Thursday, August 30, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 31 August 2012 - 6 September 2012

For some reason, Hollywood tends to punt Labor Day weekend, figuring everybody is busy barbecuing or moving into dorm rooms or otherwise busy, so there is very little new coming from that direction this weekend. But, fear not - we in Boston get some really cool stuff from other quarters absolutely worth checking out!

  • Let's start out with the two movies from China opening at AMC Boston Common: The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate opens on the Imax-branded screen in 3D after a brief bit of concern that it might get lost in the release date shuffle, even after Indomina made such an effort to find it a window. In stars Jet Li, who reunites with his Once Upon a Time in China director Tsui Hark in a great big special-effects/action extravaganza that word out of China says is one of the best uses of 3D in an action film. Should be a treat. A few screens over, The Bullet Vanishes opens just a couple weeks behind China; it features Nicolas Tse and Lau Ching-wan as mismatched detectives in the Holmes/Watson mode investigating a murder at an ammunition factory in the 19th century.

    And even if you don't see those movies, remember that they are taking up screens that could have gone to The Oogieloves, which doesn't open in Boston despite the big standees that have been perplexing audiences for weeks. Mainstream theaters do open The Possession, a horror movie formerly known as "The Dybbuk Box", that has interesting people involved: Sam Raimi as a producer, Ole Bornedal directing, Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan on-screen. As the titles suggest, it's about a girl possessed by a nasty piece of Jewish folklore, and is hopefully better than the sneak-into-theaters release date would suggest (Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common are the theaters snuck into). Lawless opened on Wednesday at Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway; it's got a pretty nice cast for its story of the Bondurant Brothers, West Virginia gangsters during Prohibition.

  • Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and Boston Common all open For a Good Time, Call..., featuring Lauren Miller and Ari Graynor as girls who hated each other in high school, become roommates through chance, and start a phone sex business together. Miller co-writes and apparently helps bring in a nifty supporting cast (Justin Long, Seth Rogen, Mimi Rogers, Ken Marino, Kevin Smith, and more have at least cameo parts). That's an oddly wide opening for a movie that seemed way under the radar a month ago.

    The midnight movie at the Coolidge is American Psycho; Mary Harron's cult favorite adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel is on the big screen Friday and Saturday. Also playing the big screen: Jaws, Monday at 7pm, as a "special screening" as opposed to being part of "Big Screen Classics" (which probably means members pay). Also, make sure you check what screen something is playing on this week; Robot & Frank bounces between film and video while the main screen is used for a Sunn O))) concert at 10pm on Tuesday and an "NT Live" broadcast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at 7pm on Tuesday.

  • It's even a quiet week at the Kendall, which shuffles some screens around to fit in For A Good Time, Call... and Sleepwalk with Me while only closing 2 Days in New York. Sleepwalk, at least, isn't bad, a fairly funny semi-autographical movie from writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia as a would-be stand-up comedian who starts to sleepwalk as the possibility of marriage to long-time girlfriend Lauren Ambrose looms. It opened IFFBoston back in April and was pretty good.

  • Over at the Brattle, Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli makes a welcome return - it played the MFA earlier this year - for a two week run. Princess Mononoke plays Friday (with an additional show on Monday); Saturday and Sunday are a double feature of Kiki's Delivery Service & My Neighbor Totoro; Monday features the relatively rarely-seen The Ocean Waves & Only Yesterday (also a twin bill); Wednesday has Whisper of the Heart and its sequel The Cat Returns; and Thursday is the most recent film in the series, Ponyo. Purists and parents should take note that some screenings will be in subtitled Japanese, while others will be dubbed into English; check the Brattle's website if this is important to you.

    You'll note Tuesday is missing from that list; that evening is the final night of the summer "Balagan Presents" series, and they close out with three recent short documentary films from Russia in celebration of the 80th Anniversary of the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio.

  • The MFA continues its rotation of documentaries Side by Side, Sushi: The Global Catch, and Better Than Something as well as Oslo, August 31st through the weekend. Note that while Sunday is the last day for Oslo at the MFA, it also opens at the Somerville Theatre on the date of its title for a one-week run. Better Than Something has one last show on Wednesday the 5th, at which point a new rotation, mostly films about conceptual artists starts: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Kumaré, and Free Radicals: A History of Independent Film.

  • The Harvard Film Archive continues to showcase how many great movies Paramount made in the past century: Friday night has A Place in the Sun (7pm) and The Big Clock (9:30pm); Saturday has Hud (7pm) and an eight-plus hour marathon of six pre-code movies at 9:15pm; Sunday features Desert Fury at 5pm and In Harm's Way at 7pm; and the whole thing ends with a 35mm print of Robert Altman's Popeye on Monday, because of course it does.

  • There's an unusual amount of second-run activity going on this weekend, too. Some of it is straightforward - 2 Days in New York moves from Kendall Square to one of the Coolidge Corner screening rooms, while The Expendables 2 slides from Somerville to the Arlington Capitol. Some of it is "about time", as the New England Aquarium picks up The Dark Knight Rises for evening shows on a real IMAX screen now that Boston Common is putting stuff on their Imax-branded screen. And Marvel/Disney try to goose the box office of The Avengers by opening it back up at Fenway and Boston Common.

    Choose your times carefully at Fenway - they'll be running The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, and The Dark Knight Rises on their RPX screen for $6 ($5 if you've got a rewards card), even with the first two in 3D, so for The Avengers and Batman, the price of a ticket on the big screen with the comfy chairs and excellent sound will be roughly half of seeing it on the other screens, even when they're playing at the same time!

My plans? Tons of Hong Kong action, Miyazaki, The Possession, maybe the pre-code Paramounts (if I can trust my DVR to record Doctor Who), and likely more. The only hitch I foresee is that I've got jury duty starting Tuesday, and who knows what that will do to my week.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 20 August 2012 - 26 August 2012

Busy! And potentially busier!

This Week In Tickets!

I had actually planned on going to two Red Sox games this week - even had a ticket for Sunday's game in one of my favorite places to sit (on the right field roof), but a combination of a little frustration at how the Sox were playing (which Tuesday's game only added to) and an invitation to my niece's birthday party which slipped through the cracks resulted in me skipping that and doing some last minute shopping on Saturday. Funny thing - when I was shopping for my 1-year-old nieces a month and a half earlier, I thought all the cool toys were made for 2-year-olds; shopping for Maisy's second birthday, all the neat stuff seemed to say "age 3+". Anyway, I didn't get to see the game (which, of course, they won, since I couldn't come), but I did see that this two year-old girl has a leg kick when throwing a ball (lefty!) from watching baseball with her dad.

Before heading to see the family, I hit up a few kung fu movies, and saw Robot & Frank after getting back. And then there are the two other indies I saw as well:

Searching for Sugar Man

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, 35mm)

Man, what a great little music documentary; maybe my favorite since Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was coincidentally also focused on forgotten musicians from Detroit. This one's got an extremely nifty hook: Everybody who worked with Sixto Rodriguez forty years ago felt he was one of the most brilliant songwriters in history, right there with Bob Dylan, but his two albums did nothing in the US. They were huge hits in South Africa, though, with his legend only enhanced by rumors of a gruesome on-stage suicide. Some Afrikaans music fans eventually decide to investigate the background of this enigma, and discover something surprising.

You know what I kind of love about this movie? The way it utterly dispenses with being interested in money and the music business fairly early on. Certainly, "follow the money" turns out to be an effective way to eventually find a path back to Rodriguez and his family, and there's an undercurrent of how it seems to be kind of unjust and suspicious that he never seemed to benefit from his success in South Africa, but the more we learn about the man, the less it seems he would be interested in such things, so while it would be an easy narrative and something where the filmmakers could get involved, we wind up with more about Rodriguez and the people he influenced.

It is, I must admit, kind of odd to hear how Rodriguez's music was influential in South Africa during apartheid almost entirely from the perspective of middle-class Afrikaaners; it's a valid perspective but naturally less compelling than that of the people who were actually oppressed. Still, the music itself is pretty nice, the animation and recreations used to evoke 1970s Detroit are atmospheric, and the story that develops over the course of the movie is a good one well-told. But most of all, it's unique; it's the rare music doc that doesn't seem to follow a well-worn path.


* * (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2012 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

There were ten of us in the theater for Cosmopolis on Saturday; three walked out and one took a bit of a break, and afterward, having stuck things out all the way through the credits, I figured I might be too stubborn for my own good. It's a thoroughly frustrating movie with brief, tantalizing glimpses of potential amid vast lakes of dull.

Take the scene with Samantha Morton (the movie really can be divided into "the scene with ____", as various people enter the limo Robert Pattinson's Eric Packer is using to slowly traverse Manhattan): It's kind of brilliant, with the two characters spouting economic theory inside this hermetically sealed luxury environment despite Morton's Vija not really knowing anything about the tangible things that make things happen as a riot rages outside the windows. It's a brilliant little encapsulation of where the nation stands, but it's in the middle of a sort of wasteland - most of the episodes on either side of it are just raw econobabble that stands no chance of hooking the audience, and Packer remains an utter cipher all the way through. That's not a knock on Pattinson - he plays this oddly inhuman person in a way that's entirely believable - just an indication that screenwriter/director David Cronenberg or original novelist Don DeLillo couldn't find nearly as much interesting material in the situation as they thought.

