Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Not a whole lot to say about this one. It's pretty good, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone later makes either a Nelson Mandela biography or a film about the struggle for equal rights in South Africa that surpasses it. The two aren't the same, even though one can occasionally get that impression, and a little more independence and distance probably wouldn't hurt.

One thing worth noting is that the passing of Nelson Mandela was a Big Deal in France, or at least Paris: Every newsstand had large signage advertising various magazines' special editions paying tribute, and a memorial message was projected on the Eiffel Tower every night. This may be a case of me having a biased sample; those magazine ads were some of the signage I could immediately read and comprehend, and the parts of Boston/Cambridge I walk through on a daily basis just don't have the sort of newsstands you find in Paris, London, or New York (the two in Harvard Square tend to blend in with the area's anonymous brick). But it's also a sign of how maybe Americans don't pay that much attention to the world outside their borders.

There were also coincidental reminders - or what I think were coincidental reminders - such as a photographic exhibit about present-day South Africa that was set up outside the Louvre. It's unlikely that was hastily assembled or reassembled upon Mandela's death. Similarly coincidental was that this movie appeared to open in France a week or so ahead of the United States (the 18th compared to the 25th). As a further bit of trivia, I noted that it is distributed by The Weinstein Company in the U.S. like Snowpiercer and The Immigrant, and it's interesting to me that those English-language movies are all opening in France first, an apparent result of the Weinsteins' award-centric scheduling.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2013 at Regal Fenway #5 (first-run, DCP)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a tidily-arranged biography; it organizes what people are interested in where Nelson Mandela is concerned and presents it in a manner that is respectful and stirring without feeling like it is getting bogged down in details or distorting through too many omissions. There may be better Mandela movies to be made, ones that do more to challenge one's assumptions or delve into the how of specific things being accomplished, but this feels like a solid primer.

After a brief scene presumably from Mandela's childhood in a rural village, the film picks up in 1940, where the young Mandela (Idris Elba) is a lawyer in Johannesburg, offending whites with his directness in the courtroom and impressing blacks with his charm and way with words. Though he is initially a reluctant activist, he eventually becomes active in the African National Congress. It hastens the end of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), but later draws beautiful social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris) to him. In the early 1960s, he and several ANC comrades are arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

As Nelson's decades-long incarceration arguably sharpens him into a shrewder politician, events on the outside make Winnie a more strident radical. Indeed, one might argue that Naomie Harris plays the more fascinating Mandela; Winnie is not the saint but the wife who cannot live up to his reputation, and her raw emotion and hostility can frequently be just as compelling as anything her husband does, all the more so because just as it is easy to understand where she is coming from, the audience can also see clearly - both via history and the way she and Nelson interact toward the end of the movie - that this is not what the country needs in the struggle's final stages. Harris handles every phase of Winnie's life very well; there's no point between the idealistic girl of the start and the hardened woman of the end where the audience doesn't feel this is the same person undergoing a real, complex evolution.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, December 30, 2013

This These Weeks In Tickets: 9 December 2013 - 22 December 2013

Two weeks this time, because I didn't have a lot of time for writing while on vacation. Nor necessarily a lot of time for seeing movies, for that matter, but I saw a lot of other stuff.

9 December 2013 - 15 December 2013
16 December 2013 - 22 December 2013

This Week in Tickets

The first couple days of the week were spoken for before the week started, especially Monday. I gobbled up a ticket for Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 35mm a few weeks in advance, and while that Science on Screen presentation didn't completely sell out like I expected, it was a packed crowd.

That's Melissa Franklin, Physics Chair at Harvard University, delivering a talk before the movie about cartoon physics and her own work detecting the Higgs Boson. It was a discussion designed to give a person whiplash, moving in fairly rapid fashion from the "Cartoon Laws of Physics" that got emailed around back when people still emailed things around (I'm guessing it would be a listicle/slide-show now) and some fairly advanced particle physics, but only one kid in the audience seemed to actually get impatient.

Not pictured - because he stood up and sat down from his seat a couple rows behind me too quickly - is writer Gary K. Wolf, who wrote the original novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? that the film was adapted from. I think the guy is following me; though he lives in Brookline now, he was in Worcester when I was going to college there; supposedly the Acapulco had a drink called the "Toon Tonic", as seen in his less well-known (but actually very funny) follow-up, Who P-p-p-plugged Roger Rabbit?. Even back then, there was talk of a third book that he was sitting on until it could be released alongside a movie sequel; since that new movie looks unlikely to happen, as Bob Hoskins is unlikely to be up to it, he's finally decided to release it electronically; I'm looking forward to reading Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? soon.

Tuesday night's movie was also staked out ahead of time, as the latest in the Gathr preview series. Pretty Old isn't a bad movie, but it's a somewhat odd thing. As soon as somebody casually mentions what the participants in the Miss Senior Sweetheart beauty pageant pay for an all-inclusive package, it starts to sound more like a fantasy camp than a "legitimate" contest, but the movie plows on like it's the latter. It makes me wonder how much the movie is a documentary and how much it's an advertisement, making it hard to figure out what i think of its merits.

Much of the rest of the week was spent packing or otherwise getting ready, just squeezing in a quick screening of The Last Days on Mars on the afternoon I left for vacation. It was between that and The Hobbit, and while I didn't wind up seeing the better movie that day, it fit my schedule better and I wouldn't have had any other chances to see it on the big screen.

Then, that evening, after everything was all packed, I hauled my bags to Logan and flew to Paris's Orly airport by way of Heathrow, where I actually stepped through customs and back in order to pick up a Tep wireless internet device. Next time I visit Europe, I'll probably just pay for the shipping rather than do that; I left enough time between flights, but what if I hadn't or someone decided this activity was suspicious. At any rate, I made it, although my plan to sleep on the plan and arrive in Europe tired by with my clock adjusted didn't work out - there was a baby on the plane, and he or she did what babies do in an unfamiliar situation surrounded by strange people, and cried. So, when I got to the hotel at about 4pm local time, I dropped to the bed, took the sort of nap that leaves one awake but not particularly energetic when I re-awoke a few hours later, and then eventually dropped for long enough that I wouldn't have time to collect the Paris Pass/Paris Museum Pass during Sunday's crazy-short hours.

So, I figured, why not start at the Eiffel Tower.

... It's one of the things not covered by the passes, it didn't have short hours, so I could test my navigation skills inside and outside the Metro without stress, and, hey, no point in saving it for later. It actually took me two tickets to get up to the top - one for the stairs up to the second floor" (which is 622 steps up), and another for the elevator to the top. Quite well worth it for the view and further appreciating just how massive it is when viewed from the ground. Photos from there begin here on my Facebook page.

After that, I headed to my first movie shown in Paris, a subtitled screening of Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer. It was a bit of an adventure getting there - the various trains were tricky, the mall had three separate movie theaters (they love movies in Paris), and my debit card was strangely reluctant to be used any place but restaurants, but I got to see the new Bong movie on the big screen in the country of its source material's origin without it being cut, and that was pretty darn cool.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: The Arc de Triomphe (Monday the 16th), The Louvre (Wednesday the 18th), The Musee Rodin (Thursday the 19th), The Musee des Armes (Thursday the 19th), Notre Dame Cathedral (Friday the 20th), The Crypt at Notre Dame (Friday the 20th).

The Paris Museum Pass is a pretty good value; in fact, if planning a trip to Paris, I'd recommend getting one of those and not bothering with the Paris Pass - I didn't use the Red Bus, and I think the only thing I used the non-Museum Pass for was the Bateaux Parisiens. Most of the time, just showing the red museum pass (which folds out to become a brochure) got me waved into what I wanted to see without the need to log the date and receive a ticket.

Plus, maybe one of those could have been picked up/purchased without the hassle I went through that morning. Just giving my name and showing my voucher on my phone/tablet wasn't enough, they needed the printed voucher. So, back to the hotel, get that, return, pick up pass... And find out very little is open on Monday. Thus, the first stop is La Cinematheque Francaise.

It had a lot of "no photography" signs around, so the only picture I took was this one, of the spiffy-looking outside. Interestingly, most of the exhibits open to the public were from the early days of cinema, when people were still figuring out hardware standards; I don't know if it really got beyond the silent era before the exhibit on Jean Cocteau. There was also a pay exhibit on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Roma that I didn't take in which was keyed to a retrospective in their theater.

After a pretty darn good steak at Hippopotamus (a steakhouse near the Cinematheque that I later discovered was a chain; always kind of strange), I headed to the Champs-Elysees to take a look at the Arc de Triomphe (pictures start here). It's another spiffy monument with lots and lots of stairs which looks amazing lit up at night. So did the Champs-Elysees itself, although the camera on my phone didn't capture it very well.

Tuesday, I started out at La Musee des Arts et Metiers (pictures start here), literally "the museum of arts and crafts", although here it focuses on technology and inventions. It is full of nifty stuff, and while at a certain point I got a little fatigued, you get a second wind in a hurry once you get to l'Eglise, a former cathedral that has bunches of early planes and automobiles packed into it, along with Foucault's Pendulum. It's a seriously impressive room. There was also a little display with robots from various movies and a no-pictures-allowed exhibition - "Mecanhumanimal" - by comic book artist Enki Bilal. Never one of my particular favorites from Humanoids, but some of his newer stuff that was on display had me fairly interested.

After that, I did one of the boat tours of the Seine (pictures start here). I always like seeing a city from its river.

Wednesday was pretty much given over to the Louvre entirely. As with the British Museum last year, I made sure to choose the day when it would be open late, since I knew it was going to take a lot of time. That it did; this picture got taken before noon and my phone's battery crapped out before I was done at around eight-thirty. It's a place thoroughly worth an entire day's visit, with it always worth remembering to look up because something awesome may be on the ceiling. I was, admittedly, exhausted by the end, to the point where when my path took me through the German and Dutch paintings, I was kind of thinking "oh, huh, another nicely-painted portrait" and then when I got to the French sculptures, that was just warehousing. Still, an astonishing number of beautiful things.

Thursday I started off at the Musee Rodin (pictures!) on the advice of my sister-in-law Jen. It's a nifty little museum, with the bulk of the exhibits like The Thinker and The Gates of Hell actually outside in a garden. There was also a nice exhibit on Camille Claudel, a student and lover of Rodin's.

