Friday, June 28, 2013

This Week In Tickets: 17 June 2013 - 23 June 2013

Fun week, even if I did feel sort of lazy by the end.

This Week in Tickets

It's the strangest thing; bright, summer officially begins, and my nose starts running like crazy. Had to keep sniffling it back during The Good Son with Boom Boom Mancini there, and it and the rain more or less put the kibosh on hitting a second movie that night. It rained a lot Tuesday, and I half-joked with the folks at work about going to Fenway to spread contagion, but it was the funniest thing - by the time I got to Kenmore, I was feeling good, the weather had cleared nicely, and it was a great night for baseball.

The Red Sox took advantage, playing a crisp game thanks to the rare efficient start by Felix Doubront. Of course, it was apparently as hard for the manager to conceive of a complete game from Doubront, because he brought in Andrew Bailey, Bailey gave up a game-tying homer, but then Johnny Gomes of all people hits the walk-off. I've felt great since, which just goes to show baseball cures all ailments.

Thursday's plan was to catch Stories We Tell before its run at the Coolidge ended, but that can be harder than you'd think when it's on a screen with a mere fourteen seats. So, since I was there when it sold out, I opted to go for Before Midnight and buy a ticket for the later show at the same time. Still had time to stop for a slice of pizza at Otto's in between. I wasn't the only one trying to get it in; the 9:40 was sold out to the point where a fifteenth person came in during the previews, saw there was no seat, and went down to get an usher, who asked us to produce tickets. Someone "couldn't find" hers, and wound up seeing another movie. First time I've seen that happen.

I wound up being sort of lazy on the weekend, reading comics and responding to ads for Montreal sublets, so I didn't see as much as I'd planned (and the T moved just slowly enough that I couldn't fit one more in before The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It wound up being a so-so weekend for mainstream film, although it was kind of interesting to see that Monsters University has a climax that seems to get what makes a scary movie work better than World War Z.

Before Midnight

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2013 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

There were times when I felt like I've screwed up during Before Midnight; go back and read my reviews of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and I've got a personal experience that I can relate to Jesse's and Celine's brief intial meeting and later reunion, whereas their situation here is pretty much alien to me. I'm okay with that, especially since it highlights just how great these movies are - it's not just a trick of recreating something familiar, but telling a good story.

Not a complex story, no, but the audience has a decade or two invested in these characters and the friction we see in an early scene, as they start to bicker while driving from the airport (where they've sent Jesse's son home) to the Greek villa where Jesse is participating in a sort of writers' retreat. It's fascinating to watch; we've been prepped to see Jesse as perhaps reaching the age where "boyish" isn't a particular positive any more, while Celine is talking about taking a job with more security than the nonprofit she works at offers. And while that's kind of a standard thing - how many times has one seen the sensible woman/man-child pairing - there's hints that it's not going to be quite that simple.

They won't fully pay off until later; writer/director Richard Linklater and co-writer/co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy know what the audience wants to see and deliver it: Yes, Jesse and Celine now have friends to talk to, but there's a very nice scene as they play tourist, checking out the sights that lay on the road between where they've been staying and the hotel room where they've been promised a night without their kids. It's different from the previous movies, of course - the pair are now familiar with each other instead of discovering and learning new things. There's a level of fun to it - Celine seems to have a much more eccentric sense of humor than she did before, almost reminding one of her Two Days in Paris/New York character (it's worth noting that her mother's death is a catalyst here, much as it was in Two Days in New York), and it's easy to fall back in love with Jesse again. But the cracks are clearly there.

Which is why that last set of scenes feels so horrible, as something small finally lets a huge amount of resentment out, and this group proves itself just as good at angry talk as the lovey-dovey stuff. It's surprising how much this doesn't just play the standard notes, though - Celine can do some fierce jumping to conclusions, and as it goes on, the audience comes to see it as a very real possibility that the movie will end with them breaking up, despite the twenty years the filmmaker, cast, and crew have invested in them.

