Thursday, December 27, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 December 2012 - 3 January 2013

The big openings for this weekend were on the 25th, so while there's some catching up to do, there's not a lot of turnover.

  • The most visible opening is Promised Land, where Matt Damon re-teams with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant but has a new writing partner and co-star in John Krasinski. Damon plays a corporate rep looking to buy drilling rights in a small town forced to confront the ethics of the situation. It plays one screen at Boston Common and two at Kendall Square, and will likely be expanding over the next few weeks.

    Boston Common also picks up Not Fade Away, noteworthy for being Sopranos mastermind David Chase's first foray into film since a low-budget 1972 vampire movie. It's a 1960s coming-of-age story about Jersey kids in a rock & roll band.
  • The Brattle finishes 2012 off with the rest of the Gene Kelly Centennial Tribute, which features double features through Sunday: 1948's The Three Musketeers & The Pirate on Friday, Summer Stock & Cover Girl on Saturday (with a 9:30pm late show of Xanadu, his last film), and An Amerian In Paris & Invitation to the Dance on Sunday.

    Other classics ring in the new year. The 31st has a double feature of The Thin Man and its first sequel, After the Thin Man (the latter shown digitally), and if there's a better way to end the moviegoing year than Nick & Nora & Asta, I don't know it. Plus, it's free to First Night buttonholders. On Tuesday the 1st, they have the annual Marx Brothers Marathon, this year including Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Room Service, and A Night at the Opera. All 35mm, $20 for a marathon ticket ($15 for members). The week finishes off with The Hurt Locker on Wednesday and Thursday, anticipating the upcoming release of director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.
  • The Coolidge continues the same schedule from Christmas - Django Unchained in house #1, Hitchcock and Anna Karenina in house #2, Barbara in the screening room, and A Royal Affair in the MiniMax. They do keep Christmas around with Friday and Saturday midnights of Bad Santa. They also close early on New Year's Eve, with no shows after 9pm.
  • The MFA wraps the December schedule with the end of their series of The Films of Juliette Binoche, with various screenings of Summer Hours, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Lovers on the Bridge, between Friday and Sunday. On Monday, they've got a 45 -minute First Night Short Films Program running during the morning and afternoon, most notably including "Gumdrop", a short co-directed by Kerry Conran, last seen directing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow way too long ago. Thus far, they haven't put their January film schedule online.
  • The Regent Theatre finishes up their Christmas week Sing-Along screenings of The Sound of Music, with three shows on Friday and one Saturday matinee.
  • The iMovieCafe screen at Fresh Pond continues Dabangg 2, with one or two screenings of Yamudiki Mogudu for those who speak Telugu.
  • Somerville Theatre is back up to five screens with The Slutracker done (aside from one New Year's Eve show), picking up Life of Pi from Arlington.

My plans? Catch-up, plus The Thin Man.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Central Park Five

Not much to say about the circumstances around seeing this film or the lead-up. Maybe I shouldn't have seen three movies on a day when I really needed to finish my Christmas shopping? Eh, it got done.

I suppose it's worth mentioning that I haven't done much research into how complete/accurate the film is. While I doubt that there are any factual errors, the extremely focused nature of the narrative leaves ample space for things to be left out, and anybody who wants to learn about the case should likely supplant this with other resources.

The Central Park Five

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, 2K digital)

The Central Park Five states the reason for its existence plainly toward the end: To in some small way close the gap between how loudly its subjects' guilt was proclaimed twenty-odd years ago and the attention paid to their being declared innocent after serving seven to thirteen years in jail. It's a worthy goal, and while getting the film in front of all the people who followed the news back then is likely impossible, those that do see it will certainly absorb its recounting of events.

When a woman jogging in New York's Central Park was raped and beaten into a coma in April 1989, it made the national news and became a cause célèbre in the local press. The police connected it with other violent incidents going on in the park at around the same time, and within two days, they had confessions from five shockingly young suspects - 14-year-olds Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson & Yusef Salaam and 16-year-old Korey Wise. That all were black or hispanic while the victim was white inflamed the situation further, and the district attorney had little trouble getting convictions a year later. A seeming triumph for the criminal justice system that New York badly needed - except that the five were innocent, their confessions coerced in marathon sessions without parents or lawyers.

The story touches upon a number of hot-button issues, either directly or as a tangent - race relations, capital punishment, what opportunities prisoners should have, and just why proper police procedure is so important. What the filmmakers can focus on is limited by access - none of the involved police officers nor any current city official chose to participate - but in some ways, this helps put the situation in context better than having a former NYPD detective tell the camera about the pressure they were under to close the case or how he regrets the assumptions he made back then. This is the world that the Five were living in, and how it got that way or how it evolved since then is irrelevant to their story.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wagner & Me

Fair warning/disclaimer: I missed the first minute or three of Wagner & Me as the bus from Fenway kept slipping while I waited for it (it seemed to be 3 minutes away for fifteen minutes). Hate when that happens, but I kept waiting because this was the MFA's last screening. Maybe if I hadn't stayed through all of The Hobbit's many credits, waiting for a preview that never came, I would have caught the previous one.

I came to this as a fan of Stephen Fry as opposed to having much particular interest in Richard Wagner. The composer does make for an interesting topic, although I can't say that I'm going to be rushing out to purchase great big Ring Cycle box sets as a result. That isn't exactly the purpose of the film, anyway - as much as Fry SPOILERS! ultimately says that he will continue enjoying Wagner because the music is good, !SRELIOPS it's not a movie about convincing. Though Fry and director Patrick McGrady do a fine job in explaining what Wagner did well, it comes down to "I heard it and liked it".