The real frustration here is that Cronenberg seems to have the raw materials for something but can't get nearly the results he wants from it. There's a nifty score by Howard Shore with songs by Metro, Sarah Gadon (whom it seems is a favorite of Cronenbergs pêre et fils) is strikingly icy as Packer's wife, and you really can't go wrong with the great character actor who pops up for the end and combines with Pattinson to elevate a deadly dull sequence into mediocrity.

Yes, that's the harshest damning with the faintest of praise, but that's what this movie inspires: The simultaneous envy of the people who cut their losses and left and appreciation for the scattered bits you get to see anyway.

Searching for Sugar ManAnother Red Sox lossThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin & Snake in the Eagle's ShadowThe Young Master & Shaolin TempleCosmopolisRobo & Frank

Kung Fu Weekend: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Snake in Eagle's Shadow, The Young Master, and Shaolin Temple

I love Films at the Gate. I've mentioned this before, right? But it bears repeating: It's one of the Boston area's coolest events, with the nice properties of being free, specific to its community, and distinctive. The night I saw The Young Master, I think there were about five other free outdoor movies playing at various points around Boston (pretty spiffy in its own right), but all of them were sort of consensus classics that you can likely see with better projection at the Brattle or Coolidge once a year, which can't be said about these.

That said, I kind of wish I'd hit Chinatown on Thursday as opposed to the Brattle; I have yet to see Master of the Flying Guillotine (the Gate film), but was tempted by the 35mm in Harvard Square versus the projected DVD. It turned out to be a bit of a trade-off; the print of 36th Chamber was fairly red, at least for some reels, and Eagle's Shadow looked nice but was dubbed (and not even with Jackie Chan's voice!).

As cool as it is that the turnout for this has become large enough that the vacant lot really isn't large enough anymore, it's kind of disappointing that, in my experience, this sort of crowd doesn't seem to come out when Chinese movies play the mainstream theaters. To a certain extent, I get it - a lot of folks in Chinatown don't have huge amounts of money, and the closest movie theater (AMC Boston Common), while it does pick up Chinese movies every once in a while, is also the most expensive. There's a good chance that they'll be playing two Chinese movies this coming weekend - the Imax 3D presentation of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and the day-and-date release of The Missing Bullet, but matinee price on regular movies is $10, and an evening ticket for Flying Swords is $18! Given that, I'm not surprised that attendance is often sparse, and when something does stick around for a second week, it's often for one show in the cheap $6 "AM Cinema" slot.

You know what would be really cool, though? If next year, one of the companies trying to do theatrical releases plunked down a small sponsorship and included one of their movies, especially if it's something due out on video soon that might not have played Boston as part of its release. I'm thinking specifically of Starry Starry Night from China Lion, although both Indomina and and Well Go have had stuff only play NYC/LA as well. Or we could get really crazy and ask the Weinsteins to let Dragon or Reign of Assassins or the like out of their vault...

Heck, even if China Lion just put together a trailer package for upcoming movies like The Missing Bullet and Bangkok Vengeance, they could help a couple of community programs a lot and get promotion for their fall slate. It's certainly worth thinking about for next year, I think.

Anyway, more about the movies themselves - it was kind of amazing to watch these four movies, which covered roughly five years, and see how radically kung fu movies evolved over that time period. 36th Chamber is a classic Shaw Brothers Shaolin Temple movie, very much following the injustice-training-revenge template, very much a show piece for star Gordon Liu, but often just as much about athleticism and technique as really telling a story with the action. Then come the Jackie Chan movies, with Jackie moving away from both the Shaws and Bruce Lee with his comedy kung fu. In addition to seeming a lot less stagebound than the Shaw stuff, the martial arts here really seems to come from the character rather than shape him. Then after that you get Jet Li, takes the naturalism Jackie Chan and his group (including Sammo Hung an Yuen Biao) introduced and increased the brutality of it

As much as we know what Hong Kong action is, it's amazing how a relatively short period of time transformed it so strongly.

Shao Lin san shi liu fang (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (International Ass-kicking, 35mm)

Shaolin Temple movies just don't care about traditional dramatic structure, do they? Or maybe it's different between East and West, but it's hard not to get the feeling that if 36th Chamber were remade in America, Gordon Liu's San Te would demonstrate more personal growth through the movie, rather than mostly "leveling up". There would be a chance for him to forsake personal revenge even as he served justice.

For better and worse, though, this really isn't that movie; it's much more about martial technique than Buddhist philosophy. That's cool enough, though; Liu and the various monks he spars with are quite good at that, and there's an enjoyable perseverance in San Te's attempts to best his masters. The big fights toward the end are enjoyable too, even if they do involve suddenly recruiting a whole bunch of new characters.

Of course, that's the case when San Te arrives at Shaolin Temple, too; 36th Chamber occasionally feels like bits of three different Gordon Liu movies stitched together. Not such a bad thing, really, especially as long as you're there for the fights.

Se ying diu sau (Snake in Eagle's Shadow)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (International Ass-kicking, dubbed 35mm)

Ah, it's naive young Jackie Chan, working and living in a martial-arts school that treats him poorly because he's inept at fighting, at least until he befriends a secret kung fu master who teaches him the snake style, making him a target because the practitioners of the eagle style want to eliminate it due to some multi-generational feud.

A goofy premise, but let's face it, fans still have trouble with people who enjoy the same thing in different ways. I, for instance, think the people who enjoy dubbed martial arts movies because they like laughing at things that seem low-rent are monsters for a variety of reasons, but I shouldn't begrudge them the fun they were having with this screening. After all, treating the filmmakers' with respect wasn't going to make Eagle's Shadow a particularly intelligent, multi-layered film compared to the excuse for slapstick and fights that it is.

And it's tough to deny that "slapstick and fights" are things that Jackie Chan and director Yuen Woo-ping do very well. Both Chan and Yuen Siu-tien are fun to watch fight; they project personality amid the punching and kicking as well as anybody has ever done. And there are some moments that are just enjoyably bonkers, such as when the Russian missionary (Roy Horan) is just the first of what seem like countless Eagle-clan agents. There's a joyful sense of abandon even while the technical work is very impressive.

Shi di chu ma (The Young Master)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2012 at Chinatown Gate (Films at the Gate, projected DVD)

This is Jackie Chan's first film as writer/director as well as star, and, well, even thirty years later, Jackie isn't really outstanding as a storyteller. He can choreograph and shoot the heck out of a fight, but even for these movies, you need to do a bit more than that. The funny thing is, it's not Chan having trouble with the non-action parts that gives this movie its biggest issues.

Sure, the story meanders in somewhat sitcommy fashion, with Chan becoming a fugitive through a misunderstanding but having more comical misunderstandings with the police chief (Shih Kien), his son (Yuen Biao!), and lovely daughter (Lily Li) than intense chases. Even if The Young Master probably wouldn't work as just a straight-up farce, it's got a fun, pleasant set of characters that makes for a laid-back movie. Chan's not really a bad writer/director here - he doesn't ever forget where the story started as he strings action scenes together - but even for a martial arts comedy, things often feel very lightweight.

In fact, his biggest problem at times to be that he's too reliant on his action skills. Though there are a fair number of entertaining fight sequences here, the ones that bookend the movie both seem very self-indulgent: The lion dance competition at the start seems to need a little more context to justify its length and define the stakes, and the final battle with Whang Ing-sik's character seems like an eternity of Whang beating the crap out of Chan with shoehorned-in comic relief from Feng Tien; as impressive a marathon as the fight is, it kind of dilutes the good stuff.

Shao Lin Si (Shaolin Temple)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2012 at Chinatown Gate (Films at the Gate, projected DVD)

And we finish things off with Jet Li's first film, another take on the familiar Shaolin Temple story, although the storytelling, production values, and action choreography are wholly different and more modern-seeming than 36th Chamber, even if it was made less than five years later. It's an impressive-as-heck debut for Li; he's a fully-formed screen fighter and a decent, charismatic actor from the start.

But, wow, his Chieh Yuan character is kind of a jerk here, isn't he? Gordon Liu's San Te at least seemed to be somewhat absorbing the lessons of Buddhism, putting in the work, and convincing the abbots that there was merit in at least clandestinely/indirectly fighting against tyranny; this guy flouts the temple's rules, comes and goes when it's convenient for him, and brings violence and death down upon his benefactors for what often seems less like principle than his own personal feuds. There's one character constantly berating him for being ill-suited to this life, and the blood-soaked finale seems to prove him right more than proving Chieh Yuan noble.

This is the sort of thing that wouldn't really take that much nuance to fix, but that seems to be in short supply here: The production is focused on doing the fights well (which it does) and looking great. The first martial-arts film in decades to shoot in mainland China, and at the actual site of the Shaolin temple to boot, it's kind of beautiful, more than impressive enough to make up for its flawed characterization.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Robot & Frank and Fantasia catch-up

Today's tenuous connection between a current movie's review and Fantasia catch-up: I was really hoping to have made it far enough along in my review queue to be presenting my review of Robo-G alongside this one. They've got fun surface similarities - both feature old guys and robotics, although their stories are pretty far off once you get past that. Still, they've both got stars with the same sort of appeal in the title roles - Frank Langella and Shinjiro Igarashi/"Mickey Curtis" both have reached the thin, bald, but still physically active stage of their careers - and have robots that aren't all people want to believe they are.

