Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ShudderFest: American Mary & Murder University

Huh, no trick or treaters this Halloween. What gives, local children? I got home by eight o'clock and hung around for, like, forty-five minutes before heading out to the comic shop!

Pretty nice show put on by the All Things Horror crew - they got upgraded to theater #3 rather than the screening room or one of the even-numbered houses, and American Mary was kind of a big get for them: It got a lot of attention at Fantastic Fest, although some of it, frustratingly, for the specific thing I figure the movie is about: Folks giving the Soska twins crap for being attractive young women and having fun with cosplay and the like as their way of expressing love for the genre (nerd sexism can be an ugly, ugly thing). I'm not sure it's quite as good as the superlatives that came out of those screenings or which were recited before this one, but it's a pretty good movie that has something to say about its genre without sinking into full-on navel-gazing. That's pretty impressive.

A little bit of a bummer on both ends, though - the Somerville's screening of Darkman got delayed until tonight when a print didn't arrive, so I had a couple hours to kill after having already eaten. Not ideal; I wound up spending money at Newbury Comics. And, of course, a midnight movie at the Somerville means walking home. Not so bad in and of itself, but it leaves me with the blood flowing all too well at 3am.

American Mary

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 October 2012 in Somerville Theatre #3 (ShudderFest, Blu-ray)

I'm not sure what its Canadian filmmakers figure is so specifically American about American Mary, but, hey, what's in a name and all that. Jen & Sylvia Soska have made an impressive little movie that may not exactly be horror but can certainly make even a jaded audience squirm.

Maybe crippling student loans are uniquely American; certainly, the high cost of education is what's staring medical school student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) in the face. With every bill imaginable about to come due, she's ready to take a job stripping to make ends meet. Good thing she had med school on her résumé, though - an employee of club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) has a sudden need to be stitched up during her audition. This leads her to dancer Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) and the body-modification community, who are much more welcoming than her instructor (David Lovgren).

The Soskas don't quite turn exploitation film on its head with American Mary, and that often makes what they do manage that much more effective. There's a "gruesome revenge story" thread that maybe shouldn't be called conventional but will still be somewhat familiar for horror fans, serving up a fair quota of blood and guts while the strip club delivers the requisite skin. The body-modification stuff will likely gross out the more straight-laced audience members, though I suspect that community will appreciate the filmmakers not treating it like a freakshow (though characters may). It's got solid enough horror credentials that the sexy young star not actually working as a stripper might fly under the radar.

Full review at EFC.

Murder University

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 October 2012 in Somerville Theatre #3 (ShudderFest, digital)

The punny theme song that plays over the opening credits of Murder Universitymay be the best part of the movie, although it's close and at least an example of what's coming: A jokey flick that's surprisingly entertaining for how low-rent an affair it is.

It's the 1980s, a time when almost nobody had a mobile phone to screw up serial killers' plans, and Josh Greene (Jamie Dufault) is about to start classes at the local university with a heavy heart, as his father was recently killed in an accident. Just as hijinks are starting to ensue, people start dropping dead, killed by a man in a devil mask. Josh is injured in one of the attacks, which Detective Forrester (Michael Thurber) believes are linked to a murder he investigated twenty years earlier. Josh and Forrester's daughter Meg (Samantha Acampora) go back to the school to act as bait, and...

Well, a lot more people get killed. If you like folks losing their heads, this is the slasher movie for you; heads come off at a rate second only to Taiwanese decapitation epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, and I've got to say, I've got my doubts as to the authenticity of this. Those ax blades barely look wide enough for skinny college-girl necks, let alone some of the more solidly-built victims. And, really, I suspect that lopping off someone's head is a lot harder than it looks, especially if they're not up against a wall or something. Not that I'd know anything about this myself, mind you.

Now, the movie does have more than heads popping off with questionable ease; it is, at heart, a comedy, and watching Josh get stymied by weird roommates, hostile professors, and anangry jock who gets upset with him for looking at his girlfriend's breasts during a wet t-shirt contest is actually fairly entertaining. There's a politically incorrect streak that actually works to much of the humor, and the filmmakers are confident enough to actually build jokes out of the characters either being weird or reacting to the others being weird rather than weak "look - 80's thing/anachronism!" stuff. There's also genuinely enjoyable chemistry between John and Meg.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, October 29, 2012

New Releases: Cloud Atlas & Silent Hill: Revelation

No real theme for these two, other than both being released on the 26th and a little bit of MoviePass-related frustration in getting the tickets (in previous months, I would have been able to buy IMAX and 3D tickets at the independent theaters supporting the program, but not any more, even when they would have been cheaper than the regular-priced evening tickets), even before the whole mess with the card not working at all...

I have to wonder if I would have looked at Silent Hill 2 the same way if I hadn't seen Cloud Atlas the day before. It's a big "be kind and love each other" story, and that colored my impressions of the other - after Sharon/Heather makes a big production about how she and her new classmates aren't going to be friends, and the movie reiterates that she is the empathic part of "Alessa" (it's a thing), so it seems like there's an interestingly humanist spin on the horror movie.

It doesn't fully go that way, and backs off what it does somewhat. That's a shame; it's the most interesting thing the movie's got going for it with Christophe Gans out of the picture. Speaking of which, what's with him working so little? No movie since Silent Hill, which came five years after Brotherhood of the Wolf, itself six years after Crying Freeman. It seems like he's prone to biting off more than he can chew, and he winds up putting a ton of effort into movies that just never happen.

Cloud Atlas

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2012 in Regal Fenway #12 (first-run, digital)

Cloud Atlas is like a whole week of going to the movies compressed into three hours (and that's for the likes of me; for the less fanatical, a month or two). It would be a pretty good week, though maybe not a great one, but these filmmakers have definitely made something greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) has traveled to the South Pacific but finds himself returning not only with a signed contract, but a runaway slave (David Gyasi). In the 1930s, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whisaw) takes a job as the assistant to composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) while pining for his lover Rufus (James D'Arcy). In 1973, writer Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates suspicious goings-on at a San Francisco nuclear power plant. 2012 has publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) needing to hide out from an author's violent friends but not much liking how it turns out. In the 22nd century, fabricant Sonmi-451 (Bae Doo-na) shows signs of individual thought and is broken out of her dormitory by rebel Chang Hae-joo (Sturgess). Finally, on an isolated island 106 years after the fall, hunter/stroyteller Zachry (Tom Hanks) and visitor Meronym (Berry) find they need each other's help.

My usual tendency when reviewing an anthology movie is to examine each of the elements separately, and there would be a certain logic in attacking Cloud Atlas that way even if the filmmakers choose to cut from one story to another rather than present them as individual short films. After all, the six stories come from different genres - a historical adventure, two flavors of science fiction, a drama, a thriller, and even a comedy - so describing what works and what doesn't would certainly be easier that way. That would sell the movie far short as a whole, though - a large part of what makes it remarkable is how well it comes together. Indeed, there's an argument that the most valuable part of the crew might be editor Alexander Berner, who helps sew together the directorial work of Tom Tykwer (the 1930, 1973, and 2012 threads) and Lana & Andy Wachowski (1849 and the future) so that no single element ever seems to dominate and the whole keeps a remarkably good pace. This movie never seems to drag; even though all six stories climax together, they get there by routes just different enough that the movie never seems to drag.

The stories being cut between are not terribly complicated, but there's enough to them that any could be expanded to an entertaining movie with a little effort, and even the lesser threads are well-done. And while the connections between them are fairly obvious - a common birthmark and a tendency to be drawn to the stories of the other protagonists - the way Tykwer and the Wachowskis (working from David Mitchell's novel) handle those connections is just right. Instead of forcing a somewhat obvious and rote story of karma and reincarnation despite the detail that two of the characters' lives almost certainly overlap, these devices instead serve to highlight that things like social position, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are random and not the signifiers of a person's worth, and one should find love, inspiration, and respect from whatever sources one can. It makes what could just be a story about a single soul into a story about humanity.

It also lets the cast reappear in some fun ways. Sure, they tend to be most noteworthy in their lead roles - Bae Doo-na, especially, is fantastic as a clone rapidly learning what it means to be human, while Tom Hanks does a very nice job of making Zachry understood despite a language that has drifted toward pidgin in the future. But it's also great fun to see them flipped around as familiar faces reappear in different contexts - we get two different sorts of chemistry between Hanks and Berry, for instance, while Jim Broadbent gets to play darker reflections as well as broad comedy. And while some folks seem a bit underused - Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, for instance, only have a few noteworthy moments even after even after the end credits reveal which heavy makeup jobs they were under - others can't help but rise to the top: Hugo Weaving proves a most flexible villain, threatening even when made up as a stern matron, while Keith David proves able to grab the screen in three different threads.

