Friday, March 30, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 March 2012 - 5 April 2012

Aaaagh, dang it, I could have sort-of-kind-of extended BUFF another night but I forgot to pre-order tickets for something. Son of a...

  • The Boston Underground Film Festival is cut down from what it was last year - one screen instead of two, half as many movies, only running four days instead of eight. But, you can still see everything, as the second half was all repeats anyway. It's still a very strong line-up - I am tremendously excited to see Katsuhito Ishii's newest, Smuggler, on Friday night, and on Sunday, I and can recommend both Karate-Robo Zaborgar at noon on Sunday and especially Klovn: The Movie at 8:30pm that night.

    After the end of the festival, they have the DocYard presentation of Scenes of a Crime on Monday, a true-crime documentary that dissects an interrogation that led to a disputed confession and high-profile trial. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Brattle is a venue for the Together Festival, with musical docs on both nights: "Take One" and The Chemical Brothers: Don't Think on Tuesday and The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience on Wednesday. They keep a similar vibe going on Thursday, with Scott Pilgrim vs The World at 6pm and a Rock Band Night at 9pm.

  • You know what would fit in great with all that stuff? "An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt", with the iconoclastic animator in town to present "It's Such a Beautiful Day", the final entry in his "Bill" trilogy. Along with the rest. And some of his previous shorts. In 35mm. But it's sold out and I, like an idiot, didn't get tickets ahead of time. Well, I guess I'll have to be satisfied with some of the other special screenings, like the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, starring Fellag as an Algerian immigrant to Quebec who takes a job as a substitute teacher and must step in as a long-term replacement for a beloved middle-school educator. It's the Sunday morning Talk Cinema offering. There are also Friday and Saturday midnight shows of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, a famously over-the-top martial arts action movie about a super-powerful fighter cleaning up the prison where he's locked up. Action and gore-a-plenty.

    Also playing midnights, as well as all day, is The Raid (which has had "Redemption" added as a subtitle since it played Sundance). It features the director and star of Merantau, which was pretty darn good. Almost all reports on this are that it's excellent, taking a simple premise (drug lord at the top of an apartment building, cops entering at the bottom, and every room in between packed with killers) and building non-stop action from it. Also playing at Kendall Square, Embassy Square, and Boston Common.

  • Also playing Boston Common is Intruders, a new horror movie from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Man, he does not work often enough - Intacto, 28 Weeks Later, and now this in just over a decade. It's a horror movie with an international cast (Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Daniel Brühl) about a monster called "Hollow Face" who is simultaneously appearing to different families. Not getting the greatest reviews, but Intacto was so good that I'll probably give it a shot.

    The multiplexes are opening other fantasy fare as well; the big opener is Wrath of the Titans, with Sam Worthington returning as Perseus, heading into the underworld to rescue Zeus from Hades. Kind of a mythological stew, but early word has it better than Clash. It plays in 3D at Boston Common (including the Imax-branded screen), Fenway, Harvard Square, Fresh Pond, and the Arlington Capitol; 2D shows at Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond. Also playing is Mirror Mirror, a comedic retelling of Snow White with Julia Roberts as the evil queen, Lily Collins as the princess, and Armie Hammer as Prince Charming. Strangely (perhaps), it's directed by Tarsem Singh, who makes visually stunning movies but whose previous three films don't suggest a family-friendly story - I honestly thought he was directing the other, darker Snow White story coming out this summer. This one plays the Somerville Theatre, Fresh Pond, the Belmont Studio, Boston Common, and Fenway.

  • In addition to The Raid, Kendall Square offers up three new movies this week. Writer/director Taika Waititi will be in town today (30 March) to introduce the 7pm and 9:40pm screenings of Boy, his comedy about an 11-year-old Maori kid whose fantasies about his absent father are due for some revision after the man himself returns from jail. There will be Q&A after the 7pm show. Also opening are The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Davies's adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play about an affair between a judge's wife (Rachel Weisz) and a RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) in post-war London. And then there's The Kid with a Bike, which while not Belgium's Oscar nominee (Bullhead was the surprise for that honor), is a more traditional sort of film for that honor, with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne crafting a story about an orphaned boy.

  • It's all classics at the Paramount this weekend, with a Re-Released! double feature of Laura andGilda on Friday and Saturday nights. Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth play the respective title characters, and both are presented in new/restored 35mm prints. The Saturday and Sunday afternoon "Gotta Dance" screening is The Great Ziegfeld, MGM's 1936 musical about the legendary showman featuring The Thin Man stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.

  • The Harvard Film Archive spends most of the weekend on Inutile: The Cinema of Carmelo Bene, a retrospective of the avant-garde cinema of the Italian theatrical director. Salomé and One Hamles Less play Friday, Don Giovanni and Our Lady of the Turks on Sunday, and Capricci on Monday, many of them preceded by short films. On Saturday, Jeff Daniel Silva is in town with Ivan & Ivana, a documentary about two Serbs who moved to the United States just before the recession hit. It played IFFBoston last year and also serves as a sequel to Silva's first documentary, Balkan Rhapsodies.

  • The MFA continues The Boston Turkish Film Festival this weekend with screenings of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Friday), Future Lasts Forever, In Flames (both Saturday), and Somersault in a Coffin (Sunday). They also will be showing Senna, Asif Kapadia's popular recent documentary on Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, on Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, as well into next weekend.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has one movie screening this week, All In - The Poker Movie, a documentary on the 21st-century boom in poker as a phenomenon. It plays Thursday the 5th at 7:30pm, with a second showing on the 12th.

  • The Americana Trio is in Somerville tonight with a Not So Silent Cinema screening of three Buster Keaton shorts at The Armory. The three shorts - "The Goat", "The High Sign", and "One Week" - are funny ones, and they'll be accompanied by a new score performed live.

  • The second-run shuffle brings The Artist to both the Somerville Theatre and Arlington Capitol, and while Hugo continues to play matinees at the Capitol, it will no longer be running in 3-D.

My plans: Basically living at the Brattle for BUFF through Sunday, with a brief trip to the Coolidge on Sunday for Monsieur Lazhar. I may try and cajole the folks I know there into letting me into the sold-out Hertzfeldt show on Monday, but when that fails, I figure that The Raid will be one heck of a consolation prize.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games and its cinematic parents: Battle Royale & Winter's Bone

The joke has been making the rounds more lately, but probably started roughly ten seconds after somebody read a description of Suzanne Collins's young adult novel: "What do they call The Hunger Games in France? Battle Royale with cheese." It's unfair, of course, especially if the implication is that Collins was inspired by Koushun Takami's novel or Kinji Fukasaku's film; adults forcing teenagers to fight to the death as a means of control is not a difficult concept to come up with.

Still, Battle Royale is out there, more so now than ever as Viz's Haikasoru imprint and Anchor Bay have been happy to use this movie's coattails to promote the translated Japanese novel and film. However, especially during the opening segment, it's often another recently-filmed novel that comes to mind, Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. Having only seen the three films, I can't offer any commentary on how they digress from their source material. I can, however, say that based on the films alone, The Hunger Games is the least of them.

The Hunger Games

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2012 in the Arlington Captiol #1 (first-run, 35mm)

Of course, that's not to say The Hunger Games is a bad film; as these things go, it's pretty decent. Its future world makes a little bit of sense, it has some neat ideas that it plays with fairly well, and it gets good work out of a well-chosen cast. There's very little in it that's done badly. This may be damning with faint praise, but I'm pretty certain that there was more hilarious idiocy/incompetence in the two-minute teaser for Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part Two that preceded it than the entire 122-minute run time of this film.

There are some red flags, even early on. Director Gary Ross and director of photography Tom Stern can't even shoot a crowd scene that doesn't need to be particularly frantic without shaking the camera; a big action scene at the finish would be a whole lot more exciting if the camera had been bolted down and the audience got to see what the fight co-ordinator (and cast and stunt cast) is capable of. He, his co-writers (Billy Ray and original novelist Suzanne Collins), and the editing team use their relatively generous running time to let things unspool slowly rather than hit the audience with a lot of detail - there are twenty-four young "tributes" expected to fight to the death, but only three of them are worth remembering names, and maybe another handful (if you're generous) worth tracking from scene to scene.

To a certain extent, that makes the concessions to the PG-13 rating more tolerable - yeah, a lot of kids are killed off-screen or without a lot of gore, but showing the kid-on-kid violence would be little more than cheap exploitation in this case, as we don't know the characters well enough for it to be more than empty violence. The filmmakers also seem to go out of their way to avoid having the sympathetic characters kill in cold blood, to the point where it's as noticeable as the arbitrary "gameplay".