Truth be told, I like that; too many documentaries often seem like preaching to the choir while too few are simply informative. As much as documentaries with a strong point of view and mission behind them (especially if they are anti-authoritarian enough to be considered "brave") seem to get more critical acclaim, I tend to come to documentaries more via curiosity than passion, and therefore tend to favor the ones that put facts before me over those that arrange said facts in a pointed way.

On a completely different note, this isn't the only thing I saw in the last few weeks because of Fry's participation; on the first night of my London vacation, I saw him tread the boards in an "original practices" production of Twelfth Night. That was a lot of fun, although I must say that my first night in the city, not having slept that much on the plane (after staying up too long in an attempt to avoid jet lag by sleeping on the plane), did not have me in a particularly alert frame of mind for it. I do remember Fry giving a great performance, though, as did Mark Rylance (I was also pleased to recognize an actor from Black Pond). Just, man, how great would it have been completely rested?

Wagner & Me

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2012 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (special engagement, digital)

Wagner & Me is probably only going to be terribly educational for those like myself whose musical knowledge is relatively shallow - the folks who sing "kill the wab-bit!" to ourselves when a certain bit of Richard Wagner's most famous piece shows up on the soundtrack. Fortunately, it is nicely informative for that audience, and even for those in the audience who know everything he's saying, it's an hour and a half of Stephen Fry expounding on an enthusiasm, and that's always a pleasant time.

Mister Fry is, among many other things, a lover of Wagner's music, and he is quite excited to come to Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth and the theater that the composer built there for the express purpose of showing his "musical dramas". The theater now hosts an annual music festival centered around Wagner's Ring Cycle, with a seven-year waiting list for tickets. And yet, Fry tells us, he is ambivalent about supporting it; being Jewish, it is hard for him to overlook just how strongly the music is associated with the Nazis (he was a favorite of Hitler and the Wagner family supported the Nazis well before not doing so was suicide), and the anti-Semitism in the man's own writings.

Fry and filmmaker Patrick McGrady investigating Wagner's life and music and trying to reconcile those feelings gives them a reason to crisscross Europe while using Bayreuth as a home base, making stops in Nuremberg, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg to visit the important scenes of Wagner's life and afterlife where music is performed and scholars are interviewed. It is, generally, a good overview; McGrady never seems to be glossing over any portion of his subject's story, and while the examples of Wagner's work are often briefer than they perhaps must be (even when he doesn't have to try and deliver the essence of a four-hour opera in five minutes), he and Fry do a fair job of explaining things that may seem rather opaque to non-musicians.

The strength and weakness of that framework is Fry himself. Stephen Fry is a man of varied and voluble enthusiasms, and each visit to a new location brings forth the giddy joy of a teenage girl with a backstage pass for her favorite band. It's sometimes a bit distracting, but much more often it's infectious, especially since he manages the neat trick of combining an appreciation for high art with an utter lack of snobbery. This unabashed love for the music makes it hard to see him actually wrestle with the decision; aside from one interesting scene where he seems to be asking a cellist who survived the Holocaust permission to enjoy Wagner's music, the topic of anti-Semitism occasionally seems to come up in interviews out of obligation more than as a matter of real difficulty. The decision he ultimately makes is seldom in doubt.

It would be easy for that aspect of Wagner to overwhelm the entire production, which would miss the point that he is more than just a few ugly magazine articles and a truly repugnant fan. Wagner & Me is a basic primer fit for a BBC or PBS afternoon slot, though far more charming than most.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 21 December 2012 - 27 December 2012

Another week with two Dates When Movies Open: The Friday before Christmas and Christmas itself. Combined with things having opened this past Wednesday, and theaters' increasing willingness and ability to put popular films on more screens at the last minute, check listings before heading out.

  • On Friday the 21st, the multiplexes are opening a pair of fairly big-name movies. Jack Reacher has Tom Cruise playing the hero of Lee Child's novels (it's based upon One Shot), with Rosamund Pike as the damsel in distress and Werner Herzog as a villain. Herzog doesn't direct - Christopher MacQuarrie does - but he always makes things better. Robert Duvall's in there somewhere, too. It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common. The same theaters also pick up This Is 40, Judd Apatow's spin-off of Knocked Up which focuses on the couple played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who apparently are having a hard time getting along as they approach the big four-oh. Between that and the massive number of screens playing The Hobbit (and Monsters Inc. & The Guilt Trip having opened Wednesday, there's barely any room for Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, which is playing two 3D shows a day at Boston Common and Fenway. The troupe did an IMAX film a few years back that looked nice, and the preview for this offers more prettiness.

