Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Cat in Paris

Didn't quite expect to get to this one; the bus out of Burlington was a bit later than usual, and I never seem to have a good handle on how long it takes to walk from the Kendall Square T station to this theater. Apparently, it's about 13 minutes - at least on a warm evening, which is worth keeping in mind for the future.

I knew that A Cat in Paris was a short movie, but it was made even shorter by how there were no previews, presumably because all the trailers they have on-hand are on 35mm and this was shown off a Blu-ray (or at least via a Toshiba BD player; its status screen had someone in the audience wondering if we were supposed to see that or not). That was a bit disappointing; while 1080p is roughly the same as the 2K projection many theaters use, there was a stutter at one point, and certain scenes just looked less cinematic. Maybe that's just seeing what I expect to see from knowing it was BD, but certain things seemed off - whites that were too uniformly and purely white; unnatural sharpness at the borders of stationary objects.

(Also - if you're going to play this off a Blu-ray, which can hold multiple soundtracks, why not make the 9:30pm show French-language/English-subtitled? That's one of the things digital projection is good for!)

Since it was such a short movie, GKids included a short with it, "The Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat". It's quick and cute, with the filmmakers doing a really fine job of combining live-action backgrounds with apparently-hand-drawn characters, and the jokes are a fun combination of funny cat stuff and tongue-in-cheek sci-fi. The denouement got a big laugh.

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 June 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, projected Blu-ray)

One of two "underdog" nominees for Best Animated Feature in last year's Academy Awards, A Cat in Paris is at the very least as deserving than the other cat-themed feature nominated, although that undersells its charm quite a bit. It's an awfully nice little movie, quick and rather lively.

The cat of the title is Dino, who spends his days with mute little girl Zoe and her nanny Claudine (voice of Angelica Huston), and his nights following cat burglar Nico (voice of Steve Blum). Zoe's mother Jeanne (voice of Marcia Gay Harden), a superintendent in the Paris police force, has one of her detectives investigating this series of heists, but her main concern is Victor Costa (voice of JB Blanc), the gangster who is planning a much larger score and who killed Zoe's father.

A Cat in Paris is a compact movie - even with a short playing before it, the audience was in and out in about an hour and a quarter. Even with that small size, things don't often feel particularly rushed outside of a few moments meant to make it very clear how personal Jeanne's pursuit of Costa is. The filmmakers do a good job of keeping things moving forward and throwing in surprises without making things too complicated for the children in the audience. Directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli also do an impressive job of making Costa and his gang both comedic and legitimate threats, often within the same scene.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 June 2012 - 2 July 2012

Let's make this a short one, because there are films doing holiday openings next week. Plus I'm really tired, and give myself short odds of making it past the second inning of tonight's Red Sox game.

  • There are a number of interesting filmmakers opening movies in the multiplexes this week. Not necessarily great ones, but interesting. Seth MacFarlane, for instance, has a huge following for his animated comedy block on Fox, and makes his feature directing debut with Ted, the story of a boy whose teddy bear comes to life... thirty years ago. Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis are funny people, it's an amusing concept, and it will get some local interest for being shot in Boston. It plays at Somerville, Harvard Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    People Like Us, on the other hand, comes from Alex Kurtzman and co-writer Roberto Orci, frequent collaborators with J.J. Abrams, though often on more fantastical productions than this, which features Chris Pine as a man sorting out his father's will only to discover that he's got a sister he never new about (Elizabeth Banks). Nice supporting cast - Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde, your weekly does of of Mark Duplass, and please tell me Philip Baker Hall has a bigger part than "old guy who dies in the first five minutes". It plays the Belmont Studio, Kendall Square, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    Interestingly, the movie that perhaps has the least obvious appeal has the best director - Steven Soderbergh (who, let's face it, had me worried for not releasing a movie for five months) is the guy doing Magic Mike, which follows Channing Tatum as the top dog in an all-male strip show who takes a new kid under his wing. It plays Somerville, Harvard Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    And, of course, there's the latest Tyler Perry film, Madea's Witness Protection, where his signature character gets involved with a Wall Street whistleblower whose family is relocated to her small town. I'm told that Perry movies are genuinely insane, although I wonder if this will be the case - it looks like he's trying to appeal to an audience beyond his African-American niche, with a cast that includes Eugene Levy, Denise Richards, Tom Arnold, and Doris Roberts in addition to Perry, Romeo Miller, and John Amos.

  • In addition to People Like Us, Kendall Square also opens A Cat in Paris. It's one of last year's Academy-Nominated animated films, and follows a cat who leads a double life - by day, living with a police detective's daughter; by night, tagging along with a daring burglar. All showtimes play dubbed, and as it is just a bit over an hour long, it plays with a short ("Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat'). They will also have the monthly late-night showing of The Room at 10pm on Saturday (their last, apparently, as it returns to the Coolidge in July).

  • The Coolidge has a pretty quite week as well - Hysteria takes up residence in the screening room, and Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses plays midnights on Friday and Saturday. The big draw is on Monday, when the Big Screen Classics series goes weekly for July and August, starting the nine-week run with the original Japanese classic Godzilla (Gojira), complete with a raffle, a visit from Kaiju Big Battel. It's uncut, undubbed, and gorgeous on 35mm, so you want to go.

  • The Brattle keep Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story hanging around through Sunday, so audiences have a few more chances to see this movie about the frontman of local band Morphine. On Monday, the DocYard presents The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of José González, which follows a Swedish Folk Artist as he tries to write his second album. Tuesday's Balagan show is "Reflection/Refraction", and Wednesday brings the return of Casablanca, on 35mm film where it belongs.

  • The MFA has The Turin Horse, a new film by Hungarian auteur Belá Tarr the follows an early-twentieth century family through their daily life with long tracking shots. It won the Silver Bear at last year's Berlinale. It will also play Thursday before handing the baton to the next movie.

  • The Harvard Film Archive is having a member's weekend. If you're a member, you probably know what's playing; the rest of us have to wonder.

My plans? Nothing but Gojira is set in stone, but that is pretty darn set in stone. I'll probably try to catch Ted, Magic Mike, and Moonrise Kingdom, especially with plenty of time to kill before west-coast ballgames.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I was tempted to do this up like "In Defense of Liking Battleship" rather than a straight review for EFC, just because I do kind of see them as two of a kind in some ways. They're both pretty dumb ideas whose execution problems include being kind of generic once you strip away their odd origins. Both also got so dismissed out of hand that it was actually kind of a surprise to see, hey, there are some good people involved trying a little harder than you might expect.

It seemed like the folks around me dug it, even if they did sound like drunk/high college kids. The big, nutty action got a lot of hooting and hollering, and that was pretty cool. It was nice to see folks having fun with what is clearly an insane movie.

I do sort of go back and forth on just how satirical some of the bits folks were laughing at were. As much as parts of the movie feel like they don't have the slightest bit of brain involvement, I found myself wondering whether the moments when Abe would just have an action-hero moment were more "exactly what they seem to be" or "diabolically camouflaged evisceration of what they seem to be". See, one of the things I really like about AL:VH is that it never diminishes Lincoln's real-world legacy to pump up this story, and in fact doesn't really strongly tie his opposition to slavery to the vampire threat at all. So it's very clear that Lincoln does genuinely heroic, admirable things in real life - and compared to that, the big "F--- YEAH!!!" action movie moments are kind of hollow and ridiculous... But we still respond to those in a more visceral way.

Again, I don't know if that was necessarily something planned by the filmmakers or whether it's me reading stuff into it. There's a part of me that really wishes that the filmmakers were willing to stick the knife in and twist on this point. The Fourth of July is coming up, and we'll probably hear a lot more about the military than what the day really commemorates, a declaration of principles and the desire for the rule of law. It's not so far off to wish for more celebration of the things people fight for than the actual fighting itself.

(Also, as much as I liked that the vampires were not the "real" evil behind the Civil War, I'm a little disappointed that they were just generic ghouls. There was a great metaphor on the fringes of this movie about vampires being privileged elites sucking the life-blood from an underclass - something a lot of politically-minded horror should really be running with today, but as usual they find those elites too seductive - but Timur Bekmambetov ain't the guy who's going to make that movie.)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2012 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, 35mm)

It seems quite unlikely that something by the name "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" was ever going to be a great movie, and this particular one doesn't come particularly close. What's surprising is that it gets as far in that direction as it does, and how often it avoids disaster to actually do right by its gonzo premise.

