Monday, September 30, 2013

This Week In Tickets: 23 September 2013 - 29 September 2013

Not a busy week, but makes up for it by being pretty good.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: We Are What We Are, Thursday 19 September 2013, 7:30pm, Regal Fenway #2

... Although, I suppose you could say I did have a stub for that, in the form of the piece of paper taped to a seat to reserve it for me because I'm an IFFBoston member. Disappointingly, it wasn't a packed house for this preview, despite all the local festivals and horror-oriented websites saying this was likely to be good and worth watching. I was surprised how good it was, just because I half-remembered the original as putting me to sleep, but Jim Mickle did a great job with the material.

It was one of two things this week where I didn't miss the bus on purpose in the morning but didn't complain, as it's a lot easier to put in a full day of work at get to a theater on the gren line in the 7pm hour from home than from Burlington. The other was Monday's screening of The Last Command at the Coolidge with the Alloy Orchestra. I thought I'd seen it with them before, but the only entry on the blog is from a Sterberg/Dietrich series at the Brattle almost ten years ago.

Between and after those: The surprisingly good last-minute-replacement Jose e Pilar as part of the Gathr screening series on Tuesday; my last show in the HFA's Hitchcock series, Suspicion, on Friday; straight-from-China prequel Young Detective Dee on Saturday; and Ron Howard's latest, Rush, on Sunday.

One per day is kind of short, but there's still baseball, and even though there's going to be more in October, I cling to the regular season because I don't want to let the summer go without a fight.

The Last Command

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 September 2013 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sounds of Silents, 35mm w/ live accompaniment)

I cringe to look at my original review of this movie, not just because the stuff I wrote nine-plus years ago is not very good (as you might expect), but because I openly admit that I arrived late and reviewed it based on that. Granted, back then I was just throwing this stuff up on the blog for my own amusement, but it was less than a month before I started writing for eFilmCritic and imported everything that thirty-year-old me didn't find too embarrassing. I've revised that review a bit.

I still like the movie an awful lot, though: For all that the bits with the aged, shaky Sergius Alexandr seems kind of blunt, the movie is a fine story of not judging a man's morality by his politics, and Evelyn Brent is rather fantastic in it. And, yes, it really does pay to see it from the beginning: Missing the first couple of minutes with William Powell the first time meant that I wasn't completely keyed into his character's potential for meanness when he reappeared later, and having it in mind that this former revolutionary has the capability to be so vindictive does affect the way one looks at the character.

Revised review at eFilmCritic

Suspicion

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 September 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Hitchcock, 35mm)

Given how certain an element of a thriller that the shocking twist has become, the way Hitchcock's Suspicion ends is kind of a surprise on its own; it not only doesn't end the way one has come to expect, but it's even more abrupt that the typical Hitchcock finale.

This isn't one of the greatest thrillers of its type - even considering that it's from 1941, it seems a bit generic, like the writers had the basic shell of a "did I marry a killer?" story but didn't really have a unique setting or character hook to run with. It's a workable enough story that actually does fairly well to keep certain things off-screen, and while it's sort of dated in spots, there's a lightness to much of the activity that makes the genuine threats that make their way into the movie that much more sinister.

That includes - perhaps primarily - Cary Grant, who plays his character in much the same way he'd play his comic roles, tossing off quips and showing a casual, insouciant charm even as he's being an utter jerk, with just the sort of twinkle that lets the audience believe that his wife will give him the benefit of the doubt even when the audience is past that. Joan Fontaine isn't quite so ideal here as she was in her previous collaboration with Hitchcock (Rebecca), but she has moments, especially when Lina is allowed to be confident. Nigel Bruce, meanwhile, is kind of charming as the dimwitted Beaky, although, man, this guy is dumber than his version of Dr. Watson.

Rush

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2013 in Regal Fenway #5 (first-run, 4K DCP)

I've never been a particular naysayer where Ron Howard was concerned, and am in fact usually pretty surprised when I see folks acting like he is a particular blight upon filmmaking - his stuff is mainstream, but generally fairly capable, and he's got a real knack for doing movies that are technically very difficult without ever letting the spectacle overwhelm the storytelling. (See: Apollo 13) So I'm kind of surprised that it's Rush, of all movies, that seems to be getting him some praise.

It's not a bad movie, by any means; Howard really does know how to present a story clearly, neither overweighing things nor allowing the movie to feel like it's just filling time. That's a good trait to have with this movie, where supporting characters are drifting in and out and the real-life story doesn't really allow for streamlining to a simple story. He gets good performances out of stars Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, with Hemsworth especially having great movie-star charisma that makes the movie slow smoothly and pleasantly.

But, like I said, the competition between James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Bruhl) is in some ways too full of the complications of real life to make a good movie. Take how the first act introduces a girlfriend for Hunt who disappears off-screen, quite contrary to how her introduction is such a big deal. Or the structure of the 1976 Grand Prix season, which denies the audience a real feeling of head-to-head competition between the two. That may be how things went, but it's not dramatically satisfying. Plus, for all that Howard and company shoot some great racing footage, it's not great action storytelling. Getting so close to the action doesn't often give the audience a chance to see what Hunt and Lauda are doing in relation to each other during the head-to-head races.

It goes down pretty easy, and Hans Zimmer contributes a good soundtrack that becomes great as the closing credits roll. Rush is certainly no waste of time, but it's not going to be one that sticks in my head. It's filmed and acted well, but it seems like it skipped the step where writer Peter Morgan should have looked at it and decided it wasn't really a movie.


The Last Command
José e Pilar
Suspicion
Young Detective Dee
Rush

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Okay... What comes out in China next week? Any prequels to movies I saw at previous Fantasia? My Lucky Star last week, Young Detective Dee this one, and both opening at Boston Common the same weekend they opened on the other side of the world, is probably not the start of a trend that can be extrapolated past this week (although it would be pretty awesome if AMC saw them doing well enough that they tried to bring something else in next), but it's been fun.

As with Lost In Thailand seven months ago, this seems to be a deal that AMC negotiated directly with the Chinese studio, which on the one hand is pretty cool if they're going to make a regular thing of it, but must kind of stink if you like these movies but don't live in an area with AMC theaters. I kind of wish they'd picked it up in 3D, but having been around for the thud Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate landed with when it played in Imax 3D, I can't blame them for not being willing to test how much the folks in Chinatown will pay for a movie ticket.

Maybe it will be one of those 2D/3D Blu-rays, although I kind of wonder who will distribute it. There's no region 1/A Lost in Thailand yet, for instance, and the guys who distributed the first movie, Indomina, don't really seem to be doing much any more. I could see the likes of Well Go picking it up, but if so, wouldn't they have done so for the theatrical run, too?

The upsot of all that meandering: This movie's a ton of fun, and the way its US release is happening means your best chance to see it is probably if it's playing at an AMC theater this week. Catch it now, while you can.

Di Renjie zhi shendu longwang (Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 September 2013 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, 4K DCP)

I've got to confess: When I hoped for more Detective Dee movies after seeing Mystery of the Phantom Flame a couple years ago, I didn't really think I'd get them. Happily, it seemed the people of China also wanted more, and director Tsui Hark also seemed to have a soft spot for the character that revitalized his career. Apparently star Andy Lau wasn't quite so enthusiastic, so Hark went and made this one a prequel. But don't worry about that making it predictable; despite knowing Dee will still be around at the end, this bit of martial-arts-mystery-fantasy-adventure is even more crazy - and just as much fun - as its predecessor.

Things kick off in 665 AD, with Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) effectively in control of a Middle Kingdom at war with its neighbor Yuya. When a fleet sent north to confront them is eradicated and the survivors make noises about a sea dragon, she orders Da Lisi chief Yuchi Zhenjin ("William" Feng Shaofeng) to investigate while the commoners make plans to appease the gods with a ceremonial fasting by courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy). A new arrival in the capital city of Luoyang, Dee Renjie ("Mark" Chao You-ting) gets wind of a plot to kidnap Ruiji even before reporting to Da Lisi headquarters to begin as a detective, and gets to the temple just in time to break it up - although he does not have an immediate explanation for the lizard-man who shows up midway through.