    Interestingly, Worlds Away seems to pick up more showtimes on Christmas, despite several other movies opening. The less impressive is almost certainly Parental Guidance, which posits that Marisa Tomei is the result of Billy Crystal's and Bette Midler's genes mixing, which I find suspicious. They play grandparents coming to help watch the kids and befuddled by new-age parenting. Crystal gets hit in the crotch a lot, it seems. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. Also on those screens is Les Miserables, featuring a pretty terrific cast of Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and more, doing their own singing for Tom Hooper's adaptation of the musical play based on Victor Hugo's novel.
  • The other really big Christmas opening is the new one by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. It's got Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as nineteenth-century bounty hunters whose search for Django's wife leads them to a plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm hearing Samuel L. Jackson is especially great in this. It opens at The Coolidge (where to go if you want to see it in 35mm as QT intended), Kendall Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    The Coolidge has a busy week all around, finally getting Hitchcock on its big screen on Friday and German Oscar submission Barbara, about a doctor hoping to cross from East to West Germany in 1980 who is instead reassigned to a rural town, opens that day in the screening room. They also welcome the Mayan Apocalypse with midnight screenings of Armageddon (you only show Michael Bay there if the world is going to end!). They also do a little shuffling on Christmas Day, replacing Chasing Ice on the GoldScreen with A Royal Affair.
  • While Kendall Square's big opener is Django, they also pick up something noteworthy on Friday: Rust and Bone, which features Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer and Matthias Schoenaerts (who was fantastic in Bullhead) as a bouncer. An unlikely match, but a horrific injury brings them closer together.
  • The Brattle switches things up for the holiday, as well. They spend the weekend finishing up the Focus Features Tenth Birthday party, with Milk and Shaun of the Dead on Friday (separate features), a double feature of Jane Eyre and Atonement on Saturday, with Brick as a separate late show, and separate features of Monsoon Wedding and Coraline on Sunday (Coraline is 2D, but should still look fantastic).

    They're closed to do their holiday shopping on Christmas Eve, but Christmas brings their Gene Kelly Centennial Tribute, with Singin' in the Rain on the 25th, a double feature of On the Town and Anchors Aweigh on Wednesday, and another twin bill (Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather) on Thursday. The series will run through Sunday the 30th.
  • The Harvard Film Archive is more or less dark, with the exception of the 4th Annual Vintage Christmas Show, a two-hour grab bag that includes a feature, some shorts, and a George Kuchar video diary. It's a free all-ages show at 2pm on Sunday (the 23rd).
  • The MFA wraps up its December calendar with an extension of what it has been showing: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as do The Films of Juliette Binoche, which include Certified Copy, Code Unknown,Damage, and the 1992 Wuthering Heights over the weekend and Chocolat and The English Patient after the holidays.
  • It's a holiday, so the Regent Theatre in Arlington is breaking out a sing-along print. For Christmas vacation, it's The Sound of Music, with on-screen lyrics, costume contests, and goody bags. One matinee and one evening show each on Wednesday the 26th and Thursday the 27th, with shows continuing through the 29th
  • Almost certainly the most fun title to say this weekend is Dabangg 2, a Bollywood action movie which has Salman Khan returning as a top cop and Sonakshi Sinha as his wife, and villains new and old to deal with (and being Bollywood, there are songs and comedy mixed in). It plays Fresh Pond via iMovieCafe starting on the 21st, although it does share the screen with a couple of unsubtitled Telegu-language films between Saturday and Tuesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a bit of second-run action starting Christmas Day, when they pick upSilver Linings Playbook. They also have a few things coming up that folks should consider buying tickets for early - the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival & Marathon from February 8th through 18th, something called "Faith Soloway's Lesbian Cinema Schlock Treatment" on February 14th, and the Alloy Orchestra accompanying a series of Buster Keaton shorts on February 23rd. The Coolidge also has a show that may sell out very early, the annual Sundance USA screening. This year it's on January 31st and has Liz W. Garcia in town to present her movie The Lifeguard

My plans include Django Unchained in 35mm, Jack Reacher, Rust & Bone, Brick, and all the stuff I've been meaning to catch up on for the better part of a month. Of course, it all depends on how much time is spent trying to Christmas shop before the holiday and how long I spend in Maine afterward.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kataoka Ichiro, Benshi: Shoes, "A Dog's Life", and Dragnet Girl

I don't, as a rule, get hugely excited about the special events on the Harvard Film Archive's schedule; they often play to a specialized audience. Sometimes, though, that specialized audience is me - I love silent movies and am probably closer to being one of those sad nerds who act like they have some sort of affinity for/knowledge of Japanese culture from manga and movies than I'd care to admit.

I freely admit, though, that I'd never heard of benshi before. They are a uniquely Japanese part of cinema, performers who would stand at the front of the cinema to add narration and voice dialogue during the silent era. They were a fairly powerful guild in their time, able to delay the introduction of synchronized sound to Japanese theaters by a number of years - for example, Dragnet Girl was released in 1933, well after the talkies had taken over elsewhere. They were occasionally even considered threatening to the government: After all, you could monitor the content of a film, but keeping an eye on what every benshi says at every screening is something else again!

There were many benshi at the medium's height - male, female, young, old, sometimes entire families performing together. Eventually, sound came to eiga the way it came to cinema around the world, and the time of the benshi was over. Except - not quite. Shunsui Matsuda, who had been a child benshi during the silent era continued after World War II, touring the country and in the process building a formidable collection of silent film prints as he did so. He also took on students, who would later do the same, which brings us to Kataoka Ichiro:

Benshi Tadaoka Ichiro

Imagine the lights brought down and a movie playing over his right shoulder.

He did the actual narration in Japanese, naturally, and there wasn't any sort of simultaneous translation aside from the films' intertitles. Unfortunately, all I've retained from a whole bunch of Saturdays at the Boston Language Institute was the ability to point to myself and say "Jason desu", so I didn't get the full experience, but it was a nifty way to see the movie nonetheless - having tone of voice connected to the image added a little texture, and although Kataoka-san was fairly restrained with dramas, he added a bit of energy to comedy.

Kataoka-san seemed a friendly guy, happy to discuss his unusual occupation after the films. He mentioned that being a benshi wasn't quite a hobby that he only gets to do on special occasions, as roughly three silent movies screen each week in Tokyo, generally with accompaniment. That's a fair number, although I suspect the number drops off precipitously once you leave the bigger cities. Still, probably more than most cities, even places like Boston where such screenings are relatively popular.