SPOILERS! In fact, I'm not sure that the end isn't a cheat - it's too cutesy; the reconciliation almost feels unearned. But it's also quite possible that Linklater & company know this is false hope, a desperate attempt for the pair to make things work, and come 2022 we'll see that they've been split up for years when some sort of family emergency brings them together in Before Noon. !SRELIOPS

Or maybe they'll go a different way - imagine if the next one is about Jesse's son Hank introducing them to the girl he wants to marry? I get the sense, though, that this series has shifted from being the product of opportunity to that of ambition, and while it won't wind up on the scale of 7x Up, there will be little else of similar scale by the time we see one character mourning the other's death.

Stories We Tell

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2013 in Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (first-run, digital)

I don't think there's any filmmaker out there who continually manages to surprise like Sarah Polley. As a young actress, she gained a bunch of art-house cred but was able to do the likes of Go and Dawn of the Dead without anyone accusing her of selling out. As a director, she did a movie about growing old when she was rather young, and just as it's getting to be time to stop dropping "for someone so young" from her praise, she's still getting to the autobiographical movie rather early, while there's still a fair amount of youthful recklessness to bring to bear.

Now, she's not reckless in terms of not knowing what she's doing - even as she's telling the story of the mother who died when she was a child and how the missing pieces of that story affected her own life, she's giving it more structure than one might initially think - but there's a brashness to the project. There's a certain level of ego necessary for her to think she can present this story, out of all stories, objectively,.no matter how many times she cuts between people contradicting each other or notes the impossibility of the task, and as a result there will occasionally be moments toward the end when the audience wonders why Polley would put her loved ones through this. But by the same token, documentaries are time-sensitive things - father Michael Polley is not exactly young any more - and if this story is going to be told (and many within think it's worth telling, if not necessarily in the same way or to the same audience), there's no-one in a better position to do it.

And since she's inherited storytelling talent and learned how movies work, Polley does it well. It doesn't hurt that there is little or no rancor here, so she can find and inject the humor into the middle of what might otherwise be Sirkian melodrama. There's something rather reassuring about the way she and Michael interact, with evident love and respect. She resists the temptation to follow every side-story or theme, acknowledging life's messiness but still maintaining focus. And I was quite surprised to see there were dramatized segments in the movie - aside from casting folks who matched the footage she had (whether home movies or the product of a family of entertainers), she creates short bits that match the period close enough that they could be real.

The end result is a fairly complete success - both an engaging story and a smart-but-not-pretentious ruminationon what makes an engaging story. It's further proof that Sarah Polley is good at movies, showing us just how it's in her blood.

"The Blue Umbrella"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 June 2013 in Regal Fenway #10 (first-run, RealD 3D)

You hear the "uncanny valley" mentioned a lot when critiquing animation and special effects, where once something gets close to photo-realistic, it looks more disturbingly wrong than something more abstract. Usually, it applies to human characters or human-like ones, but those are shrouded in "The Blue Umbrella"; instead, it renders the environment perfectly, finds faces on inanimate objects, and then gives them life.

And it's kind of horrible - unlike the blue umbrella which is given a more classically cartoonish face, cheerfully smiling from how much it loves protecting its person from the rain, these rictuses are stiff and creak as they shift expression, like they've been cursed to not be able to express themselves. The umbrella seems like a friend, but the mailbox seems like something hiding and lurking and maybe meaning to do people harm as they help the umbrellas - not the people under them - unite.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit - the short is cute just as often as it's off-putting, and the music is catchy. It often plays more as a tech demo than a short film, though, and when compared to the rather similar "Paperman", it lacks a certain charm and personality that the Disney film had in spades.

Monsters University

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 June 2013 in Regal Fenway #10 (first-run, RealD 3D)

When Monsters Inc. had its 3D re-release last December, I was pleasantly surprised by what a good movie it was - I remembered it being fun, but just how well it managed to tell its story without really looking like it was following a script hadn't stuck with me, and while the underlying theme was stated outright - making someone happy is more powerful than making someone scared - it was darn effective in its sincerity.