Yes, a lizard-man. Those who had issues with the more fantastical elements of Phantom Flame may as well just accept that things are going to get weird here as Dee and company find themselves faced with creatures of all shapes and sizes. Hark happily takes detours into horror territory here, but in some ways, that just adds to the "Chinese Sherlock Holmes" vibe of the character, as Holmes debunked his share of monsters and didn't always play fair with the reader in his adventures. While Hark and co-writer Chang Chia-lu put a fair amount of not-always-sophisticated humor into the flick, the Sherlockian aspect of the story certainly comes through as he tries to find a logical explanation for the monsters plaguing the city with his close observation of the evidence, broad knowledge of many subjects, and physician sidekick Shatuo Zhong (Lin Geng-xin).

Full review at EFC.

We Are What We Are (USA)

Fun fact: All three times I have seen one of director Jim Mickle's films, he's been there for a Q&A with the audience: I saw Mulberry Street at Fantasia in 2007, Stake Land at IFFBoston in 2011, and now this one at an IFFBoston preview screening.

 photo IMAG0569_zps4cd4b5c1.jpg
Evidence!

So, he'd better bring Cold in July to a festival I'm attending or one of these previews. My streak is important.

He was a pretty good sport during the Q&A session, dealing with the "please tell us what happened after the bit you deliberately left ambiguous" question and a guy who asked if his next one was going to be "another pretentious Hollywood movie" with a smile on his face and correcting folks who got the wrong idea about something without being mean about it. He's a genuine horror fan, but it doesn't manifest itself in being an encyclopedia; rather, he breaks down what makes these movies work and puts that into good ones.

I think that's a big part of what makes We Are What We Are work - it's about something outrageous that is grounded in very familiar pressures and feelings. Even before Mickle mentioned that part of the reason he inverted the sexes of all the characters was because he wanted to explore the idea of how religion (and, to be fair, tradition in general) often places certain demands on women, it was pretty clear in the film. It's also what makes it a very good translation; while it's been a while since I saw the first We Are What We Are (and it had trouble gaining traction with me at Fantasia in 2010), but its themes are probably more accessible to Americans than the life-cheapening poverty and pervasive Roman Catholicism of the Mexican version.

Another fun thing was how he talked about sequels. If you've ever been to a Q&A for a horror film, questions about those come up naturally; audiences just expect franchising from that genre in a way that they don't for others, even though the filmmakers often make these movies with the idea of them being inexpensive stepping stones to something bigger. So when Mickle answers a bunch of questions with "that's a sequel", it's pretty amusing, even if he is telling tall tales or hypotheticals. For instance, he claimed that original-film director Jorge Michel Grau was working on a movie which would combine the surviving casts of both versions of the movie, which would sound goofy except that convergence seems to be a thing nowadays (consider the ending and vaguely discussed plans to follow up the new Evil Dead, or The Avengers). Another one he mentioned actually has an IMDB entry - What We Were would be a prequel that explains how the parents met up and how outsiders get brought into this society. I'm not sure it's really the greatest idea, but the team attached is interesting - Mickle's co-writer Nick Damici on script and Antti-Jussi Annila directing. Annila is particularly curious because he two previous features, Jade Warrior and Sauna, have been very specifically Finnish, even if much of the former is set in China. This would have to be very specifically American.

Of course, there's a good chance of that never happening, so let's just focus on this one for now. It's opened in some parts of the country already, and is scheduled to hit Boston on 11 October. Definitely worth a look this Halloween season.

We Are What We Are

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2013 at Regal Fenway #2 (IFFBoston Preview, digital)

We Are What We Are makes a heck of a case for the much-maligned idea of remaking a foreign film in English. Though the original Mexican version was much-beloved by many (I thought it had a great opening and a slick finale without grabbing me in between), rising star Jim Mickle has built something even better, something that evolves into one of the most engrossing horror movies of the year.

There's a storm hitting upstate New York as the movie starts, and Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) heads into town to get some supplies. She's nervous, twitchy, and ill, falling down dead in the convenience store parking lot. That's never a good event for a mother of three, but given that her family - father Frank (Bill Sage), daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) & Rose (Julia Garner), and young son Rory (Jack Gore) - are at the start of a traditional fasting period, with Frank showing many of the same symptoms she is, things get even more tense as Frank declares that Iris, as the woman of the house, will take Emma's place in the ritual that ends the fast. She wants no part of it, but tradition is tradition.

Director Jim Mickle and regular co-writer Nick Damici (who also plays the local sheriff) are making their third feature here, and it's very impressive how they continue to improve even after having started strong with Mulberry Street. This is certainly the most polished-looking film they and regular director of photography Ryan Samul have made, but that's just the start. This group has always had a knack for filling their movies with characters who are just as interesting as their frightening circumstances, and they give themselves quite the challenge by centering the film not on regular people in a horrific situation but the ones who would lurk around the edges of conventional horror films. The brilliance of this one is in how Mickle and company manage to present its main characters as both at once.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Gathr Preview Screening: José e Pilar

The original movie scheduled for this time was Operation E, but that fell through over the weekend - from the sound of Gathr's email, it seems as though getting a Blu-ray authored with proper subtitles of this fairly new film just wasn't happening. Given the 2010 copyright on José e Pilar, it kind of looks like they were looking for something that wouldn't cut things particularly close with their substitute.

Fortunately, it's still a pretty nifty movie that was surprisingly engrossing. I spent the day not so much dreading the longish documentary on a foreign author as feeling kind of tired and unsure whether I'd make it to the end, but that never proved to be a problem. It's one of the best-put-together movies of its type I can remember seeing, with very little glancing at the watch but plenty of writing stuff down in the notebook that I might want to remember for the review.

In the end, I didn't wind up using a lot of it, although it makes me curious about how directors choose to add overt structuring to docs like this. José e Pilar has three acts announced with on-screen captions, and puts a lot of dates on-screen. It's kind of a delicate balance, as this movie goes for fly-on-the-wall access with minimal cutting to other people, and each bit of text reminds the audience they're watching a movie rather than just sitting in the room. They do a fine job of creating associations with facts, though, and Mendes has a strong enough grasp on his subjects as characters to get away with it.

José e Pilar

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2013 at the Regent Theatre (Gathr Preview Series, digital)

The time period covered by José & Pilar aligns, roughly, with the time it took Nobel Prize-winning writer José Saramago to bring his book The Elephant's Journey from concept to release, and that sounds like a fairly dull sort of thing to watch. And it likely would be, if it were entirely comprised of Saramago sitting in front of his laptop, typing. But he and his wife Pilar del Rio aren't the type to let the grass grow under their feet, and director Miguel Gonçalves Mendes never seems to be more than a step or two behind them.

Many coming into the movie will know something about José Saramago: Though he did not write professionally until the age of sixty, he became renowned around the world. His native Portugal, however, reacted poorly to his book The Gospel of Jesus Christ and he had at the time of filming spent recent years on Lanzarote Island (one of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory). When he's there, he works on his book and also helps to build a library, but an author of Saramago's renown is in demand for appearances all around the world, and he's still healthy enough to do do that sort of travel, despite being 83 years old, as the film starts.

Aside from a little text at the beginning to establish Lanzarote as his home, the film doesn't feed the audience the details on José Saramago's life story until reasonably late in the game, and in that way is able to focus on who he is in the present (well, the film's present; Saramago passed away after it finished shooting in 2008), and he's an interesting set of contradictions: Though his books frequently address spiritual or Biblical topics, he tells of being a life-long atheist; and while his words are often those of a cynical curmudgeon, he finds plenty of joy in small things and pleasantly talks to any visitors to the island who meet him in the library and cannot justify denying fans a moment of his time or an autograph. His face may be set in a permanent frown, but he's got quiet, surprising charisma.

Full review at EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 September - 3 October 2013

New movies coming out, and among other things, we get a Chinese movie opening day-and-date in the United States for the second week in a row! It's like the world knows it's my birthday next week.

  • That would be Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, a prequel to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. This one brings back Tsui Hark as director and Carina Lau as the Empress as Dee Renjie arrives in the capital and is promptly put to work on a case that appears to involve lizard-man assassins. In related news, Tsui Hark is nuts, and I must admit to sadness that we apparently aren't getting this thing in 3D. It's at Boston Common.

    One thing that is playing in 3D is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a sequel to what I'm told is a genuinely fun and funny kids' movie. This one certainly looks extraordinarily pretty and offbeat. It's at the Capitol, Apple (2D only), Boston Common, and Fenway (including RPX matinees).

