Friday, November 30, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 30 November 2012 - 6 December 2012

This one's for you. No, really; I don't think I'll be able to make much use of it myself.

  • At any rate, the holdovers mostly dominate the theaters, with only a couple of wide releases. Maybe just one, Killing Them Softly, the new one from writer/director Andrew Dominik which features Brad Pitt as a fixer who gets involved when two young punks rob a card game and incur the wrath of the mob. Dominik did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so there's a good chance that this will be less a straight thriller than it looks. It plays Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    Boston Common also gets The Collection, a horror movie of the "torment and deathtrap" variety whose predecessor, The Collector, barely made a blip in theaters.
  • Kendall Square also picks up a pair of new documentaries this week. The Waiting Room is a fly-on-the-wall look at a day in an Oakland, CA emergency room and its lobby. It looks to be frantic but informative. It's scheduled for a week, with director Peter Nicks and Producer Bill Hirsch making appearances at the Friday and Saturday shows.

    The other documentary is The Flat, in which director Arnon Goldfinger stumbles upon mysterious documents when cleaning out his late grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment, which lead him back to World War II, the Holocaust, and a family's hidden personal history.
  • Aw, the Universal series is almost over at The Brattle, although they're squeezing four double features and a bonus screening into three days to send it out in style. Friday's twin bill features sizzling chemistry and banter with Destry Rides Again & Out of Sight. Saturday is split three ways, with a matinee pairing of Babe and Francis the Talking Mule, while the evening pairs the original version of The Wolf Man with Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. The late show is also a Universal production, but the focus is as much on Keir-La Janisse introducing and signing her book House of Psychotic Women (which combines memoir and criticism) as screening Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie. And on Sunday, they finish up with a great pairing of Back to the Future and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

    After that month-long marathon, they'll be taking Monday off, but will re-open Tuesday to finish off the week with one-off programs. Balagan presents "In Captivity" that day, a selection of three shorts and a feature that ponder constraints. Margaret Talbot will visit on Wednesday with her biography of father Lyle Talbot, The Entertainer, and will follow it up with one of his films, Three on a Match. And on Wednesday, they bring back Miami Connection, the much-lauded recently-rediscovered bit of 1980s action insanity.
  • The Coolidge keeps Anna Karenina and Argo on the main screens, but shuffles A Late Quartet and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters the the GoldScreen so that Mahler on the Couch can have the larger video screening room. It posits composer Gustav Mahler consulting with Sigmund Freud on his relationship with his wife. Fittingly, there's an "Off the Couch" screening with introduction and discussion by members of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society on Sunday the 2nd (at 7pm).

    The midnights this week are both at least partially live shows: Friday night, band The Austerity Program will hit the stage around a screening of a documentary about their label Hydra Head, Blood, Sweat + Vinyl, with the screening helping to pay off the defunct label's bills. Saturday night, meanwhile, is the annual Boston Burlesque Marathon, with 100 acts running straight through to breakfast.

    Keeping with the stage theme, Sunday morning has a ballet simulcast of "The Pharaoh's Daughter" from the Bolshoi Ballet, and Monday evening is a special screening of Christopher Plummer in Barrymore, a film version of his and director Erik Canuel's one-man stage show in which acting legend John Barrymore reflects on his career; it also features Backstage with Barrymore, a documentary on the making of the production.
  • ArtsEmerson
  • wraps up their calendar until the new year with a program inspired by the Beauty and the Beast story. The classic Jean Cocteau version La Belle et la Bête screens Friday night, while Guillermo del Toro's adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth plays Friday evening and Saturday night. The animated part of the program is not Disney's film, but DreamWorks's How to Train Your Dragon, which runs Saturday afternoon. I'm not sure just how Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express fits in, but that plays Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Chungking Express is projected via Blu-ray; the others are 35mm (which means Dragon is 2D).

  • The Harvard Film Archive spends the weekend saluting outspoken Persian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in Jafar Panahi: This is Not a Retrospective. The name comes from his latest work, This is Not a Film, an interview/documentary shot during his recent house arrest that skirts his ban on making movies by handing the camera to co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and visitors, which screens Friday and Sunday evenings. Also screenings are The Circle (Friday night), The Mirror (Saturday evening), Crimson Gold (Saturday night), The White Balloon (Sunday afternoon), and Offside (Monday evening).
  • The MFA spends much of the week presenting documentary and short film competitors from the Boston Turkish Fesival, with programs on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday; programs will screen at Goethe-Institut on Monday and Boston University on Tuesday and Thursday. Saturday also features a couple interesting matinees - Jules Dassin's The Naked City wraps up the "New York City: A Must of Modern Art" screening program, and All Through the Evening captures pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe's annual concert of works by composer friends who died of AIDS. The film is free (presented by the Boston LGBT Film Festival) and will be followed by a live performance by Ms. Stern-Wolfe.

    On Wednesday the 5th, they open a limited engagement of Neighboring Sounds, a new film from Brazil about a coastal town whose principal family is threatened by the private security brought in after a series of minor crimes. It plays once a day through Sunday the 9th.
  • The Regent Theatre has two one-night bookings: "Choose Your Adventure", on Tuesday the 4th, is a ski film by Powderwhore Productions, which follows great skiers and snowboarders around the world from Chile to Norway. There's another doc on Thursday evening, Wild Horse Wild Ride, which shows how wild horses rounded up from public lands are trained and then sold at auction, with their trainers sometimes bidding against the public.
  • The Bollywood option at Fresh Pond this week is Talaash, a thriller starring Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, and Rani Mukerji in a story about a detective who has recently lost his son and must untangle the murder of a Bollywood star.

My plans? Well, I'm heading out on vacation later this afternoon, and while I'm sure my days will be packed, I wouldn't be surprised if I fit a movie in during the evenings. Anyone know what's playing in London this week?

Faith, storytelling, and mythology for the family: Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi

Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi seem mostly connected by happenstance - they came out the same day, both have a PG rating, both are being released in 3D (and, having been built for it from the ground up, look pretty good that way). What's surprising, though, is that they are similar in other ways.

Both, for example, key on belief and faith. The characters in Pi talk about God a lot, with Pi embracing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim belief systems as ways to connect with something larger than human understanding. The Guardians never call themselves gods, but the introduction of Jack is kind of heady - his narration talks of awakening without memories, but it doesn't play like amnesia so much as knowing he's an elemental force of some sort. The story goes back on this, giving Jack a backstory, but it's good enough to let stand. At any rate, each presents the divine as unknowable; even the Guardians know there's something more powerful out there, a Man in the Moon who only communicates obliquely.

For all that both talk about higher powers, though, both are arguably pretty rationalist in certain ways. The Guardians, for instance, are only powerful and able to interact wtih the world to the extent that they are believed in. Similarly, Pi's father points him toward science as the way to understand the world, showing that nature (as personified by the tiger) does play by human rules - the humanity and intelligence one sees there is a reflection of one's self.

You can get into fights over that stuff if you're so inclined - I doubt Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel would be particularly fond of my atheist's interpretation that Pi only sees the hand of God in his survival because he's got a tendency to see it everywhere - after all, what about all the other people he didn't help? If the chances of survival are one in a thousand, is it so odd that someone survived? Pi looks at his story and, man of faith that he is, says "God put me in this situation as opposed to admitting that while his individual survival was unlikely, it's not unbelievable that someone would survive.

What's really kind of interesting, though, is that both movies teach about storytelling. For Pi, it's obvious; at the end, we're given an alternate version of the story that parallels the one we've been hearing, and the audience is given the chance to choose which version is "real". The answer chosen within the film is not necessarily the more believable one, but the one that makes a better story, even if they are roughly equivalent. Meanwhile, Guardians is talking about character "centers", and while it's a "know thyself" sort of discussion, the way Santa demonstrates it with the nesting dolls both calls back how he knows he's an idea along with a person, and he's built up around that idea. You can probably spend some time talking about it that way with a clever kid, how this Santa was built up from that basic idea, which must be present, no matter what is added to it.

Rise of the Guardians

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, Real-D)

When writing about something like Rise of the Guardians, I sort of wish I lived close enough to my brothers that I could borrow a niece to come with me and tell me what she thinks afterwards. There's a contradiction at the heart of this movie - it builds a complex mythology around the likes of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and I wonder if it's too much to grasp for those young enough to really buy into it. The ambition is admirable and often impressively realized, but who does it fully work for?