Abraham Lincoln's story is taught to every American child, but there are apparently some parts generally left out. Like how the illness that claimed his mother (Robin McLeavy) was the result of a vampire bite, or how young Mr. Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) sought vengeance on her killer (Marton Csokas), only to discover he needed to be trained by vampire-hunter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper). This eventually brings him to the attention of Adam (Rufus Sewell), the most powerful vampire in America, even as Lincoln romances the lovely Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

I suspect that in screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith's original book, this secret history is a bit more convincing; he first gained note not just for how out-there Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was as a concept, but for how cleanly he combined the two opposing sensibilities. The movie version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter certainly shows some seams, but it's also surprisingly respectful: Grahame-Smith doesn't diminish Lincoln's actual deeds to bolster his fictional ones, and while vampires are involved in the Civil War, they're not the "real" cause of it.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 18 June 2012 - 24 June 2012

Another summer week with more reading than watching. I got through Greg Rucka's Alpha and started Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X around the couple of movies I saw:

This Week In Tickets!

A good chunk of the weekend was, happily, spent at my cousin Sarah's wedding. I naturally managed to leave everything until the last minute, which led to me sleeping on the couch in my father's hotel room because I hadn't booked one of my own in time, which is the sort of thing I really should look into growing out of. But, hey, I was far from the only disorganized person, from the stories I heard about the rehearsal dinner. I doubt them, because the involved my Uncle Dick actually raising his voice, which I do not believe is something he is equipped to do.

Epic toast by the best man, though, and my nieces are just dancing fools who were able to keep going well into the night. I bet they crashed hard, though, because I was pretty sluggish the next day and I didn't do much of anything.

That's why I cut my planned movie-ing for Sunday down to one movie from two and chose Your Sister's Sister on the basis of "hey, it combines with the grocery store for a single trip". Which isn't quite the only movie I saw that way; Friday night had me choosing Brave over Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter based on when the bus would drop me off after work.

"La Luna"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 June 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, RealD 3D)

Is it okay to admit I was a little disappointed with the two "Toy Story" shorts Pixar gave us before Disney movies last year? I mean, I love the characters and all, but they came on the heels of the amazing "Day & Night", just revisitations of familiar characters compared to something new and exciting

"La Luna" is a trickier beast in a lot of ways. It's great-looking, really cutely designed and smoothly animated - and it does its cartoon-style gags a lot better than most CGI shorts do - with Michael Giacchino contributing a nice little score. It's frequently playful, although it's somewhat unusual in that it hoards that whimsy until the very end. A lot of films, even short ones, will have more little payoffs of the concept it sets up than "La Luna" does, whereas this one doesn't seem to want to spill until the last shot.

Which is fine, because it's a really terrific last shot that is not over-built. "La Luna" at various points teeters right on the edge of not getting away with it, but winds up doing just fine.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 June 2012 in the Arlington Capitol #1 (first-run, RealD 3D)

Brave is certainly a nice enough movie, one I'd recommend to my brother with the five-year-old daughter without much reservation. It's heroine Merida even has a full complement of parents, something which has bothered them in the past where Disney princess movies are concerned. And for a kid Dagny's age, I'll bet it's pretty darn magical, especially if you're not comparing it with other things: As Disney princess movies go, it's not Beauty and the Beast; as Pixar goes, it's no Toy Story; as movies about rambunctious kids dealing with dangerous animals in medieval Scotland go, it's no How to Train Your Dragon...

The movie had a somewhat more publicly tumultuous history than many productions - I believe it was originally set to by Brenda Chapman's movie (and titled "The Bear and the Bow"), but by the time it was done, two others also had directing credits and there was a fourth writer credited as well. Though many productions have more hands involved than the single auteur the credits suggest, there are two ways having several people pulling in different directions can go. Sometimes, a movie will go all over the place, which gets a bad rap but which I think is preferable to having the various voices cancel each other out. That's sort of what happens here - there's never the point where the movie feels big and ambitious; it's timid, never going off on the grand adventure that all the movies listed in the first paragraph have.

If there's one factor that exemplifies this smallness, I'd say it's the witch that sets the second act drama in motion. As amusing as bits of her scenes are - and her character shtick actually dovetails pretty nicely with what happens to move the plot forward - she exists not just as a plot device, but one that withholds information for no good reason (having just watched the latest Torchwood series, I had Eve Myles's voice in my head disdainfully saying "oh, you're cryptic"), and has other problems. One of the movie's themes is that "legends are lessons", but having this goofy magic-user pop up diminishes the grandeur of those legends. Plus, she's the source of anachronistic gags that Disney overdid badly after Aladdin's Genie proved so popular.

(Aside - for a movie with the Pixar name on it, this really feels like the lesser Disney features of ten or fifteen years ago, both in how tone and execution. It's the sort of thing that putting John Lasseter in charge was supposed to sweep out of Disney Feature Animation, which is sort of ironic.)

Fortunately, none of these issues make Brave actually bad, just mediocre story-wise. I love its core characters enough to want them to be in a better movie, especially Merida with her tomboy streak that borders on selfishness (she is a teenager), awesomely-rendered wild hair, and voice-acting from Kelly Macdonald. King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) are pretty terrific too. The movie is also just gorgeous, full of nifty character designs, beautiful scenery, and wonderful composition - or whatever you call the animated equivalent of cinematography. The 3D is very much a double-edged sword here, though: For as much as it seems to be the film's native format and it is used very well, the projection struggles pretty badly with the number of scenes that take place at dusk, even at a theater with a decent reputation for presentation. I suspect it will look amazing on a 3D TV with active-shutter glasses.

Kids, of course, aren't going to care much about the structural stuff, and likely most adults won't either. Combined with the Wreck-It Ralph trailer and the "La Luna" short, it's a couple hours that entertains its audience pretty well, and there's nothing wrong with that.

BraveYour Sister's Sister

Monday, June 25, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

Note to self: Don't pay full price for a movie at Landmark Kendall Square when you don't have to. $11, man. With membership discount, I could have seen this at the Coolidge for $6.75. Heck, I'd forgotten my book of discount tickets which would have brought the price down to $7.75, and for the first time really realized that they are a serious discount. This is what you get for choosing the place and time of the movie you see by

But, anyway, I liked this quite a bit. I'd liked both of Lynn Shelton's previous two movies, and looking at my reviews of them, I find it interesting that what struck me about the past two is that they were very much about relationships between guys. This one's got the same sort of small, tight cast, but it's much more about sisters than any other relationship. Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt, in particular, are really great together (which is not a knock on Duplass, though it can't help but sound like one with a three-person cast); DeWitt is someone I kind of expect it from, whereas Emily Blunt... Well, I've tended to think of her more as kind of pretty than much of an actress. She fills roles well enough, but never really bowled me over. I really like her here, in large part because she doesn't try and bowl me over; where DeWitt and Duplass are sort of playing up their characters' turmoil, she makes Iris very real but not exaggerated at all.

As good as her performance is, though, I have to admit, I did occasionally wonder what the deal with her accent was. I almost suspect that you can tell which scenes were shot first because it sounds like she's trying to make her character American and not really doing a great job of it. Thus, a scene that lays out an awkwardly convoluted scenario that tries very hard to explain how the pair are both close and close in age despite clearly growing up on different continents. Not as flagrant as Rachel Lee Cook not being able to do an English accent in Blow Dry, but it sure seemed like a bit of a patch.

Doesn't hurt the movie at all, though. Well worth a look.

Oh, and I see Mark Duplass has another movie coming out this Friday, though in a supporting role this time, and one as a writer/director coming fairly soon, too. Guy's been busy.

Your Sister's Sister

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, 35mm)

Your Sister's Sister is Lynn Shelton's new movie, and if you've been following her career, the shape of it likely won't surprise you much: It's three people in an increasingly tangled set of relationships fueled by improvised dialogue. Her previous successes have bought her a higher-profile cast for a somewhat bigger production. She's improving with practice, and was pretty good to begin with.

She starts us off with Jack (Mark Duplass), still reeling from his brother Tom's death a year earlier. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) - who was also Tom's ex-girlfriend - suggests he go to her family's island cabin to get his head straight. When he gets there, though, he finds Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just left her girlfriend of seven years and has much the same idea. Drinking happens, and when Iris shows up the next morning, things suddenly become very complicated.