    Also opening is Rush, Ron Howard's long-awaited return to fast-car movies, though this story of rival Formula One racers is sure to be much glossier and more respectable than his old Roger Corman stuff. It's at Somerville, Apple, Fenway, Boston Common, and the SuperLux. There's also Baggage Claim, in which a stewardess played by Paula Patton crisscrosses the country looking reconnect with one of her ex-boyfriends (including Djimon Hounsou, taye Diggs, Derek Luke, and Boris Kodjoe). It's at Fenway and Apple.

    The Imax screens at Boston Common and Jordan's Furniture are also picking up Metallica: Through The Never a week early; it's apparently half concert, half surreal adventure, and while the first doesn't interest me much, that Nimrod Antal directs has me curious about the rest. You can double up on hard-rock-docs with the Def Leppard Viva Hysteria concert on Wednesday at Fenway.
  • Another mainstream, Don Jon, movie is opening wide enough to play the Coolidge as well as Somerville, Apple, Fenway, Boston Common, and the SuperLux; it features Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also writes and directs, as a New Jersey player who may have found true love with Scarlett Johansson but doesn't know what to do with it. They're also getting Enough Said, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in his final role, dammit) as a pair of divorcees falling in love. Kendall Square's got it too.

    They've also got a screening or two each day of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival, which groups ten shorts and allows the public to vote on which they like best. There's also midnights of Troll 2 on 35mm Friday & Saturday, a fitting as heck way to end a "so bad it's...something" shows. They also bring in a 35mm print of David Lynch's Eraserhead as the Big Screen Classic on Monday.
  • Kendall Square picks up another two movies in addition to those opening in Brookline. Inequality for All features Robert Reich discussing how the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else is hurting everyone. The one-week booking is Haute Cuisine, features Catherine Frot as a talented chef plucked out of obscurity to be the pesonal cook for France's President.
  • The Somerville Theatre has The Muslims Are Coming! booked for a week; it's a documentary about a group of Muslim comedians who tour America to try and present themselves as not scary but funny, just like everyone else.. Directors Negin Farsad & Dean Obeidallah will be on hand for post-film Q&As on Friday.
  • The Regent Theatre also has a couple screenings of the Manhattan Short Film Festival coming up at 7pm on both Sunday and Thursday. Midway between, Tuesday's entry in the Gathr Preview Series is one I'm pretty excited about; everyone who saw The Broken Circle Breakdown at Fantasia told me it was extraordinary, although crushing. It has also just been selected as Belgium's submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar.
  • The Brattle Theatre welcomes back IFFBoston selection Good Ol' Freda, a documentary on the indispensable first president of the Beatles' fan club. It plays daily, although the 9:15pm show is Blue Caprice, a much-lauded portait of the Beltway sniper attacks - told, unusually, from the vantage point of the shooters. The exception is Tuesday, when Freda only plays at 3pm and Balagan presentsLa Cicatrice Interieure (The Inner Scar), a 35mm print of an eye-catching underground film whose soundtrack would later be released as an album by Nico.
  • With the end of the month comes the end of the current the Harvard Film Archive calendar. Nuvove Visioni: Italian Cinema Now wraps up with The Double Hour (Friday 7pm), Il Divo (Saturday & Monday 7pm), and I Am Love (Sunday 4pm). It's also the end for Complete Alfred Hitchcock, which finishes with Suspicion (Friday 9:30pm) and Shadow of a Doubt (9:30pm Saturday). The other slot in the weekend has Portugese artist Salomé Lamas present to introduce her new film No Man's Land at 7pm on Sunday. There are also VES screenings of The Man with a Movie Camera on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Tuesday's preceded by the new short "Time Exposure".
  • The MFA holds The Wall, The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan, and Far From Vietnam over for the weekend, with Disco and Vietnam also continuing into October. Wednesday 2 October also sees Herb & Dorothy 50x50 join the rotation, and I'm guessing that all of us who saw Herb & Dorothy will want to revisit these everyman art collectors as they donate a large chunk of their massive collection to museums in every state. Thursday the 3rd is the start of The National Center for Jewish Film Mini-Festival, kicking off with Czech noir In the Shadow.
  • ArtsEmerson features two documentaries this week, with Gideon's Army telling the stories of a group of Southern public defenders Friday evening, while Big Words runs Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, and reunites three former members of a hip-hop group that never made it big on the eve of the 2008 election. The Bright Lights programs include Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr Movie on Tuesday the 1st and YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip (with director Ben Evans there for Q&A after) on Thursday the 3rd.
  • The ICA has a couple different films this weekend: Unbound, Scenes from the Life of Mary Shelley, imagines the Frankenstein author's life as a series of home movies, and plays Friday evening. Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, on the other hand, feature what looks to be the first in a monthly "Art Over Politics: The Persistence of Dreams" series, with Salma a biography of a Muslim Tamil poet who was literally locked away from the world during her adolescence.
  • The Capitol wraps their September Tarantino series up with Inglorious Basterds, Friday and Saturday at 10:30pm.


My plans? Finish the Hitchcock series with Suspicion, catch Young Detective Dee, Rush, and maybe Don Jon. Probably try and watch my copy of Cloudy #1 before tackling the sequel. And probably a lot more.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fantasia Catch-Up: Zero Charisma, Bushido Man, Machi Action, The Lady Assassin, Doomsdays, The Dirties, Ritual: A Psychomagic Story, The Dead Experiment, Curse of Chucky, Raze, Discopath, The Rooftop, Hentai Kamen: Forbidden Super Hero, Imaginaerum, 24 Exposures, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep, The Night that Panicked America, and Go Down Death

I was not meaning to go this long before posting an entry on the various Fantasia Festival films I saw but had to push full eFilmCritic reviews until later for. There just never seemed to be another post where it seemed to make sense to tak stuff onto the end until, finally, this 16-post beast happens, including roughly a quarter of all the movies I saw and reviewed there. I think I promised reviews of about sixty movies when I applied for my press pass, so it's good that I was able to deliver. I hope I didn't say seventy, but in my defense, I don't think that was actually possible this year, what with the reduced number of matinees.

I'm not quite done - I did watch seven screeners during the first week of August, and if I can get full reviews of those up, I should hit seventy exactly. Plus, I really had the best of intentions of writing up the various shorts I saw...

... And that, folks, is half of why I've never felt particularly bad about not attending Fantastic Fest in Austin, even though everyone I've ever talked to who has gone has said it's just the absolute best genre film festival, nay, best festival, nay, best experience in the world. I'm not done with what I saw at my three-week binge up north by the time it starts - heck, by the time it finishes, this year - and barring someone being willing to pay me, say, sixty percent of what I pay to write SQL code to review movies, I can't see how that's going to happen.

Besides, Fantastic Fest happens when there's important baseball going on! Maybe someday, if I can see the Red Sox will be out of it in September, I'll consider it, but I'm kind of hoping that I missed my window l last year.

Anyway: 16 reviews. They've already been linked via the pages for individual days at Fantasia - fitting, as they were often expanded versions of the capsules I wrote on the day - and I've tweeted some of them, but it's kind of fun to do this big dump to show just how crazy-broad the Fantasia experience can be. Hope to get more folks up there with me next year!

Zero Charisma

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, HD)

If I were the type of person to walk out of movies (and could have done it without disturbing the rest of the audience), I would have bolted Zero Charisma. That's not to say it's a terrible movie; it's actually perhaps too effective. Its main character is an awful person, and this movie gets across quite perfectly just what a chore it is to be in his company. You can't really fault the job writer Andrew Matthews and co-director Katie Graham do, and Sam Eidson is dead on as self-centered, obsessive game master Scott.

Scott has been running a Dungeons and Dragons-like game of his own invention from his kitchen table for years, though he suddenly finds a hole in it when one of the players quits, as the game is taking too much time from his troubled marriage. A replacement player is found in Miles (Garrett Graham), and while he looks like the rest of the nerdy gamers on the surface, he's a confident and successful pop-culture blogger and an immediate threat to Scott's dominance of his circle. Oh, and the kitchen table where they play isn't Scott's so much as his grandmother's, and when Wanda (Anne Gee Byrd) falls ill, that brings his mother Barbara (Cyndi Williams) back into the picture, which is a whole new set of issues.