I didn't get pictures of a couple things I saw afterward - there was some sort of strike or protest going on right outside the museum when I was leaving, and then a couple blocks away there was the most nondescript gas station I've ever seen - a couple of pumps by the side of the road, and I couldn't see what they were connected to until the second or third time I walked past it and saw a tiny cubbyhole of a shop behind it.

The stop after that was nearby, l'Hotel des Invalides (pics). It is home to, among other things, the Musee d'Armes and the Tomb of Napoleon. The former was pretty cool, although I joked that the medieval section seemed to be warehousing suits of armor in case modern weaponry just stopped working. There was also a World War II section, an interesting contrast to similar exhibits in American museums because it pretty much only covers the war in Europe. As soon as the Nazis fall, it's "and then some other stuff happened in the Pacific".

Then came the Tomb of Napoleon, which is just as over-the-top and grandiose as one would hope. It really should be a set for a movie based around some sort of treasure hunt. This was followed by stopping in a burger place I came across, because there's something kind of fun about seeing how other places imitate the American diner experience.

Funny story about Friday: Ever since arriving in Paris, I've seen signs warning about pickpockets, and I kind of thought it was cute: Most places I've traveled, you get warned about being mugged, and pickpocketing is at least non-violent. Then I got to the spot where I took this picture, and couldn't find my wallet. Fortunately, it was back at the hotel, but, yeesh, that was a half-hour or so of panic I didn't need. Bummer, because I quickly grew to love Ile Saint-Louis and Ile de la Cite, where I saw Notre Dame. Astonishingly pretty church, although by the time I was halfway up the towers, I was really starting to wonder what the heck was up with this city and stairs. I must say, though, that the inside of the cathedral was kind of weird for me - aside from the constant bass hum, there are all these tourist things with price tags on them all around, and I wonder if they're covered up or moved out during services.

The Crypt isn't quite underneath Notre Dame, but the plaza next to it. It's pretty neat; not quite as impressive as the archaeological museum at Pointe-A-Calliere in Montreal, but the ruins (pictures!) are much older. Still cool, and left me enough time to look at the booksellers near Pont Neuf and even pop into a Bandes-Dessinees shop for some graphic novels I'll need to read with a dictionary open.

Saturday started with a trip to the Catacombs (pics), which is pretty darn impressive, and also creepy. I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city, stopping at various patisseries and boulangeries to try various baked goods. Highly recommended, that. I bounced around the city a bit looking at the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysees, finishing up with a couple of movies at theaters across the street from each other, The Immigrant & Zulu.

After that? Getting back to the hotel, sleeping fast, and then making my way to Orly and back to Boston. Long day of flying, and when I got back to the house, I basically had time to turn the heat back on before dropping. Can't recommend the whole experience enough, though.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2013 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sciene on Screen, 35mm)

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out twenty-five years ago, a good amount of the hype came from how seamlessly the animated characters blended with the live actors and real-world environments. A generation later, it's not so amazing, and the seams show a little bit more - but that's okay; the border between the human world and the Toon world can be a bit ragged. It's not deliberate - director Robert Zemeckis has always been about pushing what film can do technically forward as opposed to exploiting its limitations - but it's a testament to how delightful a film he made that we're willing to try and ascribe greatness even to its imperfections.

Not that there are many of them. Zemeckis and his collaborators do something uncommon at the time - expending a lot of resources on a fairly goofy idea - and they almost unerringly hit the sweet spot where things can both be absurd but fit together just well enough to work as a detective story. Not a fair-play mystery, but a Dashiell Hammett-style pulp, albeit one whose rough edges have been sanded down to where audiences can get a thrill from grown-up material bumping up against cartoons rather than overwhelming them.

The reason I'm sad there was never a film sequel (and why I was grateful for original novelist Gary K. Wolf using the movie continuity for the later books) is that these are some genuinely fun characters. Bob Hoskins dives right into every gumshoe trope as Eddie Valiant but still makes him a guy we like and want to cheer up on his own, while Christopher Lloyd is note-perfect as Judge Doom. The main toons are pretty great, too - Roger Rabbit is a cheery, optimistic nut who wears his heart on his sleeve and could be quite annoying if played even a little bit the wrong way, but that doesn't happen. What was surprising on my first viewing in a while is just how great a character Jessica is; her face and Kathleen Turner's voice are more expressive than you likely remember, and as the movie goes on and we learn just how much truth there is in her claim that she's not bad, just drawn that way, she becomes a lot more than just a literally cartoonish bit of sex appeal.

I kind of fear what would happen if Disney were to do a sequel today; the sort of self-referentiality and packing in of details that made it a treat in 1988 is more common today, and the effects work would similarly be expected rather than a bit of a wonder. The original is still pretty amazing, though, maybe the peak of how Robert Zemeckis was once better than anyone at telling an entertaining story while rising to incredible technical challenges, and I'd love to see him do something like that again.

Pretty Old

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2013 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews, digital)

There's a moment somewhere in the middle of Pretty Old when Lenny "Low Price" Kaplan, the guy behind the Miss Senior Sweetheart beauty pageant, mentions that the contestants pay $625 for their week taking part in the event, and it's more disappointing to hear than it has any right to be. It's a bit of information that highlights just how much of a fantasy camp the whole thing is, even though it's presented as a contest.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, it's just an odd thing for them to downplay to the extent they do, in part because it means the rest of the movie has a bit of a hard time finding focus - it's not about the women in the 2009 edition being competitive or really going all-out to win, but it doesn't really build on the friendships that perhaps form between the women who do this every year. It's not quite an advertisement, and it's not close to being a pointed commentary on how these women who have lived full lives are worried about being called pretty. And while there's something to be said about just doing a survey of this odd little phenomenon, a documentary like this often winds up feeling like the director just wasn't able to find his story, or a point he wanted to make, either on the ground or in the editing room.

He does manage to meet a fairly nice group of ladies - the core four that director Walter Matteson follows range in age from 65 to 81, with hometowns scattered from Michigan to the Virgin Islands. They're pleasant folks, facing the mental and physical challenges that the elderly face, and even the ones who maybe have way too much invested in how they look are fairly easy to like. Interestingly, there aren't many in the contest that you'd say look ten or twenty years younger than they actually are; these are old ladies revisiting their youth, as opposed to women who still haven't let go of it.

As these things go, it's fairly entertaining - Matteson doesn't linger over dull parts, and gives everybody involved their due. He presents this eccentric little event without either overpraising it or looking down upon it, and finds a couple of moments - like when he cuts between the faces of the also-rans to show that second place never really starts to taste good - that are darn clever. It amuses, and I'm sure that the Fall River civic club that operates it as a fundraiser will happily put a link to it on their website to show what the pageant is about. It's just not the sort of documentary that tells a great story or illustrates a point surprisingly well.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?Pretty OldThe Last Days on MarsEiffel TowerSnowpiercer
La Cinematheque FrancaisMusee des Arts et MetiersBateaux ParisiensCatacombs de ParisThe ImmigrantZulu

Friday, December 27, 2013

English-language movies at French Cinemas: The Immigrant & Zulu

As I mentioned last week, I opted to use a few evenings during my Paris vacation going to the movies; the city loves film and has dozens of theaters, from multiplexes to old palaces to screening rooms and everything in between. 17 pages worth on Google's movie listings, compared to 6 for New York City and a thin two for Boston. The types and formats are varied, too - plenty of homegrown movies, of course, and plenty of Hollywood stuff, playing both in dubbed and subtitled versions.

And, of course, there was a bunch of stuff that seemed random. Was Boxcar Bertha playing because Martin Scorcese had a new movie coming out? How about Ordinary People - was that there for All Is Lost? Little Odessa must have been a tie-in to The Immigrant, right? Plus tons of old noir, and a Sunday afternoon where practically every animated Disney movie seemed to be playing at one theater or another. We get pretty good repertory programming in Boston, but Paris is something else.

Surprisingly, going to the movies is roughly the same. None of the three places I went had reserved seating as seems relatively common in the UK, and the snacks at the concession stand were basically the same staples as the US - popcorn, M&Ms, soda. Sure, the soda was mostly in bottles, but I wasn't looking at anything distinctly French. Maybe at higher-end arthouses. The biggest details I noticed were that UGC offers an unlimited films program similar to MoviePass (though only applying to their theaters, obviously), which is something that both exhibitors and studios have, at various times, fought in the United States but which seems reasonably well-entrenched in France. Then there's the advertising, which is not only much less segregated than it is here - in the US, its non-movie ads, movie previews, feature, while France mixes the ads and previews up - but which also included some of those infamous ads that American movie stars do oversees but don't want to be seen lowering themselves to at home: George Clooney and Matt Damon for Nespresso, for instance, or Julia Roberts in a short film directed by Tarsem Singh for some Lacoste fragrance.

Well, that was the case in the UGC Cinemas; I didn't really get a chance to investigate the Publicis one more closely because... Well, at first it just seemed like one of those cases where the more sophisticated a movie venue is, the slower everything moves ("oh, no, we're not like the soulless places the worry about separating people from their money to see the Adam Sandler movie as quickly as possible; we're going to pay attention to just you and get you your soda at a relaxed pace even if there are a half-dozen people in line behind you!"), but there seemed to be a couple of folks arguing with the guy at the box office,something about how many promotional tickets you could use at once. The last of these conversations was going on in English, and a manager(?) eventually flat-out told the guy that other movies were starting and his continuing that argument was ticking people behind him off (whether she noticed I was starting to become the human embodiment of a clenched fist, as I often do in those situations, or if the entire line was grumbling, I don't know). It did seem weird to me that there were two other people standing around the box office but only one selling tickets when there was a line out the door of this two-screen cinema right next to the Arc de Triomphe, especially since the place doesn't seem to have any concession stands. Maybe there was one near Screen #1, but both it and the second screen I went to both seemed to be served mainly by vending machines. Heck of a weird business model, I thought, taking five minutes to sell each ticket and then not even selling popcorn. Then again, the Publicis Cinema was right next door to the Publicis Burger/Steak House, which was right next to the Publicis Drugstore. Kind of a weird combination of businesses, but maybe they wind up working well together.