As you might gather from that description, the makeup work in this movie is something to behold; that old-age makeup doesn't look terribly is hardly surprising given that actors are routinely cast as people of different sexes and ethnicities, and while that's a bit weird at times - recognizing Sturgess, Weaving, and Grant as residents of "New Seoul" isn't quite balanced by seeing Bae in her other roles - the execution is so flawless and without caricature that the quick shots of each actor in his or her various roles in the end credits is more likely to elicit surprised delight rather than offense. That's just the most visible part of an astonishingly well-executed shoot - or actually two, as the end credits are divided between "Team Wachowski" and "Team Tykwer", with the cast by and large the only ones shuttling between the two. While the Wachowskis create astonishingly detailed future worlds, Tom Tykwer's 1973 San Francisco seems equally perfect, with both having a chance to stake some impressive action and getting the characters' quieter moments right as well.

The ambition on display is incredible, to the point where this would be a remarkable movie even if the filmmakers didn't hit so many of their marks. That they do is kind of amazing, and I honestly can't wait to see it a second time just to see how much more is packed into what seems like a very quick three hours.

Originally posted at EFC

Silent Hill: Revelation

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, digital 3D)

I'm not sure why, exactly, I went to see the second Silent Hill movie; I didn't like the first and the people who drew me into it are either absent (director Christophe Gans) or reduced to cameo appearances (star Radha Mitchell). Surprisingly, Revelation proves to be a minor upgrade, with a much less stupid script making up for a parallel reduction in style, but that still doesn't bring it up to "good".

Christopher DaSilva (Sean Bean) and his adopted daughter Sharon (Adelaide Clemens) have been on the run since Christopher's wife Rose (Radha Mitchell) disappeared inside Silent Hill, West Virginia six years ago, settling in new towns and taking new names on a regular basis; today they're "Harry" and "Heather". Heather doesn't remember her ordeal in Silent Hill, but she has strange dreams and when her father is taken (and "come to Silent Hill" scrawled on their new house's wall in blood), she and fellow new kid in town Vincent (Kit Harrington) head out to rescue him.

The main way that writer/director Michael J. Bassett improves on the first movie is in the script; where Silent Hill is a mess of idiot-plotting and demonstrations that the video game routine of "go place, find strangely-hidden clue, repeat" looks ridiculous in any other context, the new movie has some understanding of cause and effect and at least suggests an interesting theme of Sharon/Heather's enforced isolation being the true enemy. Bassett even has a nice moment where he just gets an inevitable "surprise" out of the way rather than dragging it out until the last act.

Of course, he's hampered by the fact that this is a Silent Hill movie, which means that it's tied to a mythology that is much more convoluted than the scale of the plot requires (because video games need to last more than ninety minutes) and ultimately just seems random. What information the viewer who missed the first movie (or doesn't remember the details from six years ago) gets is vague and doesn't necessarily fit with the story. For instance, there's a reasonably creepy sequence involving mannequins that might work damn well in a mannequin-themed horror movie, but just doesn't seem to have anything to do with everything else that's going on. It's a well-made sequence that has no reason to be in this movie specifically.

At least that one is executed fairly well; many more feel like Bassett and company just throwing grotesqueries with a monochromatic color scheme up and expecting that to scare. Other bits are just ridiculously telegraphed - cut to an otherwise inert amusement park mascot suit enough times and it's no surprise when the head finally turns. Still others just feel like obligatory repeats from the first film or ports from the game, just not done quite as well (remember the sequence with the weird nurses from the first? There's another one here, only more obviously choreographed and with more close-ups of their boobs). Any genuinely scary moments are dwarfed by ones where people just go through the motions.

The cast is somewhat guilty of that as well. Adelaide Clemens is game enough as Sharon/Heather, but doesn't quite give the sort of performance that boosts a lackluster movie. Harrington's first line is his best, while Bean gives the sort of performance that this sort of movie so often winds up with: Making an effort, but never having enough takes to really nail it. Carrie-Anne Moss and Deborah Kara Unger show up but don't make much of an impression, so it's nice to see Malcolm McDowell tear into his scene with gusto even if it's ridiculous.

The first "Silent Hill" was saved from being a complete disaster by its director's style, while this one is able to manage basic narrative competence. It ends (clumsily) with the potential of more, but maybe the producers shouldn't press their luck: Eventually, they're not going to be able to climb up to "below average" from "terrible".

Originally posted at EFC.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 26 October 2012 - 2 November 2012

I keep checking, but the Jordan's IMAX in Reading is apparently going to keep Paranormal Activity 4 instead of picking up Cloud Atlas. I don't get this, but that's this upcoming weekend for you: Cloud Atlas, Halloween stuff, and the occasional other thing.

  • Cloud Atlas is the big release this weekend, a sprawling movie by Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer that features much of the same cast playing echoes of the same characters across six separate eras from the past to the far future. It's incredibly ambitious, based on a book many considered un-adaptable. Could be great, could be a disaster, and I can't wait to see which it turns out to be. It's playing Somerville, Fenway, and Boston Common (including the Imax-branded screen).

    There's two very different movies planning to capitalize on Halloween open this weekend: Fun Size actually uses the holiday as a backdrop, with a couple teen girls searching for one's younger brother after he goes missing while trick or treating. It looks like something trying to split the difference between family-friendly and raunchy and satisfying neither. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. The horror movie opening is Silent Hill: Revelation, a sequel to 2006's video game adaptation from the director of Solomon Kane, this time in 3-D. I'm oddly curious, despite not being terribly fond of the first. It plays Fresh Pond (in 2D), Boston Common (in 3D), and Fenway (2D and 3D, the latter on the premium screen).

    There's also Chasing Mavericks, a curious project with two noteworthy directors (Michael Apted took over for an ailing Curtis Hanson) telling the true story of a surfing prodigy who befriends a local legend. It plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway.
  • Time to start with the spooky stuff! The Brattle has a pretty great line-up for Halloween. On Monday the 29th, the CineCaché presentation for the week is the local premiere of The Loved Ones, a fantastic and twisted thriller from Australia that hit festivals a few years ago (I loved it at Fantasia in 2010) and whose release Paramount botched horrifically earlier this year. See it. Tuesday the 30th has a presentation from the International Pancake Film Festival ("Haunted House of Pancakes") - several pancake-themed short films for five bucks, with a complimentary stack of the things. Halloween itself has the greatest vampire film of all - Murnau's Nosferatu - with live music by the Andrew Alden Ensemble. Tuesday and Wednesday have late shows of Cabin in the Woods, with the film also playing a full schedule on Thursday.

    And the weekend before? A new 35mm print of Raiders of the Lost Ark! Sure, it looked nice in digital a month and a half ago, but film is better. It plays Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as well as Monday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, they have a special presentation of Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer as part of the Boston Asian-American Film Festival, with the director, subject, and Wah Lum Kung Fu making appearances.
  • The bulk of the Boston Asian-American Film Festival will screen at ArtsEmerson's Bright Screening Room at the Paramount theater. Highlights include documentary Mr.Cao Goes to Washington with director S. Leo Chiang in attendance, Wedding Palace with Margaret Cho, Model Minority, and closing film Shanghai Calling.
  • There is one other BAAFF program playing at the Somerville Theatre, I Am a Ghost, which plays as part of All Things Horror's Shudder Fest 2012 on Friday night. The initial 7pm show sold out, but a second one is scheduled for 9pm. The centerpiece is the 10pm program, American Mary, a big hit at Fantastic Fest scheduled for the big theater. There's also locally produced Murder University at midnight. On Saturday, they've got a shorts program and Video Diary of a Lost Girl.

    Also on tap at the Somerville for Halloween weekend: Sam Raimi's Darkman on the big screen at 8pm on Friday the 26th on the 31st (print got delayed). No, it's not the Halloween tradition of Evil Dead 2, but how often do you get to see this on the big screen?
  • More scary stuff! The Coolidge wraps up its Oc-Tobe-r series of midnight movies on Friday with Poltergeist, in which Tobe Hooper teams up with Stephen Spielberg for one of the most popular horror movies ever. That's just a warm up for their 12th Annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, which kicks off with the original theatrical cut of The Exorcist and John Carpenter's The Thing. $15 gets you in to see those two; another $5 lets you stick around until noon for a mystery line-up (although hints dropped on their Facebook page suggest Shivers, Phantasm, Candyman, and Day of the Dead), live music, and burlesque. But that's not all; they've also got Edward Scissorhands on Monday as part of the "Science on Screen" series (Professor Jeremy DeSilva will discus "mosaic hominids"), a special "Devils Night" screening of The Crow at 10pm on Tuesday, and a 35mm print of What Eve Happened to Baby Jane? on Wednesday the 31st, the 50th anniversary of its original release date.