There has been something of a transformation in how "nerds" are perceived in pop culture over the past decade or two, as high-tech success stories accumulate and the campy sci-fi and fantasy that earned its fans mockery has become something more sleek, professional, and mainstream Teens and twenty-somethings with refined senses of irony subvert traditional conceptions of what is hip for fun. Say "nerd" or "geek" and many will have an image much more like Martin jump into their heads than the negative stereotypes. And sometimes, that can make things worse for the genuine outcasts, as they feel patronized as well as ostracized, or like the one thing that's theirs is being taken away by the folks who don't need it.

Full review at EFC

Bushido Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

I didn't see Bushido Man quite at the midway point of the festival, but far enough in that it was clear some things were missing: Martial arts seemed to be in relatively short supply, for instance, as were the low-budget but joyously insane action/horror/exploitation movies from Japan. Bushido Man isn't the only thing filling either category, but I was plenty glad it was there, and also happy that it is enough fun to do more than fill a slot.

As it opens, martial-artist Toramaru (Mitsuki Koga) is returning to his master Gensai (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) reporting that he has, as instructed, gone out in the world to challenge a half-dozen martial-arts masters: Yuan Jian (Kensuke Sonomura), the Kobe kung-fu master; Mokunen (Naohiro Kawamoto), the stick-fighter, in Kyoto; Rinryu (Masaki Suzumura), who wields nunchucks in Okinawa; blind Hokkaido samurai Muso (Kazuki Tsujimoto); yakuza knife artist Eiji Mimoto (Masanori Mimoto); and gun-toting Billy Shimabukuro (Kentaro Shimazu), who (like Eiji) hails from Osaka. As he relates these confrontations, he connects them to the food he and his opponents ate to prepare, as this detail naturally reflects their fighting styles.

Folks for whom one action movie is much like any other may not find themselves overly excited by that description of Toramaru's itinerary, but enthusiasts of the genre will note that it includes six very different types of combat. The food, in a way, is something of a hook to get the audience thinking about different flavors of action, so that when the see what director Takanori Tsujimoto and fight choreographer Kensuke Sonomura have cooked up, they'll appreciate not just how good each fight is, but how individual they are, with a little something for everyone.

Full review at EFC

Machi Action

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

This movie seems like it has no business being as good as it is - it's a sweet, goofy thing that makes occasional ventures into crude adult territory, and the world of sentai action it's set in demands either a love of camp or nostalgia from the audience, and those aren't particularly my things. And yet, here I am laughing my tail off and finding that I love everything it represents.

It introduces us to TieNan ("Wilson" Chen Bo-lin), the star of Space Hero Fly!, a once-popular kid's program on Taiwanese TV that always ends with the hero yelling "Transform!", growing to huge size, and battlling a guy in a rubber suit while knocking over a scale model of Taipei. The creature is always played by TieNan's best friend, the aptly-nicknamed "Monster" (Chiu Yang-Shiang), who runs a noodle shop on the side. It's not a bad gig, and maybe someday TieNan will ask make-up girl Jingfen (Chen Ting-hsuan) out. Before he can, though, disaster strikes - Chairman Su, who has kept the show on the air despite poor ratings, passes away, and while his daughter Ying Ying ("Puff" Kuo Xue-fu) won't outright cancel the show, she will call in consultants from Japan to refresh it, including killing off Fly and replacing bringing in pop star FACE ("Owodog" Zhuang Ao-quan) as the new star.

While all that's going on, there's a band of criminals robbing events and shops frequented by children, and you don't even have to hear TieNan's narration about how he always took pride in doing his own stunts to know where that's going to lead. But that's okay; it gives the filmmakers room to let TieNan and company engage in some funny misadventures as he tries to apply the one thing he knows how to do well to other fields of endeavor. An accidental foray into porn or a surprisingly successful stint on a home-shopping channel doesn't have to result in TieNan accidentally creating his worst enemy or putting himself into a hole that he must rise out of - they can just be very funny, because the climax is waiting.

Full review at EFC

My Nhan Ke (The Lady Assassin)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

The Lady Assassin is a so-so movie, but it does an admirable job of giving the audience what it shows on the poster: Pretty girls doing martial arts in a way that highlights their physicality, but not a whole lot of hard-edged sex and violence that would ever make someone feel particularly uncomfortable (or incur the wrath of the Vietnamese censors). It's exactly as lightweight as it looks, but simple pleasures are no less real.

The Duong Son tavern is an inn on a river, off the main roads, owned by the Kieu Thi (Thanh Hang) and staffed by women who were just as beautiful - sharp-tongued Dao Thi (Ngoc Quyen), former circus performer Lieu Thi (Kim Dung), and discarded mistress Mai Thi (Diem My) - but who are also deadly, although they mostly kill and rob bandits and the forces of warlord Quan Du (Le Thai Hoa). The latest haul includes a surprising cargo - a kidnapped girl of noble blood, Linh Lan Thi (Tang Than Ha), who is put into training and to work so that she may eventually take revenge. But there are secrets in Duong Son bigger than Mai Thi's trysts with local goatherd Duong Linh (Anh Khoa).

It would be stretching things to call The Lady Assassin a remake of King Hu's The Fate of Lee Khan, although it would be hard for anyone who has seen both to not associate the two: Both have spies and other folks who aren't as they seem meeting up at an inn staffed by pretty girls who can fight - and whose outfits are always helpfully color-coded for when writer Ngo Quan Dung and director Quang Dung Nugyen don't do a whole lot in the way of filling in names and backgrounds. The actual plot goes off in a different direction, though, without as many pieces but involving most of the characters' own interests.

Full review at EFC.

Doomsdays

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Doomsdays has gags. Lots and lots of gags about a pair of guys who, figuring that the world is going to hell anyway, just walk around taking what they want as they go through a vacation town in upstate New York during March, camping and breaking into houses as opportunity arises. And most of them are darn funny, a crazy blend of nihilistic and innocent glee from characters that stars Justin Rice and Leo Fitzpatrick solidify almost instantaneously. And then it gets better.

Not necessarily much deeper right away, even though the movie starts out as something of a series of sketches; A date appears on screen, and then Dirty Fred (Rice) and his friend Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick) break into someone's house, or make themselves at home afterward, or camp in between stops, a pair of thoroughly mismatched anarchists. They never mention why they're doing this until they bump into a couple new folks - Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson), a teenager whose brother ditched him passed out and drawn on in the basement of a place the guys break into, and Reyna (Laura Campbell), a girl Dirty Fred hits it off with when they crash a party.

A sort of story does eventually develop, but writer/director never Eddie Mullins never particularly changes the way he goes about his business, making sure that even as he's getting the audience into his characters' heads, it's via weird, chaotic events played relatively deadpan. It's kind of a neat trick, actually, as the shift from rebellious absurdity to actions that have consequences comes quickly, and there's a definite change to the tenor of the movie, but the rhythms stay close enough to the same , as do the attitudes, that it works without feeling like it's sold what came before out.

Full review at EFC.

The Dirties

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Idle question: When seeing a film about bullying - whether or not it leads to school shootings or not - is it considered a success on the part of the filmmakers or evidence that I'm a horrible person if I initially have violent thoughts toward the victims? I mean, look, bullying is wrong, but writer/director/star Matthew Johnson's character is really, really annoying.

The kids getting picked on here are Matt (Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), Toronto-area high school students who love movies and are throwing a ton of effort into a project for their media studies class. It's called "The Dirties", and has the pair as cops investigating a gang of bullies by that name, and they're not shy about integrating footage where the subjects either don't know they are being filmed. This leads to escalation on the part of the real-life bullies, and as Matt starts to talk in hypothetical terms about real-life retribution, he's also trying to help Owen get closer to Chrissy (Krista Madison).

The movie itself is sort of annoying in the same way the characters are as it starts, all self-conscious film fans recreating other scenes and not a whole lot of the characters as themselves. It picks up once we start to see Matt and Owen as individuals, with Matt's occasionally misplaced enthusiasm becoming more likable (if still a little overbearing) as opposed to just being fandom while Owen in finding a way to make other friends starts to separate himself from Matt. It's an interesting dynamic to watch, as it's encouraging to see where Owen is going, but the increasing distance friction between the pair that results certainly seems to be feeding into Matt's behavior.

Full review at EFC.

Ritual: A Psychomagic Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Ritual: A Psychomagic Story is explicitly inspired by the work and philosophy of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and many may find themselves disappointed that, after a very stylish opening, it is never in the same category of strangeness as Jodorowsky's films (or comics, though those are bizarre in different ways). Oh, it's certainly odd, and goes in and out of states of madness, but it never gets near the "what the heck did I just see?" territory where Jodorowsky often lives.