I wound up seeing these two movies as a double feature, seeing as the venues were right across the street from each other and I spotted four or five other theaters on or just off the Champs-Elysees (not even counting how the George V was split between two adjacent buildings). I'd wanted to split them between two separate nights, but both times I learned the important lesson of maybe not trusting one's movie app completely in an unfamiliar city, as I was twice sent to the wrong address earlier in the week, which leads to a lot of frustration and no movie that night. Part of it was also a sort of paralysis - the immense number of choices led to me wondering if I wanted to go to this movie at that place, or that one there, and by the time I made a decision, both were out of range. It would have been neat if I saw some of the more random stuff, though.

On the other hand, I did get to see the trailer for the new version of La Belle & La Bete, with Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel in the title roles for Christophe Gans, who really needs to actually get films made more often. I absolutely would have gone to see it if it were out, even though my French isn't very good at all. And while all three of the movies I saw in Paris were mostly English-language, I did have a few worried moments whenever someone spoke a foreign language, whether it be Korean in Snowpiercer, Polish in The Immigrant, or Afrikaans in Zulu, as that would be subtitled in French. I managed to do all right by that, although having a big old head between me and the subtitle region in Zulu didn't help.

Just walking around, I saw a bunch of other nifty-looking theaters. If some website or travel gluide would like to pay me to visit every theater in Paris in order to make recommendations, I don't think I'd say no to the job. It's really a great city for people who love movies, even if you speak even less French than I do.

The Immigrant

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2013 at Principis Cinemas Champs-Elysees #2 (first-run, DCP)

The first shot of The Immigrant - the Statue of Liberty seen from behind, through a brownish fog - is certainly the sort that let the audience know just what the next two hours have in store. Director James Gray doesn't stray very far from that image, and while that doesn't make for the most complex of films, it's certainly a worthy entry in its genre.

This sight of Lady Liberty presumably comes from the ship carrying Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and America is not exactly welcoming to these new arrivals from Poland: Magda's cough looks like tuberculosis, which may put her in quarantine for six months, while not only are the aunt and uncle who were meet them not at Ellis Island when Cybulskis arrive, but the address they were given does not appear to exist. Faced with being deported as an incident on the ship has Ewa accepting the help of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants Ewa to do more work than that of a seamstress at a burlesque theater. Things may look up when the theater hires Emil (Jeremy Renner) - aka "Orlando the Magician" - to perform before the girls, although his history with Bruno will certainly complicate things.

What follows on from this is inevitable, and it's to the credit of Gray, co-writer Richard Menello, and the cast, that they don't put on a great show of shock at how Ewa must lower herself in order to survive; as much as she's no eager participant in the skin trade, the audience at least is given some credit for knowing how limited a woman's options were in 1921. What must happen is so clear at times as to make the story seem thin; Bruno outright says that Ewa won't do something because that might jeopardize her chance to see Magda again, and it feels as much like an explanation of how the story works as a threat. Whenever something happens outside of the actions of Ewa, Bruno, or Emil, it seems a bit of an outside force.

The three actors playing those leads, unsurprisingly, hold up their end of the bargain. Jeremy Renner doesn't appear until the movie has been running for a while, but the way he slides in is quite appealing: He makes Emil cheery and pleasant, which not only serves as a welcome contrast to the rest of the gloomy picture, but makes him detached enough from the reality of the situation that he could be a well-meaning disaster in the making. Ewa's reaction to Emil recognizes that; where Cotillard spends much of the movie portraying one form of anguish or another, she also makes sure that there's so much caution to Ewa's reaction that it almost smothers the hope and attraction she feels. It's an impressive bit of variation to a performance that can seem like a lot of being on the verge of tears.

It's Joaquin Phoenix who winds up stealing the show, as Bruno Weiss is the sort of bastard wrestling with his own humanity that Phoenix excels at. Like all the major parts, Bruno is more or less what he appears to be and never has a moment when he is shown to be something else, but Phoenix gets inside the head of this sort of guy better than most, and puts that up there without making him particularly sympathetic. It's a bit of a melodramatic role, but Phoenix makes it feel restrained.

In a way, that's what Gray is doing with the whole film: It feels like a sort of cross between two early 20th-century genres, a muckraking social conscience tale of the poor and desperate told with the sort of restraint and precision usually reserved for the upper class. It does, perhaps, lean on the specific muddy look established at the start to the point where a switch seems obvious, but Gray and company do all right in not making it feel overdone or oversimplified most of the time.

Splitting that difference may make The Immigrant a difficult film to really love; it neither inspires turbulent emotion nor shows off the sort of hair's-breadth nuance that often make costume dramas memorable. It's a nice, human-scale, take on this sort of story, and the cast breathes quite a bit of life into their characters.

(Previously at EFC)


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2013 at UGC Cinemas George V #7 (first-run, DCP)

That Zulu is basically a mismatched-cop movie is not something that should be held against it; that's a field-tested template which could prove a little more interesting than usual given this film's South African setting. There's usually something in those movies, though, that keeps them from being just a battle between cops as out of control as their quarries, and this one maybe could use a little bit more of that, because it is frequently very grim indeed.

The black portion of the investigating team is Captain Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker), a Cape Town detective who still has one foot in the townships where his father was set on fire thirty-five years ago. He's teamed with Dan Fletcher (Conrad Kemp), a likable family man, and Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom), a divorced alcoholic, on a murder case - the sort where the white victim comes from a prominent family but traces of a drug more common to poor black neighborhoods are found in her system. So Ali's superiors would like a tidy solution, even if that's decidedly not what the detectives uncover.

No, there's a conspiracy whose roots reach back to the apartheid era. There's a sort of paranoid grandeur to it - the plot is the sort of thing I imagine South African conspiracy theorists see around every corner - although it's not necessarily completely specific to that place: An audience in any country where economic imbalances still linger as the result of past policies can identify some with what's going on here, even if the details are local or push a police story toward a larger thriller or even a horror movie.

It's certainly at times bloody enough for that sort of movie. Aside from the gruesome nature of the murder, it's not very long before a normal procedural scene erupts into shocking violence, and as the movie goes on, there's a fair amount of torture and rather vicious fighting still to come. It's not just the physical action that may cause the audience to squirm, though; screenwriter/director Jérôme Salle (working from a novel by Caryl Ferey) seems to take great pride in kicking characters when they are down and making a point of reinforcing their poor fortune right to the edge of grim self-parody. It's the sort of thing that can trigger contradictory emotions, as the sustained cruelty can seem artificial but the audience knows that anything going the heroes' way would feel like them getting off easy.

That doesn't happen, and to be fair, Salle doesn't just wallow in very serious misery. The explosively violent scene mentioned, for instance, is actually quite well-staged and thrilling beyond the initial shock of how quickly a bunch of weapons come out and get used; the action work is quick and clear throughout, and he jumps between characters. It sometimes seems like certain pieces of the story interest him much more than others - the villains are not nearly as memorable as one might like, and some new elements are awkwardly introduced as they are needed - but he delivers the sort of no-messing-around genre action audiences have come to expect from the current crop of French mainstream directors.

He and his cast do all right working in English, although I can't say how well Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom do in Zulu and Afrikaans when the situation calls for it. They both play their parts in safely intense ways, Whitaker intensely sorrowful and Bloom with a chip on his shoulder. Whitaker does light up a bit when acting against the actress playing Ali's mother; those aren't perfectly played scenes, but there's a sweetness to those scenes that's in direct contrast to the rest of the movie. There's an easy charm to Conrad Kemp, though, whether playing against Whitaker and Bloom or Tinarie van Wyk Loots as Dan's wife.

Salle, his cast, and crew put together a movie that looks and sounds quite nice; Zulu wouldn't look out of place in a mainstream multiplex, seeing as it has a lot of "Lethal Weapon" in its DNA. It could maybe do with a bit more, to get the audience excited about what comes next when the darkness is particularly unrelenting.

(Previously at EFC)

One last thing: Whoever own the rights to Zulu, put up an official website or at least fill in your IMDB page. It kind of looks bad that a movie that deals with race in South Africa, Forest Whitaker seems to be the only person of color listed in the cast. I wanted to praise some of the other characters, but pretty much the entire listed cast was white. Awk-ward!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 December 2013 - 2 January 2014

Yep, it's late. I make no apologies for spending my time the last couple of days doing Christmas shopping and traveling up to Maine, because my nieces are the cutest nieces.

  • Of the many movies that opened on Christmas, the biggest is probably The Wolf of Wall Street, the new Martin Scorcese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration showing the risk-taking and excesses during the 1990s economic boom. Also featuring Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, it's got the main room at The Coolidge, and also plays Somerville, Apple, Boston Common, Fenway, and the SuperLux.
  • Kendall Square, meanwhile, opens two other movies looking for awards consideration. Her is the new one by Spike Jonze, featuring Joaquin Phoenix as a man in the near future who, following a bad break-up, falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system of his networked devices Word has it as being both very sweet and very funny. It also opens at Boston Common.

    Kendall, Boston Common, and Fenway also get Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, with Idris Elba playing recently deceased South Africa leader Nelson Mandela in an adaptation of his autobiography (though the timing is just a sad coincidence. Naomie Harris plays his wife Winnie in this authorized version of his life story.
  • Some more mainstream material opens up in the multiplexes, perhaps most notably Grudge Match, which if nothing else has managed to produce a trailer that played in front of nearly every movie I saw over the past three months without getting aggravating. It features Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as one-time great boxers who hated each other and have their rivalry rekindled thirty years later after coming to blows do video game motion capture. It's at the Arlington Capitol, Apple, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    Another one that's been promoted fairly incessantly is Ben Stiller's remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller playing the nondescript, daydreaming title character who must go on a globe-spanning adventure due to a series of unusual circumstances. It plays the same group of theaters - the Capitol, Apple, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    The sixth of this week's new releases is 47 Ronin, which I feel like we should be more up in arms about for adding American Keanu Reeves and a bunch of effects-driven supernatural stuff to a classic Japanese legend. And yet, here it is, co-starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanabo Asano, and Rinko Kikuchi in 3D. It's at Somerville (2D only), Apple, Boston Common, and Fenway. It's not the most ridiculous thing on tap, though, as Justin Bieber's Believe plays at Apple and Boston Common; it comes from the same team that did 2011's Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, so it's likely more of the same.
  • The Brattle Theatre, on the other hand, is offering up some classics - Jaques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with its beautiful colors and sung dialogue playing afternoons and evenings from Christmas to the 30th in a new digital restoration. It doesn't get the 9:30pm show, though, because that is given to a 25th Anniversary run of that Christmas tradition, Die Hard. Both are DCP, but, hey, it's Die Hard in a theater.