    With all that going on and Argo and The Master continuing to hang around, they only have room to open The Big Picture in the screening room; it's a new film from France with Romain Duris and Catherine Deneuve in a story about a man who flees to the Adriatic Sea after an accidental murder.
  • Kendall Square turns over a good number of its screens, but most of that appears to be to make way for The Sessions, which features John Hawkes as a poet stuck in an iron lung determined to lose his virginity with the help of a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) and the friendship of his priest (William H. Macy). It plays on three screens, but as of yet nowhere else in the Boston area.

    Having seen a preview earlier this week, I can vouch for The Other Son, a pretty good story about two boys - one Israeli, one Palestinian - who were switched at birth during the Gulf War and are just now discovering their true parentage. I'm curious about Smashed, in which Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul play a young married couple who bonded over their fondness for alcohol, and what happens when one decides to get sober. Could be a breakthrough role for Winstead, who has been good in a lot of thankless parts. And the scheduled one-week booking is War of the Buttons which moves a celebrated 1912 novel to World War II and has a pre-teen troublemaker fall for a Jewish girl whom he must protect from the occupying Nazi forces.
  • The MFA continues their Jazz on Film series, with more screenings of The Connection playing sporadically over the weekend and another film by Shirley Clarke, music documentary Ornette: Made in America, playing Friday night. The series also includes Theolonius Monk: Amerian Composer and the Monk-scored 'Round Midnight on Saturday. Another music doc, Big Easy Express continues its run on Friday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday. There's a last screening of All Together (a French comedy featuring Jane Fonda) on Wednesday, and the November calendar kicks off on Thursday with the first screening of High Ground (playing irregularly through the 9th), a documentary that follows a group of disabled veterans as they ascend a 20,000-foot mountain.
  • This weekend, the Harvard Film Archive welcomes Tariq Teguia, the latest Geneviève McMillan - Reba Stewart Fellow (the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship in Distinguished Filmmaking celebrates and supports Francophone filmmakers of African nationality or descent). The Algerian filmmaker will be around Friday and Saturday to present his first two films, Rome Rather than You and Inland. The HFA will also welcome Sooni Taraporevala, who will present a free screening of her film Little Zizou on Saturday afternoon to tie in with her photography exhibit, which will be elsewhere in the Carpenter Center through 20 December. The rest of the weekend is more of their Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective - The Lady without Camelias Sunday afternoon, massive documentaryChung Kuo - China Sunday evening, and The Vanquished on Monday evening.
  • The English-subtitled Hindi movie at Fresh Pond this weekend actually opened on Wednesday; Chakravyuh is a thriller set among India's Naxalite movement, which apparently makes it controversial (many reviews seem to feel a frequently violent conflict with Marxists doesn't mix well with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Bollywood movie). Student of the Year is also hanging around, and there are a screenings of Denikaina Ready and Cameraman Ganga Tho Rambabu for those who speak Telegu.
  • The UMass Boston Film Series presentation on Thursday the 1st is a short one - "Poster Girl" is only 38 minutes long - but it's a pretty fantastic, Oscar-nominated documentary short that I liked a lot when I saw it last year. Both director Sara Nesson and subject Robynn Murray will be on hand to talk afterward and the screening itself is free1 so it's worth dropping in.
  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington has a couple of interesting events that also play elsewhere - Big Easy Express has a screening there on Sunday the 28th in addition to its MFA schedule, and they'll have three HD screenings of John Carpenter's Halloween between Tuesday and Wednesday (Kendall Square also has one on Tuesday night).

My plans? Cloud Atlas, American Mary, Raiders, Nosferatu, Darkman, maybe Smashed.

And the Haunted House of Pancakes, because I friggin' love pancakes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 15 October 2012 - 21 October 2012

This week's distractions: More baseball (the Yankees being stomped by the Tigers was great fun) and trying to make my way through Charles Stross's Rule 34. I love the guy, but an entire book with multiple viewpoint characters in the second person would be kind of a tough slog even without the Scottish slang. Plus a cold that is lingering a bit more than I'd like.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: The Other Son, Sunday 15 October at Coolidge Corner (no ticket, just a box to check off).

Once more, not hugely busy during the week as I was sort of in a "check mail for MoviePass card / not there / watch baseball / hope for tomorrow" sort of loop. Monday's CineCaché film was the sparsely-attended Headshot, which I liked well enough though everyone seemed to agree that it could have used more use of its central gimmick. The IFFBoston crew was co-presenting it and used the opportunity to plug Tai Chi Zero, the crazy martial arts movie that opened at Boston Common the next Friday (and is getting another week! go see it!). That was actually a lot of fun, and had one of the biggest audiences I've seen for a Chinese movie at the Common in a while.

I was at the Common again the next night for Sinister, which I'd meant to see anyway but which I hit that night because Argo was sold out at the Coolidge when I got there. First time I've seen a horror movie with a large crowd of this type in a while (as I mention in the post, a genre festival crowd is no less enthusiastic, but different, more likely to applaud the scare moments than jump at them), and it was fun.

Finally, it was a busy back-and-forth Sunday: The 10am Talk Cinema show of The Other Son at the Coolidge (and, wow, can that be too early, especially on a Sunday morning when the buses don't quite line up to beat walking), heading to Somerville for The Phantom of the Opera with live accompaniment, after which I had to decide which of those two theaters would get my money for Argo in 35mm, with the Coolidge winning out in large part so I could run some errands and eat in between.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Special Event, 35mm w/ live accompaniment)

I should have snapped a picture of both accompanist Jeff Rapsis and projectionist Dave Kornfeld in their Sunday best before the film. Mostly for Dave; projectionists are usually dressed pretty casually since booths can get hot (I wonder if digital is making that less true). An amusing sight.

I've seen this movie before (in the same theater, even) with the Alloy Orchestra providing the music, although it was too long ago for me to really have much of an opinion on how different the two experiences were. It remains an excellent flick, especially when you consider that it was somewhat groundbreaking for its time, and the print they borrowed from a California collector was pretty spiffy, with original tints and hand-coloring for the ball sequence.

After the film, Rapsis mentioned that they were planning a few more silent films, including Harold Lloyd in Girl Shy come Valentine's Day. Can't wait.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

Argo is what I want from my movies: A good story, well-told. That this particular story is true barely matters; what's important is that it's a neat idea, witty, filled with nifty little moments, and confident enough in itself that it doesn't have to pump things up more than it has to.

As much as director Ben Affleck gets the visual style of the 1970s just right, it's interesting just how much he's got the vibe and pacing there too. It compares well the stuff I saw a week and a half earlier, unspooling its story at a deceptively leisurely pace, making it seem like relatively little is happening but still increasing the tension steadily. Argo doesn't need big action scenes as punctuation; it establishes danger in the first scene and never moves too far from it.

You can do that when you've got a cast full of great character actors. Affleck himself is a movie star, sure, but he goes with the beard and mild-mannered nature that allows his character to blend into the scenery (itself sort of a throwback to 1970s movies). He bounces between multiple settings, but there's always someone great to work off: John Goodman and Alan Arkin in Hollywood; Bryan Cranston at the CIA; Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan et alia in Iran... Heck, an uncredited Philip Baker Hall shows up in one scene to be paired with Bob Gunton as both the punchline to one of the movie's best jokes and a scene that is amusing without it.

Argo is deceptively low-key, and while it's rough in a spot or two, it's a delightful throwback and a ton of fun even without a lot of context.

(Plus, Jack Kirby as a character! How cool is that?)

Tai Chi Zero
Phantom of the Opera

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Preview series: Headshot and The Other Son

Well, usually CineCaché is a preview series, but while Headshot was a good match for it, that film's release window came and went ridiculously fast: From what I can tell, it had a NYC/LA theatrical release on 28 September and was out on video on 2 October. Not much time for a preview or booking there, which is kind of disappointing; it's a good movie and one where, when I missed it at Fantasia, I consoled myself that it was almost certain to get a release in Boston anyway. clearly, not the case.

Both it and The Other Son fall into the same category: Pretty good movies that won't knock your socks off but do the job they set out to do well enough to be worth a recommendation. The biggest issue with them is that my reaction (and the in-theater discussion) afterwards dwelt quite a bit on what they didn't do.

When writing, I try not to do that; it's a pretty strong rule with me that you should review the movie you see, not the one you wanted to see or thought you were going to see. It's not fair and doesn't tell the reader anything really useful. I couldn't help doing it for Headshot, though: I wanted that upside-down action scene, especially since the next person who happens upon the idea of having someone's vision inverted like this (which I think I once read is a very rare but not unheard of thing - though I think the context was more about how the brain is generally able to rewire itself to flip the image back in most cases) is likely not going to be as talented as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and probably won't have a cinematographer up to the challenge, either; it was a wasted opportunity.