It sounds like damning with faint praise to say, but Shelton has a real knack for taking a situation comedy premise and wringing an intriguing story out of it. Her previous film, Humpday (also starring Duplass), worked along those lines, and this one has a wry take on the structure at least twice: Early on, when Hannah recognizes that there's no really strong reason to keep something secret, forcing Shelton and her cast to put a little effort into a contrivance that many films would take for granted; and later, when a pivotal moment of dramatic upheaval is staged as farce. It's not so much subversive as it is playing to the genre's strengths - a good sitcom works via empathy - and this lets the movie be funny and serious without every tipping too far toward screwball or melodrama.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 June 2012 - 28 June 2012

It's always at least a little sad to hear about a theater that's been around a while reaching the end of the line, which is the case with the Harvard Square Cinema, a 5-plex that AMC has announced will close in July. It's not particularly surprising - compared to other venues, it wasn't very good for the price and wound up ceding its boutique niche to Kendall Square as it moved to more mainstream fare once exclusive bookings went the way of the dodo. Used to be, the same thing would never open at both Harvard Square and Fresh Pond, and that was before the two FEI plexes went first-run - and now, why would you choose this spot over the cheaper, cleaner, and altogether nicer Somerville Theatre two T stops away?

Now it's just the place where The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays every Saturday at midnight and where Matt Damon and the Afflecks once worked. If I were a betting man, I'd guess that the live cast for Rocky Horror sets up shop somewhere else (the Coolidge would be my guess) by the time the college students come back.

So, while the closing of any cinema is sad, these days Harvard Square seldom represents something you can't see elsewhere or the best screen on which a movie is playing. The main auditorium is nice, but the other four are where I learned how to recognize how a single screen has been cut into several smaller ones. But, until it closes, they're getting new movies, so let's see what they'll be going out with.

  • Likely, the biggest opening is Brave, the newest film from Disney's Pixar group, which tells the tale of a Scottish tomboy princess who seeks to have her own adventures rather than just be seen as a marriageable commodity. It's had a bit of a tumultuous history history - its name changed from "The Bear and the Bow"; the first Pixar movie with a female lead was supposed to have a female director, but she was replaced; and there have been complaints that the 3D projection does bad things to its many less well-lit scenes (though how much is "legitimate problem" and how much is "I hate 3D and take any chance to complain" is as yet unclear). Pixar's overcome stuff like that before (remember Ratatouille?), and this at least looks gorgeous. Also plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. 3D everywhere, 2D everywhere but Harvard Square.

    Similar 3D issues may dog Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which is apparently not an elaborate, long-running gag, but a real movie directed by Timur Bekmambetov who may have just the right sort of style and action skills to make it work. Not that I'm betting on it, but it could happen. Plays Somerville (2D only), Harvard Square, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    Not opening in Harvard Square but playing Fenway, Boston Common, and Kendall Square is Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a road-trip comedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley trying to resolve the loose ends in their respective lives before an asteroid impact destroys all life on Earth. Man, it feels like I've seen this trailer a lot in the past six months.

  • Kendall Square also opens two other films, and has a special presentation to boot. The one-week booking is for 5 Broken Cameras, a documentary about a Palestinian village being hemmed in by Israeli settlements, with the hook being that the five cameras the farmer who shot the movie with are all lost in action. The Island President gets a shorter run (two shows on Tuesday the 26th), and also features a threatened homeland; in this case, it's the Maldives, whose first democratically-elected president may oversee the end of his nation, as rising sea levels threaten to submerge the low-lying archipelago.

  • Hopefully more upbeat is the second flick starring Mark Duplass to hit the area in as many weeks, which is also opening at the Coolidge. IFFBoston entry Your Sister's Sister features him as a guy mourning his brother whose best friend offers the use of her family's cabin for some alone time, only to have her sister show up, from which point buried feelings and awkwardness are inevitable.

    That opens on the big screens; the video room gets Pink Ribbons Inc., which documents how the campaign to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness has, in many ways, become its own industry that often neglects its actual cause.

    In special events, there are two midnight movies this week: Addams Family Values continues the "Summer Camp" series with Wednesday and Pugsley Addams being sent to camp while their new baby brother's nanny schemes to marry Uncle Fester. It plays both Friday and Saturday, while the annual "Can't Stop the Serenity" charity screening is a one-night event, with cosplay, raffles, and a food drive on tap. Sunday morning brings the latest Goethe-Institut German film screening, with Lessons of a Dream featuring Daniel Brühl as an English teacher in 19th-century Germany who uses soccer to get through to the reluctant students. And Monday night offers another broadcast of the Boyle/Miller/Cumberbatch Frankenstein, although the theater's weekly mailer has it marked as sold out.

  • The Brattle has an unusually simple schedule this week, showing IFFBoston alumnus Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story. This particular musician documentary covers the life of the Morphine frontman who died at a music festival in 1999, under apparently mysterious circumstances. Special guests will be appearing on Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, if not more often.

    It plays every day except Wednesday, when the monthly silent program returns with The Gold Rush, with Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp prospecting in Alaska. It's a classic and is billed as a new 35mm restoration, which means that the likelihood of a print with Chaplin's unceasing narration is very low.

  • The weekend program at the Harvard Film Archive is History Through the Wrong End of the Telescope: The Films of Aleksei Guerman. Guerman is considered one of the greatest modern Russian filmmakers, and the program includes Trial on the Road & My Friend Ivan Lapshin on Friday, Khrustalyov, My Car! (his most recent) on Saturday; The Seventh Companion & The Fall of Otrar on Sunday; and Twenty Days Without War on Monday.

  • The MFA continues its series of "Exclusive Screenings" that started on Thursday, with Payback, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, and Lost Bohemia rotating through the weekend as well as Wednesday the 27th; on Thursday the 28th, the next cycle starts with Portrait of Wally and The Turin Horse

  • Two Indian movies with English subtitles open at Fresh Pond this weekend, Teri Meri Kahaani and Saguni. The former is Hindi and features Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra each playing three roles as the movie presents love stories in 1910, 1960, and 2012; the latter is Tamil and described as a political satire.

My plans? A wedding over the weekend, so I'll be seeing Brave and Abraham Lincoln around the corners and hopefully fitting Your Sister's Sister, Seeking a Friend... and maybe Moonrise Kingdom in during the week.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 11 June 2012 - 17 June 2012

This is what happens when you barely open anything I want to see on a weekend, Hollywood:

This Week In Tickets!

I wind up going through my books, finishing The Future Is Japanese and chugging right through Hard Case's rediscovery of Robert Silverberg's Blood on the Mink. Some Nicolas Cage at the Brattle, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes at the Harvard Film Archive, and Safety Not Guaranteed when I found myself shut out of the Cumberbatch/Miller Frankenstein at the Coolidge.

I've got to say, I was darn disappointed to not get into that; it runs again on Monday, but that's the version I saw last year with Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and I really wanted to see it with the roles reversed (put this out on Blu-ray, someone!). And not just for the new and imagined subtext of how both are now playing a modern-day Sherlock Holmes on TV, the other one was really excellent. I guess I've learned a valuable lesson about not taking seats at these special presentations for granted, even when you are talking 10am on a Sunday morning.

Raising Arizona & Valley GirlVampire's KissSafety Not GuaranteedSomething Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I know what you're thinking - that either this is a somewhat late tribute to the late Ray Bradbury or a surprisingly quick one, considering that I saw it on 35mm at a local venue. Actually, it's neither - the Harvard Film Archive ran a series of Jack Clayton films last weekend, and while I hoped to get to more than just this, it didn't quite work out. I suspect that a lot of places have been trying to book the print that the HFA got for this in the last few weeks, as it's not quite the only big-screen work he did, but the one which is most "his", from conception to screenplay.

But, since this series was about Clayton, it was followed not by another Bradbury story, but by Clayton's first short film as a director, "The Bespoke Overcoat". And, I've got to admit... It kind of knocked me out; after a thrilling finale with impressive visuals, a talky short film based on a Nikolai Gogol short story featuring a pair of Old Jewish Guys was not what my brain was calibrated for. It started off fairly interesting, but took a lot of it's half-hour running time to get somewhere.

Ah, well. Even if the intent was a tribute to Clayton, I was there for the Bradbury element, even if Bradbury has never exactly been my favorite of the "Golden Age" science-fiction authors. I tend to be an Astounding/Analog type guy, while Bradbury is sort of a Fantasy & Science Fiction author, loving all the technical/"hard" stuff that many of the appreciations of Ray Bradbury to be written over the past few weeks have praised him for treating as as rather secondary concerns. Still, I remember checking a book of his short stories out of the library in high school - a massive tome, collecting what seemed like all of them in chronological order - and even if it wasn't exactly what I was expecting and hoping for, the actual writing tended to be fantastic.

