Divorcee are nominally telling a story, that wasn't really what they were for, and to some extent you have to keep this sort of thing in mind when watching flicks from the thirties and forties: With no television, let alone home video, and travel options better than they were a generation before but not as good as they would be a generation later, the local cinema was the best way for someone in a small town (or even a city off the main rail lines) to see talented people doing the things they excelled at, and the studio supplied that.

So you'd get something like Swing Time, which is awfully close to being five or six dance numbers strung together with the absolute minimum connective tissue needed to call it a story for those who won't pay their nickel to see people dance. Warner Brothers would build musicals around their library of songs, sticking singers in the middle for much the same purpose movies would be built around Astaire dancing or Sonja Henie skating - these things were draws, because you couldn't get them anywhere else.

You see echoes of that today - plays, operas, and ballets broadcast to theaters that project them digitally, and even if Hong Kong has put stronger spines in their action movies (or diluted the displays of martial skill with special effects), Thailand is still cranking out movies that are basically "these guys can move; watch them do their thing". And it's not a bad thing that everything is more accessible these days But it's a funny thing - as film has become a more sophisticated, better storytelling medium, they've narrowed to become little but, and we seem to have lost some ability to love them as exhibitions. The closest thing we've got to that today are FX-driven blockbusters, and making them gorgeous, state of the art, and amazing with story a secondary focus has become an unforgivable sin.

Certainly, I was disappointed at Swing Time when I looked at it as a story interrupted by dance numbers, but as dance numbers loosely held together by story, well, what makes it less worthy than Pina? It's just using a different method to stitch things together.

Monkey Business (1952)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

The high concept comedy has been relatively common at various points in cinematic history, and while the type that go past high concept to outright fantasy are more common now than ever, they're not new: You've always had the likes of Topper and Bell, Book and Candle. Something like Monkey Business is still an odd thing to see sixty years later, a goofy comedy less driven by (then) current societal mores than absurd innovation.

The chief innovator is Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant), a research chemist for Oxley Chemical Company searching for a rejuvenation formula. Well, maybe it's actually the chimp who gets out of her cage, randomly mixes some chemicals, and then dumps the result in the water cooler. After drinking it, not only does Barnaby feel twenty years younger, he starts acting it as well, opting to play hooky from work. Company owner Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn) sends secretary Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe) to find him - and while she's not that bright, she sure is radiant, which could potentially cause trouble with Barnaby's wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers).

Director Howard Hawks made great movies in several genres, but when he turns sights on screwball comedy, well, it can get exceptionally screwy. Monkey Business is deliriously silly, even more so than Hawks's and Grant's Bringing Up Baby, but in many ways the story (by four credited writers, with Hawks involved as well) is actually pretty tight, in that once you accept the premise that a concoction mixed by a chimp can revert otherwise stiff people to their more freewheeling youth, everything else follows pretty logically from that; it's just a matter of arranging things so that the characters stumble into gags rather than tragedy. Well, OK, some bits toward the end are a bit off, though they still draw laughs even if one is a stretch and the other would be seen as kind of politically incorrect nowadays.

Full review at EFC.

The Major and the Minor

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

The next time some old person starts loudly complaining about how movies today are just strange or perverted compared to the old days, just turn around and remind grandpa that he (or his parents) probably paid money to see The Major and the Minor, a romantic comedy in which a thirty-year-old Ginger Rogers plays a character in her mid-twenties who potentially becomes a rival for a man's affection by making him think she's a twelve-year-old girl.

That's not her goal, of course - as the movie starts, Susan Applegate (Rogers) is a small-town girl who has given New York City her best shot and now just wants to go back home. Unfortunately, the money she has set aside for her train ticket back is no longer enough, but seeing a girl not much smaller than herself pay child's fare gives her an idea. Circumstances lead to her hiding out in the cabin of one Major Kirby (Ray Milland), and when the train stops because of a flooded track, Kirby and his fiancée Pamela (Rita Johnson) offer to put "Su-Su" up at the military academy where he teaches for a few days - and while the adults and many of the cadets are fooled, Pamela's sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn't buying it at all.