Jordorowsky's "psychomagic" is roughly what you'd expect from its root words, and Lia (Désirée Giorgetti) could probably use both miracles and analysis in her life. She is already seeing Dr. Guerrieri (Cosimo Cinieri), and her issues don't entirely relate to her extremely domineering boyfriend Viktor (Ivan Franek). The doctor recommends she return to Mason, the village where she spent summers as a child, to visit her aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso). Agata has her own way of helping people to cope with their demons, although when Viktor joins her, it looks like little more than witchcraft to him.

And maybe it is, but there's a long history of stories relating how traditional or shamanistic practices sometimes being more effective than conventional medicine. Psychomagic seems to be about tailoring the ritual directly to the mental malady, although it's not specifically defined within the story (a book by Jodorowsky appears at one point, and the man himself makes a cameo appearance as Agata's late husband). The film's espousal of Jodorowsky's theories are done by example rather than lecture, and while they are a sort of low-key oddity, it's interesting to see them work. It gives the audience something to think about in terms of the power of symbolic language.

Full review at EFC.

The Dead Experiment

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, HD)

"The Dead Experiment" is going to get abused as a title. There's the way it's probably meant to be taken, as a sinister-sounding article-adjective-noun combination, but it also turns out to be a true sentence describing the plot of the movie. It's also, unfortunately, kind of a disparaging description of the movie that's not entirely inaccurate.

Things start out with Chris (Ryan Brownlee) stumbling home after what looks like a late night, except that his girlfriend Maddie (Jenna Jade Rain) completely freaks out. It turns out that Chris died two weeks ago - funeral, burial, whole nine yards. However, he was a grad student doing research on tissue regeneration and the like, and his best friend and research partner Jacob (Jamie Abrams) took the liberty of engaging in some human testing. Initial experiments, of course, tend to fall short of ideal results.

Writer/director/producer Anthony Dixon has a science background, and I admire what he is trying to do here, making this sort of sci-fi movie which at least tries to ground itself in realistic science while working up some tension and maybe giving the audience something to think about, and all things being equal, I'm glad there is some sense to his technobabble; it never takes me out with "no! wrong!" He also does quite well in finding ways for the story to twist and move forward despite working under very tight constraints (three actors, one house, and very little budget for anything beyond that).

Full review at EFC.

Curse Of Chucky

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

If Universal had known a few months earlier that Paramount wouldn't have the latest Paranormal Activity movie ready in time for Halloween, I'd like to think they might have put Curse of Chucky in theaters rather than send it straight to video in early October. There's no denying that its not as spiffy as it might have been if it had been made with the big screen in mind, but it's a pretty new-viewer-friendly entry in the franchise with some solid scares.

Indeed, it's so committed to the audience being able to start here that it doesn't tip its hand when a Good Guys doll arrives in the mail, addressed to widowed artist Sarah (Chantal Quesnelle), who lives alone in a large spooky house with her daughter Nica (Fiona Dourif). Fans of the franchise will not be particularly surprised that Sarah isn't long for the picture, bringing her older daughter Barb (Danielle Bisutti), her husband Ian (Brennan Elliott), their daughter Alice (Summer H. Howell), and her nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell) to settle the estate. Unfortunately, Alice soon becomes fond of "Chucky" (voice of Brad Dourif), even saying she has conversations with the doll. This wouldn't end well even if the house wasn't isolated, with questionable wireless coverage and electricity, especially since the most sensible person there, Nica, is in a wheelchair.

Writer/director Don Mancini has been with the Child's Play franchise since writing the original twenty-five years ago, and while there may have been some temptation on the studio's part to reboot the series, Mancini instead delivers something along the lines of a soft reset, not directly picking up from what had come before but not invalidating it either, putting everything a newcomer (like, say, myself) would need in the script and not relying too much on anything in particular from the previous five installments, though having some awareness of them doesn't hurt. It's a nice balancing act, producing something that won't leave new audiences confused or old ones feeling like they've been abandoned.

Full review at EFC.

Raze

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

The problem with Raze, ultimately, is that it's boring. It's got a good cast that executes some good action, but this is a movie that lacks one single moment of surprise in its stupid story. And when a movie has already drained all the fun out of its action in the name of realism and non-exploitation, that just leaves violence. And violence, in and of itself, isn't a particularly fun way to spend an hour and a half at the movies.

That basic story has a number of young women kidnapped, imprisoned, shown that their loved ones are being watched and forced to fight to the death. Sabrina (Zoe Bell), Jamie (Rachel Nichols), and Teresa (Tracie Thoms) seem like tough but otherwise-decent folks; Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) is younger and more scared compared to the rest and Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) is psychopath enough to enjoy it. There's forty-odd more, plus the likes of Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn) as the leaders of the secret society that's doing this for some damn reason.

"Arena" movies like Raze require a lot of suspension of disbelief - it's one thing when this is going down in a woman's prison or some lawless third-world hole, but kidnapping fifty women, holding them, hiring people to watch and potentially execute their families, getting the presumably-wealthy people who want to watch and wager on the spectacle either on-site or via a secure internet connection... Forget the difficulty of doing all this in secret and just consider the kind of resources it would take. How can it be profitable? Plus, if there's a purpose to it besides amusement, killing 98% of the people you're interested in is not very efficient!

Full review at EFC.

Discopath

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

What is there to say about Discopath that matters to anybody outside its relatively narrow target audience? It's a slasher movie with a simple but absurd concept and some impressive effects work to show the mayhem, and both quite unabashedly French-Canadian and period-fetishist on top of that. If you've been looking for a movie where disco makes someone kill with authentic grindhouse feel, this is for you; if you're not, well, writer/director Renaud Gauthier was.

Things actually start out in 1976 New York, where Duane Lewis (Jeremie Earp-Lavergne) works at a diner but really seems to stress out when certain music comes on the radio. He loses his job, but meets a girl, though heading to the disco for a first date turns out to be a really bad idea. Not seeming to remember what happened, he flees to Montreal, and four years later he's working at Collëge Sainte-Lucie, a Catholic girls' school, under the name Martin. He's clever enough to have built something akin to noise-cancelling headphones, but when a couple students who have stayed behind put something on the record player... Well, soon one teacher has gone missing, her good-girl friend and co-worker Mireille Gervais (Sandrine Bisson) is searching for her, and Manhattan detective Jack Stephens (Ivan Freud) thinks there's something very familiar about the case when he reads about it in the papers, though his Montreal counterpart Inspector Sirois (François Aubin) finds the American interloper a pest.

If nothing else, Discopath is a note-perfect recreation of the grindhouse movies of the time in which it's set: Dirty-looking, luridly violent, and not blessed with the greatest acting. It's actually got some good music on the soundtrack (for certain 1970s-centric values of "good"), although it repeats the few songs it was able to license a lot. The result is so close to the "real thing" that there's not much point in trying to work out whether this is affectionate recreation, the sort of parody that works by pushing everything just a little bit further, or a case of similar resources bringing similar results. And it doesn't really matter; the result has all the blood, wooden performances, and the like needed to fill half of a double feature.

Full review at EFC.

Tian Tai Ai Qing (The Rooftop)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The Rooftop is overstuffed, like Jay Chou had a half-dozen ideas for his 1960s Taiwanese musical project and couldn't decide exactly which ones he wanted to use. So he threw in all of them, even if they don't always do much for the main story of Wax and Starling, two lovebirds from different sides of the tracks. But better that than saving good stuff for a second chance that may never come, especially since it gives this movie a chance to make the audience smile in every minute.

Heck, it doesn't even look like Wax is the main character of the movie to start with; it seems to focus on his handsome pal Tempura (Oh Yau-lun), who lives in the poor "rooftop district" but has a job collecting rent for local landlord "Rango" (Wang Xue-qi) that his friends Wax (who knows kung fu but prefers to use his switchblade comb to make an impression), Egg (Song Jian-zhang), and and A-Lang (Huang Jun-lang) help him out with; they also work for Dr. Bo (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), who has a floor show at the shop where he sells patent medicines. But while Wax is earning the enmity of rival rent collector Big Red (Huang Huai-chen), Wax is falling for the lovely Starling (Li Xin-ai), who seems to have everything but has to work hard to climb out of the debt that her father (Kenny Bee) has gambled them into, even though she doesn't particularly like her co-star William (Darren Chiu).