The basic story is graspable enough: Pitch Black (voice of Jude Law), the Bogeyman, has learned how to hijack the pleasant dreams sent by the Sandman, which leads Sandy and the other Guardians of Childhood - Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (voice of Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy (voice of Isla Fisher) to meet at the North Pole, where the Man in the Moon informs them that their group will need a new member to counter this threat: Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine). Of course, Jack's not interested in that sort of responsibility, and most of the other Guardians are none to fond of him anyway.

Give the folks at DreamWorks (and original Guardians of Childhood author William Joyce) their due: There are a lot of variants on the "legends and folklore characters are real") angle floating around right now, but this is certainly one of the most eye-catching. Santa's workshop, the Easter Bunny's warren, the Tooth Fairy's headquarters and Pitch's dark mirror thereof are all gorgeously, ornately designed, impressive combinations of polish and whimsy built from the ground up to look especially amazing in 3D. The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro is definitely felt with that loving attention to detail, and the character designs combine action-ready angularity with a comforting softness atop that muscle.

Full review at EFC.

Life of Pi

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, Real-D)

It's hard to overstate just what a good-looking Ang Lee's Life of Pi is. It's not just that Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda shoot beautiful imagery, or that the special effects crew does remarkable work; the merging of the two is some of the most amazing ever done. Practically every frame perfectly balances the real, the fantastic, and the metaphorical about as well as is possible. It's so well-done that, by the end of the movie, one can almost take it for granted.

And that's dangerous, because the moment the viewer isn't thinking about how beautiful it is, he or she might start to find it a little dull. Lee and screenwriter David Magee wind up courting that a little, perhaps, with every cut-away to the present-day Pi which serves to remind the audience that it has been promised not just an adventure, but a story that will make you believe in God. That's setting the bar high, and these two talking makes the movie seem like it has to convince the audience of the story's impressive scale. And it's funny, maybe the movie would have still gone a little slack if it stuck with young Pi on the ocean, but that might have worked - being a castaway in that situation probably would have some boredom-interrupted-by-sudden-terror elements to it, and so it would have been easier to accept.

I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't stick with me afterward, though. Is it a story to make me believe in God? No - I actually think it kind of illustrates the folly of such a belief; Pi's survival is "miraculous" in isolation, but as a data point compared to the dozens who perished horribly, it's merely "unlikely". But, then again, the film has just reminded the audience that what one sees in an animal's eyes is often one's own reflection; might it not also be so for the world at large? A spiritual type like Pi will naturally see God, while the likes of me will see probability.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movies that aren't about what they're about: A Late Quartet and Brooklyn Castle

Someone on a mailing list I subscribe to reviewed Brooklyn Castle, starting out with "even if you're not interested in chess (I'm sure not!), you should see Brooklyn Castle, because it's not really about chess..."

Or something like that. We've all heard or said something like that as a recommendation, and it fits both of these movies to a certain extent: A Late Quartet is less about people who play classical music than a close-knit group pulling itself apart, and Brooklyn Castle is more about how schools enrich kids outside of pure knowledge than chess. Sometimes that's for better, as Brooklyn Castle actually has worthwhile messages to impart about education and the importance of what schools do outside the classroom, and sometimes for worse, as A Late Quartet becomes a pretty standard soap opera.

I must admit, though, that as I say it, I cringe a little bit, even when talking about a movie where this is a benefit. Would it be so bad if Brooklyn Castle was "about chess"? As much as I like the movie, I think a lot of documentaries wind up talking to a too-receptive audience at times because they are trying to influence opinion as opposed to give information. By including "it's not really about..." when we recommend movies, especially documentaries, we do two things: First, we wind up steering films toward people who maybe won't take anything new away from them. It strikes me that it might be useful to use things like the chess in Brooklyn Castle almost like a trojan horse, to deliver a message about how important enrichment programs are to those who might not already be on board.

But more importantly, it means we're recommending stuff by saying that the audience won't learn something new, like that's a positive! It doesn't just hold with documentaries, either; I saw a review of A Late Quartet that implied the classical music stuff was dull and the soap opera material was the interesting drama, which is pretty close to the opposite of how I viewed it. After all, the melodrama was familiar (and not that well-executed), while the music was potentially new. I would have enjoyed learning more. That's an issue I often have with documentaries - the ones I find most fascinating are the ones that deliver knowledge, while the ones I often see praised are often the ones which feature narrative and a message. Even in a narrative feature, though, I really like learning new things, and find it odd that it is so often treated as something only to be reluctantly included in features.

A Late Quartet

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (second-run, digital)

A Late Quartet starts out with a fair amount of promise: It's got a cast full of fine character actors, a somewhat unusual setting in the world of classical music, and a premise that is easy to grasp but which has the potential for great drama. All of this is good enough that when the story wanders into conventional soap opera territory, one might groan a little - all the movie has going for it, and they're going to spend time on this?

The New York-based string quartet "Fugue" has been playing together for about twenty-five years. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the oldest member, plays cello; Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) is first violin; Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is second; and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) plays viola. They're intertwined in other ways, too; Peter is a professor during the off-season and the Gelbarts' daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is in his class, good enough that he recommends Daniel tutor her. It's a cozy situation, but a tremor in Peter's hands turns out to be the early stages of Parkinson's, and medication can only do so much for so long.

Writer/director Yaron Zilberman establishes a couple of interesting and overlapping themes early on: There's the fear of change versus its absolute inevitability; there's how music can be a living, evolving thing from performance to performance or static and practiced, and how people can be much the same. Zilberman doesn't play coy with any of this; heck, Peter ruminates on those sort of things when lecturing Alex's class. But there's something to it, and the details of this particular setting are interesting enough to resonate for even non-enthusiasts.

Full review at EFC.

Brooklyn Castle

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, digital)

Chess isn't the only noteworthy extracurricular at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318 - principal Fred Rubino mentions that marching band and other activities may also have funding issues in one scene of Brooklyn Castle - but the students there are remarkably accomplished at it, having won (as of the time of filming) 57 school, grade-level, and individual trophies since the program began a dozen or so years earlier, and they send dozens of students to tournaments to which schools that don't have sixty percent of their students living below the poverty line only send a handful. That's a bunch of kids with interesting stories that make for a pretty good movie.

The documentary doesn't focus on the whole team, of course, but about a half-dozen students: Rochelle, about to enter high school and on track to become the first black female to attain a "master" rating; Pobo, a gregarious kid and natural leader also involved in student government; Alexis, the son of South American immigrants worried about which high school he'll be accepted to; Justus, a soft-spoken prodigy with confidence issues; James, a much more outgoing sixth-grader with similar talent; and Patrick, a kid with ADHD and an uphill climb to make the travel team. Time is also spent with their families and teachers.

Here's something to ponder - if you made Brooklyn Castle about the marching band, or the swim team, or some other activity, you could make a great many of the same points but get different reactions from the audience. The movie is not, as one might assure potential audience members, "about chess", but chess might seem a particularly worthy activity to viewers, since it seems closer to academics than most of the others. One of the interesting ideas lurking around the edges, though, is that this is not necessarily the case: The kids fill their schedule with up to seven chess classes per week and are just as nervous about placement tests as any student. Rochelle's mother, though supportive, points out that regular schoolwork must come first.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 23, 2012

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

"Mainstream movie geeks" seems like a strange thing to say, but it is a thing. You know you're not quite in that group, though, when the new thing that every genre movie site has been raving comes out and you're like "but... silent movies with Japanese narration!"

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Waiting for Lightning, 10:00am on 18 November 2012 in Coolidge Corner #2

Universal is still turning 100, which means there are still new prints showing up at the Brattle, which means that Usher membership that gets one admission to everything gets a workout with Pillow Talk, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Birds, Jaws, the restored cut of Touch of Evil, and The Killers. Happy birthday to all of us!

Universal's anniversary also ties into the special screening on Sunday night, in a way - Shoes is presented as a follow-up to Where Are My Children?, which was to be part of the Universal series but didn't arrive; here, the focus was on presenting silents with benshi narration, a pretty neat experience thanks the benshi Ichiro Kataoka. That was the end of a long day at the movies, starting at 10am with Waiting for Lightning at the Coolidge, so you will perhaps forgive me for not capping it with Miami Connection afterward.