Still, it works pretty well, in part because Ross does keep up a steady pace, and very seldom does the movie sacrifice pleasant enjoyment to set up a franchise. The world-building is full of interesting details, even if it is occasionally really dumb on a macro level (the city folk appear shocked that murdering a child leads to riots, and District 12 appears to have a population of maybe a few thousand at most). Even if it keeps Elizabeth Banks smothered in make-up, the design of Capital City and its people hits a near-perfect balance between seductively opulent and grotesque. That's some nice attention to detail.

And the cast is pretty great. Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, and Wes Bentley aren't really doing subtle work, but they are doing good work. Really, the person in the casting department who came up with Woody Harrelson deserves a bonus - he's the one who is funny, but with an edge, and does as much as anybody to create a sense that this is a real world with history and complexities to it. Liam Hemsworth does pretty well in a role that will likely be much larger in the sequels. Josh Hutcherson and Amanda Stenberg do well as two of the other tributes.

And, man, Jennifer Lawrence. If you're starting a youth-oriented franchise, you could do a whole lot worse than someone deservedly nominated for an Oscar for work she did at the age of 19. She's in nearly every scene as Katniss Everdeen, never giving less than her best. She's not always put in the best position to succeed - Katniss never really the underdog, and the script never opts to tip its hand as to just how well she grasps the media manipulation angle - but she is absolutely somebody who can carry the movie on her back.

The Hunger Games & Winter's Bone

Of course, anybody who has seen Winter's Bone knows what Lawrence is capable of; that's the movie where she got nominated for that Academy Award, and she spent a similar amount of time center-stage in that one. If you haven't seen it, do so. I loved it at IFFBoston in 2010 and in my opinion, it was the best of the Best Picture nominees that year.

And, amusingly, the set-up for Winter's Bone is somewhat similar to that of The Hunger Games - "District 12" could be the future of the Ozarks where Winter's Bone takes place (well, more likely the Appalachians; I don't believe there's coal in the Ozarks), and both feature Lawrence as a girl looking after a younger sister, and Katniss makes a comment to her mother that suggests she once was as catatonic as Ree's is. It's fun to make tongue-in-cheek comments about The Hunger Games being a sequel to Winter's Bone.

The comparison between the two highlights one of the main issues with The Hunger Games, though - it talks big about the dire straits the outlying districts are in, but it's hard to really feel it. All of the Tributes look pretty well-fed, although there are hints that this can be explained in-story (resource consumption seems to increase the number of times one's name is in the random drawing, so the healthier kids are statistically more likely to be selected). One of the most memorable scenes - one repeated, it's so important - has Peeta angrily throwing bread from his family's bakery away before tossing some to Katniss. It's likely meant to demonstrate how angry and frustrated with his family was; instead, it comes across as there being food enough to waste. Compare that to the scene in Winter's Bone where Ree is teaching her younger brother Sonny how to gut a squirrel, setting certain bits aside. "Do we eat those parts?" the brother asks. "Not yet," Ree replies.

That's a family and region in dire straits; the folks in District 12 don't ever seem to be quite there yet.

Another way that The Hunger Games and Winter's Bone seem to be drawing on the same material is in the music choices; traditional backwoods music shows up in both, with The Hungers Game having T-Bone Burnett as musical supervisor and credited with "additional music" (James Newton Howard is the main composer). It's a shame that it's only really noticeable as what's played over the end credits. Imagine if they had used it as much of the underscore in the first half, and really set the mood, before switching up for something more futuristic or symphonic in the city. Then, maybe have the time in the arena a sort of synthetic imitation of what we heard in the beginning.

The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

The arena, of course, is where the comparisons to Battle Royale become most obvious - once you've got kids killing each other, the details are where a distinction must be made.

Just in terms of execution Kinji Fukasaku (and his son Kenta, who adapted the novel into a screenplay) - do much better work. Penalties for not fighting are made abundantly clear early on in Battle Royale, but I don't think the film of The Hunger Games ever presents the audience with a compelling reason for the Tributes to do something other than sit around and talk about how the Capital City folks are screwing them over early on. Sure, later they herd Katniss back toward the others and throw CGI monsters in, but at that point it's late enough to feel like a cheat - something that has been running for 75 years shouldn't need to resort to this.

(Kukasaku Kenta also did second unit work, and directed the much-maligned sequel after his father passed away. Hopefully those that scorned him for this lightened up after seeing his delightfully frantic X-Cross!)

(And speaking of second-unit directors, Steven Soderbergh is one of three listed for The Hunger Games. Yes, that Steven Soderbergh. That's either an odd extravagance for a movie that doesn't seem to have a huge budget or a guy with some extra time on his hands!)

Digressions aside, what makes Battle Royale a much better, vital movie is that it's got teeth. Not just because it's got the kind of blood & guts that made it too hot a potato for anyone in the USA to touch ten years ago (at least at the prices Toei was demanding) while Ross and company keep much of the violence off-screen; Fukasaku's movie is at its heart a satire that, while it springs from a very specific set of circumstances, is able to have broad, long-lasting appeal because it's willing to make its characters more than just stand-ins for ideas and because it's willing to attack in all directions.

The funny thing is that, though The Hunger Games is the franchise designed and marketed specifically for teenagers - it's shelved in "Young Adult" rather than "Science Fiction" - Battle Royale is the one that more specifically speaks to youth. The villains in The Hunger Games are sort of generically privileged, a vague mishmash between one-percent-ers and an uncaring government. If there's a reason why kids are chosen to be Tributes beyond "they're the target audience", it doesn't make it into the movie. Having a young cast lets them tap into the audience's feelings of persecution directly, and does offer a moment or two of clever satire - when a blond, athletic cadre advances on Katniss and Rue, it's tough not to think of a jock-and-cheerleader crowd going after a pair of outsiders. But that's as mean as it gets.

In Battle Royale, things are heightened; various high-school cliques are at each other's throats with the members literally willing to stab each other in the back if there's something in it for them. But it's not just about high-school rivalry; at its heart the movie is about how adults are often afraid of the next generation (or the one after that, if they're old enough). They see high schools as full of delinquents and thugs who return their love and kindness with scorn and violence, and by god, it's time to put them back in their place. Japan in the 1990s seemed to feel this particularly strongly, as the conflict between a culture with a high priority on respecting elders ran into a generation that did not see security in tradition. Things seldom got as violent as the flashbacks in Battle Royale, but the tension and unwarranted disdain likely seemed that extreme to both parties.

And that's part of what makes Battle Royale fantastic - Takeshi Kitano's former teacher is a monster, but he's also a good man broken by undeserved hate and violence. Kitano is a spout of angry, vicious comedy, but he's not entirely unsympathetic. Fukasaku makes this movie just enough of an elders' revenge fantasy that it doesn't become a one-sided rant. Everybody is exaggerated, but even the kids who eventually realize that being at war does no good are at least a little complicit.

All of that working together makes Battle Royale a legitimate classic. And while The Hunger Games is good, with some very impressive work in it, it very seldom has the greatness of its "parents".

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 19 March 2012 - 25 March 2012

It was warm last week. Like, after working from home on Monday, I got a potato and some steak tips from the grocery store, fired up the grill, and had a delicious dinner. I watched (spring training) baseball on Thursday night, and it didn't feel ridiculous

This Week In Tickets!

So, of course, the weekend comes and it gets cold and rainy. Unfair.

21 Jump Street

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, 35mm)

This movie has no right to be this funny. After all, Jump Street the TV show. though based on an absurd premise, wasn't really known as a comedy. Channing Tatum isn't really known for his comic chops. And while Jonah Hill is, I'm not exactly sure why.

Still, this is a very funny movie; Tatum proves to be genuinely funny, and the script by Michael Bacall (with Hill teaming with him on the story) is self-referential right up to the point when it would stop being funny. There's a car chase that plays off this with absolutely impeccable comic timing - while also being a remarkably impressive car chase. It's also filled with clever blink-and-miss jokes on billboards that make me grin not just because they're funny, but because they indicate an impressive level of attention to detail.

I was also kind of amused by the gags involving people who graduated high school a mere seven years earlier not getting kids these days. There was a rumor going around (as it turns out completely unwarranted) about a remake of Back to the Future, which on a certain level I know to be a bad idea, but on second thought, doing one in 2015 where Marty travels back to 1985 might be fun. I initially didn't think it would be that different, even though Detention (opening in just a couple weeks! see it!) put the weird past era in the exact year I graduated high school, but this makes a bit of an argument that things would be different after all.