Anyway, Robot & Frank is currently playing the big screen at the Coolidge as well as Kendall Square, and is worth checking out. It's smaller and sweater than a lot of its indie-film brethren, but that's a large part of its charm.

Of course, now that I look, I see that there is another robot-related movie in this set of catch-up reviews, Kim Jee-woon's segment of Doomsday Book. Similar designs, but ultimately opposite approaches. Anyway, this batch's catch-up for those who are just following new blog entries also includes Hard Romanticker, Nameless Gangster, Graceland, Quick, and The Human Race.

Robot & Frank

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

People often ask writers of offbeat or science-fictional stories where they get their ideas, but that's often the wrong question, since ideas are everywhere and one has to but pick up a paper or click on a website to trip over three or four. It's putting them together to make a good story that's tricky. For instance, the idea of using robots in elder care has been floating around for a while, though not nearly as long as the bored, retired criminal. The combination is what gets filmmakers on the road to Robot & Frank, but it takes Frank Langella and some other collaborators to make it kind of wonderful.

And some details, of course. Frank (Langella) is not just starting to slow down, but his memory is going. With his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) doing charity work on the other side of the globe and his son Hunter (James Marsden) five hours away, he's only getting worse. Thus the robot Hunter delivers one weekend, and though Frank wants no part of it, especially when he's talking to the town librarian (Susan Sarandon), he re-evaluates that when he discovers that its programming does not actually prevent it from breaking the law, and the robot could be a potential partner-in-crime.

It says a lot about Robot & Frank that I wonder if the main character was given his name because writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier saw Langella in the role from the very beginning. The part fits him like a glove, after all, even though it's often much more low-key than the intense performances he's best known for. There's bits that suit his theatrical background as he occasionally tells stories or exaggerates lies just enough for the audience to feel like a part of his schemes, and he's just crotchety and defiant enough to show how he can inspire both fondness and annoyance. It's the way he handles the character's memory lapses that are most impressive, though - rather than the befuddled stumbling some actors will do, making "good days and bad days" completely binary, Frank will slip into the past but still stay somewhat tethered to the present. It lets us empathize with his conviction that he can look after himself rather than just see him as someone who doesn't realize he's a problem to be solved.

Full review at EFC.

Doomsday Book

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Anthology film Doomsday Book does not quite end the world in three ways, as one might expect it to do. Even more interesting is that the contemplative middle segment comes from noted action director Kim Jee-woon, whose unusual restraint provides a nice breather between Yim Pil-Sung's two tales of apocalyptic mayhem.

The package starts with "A Wonderful New World", in which lab technician Yoon Seok-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum) is left behind when his family goes on vacation because he technically has a month left to his military service - and they stick him with the job of cleaning their filthy apartment, too. It could be worse, though; he's got a date with beautiful Kim Yoo-min (Koh Joon-hee), and things go pretty well! At least, that is, until something in the rotten apple he threw into the compost bin mutates (in a zippy montage) and makes its way back through the food chain in the form of a zombie virus.

It has to be an apple, didn't it, which knocks humanity another level down from paradise? As symbols go, it's oddly ambivalent: Maybe the residents of Seoul are returning to the savage state of grace that existed before the knowledge of good and evil, and does the crisis come from allowing the apartment to get so disgusting or by returning its products to the environment? That's for the audience to decide; in the meantime, Yim delivers a fun but somewhat scattershot piece. It starts out as a fun romantic comedy, with Ryoo making likably nerdy, put-upon lead who matches up surprisingly well with Koh Joon-hee's Yoo-min, and they keep that up once the horror elements start to pop up. Eventually, though, their story gets subsumed in the larger disaster, and their return isn't quite as satisfying as their introduction, though it does have a few nice moments.

Full review at EFC.

Hâdo romanchikkâ (Hard Romanticker)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Su-yeon Gu's Hard Romanticker is one of those movies that feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of anecdotes that don't necessarily add up to a story, but is able to more or less able to get by on those tall tales being entertaining and the guy at the center having some charisma. It seems a bit like a patchwork, but works a lot more than it doesn't.

The center of most of these events is Gu (Sota Matsuda), a hood in Shimonoseki, Japan of Koeran descent with a blond dye-job. He's not actually involved in the opening break-in, where teenage punks Masaru (Tokio Emoto) and Tatsu (Kento Nagayama) accidentally kill the grandmother of North Korean gangster Kim Chon-gi (Yuya Endo), but he knows them and is thus a convenient scapegoat when Kim starts asking questions. In the meantime, he's got Detective Fujita (Atsuro Watabe) asking him for intel, a schoolgirl (Ayaka Tomoda) with a crush on him, and older gangster Shoji (Claude Maki) asking him to guard a coin-locker key. He also gets an offer from yakuza-connected Takagi (Shido Nakamura) to help manage a club in Kobura, where he winds up crashing with hostess Natsuko (Sei Ashina).

With its detached, youthful protagonists, pervasive criminality, and emphasis on atmosphere as much as plot, it's easy to see a kinship between Hard Romanticker and the French New Wave, or to stay in Japan, Nikkatsu's "New Action" cinema of the 1960s. The jazzy soundtrack and somewhat grainy cinematography help set the atmosphere, but it's the attitude that matches it the most; characters may get violent at the drop of a hat, but there's a sort of passive, observational feel even then. People don't start fights; fights happen as these guys move through their lives.

Full review at EFC.

Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae (Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae) opens, at least in this English-subtitled version, with a definition of the word "daebu", which means "man of one's grandfather's generation" - or "Godfather". Give writer/director Yung Jong-bin credit for giving his mob drama lofty ambitions, even if its actual achievements aren't quite on that level.

Though the movie somewhat closer to the present day, the story starts in the 1980s, when Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a Busan customs official of only moderate corruption, though that's landed him with some merchandise he doesn't know how to sell and an internal investigation. This leads him to gangster Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), who it turns out is a distant relative, both being part of the Gyeong-ju clan. Hyung-bae does not initially appreciate this connection, having henchman Park Chang-woo (Kim Sung-kyun) deliver Ik-hyun a beating, but his father demands he show respect. So Ik-hyun is brought into the business, where his connections prove useful - especially once young prosecutor Jo Bum-suk (Kwak Do-wan) starts sniffing around.

There's a potentially interesting idea being played with here - that any enterprise with a certain level of ambition needs both doers like Hyung-bae and facilitators like Ik-hyun, criminal ones most of all. When things are going well for the Chois, this is actually pretty fascinating to watch, especially since it is all but inevitable that neither will truly appreciate the other's contribution. 1980s Korea makes for a good background, as well - it seems as though a capitalist economy under a military dictatorship gives the mob plenty of business opportunities and keeps overhead low with the necessary corruption nicely centralized, letting the Chois at times appear legitimate. It's good empire-building even for those who don't particularly like mafia movies.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Spotlight: Filipino Cinema, HD)

The easiest way to describe Graceland - a twistier, less philosophical take on Akira Kurosawa High and Low - maybe does it a disservice by making it sound like it is less than its potential. That's not particularly true; it's actually a pretty great thriller that makes its examination of larger issues so integrated that they don't need to be talked about; they inform every moment.

Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) has been the chauffeur for Filipino Congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias) for years, including taking him and the odd young lady to hush-hush assignations, like the one going on at the start. For all that loyalty, he gets no respect; Chango's wife Marcy (Marife Necesito) is frosty when Marlon's daughter Elive (Ella Guevara) is with him when he comes to pick up their girl Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod) for school (the girls, of course, are delighted to see each other). He's facing a pink slip as rumors of scandal start to get out, but much worse is coming: A kidnapper (Leon Miguel) pulls the car over and demands Marlon act as a go-between if either father wants to see his daughter again, which naturally makes the driver the prime suspect in the eyes of Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz).

It's tough to blame him; looked at from the outside, Marlon's got a whole lot of motive, and it's not long before he's on even more shaky ground. Just in terms of making a thriller, writer/director Ron Morales is really not messing around: Graceland has a brutal and efficient setup that puts a noose around its hero's neck early, and then relentlessly finds ways the make the situation worse without ever resorting out-of-nowhere events.

Full review at EFC.

Kwik (Quick)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 Action!, DCP)

Quick is, when you get down to it, a pretty stupid action movie that tries to camouflage this fact with raw speed. The filmmakers would likely have no argument with that assessment if given it directly, just asking how well they pull the action off. And they actually do all right. Very few things that can explode last the movie without blowing up, and practically no piece of glass remains unbroken. It knows what its audience wants and panders away.

Han Gi-soo (Lee Min-ki) is a wizard with a motorcycle, although after he and his pack caused a massive accident six years ago, he now works as a courier, dispatched to get things across Seoul faster than anyone else can. This day, his cargo includes a person - Ji Chun-sim (Kang Ye-won), his girlfriend back then who is now best known as "A-Rom" of OK Girls. But there's also a twist - a bomb in her helmet that will explode if it gets too far from the headset in Gi-soo's ear or if he doesn't make certain deliveries on-time. Of course, when those deliveries turn out to be bombs, Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok) and the rest of the police force are after them, including Kim Myeong-sik (Kim In-kwon), who used to hang out on the fringes of Gi-soo's gang and still has a massive crush on Chun-sim.