Similarly, there was a lot of talk after The Other Son about how it apparently was originally planned to have a different ending (SPOILERS! - probably a bomb going off; I half-guess that it would have been at older brother Bilal's hands - !SRELIOPS), and much of the talk was about this hypothetical darker ending versus the oen the movie had.

I seldom speak much in these conversations (preferring to let my thoughts ferment for a few days before writing them down, apparently), but... Who cares? For that other ending to be satisfying or fitting, the movie's content would likely have had to change throughout, enough to make it a very different movie. That might have been a better movie, or a worse one, but nobody was making an argument that this particular story was heading in a dark direction and thus the finale was a cop-out. It just seemed like a frustratingly faux-sophisticated assumption that a generally positive resolution is a "fairy tale" ending, and the moer negative one is "realistic".

That's a heck of a sad way to look at the world, I think, but even if it weren't... I figure it's one thing to say that an ending feels like a break from the rest of the film's momentum and that that's a flaw, and quite another to wish it was some other specific thing. One's looking at something concrete, the other is comparing it to something that only exists in your head.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché, Blu-ray)

Headshot has a nifty enough visual gimmick at its center that one has to wonder why the filmmakers don't lean on it a bit more. Sure, even without the main character's unique visual impairment, this would be a quite enjoyable thriller, but it's got the chance to be quite the memorable one and only seizes that opportunity intermittently.

A few years ago, Tul (Nopporn Chaiyanam) was a rising star on the Bangkok police force; intelligent, fearless, and above reproach. As the film opens, though, he's a vigilante; he and partner Torpong (Apisit Opasaimlikit, aka rapper "JoeyBoy") gun down those that the law can't touch at the direction of the mysterious Dr. Suang (Krerkkiat Punpiputt). The last mission leaves him with a bullet in his head, and he wakes from a three-month coma with his vision inverted (up is down and vice versa). Always a reluctant killer, he soon finds this is the sort of business few retire from, winding up on the run with Rin (Sirin Horwang), the hostage he takes while fleeing for the country.

Screenwriter/director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made a splash in boutique houses with Last Life in the Universe, a gorgeous picture that takes a simple-sounding crime story and creates something grander, and everything he's done since has been compared to that, fairly or unfairly. Headshot stays much closer to its pulp roots; dishing out bounteous servings of sex, violence, and betrayal without particularly looking to transcend the genre. Sure, Ratanaruang (via Tul) may wax somewhat philosophical toward the end, but that's not completely out of character for a hard-boiled crime story. Still, it's more likely to delight the audience on the basis of suddenly realizing what was going on in the background of a specific earlier scene than what it has to say about the world at large.

Full review at EFC.

Le fils de l'Autre (aka The Other Son)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Talk Cinema, 35mm)

My half-a-lifetime-ago high school French tells me that the title of this movie doesn't quite translate to "The Other Son", but to "The Son of the Other", and that does turn out to be a fairly important distinction. As a simple switched-at-birth story, The Other Son is all right, but it's the matters of cultural identity that make for interesting questions.

Tel Aviv resident Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) is about to turn eighteen and start his military service, but the physical turns up something odd - his blood type is A-negative while both mother Orith (Emmanuelle Devos) and father Alon (Pascal Elbé) are A-positive, a genetic impossibility. It turns out that on the night Jo was born, the hospital in Haifa was locked down against a potential Scud attack, and in the confusion the Silbergs' baby was switched with that of Leila and Said Al-Bezaaz (Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour), a Palesinian couple now living in the West Bank. Though the families initially intend to keep this secret from Jo and Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), Joseph's sudden ineligibility for military service demands an explanation.

This sort of mix-up affects a lot of people, and the somewhat circuitous path co-writer and director Lorraine Levy takes to show this is perhaps kind of unusual: The film starts out focused on Jo, then spends a fair amount of time with his parents before introducing the Al-Bezaazes and then takes a little bit longer before finally bringing Yacine home from school in Paris. Doing it this way does tend to establish the Silbergs' perspective (and by extension, that of Israel) as the default, but does also let the audience get to know the entire cast in small enough groups that the other side doesn't feel sold short. And while the shifts in perspective during the first act are noticeable, it doesn't drag out to the point where Yacine seems to be held back.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Outside of festivals, I really don't wind up seeing a whole lot of horror movies or comedies with big audiences - I tend to go for matinee prices or mid-week shows in Arlington and Somerville - so I kind of miss out a bit on those movies where audience reaction is such a big part of the experience. So I kind of forgot what it was like to see something like Sinister in a packed crowd, with people screaming at every jump moment, offering advice, and sending waves through the row of seats when something makes them sit back hard.

It's pretty great.

In some ways, it's just as good at seeing a good horror movie at a festival or a midnight screening. I love Fantasia and Boston Underground and anticipate a lot of fun at ShudderFest this weekend, but they attract the hard core horror lovers, and those guys can on occasion be too familiar with the genre or even jaded. I include myself in this group; even when I don't have the notepad out to do a review, I'm mentally categorizing it, comparing it with other zombie/vampire/possession movies, maybe thinking about the career path of the filmmaker. I'll never be one to say you can be too knowledgeable or that you should settle for mediocrity, but these movies demand a visceral, emotional reaction, and the audience tends to re-enforce the prevailing reaction. So when the crowd is filled with people who don't see a horror movie every week or don't think about how they work, us right-brained catalogers are going to go along, and have a different kind of fun.

(Kudos to the crowd in this case for being pretty cool, too - there was one guy who was trying to crack jokes, but his neighbors seemed to get him to knock it off. Not the time.)

Of course, a good crowd isn't going to completely stop me from overanalyzing a movie, and one thing I half-touch upon in the eFilmCritic review is that there are a couple of layers of subtext going on here:


As I say in the review, the more obvious thing is the writer who gets too wrapped up in his subject; Ellison, in this case, goes from conventional obsession to actually setting his family up as the next victim (and it's a clever metatextual thing here that doing what we tend to yell at horror movie characters for not doing, getting the hell out of dodge, seems to be a trigger for things going wrong). The Deputy hits on this pretty rationally and it's fairly obvious as a metaphor, too. But I kind of dig what's going on underneath even that just as much, in that Ellison and Bughuul are in a certain way two sides of the same coin: Both take tragedy and make myth out of it, Ellison by writing his true-crime books that reshape perception and challenge reality, Bughuul by actually consuming the souls of his familiars and making them a part of him. The very representation of these crimes has power for him, just like it does for Ellison, and Ellison's decision to press on with his book rather than bring the evidence of these crimes being linked to the cops is something similar. Our hero is, in many ways, feeding on violence and tragedy to make himself stronger, and that's a pretty daring thing to do with this movie's protagonist.


Anyway, I liked this quite a bit, and like that it's also pretty clearly done by the same guy who made Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is also well-done and has a fair amount more smarts underneath its genuine scares than you might expect. Go see it while it's still hanging around.

But avoid any trailers and the like if you can at this late date - they don't necessarily reveal the Surprising Plot Twists, but they do show stuff that happens fairly late in the game, and it's not quite as much fun to watch a movie and think "hey, this must lead to that cool shot from the preview!" as to be genuinely surprised by how things unfold.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, 4K digital)

Sinister feels like an anomaly among horror movies in the last few years, where the rule of thumb has seemed to be that the wider the theatrical release, the less impressive the movie. It's not hard and fast, but let's face it - when a movie as good as this one opens opens in a whole bunch of theaters, it almost feels like someone tricked the studios.

What makes Sinister so good? I suspect that the main thing is that co-writer/director Scott Derrickson chooses not to emphasize the thrill of the kill. He and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have actually come up with a series of diabolical murders, but right from the opening scene they are presented as fait accompli, captured and shown to both the audience and true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) on 8mm film. It drains the adrenaline rush from the experience, leaving much more actual horror.

Of course, it wouldn't be an entertaining movie if it were just a series of terrible things that the characters cannot do anything about. Even though Derrickson and company wait a while to start doling out an explanation of what's going on, the movie is well-stocked with reasons for the audience to jump or hold their breaths, whether they be fake-outs, hints of what is coming up next, or having stuff happen once the mythology that has been established (in what is fairly obvious but well-done exposition dump). It's relatively low-key in some ways - Derrickson isn't looking to set a new benchmark for on-screen gore - but well-done.

The concept Derrickson and Cargill come up with - a true-crime writer moving his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) into the house where the crime he's researching took place only to discover that he has stumbled upon something bigger and stranger - is perhaps not quite so intriguing a set-up as Derrickson's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but has a little more depth than one might expect. The filmmakers are willing to let the audience infer what's going on in the background rather than lay out every single detail, and they trust that we can figure out that Ellison can be somewhat self-destructive when working on a book without talking about it until the point where it makes sense for someone to bring it up. Perhaps even more clever is that there are a couple of interesting levels of subtext: Sure, it's easy to spot the chestnut about writers getting too close to their subjects, but there's an even more intriguing parallel between Ellison and the thing he discovers.