And, one last thing - I loved seeing the Stephen J. Cannell animation in the middle of the closing credits. He was credited as a producer, although given that he died in 2010, I don't know how much involvement he could have had. Still, Cannell's name just makes me feel good.

Casa de mi Padre

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DLP)

This one, meanwhile, winds up a pretty big disappointment. It's a dry spoof that does all right as such movies go, but almost never really takes off. At times, it feels like the joke is that there is no joke - there's an English-speaking comedian playing it straight in a Spanish-language movie, and the expectation of something wacky happening is comic tension - and at others it seems like there is no joke other than spoofing telenovelas' lousy production values.

Or maybe the joke is that there's a lot of genuine talent involved in this spoof thing. Diego Luna, like some of the others, is a legit Spanish-language heartthrob and movie star. Genesis Rodriguez has done her time in real telenovelas, and while she's mainly cast for being incredibly easy on the eyes, she certainly gives every indication that she could handle an actual character if one was given to her. But Gael García Bernal... Gael García Bernal walks off with every scene he's in as the villain, and he's really the only guy who seems to realize that it's okay to be actively funny on top of straight-faced or deliberately mocking the genre.

As these things go, it's OK - I'm not the biggest fan of the warts-and-all spoof/homage - but it certainly feels like something that was a lot funnier in the heads of Ferrell and the filmmakers than it wound up being.

21 Jump StreetCasa de mi PadreThe 39 Steps & The Lady Vanishes

Early Hitchcock: The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes

Well, I was kind of hoping that this Sunday night double-feature would be a Sunday afternoon one, but someone went and booked the theater for a wedding. The nerve!

As always, it's great to see these in 35mm, a reminder of how much I love Hitchcock, with The 39 Steps a particular favorite. It's always somewhat surprising to me - although it shouldn't be - just how funny Hitchcock is. Both The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are easily categorized as comedies as well as thrillers - the former inspired a Broadway musical comedy, the latter spun two comedic characters off - and in some way they represent Hitchcock at the peak of his powers.

He would later do many great movies in America, but one thing that really pleased me with these two is how good the endings are; a lot of Hitch's finales tend to leave something to be desired (I mean, really, that's how you end The Birds?). These don't have jaw-dropping endings or anything, but a simple bit of hand-holding at the end of one feels warmer than many more passionate displays, and The Lady Vanishes, for as weak as its opening is, puts on a clinic in how to unravel a mystery without drowning the audience in exposition or hitting them with flashbacks to what they missed.

Anyway, great movies. I see Criterion is finally porting The 39 Steps to Blu-ray, which is much welcome, but even though I have one of these on the shelf and will have the other in a few months, it's always a great thrill to see them with a good crowd, and Hitchcock brings out an event better crowd at the Brattle than Bogart.

The 39 Steps

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Hitchcock Weekend, 35mm)

The 39 Steps is by no means the first "falsely accused man on the run" thriller, but it is certainly a template for many that came afterwards - the fortuitously-timed parade in The Fugitive, for instance, is lifted directly from this picture. It remains a delight, in large part because Alfred Hitchcock and company recognize and anticipate what would become drab or rote, evading cliché as their protagonists evade the law.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is nobody special, but when shots ring out at a music-hall show one night, he finds himself taking a most unusual girl home. Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) - though she readily admits to having many names - claims to be a freelance agent being pursued by a pair of killers. It proves true, and Hannay follows the clues she left to Scotland, with the police rapidly catching up and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the girl he meets on the train, in no mood to help him.

At one point, the pair are famously manacled to one another, and while that sequence may be what the movie is most remembered for, it actually lasts only twenty minutes, with the filmmakers casting it aside once they feel they've done enough with it. Indeed, it's cast away almost carelessly, in perhaps the most obvious example of just how loose Hitchcock and screenwriters Charles Bennett and Ian Hay opt to play things. There's seldom a moment when the audience will that things couldn't happen that way, just that sometimes things seem a little more sloppy than playful.

Full review at EFC.

The Lady Vanishes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Hitchcock Weekend, 35mm)

1941's Mr. & Mrs. Smith is generally considered Alfred Hitchcock's only pure comedy. I'd include The Trouble with Harry, myself, but The Lady Vanishes is pretty close to the romantic comedy category itself, especially during its best parts.

An avalanche has a number of vacationers taking the same train from the tiny country of Bandrika to London: Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress about to marry; Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess about to retire; would-be musical historian Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), whose late-night research on Bandrikan folk dance had Iris calling the hotel management the night before; a couple who are married, but, inconveniently, not to each other (Cecil Parker & Linden Travers); and a pair of Englishmen trying to make it home before the test match finishes (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford). Something odd happens, though - Iris awakens from a nap to find Miss Froy gone, and nobody on the train willing to say they saw her. A traveling neurologist, Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), points out that a planter fell on Iris's head earlier, and vivid hallucinations are frequently associated with the resultant concussion. Iris is certain, though, and Gilbert decides to tag along.

The Lady Vanishes takes a relatively long time to get started; the filmmakers aim to introduce the bulk of the characters before loading them on the train. So there's a protracted meet-cute with Iris and Gilbert, and a great deal of comic relief with Wayne & Radford's hapless tourists well before the movie has any actual tension to relieve. The cast gets even bigger once they've boarded the train, large enough that even if Hitchcock and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (adapting a story by Ethel Lina White) wanted to play things as ambiguous for a while, it would be very difficult practically; the story seems to rely on things being set up just so as it is.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 23 March 2012 - 29 March 2012

One movie hitting multiplexes this weekend, and I'm not saying it's a big deal, but there are an astonishing number of things attempting to ride its coattails. I, personally, picked up a Blu-ray set of Battle Royale on Tuesday and the new volume of Gunslinger Girl on Wednesday.

There's something really creepy about there being a "killing teens" bandwagon. I'd mock, but I'm clearly on it even with without being particularly interested in the movie everyone else is trying to take advantage of - which kind of makes me worse than the rest, doesn't it?

  • So, yeah, tons of chances to see The Hunger Games if you are so inclined; it looks to be taking up fully half of Regal Fenway's 13 screens, as well as two at Fresh Pond, two in Harvard Square, five or so at Boston Common, and one at the Arlington Capitol. The story apparently has kids from various regions selected for a fight to the death, Most Dangerous Game-style, as a means of pacifying the 99%.

  • On the other hand, you may feel more interested in a festival film. The Irish Film Festival Boston runs from Thursday the 22nd to Sunday the 25th; opening night is at the Brattle Theatre and the rest of the shows at Somerville. It's not all new-new stuff - I saw A Film With Me In It the year I went to SXSW (2009), but some looks interesting. And as soon as the Irish festival is over, the Underground one starts, with John Dies at the End kicking off The Boston Underground Film Festival on Thursday the 29th, back at the Brattle.

  • There's plenty of good stuff in between at the Brattle as well. The weekend features a double feature of old-school Hitchcock with The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps on Friday and Sunday, with The WAM! Film Festival (for "Women, Action, & the Media") in between on Saturday. The Boston Jewish Film Festival proper takes place in the fall, but the organization will be presenting a special screening of Dolphin Boy on Monday evening with director Dani Menkin in person to introduce and answer questions. Tuesday is Balagan night, with Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in person to present their "projection performance" Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure. No guests on Wednesday, when the monthly "Wordless Wednesday" program kicks off with the first Oscar winner for Best Picture (and, until this year, the only silent to win the prize), 1927's genuinely fantastic Wings.

  • Across the river, the Coolidge picks up The Salt of Life in one of the video rooms while opening Footnote on the main screen most days and on 35mm all week. It's actually got a fairly unusual set-up - a father and son are both Talmudic scholars, one of whom is recognized with a reward meant for the other. I'm a bit worried that, because this was Israel's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, it will be all serious as opposed to comically absurd.

    Speaking of absurd, the midnight show this weekend is David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That may be unfair, but the TV show ticked me off back in the day. On Saturday, it's joined by Everything Is Terrible Presents: DoggieWoggiez! PoochieWoochiez!, which is, apparently a remake of The Holy Mountain composed entirely of VHS found footage of dogs (with a live stage-show element). Also combining film and live elements is Saturday morning's kids' show, the 5th Annual BEEP Young Kids' Big Music Party, featuring local guys Philip Alexander & the Family Band and Oren Rosenthal.