    On New Year's Eve, what is apparently a new holiday tradition continues with a double feature of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man, and there's no bad time to watch these two movies. Both run in 35mm. New Year's Day, meanwhile, is a Brattle tradition of slightly longer standing, the Marx Brothers Marathon. This year, the movies on tap are A Night at the Opera (35mm), Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. Thursday the 2nd is a special preview of their tribute series to Peter O'Toole, with Lawrence of Arabia running via DCP at 7pm.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts finishes up its December calendar, which means The Films of François Truffaut wraps up with Small Change (Thursday), Love on the Run (Thursday & Friday), The Woman Next Door (Thursday & Friday), Confidentially Yours (Friday & Saturday), and The Last Metro (Saturday). Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley has one last Sunday afternoon on the 29th.

    On Thursday the 2nd, the January schedule begins. It features a number of films by Alexandr Sokurov, the first being Moloch, a 1999 tale of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun shot in the actual location. Thursday is also when Camille Claudel 1915 begins a limited run, with Juliette Binoche in the title role, a gifted sculptor whose affair with Auguste Rodin put her in an asylum.
  • The ICA will be running daily screenings of "The British Arrows", a compilation of the best British advertising films of the year, from Thursday the 26th through Sunday the 29th.
  • It's Christmas vacation, so The Regent Theatre has their annual Sing-Along The Sound of Music event, playing this much beloved musical eight times between the 26th and 29th with subtitled lyrics for those who count it as a Favorite Thing. Also related to vacation, the Gathr Preview Series screening will run on Monday rather than Tuesday this week; it features Jump, a feature from Northern Ireland about four strangers whose lives intersect in Belfast on New Year's Eve

My plans? Most of the new releses look worth a watch, I haven't been to the Gathr series in a while, and there's no excuse needed for any of the films playing the Brattle. Not sure what gets seen when, but it'll be a busy week-plus.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 December - 24 December 2013

Going to do a short 5-day version, as I suspect that there are many more movies opening on Christmas than 27 December

  • Some of what's opening has already started showing elsewhere in the country but is just hitting Boston now. Chief among that set is American Hustle, the new one from David O. Russell that reunites him with the stars of his last movie (Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence) but sticks them in an ensemble with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner in a story about con men, feds, mafiosi, and a politician in 1970s New Jersey. It's at Somerville, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, and the SuperLux.

    The other major opening is Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie, which appears to take the great visual effects of the documentary-style series and basically remake The Land Before Time. As much as I'm in favor of big-screen 3D dinosaurs, this looks pretty bad. It's at Apple, Boston Common, and probably Fenway as well (they've been showing the preview and a bumper incessantly for the past couple of months).

    Fenway and the SuperLux also get the expanding Saving Mr. Banks; it's already been at Boston Common and Kendall Square for a week. And while the Belmont Studio has had it on their website, the instead pick up Philomena.
  • The other big expansion is Inside Llewyn Davis, the new and excellent film from the Coen Brothers with Oscar Isaac as a folk musician in early-1960s New York for whom everything goes wrong, although that is in large part due to his own actions. It (mostly) gets the big screen at The Coolidge, as well as playing Kendall Square and Boston Common.

    The Coolidge also picks up The Punk Singer for nightly 9:50pm shows in the Goldscreen after a very successful run at the Brattle. The midnight movie this weekend is the seasonally-appropriate The Nightmare Before Christmas, with the seasonally-appropriate Tim Burton/Harry Selick collaboration playing on 35mm. If you're looking for a somewhat gentler bit of Christmas fare, The Muppet Christmas Carol will play Saturday at 10:30am.
  • It's also Christmas at The Brattle Theatre, which will have the annual screenings of It's a Wonderful Life during the day and early evening from Friday to Monday. The later showtime (9:45pm Friday/Monday, 9:30pm Saturday/Sunday) are for White Reindeer, an offbeat selection from this year's Boston Underground Film Festival about a woman who loves Christmas, only to lose her husband and befriend his mistress during this yule season. Both are pretty good. No movies will be playing Tuesday, but the box office will be open for gift card sales.
  • iMovieCafe opens the latest entry in one of India's biggest action franchises, Dhoom 3. This one apparently involves taking a corrupt circus down from the inside, and stars Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Abhishek Bachchan, Uday Chopra, and Jackie Shroff. That's in Hindi with English subtitles; they've also go Biriyani if you speak Tamil
  • The Harvard Film Archive finishes the October-to-December Calendar with the rest ofThe Bodies and Souls of Robert Rossen: The Brave Bulls (Friday 7pm, 16mm); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Friday 9:15pm, 35mm); Alexander the Great (Sunday 7pm, 35mm); and They Came to Cordura (Monday 7pm, 35mm). They also pull out their 35mm print of The Wicker Man, which served as the template for the current restoration and Final Cut, at 9pm on Saturday. And they also celebrate Christmas in their own way, with "A Kuchar Christmas", featuring four short films by George Kuchar, at 7pm Saturday (all digital), and a free screening at 3pm Sunday of ninety minutes of surprise holiday material from the Archive.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has yet more Films of François Truffaut: Bed and Board (Friday), Day for Night (Friday), The Story of Adele H. (Friday), Small Change (Saturday), The Man Who Loved Women (Saturday), and The Green Room (Saturday & Sunday). Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley will still devour an entire Sunday afternoon.
  • The ICA has a special early screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson & Winnie Mandela on Friday night. It's pricey ($65+), but that ticket includes a pre-screening reception (and post-filmQ&A) with producer Anant Singh, anti-Apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, and actor Riaad Moosa (who plays Kathrada in the film).

My plans... There's a couple of things I'm still tempted to see here (Zulu and The Immigrant, although that would involve not having a repeat of tonight, where by the time I've gone through the million or so movie listings in Paris (seriously, there are theaters everywhere and they show some impressively random things!), I've missed the showtime. Once I'm back in Boston, I'm thinking The Hobbit and maybe American Hustle. Then again, I have done one item's worth of Christmas shopping for one niece, so I may have to spend my time on that!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Yes, I go to Paris and spend some of my time seeing movies. Heck, when I was considering what to do with my vacation and was giving the City of Light some though, I checked to see what was going on and my eyes lit up when I saw Snowpiercer listed, and that maybe pushed me a fraction of a degree more on pulling the trigger.

It's not like this is a particularly egregious waste of time; if you don't drink or really party much at all, you've got to do something between when the sun goes down and bedtime, especially during these fairly cold days. And, besides, the French seem to really like movies. Go to Google's movie listing page and type Paris as the location; the sheer number of cinemas it pops up is mind-boggling.

Heck, when I decided to to check this one out, I almost missed it not because of having trouble navigating the Metro/RER system (I swear, I had to walk through four gates in one station when making a transfer), but because when I got to Forum des Halles - an immense underground shopping center - the first two times I tried following signs to la cinéma, I was brought to two other venues in the same mall. Similarly, walking along Les Champs-Elysées, I was often able to see the next movie theater from the one I was in.

(I must admit, that while it was kind of cool seeing a Korean movie about a giant train in a cinema called "Orient Express", I was kind of disappointed that it wasn't a theater dedicated to Asian films. That would have been sort of cool.)

As to why this movie, in particular, had me somewhat excited... I am a fan of Bong Joon-ho, having enjoyed all his movies from Barking Dogs Never Bite (I saw that with Director Bong in attendance at the Harvard Film Archive, and my review was quoted on the cover when it was finally released in America) to Mother, and on top of that, 2013 had been set up for three fine Korean directors making their English-language debuts: Kim Jee-woon with The Last Stand, Park Chan-wook with Stoker, and Bong with this. Unfortunately, Snowpiercer has been pushed to sometime in 2014 in America; The Weinstein Company has the distribution rights, which means Harvey Weinstein wants to cut out 20 minutes, and every world cinema site has been trying to parse every interview or test screening report to see how bad the cuts are or if they might not happen. So seeing it here meant that I got to see it in a theater, uncut.

It was a bit of an odd experience, though. Watching a movie in one's native language with subtitles creates a bit of a cognitive dissonance, in that I've trained myself to get dialogue from the text when it's there, so sometimes a situation like this has me first glancing at the subtitles, realizing that the characters are speaking English, and then sort of catching up. It seemed to flatten out the way people were talking, although that might also have been Bong directing people in a foreign language; Song Kang-ho did seem a bit looser, as if with his lines Bong was able to get what sounded best as opposed to clearest. I must admit to being glad that translation devices where pulled out fairly quickly; my experience watching Only God Forgives in Montreal and suddenly scrambling to remember my high-school French when characters started speaking Thai had me a bit worried here. Fortunately, my French was just good enough that I could more or less handle the subtitles from the only extended bit of French-subtitled Korean.

That does give me pause about what else I might want to see when I've got a free evening here - The Immigrant looks interesting, but I suspect Marion Cotillard co-starring means there might be a fair amount of unsubtitled French. Of course, I may just get too busy and not have time for the movies anyway. Well, after this one.

Snowpiercer (La Transperceneige)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2013 at UGC Orient Express #2 (first-run, DCP)

A Korean director making an English-language movie from a French graphic novel may seem like a random combination, but it's really not: Both Korean genre film and French bandes dessinées often blur genre lines and forms, while English certainly helps get even a modestly-budgeted film made and distributed. Thus we wind up with Snowpiercer, just as odd as director Bong Joon-ho's previous foray into sci-fi action (Korean monster movie The Host), but also just as exciting.