Is sending a dupe on a motorcycle around town to deliver bombs under threat of blowing up himself a convoluted plan, even before the coincidental involvement of an ex-girlfriend? Oh, yeah, especially since they are special miniaturized super-bombs, which means there are secret government, corporate, and mob angles. Honestly, the chart that the police work up for who may be targets and potential masterminds is more complicated than the ones you see in thrillers where the identity of the killer is the point, rather than a reason for chase scenes and massive explosions. To their credit, the filmmakers handle it pretty well; the solution to the mystery doesn't really matter, so director/co-writer Cho Beom-gu moves through them as quickly and smoothly as he can without them getting confusing.

Full review at EFC.

The Human Race

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

It's an obvious thing to say in a review, and probably everyone who writes a review of this movie will say some variation, but what the heck: The Human Race kicks a fair amount of ass even though its star only has the one leg. As almost obligatory as that comment is, at least it gets a low-budget independent movie into someone's head. Then they can watch it and discover that it's actually better than just a novelty piece.

Eighty people have been snatched up from a Los Angeles street corner in a flash of white light and placed on a path... somewhere. They include Veronica (Brianna Lauren Jackson), who has just learned that her cancer is in remission; amputee and veteran Eddie (Eddie McGee), who was giving an inspirational speech at the special-needs school where his friend Justin (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) teaches; immigrants like Gabriel (Fred Coury), Ting (Celine Tien), and her brother Shio Lau (Ian Tien), and more. Eddie's not the only one with a disability; two (Trista Robinson & T. Arthur Cottam) are deaf and an older vet (J. Louis Reid) moves even slower than he does. Their instructions are simple: Follow the path. Stray from it, and you die, with only certain buildings designated as safe zones. Get lapped twice, and you will die. Do this until there's only one of you left.

It's a viciously straightforward plot, but it's what writer/director Paul Hough does with it that makes it worth the audience's attention. Hough uses the high stakes to get at just what the people in this group are capable of, getting a broad enough cross-section that they can represent the larger audience fairly well. It runs the gamut between the expected cynicism and optimism with plenty of different gradations in between, and opportunities for characters to move back and forth along the scale. Even the disabled characters and others that would often be played reflexively sympathetic or as victims get to occasionally show their less altruistic sides.
Full review at EFC.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 August 2012 - 30 August 2012

While Hollywood has stretched the summer movie season earlier every year - I believe it begins in mid-April now - the late August/early September period still seems to be a dumping ground of sorts. There's some good-looking stuff coming out, some that is less certain, and some that is just bizarre.

  • But let's start with the fun! Films at the Gate starts Thursday the 23rd and runs through Sunday the 26th, with a different kung fu flick each night at 8pm, with short films and live martial arts and dance demonstrations beforehand. All films play outside, at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near the Chinatown Gate (nothing in the vacant lot this year), and cover 35 years of action from Hong Kong's biggest stars: "Jimmy" Wang Yu in Master of the Flying Guillotine on Thursday, Jacking Chan writing/directing/starring/choreographing The Young Master on Friday, Jet Li in Shaolin Temple (his first film!) on Saturday, and Donnie Yen in Ip Man 2 (which has a pretty great fight scene with choreographer Sammo Hung) on Sunday. Grab some takeout from a local merchant and have some fun!

  • The Brattle has their new schedule out (check it up, there's cool stuff), and wraps their previous one this week. They start out with a new 35mm print of Daisies, an absurdist Czechoslovakian film from 1966 "widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema"; it's got the screen to itself from Friday to Sunday.

    All sorts of series on the vertical schedule wrap up after that: Monday completes current DocYard series with director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco in town for Give Up Tomorrow, which documents the conflict between two women on opposite sides of a Filipino death penalty case. "The Story of Film" also finishes Monday and Tuesday with episode 15, which leads into Tuesday's double feature of Mulholland Drive and Inception (the latter of which also has a Monday matinee). The "Wordless Wednesday" feature sort of wraps "Recent Raves", as Hugo has certainly brought Georges Meiles's "A Trip to the Moon" back to the forefront; a newly-restored print plays with The Extraordinary Voyage, a 60-minute documentary that chronicles the restoration. And "International Asskicking!" finishes on Thursday with one of its most famous and influential entries, Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.

  • Across the river at the Coolidge, they open up Robot & Frank, which true to its name offers up Frank Langella as an elderly man none too fond of his new caretaker; the twist to this Sundance sleeper being that the caretaker is a robot and Frank used to be a cat burglar. It mostly plays the larger screen and also opens at Kendall Square.

    Also playing the large screen is the last of their "Terror-ble 2" shows, Psycho II, which might not be in the same ballpark as the original, but is a surprisingly clever inversion of it. It plays midnight on Friday and Saturday, as does Bronson, with Tom Hardy as the title character in Nicolas winding Refn's stylish story of Britain's most violent and outrageous convict. The large screen also has another "Big Screen Classic" on Monday, this week featuring Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (note that this is the last weekly screening; the series returns on September 24th).

  • In addition to Robot & Frank, Kendall Square opens the critically-acclaimed Compliance for its one-week booking; it's about a manager at a fast-food restaurant who is told that one of her employees is a thief and to detain her and is based on a real-life incident that demonstrated just how much people will defer to apparent authority. They also have Cosmopolis, the new film by David Cronenberg which stars Robert Pattinson as a Wall Street financier who watches his virtual world collapse even as things are going mad outside his limousine's windows. It also plays at Boston Common.

  • Aside from that, it's kind of a dodgy week at the multiplexes. The most promising opening looks to be Premium Rush, which seems to have received little attention despite a pretty capable writer/director in David Koepp and a decent cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon. It's a pretty straightforward chase movie, with a bike messenger picking up a mysterious package and being pursued through Manhattan, and plays the Arlington Capitol, Boston Common, and Fenway. The other chase movie opening, Hit & Run, actually snuck into theaters on Wednesday and features Dax Shepard (who also writes & directs) as a former getaway driver in witness protection who hits the road with his girlfriend and winds up chased by both his old gang and the feds. Fun supporting cast, too, with Kristen Bell, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, and Kristin Chenoweth. It plays Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    There's also a pretty generic-looking horror movie opening at Boston Common and Fresh Pond, The Apparition, with a poltergeist of sorts that becomes more powerful the more it's feared haunting a young couple. And for some reason, both theaters are opening 2016: Obama's America, even though I'd be kind of surprised if these conservative-leaning documentaries ever did very well in Boston.

    A few movies will try to get an extra jump on the Labor Day weekend next Wednesday, including Lawless, something called "The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure" (cue my brother telling me that his girls can't wait), and maybe sci-fi action/adventure The Day, which is distributed by WWE Films despite not appearing to have a single wrestler in the cast.

  • It's almost all Paramount's 100th at the Harvard Film Archive this weekend. Dark City plays Friday at 7pm (the 1950 film noir with Charlton Heston and Lizbeth Scott, as opposed to the other one); Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Warriors at 7pm and 9:30pm, respectively, on Saturday; "Cheat" with live piano accompaniment at 5pm Sunday, with S.O.B. at 7pm; and Days of Heaven at 7pm Monday. The only exception is El Bruto at 9:30pm on Friday, a story of class warfare that wraps up the "Buñuel's Mexico" series.

  • The MFA spends the weekend alternating screenings of two movies: Side by Side, Christopher Kenneally and Keanu Reeves's examination of the movie industry's transition from film to digital, and We Won't Grow Old Together, a reissue of Mauriece Pialat's 1972 film about a five-year romance between a couple with a 20-year age gap that has a number of break-ups and make-ups. On Wednesday the 29th, they keep Side by Side but otherwise start up a new rotation, with Oslo, August 31st - about an addict skipping a job interview to visit old friends - notable both for being much-acclaimed and being booked last-minute when its playdates at another theater fell through (it will also open in Somerville on August 31st, appropriately enough). Documentaries Sushi: The Global Catch and Better Than Something start on Thursday, with the directors of the latter (which spends a week with garage rocker Jay Reatard) on-hand for the Thursday & Friday screenings.

My plans involve some baseball (I bought these tickets back in January, so I can't give up), some kung fu, Cosmopolis, and Robot & Frank. I have never seen Reservoir Dogs, so I probably should get on that, too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 13 August 2012 - 19 August 2012

Quiet, quiet week, as I tried to get more movies off my "to-review" list than I added:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (seen in the living room)

Kind of surprised to see The Expendables 2 playing one of the even-numbered theaters at Somerville and The Campaign in the big one; is the latter really doing that well? Still, I was jazzed to see Lionsgate attached the preview for The Last Stand, especially since the studio seems to think director Kim Jee-woon's name is worth mentioning. Of course, they did the same with Ryuhei Kitamura for Midnight Meat Train and wound up burying it, though I doubt they'll do the same Arnold's big return.

Saturday was, in theory, kind of movie-related, as the Red Sox were advertising that the annual "Futures at Fenway" doubleheader (wherein two of the Sox' minor league teams play a doubleheader at Fenway Park, giving them a chance to play on the big league field and the fans a chance to see games at a sometimes greatly reduced price) was going to be Star Wars-themed. Lucasfilm and MLB have been doing this promotion at various MLB parks throughout the year (and maybe last year as well), and my reaction has been on the lines of being glad the Red Sox didn't need to go in for that sort of gimmick, but, who am I kidding, I'd be all over it if they did. Add an offer from Groupon that made loge box seats available for $10 (well, closer to $15 once fees were included), and why not?