One other thing that came up that maybe didn't perk the ears of the HFA's audience quite as much as mine was that he and other benshi also do voice-over work for animation. It's natural, but it reminded me of how anime fans used to grumble both about the terrible English dubs on Stateside releases - occasionally done by the distributor's office staff - and how American animated films were often sold on celebrity voices as opposed to voice actors who knew this job well and were famous in their own right as voice actors. The general conclusion, of course, was generally something like anime is better and Japan has more respect for animation as a medium (late twentieth-century anime fans could be intense). I now wonder if this was a bit of a missing piece that anime fans didn't much consider - animation is more popular and broadly used in Japan, true, but celebrity "voice actors" actually predates animation, and even if there was enough of a gap between the decline of silents and the premiere of Astro Boy that few benshi seem likely to have transitioned directly to the new medium, this kind of work was almost certainly already respected by those in show business, rather than being a side job or anonymous like it was elsewhere.

The movie choices were interesting, too. Shoes was made by a company called Bluebird that made features for Universal in the studio's early days, and while Bluebird and their movies became relatively obscure in the USA, they were apparently quite popular and well-remembered in Japan. In a bit of a coincidence, the opening text crawl of Shoes positions it as a thematic follow-up to another Bluebird film directed by Lois Weber, Where Are My Children?, originally scheduled to play at the Brattle as part of their Universal Centennial program.

Shoes being roughly an hour long, it was originally expected to play alongside a short movie from Japan, but that was apparently unavailable as well, so Charlie Chaplin's "A Dog's Life" was substituted. No complaints about that here - it's a fun little movie which allowed Tadaoka-san to show another side to his performance, really giving everybody distinctive speech patters despite the movie being silent. And considering how hand-wringingly dour Shoes is, "A Dog's Life" almost seems like a more optimistic but barbed response, with laughs at the girl who sings about misery.

As for Dragnet Girl, well, I should probably watch more Ozu so that I have something to say about this movie from his early career. It was interesting as being the only thing in the program made with the knowledge that there would be a benshi on stage at the front of the director's mind, and there were times in the last act when Ozu seemed to be trying to assert control, with intertitles restating the relationships between characters and the plot almost word-for-word at times in the end, lest a narrator try and put his own spin on things, which apparently happened.

It was an educational experience, to say the least. Even without that, though, it's a pretty neat way to see movies, if only as a novelty, worth giving a try even if your Japanese is worse than mine.

Percussionist Damon Krukowski

(Just a bonus bit of horrible photography, showing percussionist Damon Krukowski next to his rig Dragnet Girl. I missed getting a shot of Robert Humphreville, who accompanied Kataoka-san on the piano for Shoes and "A Dog's Life". Impressed by his schedule, though - that 7pm movie was apparently only the fourth of his five bookings on a Sunday!)


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

It's funny what strikes you when watching films from a hundred years ago and thinking of the society of the same time. For instance, Shoes posits that spending all one's time reading evidently was the mark of a useless layabout. The books are not even particularly described as junk or pulp; it's just that someone spends his time reading! It makes sense - it's not like there's TV or even that much radio in 1916 - but it dates this movie something fierce, as does some of its Puritan hand-wringing.

In Shoes, the shiftless bibliophile is the supposed head of the Meyer family (Harry Griffith), a father who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva (Mary MacLaren) brings in to the family on novels. Eva, who is the sole person supporting the 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 granted, unlike the lascivious cabaret performer (William V. Mong) who spots Eva coming out of the department store one day.

The main problem with the movie 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, breaking it up with a fantasy sequence and making just enough use of the repetition to get across how Eva can't seem to make progress. The movie runs just under one hour, and though it could potentially be stretched at half that, it only skirts the borders of trying the audience's patience.

Like a number of other films directed by Weber and produced by Bluebird Photoplays - an early division of Universal that also made Where Are My Children? - Shoes is highly moralistic and leaves no doubt of what sort of reaction it aims to produce in its audience. From the earnestness of the opening titles to a finale meant to fill the audience with the same horror and shame as the characters, it makes for a strange time capsule.

The presentation is often as much of its time as the fervor, with the narrative intertitles a match for the broad acting. Harry Griffith and William V. Mong, especially, give the sort of big, theatrical performances that zero in on what's important about their characters unpretentiously enough to be enjoyable as more than just camp. Mattie Witting (as Eva's mother) and Mary MacLaren don't play quite so much to the balconies, but get across their characters' dire straits without making the women just walking misery. The shooting is nice, if static.

Because of all this, few if any today are going to watch Shoes as the sort of parable and piece of popular entertainment it was made to be a hundred years ago. It's still interesting, though, and probably goes down better than many of its contemporaries.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

"A Dog's Life"

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

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?

Hijosen no Onna (Dragnet Girl)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

I haven't seen nearly as many films by revered Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as I probably should if I want to consider myself a well-rounded lover of world and classic cinema. Heck, this may be it, and it's probably more representative of him as a craftsman than an auteur. It's an enjoyable example, though, perhaps especially if seen in its original, narrated format.

It's a fairly familiar sort of youth-at-risk story: Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui) is a kid who could potentially be a great boxer, but it's hard to muster the dedication necessary when crime seems to be treating former champion Joji (Joji Oka) better than boxing ever did. Hiroshi's sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is concerned, but of course her brother is hearing none of it.She's pretty and pure enough to get Hiroshi's attention, to the annoyance of his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), whose job as an office girl means dealing with attention from the owner's son (Koji Kaga). but may lead to criminal opportunity.