Almost everything in this movie comes back to Ethan Hawke on-screen, and he's up to the challenge. It's an interesting one, too; this is a character who is defined by his hubris throughout, almost never fitting the role of hero (and often rubbing the audience the wrong way) but still being a guy the audience can relate to despite his flaws; he sells Ellison's ego and his concern for his family equally. Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, and Michael Hall D'Addario are good support as his family, pretty much what one expects from the characters but not overdoing it. The movie also does a neat job in countering expectations with local law enforcement, initially offering up Fred Dalton Thompson as the predictably gruff sheriff but eventually giving more screen time and doing more interesting things (and doing them well) with James Ransone as his deputy.

Sinister gets the job done; even if it could be a bit tighter in some spots, it knows how to make the audience jump and occasionally wince. It's exciting to see a reasonably smart, well-done,and even occasionally scary movie actually make it to the multiplexes.

(Formerly at EFC)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tai Chi Zero

Pretty good turnout at Boston Common for this last night, well ahead of what I'm used to seeing for Chinese imports there! I've got to admit, I was a little worried - even though the IFFBoston folks have been pushing this and it's had a higher profile on the genre film sites than the China Lion stuff, I've become so used to being one of a handful of people in the room that my brain froze for a moment at not being able to take my usual seat.

I wound up way closer than I usually go for with digital projection, and even in 4K, and there were some funky artifacts, including a couple moments that looked like compression issues. I probably wouldn't have sat there if the movie were in 3D, for example - and while there were a bunch of credits for people doing 3D, I don't know how big a difference that would have been. Some shots might have been cool, and there's one or two "shooting arrows at the audience" moments, but it seems like it could have been a cash-grab-type post conversion.

Anyway, I kind of wonder how the audience felt about the cliffhanger ending. The funny thing about it is that it's not so much the fact that there is a cliffhanger that bugs me as what comes before. I mean, I dig the Resident Evil series and even kind of liked Paul W.S. Anderson's Three Musketeers, and all of those ended on a promise of more adventure, but they also had the big finish before that. Lu Chan, the main character, is almost a complete non-factor in the climactic action scene, and as much fun as that is, it feels like the confrontation is being put off until later. I haven't read anything about whether the filmmakers always saw this as two movies or whether it was split Kill Bill-style at some point (although for something that was a commercially mandated decision made in the middle of filming, Kill Bill seems like an entirely logical split).

The good news is that at least we're getting the whole thing in a timely fashion: None of the quite frankly absurd delay between the last two Twilight half-movies, and the pair haven't been smushed into one big-but-not-huge movie like Red Cliff or Seediq Bale (with a third movie planned, that might have been tricky). I must say, though, that I eagerly look forward to the inevitable March day when the pair will play as a double feature at the Brattle.

Tai Chi Zero

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, 4K digital)

I knew going in that Tai Chi Zero had a follow-up coming out in fairly rapid succession (a one month gap in China, three in North America), and was still a bit surprised that the movie saves its big finish for later. Fortunately, it's still a lot of fun all the way through, plenty good enough to make the audience want more.

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is a martial arts prodigy dragooned into the Divine Truth Cult who can match any move he sees and goes into a sort of overdrive mode when someone hits the horn-like protrusion on his head, although it is draining his life force. Supposedly, learning the "internal kung fu" practiced at Chen Village will help reverse this ailment, but they don't train outsiders, though a nice laborer (Tony Leung Ka-fai) tends to his injuries. Meanwhile Yu Nia (Angelababy), the daughter of the of the master Lu Chan came to learn from is incredibly happy to have her finace Fan Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) back in town, even if he is there to negotiate for the railroad.

There are a lot of other familiar and/or famous faces in the cast, and the way the filmmakers introduce them is a perfect example of the impish sense of humor at play. Some old 1970s and 1980s martial arts flicks would, instead of conventional titles, freeze-frame at a character's introduction and pop their names up on the screen, and Tai Chi Zero does that too, and at least in the English subtitles, it's a jocular reminder of why you should be excited: "Hey, it's Yuan Xiaochao as The Freak - he's a national wushu champion!" It's a form of breaking the fourth wall that director Stephen Fung and the other filmmakers have a lot of fun with, putting annotations right up on the screen and making a joke at their own expense before it goes too far. Though set in the 1800s, the style is aggressively modern, even with its swings into silent film-style flashbacks, with a rock & roll soundtrack, video game-inspired effects, and the sort of visual fire hose employed by the likes of Detention and Scott Pilgrim that assumes the sort of young audience used to processing multiple styles in rapid succession.

The steampunk elements are another piece of fun anachronism, especially the massive track-laying machine that makes its entrance halfway through the movie. The production designers and visual effects guys render each knob and gear with clear love, so that the ridiculously elaborate cranes and elevators elicit big stupid grins with their introduction. Like the delightfully elaborate costumes Zi Jing and Claire Heathrow (Mandy Lieu) wear, the whole thing is at the same time kind of bizarre and alien while still fitting perfectly into the general environment. There's a broad goofiness to the whole thing so that the audience will believe almost anything goes.

The cast is quite capable of rolling with that atmosphere, too. Yuan Xiaochao may turn out to be quite a find; the wushu champion is probably not a very good actor yet, but he's got an energetic charisma to him so that Lu Chan is maybe not very bright, but also unsinkable (though he's got Jet Li's background, it's not hard to see him going a comedic Jackie Chan direction if he so chooses). Angelababy matches him for winsome charm, giving Yu Nia a lot more personality than this sort of love interest might have (smart and capable with a very believable blind spot). Tony Leung Ka-fai is a pro, so that even when he winds up playing exactly the character the audience expects, he's able to hit just the right notes. Shu Qi seems to be having a blast as Lu Chan's mother in the flashbacks. Eddie Peng and model Mandy Lieu kind of stumble when the film decides they should be talking in English, but they're enjoyably expressive; I particularly love how Peng and the filmmakers hit "this is the road to becoming a tragic villain" with large hammers early on and still make it work.

The cast also includes a lot of potentially impressive screen fighters alongside Yuan, from grade-school prodigies to veterans like Xiong Xin Xin, each taking a turn with him in a nicely-done fight. Fung and his five-plus editors do a pretty good job of not shredding the action choreographed by Sammo Hung, and while there's a fair amount of CGI and wirework, the filmmakers do a very good job of knowing when to cover and when to get out of the way. The set pieces are sometimes eye-popping with skill and sometimes with silliness, but always plenty of fun.

Of course, by the end it's clear that the big finale really isn't really a finale, and the filmmakers get busy tossing a whole bunch of teases and cliffhangers leading in to Tai Chi Hero, culminating in a trailer running alongside the end credits. As much as I would rather Zero held nothing back, there's really not much reason to be dissatisfied with what it delivers: This movie is a lot of anything-goes fun.

Also at EFC, when that's back up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 October 2012 - 25 October 2012

Seventeen days since a note on MoviePass's site said to expect my membership card in two business days. I am going to abuse the heck out of that thing when I get it.

  • First thing on the list: Tai Chi 0, a crazy action/adventure movie from director Stephen Fung with action choreographed by Sammon Hung that apparently feels the usual tack of making folk heroes even larger than life, this time with wushu champion Yuan Xiaochao playing early Tai Chi master Yang Lu-chan and facing steampunk machines as well as crazy combatants.. It's getting a lot of hype, features Tony Leung Ka-fai, Qi Shu, and Angelababy, and plays Boston Common, hopefully for more than a week.

    Of course, the biggest opening in the mainstream theaters is Paranormal Activity 4, which is alleged to bring the series full-circle. I haven't seen any since the first, so I don't know how much of a good thing that is. It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway (including the RPX screen), and Boston Common (on the Imax-branded screen), and the Jordan's Furniture stores in Reading & Natick. There's also Alex Cross, which reboots the series based on James North Patterson's novels wtih Tyler Perry as the detective played by Morgan Freeman in previous movies. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway.
  • Kendall Square has apparently finished their digital conversion, apparently mostly 2K with screen number one capable of 4K. They kick it off with four new movies, the most prominent of which is IFFBoston alumnus Wuthering Heights. This version of Charlotte Bronte's novel is directed by Andrea Arnold and features a cast of relative unknowns and has received a fair amount of praise. The other big picture is Switzerland's Oscar submission, Sister (L'enfant d'en haut), which follows a 12-year-old boy who lives in a resort with his older sister (Lea Seydoux); those looking for a familiar face will spot Gillian Anderson in a supporting role.