In actual fact, the Star Wars presence was very small, at least if you went to your seat and just watched baseball: In the first game, Darth Vader used the force to throw out the first pitch from the monster, Chewbacca announced the players in the 7th inning, and there were some themed trivia contests. An episode of The Clone Wars played between games. The second half had a bit where Wally and Vader sort of dueled with lightsabers, and though that was sort of cute, I kind of don't want to see Vader and stormtroopers clowning around with Wally. It's an amusing joke every once in a while, but see enough, and these guys become parodies of themselves.

Plus, man, this has not been a good year for the Red Sox. They won against the Yankees in NYC that day, but back in Boston, what happens? Their first round draft pick for the year gets hit in the face with a line drive on his second pitch of the night. The important thing is that he heals up okay, but, man, if the Sox are going to have a lousy year, can't they just limit it to playing bad baseball? The injury and death is taking things too far!

(And, yes, that's my photo on the CBS Boston story. I tweeted it as it happened, and then they asked if I could use it a half hour or so later. I figure someone at WBZ did a hashtag search on Twitter and ranked the pictures they found, and then started going down the list. I wonder how many wanted to get paid or otherwise said no before they settled on the guy whose blog has a "horrible photography" keyword.)

Sunday's movie was ParaNorman; I missed it at Fantasia, and while I'd usually try and catch it at the Arlington Capitol, the 3D screening times didn't mesh with my schedule (when both they and Fresh Pond open a 3D movie, they're pretty good about not conflicting 2D and 3D showings with each other, a mixed blessing if you like the Capitol a lot more than Fresh Pond). I missed it at Fantasia, and kind of wish I'd been able to see it there; Laika and company seemed to put on a good show, and I would have liked the really big screen.

The Expendables 2

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, digital)

Here's another I wish I'd gotten to see on a somewhat bigger, more crowded scene, because this movie is all kinds of fun. Although it's got a few disappointing bits - the biggest being that Jet Li exits the movie before Jean-Claude Van Damme even shows up meaning we never get to see them fight - I get the feeling that this sequel has the benefit of knowing what it is from the start, while the first took a while to figure it out.

See, the first seemed to start life as a throwback to the kind of action movies Sylvester Stallone made in the eighties and nineties, but as it evolved, picking up more stars, the idea of getting all these guys on-screen at once became more important than what they were actually doing. In the end, nobody really remembered any of the action scenes (in part because Stallone got too enamored of shaking cameras and close-ups), but the scene of Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis bantering? That was fun!

So, for this one, we get a whole lot more of that. And it's still fun! It's like the All-Star Game, where you don't necessarily see a competitive game, but all sorts of favorites are on the field at once, having fun, with a dose of the Home Run Derby or Slam Dunk Contest - pure concentrated "good bits" with just enough set-up to get them. This time around, both new director Simon West and Stallone & his co-writers know that they're putting on a show, and make things as bombastic as they can while only occasionally going full-on into winking self-parody (and if you can't enjoy the banter Bruce and Arnold trade in the last big action scene, you may be missing the point).

It can be sort of hit and miss - at various points, I did kind of want it to be bigger and dumber - but I really do appreciate how it embraces what it is. A lot of credit should go to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Scott Adkins, for giving the movie villains that are worth hissing but who are also fun to have on screen. And Jason Statham, who picks up some of the martial arts slack with Li only around for the opening and gets some of the best lines. There's a lot of fun mayhem, more than enough to counter the desire that the movie be played straight.

The Expendables 2Futures at FenwayParaNorman

Monday, August 20, 2012

ParaNorman (2011) & some Fantasia catch-up

As mentioned before, I didn't get to see ParaNorman at Fantasia, despite being curious about the tech they'd be using to show it on a screen that otherwise doesn't show 3D movies. In a way, I'm really sorry I missed it; the beautiful attention to detail would have looked great on the huge screen in Hall and I gather the LCD shutter glasses used let more light in. On the other hand, I got to see it less than two weeks later and did get to see Sunflower Hour, so that's a win.

It's bizarre how Hollywood can go through spates of parallel creation, though - before this movie, there were previews for Genndy Tartakovsky's Hotel Transylvania and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which will be coming out roughly a week apart a month or so from now. And while they're both cool, I found myself fairly happy that ParaNorman was not exactly overloaded on Universal Monsters references. I mean, I like Universal Monsters, and you do, and they're easily recognized horror icons, but this really felt like Butler's and Fell's own thing, even though I'm sure Tartakovsky and Burton will put their own spins on their movies (because, being who they are, how can they not?).

There were standees and previews for both of those movies, along with Rise of the Guardians (which is just now starting to look interesting) and Life of Pi, which looks downright amazing.

Oh, and while I didn't see ParaNorman at Fantasia, I have gotten five more EFC: reviews done for movies I did see: Hemorrhage, Jackpot, Reign of Assassins, Resolution, and As Luck Would Have It. First few paragraphs and links below.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2012 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD 3D/Sony Digital 4K)

ParaNorman had a pretty great teaser, but what's really impressive is how it's both better than that preview and very much different than what might be expected. Where it really shines is in how, once it establishes its main character's talents and themes, it doesn't sell them out at all, even when doing so to give the movie a more conventional villain would be the easy way to go.

At times, its relatively non-confrontational heart will make the audience think that the movie lacks drama or story, and truth be told, it does at times move a little slowly, with an ensemble around the title character that is pretty dim all around. The thing is, though, that low-key approach is an integral part of the character - our first glimpses of Norman establish him as a pretty great kid, withdrawn in some ways but friendly and helpful when he can be. He's a kid who talks to the dead, and in doing so - and having the movie stick to it - he puts things on an interesting path.

The animation is also pretty phenomenal. It's good-looking stop-motion, sure, with the 3D used well if not in the most obvious way, but what directors Chris Butler (who also wrote) & Sam Fell and cinematographer Tristan Oliver do is really capture the aesthetic of a mid-century monster movie, Despite being very much set in the modern day, it's got a Hammer feel to it, with a very filmic look, like the 24fps speed isn't quite perfect. There's an emptiness and run-down nature to the town of "Blithe Hollow" that fits beautifully, and a genuine love for scary movies that doesn't run counter to its good nature.

Some parents and their kids left the movie early, compalining about it being scary. It is, at times, for really little kids. But I kind of wish they had stuck it out, because the movie is one of the most truly committed to showing how kids shouldn't be scared, and the way to deal with things that scare them isn't just to counter-attack. That impresses me; the movie may have had to trade a little energy for that, but it's smart, fair, and rather upbeat as a result.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012, HD)

We're probably healthier as a society for not throwing terms like "insane" or "crazy" around quite so much as we used to. It's not always the case in the movies, where simple homicidal maniacs are often the norm, and that's what makes this slow-burner from Alberta interesting: Its main character is even more horrified than the audience.

Oliver Lorenz (Alex D. Mackie) is not well, and probably never has been. Top of his class at Harvard Medical School and the son of another brilliant doctor, he has been in a mental hospital for the last six years for his crimes. One of his doctors (Diane Wallace) has successfully argued for a supervised release, and that's how he comes to be working as a janitor in a clinic and meets Claire (Brittney Grabill), a pretty young nurse. Dr. Peck warns him that he's probably not ready for that sort of relationship, and events soon prove her right, sending Oliver (with Claire in tow as a hostage) across the country to look for his father's notes, which he is sure contain the secret to curing his condition.

Many stories focusing on this sort of serial/spree killer tend to boil things down to an inciting incident, or paint the person in question as a simple monster. Or he's an antagonist where the cops chasing him can at best hope to discover patterns. Writer/director Braden Croft, on the other hand, is careful about always framing Oliver as mentally ill; he's not a freak or subhuman, and though his condition leaves him not just capable of doing horrible things but prone to it, he certainly seems smart and decent enough most of the time that locking him up forever would be a waste. He's rational and humble enough to face his demons, and the arguments for him certainly seem more reasoned than the ones against him at the start.

Full review at EFC.

Arme Riddere (Jackpot)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 Spotlight Denmark/Norway, HD)

So, it looks like I'm going to have to start putting Jo Nesbø stuff in my Amazon basket, as any guy who comes up with the raw material for both this and Headhunters is my kind of darkly funny. Proper credit must also go to Magnus Martens, though, who took the original story and made a fast-paced, very funny movie out of it.

You've got to feel sorry for that carful of obnoxious boors whose names we never learn - just arriving at the Pink Heaven strip club when suddenly everybody starts shooting. When Detective Solør (Henrik Mestad) and his partner Gina (Marie Blokhus) arrive, only Oscar Svendson (Kyrre Hellum) is alive. Fortunately, Oscar is happy to tell his story - see, the factor where he works hires a lot of ex-cons, including Dan Treschow (Andreas Cappelen), newly-released Billy Utomjordet (Arthur Berning), and Oscar's old friend Tor Eggen (Mads Ousdal). They can't gamble, so Oscar places a bet on 12 soccer games - with some last-minute advice from bartender Trine (Lena Kristin Ellingsen) - that pays off big. As big as the prize is, it would cover some debts better if split fewer ways, these guys are criminals, and, you know, things happen! So none of this is really Oscar's fault!