Paramount's hundredth has been much less fun than Universal's, but the anniversary logo was stuck on Flight, a pretty-good return to live-action cinema from Robert Zemeckis. Somewhere in there, I also saw Possession, an impressively deranged flick from 1981 that got cut to ribbons on its initial US release.

The first ticket in the books for this week, though, was for "An Evening with Tony Buba", on the schedule as part of CineCache but not drawing much of that series' usual group (although the DocYard crowd made up for it. I nearly gave it a pass, planning on hitting the Coolidge's "Science on Screen" presentation instead, but just working a bit late in Burlington makes a 7pm show in Brookline almost impossible. That was okay, though; like the Japanese benshi, learning of a Tony Buba and seeing him in acction helps make film fandom more interesting.

Buba, you see, is a documentary filmmaker who has spent a fairly lengthy career chronicling life in his hometown of Braddock, PA. Many of those films have been shorts, shot in black and white on 16mm film, the work of a craftsman who focuses on something he feels passionate about rather than necessarily trying to propel his career to the next level. It's a sort of work that, I suspect, will never sell a lot of DVDs or get a lot of hits on media streaming sites as entertainment, but will be tremendously valuable to future generations who want to understand what life was like in this part of the country at this time. There's a reason home movies are as often added to the National Film Registry as commercial works - they're informative in ways beyond the predictable - and Buba's work, especially in the two shorts screened, is illuminating in the ways of an amateur work but with the clarity of the professional's, without ever seeming like he's altering the picture.


Speaking of pictures, that's Mr. Buba on his first visit to Boston, doing a Q&A moderated by Rebecca Myers (nice to see her again after ArtsEmerson scaled back its film program). He's a little grayer and softer than the guy who pops up in the movies screened; the most recent, Lightning Over Braddock, was from 1988. He turns out to be quite the affable fellow, sharing some stories of working with Pittsburgh's other great independent filmmaker, George Romero, giving updates on the people in the film, greeting old friends, and telling a story about how he was offered the job of editing Roger & Me but turned it down because he was looking for money up-front instead of on the back-end, since it's not like documentaries ever make any money.

Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché/DocYard, 16mm)

As a result, I kind of wish I was more able to love Lightning Over Braddock. It's a fascinating sort of movie, made during the mid/late-eighties when the transformation of America's "Iron Belt" to the "Rust Belt" was starting to not just pick up steam but be noticed by the greater population. This enables Buba to make a feature, but he doesn't want to make one that gets lost in the crowd or makes his beloved home town seem generic.

So he makes a movie that is more about the making of a movie about Braddock than actually being that thing, and that's kind of fun. I suspect that it's even more fun for those who have seen more of his previous work; many of the main figures in this movie have been the subject of Buba shorts, so the effect might be like a writer pulling everything he does together, with the added kick of Buba stepping back and talking about the process and parodying the endeavor. It doesn't hurt that he has cultivated an enjoyable cast of characters over the years, especially Sal Carollo. Sal's a hustler with an inflated idea of his own popularity and the fame and fortune to come from independent documentary films, and Buba has fun staging scenes where Sal gets riled up even as he has to deal with the guy being quite erratic.

I think doing something feature-length gets away from Buba a bit, especially since Lightning Over Braddock is in many ways the story of a man looking for a story, and I kind of got the idea that it would have gone on forever if Sal hadn't thrown a monkey wrench into it by the end (even then, it sort of wanders aimlessly for a bit, though the cameo by George Romero is fun). It generally works; when all is said and done Buba has both given a snapshot of Braddock and sent up snapshots of places like Braddock as a documentary genre. I just found myself a little more fatigued at the end than a long work-day would explain.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2012 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, digital 4K)

Robert Zemeckis is not a subtle guy; the first song on the soundtrack of this movie about a man battling addiction issues is "Alcohol" by Barenaked Ladies (though I doubt many radio stations today would be playing it when an alarm clock goes off; was it ever even released as a single?), and it's not the last on-the-nose music cue in that scene, let alone the film as a whole. It's pretty clear where he's going with this from the start.

It's still pretty enjoyable in the details, though. The crash-landing and everything leading up to it that really puts the story in motion is the sort of technical challenge that Zemeckis has spent his career diving into (I half-wonder if his return to live-action was as much motivated by the desire for new challenges as studios shutting down motion-capture projects), and he's good at that sort of thing, making it tense and impressive without the flash getting in the way. After that, it's Denzel Washington's show

Washington is good at this sort of thing; he's able to project the charm and capability that doesn't blunt the character's arrogance at all but makes it tolerable. The comparison between Washington's Whip and fellow addict Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly) is pretty simple - her near-death experience frightens her to the core, while Whip being initially shaken doesn't take, as he's too certain that he's capable of handling anything. What Washington does is get us to believe that he has a better nature underneath the impulsiveness and selfishness, and Zemeckis does a nice job of making sure the film doesn't drag as we see bits of that underneath Whip's uglier qualities.

Pillow Talk

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Sometime, someone is going to explain the charm of movies like Pillow Talk to me. Visually, I get it; the bright colors pop in widescreen Technicolor, there's a good-looking cast with a fair amount of charm, and a good line or two. But get right down to it, and the story involves a selfish jerk (Rock Hudson) who responds to the valid complaints of the woman who shares his party line (Doris Day) by seducing and taunting her, in the process screwing over his best friend (Tony Randall)... And we're apparently supposed to root for the pair to get together?

Ehhh, no. Maybe if Hudson's and Day's characters were a bit more interesting, but they're sort of blanks. Amusing and good-looking enough, sure, but between them having a hard time showing as much personality as Tony Randall does; he's at least entertainingly dry. The music's good, too, if shoehorned in.

It's funny; I like Down with Love, which is an homage to this sort of movie, but the personalities are more fun.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie through and through, even if it strives for something more elevated in the final moments. It is, however, one of the very best of the B's. The filmmakers do an impressive job of generally playing the story of a man shrinking down to nothing straight even if it is kind of a goofy idea, and not overstating the size of the movie. The focus stays squarely on the title character, and doesn't become a bigger story than its characters are suited for.

As absurd as the story is, director Jack Arnold and company execute fairly well. The moment when Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is exposed to a strange mist is appropriately eerie, and the oversized sets and props used to throw off one's sense of scale as Scott shrinks are as good as you could hope for. It's not going to trick anyone into thinking it's real, but it looks just mismatched enough to sell the audience on how Scott no longer fits into the world around him. He's not the world's greatest actor, but it's not like he has a huge range of emotions to portray, and he provides fair beefcake when he's shrunk too small for clothes.

Richard Matheson adapts his own novel, and there are times when he seems to love his words a little much - the only bit of narration that really feels necessary is the last bit, which gives the movie a grandeur that it might not otherwise have; much of the rest is clumsy (although sometimes hinting at interesting story elements that aren't fully followed up). The adventure elements in the basement are pretty terrific, though, making a spider a genuine threat.

The Birds

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The Birds is a lot better than I remember, but what surprised me when watching it this time around is just how ahead of its time it is. It's hardly the first nature-gone-amok horror movie, but its construction is surprisingly modern: Extended getting-to-know you at the start, occasional quick-cutting, and an explosion that seems somewhat shoehorned in. I'm not necessarily complaining about this - Hitchcock was really inventing the modern horror movie here and in Psycho, and it's kind of thrilling to see: Even as much of The Birds is a slow burn, the occasional choppy, frantic feeling heightens the usual panic, and the gas station explosion is one of the best of the type, especially with the broad, overhead views Hitch gives us.

Of course, a little bit of "ahead of its time" is "special effects are not quite where they need to be yet". A lot of the blue-screening is fairly rough, and not all the birds are convincing in close-up. If Hitchcock had a bit of later technology at his disposal, he would have made something even more amazing. But what he's got is plenty good; the way he fills the screen with birds whose malevolence is ready to explode makes how things look when it actually happens just an enhancement.