  • The Kendall also gets Footnote, along with three other movies. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which tells the tale of an avant-garde musician who underwent a series of surgeries to make himself more like the woman he loves. Director Marie Losier will be in town on Wednesday to introduce the film and face interrogation after the 5:30pm and 7:30pm shows.

    The other two movie come from France - Free Men is a WWII drama about the unlikely friendship between an Algerian immigrant and a local Jew. It's the one with the one-week booking scheduled. And finally, there's Delicacy, which despite the listing on Google is not about unicorn hunting, but Audrey Tautou as a young widow who begins a relationship with her subordinate at work.

  • ArtsEmerson continues the "Gotta Dance!" series this weekend with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, which runs at 6pm Friday and at 2pm and 8:30pm Saturday. It's paired with one featuring "the Yiddish Fred Astaire", Leo Fuchs, as American Matchmaker plays Saturday at 6:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. In between is The Heretics, Joan Braderman's exploration of the works and influence of The Women's Movement's Second Wave.

  • The Harvard Film Archive starts their weekend off with a visit from Claude Lanzmann, best known as the maker of the sprawling Holocaust documentary Shoah, who will screen "The Karski Report" on Friday; it's an expansion of his interview with Jan Karski from that film. Saturday and Monday are taken up by Sing, Memory: The Postwar England of Terence Davies, with a new print of Davies's The Long Day Closes Saturday at 9pm, Distant Voices, Still Lives following at 9pm, and "The Terence Davies Trilogy" (three linked shorts from the start of his career) on Monday at 7pm. Sunday features the finale of their Béla Tarr series - The Man From Londay at 4:30pm and Wreckmeister Harmonies at 7pm.

  • The MFA has several screenings of In Search of Haydn, one of a regular series of documentaries by Phil Grabsky that presents the life and work of a composer via interviews with and performances by today's musicians. Surprisingly, that's not the "Friday Night Films" selection; Night of Silence is, with director Reis Çelik on hand to discuss the film afterward. It's part of the Boston Turkish Film Festival, which also includes Toll Booth on Saturday and Shadows and Faces on Sunday. Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening also feature the last two screenings of Yves Jeuland's three-hour documentary Being Jewish in France.

  • The big Hindi movie opening at Fresh Pond this weekend is Agent Vinod, a big-time action adventure movie featuring Saif Ali Khan as the title character and the lovely Kareena Kapoor as his leading lady. There's apparently a little bit of controversy in that it's not opening in Pakistan, although the filmmakers claim it's free of anything likely to offend India's neighbor.

My plans? Maybe wait until the crowd clears out after the weekend for The Hunger Games, hit BUFF and John Dies at the End on Thursday and probably do some catch-up over the weekend and in between (whether in theaters or that massive pile of discs next to me). Oh, and I'll try to get to Wings, because it's great, although I've already got it on Blu-ray.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

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

Last week was just dead.

This Week In Tickets!

It turned out to be a bad week for getting out of work early enough to go to the movies, and going to a later show would have meant waiting around somewhere, and not much seemed worth that. The weekend wound up being built around fixed things - see the first screening of Life Without Principle so that I can get a review up in time for the second, Japanese class, the daily 35mm showing of Chico & Rita, Chlotrudis Awards - and wound up without a lot of wiggle room.

The Chlotrudis Awards were fine, as usual; I had less stake than usual as a voter because what I'd seen didn't align very well with what was nominated. There were a lot of categories where I had only seen one or two nominees so didn't vote; the Buried Treasure, where you're required to have seen all nominated films to cast a vote, is one I seldom vote on because I learned that I almost never enjoy movies seen as homework or out of obligation.

Besides, as I mentioned to someone at the post-ceremony party, the value of awards isn't in the winner, but in how the existence of the ceremony gives the nominees prominence for a month or two. Nominations for awards are valuable as a manageable list of things worth seeking out or discussing in various categories; the actual winner may receive 21% of the vote in a field of five and is, in the case of awards like these, often comes down to which movie was most-seen (if a lot of people are voting based on the three out of five they've seen, the movie that gets into the most threes has an advantage).

Yes, I recognize the apparent contradiction in those two paragraphs. I'm an outlier, if I haven't seen a nominee before the list is made, I've probably chosen not to for one reason or another. It does still give me a little extra push to see something when I get the chance, though; I might have passed on Beginners at the Brattle otherwise, for example.

Atom Egoyan was the Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and was a nifty guest, as was his wife (and a previous award winner), Arsinée Khanjian. IFFBoston generally and Adam Rothman specifically were great choices for recipients of the "Cat's Meow" award, with their tenth annual festival coming up in just a month or so. I did bail on the after-party after about an hour or so, as it appears I get even less out of standing around with a bunch of people talking at once and drinking now, and having someone running around taking pictures just increases my agitation.

Chico & Rita

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2012 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (second-run, 35mm)

For all the elements in Chico & Rita that seem like they should make it more exciting (animation! jazz! passion! globetrotting! jealousy! revolution!), it turns out to be a strangely inert movie. It's fairly unique - non-fantastical period romances are not the usual subject for an animated feature - and yet seldom gives the audience the feeling of something they've never seen before.

An old man shines shoes on a city street, returning home at the end of the day to listen to a program of decades-old music on the radio. The song takes him back to sixty years earlier, when Chico (voice of Eman Xor Oña) was a piano player from rural Cuba trying to break into the Havana jazz scene. He and best friend/manager Ramon (voice of Mario Guerra) start the evening with a couple of Yanqui tourist girls, but when Rita (voice of Limara Meneses) takes the stage, he knows he's found the perfect partner in more ways than one. Of course, being passionate musician types, the title characters have the tendency to be their own worst enemies, and as such eventually make it to New York separately, where their reunion proves just as tempestuous as their first go-around.

How somebody feels about this movie likely correlates well with how he or she feels about its central relationship, and I must admit to not feeling the love. Chico and Rita seem well-matched, but a romance that can drive a feature-length movie has to be more, and this movie never gives us a reason to think that this is one for the books. The characters are both too cool to start with, so their meeting never seems to throw one or the other off their game, and the passion they react with later never seems earned. As musicians, their work doesn't seem more brilliant together than apart (audience members with a greater appreciation of jazz than I have may dispute this, but it needs to be much more striking). It's the sort of shallow romance that seems like preparation for The Real Thing, but the movie instead expects the audience to accept it as that.

Full review at EFC.

Life Without PrincipleChico & RitaCholotrudis Awards

Monday, March 19, 2012

Noir Weekend: The Lady from Shanghai and The Postman Always Rings Twice

I skipped the first half of the first the Film Noir Weekend (In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard); there were other things I wanted to check out in those slots and I've seen both before.

Another good two-fer this coming weekend: The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps on Friday and Sunday. Two early British Hitchcocks in 35mm. Be all over that, folks!

The Lady from Shanghai

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

The basic plot structure of The Lady From Shanghai is quite a familiar noir template - a man who's tougher than he is smart falls for a beautiful woman above his station; she surprisingly reciprocates, claiming that her life isn't as perfect as he imagines; they make plans to run away together, but before they can, there's a little murder that must be done. This one, though, has Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and that's a combination that that can give any movie quite a boost.

Welles plays Michael O'Hara, an Irish sailor with no fixed address who meets a pretty girl and even comes off as a hero for breaking up a mugging. He and Elsa (Rita Hayworth) hit it off - she's as well-traveled as he is - until she asks if he might crew on her yacht. Well, her husband's yacht. Recognizing a bad situation, Michael determines to ship out on the next vessel hiring, only to have Elsa's husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the greatest trial lawyer in the country, come down to the docks to ask for him personally. So there he is, on a boat with the pair, sailing to California via the Panama Canal. They're joined by Bannister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who is terrified of the new specter of atomic war, and has a proposition for Michael. Five thousand dollars might be enough money for Michael and Elsa to run away on...

In addition to staring opposite Hayworth, his wife at the time, Orson Welles wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed this movie, and even if it's not quite the very best of his works, it's worth noting that this movie was very nearly made by William Castle (as with Rosemary's Baby at the other end of his career, he settled for a producer credit). And bless his heart, the way Welles and company play The Lady from Shanghai out is kind of loopy from start to end: Welles's narration is equal parts broad Irish accent and tough-guy dialogue, with a dry self-referentiality, even the smallest character is played somewhat larger-than-life, and the final showdown in an abandoned amusement park is equal parts absurd slapstick and artsy cinematography. Welles isn't quite dead serious about things that would today be played as parody, but there's no mockery to his approach. He was an artist who saw the grandeur in pulp.