In the wrong hands, The Major and the Minor could become something really grotesque, but that's what makes it so much fun: Even though it was a little more acceptable for a young man to court a teenage girl when the movie came out in 1942, Billy Wilder makes sure the apparent age difference is enough to be creepy when looked at from most any perspective, and has a fine time stepping over the line just enough to make the audience squirm before dancing back again. The script (by Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a story by Fanny Kilbourne by way of a Edward Carpenter's play) is well-balanced between Susan being placed in uncomfortable positions and doing so to others, which keeps things from straying into really uncomfortable territory.

Full review at EFC.

Swing Time

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

"Formula" is a bit of a dirty word when talking about film today, but there's a sort of awesome purity to how it was applied back in the pre-home video, pre-television "Golden Age of Cinema": RKO has a guy who can dance really well under contract, so the producers tell the writers to come up with a script that starts with him dancing, ends with him dancing, and doesn't go more than twenty minutes or so at a stretch without him dancing. The director directs, the studio ships it to their theaters, where the people who haven't seen that guy dance in a few months buy their tickets. Then they do it again. It doesn't always result in great movies, but they certainly give the audience what they were looking for.

This one opens with Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) doing his last dance as part of a traveling show before getting married to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), at least until his fellow performers sabotage him. As a result, Lucky ends up in New York, having promised to earn $25,000 to show he's responsible. So, of course, he and his magician friend Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) immediately causes a series of misunderstandings at a dance school that gets teacher Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and receptionist Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick) fired. Still, it doesn't take long before people realize that Lucky and Penny have great chemistry on and off the dance floor.

Describing Fred Astaire as just "a guy who can dance really well" obviously undersells him quite a bit, but there's little denying that Swing Time is built to showcase how well Astaire and Rogers work their feet: There are five or six dance numbers in a 103-minute movie, and at times it feels as if the powers that be sense Lucky and Carroll have gone too long without dancing and so arrange circumstances to make them start. The script relies on weak plot devices like Lucky never losing when he gambles, and is just amazingly eager to wrap things up at the end. It's a dance delivery system as much as it's a story.

Full review at EFC.

The Gay Divorcee

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

I am sure that somewhere in The Gay Divorcee, there's a moment that at least made sense eighty years ago, because it all seems rather adorably silly now. Well, maybe not all - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can dance and even spark a bit when sitting down, and that will get you a long way.

This time around, Astaire plays Guy Holden, a famous American dancer come to Europe for some time out of the spotlight visiting his English friend Egbert "Pinky" Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton). Pinky is watching the store at the family law firm when Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) - a lady who married young and now only hears from her husband when he wants access to her money - walks in looking for a divorce, her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady), who has been on this merry-go-round several times, in tow. Apparently, the best way about this is for Mimi to be caught in a hotel room with a gigolo (Erik Rhodes), so Pinky sets that up at a Brighton resort. He asks Guy to come along, hoping a few days at the beach will help him get his mind off the girl he met when he first arrived in England... Not realizing that Mimi is that girl.

To call a movie like The Gay Divorcee goofy or ridiculous is actually a sort of compliment. It is, after all, a farce, based on piling mistaken identities and missed connections until they can be stacked no more and fall over. If the story ever slowed down enough for somebody to think, the thing would fall apart completely, and to a certain extent, it does - it goes from being snappy to requiring a character to be even more ridiculous than previously established to draw things out even more toward the end before heading to a rushed wrap-up. And just getting to the resort seems to take longer than it should.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, January 16, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 2 January 2012 to 15 January 2012

Okay; new plan: This Week In Tickets goes up when I get to the office on Monday morning, because punctuality is cool when you do something on a regular basis.

(Note: That sentence was written at 11:10pm Sunday night)

(Yes, I know it would have done this a week ago. The calendar just came this week, because I had to buy it at Amazon, because I usually get them at Borders, and everyone else appears to have ordered Taschens or stuff the same size sensibly enough that by the time I started shopping, they were gone.)

(And, yes, there will be doubling back to get to the week between Christmas and New Year's; I just want to give the Ginger Rogers stuff proper reviews before putting that one up, although I won't be letting myself fall behind in that way in 2012.)