    The official one-week booking is Somewhere Between, a documentary about four girls who were adopted from China because of that country's one-child-per-family policy. Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton and several of the film's subjects will be present for several shows this weekend - Knowlton at 4:25 on Friday, joined by the subjects at 7pm, and for all four shows on Saturday. Hello I Must Be Going is not officially a one-week booking, but it's alternating showtimes with another film, so if you want to see this movie with Melanie Lynskey as a divorcee who falls in with a much younger neighbor, now is probably the time.
  • The Coolidge is still running film in their main rooms (though trying to raise money for digital projection for next year), but does shuffle things in their smaller digital rooms some: Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel moves in after a few weeks at the Kendall and IFFBoston documentary Beauty is Embarrassing also pops up, with its subject Wayne White (a satiric artist and designer) in attendance for the Friday night shows (Q&A at 7, intro only at 9:30). Those screens are small, so they'll almost certainly sell out.

    They're also gearing up for Halloween, with V/H/S back for 9:45 shows in the GoldScreen room all week and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 playing midnights on the main screen on Friday at Saturday. They've also got midnights of The American Scream - a documentary on homemade haunted houses and the people who build them from the maker of maker of the charming Best Worst Movie upstairs in the video room both nights, and Halloween burlesque by Betsi Feathers at midnight Saturday. Oh, and the Big Screen Classic on Monday night is a 35mm print of Ghostbusters.

    There are two shows Sunday morning: Talk Cinema selection The Other Son, about an Israeli and a Palestinian who discover they were switched at birth, and Combat Girls, a Goethe-Institut presentation about a young neo-nazi woman whose convictions are challenged when she meets an Afghan refugee.
  • The Somerville Theatre has some cool pre-Halloween programming as well, with Jeff Rapsis on hand Sunday afternoon at 2pm to accompany the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera, complete with hand-tinting in certain scenes. The movie may be old, but it's a genuine classic, and if the print is from the Box 5 restoration, it's going to look great. Next Friday, the 26th, they'll have All Things Horror's annual ShudderFest, which has a pretty nice line-up. There's also matinee screenings (I believe in the micro-cinema) of locally-produced thriller Conned on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • Much of the Brattle's schedule this week is given over to Punch-Drunk Cinema: The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: A double feature of Boogie Nights and Hard Eight on Saturday, Magnolia on Sunday, Punch-Drunk Love on Tuesday, and There Will Be Blood on Wednesday. That's a pretty good body of work there.

    There are special events around it: Friday night is Superheroes of Stoke, the latest and greatest ski movie from Matchstick Productions. Monday night the Harvard Book Store will have a panel discussion on the Presidential Election that finishes up with the night's debate projected on the big screen. Thursday night is the opening night of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, with writer/producer Ellie Wen on hand to introduce and discuss Quentin Lee's film about a teenager with Asperger's syndrome who recently lost his older brother. There will be lion dancing, too!
  • ArtsEmerson continues its series of literary adaptations co-presented with the Boston Book Festival, with this weekend's selections focusing on graphic novels. Selections include the director's cut of Watchmen (Friday at 6pm and Sunday at 1pm on Blu-ray), Persepolis (Friday at 9pm on DVD), Howl's Moving Castle (Saturday at 1pm on English-dubbed 35mm), V For Vendetta (Saturday at 6pm on DVD), and Ghost World (Saturday at 9pm on DVD).
  • The Harvard Film Archive has more Michelangelo Antonioni, including The Passenger (Friday and Monday at 7pm), The Mystery of Oberwald (Friday at 9:15pm), The Girlfriends (Sunday at 4:30pm) and a selection of his short films on Sunday at 7pm. They have two other programs on Saturday - a free screening of the international cut of Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale in conjunction with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office at 2pm, and An Evening With Ben Rivers at 7pm, including his feature Two Years at Sea and his new short "Phantoms of a Libertine".
  • The MFA continues to show Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps over the weekend, with Stéphane Robelin's new French comedy All Together, where five retirees opt to share a house rather than move into a retirement home. It stars Jane Fonda, Geraldine Chaplain, and Claude Rich, and also plays Wednesday the 24th. Also running that day are two different music-oriented films: 1962's The Connection is part of their Jazz on Film series and features junkies playing jazz while waiting for their drugs to arrive; SXSW Audience Award Winner Big Easy Express, has bands The Magnetic Zeroes, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Mumford & Sons riding the rails from California to New Orleans.
  • The Regent Theatre has the second half of the Arlington International Film Festival, including the likes of My So-Called Enemy, Consent with filmmaker Q&A, and more.
  • Student of the Year is the subtitled Hindi film opening at Fresh Pond, which appears to be a romantic comedy about two rival high-school basketball players falling for the same girl (Alia Bhatt); director Karan Johar had a big hit earlier in the year with My Name is Khan. Note that it's splitting the screen with Cameraman Ganga Tho Rambabu, which is in Telegu and apparently unsubtitled.

My plans? Tai Chi 0, Phantom of the Opera, Hard Eight, The Other Son, and probably all that stuff I said I was going to see last week.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 8 October 2012 - 14 October 2012

Cold + baseball playoffs = Not just not getting out to see many movies, but not feeling like writing about them, either. Packed the days I did head out good, though:

This Week in Tickets

I kind of suspect that I should stop seeing movies like Dust Up, especially when there's other interesting options that night. I do it because I like supporting independent genre movies on the one hand and because I've found I get more hits for being one of the few to review an off-beat or older movie on the other. Still, even though I liked this one more than most, I probably don't have the right attitude for them. I want folks to make unironically good movies instead of winking. If you admire these pictures, make the best one you can rather than riffing on them.

Similarly, I should go to a lot more movies shown in 35mm at the Brattle, Coolidge, Harvard Film Archive, and the like. It's not just that these revival/repertory screenings are the only place where the movies are still proper film, but it seems that chances to see them any way may be getting fewer and further between. Sure, right now they are available on Amazon Prime/Retntal or Netflix instant, but whether a movie is available online, on DVD, and/or on Blu-ry at any given time seems much more random now than it has before. So, really, I should see more of the good programs - I probably only saw half of what I wanted to in the Brattle's "Cloak & Dagger" series (just Three Days of the Condor and The MacKintosh Man this week) and less than that where "Outback Gothic" was concerned (just Mad Max and Mad Max 2).

I had more time to kill than I expected on Sunday; the 11am show was the cheapest time to see Frankenweenie in 3D and that day's screening of Trouble with the Curve was the last one I could get to, and for some reason I choked on basic math and thought there was an hour less between the two. I wound up walking to and from Quincy Market in the rain, but happily discovering that the Potbelly Sandwich Shop location I'd heard was opening in downtown Boston had. I'd been to one on a trip to Baltimore/DC a few years ago (it's close to Camden Yards), and they make a good sandwich.

Weird weekend, though - I actually felt a lot better once I got out and about, but was also pretty well drained by the end of the day. I would have liked to hit some stuff in the evening as well, but it just wasn't happening.

Mad Max

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Outback Gothic Sidebar, 35mm)

This is something like the third time I've tried to get through Mad Max, which you wouldn't think would be so difficult, but every screening I've ever tried to go to has been at midnight or later, and since there are stretches where it's not quite the frantic action one imagines. Three in the afternoon with a head full of snot isn't a whole lot better, but it's good enough.

Every time I've seen it, though, I've found myself most fascinated by the way George Miller sets it on the fringes of societal collapse as it's happening. There are moments when things seem relatively normal - businesses appear to be open and taking money, Max (Mel Gibson) and company are cops, and he and wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) don't seem to be expecting violence the way you usually see in the sort of movie that this franchise evolved into. And yet, as the movie goes on, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and company seem to act with less fear, and it becomes clear just how ad-hoc the Main Force Patrol really is; it really is on the cusp of just being another gang.

Miller, by the way, is really fantastic at shooting action and building that atmosphere. It's brutally violent Ozploitation with great vehicular mayhem; the opening sequence not only sets the action of the rest of the movie up in an eye-popping way, but it gives an audience some idea of the tactics of a car chase, so that what's going on later never feels like random action. Its slower periods are worth it, and it manages a dark sort of finale much better than its many imitators have.

Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Outback Gothic Sidebar, 35mm)

Compared to its predecessor, Mad Max 2 is almost conventional for a post-apocalyptic movie: Desert environment, no sort of government to be seen, baddies in leather. In part, that's because this thing is so good that it's been imitated quite a bit over the past thirty years (Bellflower, for instance, references The Lord Humungus directly despite being closer in tone to the first movie), but not entirely: Despite having an undeniable truth buried underneath it - civilization as we understand it hinges on cheap energy - it's a very simple post-apocalyptic siege movie. It's just better.