Full review at EFC.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

There's no shame in admitting that you think that you thought that this movie was about a housewife having an affair with the mailman, or maybe concerned about the mailman interrupting some other rendez-vous. In actual fact, it's got nothing to do with the delivery of letters and parcels whatsoever, aside from a somewhat tortured metaphor at the end. Instead, it's a film noir that, while it has its problems, is a bit better than the sum of its parts.

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is profoundly unattached, hitch-hiking his way through California, when he comes to rest at a roadside diner/gas station/garage owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). It seems like a simple, comfortable situation, but Nick's got a pretty young wife, Cora (Lana Turner), and while she initially wants no part of the handsome drifter, their attraction cannot be denied. Still, Cora isn't one to just hit the road, which means that something will have to be done about Nick.

Though not particularly long by today's standards, The Postman Always Rings Twice seems drawn out in all the wrong places and too compact in others, and there are elements that haven't aged well at all. In the first half, for instance, the audience is likely to find themselves wishing that Frank and Cora would just kill Nick already, not so much because of any animosity toward the character, but because it's clear that either Nick has got to die or something extremely unexpected must happen for the story to move forward, and any further delay just means less time to put the screws on the characters in the second half. As it happens, the second half does feel rushed, driven by hysteria rather than the slow, calculating burn that had come before. It's not a crippling issue, but one that could use some adjusting.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Life Without Principle (Dyut Meng Gam)

Just a reminder, folks - Life Without Principle only plays at the Paramount through Sunday afternoon, so if you want to see the new Johnnie To in 35mm, do it now. It's odd that Indomina doesn't seem to have done much to get the word out - I can't even find any listings of a release date on their own site - and I worry that this pretty-good movie by a major director will get buried the way so many do, especially since ArtsEmerson, though they have a pretty nice film program, isn't exactly known for contemporary, mainstream-foreign runs.

I liked it, although upon reflection, I think the "why" requires talking about the end, which I'll get to under the eFilmCritic review.

Dyut Meng Gam (Life Without Principle)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2012 in the Paramount Theater Bright Family Screening Room (first-run, 35mm)

It perhaps doesn't mean too much that while films from China have been almost relentless in showcasing prosperity over the last few years, the movies coming out of Hong Kong have cast a steady eye on the economic downturn, with even the genre movies having intelligent commentary on it, rather than just saying that broke people do desperate things. Johnnie To's latest, Life Without Principle, is often scattered as a thriller, but has moments where he and his Milkyway team tap into the confusion and desperation of the times as well as anybody.

It's a tough market out there; banker Teresa (Denise Ho) is lagging everybody else in her office in sales of their new fund, getting nowhere with her cold calls or her best customer, loan shark Chung Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang). Across town, Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and his wife Connie (Wu Myolie) are considering investing in an apartment, but while Cheung is decisive on the job, he keeps putting off decisions in his private life. When a Triad member is arrested at a banquet in honor of the Boss's birthday, it's up to the man's sworn brother Panther (Lau Ching-wan) to raise the money for Brother Wah's bail, but times are tough all over, leading him to seek the help of his friend Lung (Philip Keung), who is now more a stock trader than gangster.

Teresa, Cheung, and Panther are the main three characters, but while the screenplay ties their three strands together in a nifty little knot, it only has the trio themselves briefly pass, with almost all of their interactions indirect. Their stories are at times so thin as to be non-existent: While Panther's stubborn loyalty leads him from one messy situation to another, Cheung faces a set of disconnected situations and Teresa is passively pressured by the ethics of her situation. Long stretches are spent on each story, occasionally doubling back as they intersect, and it does give the feeling that the movie could be tightened up a little. The central thrust seems to be prudence in the face of confusion, although it's not a hard push.

Full review at EFC.

WARNING! From here on out, the end of the movie will be discussed!

A night's sleep has given me the chance to ruminate on the movie a bit more, and be much more impressed by the way To uses the final few "hey, look, these disconnected characters are walking right past each other" shots. Sure, it's a clever tie-in device used by most movies that have overlapping storylines, but it makes some interesting connections.

Most importantly: Teresa and Panther are, ultimately, the same. Their final scenes have them walking past each other enjoying a treat (Teresa's ice cream and Panther's cigar reflect their personalities, but the point is the same) after having made off with five million of the loan shark's money that they can't really be said to have earned. Sure, they're both likable, and that's a tribute to the actors, but when you get right down to it, Johnnie To spent a lot of time showing Teresa basically swindling an old lady out of her life savings because she was worried about making her quota, and Panther's honor goes hand-in-hand with intimidation. They're crooks cloaked in various types of respectability, and while they've got their own problems, they don't deserve their money. Teresa shows no signs that she's going to use her windfall to help those who lost everything by trusting her.

Those customers aren't completely innocent, of course - To builds our sympathy for Teresa in part by presenting her customers as petty, greedy folks; even Kun is willing to risk everything for a chance at monetary gain. In a role full of tentative statements and confused looks, "I want more money" is the clearest thing that comes out of her mouth.

And Cheung? He is last seen with Panther walking right past him. He and his wife are going to lose a great deal of money at the worst possible time (his dying father has saddled him with a child that will otherwise go to an orphanage) because of how people like Teresa and Panther have undermined the system, and yet this honest cop has spent the movie chasing a feeble old man. Teresa and Panther - like their bosses - will never be prosecuted for what they've done, and the working man will suffer for it.

That's a clever, nasty sting on the movie's part, and it's delivered so subtly that one might not notice it at first. Life Without Principle isn't one of To's greatest movies, but it's better than it may at first appear.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 March 2012 - 22 March 2012

I was going to spend the last week doing a #EXNE gag on Twitter, being excited about what I was seeing and how it was cooler than what was happening in Austin but... Yeah, not much moviegoing; even when I had the opportunity, there wasn't a whole lot I really wanted to hit. This weekend, though, there's at least one thing I'm stoked for.

  • The Bright Screening Room in ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater has the Boston release of A Life Without Principle, a new movie from Hong Kong master Johnnie To starring Denise Ho, Richie Ren, and the great Lau Ching-wan as a banker, a cop, and a gangster involved in a financial crime in the wake of the economic collapse. To is fantastic, and while it's a shame that it's only playing four times - Friday at 9pm, Saturday at 7pm & 9pm, and Sunday at 2pm - that's four times more often than his movies usually play here, and it's screening in 35mm to boot.

    Rounding out the usual schedule of six screenings per weekend are a couple entries in continuing series. Friday night's 7pm film is Lumumba, a biography of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba; it's a part of "Visionary Filmmaker: Raoul Peck", a series of talks and screenings around dedicated to the Haitian director that includes a book signing at 2pm, though it appears Peck won't be on-hand for the screenings. The Saturday afternoon family matinee is also the week's "Gotta Dance" screening, Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes, one of nine movies she made in 1934 at the age of six. So what have you accomplished with your life so far?

  • Another limited weekend release is happening at the Brattle, with The FP playing at 10pm from Friday to Sunday and at midnight on Friday and Saturday. It's more fun than most movies this eager to be a cult hit are. The non-late shows those days feature the work of Canadian director Atom Egoyan - The Sweet Hereafter on Friday, two double features on Saturday (Next of Kin & Speaking Parts in the afternoon and Exotica & Adoration during the early evening), and Calendar Sunday evening. They're in support of the Chlotrudis Awards, where Mr. Egoyan will be a guest and receive an award as the Chlotrudis society honors the best in 2012 independent film.

    (Don't blame me if you don't like the results; my indie films seen and the nominees don't intersect enough for me to vote in many categories.)

    The rest of the week is filled with a number of one-off screenings. On Monday, the DocYard presents Battle For Brooklyn, which follows Daniel Goldstein, who no sooner moved into a new apartment than he was informed that the New Jersey Nets would be knocking the building down to build a new arena, as he organizes opposition. Tuesday is a premiere screening of 40 West, a chamber piece featuring Wayne Newton in a supporting role. Wednesday still says "TBA" on the website, and Thursday is the opening night of Irish Film Festival Boston, with the U.S. Premiere of Stella Days, with director Thaddeus O'Sullivan and star Stephen Rea in person to introduce and answer questions afterward.