Table of contents:
2 January 2012 - 8 January 2012
9 January 2012 - 15 January 2012

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Fish Story, 3 January 2012, in the living room. The good news: Fish Story is finally out on DVD! The bad news: It's not Blu-ray, and it's not even an anamorphic encoding. Seriously, a movie that came out on video on the last weekend of 2011, despite 4:3 TVs not having been available in the US for a year or three (and most computer screens and portable players having a 16:9 aspect ratio) is still optimized for NTSC! It's such a good movie that I'm willing to overlook that, but knock it off, Pathfinder Pictures!

(Still worth seeing, though; I was pleasantly surprised by the obvious thing I missed a year and a half ago!)

I actually spent part of my day off Monday looking for a new TWIT calendar, making a big loop that started out with using up a Groupon-type thing at a bagel place in Quincy Market, heading into Coolidge Corner to check Brookline Booksmith, seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and then making my way back toward Cambridge, stopping to check and see if New England Comics had an issue of something that I was missing and then not remembering which specific issue I was missing.

And then, a bunch of nothing all week, as I spent a lot of what would be movie time watching the sixth season of Supernatural.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about a number of things, but the thing that strikes me is that it's about old men sending young men to their dooms. Deposed spymaster "Control" is played by John Hurt at his most cadaverous, with would-be heirs played by Gary Oldman and Toby Jones seeming like gray people who have had their humanity burnt out of them, and other potential suspects played by David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, and Colin Firth having long burnt out the principle of their youth. It makes one worry for the younger characters played by Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch - they're just not going to have the chance to grow as cold as their predecessors.

That gray age is, I think, what director Tomas Alfredson and star Gary Oldman bring to the picture to make it theirs. There are storylines that hint at passion or idealism being a factor, but ultimatelyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy sees the Cold War as the actions of aged people locked in battle because they don't know how to be otherwise. The world is a chess match to them, and while the audience starts out trying to learn the identity of a traitor, we ultimately find ourselves learning the hard facts of the spy business.

In fact, I find myself really liking the way that the advertising campaign is deceptive for how it fits in with this being a theme: A line that seems like nobility in the trailers and adds turns out to be a bald-faced lie when it actually appears in the film. It's almost like it was planned that way.

Kassandra with a K

* (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché, Blu-ray quality video)

Ugh. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but a filmmaker who feels it is necessary for the audience to see him relieve himself on-screen had better have a damn good reason to do so. Somebody who does it twice like Ahmed Khawaja does in this movie has severely overestimated how interesting his life is to an audience.

That's how one winds up with the likes of Kassandra with a K, so named for the first girl who broke Ahmed's heart, leading him to spend time acting homeless, planning to use the spare change he picks up to make a movie about homelessness and pining for Kassandra, and so on until the movie threatens to collapse upon itself in a sad, navel-gazing singularity. It's a dull piece which roommate/best friend/co-writer/director/etc. Andre Puca tries to liven up, but the pair never seem to realize that they are without a compelling subject for their film and have neither the wit nor raw talent to keep this from being a crippling problem. There are precious few moments when someone watching this movie is not going to be more curious about what is going on somewhere else.

The preview reminded me of I Am a Sex Addict, and while that was a terrible movie, it was at least made by a filmmaker who knew how to sell the occasional joke and could work a bit of sincere self-deprecation into the story. Kassandra with a K tries to be that sort of clever, but just doesn't seem capable.

(Of course, don't try telling that to the people in the Q&A Session From Hell, all apparently personal friends of Khawaja and Puca intent on telling them how brilliant their movie was. It's the sort of environment where you just can't raise your hand and ask "at what point did you realize you were making a bad movie and why didn't you stop?")

We Bought a Zoo

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2011 in the AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

People seem to expect a lot out of Cameron Crowe for some reason or another, maybe because he of his music background; there's a magical level of understanding given to that stuff. Crowe made films about youth and idealism that people connected with, and when he did this, the reaction was almost like a betrayal - why would the guy who understands me so well go and do some dumb kids' movie?

The answer, of course, is that he didn't, really; he made a movie about his audience hitting middle age and suddenly having to deal with loss and kids and maybe not being quite so bold as when the only risk was one's own heart breaking. It's very much Cameron Crowe stuff, handled with all the earnestness and people who speak plainly but much more eloquently than in real life. He just also happens to have the cutest little girl who is not my niece in the world in the cast and a bunch of animals as well.