It's a nice cast, too. Tippi Hedren is not just stunningly beautiful, but makes a kind of shallow heroine a lot of fun to watch. Rod Taylor makes the man she follows to Bodega Bay charming but kind of simplistic in the way he tries to grab moral high ground. The whole group is great fun to watch together; they'd be fun to watch even if there wasn't the potential for birds to attack out of nowhere, which makes for a great foundation when the horror erupts out of nowhere.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Jaws, similarly, is better than I remembered, and I remember it being pretty darn good. One thing I always forget is just how fast the thing moves: The first shark attack comes right at the top, there's just enough "trying to save the Fourth of July" material to give the whole thing some context, and then all hell breaks loose, leading to the final act which is arguably the the reason you have the rest of the movie: Brody, Quint, and Hooper on the boat, hunting the shark while showing just what a motley crew they are.

And that last act is fantastic. There are a lot of things that go into making it that way: Spielberg, even at this early point, could direct the heck out of an action scene, and the way he feeds the audience just enough information about how everything on board this ship works so that nothing ever seems to come out of nowhere. More directors should re-learn that a great deal of suspense comes from knowing characters' limits and that of the things around them.

Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss play off each other amazingly well; it's kind of amazing how the dynamic goes from Brody and Hooper feeling frustrated by the seemingly-insane Quint to Brody being the outsider as the two nautical types bond. They're none of them complicated characters, but the audience understands who they are perfectly, and they seem like much more complete people than the simple archetypes they could be.

Also worth noting: The new 35mm print the Brattle had (struck for the anniversary series, and likely the basis for the new DVD/BD) is pretty darn gorgeous. I suspect that I've seen the shooting stars in this movie before, but they're a great example of just how clear the image is.

Touch of Evil (restored cut)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

It boggles the mind that Universal originally cut the long tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil and overlaid the main titles; it's such a great shot from the very first bit, where the guy slides into the frame and sets the timer on the bomb in a bit of showmanship that the movies generally try to avoid but which is such a perfect kick-off for such a flashy sequence.

That's just the start of a pretty darn great movie, perhaps the greatest example of the type where who the murderer is winds up being far less important than how he's pursued, with Charlton Heston's upright Mexican Federale Miguel Vargas a sharp contrast with Orson Welles's corrupt local American cop, while the gangsters "Mike" is trying to covict attempt to use wife Janet Leigh for leverage. That's the cat-and-mouse game one remembers at the end, with the resolution of the murder itself almost an afterthought.

Most of the fun, naturally, comes from watching the cast work off each other in this situation. Heston is smooth and righteous without being a prig, and the idea that Welles's uncouth drunk would look down on Vargas is absurd but tragic. Leigh is kind of a gas as Miguel's American wife - the way she acts in the movie implies the sort of rebellious streak that can come from being comfortably well-off; it's never said that her marrying a Mexican detective was scandalous for her Philadelphia family, but you can tell she would have enjoyed that feeling. Then there's Joseph Calleia as Welles's loyal partner, whose bluster becomes almost tragic when he realizes that he's perhaps been willfully ignorant.

At some point, I'll have to watch the original theatrical cut (this "memo version" has almost completely displaced it). I'll probably like it, because the story itself is a good one, but I suspect the focus will be more on the mystery rather than the detectives, which isn't the most interesting part.

The Killers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Similarly, The Killers is a somewhat unconventional murder mystery, although it's the telling that is less typical as opposed to the characters. After all, star Burt Lancaster is dead by the end of the first act, and we'll learn his story in flashbacks as insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) traces his story back.

It's a corker, filled with double-crosses, stolen loves, and a caper gone quite wrong. Lancaster's Ole "The Swede" Anderson is never quite a hero, but more the sort of big dumb lug who gets in way over his head because as much as he doesn't mind breaking the law, he's not the sort of inherently ruthless person his rivals are. It's easy to see why he falls for Ava Gardner's Kitty, even if she's not exceptionally sketched-out.

One of the reasons that The Killers really succeeds is that both the present-day and flashback scenes are equally enjoyable. Lancaster and Gardner are jumping through the film noir hoops as well as can be expected, but it's just as much fun to watch O'Brien and Sam Levene (playing a cop who knew The Swede back in the old days) become friends and work off each other on a quest not so much to save The Swede's good name or recover money for the insurance company as do one last good thing for a guy they've grown fond of, despite either years having past or their never meeting. It's a remarkably upbeat way to frame a story that is inherently tragic.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

Here's an odd thing to ponder when watching films from a hundred years ago (and thinking of the society of the same time): Spending all one's time reading evidently was the mark of a useless layabout, as it is with the main character's father, who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva brings in to the family on novels. They're not even particularly labeled junk or pulp; it's just that he's reading!

The story itself is simple enough - the daughter who is the sole person supporting a poor family wants a new pair of shoes, and it's gone well beyond just vanity - what she wears is so close to falling apart that one strongly suspects that she won't be able to keep the job much longer if they frown on working barefoot; it seems like a reasonable investment for the family, really. But there's always some reason to put it off and they take her for gratned, so what scandalous thing will she do...?

In some ways, it's almost comical just how horrified the reactions are in the end, even if the guy in question has been built up as vaguely scummy. The main problem with the mmovie, really, is that for "a film in five acts", it feels like it could be compacted to a short with little damage; the characters just don't do very much other than restate their poverty and the father's laziness again and again. Director Lois Weber actually does a fairly impressive job of not making this drag and the movie runs just under one hour, but the breathlessness of the scandal and the earestness of the opening titles makes for a strange time capsule.

"A Dog's Life"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

I'll get into this a little more when I get around to reviewing both nights of benshi-narrated silents, but you really haven't seen a Chaplin film until you've seen it with a Japanese guy narrating and performing dialogue for the characters. With the fast-talking way Kataoka-san rattled off what he imagined the Tramp saying, it was almost like a Popeye cartoon at times.

Even without that, it's still a very funny movie, with Chaplin's Little Tramp befriending Scraps, "a thoroughbred mongrel" as they try to scavenge enough to survive on the street and eventually win the love of a woman whose singing at the Green Lantern club is so sad as to reduce all the revelers to tears. There's a bunch of quality slapstick and pathos that never really gets sappy... What more could one want from a Chaplin movie?

An Evening with Tony Buba
Pillow Talk
The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Birds & Jaws
Touch of Evil & The Killers
Shoes & A Dog's Life

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 November 2012 - 29 November 2012

Holiday week, so two opening dates to keep track of - and some pretty interesting films.

  • With the long holiday week that involves kids being off from school, the multiplexes are filling with ways to entertain the whole family. Two of those come in the form of big 3D releases: Life of Pi comes from director Ang Lee and has certainly been pushing the beauty of the scenes were the title character is shipwrecked along with a Bengal Tiger, which makes for a very cramped lifeboat. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common (in both 3D and 2D at all locations) starting Wednesday. Those sites also open Rise of the Guardians on that day, also in both 3D and 2D (the Belmont Studio also opens it, I believe in 2D only); that one is the latest animated film from the busy folks at DreamWorks, in which Jack Frost is recruited by other guardians of childhood innocence (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the tooth fairy) to fight a nightmare creature. I hear it's much better than its description, though it would almost have to be.

    Wednesday is also when one can finally check out the long-delayed Red Dawn remake at Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond; this action/adventure which posits an invasion of the continental United States got hit by MGM's financial troubles and decision to change its Chinese villains to North Koreans, so it likely predates star Chris Hemsworth rising to fame as Thor. Wednesday is also when Silver Linings Playbook adds Fenway to its list of local screens alongside Boston Common.

    On Friday, Boston Common and Kendall Square each open Hitchcock, a star-studden depiction of the making of Psycho which features Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. I've got to say, Hopkins as Hitchcock isn't doing it for me in the previews, but maybe the full length of a movie will help me get over it. (Also scheduled to expand to the Coolidge on 7 December).
  • Kendall Square, in addition to Hitchcock, gets two other movies: On Wednesday, the new movie is A Royal Affair with Alicia Vikander as the Queen of Denmark who fancies the handsome and ambitious court physician (Mads Mikkelsen) over the boorish King (Mikke Boe Foelsgaard). It's Denmark's official Oscar submission and Arcel's worth a look - he directed the entertaining Island of Lost Souls and wrote the screenplay for the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the best of the franchise).