In large part, that's because George Miller does huge-scale practical action better than just about anyone. There's very little faked in this movie - whirligigs fly, big weird vehicles are big weird vehicles, and that explosion at the end is actual size. Apparently, Miller and company felt that scale models and matte paintings, by and large, were for the weak. The massive chase scene at the end is still jaw-dropping in terms of scale today.

And though he's only got a dozen or two lines, Mel Gibson is pretty good here, too. As much as the movie visually switches up from the first, Gibson is clearly the guy from the original, made even more cynical in the time since but still having the same self-awareness and desire not to be a simple thug underneath.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital 3D)

Correlation isn't causation, but it's tough to miss the obvious: This is director Tim Burton's best movie in years, and at no point in making it did he give Johnny Depp a stupid haircut or dress Helena Bonham-Carter up as a Living Dead Doll. Coincidence?

This version of Frankenweenie gets a lot of mileage out of sheer love for the material. There's no doubt that Burton and company have unadulterated affection for these classic monsters, and the bond between a child and his or her dog (or other pet) is the heart of the picture. That love lets Burton get away with a lot of things that might seem like little more than gimmicks - the black and white filming style, a couple characters with accents that can be called "iconic" if you're in a very good mood - and plotting that telegraphs things way ahead of time (hey, did you notice there's a windmill in every shot of the town? and that the main character's name is Frankenstein? think Burton's seen the James Whale version of that movie?J).

I'd be interested to hear what actual kids think of the last act of this movie. It's a lot of fun, and while there's big action with life-and-death stakes for the monster-pets, it's never too scary, to the point where the adults watching it may find things a little tame. Given that some of the references are pitched well above what a viewer with an age in the single digits would recognize - sea monkeys, Gamera, specific shots from eighty-year-old movies - I kind of wonder if this has the sort of kid appeal the producers were going for.

I also found myself a little frustrated on the movie's approach to science. On the one hand, Burton and screenwriter John August treat science very well, with the kids as enthusiastic about the subject as anything else, and the Martin Landau-voiced science teacher sayinig that most people like the things science gives them but not what questions it asks... And then follows it up with "it's what's in your heart" as opposed to observation and understanding of process. Two steps forward, one step back.

Trouble with the Curve

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, digtal)

There are some movies, and Trouble with the Curve is definitely among their number, which really don't make a lot of sense if you apply a bit of knowledge or common sense but have such a relentlessly nice cast that it's hard not to enjoy them despite everything.

For instance, there's a pretty adorable romantic comedy to be made with Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake; they've got great chemistry and both work nicely opposite Clint Eastwood. You will seldom go wrong putting John Goodman into your movie, and the same remarkably holds true for Robert Patrick, even when he doesn't have many lines until the end. That stuff is almost relentlessly charming, and while it's going on, it's easy to forget that other bits of script by Randy Brown don't make much sense at all or that he and director Robert Lorenz opt to deliver things with all the subtlety of a shovel to the face. The pompous high-school baseball star and Matt Lillard's data-dork baseball exec are such broadly-drawn villains as to almost be unbelievable. The latter is kind of annoying for how he seems to be a means to fight a fight that nobody actually inside baseball has any interest in these days (just about every team values the data provided by both "stats and scouts").

There are other little things - Eastwood's Gus acts like every new frustration is something completely new, and why can the Braves just sign one player after going through the draft for another? Plus, the story is basically trying to help Gus keep a job he can no longer perform. It's screwy, but it's got Eastwood, Adams, Timberlake, Goodman, and Patrick, and that makes up for a lot.

Dust Up
Three Days of the Condor & The MacKintosh Man
Mad Max & Mad Max 2
Trouble with the Curve

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cloak & Dagger: Three Days of the Condor and The MacKintosh Man

I swear, I saw the jail where the characters in The MacKintosh Man are locked up playing a similar role in The Escapist a couple years ago. It's good to see such a cool part of a movie continue to get work, although you wonder if it worries about getting typecast. (I kid; I don't even know if it's the same building or if this is just how English/Irish prisons of a certain vintage are constructed.)

It's always neat to see Robert Redford and Paul Newman movies from their peaks; they're guys who aged so smoothly and well - Redford still doesn't really look old when he shows up in front of the camera these days - that their matinee idol period can be a bit of a surprise. These guys were movie stars, not just popular and respected actors, and movies like these were very commercial, not just well-made.

It's fun to compare them to their contemporary equivalents; there are a fair amount of "spy/dupe on the run after being made to look like a traitor" movies made every year and the easy thing to say is that if these two movies were remade today, they would likely have more, bigger, louder action and dumb the interaction between the star and his leading lady down. Of course, it could turn out that the scripts might be a little more dense, as well; as great as the naturalistic 1970s were for creating the sort of realism that lets the audience infer a lot of detail, the present does allow a filmmaker to deliver a higher level of detail directly, if they so choose.

That's not to run these movies down; they're both quite a lot of fun, and looked great in 35mm.

Three Days of the Condor

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Cloak & Dagger, 35mm)

Three Days of the Condor was a hit in its day, and even now the title causes one to perk up when coming upon it when scanning the filmographies of the people involved: Even those who haven't seen it know that it's a big piece of the good reputations of folks like Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack. And while styles have changed enough that it's maybe not considered as essential as it once was, it's still a quality spy story that deserves to be considered a plus on the IMDB pages of its cast and crew.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) works for the CIA, but not as an asset or even an analyst, really, but as a reader - he's part of a group that pores through everything published in the world, looking for odd patterns or stories that hit too close to home. It's so far from secret-agent stuff that he forgets he even has a code name until he returns from getting lunch to find his co-workers murdered. He contacts people higher up in the agency, but can he really trust Higgins (Cliff Robertson) or anyone else there? And it's not like Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), the random civilian he takes hostage, has any reason to trust him.

The plot of Three Days of the Condor could be transplanted to the present day without much modification; the world hasn't changed that much. The characters would use the computer more and punchcards less, and of course cell phones would replace telephone booths (I wonder if veteran spies grumble about the cost of a disposable phone versus the spare change a pay phone took). There can be little argument that the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel is plenty efficient, considering that the name of the James Grady novel being adapted is "Six Days of the Condor", and that winds up being a somewhat interesting contrast of narrative demands: As fast as the pursuit of Condor must be for the villains to seem effective, the relationship between him and Kathy needs a little time to play out.

Full review at EFC.

The MacKintosh Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Cloak & Dagger, 35mm)

The MacKintosh Man is a spy flick that could probably be a crime or caper story if the characters never mentioned being spies, and it might be better received that way. It still wouldn't be one of the first movies a person thought of when star Paul Newman, director John Huston, or screenwriter Walter Hill is mentioned, but it might be remembered a little more fondly than it is.

It starts with a plan: Rearden (Paul Newman) is to go undercover in prison, befriend convict Slade (Ian Bannen), whom Her Majesty's government is sure is a spy as well as a felon, and be around when "The Scarperers" help him escape so that they can crush the organization. Naturally, things don't entirely go as planned - Rearden has a long wait, only his supervisor MacKintosh (Harry Andrews) and his assistant Mrs. Smith (Dominiqu Sanda) know about his existence, and MP Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) aims to make political hay when the escape actually does happen.

Maybe Paul Newman isn't exactly the right guy to play the title character; he's an undeniably American actor playing a Brit masquerading as an Australian, and it exacerbates an issue many stories about undercover agents can have of making it hard to get a handle on the protagonist. Sure, wandering accent aside, Rearden is not that complicated - a rough-and-tumble type who seems to get a kick out of how this particular assignment lets him indulge in his criminal tendencies. Add in an eye for the ladies and it's a role Newman generally plays fairly well. He's good here, make no mistake; the part is not complicated but right in his wheelhouse.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dust Up

I'll readily admit, I didn't really love Dust Up, but enjoyed it a lot more than I usually do this sort of movie (said it before, will say it again - when you set out to emulate bad movies, the result is usually a bad movie). It's an acquired taste, but I think filmmaker Ward Roberts is either very canny or very lucky in how he plays it tongue in cheek. A lot of people would be mocking the genre or the shortcomings of older movies, but this one tends to laugh at the more modern, jaded characters being injected into the scenario.

Anyway, given that the hosts were actually asking for pictures, here's a bit of Horrible Photography:
Amber Benson & Mike Snoonian
Actress Amber Benson & Host Mike Snoonian

... and that's the better of the two I took.

Ms. Benson is probably best known for being on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a good chunk of its latter years (though she wasn't actually featured in the opening credits until her last episode), and it's kind of interesting to see how she and other recurring cast members from that show have done a decent job of using the connections an actor can more easily make with genre fans to build a career that they can control a little more. It helps to genuinely enjoy that material, and she certainly seem to.