I'll miss him. Not like I miss Isaac Asimov, sure, but a whole lot. The man was unquestionably a titan.

(Wait, Disney's DVD is pan-and-scan and Anchor Bay's is out of print? That is some bull-crap! Get a nice new Blu-ray out now!)

Something Wicked This Way Comes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Jack Clayton, Between Innocence and Experience, 35mm)

It's been argued that one of the unplanned side-effects of the PG-13 rating is that it more or less put the kibosh on movies like Something Wicked This Way Comes; it's become such a hard target to hit that the last non-Harry Potter movie that tried to give kids an honest scare - the Guillermo del Toro-produced Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - got slapped with an R rating (Super 8 was less targeted to kids than the parents who remembered its ilk). 'Tis a shame, for while Something Wicked isn't perfect, it tingles the spine nicely.

It starts, as these movies often do, with two young boys in a small town. Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) is the bespectacled son of librarian Charles (Jason Robards), while Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) is being raised by a single mother (Diane Ladd), his father having quite town years ago. They get into mischief - in this early part of the twentieth century, boys were allowed and expected to do so - but are generally good kids. This autumn, a carinval has come to town, which is odd (carnivals are summer events), but their snooping soon suggests that Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the proprietor, is up to something unusually sinister - but who will believe the wild stories of two kids?

Not that they'd necessarily be able to explain it, even after everything went down. Whether it occurred while penning the original novel or while adapting it into a screenplay, writer Ray Bradbury leaves a great deal of Mr. Dark's motivation and mythology to be inferred. A great number of eerie, creepy, and downright chilling things happen, but as was often his wont, Bradbury focused less on explanation and the mechanics of the plot than he did on emotion and broad themes. In this case, everything is about how wallowing in disappointment and regret is self-destructive, and if you can't explain just what the deal is with the Dust Witch (Pam Grier) that way, well, that's too bad.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nicolas Cage - Greatest American Actor: Raising Arizona, Valley Girl, Vampire's Kiss

Sadly, I didn't get to as much of the Brattle's "Nicolas Cage - Greatest American Actor" series as I would have liked to; the weekend just did not make it easy to see the stuff I would have enjoyed seeing for the first time (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) or again (Snake Eyes) as opposed to the stuff I don't really need to see again (Con Air and Face/Off). This selection of early entries, though, worked pretty well for me. I'm never going to love Raising Arizona like all the other movie lovers, but Valley Girl and Vampire's Kiss both became oddball favorites; they've got goals that they go for, and you've got to appreciate that.

And while Ned and the other folks at the Brattle likely have their tongue a little bit in cheek at this series's title, it's not at all hard to legitimately love this guy. It actually kind of surprised me when my brother Matt said Cage was a turn-off when he was looking at a movie's cast, because as much crud as he's been in in his time (and, oh, has he been in some crud), he seldom gives less than a full effort. He's hugely entertaining even in stuff like The Rock, or when making that first Ghost Rider movie fun to watch through sheer force of will.

That's why it's pretty sad that he has, of late, been doing stuff that seems pretty much direct-to-video quality because he needs the money to pay back his debts. Sure, the occasional Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans gets tossed in there, but it's not nearly enough.

Speaking of which, that closes out the series on Thursday, as a double feature with the remade Wicker Man - which, apparently, is misunderstood by his lights - a few years after it came out, someone asked him in an interview about how he felt about being in one of the great unintentional comedies, and his reply was "unintentional? how could you think I did any of that by accident?" Which is kind of why I love the guy - he can give the kind of performance that wins awards in Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, but he knows when to go big in a different sort of movie, and he has fun when he can.

So let's all meet up Thursday and see two of his bigger recent roles - one of which I love, and one I suspect I will.

Raising Arizona

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

Raising Arizona is the sort of movie that appears early in a lot of filmmakers careers, as they do all the weird scenes and unconventional camerawork that they've had running through their heads since they first picked up a camera and got an idea of what it could do. Most get more conventional afterward, and the Coen brothers did too, but no so much; they've mostly become better at being quirky.

It's not like they were bad at it back in 1987; they just needed some practice. Granted some of the most memorable scenes, like Hi trying to wrangle the Arizona quints in the beginning and the Snoats brothers yelling for no reason as they escape from prison or get in a car, might have been cut for really making no sense when you get right down to it. It's a weirdly distancing sort of aesthetic, with the narration seeming to allow the audience fairly deep into Hi's head but everything else just kind of coldly peculiar. Even the big dollop of sentiment at the end is kind of chilly.

Fortunately, as a comedy, it mostly works. The jokes are weird, but they're generally pretty funny. The Coens are able to go big with their slapstick, and they've got a cast that can handle the eccentricity of these characters well enough. There's nothing there that isn't kind of gleefully deranged, which is as it should be.

And yet, somehow, this just doesn't connect to me. I can see that everyone involved is doing a good job, I'll smile fairly frequently, but for some reason, it just doesn't make me laugh the way it seems like it should and the way its reputation implies it works for others. I wish it did.

Valley Girl

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

Valley Girl is kind of great because it just is what it is without any irony whatsoever - a movie about a teenage girl in the early 1980s torn between the outsider she likes and the guy who fits in with her crowd. There is absolutely no winking at the audience, subverting the formula, or revealing anybody as not being what they appear to be. It's a teen romantic comedy that is going to live and die entirely on sincerity.

And, believe it or not, it works. There's just a tremendous amount of charm to almost every single performance, especially Deborah Foreman as Julie, the title character, and first-billed Nicolas Cage as Randy, the Hollywood "punk" she falls for (not that he's a terribly confrontational or destructive punk; he's the sort of bad boy who, minus the leather jacket and plus a comb, would be totally acceptable). There's a few winking references to Romeo & Juliet here and there, but part of what works is that despite being complete opposites, both have a great everyman quality to them. They both do heartfelt and funny equally well - Cage's reactions as he hides in a shower while all manner of things go down in the bathroom are a special highlight.

(Another great thing about that scene - the producers of this movie had a mandated minimum number of topless scenes much like their descendants enforce a cap on f-bombs, and yet director Martha Coolidge makes it feel casual and realistic instead of forced.)

The cast is also surprisingly deep. Julie's three gal-pals are individually interesting, even the one that mainly exists to sleep with her boyfriend, whom Michael Bowen makes a bigger jackass for how effortlessly it seems to come. Her hippie parents are fun. Cameron Dye, as Randy's wingman, is underused but pretty good himself. Writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane make subplots that could feel like mere digressions work.

And, yes, the movie is dated - wonderfully so. It's easy to laugh at the girls' San Fernando Valley slang (before cringing at how much "like" has infiltrated everybody's speech since), or the early-80s fashions, but it's also actually really cool that these things actually differentiate kids the same age growing up a half-dozen miles apart. The punks stick out at the Valley party, and Randy mocking how Julie speaks puts their different worlds into sharp relief. That sort of distinct regional subculture just doesn't exist today except as caricature or along ethnic lines, and while that's likely an inevitable result of mass media like this here internet, part of it's deliberate, with studios not wanting movies to be strongly tied to a specific time or place.

Valley Girl will have none of that, and that's part of why I love it.

Vampire's Kiss

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

And here is the utterly nuts Nicolas Cage performance we came to the series for. More than anything else in the series thus far, this movie serves as a delivery system for his particular brand of crazy. Cage gives his Peter Loew a downright peculiar accent and an unusual combination as snobbishness and nervous energy. It's not exactly likely that another actor would have made it a nail-biting, dramatic thriller, but how many other guys with his profile would recognize that this movie needs to be deranged?

Not many, I don't think. And it really is exactly what this movie needs; "subtle" or "realistic" would just mean spending a couple of hours in the company of a complete prick. Instead, every moment is one just amazing sequence after another, with Loew never becoming anything close to sympathetic but always at the very least interesting and entertaining just from observation; writer Joseph Minion doesn't need to supply background in order to make it work.

And director Robert Bierman makes this into a pretty entertaining movie around Cage's performance. One thing I really loved is the way that the opening shot (among others) makes Manhattan look like a haunted castle, and not just because he and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky catch it just before gentrification hit; it's a genuinely otherworldly environment.