The high concept is out there: In 2014, an attempt to combat global warming backfired, plunging the world into a deadly new ice age. Fortunately, that's also the year Wilford Industries unveiled their "Snowpiercer" train system, which makes a complete circuit of the Earth every year, the perpetual-motion engine plowing through frozen obstructions. Seventeen-odd years later, Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans), the unofficial leaders of the poor people at the tail end of the train, plot revolution, with Curtis and his young accomplice Edgar (Jamie Bell) planning to work their way to the front and seize control of the engine. To do that, they'll need to break security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) out of the prison car, although he turns out to be addicted to "Kronol" and insists on bringing his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) along. The group also includes Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose son was taken without explanation. Everyone would like a chance to stick it to Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), among others.

There's a long list of things in Snowpiercer that don't make any sense whatsoever, and not just because the film's American release could actually come after the mid-2014 disaster that kicks everything off. The logical contortions one must undertake in order to accept the premise are both reasonably well concealed and worth it, though, as the train is a striking metaphor for modern-day authoritarian states which have evolved a middle class but are still built upon oppression. That middle class serves as a buffer that, in this case, the revolutionaries must literally fight their way through.

And fight they do! For all that the setting of a train may be deliberately constricting, Bong constructs some excellent action sequences, including a centerpiece that starts at "ax fight" and develops a twist or two from there. There's a thoroughly unlikely but still highly entertaining shootout, and a few thrilling beats that come from the audience getting a look at the environment the train is passing through - which, of course, the audience only gets to see once the rebels have fought their way to a car that has windows.

In some ways, the particulars of this dystopia are a bit familiar - I am guessing that it is no coincidence that John Hurt's character is named "Gilliam"; the back of the train is the sort of grimy, dehumanizing world that fantasist Terry made his name on. As the action moves toward the front, a surreal cleanliness takes over, perhaps reaching its apex when the tail-enders burst into a classroom. There is a certain intrigue to the set-up, though; the very linearity of this world makes the familiar seem alien. And for all that some things like Yona's apparent clairvoyance go relatively unexplained, Bong, co-writer Kelly Masterson (and presumably original creators Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette) have built a world whose details and history seem real enough to hold the improbable setting together.

A good cast also helps with that. In some cases, it's guys doing what they are best known for - John Hurt has been playing this sort of role for decades, and has it down to a science. Some folks, like Alison Pill, impress in brief appearances; others, like Tilda Swinton, manage to keep an absurd grotesquerie of a character amusing for the length of the film. Ed Harris is saved for toward the end - when someone needs to be very good to justify introducing a new character - and goes to town on the material Bong gives him. It's the core of the cast that really holds things down, though: Chris Evans makes a surprisingly good reluctant hero, with Jamie Bell a pugnacious sidekick; Song Kang-ho is once again disheveled and clever, while Ko Ah-sung presents a sense of excitement at discovering new things without ever underselling the danger the characters are in. They're good enough that Bong has no trouble making the climax of his movie not a big action scene, but a pair of long speeches (one in English, one in Korean) before heading to the big showdown.

That the movie has a relatively talky finale - and takes its time to get started - means its not particularly surprising that US distributor TWC is talking about cutting twenty minutes out of a 126-minute film. Hopefully that doesn't come to pass; Bong Joon-ho has not made a bad movie yet and the transition to working in English hasn't tripped him up any.

(Previously at EFC)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Last Days on Mars

So my plane for Paris (via London) left at 9:10pm on Friday night (13 December 2013) and I took the day off from work to get ready - do laundry (because my machine is still on the blink), pack, forget to do other important things. There were two movies that opened that day that I would like to see on the big screen - The Hobbit 2 and The Last Days on Mars - and I came up with three options:

(1) Hobbit at midnight, stay awake through Last Days at noon and be ready to drop when the plane takes off. A clever plan, but the sort that tends to fail at some point.

(2) Head out to Chestnut Hill to see The Hobbit in HFR at the fancy theater (and maybe in the Super Fancy Seats), so I can finally write that thing about the fancy theater I want to write. Obviously, time-consuming, and since I tend to be curious about new tech, I was a bit concerned about which screenings at which locations would use it, even if I went to Fenway or Boston Common.

(3) Catch The Last Days on Mars at Kendall Square, which is minimally out of my way - in fact, the path I to and from included some errands I needed to run - and was advertising that this movie would only be around for one week, less than my vacation time.

I think I chose poorly, and that's before we get into how I'm kind of sleepy and may have a cold as I write it up, or that the flash drive I save everything to doesn't seem to be anywhere to be found (and I'm reasonably sure I had it at Logan). That doesn't make it a bad movie, but it's gonna have some bad associations.

On the other hand, the first thing I watched here has me pretty happy, but that's tomorrow's post!

The Last Days on Mars

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2013 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, 2K DCP)

Funny thing about The Last Days on Mars: It goes to some impressive lengths to be a large-scale sci-fi movie, and the very size of it makes the whole thing less believable. That's unfortunate, as it could use a feeling of authenticity if it's not going to put as unique a twist on its horror story as you might expect for having it play out on Mars.

Things start to go down less than one Earth-standard day before the Aurora 2 mission is scheduled to hand their base off after six months on the red planet. Technical specialist Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is ready to go home, though he's not looking forward to the return trip, and not just because it means being stuck in a tiny space with Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) - after all, he'll also be in a small space with Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai). With nineteen hours left in the mission, scientist Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic) makes a discovery that merits an extra trip out to one of the research sites, and there would be no movie if what happened there didn't leave commander Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) in a tight spot.

There are a whole mess of problems with The Last Days on Mars, but one of the biggest is that no matter how many airlocks the crew passes through or times a scene is played out in spacesuits, it never really feels like Mars. The location shooting in Jordan looks great, and though the colorists have made the ground reasonably red and the sky less blue, it doesn't quite do enough to make it feel like an alien world. Worse, the design of the bases and rovers feel wrong, huge and all smooth white curves, not the sort of thing one would expect on early missions where every gram and cubic centimeter on the transport is precious. And when someone throws a rubber ball across the room, it behaves exactly how the viewer expects, not like an object in an environment where the gravity is roughly 37.6% of Earth's.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 13 December - 19 December 2013

Pretty much one big movie about a bunch of small people coming out this weekend, and I'm actually kind of looking forward to it, and some of the other things opening around it. But...

  • Well, anyway, that big movie is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the middle part of a trilogy based upon a relatively short book. Still, the first wasn't bad at all and the second may benefit from having all the exposition out of the way. Be aware, though, that there are a lot of viewing options, and not all of them seem to be clearly labeled online, in particular whether a screening is at the usual 24 frames-per-second speed or the 48 fps "High Frame Rate". I tried that last year and found it looked unusual, but also made the fast-moving 3D action exceptionally clear. It's playing at the Capitol (2D/3D), Apple (2D/3D), Jordan's Furniture (IMAX 3D), Boston Common (2D/3D/HFR 3D/IMAX 3D), Fenway (2D/3D/RPX 3D/HFR 3D), the SuperLux (2D/HFR 3D), and the Landmark Embassy in Waltham (2D/HFR 3D). Ask about the projection (which I may not have correct) at the ticket counter if it's important.

    That's not entirely all that comes out today; Tyler Perry's latest, A Madea Christmas, has his sassy female alter ego tagging along with a friend who is surprising her daughter on the holidays, which should be interesting because said daughter is spending it with her boyfriend's family who are white country folk! This one is at Apple, Fenway, and Boston Common. If that's not your style of comedy, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, hits Wednesday, with Will Farrell and company traveling to New York at the start of the 1980s to work for a 24-hour news station. That will be at the Somerville Theatre, Apple, Boston Common, Fenway, and the SuperLux.
  • Tis the season for platform openings, which means that Kendall Square and Boston Common will be getting Saving Mr. Banks a week or two before other theaters. That features Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, trying to acquire the rights to adapt Mary Poppins from its very reluctant author (Emma Thompson). A nice cast around them, although I suspect the Walt Disney Company isn't the group that's going to tell the whole story.

    The Kendall also throws a curveball with the year's last scheduled one-week booking by playing The Last Days on Mars; it looks like a pretty straightforward sci-fi/horror flick, not the usual thing that they play.
  • Two movies that the new releases are bumping at the Kendall make their way to the smaller screening rooms at The Coolidge: Dallas Buyers Club, a pretty-good story of a man trying to go around the slow-moving FDA to find treatment for his AIDS with a pretty-great performance by Matthew McConaughey, and The Great Beauty, a sumptuous Italian film about a Roman playboy whose life takes a turn at 60. The new release is actually one of the Friday & Saturday midnight movies, Bettie Page Reveals All, a documentary built around an interview that the famous pin-up model gave near the end of her life. The other midnight is Team America: World Police, Trey Parker & Matt Stone's pretty darn hilarious marionette comedy.

    Sunday morning, the Goethe-Institut German film is Ludwig II, a biography of Bavaria's "Mad King Ludwig" starring Sabin Tambrea. Monday evening is a "Sounds of Silents" presentation of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, with a newly-commissioned score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which should be fun - those students do pretty good work! There are also two screenings of Voices Across the Divide, a documentary and oral history project that looks at the conflict between Israel and Palestine via stories from the people living through it; director/narrator Alice Rothchild will be on hand for both the Tuesday and Thursday presentations.
  • The Brattle Theatre spends the week giving audiences The Complete Coens, on 35mm film unless otherwise indicated: Friday has a double feature of Millers Crossing (DCP) & The Man Who Wasn't There; Saturday pairs O Brother, Where Art Thou? & The Hudsucker Proxy; Sunday is for Westerns True Grit (DCP) & No Country for Old Men; Monday offers another free preview of Inside Llewyn Davis (DCP); Tuesday has comedies The Ladykillers & Intolerable Cruelty; Wednesday A Serious Man & Burn After Reading, and Thursday wraps things up with single showings of The Big Lebowski. They've also managed to fit a couple extra screenings of Kathleen Hanna documentary The Punk Singer in, at noon Sunday and 9:30pm Monday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive spends the weekend continuing The Bodies and Souls of Robert Rossen with 35mm screenings of Lilith (Friday 7pm), The Hustler (Friday 9pm), Island in the Sun (Saturday 7pm), The Undercover Man (Saturday 9:30pm), They Won't Forget (Sunday 5pm), and Out of the Fog (Sunday 7pm). Then on Monday, they wrap up Chris Marker:Guillaume-en-Égypte with one last collection of shorter works: "Junktopia", The Case of the Grinning Cat, and Remembrance of Things to Come.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts also continues a retrospective; this week's selections from The Films of François Truffaut are Fahrenheit 451 (Friday), Stolen Kisses (Friday & Saturday, preceded by "Antoine and Colette"), The Bride Wore Black (Friday & Saturday), Mississippi Mermaid (Saturday), The Wild Child (Wednesday & Thursday), The Story of Adele H. (Thursday), and Bed and Board (Thursday). Once again, Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon/evening are used for Frederick Wiseman's documentary At Berkeley.
  • The ICA has a screening of "The British Arrows", a program of award-winning advertisements from across the pond, on Thursday evening; more screenings are planned for after Christmas.