  • Only one new release hitting the multiplexes this week, the feature version of 21 Jump Street, with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the youthful looking cops sent undercover to uncover crimes in high schools. It's a comedy (intentionally), unlike the version which launched Johnny Depp's career twenty-five years ago (man, I'm old). It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway, Harvard Square, and Boston Common.

    Boston Common fills a couple of other screens in with smaller releases. Love sticks around for on 11:05am show a day, and they also pick up Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which had previously only been playing Landmark's places in Kendall Square & Waltham. They're also opening a couple of movies that have the cast to open wider, but are sort of off-beat: Casa de mi Padre is a high-concept Will Ferrell parody of Mexican telenovelas and narco-dramas, with Ferrell playing his part entirely in Spanish alongside Genesis Rodriguez and legit Mexican stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. On another screen, the Duplass brothers continue their transition from mumblecore to the mainstream with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, featuring Jason Segel as a twenty-something still living in his mother's basement who may finally be motivated to move out on his own after spending a day helping his brother track down his unfaithful wife.

  • Jeff also opens in Kendall Square, as does The Salt of Life, Gianni Di Gregorio's follow-up to Mid-August Lunch. Not a sequel; though much of the cast overlaps, they're playing different roles in a movie about a middle-aged man who feels that the women of Rome look right through him. It's cute but thin, and booked for a week. They also open Undefeated, the Oscar-winning Documentary about an underfunded high-school football team that turns becomes a winner under the guidance of a new coach.

  • Things mostly stay the same at the Coolidge, with the exception of swapping one animated film (Arrietty) out for another, more adult feature (Chico and Rita). Chico mostly plays in the Goldscreen room, although the 5pm show will be on screen #2 (whether that means it will be on film or not is not clear). There's still some animation for kids, though, with Kids' Shows of Looney Tunes both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

    There are a couple of other special events at 7pm during the week. Monday's Science on Screen program is Ma Vie en Rose, about a young boy convinced he should be a girl, and is introduced by Norman Spack, MD, an endocrinologist who is one of the world's top authorities on gender-variant children. On Thursday, filmmaker Kevin Smith will be on hand to speak and sign his new book TOUGH SH*T: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good; the $28 ticket includes a copy.

    And later still, at midnight on Friday and Saturday, the Boston Underground Film Festival presents Shogun Assassin, a movie made by editing two Lone Wolf and Cub pictures together and dubbing them into English. Saturday night also has a midnight show of The Room.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has a Terrence Davies program coming up next weekend, but gets a jump-start on it on Friday as Mr. Davies will be there in person to introduce his newest film, The Deep Blue Sea, featuring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in an adaptation of a Terrence Rattigan play. After that, they return to their Bela Tarr retrospective. His seven-and-a-half-hour Satantago plays both Saturday and Sunday at 2pm - not split into two, but with the whole thing showing both days, with a 15-minute intermission and a one hour dinner break. Monday night's screening of Almanac of Fall, running only two hours, should be much more manageable. And on Thursday, Ernie Gehr returns to present a set of "Recent Video Work"

  • The MFA concludes its New Latin American Cinema series with screenings of Bonsai, Machete Language, and Craft over the weekend; Bonsai serves double-duty as part of the Friday Night Films series, with folks arriving early treated to Latin American music courtesy of DJ due Pajaritos. On Sunday the 18th, they begin sporadic showings of Being Jewish in France, a three-plus-hour documentary by Yves Jeuland that means to serve as a primer for the entire history of Jews in that country. And on Thursday, they begin The Boston turkish Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has a couple of film programs this week. Loot runs Sunday at 7:30pm and Monday at 8pm; it's a crime flick from Nepal set against the backdrop of Kathmandu. On Thursday, they've got a screening of 40 West, for those that missed it at the Brattle on Tuesday.

  • The Somerville Theatre and Arlington Capitol are shuffling a few second-run films around, with The Descendants opening in Somerville after closing in Kendall Square - since it's already out on video, this week is likely the last chance to see the nice Hawaiian scenery on the big screen. Of course, the Capitol is still running Hugo on its main screen in 3-D despite it already being on video; they also picks up In Darkness as it also leaves Kendall Square. And in an odd move that suggests the two cinemas owned by the same company operate in neighborhoods with different curfews, the Somerville Theatre will have a midnight screening of The Hunger Games on Thursday before shipping the print up Mass Avenue to open in Arlington on Friday.

My plans? A Life Without Principle on Friday, the Chlotrudis awards on Sunday, and then who knows in between and afterward. Chico & Rita, maybe, if I can get to the big-screen showing after Japanese class on Saturday. It is kind of slow right now.

The Intruder

This is the second Roger Corman movie I've seen in less than a month (I saw War of the Satellites at the Marathon). I normally don't inflict that upon myself, but Corman directing Shatner in a serious-minded film, which is not an expected combination. I must admit, I half-expected it to be a train wreck, but was happily surprised when it turned out to be a good movie. Maybe "best performance of Mr. Shatner's career" good, and I like me some Star Trek.

Speaking of which - there are moments in this movie where Shatner looks astonishingly like Chris Pine, who plays James T. Kirk in the new Trek movies. Obviously, the new Kirk was cast in part to evoke the old one, but it's really uncanny just how similar they looked at the age of 30 or 31. It's also worth noting that Shatner looks the most Pine-like in this movie when his character is at his most Satanic; I wonder if that plays into finding New Kirk just a bit more of a jackass than the old one.

It's kind of hard to believe that Corman and Shatner only worked together twice - in this movie and 1974's Corman-produced Big Bad Mama. Shatner's larger-than-life style would seem well-suited to Corman's 1960s material, but legend has it that Corman partially blamed Shatner for The Intruder being the one blemish on his spotless record of profitability. And, of course, by the end of the decade, Mr. Shatner had a steady job. Still, they made one pretty darn good movie together, and that's worth something.

The Intruder

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2012 in the Paramount Theater Bright Family Screening Room (Crazie for Cult, 35mm)

You might not guess, based on the director (Roger Corman), star (William Shatner), and some of the titles it was released under (I Hate Your Guts!), but The Intruder is a high point in both men's careers and a pretty daring movie for the early 1960s. For a long time, it was said that this film is the only one on which Roger Corman ever lost money; it is arguably also one of the few where he had ambitions beyond making money. It's still surprisingly powerful today, fifty years after being ripped from the news.

On Monday, the high school in Caxford, Missouri will integrate with ten black students starting classes; a huge deal in 1962. No white person in town seems particularly happy about it; even liberal newspaperman Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell) seems more resigned to his daughter Ella (Beverly Lunsford) sitting next to a Negro than anything. At least, until Adam Cramer (Shatner) steps off the bus in his fine white suit. He's a "social activist" member of the "Patrick Henry Society" from Los Angeles (or Washington, depending on who he's talking to), and before he's even checked into his hotel, he's getting people agitated about the school integration. Soon he's making speeches to the townspeople and advances on Ella and Vi Griffin (Jeanne Cooper), the wife of the salesman in the next hotel room (Leo Gordon). Joey Greene (Charles Barnes) didn't expect his first day at his new school to be easy, but if Adam has his way, it may be his last.

The subjects of racism and resistance to the change that integration represents weren't completely absent from the screen in the early 1960s, but it still must have been rare for such volatile news of the day to be addressed so directly, especially at the hands of a guy like Corman who made his name on fun and thrills as opposed to confrontation. In some ways, the exploitation filmmaker in Corman is what makes The Intruder work - where more "respectable" directors might use euphemisms or hints, Corman uses the n-word, pointed hoods and burning crosses the way he might use a mummified corpse or a bucket of blood in a horror movie, tossing the nastiness right into the audience's face to get a visceral reaction. He's not entirely doing a brute-force attack; Corman knows how to create a sense of menace - just check out a great scene where Adam insinuates himself into Vi's hotel room while her husband Sam is away.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 5 March 2012 - 11 March 2012

Another week where I want to review everything, even though there doesn't seem like a lot to review:

This Week In Tickets!

That "John Carter 3" on the ticket looks kind of optimistic, doesn't it?

Not a whole lot I was really jazzed to see this week, to be honest, although the commute is a part of the issue. I've got a sort of reverse commute, where I take the bus from the city to the suburbs every morning and back every night, and lately it's been working out that seeing something at Kendall Square means being there between 6:30 and 7:00pm, which is too early, but I'd have to wait around a half hour or so at Arlington or Somerville. Plus, it's been a quiet couple of weeks; I'm starting to feel like there's not going to be anything really exciting until The Avengers comes out.