That's not to say the movie is without its flaws; Crowe has more subplots and supporting characters than he knows what to do with. I occasionally found myself wondering if Scarlett Johansson's Kelly, thrust into a position that usually goes to a more experienced zookeeper and both having to deal with a novice employer and rely on her niece to keep the zoo running, might actually make a more interesting main character. It's still an entertaining movie, though, likely with Happy Feet Two on the second tier of family movies to see this winter, and that's not a bad place to be.

This Week In Tickets!

The preview for Pina was pretty nifty. I was kind of surprised/worried when I saw the huge line until I saw that it was for another preview (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close); I just got waved upstairs. Most of the people there seemed to be either dancers or enthusiasts - between them and critics, about half the theater was roped off when I got there, sending me to the front row. Not necessarily where you want to be for a 3D movie, both because of digital resolution and the uncomfortable angle. It still worked pretty well.

While we were waiting, a group of young dancers did a bit of an impromptu show in the hallway, and as much as I respect their art, it can look kind of silly in the wrong context. When they were standing in the hall, barefoot, moving slowly, I had to wonder what the people coming to see other movies thought: Cool, in my way, odd, or are these guys handicapped? They all seemed to be reasonable responses.

The Haunting (1963)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Dead of Winter, 35mm)

The Haunting likely isn't actually the original template for other haunted house movies, but it's early and certainly well-enough done to imitate. It's also evidence, in case anybody didn't know, that Robert Wise is extremely underrated because of his versatility: His work is spread across too many genres for him to be a particular hero to film fans of any particular stripe, but his broad experience means he brings more to a particular type of film than one might expect.

Thus, The Haunting, where he takes a script that in many other hands would seem like a cliché-ridden, contradictory mess, puts together a really fantastic cast and gets them to work together in a way that makes the characters' occasionally hostile interactions amid potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) circumstances seem perfectly reasonable. It's a really fantastically layered picture - things that go bump in the night on top, the unraveling of Julie Harris's Eleanor "Nell" Lance underneath, and a network of stymied attractions holding them together.

It's a pretty neat set-up, actually. I almost wonder if Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding are deliberately making the behavior of certain characters very simplistic - the exposition Richard Johnson delivers as the scientist investigating Hill House and the way heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) displays little but naked avarice - so that audiences of the time might not particularly note that the chain of romantic tensions between the characters has a big old gay link in the middle. It works really well, and that's before getting to what a really great ghost story this is. Wise does what would now be called the Paranormal Activity thing, getting plenty of scares out of doors slamming, loud noises, and one special effect that is low-fi by today's standards but darn effective.

It's a nifty little haunted house flick, deservedly considered a classic.

Young Adult

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, 35mm)

It's clear at this point that I'm just never going to warm up to Jason Reitman. Even a movie like Young Adult, which has plenty to recommend it, just doesn't connect with me. Part of it, I think, is that I tend to be really story-focused, and he's not really interested in that. He's got characters to explore, and he's going to make sure that he doesn't miss an inch of what he's examining.

It's kind of frustrating. There's no denying that Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are excellent here, and even better as a pair. But the movie's pattern is established very early - Theron's Mavis has designs on a a married man and new father, Oswalt's Matt tells her she's nuts, she doesn't listen, repeat. It's well-done, but I found myself wishing that Reitman and writer Diablo Cody would get to the point, or movie things forward, or at least give us some black comedy that is enjoyably mean.

Instead, they just cover the same ground over and over again, and when the movie reaches the end, it's with a revelation that just sucks any life out of the room. It's not funny, but it's also not enough of a swerve to punch us in the gut. It's one of those "hey, life is complicated" endings that may be honest but doesn't feel like an accomplishment. It's realistic, sure, but at a certain point catharsis trumps that, and Young Adult never has the moment that makes us feel something strong.