Oscar claims not to be responsible for a lot. Despite running a swift 82 minutes, writer/director Magnus Martens packs in a great many betrayals, discoveries, unfortunate accidents, and difficulties in disposing of bodies, while also making the occasional jump forward to show Solør trying to untangle the mess. Martens could have padded Nesbø's story out to the ninety-odd minutes people often expect of features with some sort of wholly predictable story arc or set of character moments, but instead he lets things happen quickly enough that the characters don't really have time to stop and consider what they're doing logically, even as the present-day segments keep things clear and have a different sense of humor.

Full review at EFC.

Jianyu (Reign of Assassins)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

A popular game among festival attendees after Reign of Assassins (Jianyu) was to try and guess just which parts were worked on by "co-director" (and producer) John Woo. Certain elements of the action, certainly, although several pointed to Face/Off as a possible influence (having not yet gotten to see what a wuxia film that resembles Face/Off really looks like with Painted Skin: The Resurrection). As a result, we probably didn't give writer/director Su Chao-bin quite enough credit for a his fun action-romance.

Whoever's in charge at the start hits the ground running, with a "Dark Stone" assassin squad stealing half of a monk's corpse said to give incredible powers on the person who possesses the whole thing and killing the ones who possessed it. But "Drizzle" Xi Yu (Kelly Lin) betrays her comrades Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) and "The Magician" Lian Sheng (Leon Dai) and their master Cao Feng (Wang Xueqi), the "wheel king". Xi Yu has surgery to change her face - she looks older, but also like Michelle Yeoh, so it's not so bad - and moves to Nanjing to live a quiet life as merchant Zeng Jing, eventually meeting a nice courier, Jiang A-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung) and settling down. But when Dark Stone traces the other half of the corpse to Nanjing, they reassemble the squad with black widow "Turquoise" Ye Zhanqing (Barbie Hsu) in Xi Yu's place and barrel into town in a way certain to upset Zeng Jing's happy new life.

And there's more - this is the sort of movie so packed with glorious crazy that the backstory and opening theft of the monk's corpse could be mistaken for the synopsis of a previous movie, even though that film doesn't actually exist. There's all kinds of crazy weapons, improbable if not downright anachronistic drugs and medical procedures, loopy plot twists, and fighting on well after any normal person would be dead. It's a larger-than-life fantasy in all the familiar ways, and some unfamiliar ones as well.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Resolution gave me the creeps, and while it's easy to dismiss that as just what horror movies are supposed to do, take a minute to think of how many of the last ten you've seen genuinely did so - and I don't just mean jumping, I mean making you feel nervous. Now, how many of those movies were able to be kind of funny without selling their intent to scare you out? And how many of those were able to even awkwardly subvert recent genre tropes?

Not many, I'll wager. Those are things that often find themselves at cross-purposes, as cleverness requires breaking down what you're watching in a way that run counter to instinctual fear and humor can counter any momentum the movie has away from the audience's comfort zone. And, to a certain extent, that does happen here on occasion; compared to other movies of its ilk, its movement from an interesting hook to really being scary is a bit slow. But directors Justin Benson (who also writes) and Aaron Moorhead always remember to prioritize being scary over the other stuff.

What is that hook? It involves Michael Danube (Peter Ciella) receiving a video from Chris Daniels (Vinny Curran), his oldest friend, that shows drug addict Chris spiralling further into self-destruction, which spurs Michael to travel out to the sticks to try and get Chris clean - whether he likes it or not. And while Chris is genuinely a mess, he's also living off the grid and it's tough to see how he could have sent Michael an email. Michael shrugs that off, keeping Chris handcuffed to the wall and dealing with whoever comes to the door, whether it be drug dealers Billy (Kurt David Anderson) and Micah (Skyler Meacham) or Charles (Zahn McClarnon), the owner of the house where Chris is squatting (on Native American land, no less) - at least, until more unnerving pictures, stories, and videos start showing up on various media.

Full review at EFC.

La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, 35mm)

Is Álex de la Iglesia getting a little soft as he ages? Though he's not credited with the screenplay here (nor is frequent collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría), it still seems a bit surprising that de la Iglesia, given material with such satiric potential, would not so much pull his punches as focus on the more sympathetic aspects of the situation. The result is still a very entertaining movie, if not exactly the one people might expect.

After a failed attempt to find a new job, Roberto Gomez (José Mota) impulsively drives to the hotel in Cartagena where he and his wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) went on their honeymoon, only to find it's no longer there; the ruins of a Roman colosseum were found on the site and it's been replaced with a museum. Wandering into a restricted area, he falls into the dig site, impaling his head on a rebar pole. Though he can't be moved, he's surprisingly lucid; while the museum directors (Blanca Portillo & Juan Luis Galiardo) try to figure out how to get their opening back on track and a doctor (Antonio Garrido) attempts to treat him in place, Roberto calls an old colleague to get representation in the form of Johnny (Fernando Tejero); he wants a bigger audience (and payday) than local reporter Pilar Alvarez (Carolina Bang) can offer.

It's impossible to read the description of this movie and not think of Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, only with the parts of the reporter and trapped miners merged. Looking at As Luck Would Have It as a remake or updating of that movie will likely lead to disappointment, and not just because Billy Wilder's movie is a classic. As much as the idea of media feeding frenzies and news as packaged entertainment are as relevant today as ever, it's actually almost too relevant; such activities are so much a part of the landscape as to make satire difficult. Director de la Iglesia and writer Randy Feldman take a few good rips at the media and the way it distorts everybody's behavior, but that's arguably not the film's main focus.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 August 2012 - 23 August 2012

Hey, looks like a fun week at the movies coming up, including some quality festival catch-up and an event that makes me smile every time.

  • I have no regrets about not seeing ParaNorman at Fantasia; I knew it would be getting a wide release within a couple of weeks and Sunflower Hour. So I'm looking forward to seeing this stop-motion animated comedy-adventure about a kid who can see ghosts being the only defense the world has when all hell threatens to break loose. It plays at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway in both 2D and 3D, and I'm kind of surprised that so many prime slots are going to 2D - these guys did Coraline, so good 3D is a legit selling point.

    I guess that's to leave more screens for The Expendables 2, which brings back pretty much the whole cast of the first and then some (not a lot got expended, I guess). I'm guessing lots of big dumb action and stuff blowing up, and I'm cool with that. It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common. Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common also open Sparkle, with a young woman trying to become a star in Motown-era Detroit. It's noteworthy for featuring the late Whitney Houston as the mother.

    The Odd Life of Timothy Green opened at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway on Wednesday; it has a couple unable to conceive discover a magical child. Boston Common opens Celeste and Jesse Forever, a well-intentioned but frustrating drama featuring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg as a divorcing couple that is having some trouble letting go; it also plays Kendall Square. Fenway has a TMC digital presentation of Singin' in the Rain on Wednesday the 22nd.

  • The other two films opening at Kendall Square are pretty good, though, and both played IFFBoston earlier this year. 2 Days in New York is Julie Delpy's follow-up to 2 Days in Paris, and features her and Chris Rock as a Manhattan couple raising children from previous relationships, with Rock playing the straight man as Marion's family visits from France. Also arriving from France is The Imposter, a fascinating documentary that tells the story of a Frenchman in his twenties who pretends to be a missing American teenager returning to his family. It pulls off the nifty trick of becoming a mystery once it's put all the facts on the table, and is only scheduled for a week, so go see it!

  • Oh, film schedulers, why do you torture me with things scheduled opposite each other that force hard choices? Films at the Gate starts on Thursday with Jimmy Wang Yu writing, directing, and starring in Master of the Flying Guillotine, aka One-Armed Boxer vs The Flying Guillotine, a signature role that makes his appearance in Dragon (release this, Weinsteins!) all the more cool. It's a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and many others, and begins four nights of films shown in a vacant Chinatown lot and the nearby greenway with live martial arts and lion-dancing demonstrations beforehand. So, of course, it's the same day as the Brattle having a great kung fu double feature at the Brattle as part of their International Asskicking series: Gordon Liu in 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Jackie Chan in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, a 1978 picture directed by Yuen Woo-ping.

  • Before that, the Brattle has Restless City playing Friday to Sunday, a story of African immigrants in New York City falling in with criminals and falling in love. It's apparently noteworthy for not having an outsider character for audiences to latch onto and being shot beautifully. After the sun goes down, it's an H.P. Lovecraft Birthday Tribute for the horror icon: A double feature of cool locally-made pastiches The Whisperer in Darkness (done in the style of an early talkie) and The Call of Cthulhu (done as a silent) on Friday (with FX guy Dan Novy doing Q&A in between), The Dunwhich Horror on Saturday, and John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness on Sunday. Unfortunately, being unable to get a print of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond, means the Friday and Saturday late-night shows are cancelled. And if you can't catch the Lovecraft double feature on Friday night, it also plays the Regent Theater at 7:30pm on Monday the 20th (the actual date of Lovecraft's birth).