Makes for a nifty movie.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Not my initial plan for Sunday morning, but who'd'a thunk a 10am screening of something that played a year ago would sell out? But, hey, this doesn't make a bad plan B at all, especially for $6 at the early show.

A couple things I really liked that didn't entirely fit in the review: I mentioned that I liked the feeling of a seaside town after tourist season, which reminded me of York Beach, Maine, where we used to have family (still may, although it'd be second cousins at the closest). It's amazing how those places change once Labor Day passes.



... I kind of loved the way it ended. As it went on, I found myself a little disappointed by how grounded it was, because, honestly, I love the idea of someone so passionate about something that he or she did the impossible in response, and it impressed me quite a bit that this movie got there without feeling like it was selling the rest of the story out. And, honestly, I loved the time machine they built. Design-wise, it's just a beautiful example of steampunk-influenced mad science even though it isn't self-conscious about it. It looks good but also much less concerned with aesthetics than the typical steampunk construct.


So, good stuff. I just wish I could remember the actual sci-fi book that I know starts with almost the exact same hook. I swear I read the same description in a blurb from the Science Fiction Book Club when I was a teenager, but now, well, good luck trying to search for that sort of thing on Google without getting a whole bunch of Safety Not Guaranteed as a result.

Or I might be mistaken. After all, if this was as direct a lift as my (dodgy) memory says, you'd think someone would have spoken up. On the other hand, if this was a golden age story - which seems pretty likely; the "bring your own weapons / safety not guaranteed" angle certainly seems much more like that sort of 1920s-1950s adventure tale than this sort of indie movie - the original author may not be around, the book may be out of print, and whoever has the rights might not even know he/she has them.

Safety Not Guaranteed

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2012 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

The title of Safety Not Guaranteed comes from a classified ad that one character places, inspired by a real-life posting along the same lines; I'm pretty sure I recall seeing it as the hook to a science fiction adventure novel as well. That's not exactly the direction this movie takes, which is fine; it makes its offbeat premise work a lot better than you might expect.

That classified ad, claiming that time travel is possible and its inventor is looking for armed backup for his first trip. This attracts the attention of Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), a writer at Seattle Magazine, who sells his editor on it as a story, and so he goes up to Ocean View with two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). A little investigation reveals that the ad was placed by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who works in a supermarket and seems pretty eccentric. And while Jeff gets sent away when he tries to answer Kenneth's ad - which is fine; he's mostly looking to hook up with an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) - Darius and Kenneth connect. But is he a harmless crackpot, or a real cause for concern?

Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow aren't playing things particularly coy here; each of the three main characters has something in his or her past that drives their actions. Sure, Kenneth is the one who claims to be building a time machine to roll back his regrets, but what Jeff's doing is the same idea - he's just trying to go back to the place where things made sense physically rather than temporally. Darius, despite being the youngest of them, is too cynical and wounded to believe that things can get better.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 15 June 2012 - 21 June 2012

Every week, I talk big about catching up on stuff at the Kendall (or elsewhere) that I've missed, or hitting a repertory program hard, but this week I mean it - no Japanese class, no baseball tickets, and Hollywood is not exactly supplying great alternatives.

  • So, let's start off with what's going on at the Coolidge. Two movies open, with Peace, Love and Misunderstanding splitting screen #2 with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle in the video room. Cape Spin! is a documentary on the much-contested attempts to build a wind-power facility off the coast of Massachusetts - famously opposed by the liberal Kennedy family, among others. Directors John Kriby and Robbie Gemmel will be on-hand for the 7:20pm shows on Friday and Saturday.

    The special screenings, let us say, define a wide range. With the print for their planned "Summer Camp" feature gone missing, the midnight screenings this week are of Women's Prison Massacre, which they're offering up for free Friday and Saturday night. On the other end, Sunday morning features an encore presentation of last year's National Theatre Live presentation of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. This week, Cumberbatch plays the Creature and Miller plays Victor; a screening on Monday the 25th will have the roles reversed. Monday night has a special multimedia presentation, A Trip Through Strawberry Fields - Deconstructing the Beatles, in which Scott Freiman uses audio and video clips to demonstrate the Fab Four's enduring popularity on the occasion of Paul McCartney''s birthday. And on Wednesday the 20th, there will be a special preview of Pink Ribbons, Inc., a documentary on the marketing of breast cancer research; it will be followed by a panel discussion.

  • Across the river, the Brattle continues their Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor series with some more recent but still bizarre movies, many collaborations with pretty impressive directors. Friday has him in David Lynch's Wild at Heart; Saturday is a double feature of Con Air and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; Sunday is a twin bill of John Woo's Face/Off and Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes; Tuesday is Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kauffman's Adaptation; and Thursday has him in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man. Note that Saturday's schedule is a change from the original calendar, with Con Air's times changed and Ghost Rider 2 replacing The Rock (why they could get a print of one mid-1990s Bruckheimer film and not another, I don't know).

    In between, there are a couple special events. Monday night is the DocYard presentation of Low & Clear, featuring a pair of one-time friends who find that they've grown apart over the years. It won an audience award at SXSW, and will be presented (along with an episode of monthly documentary short series "Sparrow Songs") by directors Tyler Hughen, Kalil Hudson, and Alex Jablonski. On Wednesday, the local entries in the 24 Hour Film Race 2012 will screen, with the best representing Boston in the next phase of the competition.

  • Over at the Kendall, the one-week booking goes to Whore's Glory, a documentary by Michael Glawogger that examines the lives of prostitutes around the world; it's the third part of a trilogy on the effects of globalization. The other two new releases will also play at Boston Common, and both are independent comedies. Lola Versus features Greta Gerwig as a woman whose fiancé leaves her just weeks before her wedding, leading to adventures in self-discovery. Adventures of a different sort may be on tap in Safety Not Guaranteed, in which a man (Mark Duplass) claims that he has discovered time travel and three magazine writers answer his classified ad in search of a good story.

  • Also opening at Boston Common, as well as Fenway, Somerville, Harvard Square, and Fresh Pond, are Rock of Ages and That's My Boy. The former is an apparently much-changed adaptation of a stage musical scored with 1980s hits that stars Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta as would-be rock stars caught up in the world of Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Paul Giamatti in supporting roles. The latter features Adam Sandler as a twerp who fathered a child as a teenager that has somehow made something of himself, so of course he shows up to be a pain in the neck when the son (Andy Samberg) gets married.

  • This weekend's tribute series at the Harvard Film Archive is Jack Clayton, Between Innocence and Experience. It's a pretty impressive-looking series, though, featuring a number of vault prints and several entries gaining current attention for reasons other than just the films themselves. The schedules includes Room at the Top and The Innocents on Friday, The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother's House on Saturday, Something Wicked This Way Comes (followed by his short "The Bespoke Overcoat") and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne on Sunday, and The Great Gatsby (projected digitally) on Monday.

  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues the Roxbury International Film Festival through Sunday, with screenings of films by, for, and about people of color also playing at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and at Northeastern University. Then, on Thursday the 21st, they open three movies that will rotate timeslots for the next week - Lost Bohemia; Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, and Payback.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has more concert films on hand, with Monterey Pop on Friday and The Rolling Stones: Some Girls, Live in Texas playing on Wednesday. Saturday night they have a double feature of two independent horror movies, The Muse and Panman.

  • The Bollywood opening at Fresh Pond is Ferrari Ki Sawaari, which stars Sharman Joshi as a father who must steal a legendary cricketer's Ferrari in order to give his son a chance to play at the Lord's Cricket Grounds. Wackiness, presumably, ensues.

My plans? Nic Cage stuff, Frankenstein (I've seen it with Cumberbatch as Victor and Miller as the Creature, so the other way around sounds nifty), Safety Not Guaranteed, and maybe Something Wicket this Way Comes. Plus the usual BS about catching up that I would have seen a month ago if I were really excited for them, of course.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 4 June 2012 - 10 June 2012

Summer reading update: Good Luck, Yukikaze was really a long slog to get through, its neat ideas hampered by characters without personality and prose that feels the need to say everything three times (rule for writers: if you're writing "something, something said a different way; in short, something!", choose one!). False Negative by Joseph Koenig is a pretty nice new entry from Hard Case Crime, a character-centered noir with clear affection for the pulps and detective magazines that are its forebears. And about a halfway through The Future is Japanese, I'm enjoying most of the stories, even if much more of it is Americans writing science fiction about Japan rather than Japanese sci-fi.

But, onto the movies!

This Week In Tickets!