And there's more, to the point where it's kind of a mercy that Egg and A-Lang don't have prominent subplots, because that's a thing that very easily could have happened. For all that there are a whole ton of characters all sort of doing their own thing, writer/director/star/composer Chou does a remarkably good job at keeping things from flying off in every direction than you'd think. It's not even that everything folds back into a main storyline; every scene just seems very well-linked, whether it be by running jokes, plots which intersect, or just minor bits that show the rooftop residents as a community, so that what happens with one naturally draws the others in. The story does take a hard turn or two to get to the big action sequence in the end with a somewhat extreme tone shift, but it doesn't quite go off the deep end like it could.

Full review at EFC.

HK: Hentai Kamen (HK/Forbidden Super Hero)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

Look, I'm not going to make Hentai Kamen out to be anything other than it is: It is a deeply silly, tacky, crude spoof of the superhero genre that takes Warren Ellis's description of their outfits as "underwear pervert suits" to its illogical extreme. It's got roughly one joke in it and hits that gag relentlessly. But, man, does it do that well.

A while back, Det. Hario Shikjio ran a gangster visiting his favorite dominatrix to ground. The gangster's, that is, although when Maki (Nana Katase) responded to the cops busting in on her business by slapping Hario around... Well, it was love at first sight. Sixteen years later, their son Kyosuke (Ryohei Suzuki) is part of his high-school martial arts team, but though he's inherited his father's sense of justice, he's kind of a wimp. Still, when new student Aiko Himeno (Fumika Shimizu) gets in trouble, he races to her rescue but the only mask he can find to conceal his identity is a pair of women's panties. Good thing wearing them on his face stirs the kinky blood of his mother that flows in his veins, and from then forward, he fights crime as Hentai Kamen, the masked pervert!

There's a way of telling this story that would make it about not denying who you are and embracing the totality of your heritage, even if it's kind of embarrassing. And while that's there, it's buried deep underneath a ton of crude jokes based on Kyosuke having the most embarrassing secret identity ever and fight scenes whose choreography is built around making evildoers (and audiences) kind of uncomfortable with all the raw beefcake on display and how every finishing move seems to involve pushing the contents of improvised g-string right up into somebody's face. There are plenty of jokes at the superhero genre's expense as well, with Spider-Man getting hit the hardest from the spoof of Marvel's familiar logo animation to the distinctive eye-holes that appear on the "mask" for no discernible reason.

Full review at EFC.

Imaginaerum

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

This fantasy movie is kind of a peculiar thing: Based on the band Nightwish's concept album of the same name but not seeming to have that many songs from it - I think two are performed and another two or three show up on the soundtrack - it's targeted to a specific audience who isn't necessarily getting a whole lot of what it wants. On the other hand, it's too probably weird and specific to grab the attention of a general audience. The goal, then, is the set of folks who enjoy odd, visually inventive films on the Tim Burton-Terry Gilliam axis, and hoping that has a sizable intersection with the other groups.

Today, Tom Whitman (Francis-Xavier McCarthy) is an old man in a hospice, starting to lose his faculties. Case in point - in his current dream, he's his ten-year-old self (Quinn Lord) and at an orphanage, when the strange snowman he once built (voice of Ilkka Villi) beckons for him. While "Mr. White" takes him on a sinister tour of his life, his daughter Gem (Marianne Farley) has an unwelcome visitor - Ann (Joanna Noyes), his lifelong friend and former bandmate, someone Gem has never forgiven for the mess that was her childhood. Of course, now she's there to convince Gem to reconnect with her father before he's gone, mentally or physically.

Though they're played by Tuomas Holopainen and Anette Olzon, the band Tom & Ann belonged to is probably not exactly Nightwish unless the film and the album that inspired it are confessional to an uncomfortable degree. The music itself is not particularly my cup of tea - I'm no metalhead and found it kind of odd that a Finnish group apparently records and performs in English - but it seems to complement the imagery well enough, and both the songs and score are good enough that one can see where their fanbase comes from. Holopainen and Olzon both fare well enough as actors, for that matter; the scenes set at that point in the characters' lives aren't a step down from the rest of the movie.

Full review at EFC.

24 Expsures (The Rooftop)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, HD)

How prolific is independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg? His latest movie (as a director) started showing up on the festival circuit before his prior one hit theaters, and Drinking Buddies wasn't nearly as slow in moving through the system as one he appears in, You're Next, was. The latter movie is likely to be linked to this one for some, as its director and writer are in front of the camera here, playing characters that they themselves inspired. It makes 24 Exposures a curiosity, although it's not bad for those not exactly familiar with all the off-screen connections.

Billy (Wingard) and Michael (Barrett) both deal with dead bodies in their course of work, making them and cleaning them up, respectively. Billy's probably not a serial killer, though - he's a photographer who specializes in creating images designed to look like murders and suicides. It's the murder of a model that causes their paths to cross, where the detective going through a tough divorce encounters not just Michael, but his girlfriend and collaborator Alex (Caroline White), model Callie (Sophia Takal), and Rebecca (Helen Rogers), a waitress he's trying to get to pose for him, albeit one with a very possessive boyfriend (Mike Brune).

Swanberg plays with the line between reality and art quite a bit in this movie, as the audience is never quite sure whether the camera lingering on a dead young woman is going to pan over to Michael and some other cops arriving on the scene or pull back to show Billy and his crew making sure everything is just right for the photograph. It's an interesting sort of comment on how we as an audience react to violence in our entertainment, with the exact same images producing horror or cheers depending on context. It's a neat trick that thankfully doesn't get overused enough that the implicit accusation makes Billy into a monster.

Full review at EFC.

Nan fang xiao yang mu chang (When a Wolf Falls in Love With a Sheep

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

One thing that struck me while watching this movie is that you don't see many Hollywood romantic comedies with young characters - it's always bankable stars who are by their nature at least in their thirties. The sort of just-out-of-school adults who play out When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep seem to be a relative rarity. Which is sort of a shame, because this is a charming as heck little thing that doesn't have a whole lot of anger or bitterness to it at all, and it would be fun to see more like it.

Things open up with Tung (Kai Ko) being dumped by his girlfriend Ying ("Nikki" Hsieh Hsin-ying) via a post-it note on his forehead which says nothing aside from that she is going to a cram school on Nanyang Street. Apparently that's where a lot of those test-prep places are in Taipei City, though, so Tung goes there, gets a job in a photocopy shop that has a bed in the back and waits for their paths to cross. She never comes into the shop, but Hsiao Yang (Jian Man-shu) does, copying tests for the "Sure Win" school. She takes to drawing cartoon sheep on them; one day he draws a wolf in response.

Other stuff goes on - there's a lost dog, and when Tung is asked to clean out a bunch of storage lockers, he endeavors to return their contents to their owners. Yang dreams of being a cartoonist but is also waiting for her boyfriend to return from college in America. There are, in retrospect, a lot of stories about knowing when to hold and and when to move on, and writer/director Hou Chi-jan manages to be plenty clear about this without the movie feeling like it's trying to impart any sort of lesson or rule about the subject. There's a nice combination of randomness and synchronicity to how the various side-stories come together.

Full review at EFC.

The Night that Panicked America)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Welles & Wells, 16mm)

I don't know whether I'd call The Night That Panicked America a buried treasure, but it's an interesting reminder that the entertainment industry has produced a lot of content over the years, and some of it, while pretty good and containing some recognizable people, is just seldom going to reach the top of anyone's to-watch list. It's a nifty little movie produced for television in 1975, and benefits from its modest goals.

Most know the story behind it - on 30 October 1938, Orson Welles (Paul Shenar) produced a version of War of the Worlds for CBS radio that many in America took for reality, resulting in them acting accordingly. The film follows both the scene in the studio and a number of people taken in by the show: A father (Michael Constantine) who objects to his son (John Ritter) enlisting in Canada; a separating husband (Vic Morrow) and wife (Eileen Brennan); a preacher's daughter (Meredith Baxter), her father (Will Geer), and the boy who wants to marry her (Cliff De Young); and a swanky party in California who won't listen to the servants (Byron Webster & Hanna Hertelendy) that realize it's just a show.