It's easy to think of the Westernization of Japan as a post-WWII phenomenon, but one only has to give this movie from 1933 a look to see it was going on earlier. But for the ethnicity of the cast, it feels like it could easily have come out of Hollywood; not only does everybody spend most of the film in Western attire, but Joji and Hiroshi practice boxing rather than karate or judo, and there's not a yakuza trope to be found among the crooks, either. Kazuko is the only one who spends a notable portion of the movie in traditional dress, for that matter. The story is the same on both sides of the Pacific, and Ozu and company tell it well.

There's probably something to just how western it seems which a westerner watching it almost eighty years later doesn't quite grasp except in the most vague sense. A formulaic story about the perils of easy money and falling in with the wrong crowd gains another layer warning about about breaking with tradition, although Ozu and co-writer Tadao Ikeda opt not to hammer this home (at least, these subtitles don't do that). It's actually a fairly entertaining movie to watch - Ozu and cinematographer Hideo Shigehara find interesting angles and move the camera in a fairly lively manner at times, and things move at a good pace despite not having the action of a typical crime story until fairly late in the game.

The acting style also seems surprisingly modern compared to other movies of its era, compared to the theatricality of silents and early talkies. The cast is good all around - Tanaka would go on to have a long and noteworthy career - giving the sort of performances that don't necessarily seem silent in one's memory. That may be in part due to seeing it not just with a live score, but narration and dialogue delivered by benshi Kataoka Ichiro. Live narration with silent films was the norm in Japan at the time - the guild actually managed to delay talking pictures in Japan for several years - and it allows Ozu to rely less on intertitles than other cultures' silent directors, and helps things flow more smoothly. The flip side is that benshi were independent, occasionally putting their own spin on a movie's story, and the repetitive dialogue in the last act's intertitles almost seems like an attempt to force the narrator to stay on the right track.

It's a relatively minor disruption to an enjoyable movie. It's almost certainly not among Ozu's best, given his reputation, but it's the sort of better-than-expected genre work that certainly can herald great work down the road.

Full review on eFilmCritic (dead link).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 December 2012 - 20 December 2012

I've done charts in these posts before, but the options for the movie opening this weekend are quite frankly mind-boggling.

  • That movie, of course, is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's return to the world of Middle-Earth for the story that started it all. It is mind-bogglingly expanded - this nearly-three-hour movie is the first of a trilogy, despite The Hobbit being shorter than any of the other Lord of the Rings novels. Still, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andy Serkis is a nice cast; the more kid-friendly tone appeals; and it's an interesting tech demo for being shot at 48fps rather than the usual 24. There are, accordingly, a lot of different formats at various prices at different sites.

    Jordan's IMAXDigital Imax 24fps$11.50$11.50$11.50
    Arlington CapitolDigital(?) 2D 24fpsN/A$6.00$9.00
    Arlington CapitolDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$9.00$12.00
    Fresh Pond35mm(?) 2D 24fpsN/A$6.75$9.25
    Fresh PondDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$9.00$12.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 2D 24fps$6.00$10.00$12.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 3D 24fpsN/A$14.00$16.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital 3D 48fps$10.00$14.00$16.00
    AMC Boston CommonDigital Imax 24fps$12.00$16.00$18.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 2D 24fps$9.00$9.00$12.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 3D 24fps$13.00$13.00$16.00
    Regal FenwayDigital 3D 48fps$13.00$13.00$16.00
    Regal FenwayRPX Digital 3D 48fps$14.00$14.00$17.00

    (Note that Arlington isn't specifying digital or 35mm for their 2D shows, so I'm assuming digital; Fresh Pond does say 35mm on their website. The digital Imax screenings at Jordan's and likely Boston Common will also have a 9-minute prologue to Star Trek Into Darkness playing before the main feature.)

    Some of these showtimes may only be good until Tuesday, as both the 3D re-release of Monsters, Inc. and Seth Rogen & Barbra Streisand in Guilt Trip will be looking to get a jump on Christmas by opening on Wednesday the 19th.
  • That's not quite all that's paying; Kendall Square and Boston Common both pick up Hyde Park on Hudson, which has Bill Murray playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hosting the King and Queen of England as World War II approaches, with Laura Linney as his neighbor. That opens on two screens at Kendall Square; The Central Park Five, a documentary about a terrible miscarriage of justice in 1989, gets one and a single-week booking at that. There will be special guests at two screenings - directors Ken Burns and Sarah Burns at the 6:35pm show on Friday, with Sarah Burns joined by third director David McMahon and subject Raymond Santana at the corresponding Saturday show.
  • The Coolidge picks up a pair of movies second-run: The Sessions splitting a film screen with Argo, and Chasing Ice in the GoldScreen. The special engagements are noteworthy, too, starting with the midnights: The Fifth Element plays Friday and Saturday night in theater #1, part of the end-of-the-world series. Meanwhile, Friday night features the 2012 Everything Is Terrible! Holiday Special in the upstairs theater.

    On Monday night, the Sounds of Silents program returns with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (along with the school's Video Game Music Choir) presenting a new score for F.W. Murnau's Faust
  • The Brattle has their annual twin Christmas programs this weekend. Matinees and evenings, that means It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's classic with James Stewart and Donna Reed. Later at night, there's the Alt X-Mas shows, with Gremlins (projected digitally) Friday night, the director's cut of Brazil on Saturday, and The City of Lost Children on Sunday.