This baseball team. Two games with Jon Lester pitching, two where the Sox seemed to be in it, two which were ultimately disappointing. I'd been really hoping that the first one would be the start of things in the AL East getting back to normal, but apparently the Orioles fans are going to continue to feel frisky.

I had hopes for Double Trouble, too, especially since it's not hard to see Jaycee Chan's father Jackie when looking at him, and he's got some share of his dad's charisma, but the movie winds up feeling terribly bland. It's got opportunities to be weird or kinky or exciting, but only occasionally really lets its characters run.

That's not an issue with Madagascar 3, which I actually liked quite a bit. Even for a movie about anthropomorphic zoo animals trying to get home to Central Park from Africa, it gets very goofy early and rolls with it. Honestly, Noah Baumbach should just stop writing movies about pompous, self-centered humans and keep going with the talking animals. Especially if he's the guy who has one of them sort-of-smile when it looks like Sacha Baron Cohen's character has fallen to his death (I'm with you there, Maurice).

Surprisingly, Madagascar 3 wound up taking the box-office crown, which isn't really vindicating but is kind of unexpected, as all the talk last weekend was about Prometheus, and, well...


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2012 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, IMAX 3D)

Sort of funny thing: I read a few tweets complaining that Noomi Rapace's character, though written to be religious, doesn't seem like any sort of religious person the writer had met. I don't know if I disagree, but I do find it kind of amusing, because as soon as she spouts something along the lines of "it's what I choose to believe", I'm thinking that she's probably a lousy scientist.

She's not the only one; this movie feels like it was made by people who learned archaeology from Indiana Jones and evolution from that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that explained why everyone in the galaxy looked like a human in make-up. There's also a sad lack of wonder and excitement in this movie - even if FTL travel and terraforming do become something approaching routine eighty years from now (I'm doubtful, myself), you'd think that mankind's first encounter with extraterrestrial life would have at least one scientist a little excited - and if it's not, you'd think someone would mention this.


But, no, not really; heck, Logan Marshall-Green's character goes on a bender because he doesn't get all the answers right away. Me, I'm just kind of upset that Ridley Scott and company took one of the most memorable designs from Alien and decided that what was underneath was basically just a bald guy. There's something both arrogant and disappointing about that; what Prometheus does is the ultimate "created in His image" riff, but they never really get into that, so why not give us something as imaginative and showstopping as Giger's Alien at some point?

There is an attempt toward the end - something so tentacly and filled with toothy maws that I idly wondered if Scott were going for a "your search for God has led you to Lovecraftian Old Ones" riff - but it's too little, too late. I must admit, I was also hoping that Charlize Theron's Meredith would pop up during this scene; it seems tremendously illogical - not to mention unfair - that both she and Shaw appear to get squashed like bugs by a falling spaceship, but somehow Shaw survives a little longer, apparently out of pure protagonist power.


That said, it's still a movie that falls into the "worth watching once on the big screen" button. Michael Fassbender has a great take on the robot/AI who is right on the cusp of being truly self-aware, and the cast of him, Rapace, Theron, Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, and Guy Pearce (even under a crazy amount of makeup), is more than convincing enough to make this often-ridiculous script convincing. Ridley Scott has a great eye (both for visuals and collaborators), taking to stereoscopic photography naturally and making the action scenes work better than what's around them. It's a fun time, especially on an eight-story screen with buttkickers under every seat so that a spaceship launch shakes the auditorium.

($12.75 at Jordan's Furniture, people - way cheaper than what AMC and Regal are charging and T-accessible if you don't mind spending some time on the bus.)

Expectations hurt it a little - Alien is a tough thing to be compared to, and the hype of being the smart summer sci-fi movie with Big Ideas is just a mite undeserved: When you get right down to it, Prometheus sort of falls into the same trap as all of the other Alien sequels and prequels, taking something strange and surprising and diluting it by making it something more familiar. That may be James Cameron making the aliens into large hive insects, this movie's disappointing revelation of the Space Jockey, or the weak origin it postulates for life on Earth. The scale is grand, but the imagination certainly isn't.

Disappointing Bonus BaseballDouble TroublePrometheusMadagascar 3And Harper didn't even play until the end

Monday, June 11, 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Wow, there's only about a dozen reviews for this on IMDB, which is surprising, because it opened on a bunch of screens and played at Cannes last month and it's a pretty good movie, not the sort that would usually be hidden from critics. I realize that all the online press corps was concentrating on Prometheus this past weekend, and it's easy to snark on DreamWorks/PDI's track record, especially with Pixar hanging around and this being a second sequel, but... Man, we can have tunnel vision, can't we?

And, honestly, it might be time to give DreamWorks/PDI (does anybody but me still remember PDI before their logo comes up at the end of a DreamWorks movie?) a little more slack. Yes, they are very commercial; they played the Shrek "make an unconventional setting like a modern city" meme out badly with Shark Tale, Bee Movie, and, honestly, some of the later Shrek stuff - heck, arguably with the Madagascar series as well. But they've also done the genuinely terrific How to Train Your Dragon and the quite spiffy Kung Fu Panda movies. They've got a distinctive voice, and while it might be nice to see them do something a little more challenging - their early cel-animated stuff was at least unique, if too Disney-like - they are not bad at what they do at all.

And I've got to admit, I was kind of impressed with the ending of this:


Remember how DreamWorks pushed Shrek Forever After as a final chapter a couple years ago? They didn't do that here, but the funny thing is, Madagascar 3 actually brings the series to a pretty solid conclusion, coming full circle to where the series began at the start of the first and showing how the animals' horizons have grown since then. It's the sort of thing that they could have easily gotten another sequel out of, but it works pretty well here. I especially like the very upbeat attitude the movie has on the whole idea of growing up and leaving home - that Alex and company have outgrown the zoo is not a reason for sadness or melancholy, but excitement: They can do amazing things, see the world, and make new friends! And it's not even about them being where they "belong" in Africa - they go there and leave; the entire world is theirs now!

I mean, that's great, and a couple of things that strike me about this. One is that this is a theme that shows up a lot in the later Toy Story movies, but sort of around the periphery; we feel a little bit of the heartstring-tugging as Andy gets ready to go to college, but it's sort of a side thing, there to add some gravitas but not really the main thrust of the movie the way it (sneakily) takes that position here.

And, second - how cool is it that New York City/Manhattan winds up playing the part of the small, limited place that the characters outgrow? That's just awesomely cheeky casting against type!


In short: I like this a lot. There's a good chance that I like it more than Prometheus, which got all the 3D big screens and hype this weekend. But, man, is that a discussion for tomorrow...

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2012 in Arlington Capitol #4 (first-run, RealD 3D)

Given how popcorn film series have a tendency (and almost a need) to get more outrageous as they go on, it's no surprise that the line which best sums up Madagascar 3 comes from Skipper the Penguin (voiced by co-director Tom McGrath): "No brakes? I like the commitment!" It starts out as off-the-wall as its predecessors are at the end, and keeps going with reckless energy.

It's been a while since the penguins took off for Monte Carlo, and their friends from Central Park Zoo - lion Alex (voice of Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (voice of Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith), and giraffe Melman (voice of David Schwimmer), along with lemur friends King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), and Mort (voice of Andy Richter) - suspect they're not coming back. So they follow, but their plan gets them noticed by Monaco's top animal control officer, Captain Chantel DuBois (voice of Frances McDormand), who has always wanted to bag herself a lion. How does a group of wild animals on the loose in Europe escape? Well, there's this run-down circus that also has its eyes on New York...

Gag-wise, the start is not exactly promising, as it turns out that old-age makeup gags are even lame with CGI cartoon animals, when there's no actual old-age makeup. Once the movie gets to Monte Carlo - which it does with far more speed than explanation, which, honestly, is appreciated - it goes for gleeful slapstick right away, upping the ante on absurdity every minute or two, mixing in banter that's just as fast-paced as the physical comedy. Even when the movie slows down a little toward the middle, its jokes still hit at an impressive rate of success, still doing things that will likely make adults grin without hurting the momentum for kids. DuBois, in particular, is a wonderful invention; a villain as broadly funny and ridiculous as the talking animals who is still an adversary worth watching out for.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Double Trouble

I've got to say, I was hoping for a lot better from this movie, but, well, you know how it goes - not really actively awful, but always the sense that they could have put a little more effort into it. Like I say in the review, Jackie Chan made movies based on thin, treadworn premises all the time, but there was never any question that he threw himself into them whole-heartedly. Here, I just kept seeing things with potential that don't get started.