One thing that the movie does very well that often gets overlooked when talking about the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast is to give the context of the time, showing the world headed to war and America already on pins and needles. So often, the story of this broadcast treats it as a hoax or the audience as extraordinarily credulous or unsophisticated. The script by Nicholas Meyer and Anthony Wilson transforms the story from one about gullibility to one where what people were hearing a variation on what they've been expecting anyway. Welles didn't just use the medium in a new way; as each individual storyline shows, he tapped into something that was already there.

Full review at EFC.

Go Down Death

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to get your facts straight. I saw Go Down Death late in the evening toward the end of Fantasia, and was wiped enough to have spaced out at points during even a fun, off-beat-to-the-point-of-strange movie. Fortunately, I had a chance to watch it again to fill in the gaps and make notes of some names. The take-away from that: This is maybe not a movie to watch when alert and clear-headed.

Nothing wrong with that; the strange, unusual, and downright random can be a lot of fun, and Go Down Death has a full complement of characters and situations that are quite peculiar even for their seemingly post-apocalyptic setting. Writer/director Aaron Schimberg conceives a world with enough details to hold it together and enough large gaps to keep it from seeming wholly logical. The black-and-white photography adds a further dream-like layer to the whole thing.

It may not, however, be the sort of dream that reveals something telling or interesting when analyzed. Schimberg shifts focus from one set of characters to another with minimal feeling of overlap, but a homogeneously dreary atmosphere, which leads to a feeling that little is moving forward, story-wise. Other elements are just utterly random, from the completely disconnected sequence toward the end back to the claim at the beginning that the film is based upon the works of Jonathan Mallory Sinus (who may have created this world or reside within it) - which runs six pages, including annotations.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

This Week In Tickets: 16 September 2013 - 22 September 2013

Last week of Red Sox home games of the regular season, so, yeah, let's get to Fenway a few times.

This Week in Tickets

Stubless: The Red Sox vs. the Orioles on the 17th. One of those full-sheet-of-paper printouts, so it's not lost, but just too big.

Three games this week, though it wasn't originally planned that way. The Sunday game was purchased as part of one of those four-packs back during the winter, but I picked up Tuesday's game when I got back from Montreal, saw the Red Sox were waiving fees for online ticket orders that weekend as a Sales Tax Holiday offer, and lucked into the one Thursday because someone had an extra.

On the whole, a fun set of games. Tuesday's was a let-down at the end, when the almost unfathomable happened and Koji Uehara gave up two hard-hit balls in a row, allowing the Orioles to score the winning run; he had been automatic for the past couple months, including a hidden perfect game and then some (thirty-odd straight batters retired in relief). He got some deserved applause, and while we probably won't be taking him for granted, I still figure to be saying "Koji's got this" when there's a lead in the ninth, because he regularly makes batters look silly.

The Sox salvaged a win from the series on Thursday, though, with an excellent start by John Lackey, which is becoming so commonplace this year that the jokes about how I never thought I'd see the day when I'd look forward to him pitching have become old and stale. Apparently it's my fault that it wasn't as good as it could have been; after the sixth inning I turned to Tony and asked if MLB Network was switching to the game, he asked why, and I said six innings without a hit allowed. Soon after, Brian Roberts hit one to the parking garage, and I was informed that he obviously heard me from five hundred feet away, and this gave him the extra bit of inspiration he needed. People believe weird things.

The last home game of the year was another one that went by quickly. I had extra tickets because the last couple of years have been lessons in how making general plans well in advance (buying enough tickets to bring family members to a few games) tends to fall in he face of specific plans made closer to the date. I might have been able to unload them, but I always forget how the "scalp-free zone" works, and wound up in the park early rather than the part of the gate where you can sell them. Ah, well. It was a beautiful afternoon, the game moved quickly - the other team pitched a knuckleballer who had a good day around the homers by David Ortiz and Jackie Bradley Junior - and I moved down to hang with Tony & Ken for the last couple innings Now it's time to start figuring out how many postseason tickets I can afford.

Even with all that baseball, there was plenty of time for movies. Most of it was spent at Boston Common for some things that didn't quite get a wide release: Monday, I finally got around to seeing Mexican comedy and sleeper hit Instructions Not Included, which has hung around for a month and was good enough to merit a little thinking about later. Saturday was a double feature, starting with The Wizard of Oz Imaxified and threedeified, followed up by Zhang Ziyi's My Lucky Star. That's something like the third follow up to a hit Chinese romantic comedy that China Lion has brought over day-and-date with Beijing despite the first not having been much of a blip in the States (Sophie's Revenge came out in 2009, I saw it at Fantasia in 2010, and it finally hit region-one DVD in 2012). Shows how much they're targeting the expatriate/immigrant audience, even though this one stands quite well on its own. Finally, I made it back there after the last ballgame for The Short Game, a documentary on seven and eight year-olds who play golf that's kind of adorable.

In between, I made it to the Brattle for Byzantium, which was supposed to have played at Kendall Square back in July but got yanked from the schedule, but was fairly well worth a bit of a wait.

Byzantium

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves, DCP)

I'm not a particular fan of vampire stories, but when you cast Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan in a movie, you get my attention and raise my expectations. I gather Neil Jordan with vampires perks some other folks' antennae up, though, although the vampires in Moira Buffini's script (based on her own play) are unconventional enough that I half-wonder if they're only called that because it brings people in.

Still, I do quite like it as a larger-than-life story of a mother and daughter. I especially love the arc Gemma Arterton's Clara takes in this movie and what it says about the world: The flashbacks reveal a woman who saw an opportunity at controlling her own destiny and seized it, and for that is disparaged as an abomination even by other vampires. It's a bit of a paradox that two hundred years later, she's still trading on her body, but there's something harshly true about how it's hard for her to see herself as anything but the harlot men have made her feel like, even when she does demonstrate a fierce intelligence and sense of initiative, especially when it comes to protecting her daughter. I really hope that the way Arterton fills out a series of tight/skimpy costumes, and how her character always seems lower-class, doesn't completely blot out how great she is in this.

Saoirse Ronan is just as good, especially since her character is fitted with a backstory that makes it relatively easy to believe that she would still be acting like a teenager after centuries. She gets across this great combination of young and old, a modern sixteen-year-old girl until you scrape a little bit off the surface, familiar with death and for all her intelligence, still able to be shielded by her mother. Her love story is impulsive but invested with a familiarity that makes one wonder how often it's played out in another way.

It does kind of suffer from the issue of being a small story told on the fringes of a larger one, which can often be a problem, but more or less rights itself at the end. Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do a great job of capturing the setting of a seaside town in the off-season, and they found a great spot for some of the most pivotal scenes. There are bits that could be better, but since Jordan absolutely does not waste his two lead actresses, it's still damned good.

The Wizard of Oz

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common #2 (Special Engagement, Imax-branded 3D)

Don't think less of me, but I never really connected to The Wizard of Oz. Despite getting ample opportunities during its annual Thanksgiving broadcasts on CBS, the magic was just never there. I later came to like the basics of the story - Marvel's adaptations of the original L. Frank Baum novels by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young get picked up in hardcover, and I dug Sam Raimi's prequel movie this year - but the 1939 movie? I acknowledge it as a classic, wonder why there weren't many other fantasies made during Hollywood's "Golden Age".

But, revisiting it as an adult... Man, do I find that this thing has problems. Like the way Dorothy and company seldom really seem to do anything to earn her way home - Glinda just makes it snow in one scene after the members of the party who need to breathe have passed out, and if water is so dangerous to witches, why is there just a bucket of the stuff lying around, especially since her minions don't seem too disappointed when she melts? Plus, given that Judy Garland doesn't particularly look like a pre-teen, "there's no place like home" seems to be a horrible lesson, the exact opposite from the attitude you'd want an intelligent, curious teenager to have. It'd be different if Dorothy looked like a nine-year-old, but she really doesn't.

That said - there's still a lot about this movie that's wonderful. For all that it hits its themes and lessons directly enough for the four-year-olds in the audience to not miss anything, it doesn't ever seem to be going overboard in anything. Even the big song-and-dance numbers are just enough. I love the Scarecrow more than I ever did as a kid, just because I can see how Ray Bolger is absolutely nailing the body language of a man whose body is filled with straw rather than bones and tissue, and the make-up job is really incredible - I can't see where the sack ends and his face begins. The restoration/conversion job to get it in IMAX 3D is also one of the best you'll see, especially the way it takes the inherently two-dimensional backdrops and gives them depth without changing their essential character.