Kassandra With a K
We Bought a Zoo

Beauty and the Beast
The Haunting
Young Adult

So... Only 13 hours past my original plan. In my defense, this is a double issue and the MBTA did everything they could to disrupt my schedule this morning. In related news, I really have to figure out how to write in an environment aside from a moving bus.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What 3D should and should not be used for: Pina and the Beauty and the Beast re-release

3D had a strange, though somewhat predictable, 2011. In many ways, it was not just the continuation but the culmination of the medium's 2010: In that year, studios and exhibitors saw the enormous sums of money that Avatar made, in no small part because 3D both offered a compelling reason not to wait for video and a boost to the ticket price, and learned entirely the wrong lessons: Studios started doing rushed post-conversion 3D jobs on movies while theaters jacked the 3D surcharge from a reasonable $3 to numbers like $5 which demand a little more consideration of what you're getting. By the time 2011 started, audiences were getting wise to the fact that they were paying more for less return. As the summer went on, 3D-haters pounced upon every statistic that showed that what they disparaged as a mere gimmick was in decline and would probably soon die, noting with glee that the likes of Pirates of the Caribean 4 and Transformers 3 were getting much less of their revenue from 3D ticket sales than earlier releases, even though 3D tickets cost so much more. By the end of the year, it was easy to note that the format was in retreat: The third Chipmunks movie was not released in 3D even though the second one had been, and when theaters only opened a 3D movie on one screen, it was often split between 3D and 2D shows - and sometimes 3D wasn't offered at all (the Boston suburbs, Hugo opened at the film-only Somerville Theatre rather than the 3D-friendly Arlington Capitol; Fresh Pond only showed The Darkest Hour in 2D).

The ironic thing about this is that we're finally really starting to see what 3D can do. As much as I passed on Pirates and Transformers for having seen enough of their respective series already, they were captured in native 3D, and word was that Michael Bay knew what he was doing. And he wasn't the only big-name director shooting in 3D; this year featured Werner Herzog, Tarsem Singh, Matin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and, finally, Wim Wenders giving this stuff a try.

And what do you know, when actual talented people applied themselves to 3D with that third dimension taken into consideration from the beginning - though in different ways; Spielberg was doing motion-captured animation, while Joe Johnston reverted to traditional film and video for Captain America but taped a camcorder to his main camera to give the stereographers reference - the result was often quite impressive. I suspect that if you show people good presentations of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo, Arthur Christmas, Tintin, and Pina (at a reasonable price), most will begrudgingly admit that 3D can be something other than a hollow gimmick.

So what does Disney do with 3D coming closer to reaching its proper place in the cinema? They try and ruin it.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, their 3D-ification of The Lion King was bad. It had some nifty-looking moments, but just as many that didn't look quite right. For Beauty and the Beast, multiply that ratio by something life four. This upconversion is a technical disaster, actually completed before the one for The Lion King and (I think) planned for an early-2010 release, only to have those plans quietly canceled and the film making a brief appearance down under that August. I can only guess that it's the result of people actually taking a look at it and realizing how terrible the stereography was, but not being able to resist hauling it out when The Lion King made so much money (would that this applied to the IMAX version of Aladdin that was allegedly completed but vaulted when the IMAX B&TB underperformed!).

What's so terrible about it? Well, one friend complained about how things like snow and rain were pushed to the extreme foreground and how the glasses "sucked all the life from the picture", but to be fair, I don't get the impression that he's not the type to give 3D a fair shake; it's on his list and never getting off. Now, I like of like the snow/rain thing (really, it's just an exaggeration of a common animation effect), and the dimming of the light is admittedly a problem that exhibitors and technicians really need to work on. But, it's part of the deal when you go to a 3D movie these days, and while complaining about it will hopefully lead to some improvement on those fronts, I think that there are much bigger, movie-specific fish to fry here.

The first mistake is more along the lines of a decision I would have made differently - Beauty and the Beast opens with backstory told via stained-glass-style illustrations, and wouldn't it just have popped more if, instead of using a 3D opening logo and environment before zooming into those, the movie started out in 2D and then jumped to 3D when the film proper started with "Belle"? I mean, go for the Wizard of Oz effect. Instead, Disney starts with 3D, flattens the picture out for the intro, and then switches back with a logo that, while it has overlapping elements, is clearly not designed for three-dimensional space.