    Two days later, the one-week revival booking of Tristana starts; this is Buñuel film from 1970 features Catherine Deneuve as a beautiful teenage orphan entrusted to a man (Fernando Rey) who seduces her only to find their relationship cause other problems.
  • The Brattle is still in Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years mode and heading into the home stretch. Wednesday is a double feature of The Breakfast Club & Fast Times at Ridgmont High, while a new 35mm print of To Kill a Mockingbird runs on Thanksgiving and the Friday after; Friday also has John Carpenter's The Thing for the 10pm late show. The weekend is about comedy, with a Saturday George Roy Hill/Paul Newman double feature of The Sting (new 35mm print!) and Slap Shot on Saturday and a comedy marathon on Sunday, which has two from W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) and two from Abbot & Costello (Buck Privates and Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Tuesday is Apollo 13, Wednesday the 28th is mostly-silent early talkie Lonesome (presented digitally), and Thursday the 29th is a double feature of Do the Right Thing and Blue Collar.

    There's also a CineCache screening scheduled for Monday, but the film has not yet been announced.
  • ArtsEmerson is actually running a (mostly) Thanksgiving-themed series of "Holiday Homecomings" this weekend, with Pieces of April on Friday night, Home for the Holidays Friday evening & Saturday night, and Hannah and Her Sisters Saturday evening & Sunday afternoon. The not-strictly-Thanksgiving movie is The Incredibles, which plays Friday and Saturday afternoon. That one's on 35mm; the others are projected from DVD.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is dark Friday, but finishes up the weekend with three more screenings of Possession (once Saturday, twice Sunday) before welcoming Andrew Bujalski back on Monday to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Funny Ha Ha being filmed (it wasn't released until 2004) with a new 35mm print. Yes, folks, mumblecore is ten years old. There are also VES screenings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • the MFA finishes up its November calendar with more screenings of Tales of the Night on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday (that's the 28th & 29th). Those days also have screenings of Orchestra of Exiles, the new documentary by Sound and Fury director Josh Aronson, a co-presentation with the recently-completed Boston Jewish Film Festival that recounts the tale of Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish violinist who rescued enough Jewish musicians from Nazi Germany to form one of the world's great orchestras. Aside from those bookings, there's also a screening of The Naked City on Tuesday afternoon (repeated on Saturday the 1st) that concludes their "New York City: A Muse for Modern Art" course.
  • Holiday weekends mean it's time for sing-along screenings at the Regent Theatre, and for the days after Thanksgiving that means Sing-Along Mary Poppins, where the 35mm print has lyrics printed on-screen so that the audience can join in. there are three shows Friday and two each on Saturday and Sunday, with costumes encouraged and props provided. On Wednesday, they've got another run of Hendrix 70: Live at Woodstock for those more into rock & roll.
  • The Somerville Theatre shuffles the pretty good A Late Quartet out after Thanksgiving, with The Perks of Being a Wallflower taking its place on the last screen on Friday. Their sister cinema, the Arlington Capitol, may be opening two new releases on Wednesday, but makes room for The Sessions on their smallest screen starting Friday.
  • The Coolidge just keeps on with Anna Karenina, Argo, A Late Quartet, and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters; not even late shows for special engagements this weekend.

My plans? Thanksgiving in Maine (though low-key, with many family members in Florida or at in-laws'), Life of Pi, Hitchcock, A Royal Affair, and maybe the two at the Museum along with some Universal goodness.

Waiting for Lightning

This edition of Talk Cinema was a little different, in that instead of the typical post-film discussion, we had a Q&A. Bring on the horrible photography!

Bret Anthony Johnston & Michael Phillips

That's Waiting for Lightning writer Bret Anthony Johnston & Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, who I think is the first out-of-town critic I can remember hosting one of these sessions. It was a fortuitous but somewhat ad-hoc situation, too - until just a day or two before the screening, it was Silver Linings Playbook scheduled for this slot until, well, it was no longer a preview, opening at Boston Common on Friday. It worked out, because Johnston happens to teach creative writing at Harvard and was able to join us for a Q&A rather than go skateboard himself that morning.

The position of a writer on a documentary is interesting; he mentioned that he wrote a profile of the film's subject - skateboarder Danny Way - for a magazine some years earlier, and described the job in this case as coming in after photography was mostly done in order to help shape the thing by taking the hundreds of hours of interview transcripts and piecing it together to tell a story. That makes sense, although that would be a completely backwards way to make a fictional film.

One point he returned to a couple of times was that Way is apparently one of the most articulate people on the subject of pain he's ever spoken to. At first I thought he was talking about emotional pain, but he actually meant literal, physical pain. It's kind of easy to nod half-seriously about that, seeing some of the falls he takes on a skateboard in this movie, but Johnston described him as being able to converse like a doctor on that subject despite only getting through his freshman year of high school and otherwise speaking like a dropout. And that's kind of interesting, since it implies not just familiarity, but an instinctive understanding of a specialized subject. It's probably a big part of why he's been able to rise to the top of his field and innovate there; being able to recognize what one's body is capable of handling has probably kept him from being scared off or Darwin-ing himself out of the game.

Waiting for Lightning

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Talk Cinema, digital)

Most extreme sports movies sell spectacle; if one has been booked for a night or two at a local theater before hitting the shelves at the local ski/surf/skate shop, you can usually bet on quality photography of impressive feats in nice locations. Waiting for Lightning is different; although it's got a heck of a stunt at its center, it is primarily a biography of the man who attempted it and what got him there.

That man is Danny Way, a skateboarding prodigy from Vista, CA, who excelled at an unusually young age, dropping out of school and turning pro when he was fifteen. While he mastered street skating after the skate parks where he grew up in started closing down, those were clearly his first love, and he recreated those experiences on a grand scale with "Megaramp". As the movie opens in 2005, he's planning a record-setting Megaramp stunt - jumping the Great Wall of China.

Even a large-scale stunt like the China jump is over relatively quickly, so director Jacob Rosenberg and writer Bret Anthony Johnston spend some time building up to it. Some of that time is spent on the literal building, and it might have been interesting to take a somewhat closer look at that if the footage were available; what we see of American designers working with a Chinese crew on a structure that must be built quickly but within precise specifications would be the basis of a nifty "how things work" documentary. This might especially be the case for non-skaters who only see the fearlessness involved as opposed to the physics of the ramp and the skill involved.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


This one looked neat at Fantasia this summer - it played as part of the series tied to Kier-La Janisse's book House of Psychotic Women, with its poster actually serving as the book's special-edition cover - but I believe the print was in French, and even if I had any practice, my language skills appear to stink. So, when I saw it was playing the Harvard Film Archive in something that, if you squint, looks kind of like a run as opposed to a screening (it played twice on the 17th, and will play once more on Saturday the 24th and twice on Sunday the 25th), I was kind of glad, even though I had no idea of just how strange the movie was.

And, brother, is this a weird one, even without trying to wrap my head around young, thin, unlined Sam Neill (as far as I'm concerned, Neill appeared fully formed with the release of Jurassic Park, much the way Helen Mirren didn't exist before Prime Suspect and my brain rejects images that claim otherwise). As I say in the review, I have no idea what the original US cut must have been like; it took 47 minutes out of a 127-minute movie, and aside from a few climactic scenes with action and gross-outs in them, I'm not sure how one decides which moments among the rest are important.

One thing I found myself particularly impressed by is how everything supernatural is at least consistent emotionally. A great many horror movies tend to throw a bunch of weird/gross things together but never hook them in; consider this year's movie named "Possession" (keeping it as The Dybbuk Box would have been so helpful), where there was weird stuff with moths coming out of people's mouths that was creepy, but didn't really mean anything. It's tough with horror movies; you want them to have mystery but not cheat, so having it all work emotionally if not logically is a good compromise.

Anyway, if you're in Boston next weekend, check it out at the HFA. It looks like the announced Blu-ray release is only in the UK as yet, so these screenings seem like the best chance to see in over here.

Possession (1981)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Special Engagement, 35mm)

Some movies like to let the audience settle in and develop a false sense of security before hitting them with the strange, figuring that will make it all the more shocking. This is not the game plan Andrzej Zulawski adhered to with Possession at all; this movie starts out with high intensity insanity and only cranks things up from there; it's a movie that keeps the audience in its seats as much via stunned disbelief as excellent quality.