At regular theaters, I mean. There's A Life Without Principle this weekend and BUFF the next and IFFBoston after that... And some good old stuff if you know where to look.

The Intruder

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2012 in the Paramount Theater Bright Family Screening Room (Crazie for Cult, 35mm)

Well, looky here, William Shatner in a Roger Corman movie. And it's not just some goofy sci-fi/horror thing; it's a principled drama about school integration that may just be Shatner's best role. He plays a member of the "Patrick Henry Society" who comes to Caxford, Missouri in the days before its high school is set to be integrated to make sure that there's an ugly enough scene to set the civil rights movement back nationally.

Shot on the cheap, with Corman and cinematographer Taylor Byars actually getting some shots done guerrilla-style after the locals got wind of what the movie was about and they were kicked out of town, it's got a lot of the same energy as Corman's exploitation films, putting the racism and violence in the audience's face and not caring about "subtle" one whit. This sort of racism is the province of ignorant monsters, say Corman and writer Charles Beaumont, and it's a shame that enlightenment is seldom spontaneous, but the result of having the violence right in your face.

Corman and Beaumont sometimes have a little trouble getting that precise message across, and the heavy-handedness (especially with the music) can be a little much, but, you know, good on this guy who made no bones about seeing film as a business being willing to put an unpopular opinion right out there.

The Lady from Shanghai

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, ladies and gentlemen. It's almost all you have to say here, because while the film noir plot is pretty basic - man falls for beautiful woman above his station, she demonstrates that her life's not perfect, but before they can run away together, there's a little murder that must be done - but it's the way they execute it that makes it memorable.

And when you get right down to it, the way writer/director/producer/star Welles and company play The Lady from Shanghai out is kind of loopy: Welles's narration is equal parts broad Irish accent and tough-guy dialogue, George Grisby is way over-the-top as the lawyer looking to fake his death so that he can run away from his fears of nuclear annihilation, and the final showdown in an abandoned amusement park is equal parts absurd slapstick and artsy cinematography. Welles is dead serious about things that would today be played as parody.

Plus, Rita Hayworth. Good gravy, is she beautiful in this movie, playing the sort of woman who is so beguiling that, even as Welles's Michael O'Hara and the audience realize that he is slipping into a mire from which there may be no escape, it's hard to think that it's the result of anything but a man's own nature - women like this just can't help but leave a string of wrecked men in their wake.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

I'm not sure whether this movie makes a good double feature with The Lady Shanghai or not, seeing how similar their templates are: Vagabond, married blonde, murder, bizarre trial, finale. It's at least instructive to see what Welles, a genius, is able to do with the material versus the merely solid crew here.

It's not a bad movie, by any means - Lana Turner and John Garfield are well-cast as the girl with the inconvenient husband and the drifter who falls for her, and get a load of Hume Cronyn as the lawyer who is so gleefully corrupt that he would wind up dominating the average episode of Law & Order. It just frequently seems to take forever: Its nearly-two-hour runtime is quite long for 1946, and during the first half, one does find oneself wishing that they would just kill Cora's husband already. Some of the standards of the day are kind of hilarious, as well: Cora and Frank continuing to live under one roof (though in separate rooms) after Nick dies is apparently not just suspicious, but criminal, while Nick habitually driving while cartoonishly inebriated is apparently sort of goofy.

It's not bad, though - for all its faults, it quite frequently plays as more than the sum of its parts.

The LoraxThe IntruderJohn CarterThe Lady from Shanghai & The Postman Always Rings Twice

Monday, March 12, 2012

3D CGI stuff: The Lorax and John Carter

Very sleepy, so I'll just point out that the difference in price between seeing these two movies would have been something like 75 cents if I hadn't used MoviePass for both (and, yes, it's about time to do a serious write-up of MoviePass). John Carter cost much more in time - I had to leave the house at 9:30 and take two subway lines and a bus to arrive at the furniture store in Reading in time for an 11:30 movie, while Fresh Pond is an easy walk from one of the stops on my route home from work - but, good lord, is the difference worth it, especially when you're not trying to cram a full day of movies in.

It's weird - I can handle 3D just about anywhere but Fresh Pond. The Lorax was not quite the disaster that Shark Night was, but there was a lot of things splitting into two for me. Mostly, it was at the top of the screen, but that might just be because the stuff there is often further in the background. Point is, it looked bad, and the folks in the auditorium paid a premium for it to look bad that way. Meanwhile, at Jordan's - whose 3D genuine IMAX screen (the pre-show snippet actually boasts about in being a 70mm film-based system!) exists to get people to walk past the bedroom sets, kitchen tables, and recliners they have for sale - was just heavenly. Six-story screen, clear projection, comfy chairs made out of Posturepedic material with individual "buttkicker" subwoofers. It's a beautiful thing, and well worth the trip.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2012 in Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #2 (first-run, digital 3D)

This "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" movie might have been perfectly fine if it wasn't so intent on making Dr. Seuss's The Lorax into a feature. As fine and wonderful a children's book as that is, it often just doesn't seem compatible with Illumination Entertainment's cute CGI style and is stretched at almost ninety minutes. This doesn't make The Lorax a bad movie, especially for its target audience; just one that often feels off the mark.

In the all-plastic city of Thneedtown, Ted (voice of Zac Efron) has a crush on Audrey (voice of Taylor Swift), who wants to see real trees more than anything. So, based on the stories his grandmother (voice of Betty White) tells him, Ted leaves the city walls to ask the mysterious Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms) about trees. In Thneedtown, the diminutive tyrant who controls the town by supplying bottled air is concerned by this development, while outside, the Once-ler relates how his arrival led to the disappearance of the Truffula Trees, despite the efforts of the Lorax (voice of Danny DeVito), the forest spirit who speaks for the trees.

There's a great deal to like about this movie, looked at as just any animated picture for kids. The character and "prop" designs, both Seuss-derived and original, are pretty spiffy-looking. The musical numbers are light and bouncy, filling the screen with fun motion and underlining the points the filmmakers are looking to get across. They keep the message pretty simple for their young audience without being patronizing. Director Chris Renaud and co-director Kyle Balda are good at gags; there are some very funny bits and impressively-staged thrill rides throughout.

Full review at EFC.

John Carter

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, IMAX 3D)

John Carter is a grand adventure taken from a book published one hundred years ago, and age has some privileges: You can posit that Mars has a breathable atmosphere and basically-human inhabitants (among others), for instance. A pulp novel's job was to be entertaining and exciting, and an adaptation of such a book should do the same. Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars manages that in fine style.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) served for the South during the Civil War, and having lost his family, went to Arizona to seek his fortune alone. The Army tries to draft him to fight Apache, which leads to a strange cave of gold and a stranger medallion which transports him to another desert - this one on Mars (or "Barsoom", as the locals call it). There, he's captured by Tharks, ten-foot-tall warriors with four arms on their bodies and horns on their jaws, whose leader Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe) is intrigued by the amazing leaps "Virginia" can make in Barsoom's reduced gravity. Elsewhere on Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) - a brilliant scientist as well as a beautiful princess - wants no part of marrying Sab Than (Dominic West), even if it will prevent his parasite city of Zadanga from crushing her native Helium; she'd trust him even less if she knew about Than's mysterious, shape-shifting ally Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

John Carter has its issues, mostly on the ends. A bookend sequence set in 1881 that includes Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Carter's nephew and heir, apparently, though he would have been six that year) is nothing but bloat for an already long movie, an unnecessary delay in getting to the action at the start and part of what holds the audience hostage too long after the climax at the end. It's not alone there; the script also includes a symbolic-but-dumb action (though one which is at least immediately recognized as such) and a number of late exposition dumps that are as seemingly-contradictory as they are ultimately unimportant. Their main purpose seems to be setting up future installments that may never be made, and while this sort of focus on serialization and sloppiness with details may hearken back to the pulps of a century ago, they're annoying in a movie.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Talk Cinema: We Have a Pope

Usually, the roughly-monthly Talk Cinema series is hosted by a local film critic; this time around, it was hosted by the man who runs the program (which also occurs in other cities and puts together travel packages to film festivals), and... Well, it was a bit of a different experience. He'd seen Habemus Papam at Cannes and seemed to have really fallen for it despite the fact that his fellow critics didn't seem to love it. It seems to have made him determined and defensive on the subject, with the post-film discussion not quite becoming a lecture, but very much shaped by his opinion all the same. It's one I wasn't quite able to share; as I say in the review, it has real, massive problems of execution despite a premise with great possibility.