    Starting Monday, it's studio anniversary time again, with the Focus Features Tenth Birthday series. Interesting coming so soon after the Universal series, as I believe the studios were connected at one point. On Monday, they've got Moonrise Kingdom; The Pianist plays Tuesday; a Bill Murray double feature of Lost in Translation & Broken Flowers on Wednesday; and two by François Ozon with Ludivine Sagnier, Swimming Pool & 8 Women, on Thursday.
  • The The Harvard Film Archive has their last regular show of the year on Friday, Identification of a Woman. It's a straggler from the Michelangelo Antonioni series that ran earlier, with Tomás Milián as a film director confronted by two women.
  • The MFA continues with Stephen Fry's discussion of Wagner and Me through Sunday, with another film from the UK, period comedy Cheerful Wedding for the Wedding, playing alongside it and also returning on Wednesday and Thursday. Those two days also mark the start of a new series, The Films of Juliette Binoche, with Blue and Certified Copy on Wednesday and Code Unknown joining Blue on Thursday.
  • The Somerville Theatre is running a screen short through December as the "Slutcracker" Burlesque takes over the main stage, and they've got one other family-inappropriate holiday screening this week, with The Onion AV Club presenting a "New Cult Canon" screening of Bad Santa on Tuesday the 18th.
  • And, finally, the Regent Theatre has a couple of off-beat events. Friday night has Jimmy Tingle back in town, doing his "Live on Stage & Screen" show with his movie Jimmy Tingle's American Dream once more; this one is a benefit for the American Red Cross. Then, on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening, there's the two-part Christmas in Acidland, with each half featuring Christmas-themed television oddities that demonstrate just how much strange holiday material has been produced over the years.

Plans? Well, still haven't seen Lincoln, Hitchcock, or Killing Them Softly. I'll probably try to catch The Central Park Five and Hyde Park on Hudson. And, yeah, the first of the new midget movies, if only as an interesting tech demo.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

British (and Danish!) movies in British Cinemas: Sightseers, The Hunt, and Skyfall

When I went to London for vacation, I sort of had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to see Skyfall while I was there - James Bond in his home territory, so to speak - but didn't actually have plans more more. Sure, I'd look to see what was playing there that wasn't likely to hit the US for a while/at all. I wound up staking out four movies - Gambit, The Hunt, Great Expectations, and Sightseers. Great Expectations didn't happen, but Sightseers was quite the pleasant surprise - having liked both of Ben Wheatley's previous films, being able to see this one well before its first US screenings at Sundance was a nice bonus.

I was also (pleasantly) surprised to see just how wide an opening it got in London, and what a push it seemed to be given: There were posters at every tube stop, while the Curzon Soho was filled with promotion for the movie. Sure, it's a home-grown picture, and I've really got no idea what the major distributors in the UK are and how well they usually do getting movies on screens, but... Well, it's a weird movie, even by dark-british-humour standards.

I also tend to get the impression that the screen churn in the UK is pretty fierce - Great Expectations seemed to lose a lot of showtimes between its 30 November opening date and when I left on 9 December. It seems due, at least in part, to the lack of multiplexes; the nearby site with the most screens seemed to be the Cineworld where I saw Sightseers, a six-plex. It seemed like a lot of places would open the same movie, and then attrition would happen based on how things performed in that neighborhood (heck, The Hunt was playing all over the place, although that seemed to be a deal between its distributor and the Curzon chain). Movies would open up with single off-peak showtimes in some places.

The theaters themselves were pretty nice, though. I certainly wouldn't mind if a place like the Curzon Soho opened somewhere in Cambridge; though the admission price was steep (£14.50 for an evening show, or $23.20 assuming a 1.6 exchange rate) - stupidly, I didn't realize I could use the London Pass there until a couple days later - the snack bar was moderately priced good stuff, and the bar/café/lounge areas were quite the nice places to wait. They offer memberships, too.

The BFI IMAX is apparently the UK's largest screen, and it's impressively big, maybe a little larger than the New England Aquarium's IMAX screen. I was running too late to really scope the amenities out, but it had a bar/café that was packed right up until it was time for the show to start, and though run by Odeon, it wasn't quite so self-service as the place where I saw Gambit. Like that theater, there was assigned seating, and they put me right next to a couple despite the whole row being open two minutes before showtime. I spent the movie in C17 rather than C18; hope they didn't mind.

More fun with concessions: They don't put ice in your soda unless you specifically ask for it, and the cheese dip used for nachos at the BFI IMAX was creamy and roughly seventy-four times as good as the hyper-processed yellow stuff American theaters use. American theaters: Get your act together on this! Also, you are offered a choice between "Salty" and "Sweet" when ordering your popcorn, and I mildly regret not trying the latter at some point, because what is that? Just popcorn with sugar on it?

Anyway, it turned out to be a fun and busy moviegoing week considering that you'd think I would have other new and different things to do.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2012 in Cineworld Fullham Road #6 (first-run, digital)

Ben Wheatley's previous two films weren't everyone's cup of tea, and he hasn't exactly gone conventional with Sightseers. It's quite often as funny as it is twisted (or, perhaps, vice versa), overflowing with strange, messy, disturbing romantic comedy.

Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) are going on holiday after being together for a few months, despite the protestations of Tina's mother Carol (Eileen Davis). Odd, considering the pair are in their mid-thirties, but it comes as no surprise that neither has dated much; they've got that way about them. As much as Tina's the one who has seldom left her mother's side, Chris's outsized reaction to someone at the tram museum littering is the first hint that their caravan trip through minor tourist sites in the English countryside is going to be far out of the ordinary.

(Note for my fellow Americans: "caravan" is British for "camper" or "trailer".)