    After that, the vertical schedule continues. The Monday/Tuesday double features with The Story of Film are My Own Private Idaho and Starship Troopers (an odd twin bill, to be sure!), with no DocYard or Balagan screenings to bump them. Wednesday's Recent Raves screening is Whit Stillman's long-awaited return, the witty Damsels In Distress. And, as mentioned, Thursday has some quality International Asskicking from 1970s Hong Kong.

  • The Coolidge gets Searching for Sugar Man a week after the Kendall; it plays in the video rooms. The midnight show on Friday and Saturday is Critters 2, continuing a series of perhaps under-appreciated sequels from the 1980s. And Monday's "Big Screen Classic" is The Wild Bunch, in its uncut 35mm glory.

  • The Harvard Film Archive keeps on as it was: Single showings of Jean Renoir'sGrand Illusion from Friday to Sunday. 100 Years of Paramount Pictures the same days, with Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero Friday at 7pm, Jonatahn Demme's Citizen's Band Saturday at 9:30pm, and a Veronica Lake double feature of This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia Sunday at 7pm. A Buñuel's Mexico screening of A Woman Without Love on Monday.

  • Over at the MFA, the UCLA Festival of Preservation wraps up on Friday with Cecil B. DeMille's 1935 version of The Crusades, with the rest of the schedule not beholden to any particular theme: Come Back, Africa, a 1960 documentary on Apartheid, on Friday and Sunday; On the Bowery (followed by "The Perfect Team", a documentary on making the realist 1956 drama), on Saturday and Thursday the 23rd; and Side by Side, a documentary by Christopher Kenneally (with Keanu Reeves, of all people, conducting interviews) on the move of the movie business from film to digital, which will continue occasional screenings over the next few weeks.

My plans? A fair amount of baseball, ParaNorman, Expendables 2, maybe getting to some of those things I've been meaning to catch at Kendall Square, and Thursday night kung fu, though I'm not sure whether I'll go for Chinatown's atmosphere or the Brattle's 35mm prints.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) & some Fantasia catch-up

Tying Hara-Kiri to Fantasia catch-up is kind of thin, but not absurdly so; as I joked when seeing the Fantasia and Brattle schedules a couple months ago, with each having different and mutually exclusive Takashi Miike movies during the same three-week period, it's gotten to the point where Miike is making so many movies so quickly that it literally is impossible to see them all. Fortunately, the streaming services have this one, and Amazon was just recently offering a $3 discount on streaming/download purchases of $3.99 or more, so what the heck?

I'm curious to hear how it looked to people who saw it either in theaters or on VOD (whether Amazon's or others). I found the picture very dark, and while it's possible that this is just the movie's style, I have my doubts. This was shot in 3D to be exhibited in that format, and remember the issues people had with Brave? This was much dimmer than that. Maybe it's something in my connection (Amazon -> Toshiba laptop -> Toshiba projection HDTV), but it's not the first time it's been an issue.

Completely separate streaming issue: Comcast is being a pain about me streaming the shows I missed while in Canada, doubly annoying because a large factor in my missing them is that the CableCard in my DVR hasn't been picking up data for months. I suppose it's time to bite the bullet and just get one of the cable company's, but, man, that feels wrong to me.

Anyway, while trying to catch up on TV, I've also been catching up on my Fantasia reviews for EFC, sneaking links back into the original "Fantasia Daily" posts. If you missed those, here's what I've done so far: Juan of the Dead, Gyo, Wrong, Zombie Ass, The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle), Dead Sushi (maybe I should have pulled Robogeisha off the shelf for a Noboru Iguchi theme), Mitsuko Delivers, The Victim, and Punch.

Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2012 in Jay's Living Room (theatrical rental, Amazon streaming)

Hara-kiri seems like an odd choice for a 3D remake - it features far more sitting around and dueling with subtle turns of phrase than it does swordplay - but with Takashi Miike in the director's chair, one figures that the film will be transformed into something strange and exciting. Shockingly, it's not, and despite hewing close to the previous version with plenty of talent on-hand, this version (Ichimei) doesn't manage the alchemy that made Masaki Kobayashi's version (Seppuku) a classic fifty years ago.

The retainers in the prosperous house of Ii roll their eyes when ronin Hanshiro Tsukumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) comes to the gate and requests the use of their courtyard to commit seppuku in October of 1634; "suicide bluffs" (where a samurai makes such a request in hope of being sent away with money or, if he is very lucky, being offered a position) are common in this time of peace with several houses recently disbanded. Before granting his request, chief retainer Kageyu Saito (Koji Yakusho) tells Tsukumo of Motome Chiziiwa (Eita), another ronin who made a similar request two months ago only to have the house's squire, Hikokuro Omodaka (Munetaka Aoki) suggest that an example be made to deter others. After hearing this story, Tsukumo relates what brought him to the House of Ii that day, and how the story is not as simple as Saito thought.

This story differs very little from the Kobayashi version, but in defense of screenwriter Kikumi Yamagishi, what would you change? It is a great story of the powerful being cruel to the impoverished, unaware how the actions they undertook for their own convenience may come back to bite them. The distinctive structure both serves to reflect the very formal world in which the movie takes place and to cleanly present the different sides' perspectives without making the facts subjective but still changing apparent cowardice to desperation. The way things unfurl undeniably makes the audience interested in how it ends. Miike and company are clearly committed to the themes of the movie: There are few scenes that don't directly speak to the difference between truly honorable behavior and that which satisfies the words of some code; the final scene is a perfect capper, speaking of the admiration of symbols above reality.

Full review at EFC.

Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, digital)

Juan of the Dead, like many recent zombie flicks, falls into the category of horror movies that are far more glib than scary. It occasionally feels like it misses opportunities for going that route, but thankfully it is more oftent han not able to make the gross out gags and satire work.

A pair of middle-aged Cubans, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina), are on a raft just outside of Havana, but they are fishing rather than fleeing - although when Lazaro hoists the weird corpse, fleeing might have been wise. Insstead, they return to their poor neighborhood and are there when the zombie outbreak begins in earnest. While rescuing his daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) - in town to visit her grandmother and definitely not him - Juan discovers that he has a knack for dispatching the undead, and soon he, Lazaro, transvistite China (Jazz Vilá), China's hulking boyfriend who faints at the sight of blood Primo (Eliecer Ramirez), and Lazaro's son Vladi California (Andros Perugorría) have started a business, helping people dispose of their former loved ones for a price.

Juan may not be the scariest zombie movie ever made - it's far more likely to use its splatter in the service of slapstick than shocks - but it can lay some claim to being among the funniest. Writer/director Alejandro Brugués fires a steady stream of lowbrow humor at the audience, and while the jokes themselves are generally unsophisticated, the execution is quite often clever, with the physical comedy especially well-choreographed. Brugués also has a good knack for when it's more funny for people to be fed up and when taking things in stride works best.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012: Axis, HD)

Gyo packs a whole bunch of messed-up into a very short running time, and while to a certain extent that's the way it should be - once you've started freaking an audience out, do not stop! - there's a risk of going too far, too fast. Especially when your starting point is "fish with spider legs crawl onto land and attack!"

The fish first make landfall in Okinawa, where Kaori, Erika, and Aki are taking a post-graduation vacation at a beach house owned by the family of Kaori's fiancé Tadoshi. There's already hostility brewing between the sort of trampy Erika and mousy Aki even before things get weird, and then when Kaori returns to Tokyo to investigate a cut-off telephone call from Tadoshi with freelance photographer Tsuyoshi in tow, since he's looking to score an interview with Tadoshi's uncle (Professor Koyanagi is the closest thing to an expert that exists) - things just get freakier in both places.

Unrestrained freakiness is the calling card of Gyo's creator, horror manga-ka Junji Ito, who uses his medium to visually conjure any nightmare he can think of without holding back. The first walking fish is only the start; soon the movie has got Great White Sharks marauding on land, infections affecting humans in grotesque ways, disgusting medical experiments on the results, and huge schools of everything making it very clear that the situation has escalated to apocalyptic in no time. Surprisingly, this is the first animated adaptation of Ito's work (though there have been many live-action Tomie pictures), and filmmaker Takayuki Hirao runs with it. It's a rare moment when the film seems to be holding back.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

Even those who haven't seen Quentin Dupieux's previous feature-length bit of absurdity Rubber can probably guess that this is going to be a strange movie from the title alone. The playful, cheery nature of the picture may be a surprise, though; rather than the perverse nastiness which usually prompts a declaration that something is "just wrong", this is pure joyous oddity.

Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) has lost his dog, and that's just the tip of the iceberg where the strangeness in his life is concerned: His alarm goes off at 7:60, and it rains inside his office - though that's a whole other story, as is the weird thing his gardener Victor (Eric Judor) needs to show him. At least there is some word on his dog - according to an intermediary, the mysterious Master Chang (William Fichtner) would like to speak with him about it.

It's a weird world that Dolph lives in, but what sets Dupieux's strange world apart from those of other quirk-pushers is how delightfully the oddities reinforce each other, with none of them seeming like a thing that would keep something akin to regular life from functioning. Everything seems a bit out of date and off-center, and the overall effect is to have the audience feel a bit off-center themselves, but not overwhelmed.

Full review at EFC.