Mark (Sam Neill) has just returned to West Berlin after a long foreign assignment, possibly in espionage from the way he's debriefed. Almost immediately, it's clear that his marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is disintegrating. He practically explodes when he learns that she's been having an affair with someone named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent); she is soon only briefly appearing in Mark's life to spend time with their son Bob (Michael Hogben). Strangely, Bob's schoolteacher Helen is a dead ringer for Anna, and despite Mark's suspicions, Anna is not spending the time she's gone with Heinrich.

This is not the sort of movie about a failing marriage where things appear placid on the outside only to be revealed as crumbling on closer examination; there's screaming from the get-go, the apartment is a disaster area, and both halves of the couple just up and vanish for extended periods of time. After establishing a situation so fraught with tension, Zulawski could step back; instead, he pushes the strangeness further, first into the realm of the eccentric and then into the horrific, and finally...

Full review at EFC.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Universal's 100th Anniversary: All Quiet on the Western Front

Two weeks since the start of this series, two weeks until I leave for vacation. Barring a lot of time spent writing in airports/on airplanes, my hope to treat this like a film festival and review everything looks fairly forlorn.

I am, at least, having quite the blast treating the series like a film festival, though. It's one where the program (originally created for the UCLA Film & Video Archive) lists dates in May & June and sometimes different movies, where the movies are ones with an established track record, and where work is as likely to be the cause of a missed screening as a conflict, but the important parts - a domination of what one sees and supper consisting of what you can get from the concession stand - are the same.

At any rate, there's still a couple more weeks of this stuff going on at the Brattle, with more modern stuff coming up soon. I'm going to try and hit a large chunk of it, and hope others do too.

All Quiet on the Western Front

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal's 100th Anniversary, 35mm)

Despite this movie being made in 1930, there isn't necessarily a whole lot to be added to it on the subject of the way war takes young men and destroys them. The later likes of Saving Private Ryan may make the violence more graphic, and other movies may home in on the specific details of different conflicts, but everything important is here, from the promise to young men of glory and honor to the difficulty of coming home afterward.

Life is fairly tranquil in a mid-sized German town until the news arrives: War! History will later all it World War I, but urged on by their teacher (Arnold Lucy), a group of high school classmates has no idea what they're getting into, especially after seeing their jovial reservist mailman (John Wray) reveal another side of himself as a harsh taskmaster in boot camp. Soon Paul (Lew Ayres), Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), Leer (Scott Kolk), Peter (Owen Davis Jr.), Behn (Walter Browne Rogers), and Albert (William Bakewell) are on the front lines, finding something very different than the glory the adults described, and hoping to learn quick from the likes of Kat (Louis Wolheim), the sort of sergeant who somehow finds food and supplies when the men are starving.

It's somewhat fascinating to me that this movie was made from the German point of view in 1930. If I recall my history correctly, American sentiment wasn't particularly against Germany at this point, but this was still a movie (and book before it) that took a sympathetic view of the soldiers that many in the audience had fought against. Of course, there are very few really thick - or even mild - accents to be found here, and those are mostly among the officer corps or other hawks who might be portrayed as the soldiers' worst enemies. It's an interesting set of choices, even if it mostly comes down to characters speaking their native languages tending to be being portrayed as speaking with neutral accents back then.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 16 November 2012 - 20 November 2012

Short week, what with Thanksgiving next week and a fair number of Wednesday openings. Short list of movies coming out and playing theaters, too.

  • Kendall Square has the most, actually. The main opening is Anna Karenina, a new adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel which has a nice cast - Keira Knightley in the title role, plus Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson - a script by Tom Stopard, and Joe Wright directing. He's had a pretty nice string from Pride & Prejudice to Hanna. It plays two screens there; it also plays single screens at Coolidge Corner and Boston Common.

    Kendall Square also opens two documentaries, and has guests coming in for each of them: Brooklyn Castle follows a chess team at a very poor junior high school who nonetheless excel, and yet still face the elimination of their extracurricular activities. On Friday at 7:05pm, Grandmaster Sam Shankland will introduce and presumably talk chess afterward. Chasing Ice, meanwhile, follows James Balog on the Extreme Ice Survey, tracking how glaciers are retreating. It's got a one-week booking scheduled, and for the first two nights (Friday & Saturday), EIS Field Co-ordinator Adam LeWinter will be at the 7pm and 9pm shows.
  • In addition to Anna Karenina on the main screen, The Coolidge also opens IFFBoston selection Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a documentary about a photographer in Western Massachusetts who spends weeks setting up single complex images.

    The midnight show this weekend is Robocop, a pretty darn excellent Paul Verhoven flick playing in 35mm on both Friday and Saturday night. Sunday morning, they've got a Talk Cinema preview of Silver Linings Playbook, which opens wide on Wednesday but also plays Boston Common as part of its limited run starting on Friday. On Monday, there's a "Sounds of Silents" screening of the 1924 version of Peter Pan; it's a nice version of the story, and for this show, Leslie McMichael will be accompanying it on the harp.
  • The Brattle has a sort-of-new-release, as Miami Connection makes its way to Boston after stops at various film festivals and a thorough push from the Drafthouse hype machine; hopefully this rediscovered 1987 action flick written and directed by star and 9th degree black belt Grandmaster Y.K. Kim is just as insane as it's cracked up to be. It plays midnight on Friday and Saturday nights and 9:30pm on Sunday. They're also offering a free preview screening of Hitchcock on Tuesday, with folks who come to the afternoon screening of Psycho getting first dibs on a seat for the Anthony Hopkins-starring biography.

    Neither of those are technically part of Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years, although Hitchcock is naturally a major part of Universal's history. Two of his movies play as part of double features this week, and they're both great combos: The Birds and Steven Spielberg's Jaws play Friday and Saturday (both spiffy new prints), while Hitchcock's Saboteur doubles up with Stanley Donen's Charade on Monday (a delight which features Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Walter Matthau). In between, Sunday features a double bill of great crime movies: Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner in Robert Siodmak's The Killers, and the reconstructed version of Orson Wells's Touch of Evil (a surprisingly vicous film for 1958).
  • The Boston Jewish Film Festival bounces between six different venues in three days from Saturday to Monday: Two shows at "Theatre 1" (formerly the Stuart Street Playhouse) on Saturday the 17th (the rush-line-only Koch and We Are Not Alone); three at the MFA (Let's Dance, Hitler's Children, and Hava Nagila (The Moive)) and two at West Newton (All In and Room 514 on Sunday the 18th; and one each at AMC Framingham (Life In Stills), the Arlington Capitol (Hava Nagila), and Hollywood Hits Danvers (Dorfman).
  • Aside from their BJFF screenings, the MFA continues Tales of the Night on Friday and Saturday. There's also more Flowers of the Steppe: A Festival of Kazakh Cinema, with guests present for Friday's Kelin and Saturday's Letters to an Angel, while that day's The Dash and Sunday's Seker will have to stand on their own
  • Belmont World Film's Family Film Festival actually plays the Belmont Studio this weekend after being at the MFA last week; it offers live magic shows with Friday night's documentaries and plenty of family-friendly local/US/world premieres Saturday and Sunday afternoons. They've got Looper scheduled for the rest of the week.
  • ArtsEmerson offers a weekend of Artists on Film: A Walk in to Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory on Friday and Saturday evenings, Walk the Line Friday night and Sunday afternoon, Together Saturday afternoon, and Before Night Falls Saturday evening. Walk the Line is 35mm; everything else is being shown from DVD.
  • Hey, cool - I was tempted by the retrospective screening of Possession at Fantasia this summer, only to see it only playing in French. The Harvard Film Archive has decided to have a little mini-run of the bloody cult classic with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, though, playing it twice on Saturday the 18th and planning to have it back Thanksgiving weekend. They've got special guests on either side Ross McElwee and his son Adrian introduce the father's latest self-documentary Photographic Memory on Friday night, and Ichiro Kataoka will perform live interpretations of silent films on Sunday and Monday before taking part in a Q&A afterward. This sort of narration, or "benshi", was apparently a large part of how silent films were experienced in Japan. Sunday afternoon also features a screening in their Antonioni retrospective, Zabriskie Point.
  • You know it's Diwali when there are two screens given over to Indian films at Fresh Pond. Jab Tak Hai Jaan continues through Thanksgiving, but it's joined by Thuppakki. That one's a Tamil-language (but English-subtitled) action movie starring Vijay (I am informed that family names are uncommon in that part of India) as an army intelligence officer who infiltrates terror cells in Mumbai while his family attempts to arrange a marriage for him. There are, of course, also songs.
  • The Somerville Theatre is still down to four screens, it seems; one of them is being used to open A Late Quartet upon its exit from Kendall Square. Be quick in catching it; the site doesn't have it playing beyond Tuesday.
  • Okay, fine, I'll mention that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 opens on a metric buttload of screens at the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway (including the RPX screen). By now, you know if you're seeing this final movie about vampires, werewolves, and their intense attraction to newborn babies or not. More importantly, Boston Common and Fenway both pick up Lincoln