(Of course, the Q&A and latter half of the movie also had the accidental soundtrack of the Lord of the Rings marathon going on downstairs as part of the Viggo Mortensen tribute. I kind of feel sorry for the people who were seeing silent movie The Artist or frequently-still movie The Secret World of Arrietty later!)

As I say in the review, it's a shame. I'm not Catholic - far from it, I'm so far from religious that I tend to describe it as being superstitious - but as the movie starts, I did kind of find myself fascinated by the dynamic of organized religion. I can sort of get believing in God, but how that translates into giving a small group of old men in funny hats (and how ridiculous is it in the twenty-first century that the leadership is still all male?) such tremendous power and influence with any sort of transparency or checks on their power?

It's strange to me, but still intriguing, enough so that I wish this movie was able to skewer the whole situation and process much more effectively.

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Talk Cinema, 35mm)

While many films lack even one original, interesting idea, Habemus Papam has at least two at its heart. Quite possibly three, and maybe even four if you're feeling very generous. Nanni Moretti gets fairly far by sharing his curiosity about the papal election process and what might happen if it hit a snag with the audience; he just seems to wind up adrift when it comes time to make a real story out of it.

The process of the Catholic Church selecting a new pope is shrouded in mystery; the college of cardinals not only sequesters themselves, but burns all records of their voting and all notes kept during the deliberations. The faithful (and press) massed outside the Vatican have an idea of who is likely to be chosen, and very few expect it to be Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who has more humility than ambition. It is him, though, and just as the smoke changes color and "habemus papam" is announced from the traditional balcony, the new leader has a panic attack and refuses to address his flock. The church finds itself at an impasse, with the layman administrator (Jerzy Stuhr) bringing in a noted professor of psychiatry (Nanni Moretti) before trying more desperate measures.

To give it its due, it starts out with the right actor in the right part - Michel Piccoli is the perfect man to play Father Melville. At first, he certainly looks like just another old man in a room full of old men, but a closer look shows an almost youthfully open heart and lack of guile. Melville must be utterly deserving but also terrified at the responsibility he's been entrusted with. Piccoli is able to sell the cardinal as somebody that anyone can approach and trust but also seemingly out of place in every situation he's placed into. That paradox is at the heart of the character and the movie - the things that make Melville the person one would want as Pope also make him terrified of the job - and Piccoli embodies the role wonderfully.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, March 09, 2012

New British Indies: Kill List and Tyrannosaur (w/ ending discussion)

Even before sitting down for Tyrannosaur, I kind of figured on grouping these two movies together; they're both lower-budgeted British movies that happened to play Boston on the same weekend. As the titles started for Tyrannosaur, though, I was struck by how both these movies were coming from the same groups. The UK Film Council (Awarding Funds from the National Lottery!) is almost a given when seeing a British film these days, and the Film Four logo shows up an awful lot as well, but Screen Yorkshire is rather specific, as is production company Warp X. And then when they had certain structural similarities...

Not huge ones, mind you; things aren't a whole lot closer than any two random stories. But both have a man prone to bursts of anger at the center, starting off with examples of that rage getting out of control and ending with a fairly shocking finale. It's those endings that merit a little discussion, but we'll leave that until after the EFC reviews.

Kill List

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run/IFFBoston Presents, 35mm)

Movies like Kill List are relatively rare; while there are few individual things in the movie that someone buying a ticket for such a movie hasn't seen before, the combination of ingredients is unusual. And not just in what's combined, the way they are put together is sometimes even more peculiar. Considering how frequently rote the hitman drama genre can be, different is a very good thing.

The assassin in question is Jay (Neil Maskell), who still feels like he needs to recover mentally and physically from a botched job in Kiev eight months ago. This extended "recovery" - which includes a fair amount of drinking and pills - is putting a tremendous strain on his marriage to Shel (MyAnna Buring), leading to some ugly fights in front of their son Sam (Harry Simpson). So maybe, when Jay's partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) come for a dinner party, it's time to get back out there. So they meet a new client, who gives them a list of three people - but there's something very strange going on from the start.

Kill List is the new movie by Ben Wheatley, last seen on the festival circuit with Down Terrace, and it's immediately clear that it shares a lot of DNA with that movie. Both sit squarely in the Venn Diagram intersection between "crime" and "yelling family" movies, with what seems like a decided slant toward the latter at first. And as a portrait of a volatile marriage and family, it's pretty fantastic. Wheately and company spend the first third of the picture making it very difficult to form a simple opinion on Jay's and Shel's relationship, switching between caustic screaming matches and quiet moments of support in such a way as to keep the audience from getting too comfortable. The eruptions and deflations happen fast, but this seems perfectly keeping with who these two are, both in general and at this specific point.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2012 in the Museum of Fine Arts Alfond Auditorium (Special Engagement, 35mm)

Paddy Considine's first feature as writer and director packs a wallop at both ends, and is pretty impressive in between as well. It's absolutely the sort of movie an actor makes, with meaty roles for its stars to dive into and plenty of one-on-one time. It's a pretty darn great actors' movie, though it's far from a carefree hour and a half.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a man almost consumed by rage. We see three examples of it right off the bat, and it's after the third one blows up in his face that he ducks into a charity shop to hide. The shop is being manned by Hannah (Olivia Colman), who approaches him with amazing calm and kindness. Cruelty surrounds them - Joseph's best friend is dying of cancer, the boy who lives next door (Samuel Bottomley) is tormented by his mother's boyfriend, and Olivia's husband James (Eddie Marsan) is himself prone to expressing his jealousy in nasty ways.

Cruel is perhaps the best way to describe the world in which Joseph, Hannah, and company live; idleness and lack of means don't create the sort of situations that kill people, but rather the ones that chip away at their dignity and create a status quo that feels inescapable - even spending time with friends doesn't seem to lift the spirits. Heck, the most joy seems to come during a funeral - one man's suffering is over, and the other characters have a reason to dwell on happier times.

Full review at EFC.

Discussion of the ends of the movies from here on out! You have been warned!

Kill List's ending has gotten a fair amount of attention, even if it has been of the "don't let anybody tell you the ending!" variety. I think I avoided that as well as I could, which was tough, because it kind of bugged me.

First, let me just say - I've never seen The Wicker Man. Either version. Which was kind of awkward at Fantasia last year, because Robin Hardy was in town and practically everybody I talked to was acting like it was a really huge deal. And while I don't know how much Kill List draws from that specifically, the cult that's ultimately behind everything seems to be drawing from the same roots. Maybe it's just me, but this sort of Celtic/Druidic thing seems to be showing up a lot more, and I don't get it. Does the symbol Fiona draws on the back of the mirror have significance? Is killing his wife and son part of some specific ritual that British folks, for whom this is a more direct part of the culture, would see as significant?

Because if not... well, it leaves a taste in my mouth I don't know if I really like. What's the in-story point? Sure, there's an argument that it's a symbolic fit - the job and giving into his anger eventually leads to Jay destroying his family. Why's this important to the cult, though? Are they just monsters for the sake of being monsters? Are they meaning to break Jay to build him into their weapon or so he'll serve as some sort of example or demonstration? We're not ever given much of a glimpse of any greater purpose to this, which is fine on one hand - we're seeing it from Jay's point of view - but it's a bit unsatisfying, an unearned worst-case-scenario. Dark-for-the-sake-of-dark has a bit of limited appeal.

The end of Tyrannosaur, meanwhile, is just as horrific in its way - the scene of Joseph making his way through the house, key between his fingers as a reminder of both how hardscrabble and potentially overmatched he can be, and eventually finding James's not-fresh corpse, is fantastic, and the two hits after that are gut-punches: I initially thought James had committed suicide, but finding out Hannah was responsible was obviously devastating to Joseph, and the dog attack and Joseph's retribution feel like the whole world collapsing.

It's an earned collapse, though; Hannah seems to absorb the worst of Joseph's anger rather than Joseph gaining her kindness. But Considine lets things run just a bit longer to show that it's at least focused violence, and that after bottoming out, the pair have confronted the anger and fear in their souls - and faced the consequences of their actions - and aren't alone any more.

Which is earned, too. And that's why I think Kill List stumbles at the end while Tyrannosaur achieves something really impressive: Not just because Tyrannosaur is as upbeat as an ending with that sort of carnage can be, but because that raw ending is the logical result of everything that came before, while Kill List is a "gotcha!" that doesn't seem quite as organic as it should.