The term "dark comedy" covers a lot of ground, and Sightseers manages to walk most of it. It's one thing for the audience to laugh at something that is objectively horrible because the joke has been set up so well, and the movie does that often and well (often setting it up as the opposite of a joke). That's impressive, but perhaps the niftier trick is how Wheatley and co-writer/co-stars Lowe & Oram twist things so that the audience winds up seeing the road-trip/romantic comedy movie from a decidedly skewed perspective. The weird focus is funny, but not in a snarky, laugh-at-the-form sort of way. The filmmakers are very careful not to drift into parody or cool amorality.

Full review at EFC.

Jagten (The Hunt)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2012 in Curzon Soho #2 (first-run, digital)

One of the main characters in The Hunt (Jagten) is about five years old, and there are times when Thomas Vinterberg's movie almost seems aimed at her, explaining in clear detail why she should never tell a lie. It's not for pre-schoolers, of course; it's a grown-up movie about grown-up things. Vinterberg simply chooses to show how caprice and hysteria can ruin a good man's life rather than engage in it.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is, almost unquestionably, a good man; only his ex-wife bears him any ill will. Formerly a teacher at a now-closed school, he works at a day-care center where the kids all love him. One is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). In fact, Klara starts to get a little too attached, and when Lucas attempts to establish proper boundaries, Klara tells one of the other teachers that Lucas exposed himself to her.

Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindhom don't quite tell the story in a completely straight line - the point-of-view switches between Lucas and Klara during the first half with an occasional detour to Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), Lucas's coworker and potential girlfriend, and a fair amount of the second half puts Lucas's son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) front-and-center - but there's often a somewhat procedural feel to the movie. It's a "victim procedural" more than a "police procedural", with cops, lawyers, and other officials only rarely drifting through the scene, but a large part of what makes the movie an interesting watch is seeing how this sort of investigation works and where it goes wrong. It's like watching dominoes fall in slow motion as questions meant to bring out the truth sometimes seem to have the worst possible effect of planting misinformation in characters' minds.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2012 in the BFI IMAX Theatre (first-run, digital Imax)

As I said seeing it a month ago, Skyfall is pretty terrific, a gorgeous action/adventure movie bookended by a pair of especially fantastic action sequences. The script is maybe not quite so great on second blush - a friend wants to know why Bond didn't hit the deck if he could hear M and Eve on the radio in the beginnning, but, hey, melee going on. SPOILERS! I'm more interested in why the heck Q plugged Silva's laptop into the network rather than not only disconnect it from everything but work on it in the tightest Faraday cage he could find.

That sort of thing is kind of the heart of the movie's problem - nobody in it is really good at his or her job. Bond goes to interrogate someone - dead before he can ask a question. The girl dies quickly. M - dead. Family estate and beautiful car - blown up. Spies' covers blown. I guess Kincaid did OK, but... !SRELIOPS

It's still a frequently thrilling adventure that's well more than I expected from Sam Mendes, and I like that it attacks the lack of sentimentality required of this sort of espionage head-on.

One last thing: By the time I saw this, I'd gotten just familiar enough with the Underground to laugh at how the train that Silva crashed apparently had no passengers despite it being the middle of the day and to notice, when the two got out of the tube afterward, that Silva exited via Embankment while Bond came up out of Westminster, and unless a lot more time passed than the movie implied, he actually should have beaten Silva to Parliament.

(Yes, I am nitpicking public transportation in this movie. I must admit, though, that I'm impressed that the producers actually used nearby stations)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 7 December 2012 - 13 December 2012

So, uh, thanks for not opening much in the way of new movies in Boston while I'm overseas, American distributors. I'll just pick up where I left off on Sunday, then.

  • I saw a preview for Playing for Keeps in a London cinema, and you know what? A lot more soccer than the one I saw back in America. Funny how that works, eh (just like how the "Playbook" in "Silver Linings Playbook" is almost invisible in UK posters, presumably to hide the American football fandom)? It's got Gerard Butler as a divorced former soccer star sort of marooned in America so he'll be close to his son, with all the local soccer moms lusting for him. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond.

    And... That's close to it. Boston Common has evening shows of The Art of Flight 3D, which has snowboarder Travis Rice and friends snowboarding in 3D (and, you know, for spectacle, that's probably not the worst way to spend money). The multiplexes also bring back End of Watch, which seems kind of random. Weekend late shows at Boston Common, a full screen at Fenway.
  • It's pretty quiet at Kendall Square, too, as they stick with likely award front-runners. Well, mostly - the single new release there, Deadfall, is a thriller featuring Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde as criminal siblings who go separate ways after a heist-gone-wrong. Not a bad supporting cast, either (Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek). It's booked for one week, while Bill W. is just there for one night - Tuesday the 11th. It's a documentary about William G. Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • The Brattle has two new indies booked Friday to Sunday. My Worst Nightmare is a French romantic comedy featuring Isabelle Huppert as an uptight gallery owner and Benôit Poelvoorde as the obnoxious working-class father of her son's best friend. Sparks will fly! It plays afternoons and evenings, with the 9:45pm shift taken by The Comedy, which features Tim Heidecker as "an aging hipster with a wealthy, dying father who aimlessly wanders Brooklyn looking for some kind of connection with life". Apparently not rally a comedy. There's more independent cinema on Monday night, as actress Beth Grant stops by to introduce CineCache selection Blues for Willadean, where she plays an abused housewife looking for "liberation", and take questions afterward.

    For the rest of the week, it's Cinemapocalypse 2012, as the Brattle celebrates the Mayans' "prophesied" end of the world with 2012 on Tuesday, 12 Monkeys on Wednesday, and Children of Men on Thursday.
  • The Coolidge has their own "end of the world" series on Friday, with Zach Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead kicking things off Friday and Saturday at midnight; more apocalyptic movies will follow all month long. Friday will also have the monthly midnight showing of The Room, which should not be confused with The Flat, which opens in the GoldScreen for the week.