Monsters University isn't nearly that well-done. Oh, it's plenty entertaining - director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers come up with a ton of fun gags, some well-defined characters, and good voice-acting. The animation is fantastic, often in ways the casual viewer might not notice (there's a sequence where monsters getting stung by a spiky creature puff up like balloons, and it's easy to forget that this sort of cartoony deformation is hard for CGI).. But there's prequel issues - revisiting certain elements is gratuitous, and by dint of not appearing in Monsters Inc., certain supporting characters just feel less important - and a script that too obviously sets up a goal and then lines up set-pieces meant to be steps on the way. Plus, the underlying message of "teamwork is important!" feels a bit more like something directed at kids than which might resonate for everyone, and its clearest expression is perhaps too focused on what someone can't do.

On the other hand, I kind of love the big set-piece at the climax. For as much as I worry that, like the short that ran before the movie, it has Pixar too much in uncanny-valley territory, it also surprises by being as pure a love-letter to scary movies as anything from last year's barrage of horror-inspired animated family films. Scanlon and company sneakily demonstrate how a good scare comes not just from a good special effect (Sully), but by how a storyteller/director (Mike) sets things up deploys his monster to maximum result, because scaring the otherwise-jaded adults is powerful

That's actually pretty clever, encapsulating what's great about horror movies much better than the next day's selection, and you can explain it to kids without things being to meta. Maybe not exactly what six-year-olds will get out of it, but a nice little bonus for movie lovers.

World War Z

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2013 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, 4K DCP)

Get horror fans together, and they'll debate fast zombies versus slow zombies like it's something more than philosophy but something more akin to religion. Well, actually, they won't - they will acknowledge that 28 Days Later is a pretty damn great movie, but point out that its "infected" were not living dead of any sort. It's kind of a nerdy fanboy argument most of the time, but I think it's important when considering World War Z.

The living dead in the original novel are slow zombies, and that reflects what the book is about: Finding ways to survive, slowly chip away at the problem, getting multiple perspectives of the same period that emphasizes that this is a global environmental catastrophe that requires significant changes to human behavior to survive. Max Brooks specifically structured the book as "An Oral History of the Zombie War" to emphasize this, and that's where the sweep and grandeur of the story comes from.

The movie's antagonists, on the other hand, are fast zombies, which is fitting for the plot, which this time is a race against time to find the source or a cure, with one guy, for the most part, crisscrossing the globe. It's like a videogame at times - go to one area/level, get through there to the goal, cut-scene traveling to the next area, repeat. As much as each location is impressive enough, the focus on Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane shrinks things. For all the massive effects sequences and talk of how bad things are, it feels small, nothing like the novel at all.

But, as one who tries to avoid judging a movie for what it's not but rather what it is, if we pretend that there was never a World War Z novel at all, how is it? Not great, honestly. Director Marc Foster and a small army of writers establish the situation almost too quickly - the plague seems to appear simultaneously across the "first world", and while there are hints that it was lurking elsewhere before hand, there's no time to consider the implications of this. Plus, it's a PG-13 zombie movie, so most of the blood and guts gets spilled just outside of camera range. Characters the audience knows who get bitten seldom if ever (visibly) turn for long enough to be a threat, eliminating a good chunk of the horror inherent in the genre. There's no meaning to the zombies as a threat; they might as well be anonymous robots or aliens, just CGI-multiplied into a swarm. The movie could make up for it with the human story, but Pitt doesn't have a lot to work with either - we're told Lane's smart in a generic way, and he's given a nice family to provide motivation, but he doesn't have a lot of personality or individual technique to grab the audience.

Essentially, there's nothing exceptional about World War Z aside from its price tag, and what do we as an audience care about that? Compare it to the source material (which, if was going to be adapted, seems like it should have been an HBO-style anthology miniseries akin to From the Earth to the Moon), and it seems like even more of a missed opportunity.

The Good SonRare Felix Doubront GemBefore MidnightStories We TellMonsters University (w/Blue Umbrella)The Golden Voyage of SinbadWorld War Z

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