My plans... Well, I'm about to head over to the Kendall for Last Days on Mars, but after that, I'm heading to Paris for vacation, so, well, who knows? Depending how worn out and jet-lagged I am after long days of touristing, there's a good chance I'll see something, because that city has an enormous amount of cinemas, and some of them are showing Snowpiercer. The funny thing is, I'm picking up my "Paris Pass" in the lobby of one of the biggest, which is playing The Hobbit in a truly massive 1200-seat auditorium... Dubbed in French. Maybe I'll be able to find a subtitled HFR screening there, or maybe I'll just wait until I get back home for that one.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

This Week In Tickets: 2 December 2013 - 8 December 2013

Not shown: The episode of The Blacklist that aired Monday was the first half of a pretty darn good Joe Carnahan action movie. Shame someone else handled the back end.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: Watching the Korean Oldboy on Blu-ray (Monday the 2nd) and the Hindi rip-off Zinda on DVD (Saturday the 7th), both later in the evening than may be strictly advisable.

Truth be told, I was planning to do the Oldboy mega-review without Zinda, initially thinking that it was not available, as one of the things I'd read about it mentioned that the production company was out of business, leaving the Korean lawyers who would very much like to take legal action nobody to sue. That proved not to be the case, as there were two entries for the DVD on Amazon, one of which cost $3.30. At that price, I couldn't not include it although that was a brutal experience - my HD-DVD player (shut up, it upscales standard DVDs pretty well) nearly choked on it, there was a massive ad package of Eros Entertainment stuff before the movie (making native English speakers expect porn for 25 years!), and the picture was so blue-tinted through much of the film that I wasn't sure whether it was a mastering error or a really terrible choice by the director and cinematographer. It appears to be the latter, and how!

I should use the home theater more often, since it was a week where heading to the cinema was a little more trouble than it should have been. The Tuesday night Gathr screening of Night Train to Lisbon was bumped to 9pm rather than its usual 7:30pm start time, meaning I had to go halfway back to work to see it. For that, I kind of wish it was a little better than it wound up being.

Then, with a relative paucity of new releases over the weekend, and the big screens being given over to The Hobbit #2 of a 3-film limited series this coming Friday, I figured Saturday would be a good time to head to the furniture store to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, what with them having used the big IMAX cameras for some scenes. So, figuring that by the time the MBTA got me there, it might be sold out, I bought a ticket online. My route to Jordan's in Reading is the 91 from Central to Sullivan, the Orange Line to Medford (or Oak Grove), and then the 137 to the store. It would have been kind of close, but the Orange Line ran just slow enough that I missed the bus at both Medford and Oak Grove - the latter, actually seeing it pull away as I ran to the bus stop. I was kind of ticked, as you might imagine; aside from paying $13 for a movie I didn't see, this sort of thing happens enough on the way to work that seeing it happen on the weekend feels like my daily routine invading my day off.

So, I wound up turning around and seeing Out of the Furnace a little earlier in the day than I'd planned. It turned out to be a draggy bummer, though one at least filled with decent acting; I think the most interesting thing to come out of it is a number of stories about co-star Casey Affleck wanting to revitalize the Harvard Square Theatre. I wouldn't mind that at all, but apparently it will take a lot of work to get it up to code.

I wound up trying Catching Fire again Sunday AM, this time not buying a ticket online, and the same thing only almost happened. The big surprise wound up being how good the movie was; based on how I thought The Hunger Games was a disappointing take on Battle Royale, I didn't expect much, but it actually wound up being a solid improvement, with a lot of the heft that the first left.

After that? Spike Lee's Oldboy at Fenway, bringing the week's moviegoing full circle.

Out of the Furnace

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2013 at AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, 4K DCP)

How do you know that Christian Bale's character in Out of the Furnace is not just the movie's protagonist, but a good guy? He's always building stuff. Even when he goes to jail (only because he takes responsibility for an accident that doesn't necessarily seem to be his fault), he's welding, and as soon as he's out, he's sprucing up the family house. Then, back at work at the steel mill, building something else. This Russell Baze guy is constructive as heck, compared to Woody Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, who opens the movie with unprovoked violence.

That's how simple and straightforward this movie is, even though it's packed full of serious actors playing their roles with grim intensity: It's a beautifully-shot pulp story set in a part of America that tends to be under-represented on film - the decaying industrial towns that are now even closer to the lawless fringes than they were a generation ago, even though neither has moved physically - but one which drains any potential exhilaration from that genre's stories. Instead, writer/director Scott Cooper fashions a machine that drives Russell to seek justice-slash-revenge for the brother who disappeared into those woods, making it clear the world has little else to offer him at every turn. The gears don't grind or squeal, just keeping a regular, dull rhythm.

It's unfair to call the movie pointless or boring, but I wonder if Cooper doesn't miss his own point with all that building: Russell, for all his work with a hammer and nail at home and commitment to a solid livelihood, is actually fairly irresponsible, with two or three separate cases of not looking before he leaps with potentially tragic consequences. Bale is playing him as a tragic hero per Cooper's direction, though, and as a result, something that could have been a story about a man learning true maturity rather than just doing the expected things is presented as a guy who is just getting crapped on by the world around him. Or there could have been some meaningful comparison between Russell, his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), or maybe even DeGroat. Instead, it's just a well-shot but not particularly interesting take on things we've seen more than a few times before.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2013 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, digital Imax)

I would not be terribly surprised if, by the time this series finishes up, Catching Fire is easily the best of the Hunger Games movies. Maybe the final volume has something particularly brilliant that leaves this one in the dust, but I am not sure what sort of themes Mockingjay might have to become more than just playing the plot of this out to its conclusion in the same way that The Hunger Games winds up being the set-up.

A useful set-up, sure - it gets Katniss to where she needs to be for this one to work - but the first movie was pretty hollow when it was compared to Battle Royale, as many of us could not resist. It may have been set in a dystopian world, but it was young-adult wish-fulfillment; Katniss was brave, smart, skilled at something useful, had two hunky guys swooning over her, and because this is a twenty-first century story, instinctively media-savvy as well. When placed in a murder tournament, she managed to win without actually killing anyone in cold blood and able to save an ally's life to boot. She was exactly the sort of triumphant outcast the target audience wanted to be.

So when Catching Fire opens with her suffering a pretty nasty case of post-traumatic stress while also pointing out her limited ambitions, okay, that's interesting. It's something Jennifer Lawrence can work with. And it serves as a starting point for what winds up being a surprisingly meaty theme: Young people learning to embrace their inner activist. What's particularly impressive is the way that the movie handles the theme; it feels contemporary without being directly analogous to what's happening in the real world, and it neither excoriates adults nor portrays youth as spoiled and needing to embrace a previous generation's idealism. Katniss, Peeta, and company learn to hijack Panem's equivalent of social media and attack inequities with generosity and truth-telling rather than protests. It's a lot closer to Millennials' activism than Boomers'.

So that's surprisingly smart, and both Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are pretty great at pushing it across. They've got a nicely upgraded cast - Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Philip Seymour Hoffman join Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, are a heck of a nice ensemble. You've got to feel kind of sorry for Elizabeth Banks, who is executing the shallow girl awakening to the worlds' injustices as well as one could hope for under a hundred pounds of make-up and costume, and maybe Liam Hemsworth, playing Katniss's true love and being given absolutely nothing to do for the second time in a row; it shouldn't be quite so easy to be on #TeamPeeta.

Aside from a tighter script that mixes its loftier themes in with the YA melodrama more ably, the production looks to be upgraded. Catching Fire never looks cheap the way The Hunger Games occasionally did, but the refurbishing is by and large carried out without calling attention to how small the first movie occasionally looked. It doesn't hurt that new director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems are much more willing to hold the camera still than Gary Ross & Tom Stern were last time, either. The use of large-format IMAX framing doesn't have quite the impact one might have hoped, though.

Catching Fire doesn't retroactively make The Hunger Games a better movie, but it has certainly left me more interested in the series that I was after last year's Battle Royale knock-off - in large part because this entry has some of the substance Battle Royale had that the first one lacked.

Night Train to LisbonOut of the FurnaceThe Hunger Games: Catching FireOldboy (2013)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gathr Previews: Night Train to Lisbon

Since the Regent isn't primarily a film venue - and even if it was, these screenings don't necessarily pack the house - December looks like it's wound up being full of conflicts. During the first week of the month, an event later in the week needed time to rehearse on the stage, but this week's offering from Gathr looked one with mainstream appeal. The best way to fit both in appeared to be running the movie at 9pm rather than the usual 7:30.

Pain in the neck for me, as I tend to hop off the 350 bus on the way home from work, but there was nothing to keep me at the office until 8pm. Plus, I kind of didn't carve out a time for supper, and attendance at these events is so low that they don't even bother opening the concession stand.

The movie itself ended up not really being bad, but not being what I'd hoped from the cast and description. Literally not what I'd hoped, in that I'd gotten the idea it was a thriller but that was a fairly small part of it. Apparently, it's made its way into some theaters this past weekend, and I'm mildly curious as to what the sales job has been there.