I'm probably never going to love this movie, certainly not like my nieces do, but I certainly like it enough that I'm glad I went to the IMAX show out of more than just curiosity.


Instructions Not Included
Byzantium
The Wizard of Oz
My Lucky Star
The Short Game
Jinxed No-Hitter
Home Finale

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Short Game

Hey, it's an entry that I'd feel pretty good about my family reading, what with a number of them liking golf and/or having kids, and the most objectionable material being a couple instances of parents swearing when things don't go well on the golf course.

And the movie itself is one I'd recommend to a few folks in my family specifically, as I remember my sister-in-law commenting a year or two ago that they were trying to find good documentaries for their daughter to watch, which isn't as easy to find as you might expect. This one, though, is not only kid-friendly, but pretty much every important character is about the same age as my niece (who turns seven next week).

I'm not sure whether it will make it to a theater in southern Maine for my nieces and their parents to see it; the national release was tiny and it didn't tear up the screens with the sort of attendance that gets it an expansion - when you're a small movie made with kids in mind, it probably doesn't do you any favors to come out the same week as a special Imax 3D run of The Wizard of Oz. But given that one of the studios releasing it was Netflix, it will probably show up on their servers double-quick, if it hasn't already. It's worth a look - unabashedly a cute, upbeat movie with adorable little kids, but excellent at being that sort of movie.

The Short Game

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, 4K DCP)

It feels like it's been a while since a documentary about kids who do something well and compete to see who does it the best has worked its way into a decent number of theaters, and The Short Game is a good one. Sure, It skews far more toward the adorable than the controversial, but not beyond the bounds of credibility. Anyway, there are far less enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon at the movies than watching second-grade golfers.

The filmmakers pay visits to seven-and-eight-year-olds from around the world before they converge on Pinehurst, North Carolina for the annual children's golf championships. There's Allan Kournikova, a seven-year-old extrovert from Palm Beach who won the tourney in his age group last year and whose older sister is also a well-known tennis player; Zamokuhle "Zama" Nxasana, an outgoing South African boy; Kuang Yang, a Shenzhen boy who picked up an instructional DVD at two thinking it was a cartoon; Alexa Pano, last year's girls' champion and Allan's best friend; Jed Dy of Manila, autistic but high-functioning; Augustin Valery, a Parisian eight-year-old from a family of achievers; Sky Sudbury, a pink-clad pixie who shows not everything is bigger in Texas; and Amari Avery, an intense competitor called "Tigress" for how much of her background she shares with Tiger Woods. All are shadowed by "Daddy Caddies" (even if, in some cases, it's the mother) who take things quite seriously themselves.

First and foremost, they're a great bunch of kids, whether they love playing to the camera as much as Allan or shy from it like Jed. As focused as they can be when playing golf - and the crazy hours they put into it, from early morning strength training to hitting balls right up to bedtime - they are all bright, energetic, funny kids who smile a lot, ramble the way that children that age are prone to do. In most if not all of the cases shown, their enthusiasm seems to come from themselves rather than pushy parents. And while parental intensity can be a lot less fun than the kids' in these stories, what we see of them is often less pushy than having to learn how to handle very talented kids - and even that is somewhat in the background.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My Lucky Star

It amuses me a bit that one of the quotes Pathfinder cites for their release of Sophie's Revenge comes from my eFilmCritic review (though they sadly mangle the site's URL): "remarkably export-ready for a female-targeted Chinese comedy." I mean, for crying out loud, the only people who are going to read that and get intrigued are people in the film-distribution business. I guess there were only a couple English-language reviews to draw from.

Still, I think the point made by that comment is relevant and applies as much to its prequel, My Lucky Star, perhaps more so when you take them together: These two movies, which Zhang Ziyi produced as well as starred in, demonstrate her ambition to be a global star and do so as much under her own terms as she can.

That she would harbor such ambitions is understandable - her first two features were The Road Home and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first of which got plenty of art-house notice for being directed by Zhang Yimou and the second of which was an international crossover hit. Then she pops up in Rush Hour 2, but it's five years later, when she does Princess Raccoon in Japan and Memoirs of a Geisha in Hollywood that her career trajectory starts to seem interesting: These are jobs that did not do her reputation any kind of favors in China when she was already fairly unpopular in Hong Kong, but Princess Raccoon pushed her toward being a little more well-known in the region. A couple years later, she does Horsemen, a North American thriller that's rather lower-profile than her usual work. I'm curious about that one, actually, just to see what it looks like

But that's also when she did Sophie's Revenge, which I saw at Fantasia in 2010, where I made the "export-ready" comment. It was a co-production with a Korean company and had a Korean co-star, but also had a lot of English in it. The follow-up isn't a foreign co-production, but still has a lot of English. More tellingly, it's got an American director and an American on the writing staff, and while I don't know that the end result feels more Western in some intangible way, I wonder if this makes it an easier sell to foreign territories. You could probably cut an trailer for it that uses mostly English-language dialogue that doesn't feel like it's hiding very much.

Anyway, it's an interesting pattern - calculated pushing at international markets without seeming to bet everything on Hollywood or abandon China. It's seemed relatively clumsy at times - and there might be more interesting patterns to be drawn if Sophie's Revenge and My Lucky Star were genuinely excellent movies rather than pretty good romantic comedies - but it's an interesting contrast to the Hong Kong stars and filmmakers who bet heavy on Hollywood in the nineties and aughts that she's trying to build up from China rather than use it as a fallback.


For this week, it seems to be doing all right as a strategy - I actually got turned away on Friday because the screen was sold out, which hasn't come close to happening with a China Lion movie before, and the Saturday matinee I did get into was more crowded and had fewer walk-outs than usual. For all that I've made comments about low attendance at these screenings, it's only fair to note when they do really well.

The packed crowd is always fun for these kinds of movies, if only because it can give me a better idea of when something is working but going over my head. In this case, there's a section where Sophie has to sing a couple of songs and I got the impression from the laughter around me that I would have been quite amused if I knew a single thing about current Mandarin pop culture. Were these just popular songs, or maybe specifically songs sung by co-star Wang Lee-hom (who is apparently a popular singer in addition to being a screen heartthrob)? Dunno, but the people around me thought it was funny.

Not sure what they thought of the trailer for Young Detective Dee. I, personally, ate that up with a spoon, and I'm quite excited to be getting that one at the same time as its Chinese release as well. I enjoyed the heck out of Detective Dee, and this one appears to have lizard-people in it. Although, I do have to wonder if anybody from Angelababy's management team has told her that English-speaking crowds laugh whenever her name pops up in trailers or credits.


Feichang Xingyun (My Lucky Star)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, 4K DCP)

I've said before that making sequels to romantic comedies is a tempting but dangerous idea, but My Lucky Star (Feichang Xingyun in Mandarin) may just have hit upon the best way to follow up such a hit: It's a prequel (of sorts) to Sophie's Revenge that drops that movie's title character into another sort of story. No prior experience necessary, and while it's still got a bit of a calculated feel to it, it's also more fun in some ways.

As the movie opens, Sophie (Zhang Ziyi) is an aspiring comic book artist making ends meet answering phones for a travel agency in Beijing, though she tends to daydream quite a bit. She's lucky enough to win a trip to Singapore, and while her friends Lucy (Ruby Lin Xin-ru) and Lily (Yao Chen) bail on her, she does meet hunky David (Wang Lee-hom) in the parking lot of their luxury hotel. Her attempt to sneak into a party to meet him backfires, though, when it turns out he's a spy, she's just stumbled onto a plan to intercept a dangerous package, and as a result only she can open it.

It's a goofy premise that requires a lot of eye-rollingly silly activity to set up, but Sophie is just the sort of well-meaning, kind of immature spaz that the audience will absolutely believe in that sort of situation. It's surprising that Zhang Ziyi, who has spent much of her career in prestigious period pieces and never done a sequel/prequel before, has opted to return to Sophie, but then again, it is one of the few parts she's had that let her show her knack for comedy and a genuinely peculiar sense of humor. Zhang makes Sophie an enjoyably eccentric and somewhat clueless character that the audience can nevertheless get behind. She seems to be having so much fun even during the action scenes that it's infectious, and she's gotten better at slapstick, too.

Full review at EFC.