Zonbi Asu (Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Once you have made the decision to see a movie by the name of "Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead", you've implicitly acknowledged that certain criteria, like good taste, are not real considerations. So, essentially, whether it is worth a rent comes down to the questions of whether the zombies and the ass deliver. The answers are yes, and yes - pretty literally.

The setup is horror movie basics - five teenagers on a trip to the boonies - Tak (Kentaro Kishi), his girlfriend Aya (Mayu Sugano), Aya's slutty friend Maki (Asana Mamoru), Aya's much more demure friend Megumi (Arisa Nakamura), and Naoi (Danny), a nerdy friend of Megumi's. This rural area is home to a mad scientist (Kentarou Shimzu), whose efforts to help his sickly daughter... Well, you know how it goes. Just sort of substitute intestinal parasites for the usual virus.

That seems to be roughly the amount of work director Noboru Iguchi and his three co-writers did on the screenplay - it's pretty much a basic framework on which to hang gross-out gags, fart jokes, and nudity. These things are all well and good, but seldom come at the most fitting of times or with the smoothest of executions, although Maki's declarations that her next fart is going to be really bad is a better use of Iguchi's tendency to have his characters say what they are doing or about to do than usual. Heroine Megumi is given an origin story that can come across as hilariously over the top or spectacularly ill-conceived, as you've got to be more clever with the "teenagers committing suicide over bullying" form of bad taste than with the "pretty girls breaking wind" form.

Full review at EFC.

The Haunting of Julia (Full Circle)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012: House of Psychotic Women, video)

The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle) is extremely hard to find today - the copy used for this screening was a special telecine from the only known archival print, and the actual ownership of the film is a bit murky. That's a movie not far from lost, and while that fate shouldn't befall any film, it's easy and sad to imagine it happening to Julia - it's good enough to be missed, but not until someone points out its absence.

Julia (Mia Farrow) may not quite be living a perfect life, but it's comfortable and she's got a lovely daughter (Sophie Ward) - at least until Kate suddenly starts choking during breakfast and Julia's desperate but perhaps misguided attempt to clear an airway for her leaves the girl dead and Julia in a mental ward. Upon her release, she leaves her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) and buys a new house, spending more time with her old friend Mark (Tom Conti). Her new house has lots of strange noises and an odd thing or two happens there, but how much of that is Magnus trying to intimidate Julia into coming back and how much is a ghost from the house's past?

Do you need a waifish young woman to scare witless? 1970s Mia Farrow is the way to go, looking like she'll blow away in a strong wind and with a voice to match (here sporting a posh English accent). Her initial collapse and later panicky torment are just what you'd expect. Just as great, though, is her frenzied mania in that first sequence or her anger at others not believing in her; she pushes her face and voice to their limits, looking and sounding like she's about to become someone else. She's no simple victim, though; what most intriguing about Julia and Farrow's portrayal of her is how intelligent and focused she seems much of the time. By the same token; there's this sheltered and privileged air to her as she investigates the mysteries surrounding her potentially haunted house that makes the audience question her apparent stability in a different way.

Full review at EFC.

Dead Sushi (Deddo Sushi)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Noboru Iguchi's Dead Sushi is the latest product from the prolific Japanese B-movie maker that, while not explicitly made for export, certainly seems to have North America and the rest of the west in mind during production. Not that it's in English (aside from the credits) or has foreign characters; indeed, it caters to j-pop enthusiasts by delivering them exactly the sort of Japan they fetishize, only amplified. As Dead Sushi demonstrates, it doesn't always make for great movies, but it seldom results in boring ones.

Poor Keiko. The daughter of a master sushi chef (Jiji Bu) who wanted a son for his heir, she was trained unceasingly in sushi preparation and martial arts (for mental discipline) until her klutziness led to her leaving home in tears. She winds up a hostess at the Korinoya Hotel, known for its sushi but also the home of some drama: The owner's wife (Asami), a former hostess herself, is having an affair with the sushi chef (Kanji Tsuda) and the other hostesses pick on Keiko, though groundskeeper Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) befriends her. This weekend, a pharmaceutical company is having a retreat at the hotel, but it may be ruined by the arrival of Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), a strange vagrant with a secret formula that regenerates dead tissue - like sushi - giving it a compulsion to kill!

Dead Sushi is ridiculous, of course, but it takes full ownership of its silliness all the way through, from the moment when Sawada looks at Keiko's hands and pronounces that they were made to handle fish to when another character notes that they are long past the point where anything makes sense and beyond. It's awfully genuine and good-natured about it, as opposed to pompous or mean-spirited - even when the script is taking shots at sushi posers, it's less disdain than sincere appreciation of the sushi chef's art. When he comments on how sad it is that even flying sushi monsters have a pecking order, it's funny but also completely sincere. Iguchi is not making high art, but he does bloody-but-silly as well as anybody, so you get sushi with squeaky little voices and great big fangs, along with mutated forms of both sushi and humans that just get weirder as the movie goes on.

Full review at EFC.

Hara ga kore nande (Mitsuko Delivers)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012, HD)

The previous film by Yuya Ishii to play Fantasia was called "Sawako Decides", and to be completely honest, this one could do with a little more deciding and acting on those decisions. As nice as this movie and most everybody in it is, it wouldn't hurt if the characters were a little more active.

Take Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka). Nine months pregnant from a man left behind when she returned to Tokyo from California, she's just been evicted from her apartment, and, after a nap, tells a taxi driver to follow a cloud. It takes her to a run-down neighborhood that looks the same as it did during World War II. She barges into the apartment of "Granny" Kiyoshi (Miyoko Inagawa), the bedridden landlady and sets up housekeeping, getting dinner on the house at nearby Yoichi's Restaurant. It's not quite as rude as it sounds; Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura) recognizes her from fifteen years ago, when young Mitsuko (Momoka Oono) and her parents (Shiro Namiki & Miyako Takeuchi) hid from their creditors for a few months that turned out to influence Mitsuko quite a bit.

Well, maybe it is a bit rude, but Mitsuko's pushiness is a part of her character. Though poker-faced and given to not bother with any explanation when she does act, she's also aggressively generous, and almost uncomprehending when others don't act according to the same principles. That selfless nature is actually sort of a storytelling problem in a lot of ways; she's so seemingly passive when making decisions on her own behalf that the film gets stuck in neutral.

Full review at EFC.

The Victim (2012)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Michael Biehn has worked with some great directors over the course of his career, but his forays into directing his own material so far have been odd, to say the least. He went to Hong Kong to direct The Blood Bond but wasn't involved in post-production (and thus he does not consider it his film), and made this on a shoestring. You'd think a guy with Biehn's résumé and contacts who wanted to direct would get a shot at something higher-profile, and maybe be able to make something better than this.

Kyle (Biehn) lives by himself well outside of town, though he's not quite a hermit; he's just got his reasons for this sort of solitary life. It's about to be shattered, though, by the arrival of Annie (Jennifer Blanc), a stripper who had been having a little camping trip with her friend Mary (Danielle Harris) and two local cops. But now Mary's dead, and it would be very bad for the ambitious Harrison (Ryan Honey) if word of this got out, so he and his friend Cooger (Denny Kirkwood) aim to chase Annie down.

The Victim is a bare-bones grindhouse movie: The cast is small, the locations are few, and the short running time is noticeably padded by flashback scenes with Annie and Mary where little of note happens. It is made quick and dirty (a twelve-day shoot, and not a lot more in the way of pre-production), and looks it; it's got a genuinely stripped-down feeling without feeling like a pastiche. It's the genuine article, for better or worse.

Full review at EFC.

Wandeuki (Punch)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

From the name it's been given in English, "Punch", you might expect Won-deuk-i to be an inspirational sports movie, and it's got some of that in the later reels. In reality, it's actually something closer to an inspirational teacher movie, though few of those are ever this funny without becoming outright self-parody.

Doh Won-deuk (Yoo Ah-in) is a bit of an at-risk kid: His grades are low and his family is poor, and things are only going to get tighter now that the cabaret where his hunchbacked father Gak-sul (Park Soo-young) and somewhat slow "uncle" Min-goo (Kim Young-jae) dance is closing down. So Won-deuk gets into fights and gets singled out in class by teacher Lee Dong-joo (Kim Yun-seok), and it doesn't end when school's out - Dong-joo lives in the same crappy neighborhood as Won-deuk, practically next door, and continues haranguing his student late into the night. So it's not really a surprise that Won-deuk prays for Dong-joo to die, and that's before the latest way Dong-joo sticks his nose into Won-deuk's business: Introducing the boy to his mother Sook-hee (Jasmine Lee), a Filipina immigrant he's never known.

There's also Chung Yoon-ha (Kang Byul), the class's studious-but-cute girl; a crabby neighbor (Kim Sang-ho); a writer of existential martial arts novels (Park Hyo-joo); some jail time; and, yes, the chance for Won-deuk to channel some of his hostility via kickboxing. There are a lot of episodes to this movie's episodic structure, but to the credit of director Lee Han, it seldom feels meandering, even when the screenplay by Kim Dong-woo (based on Kim Ryeo-ryeong's novel) is kind of piling stuff on as opposed to letting one event lead to another. Part of why that works is that it's a rare individual scene that goes on too long, allowing them to pack a lot of events into a bit under two hours. The film is also presented as much as a comedy as anything else, which smooths things over; it's easier for comedies to move onto the next thing than dramas.

Full review at EFC.