Night Train to Lisbon

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2013 at the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews Presents, digital)

Sometimes, there are things that the written word can do that a film can't. In Night Train to Lisbon, Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) tells how certain sentences in the book at the film's center had a profound effect on him, but even with Irons's fine voice... Well, they're nice sentences, but they don't have the direct connection to our brain that they do for him. And then, as Raimund's search for the source of those words plays out, there's a sense that it, too, may have been more absorbing in print.

The book in question comes into Gregorius's possession when the professor at a Bern preparatory school prevents a young woman from jumping off a bridge. She soon disappears, but leaves her coat behind, in which he finds a small book and a train ticket to Lisbon. He impulsively takes the train, reading the book along the way, and by the time he reaches Portugal, is just as fascinated by Amadeu Almeida de Prado (Jack Huston), the man who wrote it during the revolution forty years ago, as he is by the young woman he started out following.

There are three things going on here with the potential to be interesting stories - the tale of how a privileged young man like Amadeu becomes involved with the revolution and a spy by the name of Estefânia (Mélanie Laurent) with a photographic memory who is involved with Jorge O'Kelly (August Diehl), his best friend from school; the mystery of who the girl whose life he saved is and why this book affected her even more than it did him; and how Gregorius searching for these answers may help him break out of his tweedy shell, especially with the aid of Mariana (Martina Gedeck), the optician who helps him in this quest in part because her uncle João (Tom Courtenay) was involved in the revolution. The trouble is that somewhere along the line, be it in Bille August's direction, the screenplay by Greg Latter & Ulrich Herrmann, or Pascal Mercier's original novel, the emphasis seems to shift between Bern and Lisbon. A great mystery is initially posed, with a nameless girl, a trail of clues to be followed, and the train of the title, which certainly sounds more exciting than a quick flight, because trains are romantic.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Oldboy, Oldboy, Oldboy (and Zinda)

I do believe that the fairest way to review a movie is probably to let it stand on its own - if it's a remake or an adaptation, try to put those prior (or subsequent) versions out of your mind when watching the new one. Just judge how well it works as a film, with maybe a few comments giving context if you're a fan of the prior versions.

Or, alternately, given a new movie in theaters that is both an adaptation and a remake, I could binge on all three in short succession and talk about how four different teams told (roughly) the same story. In the case of Oldboy, that would be the original manga by Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi, the South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook, an unauthorized Hindi-language version directed by Sanjay Gupta (Zinda), and a new film directed by Spike Lee.

A lot of Oldboy

And, just for fun, I'll review them in the order of release, writing each up before watching the next, seeing how the story evolves. Admittedly, I've already seen the Park Chan-wook version, but it's been since the original American release.

Be aware: There will be discussion of the ends, clearly marked.

Oldboy (original manga)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Read 28-29 November 2013 in various places

Pretty much every week, I buy more comics than I can read; the individual issues with their ongoing storylines that cross over from title to title generally get finished, but manga, original graphic novels, and other works with a spine can accumulate. That's what happened with Oldboy; I purchased the eight volumes as Dark Horse put them out in 2006-2007 and they just piled up, ready for an excuse to binge-read.

That's not precisely a bad thing; it goes quickly enough and is enough of a good story, well-told that when I got to the end of one volume, I'd want the next right away, and I was glad I didn't have to wait two months for it. It reminded me of Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys in that regard. Of course, part of the quickness of the read was that each 20-page chapter had a double-page spread and some material meant to catch the guy reading it in the original serialized form (it ran as a feature in Weekly Manga Action for 78 weeks).

The story itself is about a man, Shinichi Goto, who was locked up in a private prison for ten years. As expected, he wants to find out why anybody would do this to him - he had no enemies that he knew about- and with nothing to do but exercise and watch television, he's worked himself into a specimin who can take anything thrown at him. Which is fine with his mysterious nemesis, "Dojima", as long as it happens under his terms.

As one starts reading Oldboy, it does not seem particularly surprising that it would become a film; writer Garon Tsuchiya and artist Nobuaki Minegishi occasionally throw in sound effects that seem more at home in the movies than sequential art, and the flashback structure similarly seems cinematic, introduced with what feels like camera movement and a slight change in the shading rather than, say, caption boxes or a different style of panel border. Minegishi's art in general is fairly strong; he draws expressive faces that take advantage of being drawn rather than photographed just enough that things never feel stiff, and places the characters into a detailed world without things ever getting too busy. Sometimes things can get a little off-model - Goto's distinctive chin sometimes shrinks just a little too much from certain angles - but never to the point where it's confusing for more than a second. His art style is somewhat generic beyond a fondness for big noses, but he tells a story without being showy about it as well as anybody.

Tsuchiya knows the tricks of writing this sort of serialized story, mixing red herrings and cliffhangers that will be undone in the next chapter up with new elements that will genuinely change the direction of the story. And it is a good story, albeit one that suffers from some of the usual seinen manga excesses. Goto's tragedies have, as often seems to be the case, forged him into a hyper-competent paragon of masculinity; he is not only able to defeat the top Japanese pugilist based on having shadow-boxed while watching matches on television during his incarceration despite never fighting before (as he tells the reader during some enjoyably hard-boiled narration, the sport has grown disappointing during the past ten years), but he is able to to screw the information he needs out of a woman. Even before some of the loopier plot twists kick in, it's no surprise that within hours of his release, pretty young waitress Eri is practically dragging him back to his place to rid her of that annoying virginity.

And that's before the somewhat loopy machinations of the second half kick in!


To be fair, Tsuchiya introduces hypnosis to the story early, and I suppose that if one is going to use it as a plot device, there's no point in going halfway. In some ways, it seems like a bit of a cheat;making the whole duel between Goto and "Dojima" - by now revealed as elementary school classmate Takaaki Kakinuma - little more than a game solitaire for Kakinuma. It robs Goto, Eri, and former teacher Yukio Kusama of much of their agency, and what's the point of a story like this if the whole thing winds up being just a puppet show?

The idea that emerges, though, is that we are all puppets to a certain degree, pulled away from our truest, best selves by emotions and compulsions that we cannot control. Goto, we learn, feared losing control to darker impulses from an early age, while Kakinuma feared that acknowledging any potential for friendship would make him weak, and so set out to destroy the boy who had once been nice to him. His masterstroke, as he sees it, is to make Goto and Eri prisoners of their own minds, awaiting whatever post-hypnotic suggestion might be lurking underneath. They may think that they have beat him, but as the epilogue shows, they can never be sure if their happiness is real or just the set-up for a greater fall. It's a sort of fatalism that many will feel without the need for it to be deliberately implanted.


Put it together, and what do you have? A thriller with a neat hook, fine execution, and a finale that embraces the concept's absurdity to leave the reader with an interesting philosophical question to ponder. It's not surprising that someone saw a movie in it.

Oldboy (2003)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2013 in Jay's Living Room (binging, Blu-ray)

I reviewed this one for eFilmCritic back when it first hit the US, and even though I have (hopefully) become a better writer and more perceptive critic since then, I do agree with the basics of what I wrote there, so I'll just let the link stand and add some more.

One interesting thing I found watching it anew was that, apparently, some of the translation had changed between the theatrical release and the Blu-ray included in Tartan Palisades's "Vengence Trilogy" box set. Most curiously, protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) now says that his name means "taking things a day at a time" rather than "easy to to get along with". I can certainly see how one thing can be an idiom for both, but it's a very pointed change; instead of being an ironic comment on what a jerk Dae-su is at the start, it foreshadows what it will take to survive in his cell, and, maybe, on the outside (although, interestingly, both of those meanings might better refer to Shinichi Goto more than Oh Dae-su).

Another thing I was struck by while watching it was that while I tend to file Park Chan-wook away as a guy who makes stylish thrillers, springing clever twists on the audience amid excellent craft, he actually makes crazy movies. Oldboy is frantic from scene one, and some of the imagery that pops up on screen (like the ants - how could I forget the ants?) is actually over-the-top bizarre. Park certainly pays major attention to detail - I suspect every detail down to things like the choice of wallpaper in a given room is as meticulously chosen here as in his latest film (obsessively-polished English-language debut Stoker), there's the constant feeling that this thing could go off the rails into bug-nuts territory at any moment.

That's a big change from Oldboy the manga; while artist Nobuaki Minegishi mostly distinguished himself as a detailed draftsman and clear storyteller, the ordinary detail he presented is in stark contrast to the luridstyle and unusual angles Park and his collaborators go in for. Similarly, where writer Garon Tsuchiya emphasized the male-fantasy nature of Goto's methodical search for his enemy - and said enemy's rather formal opposition - Park and his co-writers plunge Oh Dae-su into madness and chaos straight away.

They also streamline the story quite a bit; without the demands of serial publication, the movie can tell the story without having little cliffhangers and false starts, and an important character introduced midway through the manga is entirely absent here. Park also makes the reason Dae-su was imprisoned much more grounded compared to the relative abstraction Tsuchiya went with, and the full scope of the revenge visited on him much more horrible. As the movie reaches the end, the audience is much more likely to react to the last-act revelations in a visceral way.


The character of Lee Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo) is entirely new, as is the whole plot of her sleeping with Oh Dae-su as a teenager, having a hysterical pregnancy as a result, and then being the subject of rumors that she and brother Woo-jin were having an incestuous affair before committing suicide, eventually leading to Woo-jin having Dae-su imprisoned while he carried out his plan of fixing Dae-su and his own daughter up. It's a brilliant story, shockingly emotional and horrifying on a gut level compared to the intellectual and philosophical motive in the manga. One can almost imaging Park coming up with this part of the plan and stumbling upon the Oldboy manga when trying to figure out how to make it work, and then grafting the two ideas together.

It does lead to Park pouring a lot into the last few scenes. Just as the audience has time to admire the scope and cruelty of Woo-jin's plan, Park is moving on to the next thing, having Choi Min-sik chew a great deal of scenery as Oh Dae-su promised to be Woo-jin's dog and does everything he can to convince him not to tell his daughter/lover Mido what has happened, climaxing in his cutting off his own tongue, the means by which this foul gossip was spread. It's arguably all a bit much, and depending on the mood I'm in when I consider it, those scenes are either two plots trying to upstage each other or Park realizing that they must be equally over-the-top for the incest to not overpower the rumor-mongering that caused it. Once he's committed to this story, there's no way to go but excess.