Double Trouble

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

There's not a lot of creativity present in Double Trouble; it's basically MacGuffin + mismatched partners + colorful henchmen (well, henchwomen, in this case). That doesn't have to be a bad thing - star Jaycee Chan's father Jackie made a career out of movies that can be described that way - but there's got to be a little more effort put into it than Double Trouble manages.

Ocean (Xia Yu) is a security guard from Beijing on vacation in Taipei; Jay (Jaycee Chan) has the same job, but at the National Museum there. A 400-year-old national treasure is about to go on display, and it's targeted by international art thief Z (Vivian Dawson) and his sidekicks V (Christina C) and M (Shoko). The heist leaves Jay the fall guy, Ocean tagging along, and his new fiend Jane (Deng Jiajia) being pursued by the folks with the single-letter names.

Double Trouble should be nuts; it's got a ridiculously intense museum security guard, girls who do cat burglar stuff in stiletto heels, patriotic gangsters, and more. But director David Chang (and the writers whose names I didn't catch) seems to have no idea what's entertaining and what's not. For instance, there's not a single scene with Ocean's tour guide (Chan Han-tien) that's actually funny, but the movie keeps going back to him and his stupid American Idol-equivalent jokes, but does it do anything with the kinky twist on alpha villains and underlings we see with Z, V, and M after it spends half a minute introducing them? Nope. Jay is a security guard who talks about going on missions, but that bizarre level of dedication is almost never touched upon. That wouldn't be a particularly original set of gags, but it would be entertaining, as would finding any sort of role for Deng Jiajia's Jane, who is pretty and likable and seems to catch the eye of both Jay and Ocean and has does absolutely nothing that affects the story at all.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 8 June 2012 - 14 June 2012

Remember how I speculated last December that IMAX and Paramount had Mission Impossible 4 open a week early on the giant screens to avoid creating a logjam with Tintin? You've got to wonder why the various studios didn't try a maneuver like that this week and next (I mean, really - what sad IMAX screen is going to bump Prometheus for Rock of Ages next week, and which ones are choosing to run Madagascar 3 this weekend?).

  • Maybe I'm wrong, and Prometheus isn't the big dog I see it as this week. Ridley Scott, prequel to Alien, spiffy cast, shot in native 3D... Even the folks who are disappointed seem to be saying it's pretty good. It plays at Jordan's in Reading, the Arlington Capitol, Harvard Square, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including the Imax-branded screen), and Fenway (including the RPX screen), with all of them also having some 2D shows.

    Subtract the furniture stores (and moving down to the "normal" screens rather than the premium ones), and that's where you'll find Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. I tend to think the series is one Sacha Baron Cohen-ectomy away from being pretty darn good, and this one could wind up pretty off-beat with Noah Baumbach co-writing (I don't much like a lot of his output, but he did work on Fantastic Mr. Fox).

    Speaking of one of FMF, Boston Common also picks up a couple screens of director Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which also continues at Kendall Square and the Coolidge. They also open up Double Trouble, an action-comedy starring Jaycee Chan and Xia Yu as a cop and a tourist running down a stolen painting. Yes, Jackie Chan's son. The poster actually has him second billed after one "Jessica C" (who is, admittedly, gorgeous) and Xia Yu nowhere in sight. Still, looks like a lot of fun.

  • There's plenty of fun going on at the Brattle, although "fun" is probably not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the weekend's main event, Children of Paradise. It's a classic French film of intertwined romances, restored and apparently playing at its original 190 minute length (albeit via digital projection).

    It splits the screen from Friday to Sunday with Beyond the Black Rainbow, a trippy sci-fi pastiche of seventies/eighties sci-fi that is kind of chilly and odd, but which looks and sounds fantastic. I saw it at Fantasia last year and it's grown in my head since then, so I'm interested to see how it is on a second viewing. It plays 9:45pm shows and midnights on Friday & Saturday (also digitally).

    Starting Monday, things get fun on film, with Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor repertory series, which happily focuses not on his lauded performances but the nutty stuff, starting with a double feature of Valley Girl & Raising Arizona on Monday/Tuesday and Vampire's Kiss on Wednesday. It takes a brief break for a live music & comedy show (The Union Square Round Table) on Thursday, but has another week afterward.

  • Half the screens at Kendall Square turn over this week, with many of films having nice ensemble casts. Hysteria, for instance, features Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ruper Everett, Felicity Jones, and Jonathan Pryce in a comedy about the inventor of the vibrator in Victorian England. Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding has Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Elizabeth Olsen, Catherine Keener, Jane Fonda, Kyle MacLachlan, and Katharine McPhee about a family that runs the gamut from lawyer to hippie getting together on the grandmother's farm. Bel Ami has Robert Pattinson as a man rising in Paris society by seducing women including Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Holly Grainger.

    For those looking for something a little bit different, there's Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou in its native French) with Jean-Paul Rouve as a mystery writer drawn to the apparent suicide of a woman who believed she was a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. It's a one-week booking, and apparently a comedy/thriller hybrid.

  • The Coolidge keeps the same movies on the marquee, but changes up the special presentations. The midnights over the weekend are a rare 35mm print of the original uncut Friday the 13th; it plays Friday and Saturday in the main theater. Sunday features two special presentations: The Goethe-Institut presentation of The Sandman (about a man who apparently generates sand as he lies in bed) at 11am and "Womanimation!" at 2:15pm, a locally curated collection of short films made by women around the world. On Monday, Boogie Nights plays the main screen as part of the Big Screen Classics series, while Thursday features a special preview of documentary Stranglehold: In the Shadow of the Boston Strangler.

  • The MFA continues their Global Lens Film Series all week, with screenings of Craft (Brazil), The Prize (Argentina), Mourning (Iran), Fat, Bald, Short Man (Colombia), and Toll Booth (Turkey). They also have four more screenings of We Still Live Here, and Thursday marks the Opening Night of the Roxbury International Film Festival with The Last Fall, with director Matthew Cherry on hand to present his film about a one-time football player settling into regular life when he gets one extra chance at his dream.

  • The Harvard Film Archive has the second half of The Anarchic Imagination of Alex Cox, with Cox on-hand for the Friday and Saturday shows - Straight to Hell Returns (a modern pastiche of spaghetti westerns featuring Elvis Costello, Courtney Love, Dennis Hopper, Joe Strummer and more) and Searchers 2.0 (in which two actors seek revenge on a writer). His Three Businessmen plays Sunday night, alongside his student film "Edge City", while there's a second screening of Highway Patrolman on Monday.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has a pretty good line-up of music-related films ("Sound Cinema") this week. The Wrecking Crew (a documentary on a legendary group of studio musicians in the 1960s and 1970s) pops back up again on Saturday for two shows, while Wednesday features a special screening of D.A. Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Thursday is two featurettes by Pennebaker, "SHAKE: Otis Redding at Monterey" & "Jimi at Monterey" celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival (Monterey Pop will play Friday the 15th)

  • The Somerville Theatre doesn't open anything new this weekend, but they do shuffle the line-up a bit, picking up Headhunters and Where Do We Go Now? from Kendall Square. They also have the monthly All Things Horror show in the downstairs screening room on Friday, featuring "The Grotesque World of Robert Morgan" as well as two other short films.

My plans? Double Trouble, Prometheus at the furniture store, some baseball, a couple of Nic Cage films, and if I can fit them in, Madagascar 3 and some stuff at Kendall Square. Yikes, but it's going to be a busy week.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 28 May 2012 - 3 June 2012

You know what both the sparseness of this page and the relative lateness of this post should say?

This Week In Tickets!

"Catching up on some reading."

I won't lie, as much as I love doing this blog and writing reviews and such, it's been pretty cool to leave my personal laptop at home and just tear into books on my commute. Last week, I knocked off both Christa Faust's Choke Hold and Greg Rucka's Queen & Country: The Last Run in little over a day each, and have worked my way to about the midpoint of Chohei Kambayashi's Good Luck, Yukikaze. And seeing how the shelves of unread books in my house are right there with the shelves of unwatched movies, this is kind of a good thing.