Me? Not. I'll be catching Universal stuff, Miami Connection, Possession, maybe some benshi, and at least the docs and Kendall Square. Haven't seen Lincoln yet, either.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

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

I joke about living at the Brattle during programs like this, but this week shows just how true that can be. I've got it in the back of my head to treat the Universal Centennial program like a film festival and come back with full reviews, but I'm pretty sure there's just no way to get to everything I want to.

This Week in Tickets

The one time during the week I went anywhere else was on Tuesday, when I worked from home on purpose (it's usually a matter of missing my connection at Alewife) so that I could get to the polling places. Not that one vote in Massachusetts was going to affect the outcome of the Presidential election, but it also couldn't hurt. That it got me able to (just) make a 6:40pm screening of Holy Motors was gravy. Kind of lumpy gravy that isn't quite so hot as you'd like it to be, but worth a try, and I'm glad I saw it then because Kendall Square was cancelling a bunch of shows over the weekend to fit more screenings of Lincoln in. This sort of thing happened before digital, but I imagine copying a DCP from one computer to another is a heck of a lot easier than screwing around with interlinking projectors.

Around that, lots of Universal classics. I finally saw the Spanish Dracula, finding it decent but mostly a curiosity (although I like the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi Dracula more than I love it). The Brattle had Universal's first feature, Traffic in Souls, coincide with their "Wordless Wednesday" series (it would have been a double feature, but one digital file/DVD was missing). Thursday was a double feature, but the scheduling meant I missed one - boo to a bunch of VHS found footage taking the 9pm slot so you had to be at the theater by five to see The Good Fairy! boo! - and almost considered giving My Man Godfrey a pass, but come on! Similar double-feature scheduling meant I only saw the James Whale Show Boaton Friday, but a double feature of similar films noir, Black Angel and Phantom Lady was no problem on Saturday, even if I did have to wait a bit to see Tremors afterward.

I actually feel bad for missing the Western double feature on Sunday, but I was kind of wiped out after hitting Skyfall and the grocery store and a couple more errands. I'd seen both of them before anyway, but still...

Dracula (1931, Spanish)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

To a certain extent, the Spanish-language version of Dracula is almost better as a legend than an actual movie: Little-seen before being restored in the mid-nineties, one could pass around second-hard descriptions of a more gothic atmosphere coming from shooting at night or superior performances without actually confronting the reality - every lost or secret film is better in the imagining, or as a reward for tracking it down.

Most viewers will spot the biggest difference before the film starts running, though: The more familiar version starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning runs a tight 75 minutes; this one is nearly a half hour longer, and while 104 minutes is not an unusual length for a modern film, consider that the two were made from the same screenplay (give or take a Spanish translation); the Spanish version is 40% longer than the English. And you can tell; seeing them as a double feature, the Browning version feels relatively tight, while George Melford's is much more relaxed, to put it mildly. It drags in the middle, and while Melford, co-director Enrique Tovar Avalos, and cinematographer George Robinson make a movie that arguably looks better than Browning's, one will be hard-pressed to find an extra minute in it that feels like it was left out of the other. The opening scene is fairly telling; it feels like it is following the script very literally, while Browning and his cast had chances to improvise and tighten things up.

I do suspect that the cast here is generally better than its English-language equivalent; Barry Norton's Juan Harker is less a block of wood than David Manners's John, for instance. The tragic exception, unfortunately, is Carlos Villarias as the title character. He actually bears a fairly striking resemblance to Bela Lugosi which is only accentuated by placing him in the same costume and doing the makeup the same way. And that's what he's up against: Despite the producers' initial reluctance to cast him, every choice in pre-production was made with Lugosi in mind - and the script was based upon a play in which Lugosi had excelled - and while there are signs of a potentially more active, virile count in Villarias's performance, it's hard to shake the impression that he's imitating Lugosi, even if the reality is that he has little choice in the matter.

And so, the Spanish-language Dracula has a hard time emerging from the shadow of its brother, though it might be impressive enough if seen on its own.

Dracula (1931, English)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

For all that the "Spanish Dracula" sometimes pales in comparison to this version, the classic version is not without its faults. The story is thin and sometimes unbalanced; the cast sometimes struggles to give their characters personalities rather than just fill needed spots in the story. Even cut much tighter than the Spanish version shot at the same time, getting from Renfield meeting the Count to Team Van Helsing actually fighting him seems to be a bit of a trudge.

On the other hand, it's got Bela Lugosi in his most iconic role, and that's something you can build a movie around. Like many roles of this type, actually seeing Lugosi in the part after years of imitations and parodies is, if not quite a revelation, a reminder that the performance became famous for being able to hook the audience, even if it was at times more theatrical than a modern audience is used to. Lugosi's Dracula is seductive, not for being overtly sexed-up, but for his absolute certainty that he can take what he wants, so that when Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing gets something even resembling the upper hand on him, the reaction is so shocked as to be almost feral.

Van Sloan makes a valiant effort to compare with Lugosi, but it's almost a fool's errand. The only other actor who even comes close is Helen Chandler as Mina, who gets interesting once she starts to turn (even if it does mean a lot of "I'm so scared!" hand-wringing. Browning also makes a movie nearly as atmospheric as Melford, and the "almost" isn't a bad thing - he certainly seldom allows that atmosphere to mire him.

Like a lot of Universal Monster movies, Dracula comes across as more influential than perfect from eighty years later, but that influence shouldn't be taken lightly - so much of the modern horror genre (and the vampire genre in particular) takes its cues from this movie, and while it can seem old-hat today, it became that way by being hard to improve upon all at once.

Traffic in Souls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, digital)

You can't have a proper one-hundredth anniversary series without screening the studio's first feature, and Universal certainly seemed to set its pulp roots down early with Traffic in Souls, a 1913 potboiler that certainly looks remarkably quaint by today's standards but at least does the job it sets out to do.

It's not perfect by any means. The second half of the story runs on pure coincidence, as the heroine gets a job that puts her in a position to find out where her sister is AND her girlfriend is a cop AND her father is an inventor who has created just the thing they need. It's made up for, though, since those things don't actually solve the case but put the characters in position to do so, and the movie executes the crime/thriller parts afterward pretty darn well. It's a silent, but a fun crime movie.

And there's something about the way that it's definitely a product of it's time that is quaint but not cutesy: Despite the movie being about forced prostitution, the closest it comes to even approaching titillating or overtly sexual is in its opening minutes (which is pretty darn tame and innocent), and for the rest of the movie the whole subject is so taboo that the heroine loses her job because of what is presumed about her sister and the crime is never referred to by anything less oblique than "white slavery". The finale is "Crime Does Not Pay!" stuff that is pretty vicious retribution.

The audience for this sort of movie a hundred years ago, apparently, was not particularly forgiving.

My Man Godfrey

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The two stars of My Man Godfrey aren't quite polar opposites, but close enough to make one worry that the movie will be less "opposites attract" than trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Carole Lombard, after all, was the prototypical dizzy thirties dame while this movie sees William Powell at his most classy and sophisticated, even when drunk or homeless. Fortunately, the movie is constructed brilliant, allowing them each to do their own thing, allowing for a clash when those respective things bump against each other but never giving the audience any reason to not love them for what they are.