I must also say, I'm fairly impressed by what Snoonian and partner-in-crime at All Things Horror have done. I've got no idea what their numbers are in terms of readership, but their screening series has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few months. Where before, their shows were almost entirely in the Somerville's micro-cinema (which is pretty micro, seating maybe fifty), this and last month's Etheria Film Festival played in one of their "regular" screens. At least part of their Shudderfest 2012 (Friday the 26th's screening of American Mary) will be playing on the main screen.

Gotta admit, it has me tempted to try and build a similar screening series for sci-fi/action movies or the like. Maybe next year, I'll actually try and network some at festivals next year or do much better about responding to emails and see if I can get some of the good stuff from Fantasia to show up in Boston (honestly, I'd love to get The Kick on a local screen).

Dust Up

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2012 in Somerville Theatre #4 (All Things Horror Presents, Blu-ray)

Dust Up has some very cool opening credits, clever throwbacks to the 1970s exploitation flicks it emulates over a rocking soundtrack; it's got a couple of nifty posters along those lines, too. Like those movies, the actual product is seldom as awesome as advertised, although they replicate and exaggerate the fun parts better than most.

You wouldn't necessarily think that a guy who lost an eye in the Middle East would want to settle in another desert, but that's what Jack (Aaron Gaffey) has done, spending most of his time hanging around with Mo (Devin Barry), a Native American twentysomething trying to get back to his roots but not really researching them beyond cliches. He occasionally does work as a handyman, which is how he meets Ella (Amber Benson), a young mother whose husband is earning money as a roadie. Well, that's not right; Herman (Travis Betz) has actually dug himself deep into debt to local bar owner/meth dealer Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett), who wants his money now. Naturally, Jack quickly develops a soft spot for Ella and wants to help.

Of course, things go south in the wackiest, most over-the-top ways possible; the old movies sold on blood and guts and it's almost impossible not to attack a project like this without irony. The good news is, writer/director/producer/editor Ward Roberts has a decent handle on how much of each the movie needs. There's plenty of gore, and even when it's played for a joke, the joke is more often "that's horrible!" than "ha ha that looks so fake!" Similarly, when it's smirking at the characters and their actions, it mostly for being ridiculous as individuals as opposed to just mocking genre staples. That's nice; it makes the film's goofiness its own rather than just parody.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 12 October 2012 - 18 October 2012

Another weekend packed full of releases, some of which are coming with impressive festival/pre-release buzz.

  • Take Argo, for instance, the new one from director and star Ben Affleck, in which he plays a CIA agent charged with helping US Embassy staff excape Iran after the infamous 1979 attack. The plan? Enter posing as a film crew looking to shoot a science fiction film there and exit with the hidden diplomats in tow. Great premise with an all-star cast, and Affleck has built a solid reputation on Gone Baby Gone and The Town. It plays the Coolidge, the Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common. The Tuesday evening show at the Coolidge is an "Off the Couch" screening with an introduction and post-film discussion courtesy of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society.

    That's on the film screens at the Coolidge (as is The Master, which should still look nice as it plays in 35mm as opposed to 70); they also open Girl Model on (mostly) the tiny GoldScreen. It's an impressive documentary by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin in which they follow both a sweet young girl from Siberia and an American talent scout who recruits her as a model for Japan. Give it a look; I saw it at IFFBoston and wanted a shower afterward in the best way. It's especially astonishing when you consider that the scout is the one who came to the filmmakers. The movie will also screen as part of the UMass Boston Film Series, with the filmmakers on-hand for Q&A, on Tuesday the 16th at 7pm

    There are two midnight movies playing Friday and Saturday; the "Fresh Blood" selection is V/H/S, a very uneven anthology of found-footage horror (I liked about two of six), while the "Oc-Tobe-r" selection is Lifeforce, in which a mission to Halley's Comet returns with a beautiful woman who is actually a space vampire. Notable for Mathilda May being naked a lot.
  • Also getting some very good buzz is Seven Psychopaths, which reunites Collin Farrell with In Bruges director Martin McDonagh (haven't seen In Bruges? Do so; it's good!). He plays a screenwriter who gets pulled into chaos when his grifter friends kidnap a mobsters yappy dog. It plays Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond. Then there's Sinister, the new horror movie by the writer/director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In this one, Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime writer who moves his family into the house where the latest murders he's researching took place, only to stumble upon something paranormal. The folks I know who saw it at at FantasticFest loved it; it plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common.

    Less with the good advance buzz? Here Comes the Boom, which features Kevin James as a high school teacher who moonlights as a mixed martial arts fighter to raise money for extracurricular activities (this is funny, you see, because Kevin James is not in great shape). It plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. The latter two also pick up Atlas Shrugged Part II: Either-Or, which is just weird - the first lost money and was panned, so doing a second seems to be against its very principles. The second part of the trilogy also has a new director and an almost completely new cast (to be fair, the first was produced on a deadline to avoid losing rights, and most of the new cast looks like an upgrade; still, gonna be weird when watching the whole trilogy if it gets finished).
  • The Paperboy opens at Kendall Square; it features Matthew McConnaughey as a reporter returning home to investigate a possible miscarriage of justice, at the behest of the accused's lover (Nicole Kidman). It's from the director of Precious and the cast also includes Zac Efron, John Cuzack, David Oyelowo and Scott Glenn, and, yes, it's that movie with Kidman and Efron. You don't know what that means? Good; I wouldn't want to ruin it for you.

    The scheduled one-week run is Keep the Lights On, an adequate chronicle of a ten-year-long troubled romance buffeted by immaturity and addiction. Also likely to only last one week is The Other Dream Team, a documentary on the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, who aside from helping forge a post-Communist identity for the nation also found themselves tight with the Grateful Dead.

    Make sure you check the times at Kendall from Monday to Thursday; they will apparently be downgrading to digital projection during those days, and not all screens will be functioning on all days.
  • Special treat at the Brattle this week: A new 35mm print of Wake in Fright (aka Outback), a harrowing film from 1971 about a teacher stranded in a small outback town who quickly spirals into a haze of alcohol, madness, and violence. Nearly lost, it's been recovered and restored; I saw it at Fantasia a year ago and it's great stuff. The Brattle's programmers have also put together an Outback Gothic Sidebar of movies to play along side it: Double features of Mad Max & The Road Warrior on Saturday and Walkabout & Picnic at Hanging Rock on Sunday. Walkabout also plays Tuesday, and Peter Weir's The Last Wave plays Wednesday.

    No movies on Thursday; that's a Union Square Round Table live event. Monday night offers the latest CineCaché screening, Headshot, a crime movie by Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang about an ex-cop-turned-assassin whose world is literally turned upside down by a bullet to the head.
  • No particular theme at ArtsEmerson this weekend beyond being adaptations of books: Friday Night Lights and Mystic River on Friday, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Saturday afternoon, with House of Sand and Fog and Gone Baby Gone playing that evening, and Election Sunday afternoon. All play off DVD.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues The Mysteries of Michelangelo Antonioni: The Girlfriends and The Lady Without Camelias on Friday, The Cry and Red Desert on Saturday, a second screening of La Notte Sunday afternoon, and The Vanquished on Monday. Sunday evening they pay tribute to a different filmmaker, Jordan Belson with a program of 16mm short films made between 1952 and 2011 presented by Cindy Keefer of the Center for Visual Music.
  • The MFA has the tail end of the The 6th Annual Boston Palestine Film Festival on Friday and Saturday, with four new pictures between those days. Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps plays Friday and Sunday and will pop up again next Friday as well. There's a screening of the 2008 Brideshead Revisited on Saturday afternoon to tie into the "Cheers! Celebrate Enchanted England" program inspired by the England-centric exhibits running there. Sunday the 14th is the last screening of Downeast (have a Redmon & Sabin documentary double feature by heading to the Coolidge afterward!). Wednesday the 16th has a "Jazz on Film" entry, 'Round Midnight.
  • The Indian films screen at Fresh Pond is mostly Brothers in Tamil and Telegu this week, although there is one Hindi film with English subtitles playing scattered showtimes this week: Aiyyaa, starring Rani Mukerji as a woman who sees her life as a movie looking for love
  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington actually has a fairly busy week. Friday night is the latest installment of The Boston Bike Film Festival, a full evening of music and bicycle-related short films. Tuesday the 16th is a screening of Music from the Big House, in which blues singer Rita Chiarelli travels to Louisianna's Angola Prison to play for (and with) inmates serving life sentences. And on Wednesday, they begin the 2nd Annual Arlington International Film Festival begins, running until Sunday the 21st and featuring films highlighting international art and culture.

... Wait, Atlas Shrugged 2 gets two screens on the same subway line but we're not getting The Thieves at all? That is some bull--

Anyway, my plans involve Argo, Sinister, Lifeforce, Seven Psychopaths, Headshot, The Paperboy, and the Mad Max double feature. My plans are probably more ambitious than is reasonable.