Not that it was really a bad week, just one where my exits from work didn't really sync with a lot of movies starting and what I did see was middling. Crooked Arrows was how I spent a warm Memorial Day morning before throwing some beef on the grill, and it was an amiable sports movie about an underdog Native American lacrosse team that was so non-confrontational that you could tell it had been produced by the Onondaga Nation and a group of lacrosse enthusiasts. Battleship is an adorably literal and sincere movie, but you kind of have to inject a little metatextual awareness to enjoy it - part of the fun is observing how the filmmakers handle the challenge of making a straightforward action movie out of a completely abstract board game without getting all self-parodying. And Elena is some spectacular craft that could really use a nudge toward being a more conventional thriller; it spends the first half demanding close observation but not giving the audience something to apply that observation to.

(Aside - apparently there's a Boston Online Film Critics Society now, and I wasn't invited. Part may be that I'm a non-pro not really seeking to make this a job; part may be that I do things like talk about how much fun a goofy action movie made from a board game is while an award-winning Russian drama could stand to be more of a thriller.)

Oh, one other thing - I watched the first 2/3 of Hatfields & McCoys, and it probably says something that when my DVR screwed up on part 3, I wasn't hugely distraught about not knowing when there's be a re-run. It looks nice and is another decent collaboration between Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds (with Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Tom Berenger, Jena Malone, and a pretty good cast all around), but I don't know if there's really four and a half hours of story. Interestingly, it does feel like one long movie rather than something with two cliffhangers or clean breaks, but I wondered if it could maybe have been two and a half - still epic-sized, but not so much like a box score.

One thing I did think while watching it: It's a crying shame for Kevin Costner that he only gets to do a Western (or something like it) every five or ten years, and that he never really embraced playing villains. I mean, he had a good run for ten years or so, but he became a somewhat generic movie star when he could have carved out a great little niche.

Crooked ArrowsBattleshipElena

Monday, June 04, 2012


I almost led off with something along the lines of "Elena is slow" - and I do go there later in the review - but opted not to, because the slowness, in and of itself, isn't my real complaint about the movie. Plus, "the guy who doesn't like slow movies" isn't exactly a pigeonhole I want to inhabit, no matter how well the pattern seems to fit.

Still, as much as I liked Elena, at least through the first half, it does take its time, and is in fact the sort of movie where, if I had been wearing my watch, I might have taken notes of when it started and when the first line of dialogue or noteworthy action was. The opening scene is really astonishingly static, a single shot of the branches outside the apartment, which stays held with no music, camera movement, or activity until a sparrow comes to perch for what is probably just a minute or so but seems like an eternity.

Something kind of funny happens with the audience here, actually - the audience remains as quiet and still as the image, even as the scene shifts to another quiet scene. And then, as soon as there's not just a bit of dialogue but some actual background noise, you can hear everybody who got something at the concession stand quietly take a bite or sip. After all, the audience at the boutique house knows how to behave, but those of us who hadn't had dinner were also all kind of hungry.

(Well, most knew how to behave; the elderly couple just behind me would not stop loudly whispering to each other. Man, seniors can be just as bad as teenagers!)


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, 35mm)

There's a certain type of story that appears in magazines devoted to mystery and suspense which doesn't really present much of either, but instead strips all the plot away and focuses tightly on what the pressures on one character are. They're usually rather short - the writers do that one thing and get out. Elena is sort of like those stories, but drawn out to feature length and not quite compensating for the lack of a narrator with its excellent craft.

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in a fancy apartment in Moscow, each on their second marriage, and each with a child from the first. For Elena, it's Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), who lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and sons; Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) spends her father's money but doesn't talk to him much. Elena would like Vladimir to pay her grandson Sasha's college tuition; he doesn't feel any sort of obligation.

Though Elena was originally conceived as a London-set, English-language feature made for an international audience, it's very tempting and natural for an American viewer to read it as commentary on today's Russia. And, to a certain extent, he probably should, even if that's not completely the filmmakers' intent; even if writer Oleg Negin and director Andrei Zvyagintsev mean to create something universal, they're doing it with the haves and have-nots of a very specific place and time. The blunt cynicism frequently on display is a Russian tradition, although the particular class divisions on display a generation after the fall of communism have parallels in many other places.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

In Defense of Liking Battleship

Battleship wasn't my first plan for last night. I was going to go to the premiere-and-likely-only screening of a locally produced action movie, but I wound up running late because I was building the eFilmCritic page for the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival (I think 10+10 might have taken a half-hour on its own!), so by the time I got to Central Square, it was too late to get to the Regent Theatre in Arlington, and since I wasn't going to have gone out into the rain for nothing, I decided to see whatever was playing at Boston Common at a convenient time that I hadn't already seen. That wound up being Battleship.

(There was a whole bunch of stupidity on my part here, from not being a good judge of time from the start, to letting the people getting off the outbound train pass or dawdle in front of the door without just cutting through, to forgetting my umbrella on top of the fare vending machine so that I paid two fares because exiting and re-entering was cheaper and more convenient than buying a new umbrella. That is to say, seeing this movie could have been the capper on a night of me being very dumb.)

That I was looking at NYAFF stuff not only set me on the path to seeing Battleship, but also offered a reminder of why I perhaps shouldn't be completely cynical about it: One of the movies which I put in (and will likely see on a weekend trip to NYC for the fest) is Takashi Miike's Ace Attorney (NYAFF description here), what looks like a dead-on live-action adaptation of a quite frankly absurd Nintendo DS game. It's not the first goofy concept like this that I've made a beeline for coming from Japan, so why shouldn't I run toward Hollywood movies that come from similarly mercenary places, especially if they've got similarly good people involved?

Understand - having Peter Berg, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, et al, doesn't elevate this thing; it's still a great heaping bunch of stupid that winds up being entertaining in large part because everyone involved commits fully to the idea - they're not trying to make something that transcends being based on a board game, and they're not winking at the audience about what a goofy idea the whole thing is. They're making what they hope is an entertaining action/adventure movie while staying true to its source.

And while it's not sneering at itself, it perhaps does take a bit of irony and distance to really enjoy this thing. Part of what's enjoyable is seeing how director Berg and writers Erich & Jon Hoeber translated bits of "Battleship" to the big screen in very visible ways, and they call just enough attention to it for the audience to recognize the source and note that it works better than you could possibly expect. While I smirked a little at the aliens having five ships fall to Earth in the opening, I legitimately loved their peg missiles, and when a ship winds up with a whole line of them across its broadside and then explodes? Well, I felt sorry for the characters, sure, but I grinned. It's just so charmingly literal, as is the last act where Asano's Captain Nagata introduces a way to make the thing into a grid so that he and Taylor Kitsch's Lieutenant Hopper are barking out letter-number combinations for the missiles to fire at.

Of course, there's a whole movie around this, and a lot of it has the same sort of charm. The opening is kind of idiotic, but the particular brand of idiocy seems familiar to the characters, and there's something agreeably goofy about how Brooklyn Decker's Sam does, in fact, appreciate the burrito Hopper gets for her enough to go out with him. The filmmakers love their military people - especially veterans, wounded, retired, and otherwise - but it doesn't come off as either defensive or aggressive. They just show them as capable, dedicated men and women without griping that civilians don't understand or the brass holds them back. Heck, they have a Japanese officer playing a major part in action scenes involving a WWII battleship at Pearl Harbor and don't make a thing about it.

That is, honestly, kind of weird, and I wouldn't necessarily argue with people who see that as something that should perhaps be acknowledged. I, personally, think it's kind of a rebuke to those who say Battleship is Michael Bay-ier than actual Michael Bay movies - no way Bay doesn't seize on that for cheap, tacky conflict/sentiment - but the other side is very easy to see. In between the fun, charming bits, there are a lot of times when the filmmakers are just going through the motions: They've got some of the least imaginative aliens since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air, clearly just stand-ins because having any human nation as an antagonist would be bad for business (counterpoint - except North Korea, but the filmmakers slyly note that as absurd). The bit about Hopper asking Sam's father for permission to marry is a creaky plot device with no cleverness to it at all, and the idea that Hopper could be an officer within a year or two of enlisting and yet still be considered a screw-up just doesn't sit right.

Enough is dumb without having charm that I can't imagine myself actually buying Battleship on Blu-ray unless the price drops to five bucks, but enough is simple fun that I do tend to think that the hatred thrown at it is more the result of resenting the idea behind it than actually judging the movie on its own merits. Yes, there are almost certainly better ways to spend a couple hundred million dollars. But I'm not spending a couple hundred million; I'm spending ten, and for that money, I get a big action/adventure movie with a likable cast, decent action, and just enough cleverness to distract from a lot of stupidity.

Seen 2 June 2012 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)