The script by Morrie Ryskind & novelist Eric Hatch is darn clever in other ways, too: At least from seventy-five years down the road, it seems to strike an ideal balance between acknowledging the reality of the Great Depression while also offering the fantasy of escaping it. The rich may often be silly, but there are enough good people among them to keep the movie from being patronizing or a matter of class warfare. The impropriety of the central love story is acknowledged without a lot of hand-wringing and ultimately handled in a charmingly casual way.

Plus, you know, that cast. William Powell and Carole Lombard are really a perfect pair for a screwball comedy, a mismatched pair who manage the rare trick of bantering wonderfully despite having completely different voices. She boosts the slapstick and silliness (and remains lovable despite her character's silliness and selfishness), while he adroitly maneuvers around it. A whole raft of enjoyable supporting characters pop up just as long as needed, most entertainingly Eugene Pallette, who seems like an Edward G. Robinson prototype as the relatively sensible head of the screwy family that takes Godfrey in.

I love this movie. It reminds me of spiderweb, looking thin and flimsy but actually remarkably strong; despite the wispiness of the plot and how much empty space there seems to be, the end seems to be exactly what everyone, from the characters to the audience, deserves.

Show Boat (1936)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

I've said before, I'm not really a musical guy - it's a genre that oftentimes has very little middle ground between brilliance and its opposite. This version of Show Boat manages to fall into that gap, although I like it more than I don't.

In a lot of ways, it's a weird movie (and, presumably, play) structurally: Though it's mostly the story of Irene Dunne's Magnolia "Nola" Hawks, it starts out with a pretty clear focus on Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne, spending a lot of time with the woman who must be removed for Nola's story to start, and it's got what seems like an extended epilogue on the other end that follows Nola's daughter Kim's career on the stage. It's got some scale, and is probably better than a simple fast-forward, but it leaves the scale sort of in-between.

Plus, there's the seventy-five-years-later way of looking at its attitudes toward race. It's probably progressive for its day, with a pretty clear disdain for the anti-miscegenation laws that are used as a plot device and Nola having what seems like an honest love of "Negro music". It's just a shame that fondness is expressed via a blackface performance, the sort that makes one wonder just what the heck people were thinking a hundred years ago. The stereotyped speech of Paul Robeson and Hattie MacDaniel (plus, he's lazy and she's a big loud busybody) doesn't much help.

And yet, I still missed Robeson when his part in the movie was done; not only does he have a natural charisma and charm, but he's got the best couple of songs. He's also the character whose singing voice sounds the most like his speaking voice, and the disconnect for the rest of the cast is something that I found rather distracting. In my mind, the songs in a musical shouldn't be isolated performances, but a continuation of the characters expressing their emotions, so it should still sound like them.

Black Angel

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Black Angel is a fun little mystery that occupies a space between what we now call film noir and a more traditional mystery story, with Dan Duryea and June Vincent playing a couple thrown together by circumstance: Her husband has been convicted of killer his ex-wife, so the sweet young housewife teams up with the alcoholic songwriter to investigate a different suspect. It's the kind of story that could be played both a lot lighter or darker than it is and still make for an interesting movie, and it might be fun to see what different filmmakers would do with Cornell Woolrich's novel.

This middle ground is pretty good, although it might have been interesting if the focus wasn't quite so much on Duryea's Martin Blair compared to Vincent's Catherine Bennett. There's fun angles to play with her; such as how far she would go with the character she is playing on this quest fueled by devotion to her husband, or whether the life she is leading could prove seductive. On the other hand, one does kind of have to admire the restraint and devotion screenwriter Roy Chanslor and director Roy William Neill show by not going there much: This is a whodunit, and those storylines don't resolve murder mysteries.

Kind of a shame; Duryea and Vincent have great chemistry together, and it would be fun to see if she can play certain morally ambiguous notes as well as he did. It doesn't hurt that they have Peter Lorre as a prime suspect, and he plays an oily gangster-type so well, with enough more personality than is typical to be make his scenes more fun than expected.

Phantom Lady

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Phantom Lady is, in a way, a demonstration of just how hard a good mystery can be to construct: The opening sequence seems tremendously unlikely on its face, but that's what it takes for a murder to become a puzzle worth reading about, and the steps needed so that an amateur is the one to investigate and solve it... Well, it's unlikely.

But it's fun. It's fun in large part because director Robert Siodmak, working from a screenplay by Bernard Schoenfeld and a novel by Cornell Woolrich -- hey, wait a second; it's not wonder the plots of these two movies seems so similar, if the same author is cranking out the same sorts of stories under pseudonyms!

Anyway, Siodmak does a nice job of having Ella Raines not play plucky would-be sleuth Carol Richman as dopily love-struck throughout, but allows her to realize alongside the audience that you don't do this far for a good boss. It's a bit more nuance than is given to Franchot Tone as said boss's best friend who soon winds up working with her on her investigation - he gets a memorable entrance but he and Siodmak give him a bit too much of a twitch later on.

Still, I like the way the screenplay works; rather than playing it as a fair-play amateur detective story, it lets the twist happen as early as possible and has fun playing it out, and manages to do so without making its heroine look the fool.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The advertising for this movie's slot in the Universal series played it up as a guilty pleasure, which is fair, I suppose, but also does it a disservice. As much as director Ron Underwood and his co-writers S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock go for the gag quite a bit and build their characters broadly, it's hard to find a single place where they made a bad decision when making this movie.

Sure, on the fifth viewing or so it becomes somewhat clear just how little screen time the "graboids" actually have, but that actually works in their favor as a reflection of just how well they have captured and in many ways improved upon the 1950s creature feature: The filmmakers are working with limited resources but deploying them well. What seems like the best innovation is how they twist the standard character types: The scientist is also the cute girl, and refreshingly not super-capable in every discipline; the heroic hired hands are kind of doofuses; the everyman characters get picked off fairly early, leaving the film to be populated by the eccentrics who would normally die just after being proven right. It's something Maddock & Wilson address more explicitly in later direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs, but part of what makes Tremors funny also makes it work: It's about the oddballs who have to do their own thing rather than the great masses of mainstream folks who can attack a problem with numbers.

Plus, Michael Gross seems to be having such a blast on his vacation from Family Ties. The bit where he looks back at his fortified compound and lists everything he's salted away to survive World War III only to follow it up with "...underground. God damn monsters." cracks me up every time.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2012 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX digital)

Do we need another full review of how terrific Skyfall is, re-introducing classic elements to the Bond franchise while maintaining the more "realistic" and hard-edged style that the Casino Royale reboot gave it, slavering absolutely earned praise on Roger Deakins's fantastic cinematography? No, probably not. The Brits got it a week or two before us and they've been flooding the internet with that sort of thing just as they absolutely should.

But, man, it's all true, and then some. Deakins, especially, has shot an absolutely gorgeous picture, albeit one that looks very digital, but it's more a style than a shortcoming here. Daniel Craig continues to give what is the definitive performance as Bond, letting the audience see how the secret agent lifestyle wears on a man, presenting the occasionally snappish Bond of Ian Fleming's novels more than the smooth, unflappable character of the movies. It's downright terrific to see Dame Judi Dench given something to sink her teeth into as M, and I hope future movies give us more of Naomie Harris as Eve, the getaway driver who just does not give one single damn about anyone else on the road.

The action is concentrated into sequences on either end, and both of those are pretty fantastic. The opening gambit is delightful in how it just piles one cliffhanging stunt after another on, making every bit of the chase bigger than the last and giving Craig (and his stunt doubles) the chance to make things look simultaneously hard and easy. It's also fun how the finale flips the typical Bond movie script, with 007 playing defense during the big final assault on the secret hideout.

By the end of the movie, it finally feels like all the "origin story" elements of the reboot are over, and that's good, because as much as I appreciate the renewed focus on the Bond of Fleming's novels, and as much as modern genre writing emphasizes making characters personally involved, it wouldn't be a terrible thing if James Bond was just the guy who MI-6 detailed at the first sign of a superterrorist building a space laser for a couple movies, rather than someone personally connected to every facet of the story. It can make the villain's motivation too small or the hero too little a man just doing his job or caught up in something bigger than he is.

Dracula Double Feature
Holy Motors
Traffic in Souls
My Man Godfrey
Show Boat
Black Angel & Phantom Lady