    There's Christmas fun to be had Saturday morning with the Kids' Show, as The Muppet Christmas Carol plays Saturday at 10:30am. Michael Caine is Scrooge, Kermit is Cratchit, and Gonzo is Charles Dickens! There's movies Sunday morning, too, with Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet (about hijinks at a musicians' retirement home) the Talk Cinema selection at 10am and Barbara (about an East German surgeon exiled to a small village when she attempts to move west in the 1980s) is the Goethe-Institut selection at 11am. There's more special program on Monday at 7pm, as physicist Peter Fisher talks Tesla and wireless power before a Science on Screen presentation of The Prestige. They also appear to have a preview of Gus Van Sant's new film with Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand, Promised Land, a relatively conventional-looking environmental drama.
  • It's a short weekend at The Harvard Film Archive, with just the touring retrospective Jan Švankmajer, Conspirator of Pleasure on the schedule. It includes a collection of shorts (Saturday 7pm), Conspirators of Pleasure (Saturday 9pm), Alice (Sunday 5pm), and Little Otik (Sunday 7pm).
  • The MFA finishes its run of Neighboring Sounds, with the Brazillian film showing once per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at various times; on Wednesday, they switch it up for Wagner and Me, with Stephen Fry exploring his fondness for the German composer's music, despite its association with Nazism. It will be running once a day until the 16th.
  • Bollywood action-comedy-musical Khiladi 786 opens at Fresh Pond with Akshay Kumar in a story that, if I read the synopsis right, involves a matchmaker arranging a marriage between a gangster's daughter and a cop, only to find out that the cop and his family are con-men. It shares the screen with held-over thriller Talaash.

My plans? Well, who knows? Sunday will probably involve trying to avoid falling asleep as I have five extra hours inserted into my day, so maybe something that involves explosions (checks schedule, notes it is really explosion-deficient). I've got Lincoln, Hitchcock, and plenty more to try and catch up on, and will probably try to make Blues for Willadean on Monday, depending how much has piled up on my desk after a week away from the office.

Monday, December 03, 2012

British movies in British Cinemas: Gambit (2012)

Going to the movies in London isn't quite an alien experience, but it's more different than I might have expected.


Even the posters outside are shaped differently! Crazy, huh? I have to remember to take a look at a Silver Linings Playbook poster when I get home, though, to see if the "Playbook" part has been de-emphasized even more outside the US, because you probably don't want to bring the football stuff up (what the characters are obsessed with is less important than that they're obsessed, but still...).

Anyway, the first difference comes at the box office, where they ask you where you want to sit. Part of that is asking if you want a premium ticket - I said no, as the more comfortable chairs don't make up for being in the back of the house - but part of that is just that the seats are assigned. It seems strange, but given that seats at most sorts of entertainment are assigned, you can go the other way and say that general admission makes little sense. I do sort of wonder, however, if the people at the box office attempt the "checkerboard" pattern that generally forms in American theaters when attendence isn't expected to be high - after all, nobody wants someone sitting directly next to or in front of them if that's not absolutely necessary.

Inside was when it got kind of strange for me, though, as pretty much the entire concession process is potentially self-serve. There's popcorn and soda behind the concession stand, but those same things are also free-standing, along with the pick & mix candies, bagged candies, Doritos, bottled drinks, and other snacks. There's also a section for bar drinks and a door to the adjacent café, although I'm guessing you need a premium ticket to have those delivered to your seat. I admit to being a little flummoxed by that, which is kind of hilarious - going to a movie and getting snacks is something I've done literally thousands of times and here I am, staring stupidly.

Anyway, once that was sorted, it was into the theater (where I probably could have chosen to sit anywhere but D-12 if I chose), and what seemed like a pretty strong barrage of ads before the previews. Not totally unusual, but most chains in the US have moved the ad package to before the printed start time. The movie itself, as you can see from the review, wasn't that great, but it also wasn't my first choice (but that's a story for when I do get to that movie).

Gambit (2012)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2012 in Odeon Kensington #4 (first-run, digital)

It's a horrible thing when a caper movie doesn't come off. The great ones are casual and precise in a way that seems to come as much from alchemy as chemistry, and when that doesn't happen, it seems as though all the necessary ingredients are there but just don't come together at all.

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) has a plan - an expert on impressionist art working for the Shabandar Media Group and responsible for curating its egotistic head's art collection in particular, he has concocted a backstory by which he can sell Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) a Monet forged by his friend Wingate (Tom Courtenay). Convincing Shabandar of the picture's provenance will involve American cowgirl PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), who is naturally unpredictable, but another hitch is added to the mix when Shabandar plans to replace Harry with a new curator in the form of Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci).

The screenplay for this version of Gambit is by Joel & Ethan Coen, and there's a recognizable oddball sensibility to it; it is full of people who are not nearly as smart as they think they are. And yet, there seems to be a great deal missing that no amount of style is going to make up for. For instance, a great sting; even without having seen the 1966 original, what passes for a twist is utterly predictable. The plot holes on the way there are fairly huge, too; while the lack of high-tech art authentication may be excused by the characters being eccentric, a single security camera would have foiled the plot twice (including in one astonishingly pointless, runtime-padding sequence), and "yeah, but there wasn't one" isn't really a valid excuse here - the audience has pointedly been alerted to the possibility, so the plan needs to take it into account or be found wanting.

Full review at EFC.