Being designed for two dimensions is a problem that clearly carries over to the rest of the movie, too. As odd as it may be to say, The Lion King with its talking animals is actually a much more realistic-looking movie than Beauty and the Beast, which has a wide range of sizes for the human characters and then deforms even the least stylized (such as Belle) in ways that work fine in two dimensions but occasionally make her outstretched arms seem fifteen feet long in three. The scale of the Beast's castle is similarly distorted, as some overhead shots shrink the characters even more than they were meant to, and in some dizzying instances make it look like they are standing in mid-air as marble floors suddenly look like chasms. These are the direct result of trying to use effects for a consciously two-dimensional medium work in three, with mostly two dimensional elements to work with (even the coloring was mostly done to suggest texture as opposed to depth).

But there's also a lot of "people doing their job badly". I'm sure that a great many people involved have learned from their errors here and are doing better work on other conversion jobs with less ridiculous deadlines, but the errors here are unforgivable for a finished product that people are paying money to see. In one scene, Gaston's low-cut tunic seems to have his chest sticking out like a v-shaped wedge. In others, there's the sense that he's not actually touching the chair he's sitting in. There are moments when solid objects appear to move through other. When Le Fou is thrown up in the air, he loses all sense of solidity, and actually seems to move too fast for the projector to keep up. And speaking of him losing solidity, he actually gets flattened into part of the background in a shot or two during "Gaston" after Gaston's chair lands on him.

Now, it's not all bad - in many cases, the stereographers do a nifty job in making Belle's village and the Beast's castle into three-dimensional environments, and the characters don't feel like two-dimensional elements in those worlds (although, as with The Lion King, characters like Beast and Phillippe the horse who don't have normal human proportions in their faces look off). The ballroom scene looks just as good as it should, considering the 3D effect it was going for twenty years ago. But for every success, there are at least two or three failures, and Beauty and the Beast doesn't deserve to be seen at less than its best.

That being said, I must admit that the ads for the post-conversions of Star Wars and Titanic get me a little excited (which kind of shocked me with Titanic; even as it becomes a weak, formulaic film in memory, it still makes for a terrific preview!). I think Captain America did a pretty good job with its post-conversion, as did Ra.One. Post-conversion is not an inherently evil or useless process, but it can't be done without more care than this movie demonstrates.

I like 3D, and I look forward to seeing what talented people like Andrew Stanton, Barry Sonnenfeld, Ridley Scott, Timur Bekmambetov, and Peter Jackson (and talented animation groups like Pixar, Dreamworks, and Aardman) can do with it in 2012. I think the format's boosters oversell it when acting like it's a revolution akin to adding color or sound to the movies. It's neither that nor necessarily the empty gimmick that its detractors make it out to be. If anything, I'd say 3D is the modern equivalent to CinemaScope. Yes, its use is in part commercially motivated as a way to get people to see movies in theaters rather than at home. It's more effective in some hands and in certain genres than it is in others. It takes a little effort to learn how to use it properly, and it will never completely displace what has come before. But for filmmakers who want to achieve a certain effect, and willing to shoot with it in mind for every shot, it's an exciting alternative, and I hope that it gives us many more Pinas than poorly-considered mutilations of classic films in the future.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #15 (preview, digital 3D)

Many in the audience for this advance screening of Pina were either dance enthusiasts or dancers themselves, and they probably appreciated many details more than I did, especially where performance was concerned. And yet, I'll hazard that those who are attracted by an eye-popping trailer, technical curiosity, or just finding that it's the only movie that starts in the next twenty minutes will in many cases be just as impressed. One doesn't need to know the details to see something beautiful and difficult and recognize it as such, although I have no doubt that it gives flavor to the experience.

The audience will not learn a lot about who Pina Bauch was, or her history. The dedication at the beginning and use of the past tense indicates that she died recently, and it's easy to pick up from context that, though she seldom danced herself toward the end of her life, she was a brilliant and innovative choreographer. What we hear from interview subjects makes her sound, if anything, more enigmatic. What director Wim Wenders, the members of Pina's company, and other dancers do is present her work - pieces large and small that are presented on stage, in a rehearsal hall, or on location.