It's the last scene, though, that really seals what an incredible inversion of the original manga this story is. For all the darkness in Tsuchiya's story, it is a fundamentally heroic tale: Goto works to be a good an honorable person in the face of the darkness he finds within himself. He ultimately triumphs, and while there is still the threat of evil rising up to harm him even after he has defeated his enemy, he and Eri attempt to live a good life in spite of that fear.

At the end of the film, though, is as cynical as it can get. What initially appears to be Dae-su's attempt to erase his sin - having the hypnotist remove the memory of having slept with his daughter - merely frees him to be able to repeat it without guilt. It's interesting that the hypnotist purges the memory by having Dae-su imagine "the monster" walking away, as it is arguably the person left behind who is the actual monster, for he is the one that will continue the forbidden relationship, and has made the arrangements to make it possible. Dae-su was never the good man Shinichi Goto was, but you can argue that this is the lowest, co-opting the very idea of innocence so that he can have that which he is ashamed to want. Where Shinichi Goto lives honorably and has nightmares, Oh Dae-su does wrong and sleeps well.



* ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2013 in Jay's Living Room (binging, DVD)

Zinda is an unauthorized Hindi-language remake that follows the first Oldboy film pretty darn closely, though inevitably without the surges of inspiration that Park Chan-wook brought to the story, so that even when writer/director Sanjay Gupta does the same thing, it's obviously but a pale copy. Apparently, you can't sue over this in India, which is a shame, because this sort of rip-off appears to be Gupta's bread and butter.

Part of this movie's reason for existing is to water the story down; Indian audiences probably would not have gone for some of the nastier bits of Park's screenplay. Heck, early on, it looks like Gupta is going to transform Zinda into an utterly conventional revenge story, although he does eventually push things into twisted territory. That beginning is rough sledding in a lot of ways, as the interplay among Sanjay Dutt (the "Oh Dae-su/Goto" role of Bala Roy), Celina Jaitly (his wife Nisha), and Mahesh Manjrekar (Bala's weirdly-open-about-his-attraction-to-Nisha friend Joy Fernandes) is stilted and awkward. Things start looking up when Gupta and company decide that they will make use of the story's mean streak, especially once John Abraham pops up and brings unabashed nastiness to the part of the villain. Gupta also has no trouble with violence, adding power drills and katanas to the hammers and fisticuffs already in place.

The most obvious problem, though, is that while Gupta may be okay with throwing as much blood as the Indian censors will allow on screen, he's really got no style. He tries to replicate the "Oh Dae-su, with a hammer, against a veritable army in a corridor" fight, and it's terrible, static camerawork of a fight where each thug fights Bala in sequence for no good reason, with an obvious blooper that shows how fake the props are left in. It's also as blue-filtered as the rest of the movie, and make no mistake - you will not see a bluer movie that this; from at least the moment when Bala is imprisoned to the end, the only time the filter comes off is for a love scene, which makes me wonder if cinematographer Sanjay F. Gupta (apparently a different guy) was too conservative to shoot that. It's downright distracting, making the movie more obviously the work of someone who wants to be seen as edgy and different rather than a legitimate boundary-pusher like Park.

For all that Zinda is hackishly put together, though, its worst sin is probably being forgettable. It's Oldboy without the artistry or the truly shocking moments, and forced to fit a Bollywood format that it is ill-suited for (there might not be actual musical numbers,but there are some annoying prominent full songs on the soundtrack). To be fair, those who haven't seen the original - much less done so that week - can get a charge out of the concept and some of the bloody violence, but it can't help but feel watered down.


How watered down? Well, hypnosis and incest are both off the table. Abraham's Rohit Chopra certainly reveals a twisted endgame - a plan to sell Bala's daughter into sexual slavery at the same age at which Bala's lies about Rohit's sister Reema gave her a shameful reputation - but the full horror of the prior versions of Oldboy came not just from what the villain does at the end, but how thoroughly controlling a monster he is. Here, Lara Dutta's Eri/Mido stand-in, cab driver Jenny Singh, is just someone Bala meets on release and a convenient hostage for Rohit, there's no manipulation that not only leads to the gut-punch that ends both previous versions, but underscores the claim Rohit explicitly makes early in this one, that he has not been released, but transferred, and his life is still being controlled by his jailer.

Plus, the movie wimps out at the end. Where the manga had an ultimate victory for the villain always lurking in the shadows in the epilogue, and the Korean film had him relent only after Oh Dae-su had abased himself horrifically, this one just has false defeats followed by "what, you didn't think we were really going to have the kid raped, did you?" Where the previous versions had the villains off themselves because they had done their worst and what they had done would linger this one just has him fall off a building in a standard case of not being willing to allow the hero to save his life, only to be revealed as not having the viciousness to do the truly monstrous thing he'd planned.

I don't say this as a "darker == better" type; I want Bala to rescue his daughter, to prove that his love for this little girl he's never met is even stronger than the hate and anger that had propelled him through the rest of the movie. But this finale isn't an earned rescue or a piece of what's come before. It's backing away from the abyss entirely because the filmmaker is timid, and that's not exciting at all.


As an aside: It's kind of hilarious to hear Rohit boasting that what he's planning will be seen by everyone on internet, mobiles, and DVDs, if only because it so closely paralleled the huge sales pitch Eros Entertainment put on the front of the not-exactly-great DVD I spent $3.30 on at Amazon. Aside from how much I wonder how often Eros gets people coming to their site looking for some other sort of entertainment entirely (or how often Bollywood fans accidentally find something spicier than masala), it's a weird sales pitch for the company and its routes for delivering "content", rather than the actual music/songs/TV itself.

Oldboy (2013, USA)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2013 in Regal Fenway 31 (first-run, DCP)

My full review for this one is at eFilmCritic; and that closing paragraph about Spike Lee having a director's cut fills me with some trepidation - I don't necessarily want to update this thing in a few months because there's a fifth version of this story hanging around. That's doubly true since it seems like there's not much that needs to be added - more of Joe being a dick is unnecessary, and nobody else has a background that really needs fleshing out (or which could be fleshed out without giving too much away). There are a couple of plot bits that seem jumped over too quickly - Joe, Marie, and Chucky seem to be looking at Adrian Pryce before they've realized they should be looking at Adrian Pryce, for one; I spent some time wondering if Joe's ex-wife was the "Donna" mentioned in the high-school flashbacks, as her name is mentioned later there's nothing to connect her to the client's wife Joe makes a stupid pass at in 1993 - but supposedly what's been cut is character-building material.

The credits are a bit odd, too - Mark Protosevich is the sole credited writer in the opening titles, just after "Based Upon the Korean Motion Picture Oldboy". First, is it the usual practice to just credit that by name, as opposed to including the original writers/director? Second, there's no mention of the original manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and drawn by Nobuaki Minegishi. Both groups may be mentioned somewhere in the end credits, but that seems rather unfair beyond just giving human beings credit: While Lee & Protosevich have clearly used the 2003 film as their primary source, they do reach back to the original manga for certain elements: Joe sleeps in the back of Chucky's bar much like Goto did, there's an important part for a former teacher, and while previous adaptations only preserved the villain's former security-forces bodyguard as opposed to the pretty secretary, this one combines the two characters.

In some ways, I kind of wish the filmmakers had drawn more deeply on the source material; for instance, there's no particular reason for the four-day deadline, especially since it requires some unworldly puppet-mastery without the hypnosis used to speed things along in the Japanese and Korean versions. The counter-argument is that the longer Joe has, the less predictable what the players do is, but ...


... Joe and Marie having sex really never seems inevitable here, especially in the time frame given. This may be a result of having seen the Korean version within the week, knowing what's going to happen, and as a result paying more attention to the way Lee, Protosevich, and company set it up than the events as they unfold.

I'm also not hugely fond of Adrian literally going out of his way to kill Chucky in this one. In the Korean and Indian versions, the equivalent character is there to be enraged, and it's still a decision I don't love - the equivalent sequence in the manga has Goto's friend survive because for as much as Dojima is a monster, he's a planner who gets his revenge over time; that he used someone as stage dressing shows how diabolical he is. Granted, the movies feature a villain with powerful, lingering anger, and given the set-up it would make sense if killing Chucky were always a part of his plan. There's no indication that it was, although this is a more impulsive character. Donna is noted as dead as well, although with no evidence to suggest Adrian is responsible.

I do admit that I rather like the ending Protosevich gave this movie. As mentioned above, Oh Dae-su turns himself into an innocent monster in order to stay with Mido, and it's a twist that seems to exist for the purpose of their being a twist, ensuring that he's the same sort of oblivious, selfish man he was when the whole thing started. By choosing to return to his prison, Joe Doucett has developed the ability to feel guilt, choosing willingly to be punished for an offense he committed without knowing it, though I'm guessing this presumed life sentence has little to do with all the aggravated assaults and murders. It retroactively makes the opening scenes of him as a kind of boring creep better: He's gone from a man with no moral compass to having one that, while unconventional, certainly exerts power over him.


Ranking the various versions, the Korean film goes on top and Zinda at the bottom, with the manga much closer to Park's film than the American remake is to the Indian. It's interesting to note just how transformative the Korean version is; both later versions have mostly followed its lead, although there is good material in the manga that is necessarily disposed of. For example, the later versions have no way to use the sweet sequence where Goto meets his former fiancée, and while all versions are about obsession, the theme of being a prisoner of one's own mind fades as one gets further from the source.

What really stood out to me is how, when seen in such quick succession, the various Oldboys point out the trade-offs in adaptation. When adapting the manga in 2003, Park Chan-wook had to make structural changes - things that worked as a graphic serial wouldn't have worked in a film - but he also injected a new idea that made the story more than its gimmick and the finale more visceral versus philosophical. Gupta's and Lee's adaptations, in contrast, were both about making things safer. Sure, Lee put some wacky stuff of his own in there, but the aggregate was about making thins easier for the audience to handle, even if not to the extent that this was the case for Gupta. This progression is a fine example of how the great adaptations, whether from one medium to another or between languages or eras, build on the best parts of what was there before, while the disappointing ones file things down.