And... wow. There are at least a dozen different numbers presented in whole or in part, and they are pretty amazing. Even if the viewer doesn't know much about dance, the first major sequence covers the stage in dirt to emphasize what sort of hard, sweaty work it can be, while later bits will sometimes allow the audience to think that a bit is kind of boring or pretentiously arty before dropping a bit that astounds with the sheer level of precise, strong athleticism it requires. One later number floods a part of the stage with water, and I couldn't help but think, even while admiring the beauty of the action, that if I were jumping around that barefoot, I would inevitably slip and wipe half the company out. Even setting aside the physical difficulty, the numbers are beautiful, as often filled with whimsy as drama.

Full review at EFC.

"Tangled Ever After"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (short, digital 3D)

Here's a pleasant surprise, and not just because amid the nervousness about the 3D conversion of Beauty & The Beast and the way a non-stop barrage of previews can sort of make one forget that you came for a feature, let alone the short that is scheduled to play before it. But even better, because even though the opening gives us Flynn Rider being kind of annoying and egotistical, it soon becomes a fast-paced slapstick cartoon featuring Maximus the horse and Pascal the chameleon, and that is not what I expected at all.

Oh, certainly, a lot of the human characters from Tangled show up, too - and I think Rapunzel's parents actually get a line or two, but the bulk of the action is silent comedy, and it does what a good cartoon should: Works at a fast pace, builds one gag on top of the last, and still understands that the anticipation of a joke can be just as funny as the actual joke itself. Maximus is an especially great character for that, as he's really just made for wounded pride.

(Amusingly, as much as Zachary Levi gets most of the dialogue as Flynn, that character probably gets the least screen time, with the more malleable characters like Maximus, Pascal, and the brigands showing up more. Also, it's a real delight to see that Rapunzel's adorable expressiveness remains even with an important part of the model changed!)

So "Tangled Ever After" at the very least means there's some reason to come out to the theater for Beauty and the Beast instead of just pulling the Blu-ray out. Hopefully Disney will do more shorts in the future, although I don't know that I want Disney them to lean entirely on characters from their features (more hand-animated Mickey & Donald!).

Beauty and the Beast

* * * * (out of four) (though only a * * * ½ presentation)
Seen 13 January 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (modified re-release, digital 3D)

As much as I have bones to pick with what the people responsible for the 3D-ification of this movie did, it's important to remember that the underlying film itself is so good that it resists attempts to screw it up. The IMAX re-release that re-inserted a song that had been dropped before production? Now a little stretched out, but still a great movie. The Christmas "inter-quel" that took place between scenes of this one? Harmless. Processing every frame to create a 3D effect that occasionally seems neat but often seems incompetent? Can't really touch the core of what makes the movie work.

That core is a simple story well-told. The telling well includes songs that are catchy and delightful but also never bring the movie to a dead stop; they tell the story and establish character. It involves moments that are just scary enough for kids to worry a bit while still containing hints of swashbuckling adventure. It's a set of character designs that are perfectly suited to their medium being used with perfect precision by talented filmmakers.

And the story is better than you think. A few months ago, my sister-in-law posted a picture on Facebook that described all the bad lessons Disney Princesses teach little girls with a comment about how that's why their house is a Princess-free zone. And I get it, even if it does make shopping for their girls a little harder - but I think the comment about Belle (something along the lines of how all that's important is being attractive) really sells both her and the film short. I mean, sure, you can get that from this movie, but i think it's also made pretty clear that the people mainly interested in Belle for her appearance are not worthy of her. But the other thing, which you might not notice, is that Belle is a bit of a snob at the beginning of the movie, and while that's a bit of a problematic story arc - it would work a lot better if the movie ended with Belle and the transformed Beast and servants settling in the "Little Town" instead of their newly-pristine castle, for instance - she does become a nicer, more considerate person by the end. It's not quite as noticeable as the angry, snarling Beast who grows noble in deed as well as birth, but Belle's a pretty great character all-around.

So, anyway, even though I know that as a person with no kids, my ideas on what should be OK for them and what shouldn't basically means squat, I hope Dan & Lara let Dagny & Maisy watch this movie, at least. They can even have the DVD I retired when it came out on Blu-ray if they don't want to deal with the 3D version at their local theater.